There are lots of things about the British I do not understand: the national compulsion to clap along, in unison but off the beat, to any music; Mr Blobby’s Christmas No 1; the use of “quite nice” to mean “really not very nice at all”; bread sauce. Being a Canadian living in this country is a never-ending cycle of getting confused, asking for clarification, understanding, and then ending up somehow more confused.
In the heady days of our bubbled summer of 2020, when such a thing was possible, I went on holiday to Sussex with my Canadian partner and three of our oldest friends, all Brits. Having met in our early 20s, we had always been too broke to holiday together. Now we were in our 30s and affluent enough to split a cottage five ways for four nights; this was a landmark moment. Look, I could spend a lot of time setting the scene, or cut to the chase and tell you that we were there for five days and went on long, aimless walks every single day. This was how I discovered the British Walking Sickness.
I had always thought I was all right about walking – liked it, even. But what I understand, after almost a full year of rotating lockdowns, during which I have gone on a little mental health stroll almost daily, is that I actually just like having somewhere to be, and walking is often the nicest way to get there. Touring a new city on foot? A joy. Walking to the bus in the mornings? A lovely private moment before the day’s work begins. Strolling to dinner with a friend on a summer evening? I can think of nothing better. But joylessly trudging around the same bit of my neighbourhood, for the fourth day in a row, in the interests of scavenging a crumb of mental health? Thanks, but no. The other day, on one such trudge, I saw a woman finish a lap of the park, then turn to her friend and suggest, audibly bored, “What do you think, should we have a go round the cemetery?” That is how destination-free walking feels to me: going around a cemetery for no reason.
It is precisely this kind of aimless wandering that my friends – and, I have come to understand, a great number of their countrymen and women besides – considered a key draw of our holiday. I have known these men for a decade, and had no idea the mere act of renting a cottage would turn them all into Tennysons. The rumblings had begun in the car, when several mentioned some “popular walks” they had “read about” in the “area”. No sooner had we put down our bags and had a welcome G&T than we were off, the five of us simply picking a direction, the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned. “Where are we going?” I asked. “On a walk!” they replied.
One moment we were simply walking, the next ‘on a walk’: aimless, unguided, unending. No destination, only a journey
The days passed in a flurry of walks, on all of which I wore the wrong shoes: a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field; an hour’s tour of a birdless bird sanctuary we discovered on the drive home; an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home. To me, a holiday is best defined as “woman lies down in the sun with wine and a book, gets up four to seven days later”. But my travelling companions felt differently, using the time we were not actively on walks to discuss and plan more walks. They were men possessed: a walk could start anytime, anywhere. One moment you were simply walking, the next you were “on a walk”. Unlike a hike, which involves the stimulation of challenging terrain or a final destination, walks were aimless, unguided, unending. Nobody was in charge, we were headed nowhere. Sometimes there were animals or interesting leaves, but they were not the goal. The goal was only to be walking, or to make sure a walk was being planned. At one point we got into the car and drove – I hoped to some kind of non-walking activity, but we were merely seeking out new, further-flung places to walk around. There was no destination, only journey.
I believe I can blame the Romantic poets for my friends’ ambulatory frenzies. Wordsworth, Keats and their contemporaries’ fondness for walking was matched only by their passion for writing about it, beginning a tradition of walking literature carried on by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Nan Shepherd and others, which continues to this day. (The Guardian published 14 different pieces about walking in January alone.) Perhaps as a result of these paeans, walking has become what wild swimming is to a particular kind of British woman: a spiritually important activity, in which everyone should take part. Failure to enjoy it takes on a moral tinge. But just as I have never had a profound awakening at the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond in London, neither do I suspect I will find one tramping through a field, meditating on the uncharacteristically lax approach applied by the British to the definition of the word footpath.
I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigour, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”. The prime minister has not brought appropriate attire (brown shoes, aforementioned huge socks, waxed jacket, head hanky), and is treated with scorn for it. But why?
There is something in the British that mistrusts pleasure. Why sit and chat in your lovely rented holiday cottage when you can walk through 40 different kinds of mud wearing the wrong shoes, everyone trying tensely not to be the first person to suggest heading home? Why take a gentle cycle ride near your hotel (or tent or caravan) in the Lake District when you can load yourself up with too much expensive gear and walk for hours, the only delight ahead a faux chipper “Hiya!” to the other miserable, sunburned walkers you pass, everyone somehow too cold yet also sweating in their moisture-wicking gilets? Why not accept that in a country where the ground is soggy and the sky grey at least 60% of the year, it might be nice to have some non-walking ideas in the back pocket?
Picnicking and sitting are forbidden. The government has spoken: we’ll walk our way through this. I am exhausted already
Now, of course, these questions are moot. A third, frustratingly open-ended lockdown means trundling around our neighbourhoods for the sixth time that week is the only way to see people outside our own households. It must be walking, you understand. Picnicking is expressly disallowed, ditto sitting on a bench. The government has spoken: we will walk our way through this. I am exhausted already.
Let’s break it down: if you are walking without a destination in mind, you are walking for exercise, or to relax. Maybe you are interested in spending quality time with a friend. These are all valid reasons to take up a pastime, and walking carries the extra benefits of being a) free and b) outside, a particular tonic during “these uncertain times”. But even with these criteria in mind, I would argue there are much better ways to pass the time, sweat it out, or soothe yourself. Kick a football around! Watch some ducks being stupid in a pond! Do some high-intensity interval training in the park! Lie down with your eyes closed and think about how small you are in the scale of the universe. This is just off the top of my head.
Maybe walking into some marshes, and deciding at an undetermined future point to stop walking, was what was available to the Romantics, but I think we can do better. Why not let walking be what the body does when it is going somewhere and leave “talking about it as if it’s an activity” to – I don’t know – activities?
I like my exercise to feel like exercise and my leisure to feel leisurely. I prefer to amble towards some place, and when I get there, to sit down. To that end, I have been trying out legally allowed walk replacements. I bought an exercise bike. It cost £79 and the price was reflected in its look, feel and quality. Lately I’ve been using it to dry clothes. I started Yoga with Adriene, but she kept saying, “What’s up, party people!” Baths required a deep cleaning of the bathroom area and went cold before I could properly relax. Running outdoors had all of walking’s problems, but faster, and with sweat. Faced with months of further lockdown, I succumbed, again, to Big Walk.
While I will never share the enthusiasm of my friends (and will probably ask for a more detailed itinerary next time we plan a holiday), I suppose walking might originate not from fear of pleasure, but from another classically British trait: pragmatism. No, it’s not the most fun there is to be had. No, it’s not going to change my life to trudge around the park. No one really wants to be doing it, at least not like this. Still, it’s something to do, a way to get the blood flowing and the vitamin D being absorbed, and possibly a bit of distanced facetime with a loved one. It’s not a pleasure, but it’s the best we’ve got, all of us walking in place until we have somewhere to walk to. And so, once more around the cemetery.