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?