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The art of walking

What is it about walking that is so appealing? By walking I don’t mean the walk that takes me from the kitchen to the table or from the sofa to the bed at night. By walking I mean the walk that means a journey, of more than one kind, into a wilderness type area, with or without populated communities, and that involves the use of skills in navigation, route selection, landscape interpretation, clothing and gear selection. I have been walking now for almost 40 years and looking back there has been a process of development in walking. At first it involved little equipment and poor weatherproof clothing, poor nourishment and hydration, a bottle of Tizer or orange squash sufficed along with crisps and a ham sandwich, all held in a WWII gas mask sack. Woolly jumpers, the ubiquitous cagoule, gabardine trousers and an old pair of boots with steel nails in protected the body and provided sweltering walking conditions in summer as well as wet, cold, heavy clothing the rest of the year.

A walk back then would involve a 20 mile storm from A-B in lands that were new and interesting, but were blasted past like a closed railway station on a mainline. Little interest was shown in the surroundings or indeed in navigation. The use of map and compass was secondary to oblique maps drawn in cheap guide books and carried in hand the whole length of the walk. When a map was consulted it was a bewildering array of colours, lines and writing, none of which bore any resemblance to the surroundings in which we stood. But, and here is a big but, we never got lost, well only once or twice and we never engaged with the countryside or any of the people in it. Except that is on a Sunday morning in Pond Street Bus station in Sheffield waiting for the No.272 bus to take us out into Derbyshire as we knew it then. There were dozens of people waiting with us, I cannot remember anyone talking to us, nor we to them. What I do remember is with our mediocre gear and clothing, we didn’t look out of place, although it has to be said that I did covet one of those map cases that hung around the neck and made anyone look as though they knew what they were doing. Walking back then was simpler, cheaper and exciting.

As the years of walking experience grew so did my range of walking as well as my gear. Once you have walked in the same area a few times you need to move on to paths new. Adding new walks then became the game along with more advanced gear. A rudimentary rucksack was added along with a thermos flask, which always broke, the coveted map case and T shirts. But we still trudged from A-B, still took no real interest in our surroundings and still used the guide books, doing someone else’s walking and paying them for it. At some point a girlfriend and a camera were added, the girlfriend was blond, slim and open to certain suggestions. The camera was at first a Zenith SLR which was quickly superseded by a Canon AE1. Now the walk was more about taking pictures and becoming a landscape photographer. Strangely, walks never ventured on to moor lands or tops of hills, except Mam Tor, for fear of getting lost, so walks always involved valleys and clear, very clear footpaths. The photography gear increased but sadly not the landscape photographer’s career. This was extinguished by a father who knew the best thing for a 16 year old in Sheffield to do was to get a job for life in the steel works; such was his ambition for his son and his foresight come to think of it. Ten years later there were very few steel works left.

Then came the next phase of walking. No longer was the camera taken on walks, too much to carry. Gone was the girlfriend, she’d got fed up of all the suggestions. Now I walked with a wife and children. It is still a mystery how I ended up with a wife, the only thing I can think of is that she was at first open to certain suggestions, but quickly followed up with a wedding and children and ending of suggestion activities. The walks didn’t really change. Same routes, more gear, more crying from children, more panicking as I got lost, this time with a young family in tow. Walks back then were more like expeditions and always involved tears and arguments and a gladness to get back home and a resolve never to do it again, but if we do, not to do it the same way, which we always did.

Eventually, family and career took over and walks stopped, except for the odd bank holiday walk, amongst thousands of other families all whishing they had chosen to go to the seaside instead. I never looked upon walking as an escape from everyday life and yet that is just what I should have been back then. Career developed, children grow up and all was followed as night follows day by divorce.

It was at this time that walking came back in to my life. Only now walking was different. It involved highly technical clothing, boots, weatherproof maps and joy of joys, GPS. For a gadget mad male with time on his hands this was heaven. Saturdays were now spent in the new outdoor shops that had sprung up, looking at gear, the more exotic sounding names, the more expensive, the more it made me look like mountain man, the better. A whole range of compasses were purchased, not the new fangled GPS, which seemed expensive and unworkable and not purist. So now I could walk the same walks I had always walked, with same guide book, but have all the correct gear for an expedition in Patagonia, with all the correct unreadable maps and more importantly, look the part when trudging from A-B. It was at this point that my now wife came in to my life. Alison inhabited a different world to me, one of art and design as opposed to mine which was of business. She also came from a very different background. Posh voice, very beautiful and very simple outlook on life. Use what you have to hand, use time to experience new things and don’t blast past what’s going on around you. Enjoy the moment and relax. This was her unspoken philosophy and I had trouble getting in to step with it.

Yet over the years my walking has changed. Perhaps it is a consequence of time and age, my wife’s influence, whatever, but walking is now more about learning and experiencing. Sure there is still gear, which Alison has also succumbed too a little in the clothing department. My gear is now more selective and of higher quality and chosen by necessity, sometimes! I have three GPS devices, don’t know why, each one seems to promise ever more nirvana like happenings, but essentially they all tell me the same thing. My skills have developed hugely. I can now read and use a map and compass, even navigate with them and interpret the landscape. Ironically, I hardly ever use a GPS except to record my routes for my log book, which is an anorak part of walking that I like. I became a National Park Ranger volunteer for the Peak District National Park, something I never thought would have happened to me. This then morphed in to becoming a walking guide for a walking holiday company, another thing I never thought would happen.

Lately a strange thing happened on a solo walk. I now spend more time walking in the uplands, moor lands and mountains of Britain and on a recent walk around the Kinder Plateau; I stopped for a drink and a snack, and having consumed the food quickly started to rise to carry on with my march from A-B only to suddenly think why am I moving. I am camping out, so do not have to meet a bus or train, why am I in such a rush. Relax, take in the scenery, watch and learn. So that is what I did and that has made all the difference to my walking. I now walk within the landscape, being part of it at that moment in time. It has made all the difference and now I really do escape from the world. As John Muir put it.

“I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.”