By Alex Speakman
Midway through the academic year is the time of year that those fond, warm summer memories are shut down by summative assessments and the cold Durham winter. Five months ago, the world was pure opportunity. So much time; absolute liberty to pursue anything you like. Now that’s all gone, crushed by the pedestrian necessity of doing your degree. How boring.
Here’s the answer: walk
Fortunately, there’s one glimmer of hope in the distance. As readers of the travel section, there is probably only one thing you’re anticipating even more — what to do next summer? To save you the trouble, here’s the answer: walk.
Walking is the cheapest, oldest and simplest way of getting about and without a doubt the best way of seeing any environment. It doesn’t matter where you go, you will never get the same connection to the world around you through any other means. If you disagree then there are two people who will change your mind if you give them the chance: Laurie Lee and Patrick Leigh Fermor.
Walking is the cheapest, oldest and simplest way of getting about
Independent of each other, Lee and Fermor both traversed parts of Europe on foot in the 1930s. Lee spent his time in pre-war Spain, while Fermor undertook a huge trek from Holland to Constantinople. The two books that the pair produced, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and A Time of Gifts are monuments of the travel writing genre. More to the point, they are both testaments to the joy of walking and its supremacy over any other form of travel. Lee’s description of his first days of travel is hard to beat:
“I walked steadily, effortlessly, hour after hour in a kind of swinging, weightless realm. I was at that age which feels neither strain nor friction, when the body burns magic fuels, so that it seems to glide in warm air, about a foot off the ground, smoothly obeying its intuitions. Even exhaustion, when it came, had a voluptuous quality, and sleep was caressive and deep, like oil.”
Well. Golly. Sold. Should I even go on? How can anyone build on prose like that? What is captured in that paragraph is the peace and contentment that walking brings. Therapeutic exercise complemented by beautiful views and an ever-changing landscape. Yes it is slow, but that’s the point — it’s about indulging the senses and savouring the environment around you. In comparison, Lee condemns the car that “races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch”. Fermor agrees and puts it simply that “all horsepower corrupts”.
Perhaps the greatest reward of walking is the true sense of intellectual freedom and self-determination
Fermor’s joy derives from a different aspect of walking, but one that is no less important. What makes his book A Time of Gifts such an interesting read is the overwhelmingly rich cultural experience he undergoes. Everyday Fermor sees a new village, new people, new history. Walking along the Rhine he sees not only Europe on the brink of war, but an older Europe — one populated by Romans, Franks and Barbarians. In a few paces on foot, it is possible to discover more than in several miles by any other means.
All the while both Fermor and Lee let their minds run free through politics, poetry, and all manner of ideas, ruminating on their lives and the world around them. Perhaps the greatest reward of walking is the true sense of intellectual freedom and self-determination; innumerable hours in which to think about anything you like.
So, when you’re planning next summer think simple: forgo expensive flights, tedious car journeys and exhausting bike routes. Instead, pack your bag, step out your front door, and walk.
Photographs: Naomi Young