Is the modern Western world of technology and ever-faster transport making us forget the joy of walking – just walking, for the joy of it? Should we all walk more, not just for our physical health, but to inspire and soothe mind and soul? It’s an idea increasingly explored. Take Geoff Nicholson’s new book, The Lost Art of Walking.
From the blurb:
Walking was once the only way to get around but now we just walk to the bus stop, station or car. Or we walk as a lifestyle choice – trekking holidays, charity walks, urban explorations. Geoff Nicholson’s The Lost Art of Walking brings pedestrianism back to the centre of life by musing on his own walks, reflecting on writers, artists, musicians and film makers who take walking as a subject, and by looking at some of the great walkers in history the competitive, the adventurous, the philosophical, the merely eccentric.
The book takes us far further than most would consider walking distance, from the Oxford Street of de Quincey’s London to the mean streets of Los
Angeles, from the concrete canyons of New York City to the seven hills of Sheffield, by way of the British seaside and the deserts of America, Egypt and Australia. Along the way it describes encounters with nude walkers, labyrinth walkers, psychogeographers, among many others. The Lost Art of Walking is discursive, imaginative, full of insight and sometimes downright hilarious.
I’ve bought the book, and read it… between walks! Because of course I love to walk, whether in the gardens of my homes in England and France, or across fields or along a beach, or, if I’m feeling in the mood for buzz, along the streets of a town. Walking, in fact, is an integral part of my writing routine – while I wander I wonder. I find new ideas, I untangle knots, I wash away blocks and I clear out the cobwebs ready to write some more.
Many writers have been proponents of the simple walk, or as it has been called, ‘the purposeless walk’. Henry David Thoreau wrote a book entitled Walking. Dickens was known for walking many miles at a time through cities; hence his vivid descriptions of Industrial Revolution England. Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: ‘All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.’
Virginia Woolf, George Orwell, Thomas De Quincey, Vladimir Nabokov – all of these writers’ seminal works are owed in some part to the thinking and inspiration found in walking. And of course the most famous of all is William Wordsworth, whose 1807 poem ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ perfectly encapsulates the magic of the walk:
I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud
I wandered lonely as a Cloud
That floats on high o’er Vales and Hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of dancing Daffodils;
Along the Lake, beneath the trees,
Ten thousand dancing in the breeze.
The waves beside them danced, but they
Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: –
A poet could not but be gay
In such a laughing company:
I gaz’d – and gaz’d – but little thought
What wealth the shew to me had brought:
For oft when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude,
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the Daffodils.
The author of The Lost Art of Walking told the BBC News Magazine:
There is something about the pace of walking and the pace of thinking that goes together. Walking requires a certain amount of attention but it leaves great parts of the time open to thinking. I do believe once you get the blood flowing through the brain it does start working more creatively. Your senses are sharpened. As a writer, I also use it as a form of problem solving. I’m far more likely to find a solution by going for a walk than sitting at my desk and ‘thinking’.
All sorts of books are available to guide you on your (inherently guideless) walking. These, I think, are the basics to embrace if you want your walk to energise, soothe and inspire; to feed the part of you crying out for sustenance:
- Choose a walk that is not physically demanding. This is not about getting your heart racing; you don’t really want to notice the walking activity itself. Pumping arms and pounding feet are out!
- Thing about what kind of setting will give you what you need. Picking your way through busy city streets? Exploring quite back street, shadowy and empty? Meandering alone through a deserted park at twilight? Following the sunrise along a clifftop?
- Try not to plan a route. Follow your nose. I’ve found the most amazing little eateries and shops in citiesthis way.
- Opt for silence. Mobile phone switched off. No music.
- Think about whether you want company. For the most inspirational and healing walks, sometimes solitude is best.
- Clear your mind, and try to be meditative – notice thoughts but don’t dwell on them. Be mindful of the setting.Allow your senses to run wild – how lovely the smell of wildflowers; how stirring the sound of waves crashing; how jarring the contrast of blue sky and green grass.
If I’ve really enjoyed a walk and found it inspirational, I try to bring something home with me to help me hold on to the feeling. For example, I may pick a pine cone from the ground in the woods, or find a beautiful shell at the beach. Then, I put my souvenir on my writing desk back at home, and whenever I look at it I’m transported to someplacewonderful that was once outside but now lives on inside.