“Only the wanderer,
Knows England’s graces.”
I have been impressed by the stamina and energy of our predecessors. We forget very easily how people got about in earlier centuries and that many of the poorer will have walked, through both necessity and choice. Long walks were a source of pleasure as well as duty and in this post I want to highlight three writers who were also impressive ramblers.
My first example, relating back to the previous post, is William Blake. He is an example of the ability of earlier generations to walk huge distances merely for fun and relaxation. In his biography (p.28) G. E. Bentley describes how Blake and his wife might rise early and walk 20 miles into the Surrey hills for lunch at an inn before walking home again. Fifty mile round trips in a day were not unusual for the couple- starting in Lambeth and circling round by Dulwich, Blackheath, Croydon, Walton on Thames and back along lanes and footpaths. These excursions seem huge to us, but were everyday adventures for them.
A near contemporary is Samuel Bamford, author of Passages form the life of a radical. He was from Middleton, north Manchester, and was involved in the demonstrations that led to the Peterloo massacre. Bamford was prosecuted for his part in the protests and- of necessity- did some remarkable walks. He walked from Oxford to London to lobby for support for the defendants; he walked from Manchester to York for his assize hearing and then from Manchester to London for his Kings Bench trial. Finally, he walked home from Lincoln on his release from prison. These are stunning distances, but he covered them steadily and cheerfully because they had to be done.
My last example and inspiration is First World War poet Ivor Gurney. Gurney is a transitional figure, being born in 1890- a nineteenth century boy who lived into the age of buses, cars and trains. He could have used public transport, but often he chose not to do so. As P. J. Kavanagh wrote in the introduction to his collected poems of Gurney, the poet “was justifiably proud of being a night walker.” In the early 1920s he several times walked from London or High Wycombe to Gloucester overnight. This seems doubly impressive. Why did he embark on such long ‘tramps’?
It might be easy to say that Gurney was mentally ill- which he was, and solitude must have been part of the attraction (“I walk deserted ways” he said in ‘Song’ and talks in ‘The High Hills’ of “Walking into clarity”)- but there was more to it than this- and more than his poverty. He would walk to get to places, but he would also undertake long walks at night or during the day simply for the enjoyment of it. “The miles go sliding by/ Under my steady feet” he wrote in ‘Walking Song’ whilst in the Pedlar’s Song he celebrated “Now the dust is on the roads/ And the blue hills call to distances.”
Gurney was a musician as well as a poet and it is clear that one of the key reasons for his tramping was to seek inspiration (see ‘Going out at dawn’). For example in ‘Song’ he declares that “My heart makes songs on lonely roads.” He speaks in ‘Old times’ of being:
“Out in the morning,
For a speed of thought I went…
A few hours’ tramping
With brisk blood flowing,
And life worth knowing.”
and in ‘When the body might free’ Gurney recalls:
“In October time- crystal air-time and free words were talking
In my mind with light tunes.”
A lot of his inspiration as an artist came from contact with the natural world and with the traces of an older England. Alone on walks he felt nearer to rural birds and mammals and he enjoyed encounters with old buildings “One comes across the strangest things in walks.” However, one of the biggest inspirations for Gurney was the stars. This seems particularly to be why he went out at night: “stars as bright sand grains” (June night), “stars like steady candles’ gleam” (Brimscombe), tramping on Cotswold ways “beneath a maze of stars” (Companions). The constellations were a source of companionship and inspiration on his wanderings (‘Stars sliding’, ‘Going out at dawn’). This is a fascination with which I can happily identify.
What’s in all of this for us? Well, we’d be fitter if we walked more, plainly, but we’d also gain time to think and time to see if we spent more time tramping and less as passengers. I’ve been inspired to imitate my heroes already: I once walked from central London back to Walthamstow and I regularly walk from Walthamstow over to Tottenham- though having the marshes in between makes it a lot more pleasant than it might otherwise be! My big aspiration is to walk from London to Birmingham along the canal towpaths. It’s level, it’s dotted with pubs and towns and it seems eminently achievable. We’ve got the canal maps now- we’ve just got to plan it!