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Radical Walking

About the author
Donna Landry teaches at Wayne State University in Detroit. Her books include The Invention of the Countryside: Hunting, Walking and Ecology in English Literature, 1671-1831.
The English have long had a peculiar relationship to walking. ‘If wishes were horses, beggars would ride’ strikes the right note of equestrian and motorised disdain. Yet ‘Shanks’s pony’ has often been the chosen mount. Certain virtues attach to walking: fresh air intake, micro-gazing at flora and fauna, consumption of the landscape as an aesthetic experience. Whether in city or country, the English walker has often distinguished himself as a connoisseur of weather, atmosphere, and animate nature. John Gay and Jonathan Swift exquisitely catalogued urban filth a century before Charles Baudelaire invented the flaneur.

In the 1780s, French visitors were struck by the size of Englishwomen’s feet, a consequence of the English addiction to walking. Such eccentricity was as amazing to Continental observers as women riding boldly to hounds, another peculiarly English phenomenon. ‘It gives me no pleasure to see it,’ de la Rochefoucauld declared, ‘but they jump like men and are always the first over.’ In the 17th century, Thomas Coryate and John Taylor (‘the water poet’), became famous through pedestrian exploits. In the 18th century, by walking from London to York and back (402 miles) in 5 days and just over 15 hours, Foster Powell became a household name.

The ambiguity of walking can be traced to its association with vagrancy, the quintessential social crime in late 16th century Britain. The vagrant committed no crime except to be a vagrant. The very status itself was criminalised. A similar suspicion attached to rural foot travelers in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Enclosure and privatisation of common lands enlarged the possibility of trespass. Why perambulate the woods and fields without intent? And the obvious intent, in the light of the game laws after 1671, would have been poaching.

Pedestrian versus sportsman

Whether conscious of this history or not, the modern walker tramps the footpath haunted by other spectral pedestrians: not only long-striding women and celebrity sportsmen, but vagrants, trespassers, poachers. Walking means aligning oneself to some extent with a rebellious reclaiming of common rights, with the dream of liberal freedom, with the ideal of democracy. ‘The poet and the vagrant together constitute a society based on the twin principles of freedom of speech and freedom of movement,’ as Celeste Langan puts it. Iain Sinclair’s walk round the M25 signifies, among other things, a radical pedestrianising of territory otherwise abandoned to motorised aggro.

Ken Worpole, who cites Sinclair’s project, rightly reminds us that walker-philosophers were key figures in the Enlightenment. And not only philosphers, but poets too. That things could more or less be sorted out by walking (‘Solvitur ambulando’) was as important to the labouring poet John Clare as to Rousseau. Meditation on Enlightenment principles often led to social protest. Pedestrianism became an expression of democratic sentiments. Extending liberty, equality, and fraternity to other nations, races, and even species, self-styled pedestrians of the 1790s might, like Coleridge, hail not only enslaved Africans but donkeys as brothers: ‘Poor Ass! thy master should have learnt to show / Pity – best taught by fellowship of Woe! / . . . I hail thee Brother - spite of the fool’s scorn!’

And so when Coleridge and his fellow undergraduate Joseph Hucks set off from Cambridge for Wales on foot in the summer of 1794, they were performing an experiment. With their few clothes stowed in knapsacks, and wearing sailors’ trousers and carrying sticks, they threw gentlemanly privilege to the winds. Hucks was slightly defensive about their appearance of downward mobility, claiming ‘as for all ideas of appearance and gentility, they are entirely out of the question – our object is to see, not to be seen; and if I thought I had one acquaintance who would be ashamed of me and my knapsack, seated by the fire side of an honest Welsh peasant, in a country village, I should not only make myself perfectly easy on my own account, but should be induced to pity and despise him for his weakness.’

Hucks reflected that in his three years at Cambridge, he had never known misfortune. By going amongst the Welsh populace disguised as a poor pedestrian he sought a different kind of experience. Pedestrianism was an expression of universal brotherhood, of solidarity with the laboring man. And the freedom to travel without carriages, horses, and servants, and to go wherever their feet might carry them, was a heady experience of freeborn liberty.

That ‘Pedestrian’ was an alternative identity to ‘Sportsman’ James Plumptre made clear in his comic opera about Lake District tourism published four years after Hucks and Coleridge made their Welsh tour. According to Bob Kiddy, a self-styled crack sportsman, the two Pedestrians (spitting images of Hucks and Coleridge) are simply ‘crack’d’. He himself wouldn’t ‘give a penny to travel without horses and servants’. His idea of a perfect meal is grouse, but only when it’s stinking. Bob Kiddy embraces gamey-ness in all its forms. Pedestrians for universal brotherhood were by definition on the side of poachers, not the game-preserving gentlemen who prosecuted them.

Poachers of private space

At the turn of the 20th to the 21st century, it is no coincidence that the Right to Roam and the right to hunt foxes have so often been polarised in debate. Like vegetarianism and animal rights, two other movements that gained currency among British radicals in the 1790s, deliberate pedestrianism thrusts a wedge into county society and its structure of deference to gentlemen and their sporting pursuits.

There is an irony in this historical trajectory – that walking is making a comeback, as a gestural acknowledgement of democratic commitment in the face of ecological crisis, at the same time as more and more people are ceasing to walk anywhere except for fun. Britons, like Americans, are losing the use of their legs as a means of transport but reinventing walking as a recreation, meditation, or political intervention. A walk in the rainforest in Belize led by a Maya naturalist is not the same thing as a stroll around Bloomsbury, checking out bookshops and printsellers, though both partake of a residual hunting-and-gathering mentality. We have the form of walking without much of its original content.

Most walkers today in Britain and the US have enjoyed an almost entirely urban experience. We cannot read the trackless wild. Positioned as trespassers in an increasingly privatised landscape, we lack the necessary skills of former vagrants. Describing the disappearance of London landscape paintings from public galleries into private collections, Iain Sinclair has remarked, ‘Immeasurable chunks of London have been swallowed. If we are not tithe-paying tourists then we are suspects, trespassing on our own inheritance.’

Whether in cities or the country, we are now in effect poachers in privatised space. This is a radical Green tradition well worth claiming. But unless we have made a study of ecological matters, know the local flora and fauna of cityscape or hardly hedgerowed down, we will lack the appropriate naturalist’s knowledge to make good on that inheritance.

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