Yesterday, I arose before dawn and cycled to the New River Head in central London. From there, with my path companion Anna Hughes, we walked twenty-eight miles up river to Hertford, where I jumped into the water and finally let my swollen feet smolder. Then I came home.
Why? Why, oh why did I do this? Why, oh why, oh why did I do this again? In the last couple of years, I have walked from London to Canterbury and from London to Winchester: long, long rambles of dozens of destructive miles. It is now time to explain why I do this to myself.
But there are as many different explanations for my rambling as there are answers to the question, “Why do I breathe?” Anatomically-speaking, I breathe because my lungs expand and contract as I inhale and exhale air, because my blood cells demand a constant supply of oxygen, because breathing is a part of the process of respiration, because I must convert my food into energy, because I am alive and not dead.
Rambling is the same: explanations are buried from skin to spine, depending on where you look, but it’s all happening, it’s all true, all the time.
(I should warn you that I’m not a qualified anatomist, but that shouldn’t pose a serious danger to your health as you read my Anatomy of Rambling.)
The Central Nervous System of Rambling
A walk must have a destination. Please don’t take this literally. Yesterday, we walked to the source of the New River in Hertford, a clear geographical destination, but, in truth, this endpoint was arbitrary. “Getting there” was a sideshow in a destination that transcends geography; this was a destination of the mind. Journeys are not relocations, but transformations.
For that reason, journeys are popular in fiction: from The Odyssey, through Don Quixote to The Lord of the Rings. Odysseus is lost on the seas for ten years before reaching his home on Ithaka; Don Quixote rambles La Mancha as a knight errant, defending the honour of Dulcinea del Toboso; Frodo journeys across Middle Earth to cast the One Ring into the fiery Cracks of Doom.
But the ostensible “goal” of the story – home, honour, the Cracks of Doom – is never the true purpose of the story. Nobody reads The Lord of the Rings and wishes Tolkein had edited the story more concisely: “Hobbit walks to Morder, loses precious ring, saves Middle Earth.” That does not capture the essence of the story. (Although would make a reasonable stand first for the Daily Mirror.)
In the same way, I will not remember our New River walk as: “Walked to Hertford, went swimming, came home tired.”
A fictional story begins by breaking the stasis of the protagonist’s normal life. The characters then enter into a remarkable world, of blinding Cyclopes, tilting at windmills and fleeing Ring Wraiths. This is where the plot happens. Finally, their object achieved, the characters return to the real world to continue their lives.
But they, and the reader with them, have been fundamentally changed by the events of the plot.
A walk is the same. For the duration of the walk, Anna and I stepped outside of our everyday lives, into a fantasy world of coots and sunburn, until we reached promised land of Hertford. We collapsed to the ground and ate Nutella. Then we went home.
But the path and the journey had as transformative effect on my psyche as any journey by any fictional character.
The Skin of Rambing
These concepts of destination and transformative journey are the central nervous system of our anatomy of rambling. Now we’ll move more quickly through the skin and bones, starting with the skin, the superficial nicities of a good walk.
Maps. Maps, although not necessary, are beautiful. I make no apology for that.
Food. One of the untrammeled joys of taking physical exercise is the eating. As Anne from the Famous Five was wont to remark: “I always think food tastes so much nicer eaten out of doors.”
Walking companions. I’ve had the pleasure of many different companions on my walks, from friends to felines. Each one has shown me a part of themselves, and parts of myself, that I didn’t know existed.
Wildlife. This could be anything from watching two ponies groom each other to cuteness death on the bank of the canal, to spitting out an errant gnat; from the swish of tussock grass against your shins, to nettle rash.
Pain. Pain is central to the reality of rambling. Its purpose is to remind you that you are mortal, but, with fortitude, you can learn to persevere and create the order of progress out of the chaos of blisters and windburn.
Equipment. I revel in wearing a walking raincoat with a multiplicity of useful pockets or discovering that my pocket knife does have a tool for doing that thing.
Poetry and songs. Every walk has a particular rhythm, so it’s no surprise that every walk I’ve been on has heard me singing poetry and reciting songs. This time, Anna and I swapped Eliot and Hardy for Shakespeare and Browning.
Wayfarer’s Angels. (Not to be confused with Hell’s Angels.) There are always wayfarer’s angels, the people without whom the walk would be either impossible or difficult. The guy with ear defenders mowing the grass along the river path; the two young men tinkering with their sports car, who gave us an ice cold bottle of water; and of course Sir Hugh Myddleton, who four hundred years ago conceived and carried through his absurd idea of bringing drinking water from the springs of Hertfordshire to the slums of central London. Thanks angels!
Terrain and landscape. Nodules bobbling the path underfoot, water balming the blisters on your sploshed feet, hills that come tumbling down towards you, only to turn aside at the last moment. Walks are about the nuance of terrain, as well as the grandeur of landscape.
Weather. The breeze picking up the air conditioning coolness of the canal, the sun bleaching the cotton of your clothes, clouds twisting petit pains patterns in the sky. We’ve all seen the weather, but a walk makes you live the weather.
The Universe. It’s always there, believe it or not, but very rarely does it make its presence felt. On a walk, though, you can’t help but notice that the sun is traversing the sky, burning your neck in the morning and your nose in the evening; while, on a night walk, you can’t help yourself navigating by the stars and dreaming of the moonlight.
The Bones of Rambling
The bones of rambling might often go unnoticed in the flash and fawn of the superficial skin, but fear not: they are the structure over which the skin is stretched.
Smallness. A walk seems impossibly slow, particularly in these days of aerobatic travel. But that slowness means you cannot help but appreciate the smallest of noticings: a water boatman on the surface of the river, a buttercup blowing in the breeze, an orange ladybird on the back of your hand. Without these bones of smallness, the skin delights of wildlife and terrain would go unappreciated.
Vastness. A long walk covers such unbearably painful distances in such constantly observable detail that its very smallness, its very detail, becomes an astonishing vastness that brings awe to the cuffs of your heart.
Depth. Smallness and the vastness combine to bring depth to a walk that is unlike any other human experience. A walk grinds into your soul and brings forth an unexpected spring of introspection, inspiration and insight. You’ll find this in the conversations that bubble up between you and your companion, or that bounce around in your head alone.
The moment you never want the walk to end. There are always moments like this: lying in the grass on the edge of the canal, the botanical breath of canal zephyrs filling your lungs; or the clump of every inevitable bootstep on the yielding towpath grass, in smooth mechanical perfection, walking into the dipping sun. You realise that it can’t get better than this and any complaints are quibbles. Don’t forget to take this feeling back with you into real life.
The journey home, also known as “the great unravelling”. There is nothing more satisfying, more awe-inspiring and more nostalgic, than watching the landscape that you’ve toiled through all day unravel through the flicker of a train carriage window. The experience heals you and forms the foundation for encorporating your transformation into your everyday life.
The Soul of Rambling
Just as the sum of our human anatomy creates a being of more significance than blood, flesh and bone, so too the rambling anatomy, all told, transcends mere walking.
The path is the ultimate symbol of this transcendence because, as you tread each footstep along your muddy, downtrodden mistress, you cannot fail to realise that you and she are one. You become the path you walk.
Let me explain. Each step you take moves you one step closer to where you will end up. That much is obvious, but that step doesn’t take place in an inert geography: the landscape of the path exerts its influence on you too.
The New River Path leads to Hertford. Anna and I have now become People Who Walked To Hertford, with all that entails: the smell of coots pecking over sludgy river waste; the sight of balloons slinking over the dawn-lit skyline; the sound of the M25 snarling beneath, while our river sneaks into open country; the taste of brackish water when I dunk my head into the Lea. We can never forget those experiences, they have changed us.
There is too an equal and opposite: the path becomes you who walk. Each step you take becomes part of the path, treading down the mud and leaves, marking out the track for the next generation of walkers.
Some paths are easy, well sign-posted, or even officially recognised by the asphalt of modernity; some paths are more difficult, sometimes impossible to distinguish from the wilderness that encroaches.
The path you choose will influence the paths that your successors will walk, just as the paths that your ancestors pioneered have influenced your walking.
I am obviously talking, not just literally, but metaphorically. Our choices about travel and life in general are profoundly affected by the choices of our ancestors and the rest of society; likewise our decisions consequently influence the options available to those yet to come. Our choices are not inert either; our choices are never means, they are always ends in themselves, whether we realise that fact or not.
The way that we do things becomes who we are.