Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Walking

I have been reading the diaries of Dorothy Wordsworth. I read them years ago when I was doing my degree and studying William Wordsworth's poetry. I would like to be able to tell you that her diaries illuminated his poetry for me but I don't think they did. I was too young, too green, too self-absorbed. I got stuck on the way her creativity was subsumed into his, both of them taking utterly for granted the supremacy of his talent. I was a feminist, still am, but then I was a certain-sure feminist without much capacity for complexity or subtlety. I am not sure how much I can claim to understand about the human condition now, but having got to my fifties I am far less certain about any of those ideologies which used to seem so clear.

Now I am entranced by her observations, intrigued by the minutiae of their lives and grasp more fully than I did at twenty the depth of her love for him. But what strikes me most reading it now, and which shows that I am not and never was a scholar, is how much walking they do! They walk to see friends. They walk to collect the post, to shop, to go to church. They walk to gain viewpoints or to see the sun set. They walk morning, afternoon and evening, winter and summer. They walk together or with others and when William goes off to Scarborough to visit the girl who will become his wife, Dorothy walks just as far and just as frequently alone. Going out to walk is such a part of the fabric of their lives that on the very rare occasions when they don't walk, Dorothy notes "Did not walk today".

Earlier this year I also read Francis Kilvert's diaries. He was a parson with a parish called Clyro on the border between Wales and Herefordshire. The diaries, written in the 1870's, seventy years or so after Dorothy's, are fascinating, if unsettling, reading in the twenty first century. Kilvert too has a keen eye for natural beauty and a warm, generous nature which is endearing. He also has a passionate ardour for the beauty of young girls. My own view is that this was not sexual, or never sexually expressed. It is hard for a society obsessed with the threat of paedophilia (a dreadful threat, and one which for generations was treated as if invisible) to contemplate the idea that a more repressed society than ours might sometimes have acted to constrain sexual misdemeanour. If an act is unspeakable, that can for some make it unthinkable and I think that is perhaps how it was for Kilvert.

Kilvert was a good man, a good vicar and one who worked hard for his parishioners. He was also an inveterate walker. He thought nothing of walking twelve miles to have dinner. Now I live just under twelve miles from my nearest town. Say I walk at something around three miles an hour (middling, not fast, not impossibly slow) it would take me somewhere between three and a half and four hours to walk there. If Kilvert was lucky he would be offered a bed for the night but even a one way journey seems an astonishing distance to go for an evening's sociability.

Dorothy was writing in the early 1800s and Francis Kilvert seventy years later. If you had gone back to the 1700s, the 1600s and earlier, dependence on walking as the ordinary way of getting from one place to another would have been the norm as it still is in parts of the world today. Fast forward another seventy years to the 1940s and trains had changed the way people travelled and cars had come within the reach of many. But even then people walked. My mother walked to school. My father walked for forty minutes each way to work.

Walking as a means of getting from one place to another has practically died out in the early twenty first century. We leap into cars at the least opportunity. We drive our children to school. We drive to work and play and the supermarket and the retail park The three or four hours a day which Dorothy and Francis and all of our forebears routinely spent on their feet walking about their daily business have disappeared from memory. It's no wonder we struggle with obesity when you combine how little we walk with how easy it is to consume the high fat and high sugar food which used to be reserved for high days and holidays.

How much have you walked today? I don't mean walking out to the car or pottering around the house. I mean walking consistently, say for longer than ten minutes? I confess the answer for me today so far is not at all - the furthest I have gone is to let the hens out. But today I will walk. I love walking. It slows me down, clears my head, makes me see the natural world around me in a different way to working in the garden. And I am feeling that man was meant to walk.

So, measured either in distance or in time, how far have you walked today?

22 comments:

  1. Not very far, I must admit, although I am planning to head into my nearest town - less than 5 mins drive, about 20 mins walk - to go to the bank so you may have just shamed me into take Shanks' pony instead. Although, I have to say in my defence, I did run for 2 miles yesterday - does that count?

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  2. If I had answered this 6 months ago, the best I would have come up with would probably have been a mile - or maybe two - walking my dog, and not every day. Now that we live in Seoul and I don't drive, my answer is much different. Today my son and I walked 4 or 5 miles, just to go out and do a few errands. It was awfully hot and humid and we were both a sweaty mess when it was over, but I'm glad I didn't have the option of a car and I'm glad I got the exercise!

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  3. Mrs jones - running definitely counts!
    Ms Caroline - not driving seems to be the answer doesn't it?

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  4. I love walking!I wrote a post about it last year. I just think it is a fundamental thing that our brains and bodies are still fabricated to do on a daily basis. We see the world at the pace we were designed to see it, and I think that makes it theraputic in some way. Having a dog has been the most fantastic excuse to get out there whatever the weather. I studied the romantic poets at uni, and now you've got me itching to go back to those diaries! x

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  5. Sadly, society has also created huge areas where walking out under the sky is dangerous. Cities, areas of high vehicle traffic, and the like are not good places to walk for health. The likelihood of getting mugged or run over by an inattentive or inebriated driver, not to mention the breathing in of exhaust fumes, makes walking - sadly - one of the luxuries best enjoyed by country dwellers.

    We city folk have to take our walking indoors to the treadmill!

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  6. I walked quite a bit this morning, in an effort to pick up provisions at local shops instead of the big supermarket. A huge disadvantage for me is the amount of time it takes. I so need to catch up with weeding, or dealing with the fruit and veg glut. I have to say, when the sun came out, I got very impatient!
    Sadly, have to go to work tomorrow and also over the weekend. Our lives are too busy maybe. And this comes from a mindfulness practitioner! Oh dear..........

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  7. Marvelous post!!
    I walk to clear my mind, think and pray. It is a 1.7 mile walk here in my neighborhood if I walk the 'snake' starting in front og my house and staying on the sidewalk til I return to the front of my house.
    One must walk early or late here. We are on our 70th day of 100+ degree heat! NOT walking weather.
    I am going to look for the diary. I love reading journals, diaries and letters.

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  8. What a good post Elizabeth, and one close to my heart. I love to walk, but spend a lot of time in the car. Yesterday I might have walked 2 km, as I walked with a client to an appointment. Once a week I take a long walk with a friend, but outside of that pretty much just walk the dog and walk to let the hens in and out. The closes destination is 5 km away, and from time to time I walk there, but then the walk home is all uphill!

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  9. Interesting post, Elizabeth. Funnily enough, as we rode up our lane this morning I remarked to the farmer how much things had changed in the last seventy years or so.
    The farmer walked the three miles to school each morning, and home again at night - in all weathers.
    If we wished to go anywhere, we walked. Now we have almost lost that skill. It has become easy to opt out of walking on all but the really lovely days.

    I do agree about studying the poets - one does not begin to really appreciate the minutae until one reaches ones forties - certainly in one's late teens it doesn't always go deep enough.

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  10. I have read and re-read Dorothy Wordsworth's journals, and I too am struck by all the walking - and the stamina - of the woman, who also helped to run a busy household as well as cosset her brother. I visited Dove Cottage in Grasmere some years ago, on a dark, extremely wet day in August; the kitchen fire was burning, and the house was gloomy, but so atmospheric; it made me think of how much they must have battled with mud in their daily lives!

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  11. Belinda - I agree totally that when walking people move at a pace they were designed to. When I walked the offas dyke long distance path a couple of years ago I felt I was seeing the land as it had looked for generations and the pace at which we walked made me see things quite differently from the way we do from cars and trains.

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  12. I don't walk much, except to let the dog out three times a day. If I have to go anywhere, I ride my bike. I have no other means of transportation and I like to think that this is a very healthy way of getting about too. It's true that I should do more walking and bike riding. Now I only do it because I have to and not because it's fun.

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  13. Marcheline - I have visited cities in the US quite a bit and think they may be the most inimical to walking that I know. From memory the best was Seattle and the worst Las Vegas. I wonder if this is something to do with when they were built. So many european cities were built when everyone walked all the time. So many American and Australian cities were built around the car.

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  14. I'm searching for a job right now, and one of my criteria is that I should be able to get there by public transport combined with walking. Some of my friends think I'm crazy, but incorporating walking into my commute time is the only way I can be sure to get exercise into my day.

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  15. I used to walk a lot. With my health problems, I almost quit entirely.
    Now I'm back to walking eight to ten blocks a day (mile and some). Today I was at the University, and didn't walk quite as far.
    Walking is the best exercise overall; I'm going to keep doing it. Trust you will, too.

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  16. Lovely thoughtful post. I love to walk, a usually do around 5 miles a day with my dog and pedometer in tow. Occasionally I have a 'slow' day, but inevitably feel sluggish for it!!

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  17. Thought provoking. Today I walked for 20mins, to the allotment and back. I do that three to four times a week, but that doesn't feel like "proper" walking to me. When I first lived in Bristol I thought nothing of walking across the city - it left me free to drink with friends and not worry about driving. The last twenty years have pretty much put paid to that kind of walking, turning it back into a leisure activity - and how I get to the allotment. The thing I love about walking is that it helps me feel rooted in the area, in a way you just can't be when whizzing by in the car. Plus it makes for great thinking time.

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  18. Liz - oh I do know what you mean about time! Our local village is five minutes away in the car, nearly 45 minutes hard walk. It is a lovely walk but feels like a luxury when there are so many other needs I need to do!
    Linda - 100 degree heat! I certainly couldn't walk in that. I am not sure I could live in that happily either. I must be a temperate soul!

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  19. Yesterday I walked for 5 hours, there was a lot of dallying and looking along the way, so I have no idea how many miles it was, because we were in a forest ambling.

    Today, I have barely walked at all, my legs/hips/back simply wont let me!

    Agree about driving less. I am trying to cycle more, and am about to learn to use a horse and cart, which although sitting, should be pretty good exercise too.

    If there was a favourite way to get about, I'd grow a tail and swim

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  20. Pondside - we live somewhere where walking has to be either up or down hill, and which you choose first there will be uphill sometime! I suppose it is the price of the view!
    Weaver - I like your phrase about "losing the skill" of walking. It is as if we have forgotten how far we can go under our own steam.

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  21. Hi Elizabeth,I loved your post about walking. Three of us did some of Dorothy W's walks a few years ago.
    They walked all these miles, in all weathers, then came home,wrote letters and read a couple of books of Paradise Lost!!Another world.
    I like cycling-you can see over the hedges.

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  22. That's an interesting post. I doubt I walked more than a mile or two today - but then (see blog) I walked ten along the cast path on Saturday.

    Interesting you mention Kilvert - he lived for a while in Chippenham (where I live about half the time) and our good friends live in his house - and rather grand it is too.

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