Walking is a simple pastime but in Walk!, Colin Speakman imbues it with such romanticism, science, environmentalism and politics, that a country hike becomes an expression of freedom as well as medicine for the body and soul. Perhaps most important of all though, is that Speakman achieves his purpose – to inspire people to get outside and walk.
Walk! is a very British book. That’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed by those more interested in foreign landscapes but Speakman filters the pastime through the lens of British culture. He begins by examining the roots of walking as a pastime and not merely a method of transport. Walking is our connection with the natural world. Speakman suggests that it was via Romanticism and Transcendentalism in great works of literature and the arts that our culture truly began to feel affinity with nature. He draws on wide influences here, from Caspar Friedrich’s Romantic paintings to the works of John Ruskin, Thomas Hardy and Robert Louis Stevenson, all of whom played an essential role in establishing our collective fascination with the great outdoors and our desire to be a part of it.
You might ask what has any of this to do with going for a stroll? Well it was during these periods, with the rejection of Classicism’s rigid structures and logic-driven culture, that the need to connect on a more emotional and physical level with nature developed. The countryside became an increasingly important part of national consciousness. Walking became a way of opening our imaginations and of experiencing great beauty; playing a key role in the cultural revolution to come.
Walk! explains the importance of the stroll within our history. For such an innocent pastime, it enjoys an incredibly revolutionary heritage. During the Enclosure Acts in the 18th and 19th centuries, the poor were systematically cleared from the land and herded into cities in order to drive industry, while their absence from the countryside permitted what is known as the agricultural revolution. Land was bought up and amalgamated into large farms and estates while millions were excluded from what had been rightly theirs for generations. These political acts marked the start of a battle that is still running today, and these issues are covered in what are perhaps the most poignant chapters of the book – those which concern our ancient and democratic rights of way.
The celebrated British nature writer Roger Deakin once described walking as a ‘subversive’ activity, an almost counter-cultural phenomenon in many respects. It’s easy to forget in our liberty-obsessed world that in Deakin’s time, his words were literally true for many. Speakman sheds light on the fight to allow the poor to be granted access to ancient routes over private land that have evolved into the rights of way we enjoy today. There were subversive activities such as the mass trespass at Kinder Scout in the Peak District in 1932, and combined with the role played by revolutionary figures such as John Dower and Tom Stephenson, the movement succeeded in restoring public access. Such efforts resulted in the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which itself extends through to the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000. Both are laws that permit us to wander freely in the UK today, a staggering achievement considering the forces that worked against them. Throughout the book, Speakman maintains a passionate and logical polemic against those who would deny the public their rights of access to incredible views and special habitats.
If Walk! simply stopped there it would be inspirational enough but Speakman has included many more fascinating discussions. He provides an explanation of the rights we now enjoy in the countryside and what the legislation means; all comes in handy for modern walkers. He discusses long-distance walking and the extensive network of pathways including the Pennine Way that is to be found across the UK. There’s even a chapter covering the enjoyment to be found by walking through our urban spaces. For reluctant walkers, the section on the many health benefits of walking, both mental and physical, is essential reading. And bookending what is ultimately an environmental story, Speakman discusses our reliance on the car and just what it would mean to actually leave it at home.
Walk! is a wide-ranging delight that has almost universal appeal. With a celebrity-studded foreword featuring such luminaries as Ben Fogle and Sir Chris Bonnington, it ought to gain wider exposure, and deservedly so. Walk! is a superb rallying cry to put on our boots and head into the great outdoors.
Walk! A Celebration of Striding Out by Colin Speakman (£15.99, Great Northern Books Ltd) is available from Amazon
Mark Newton has a degree in Environmental Science and is a genre novelist for Pan Macmillan. He blogs about all sorts of things at markcnewton.com, or you can find him on Twitter at twitter.com/MarkCN
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