Solvitur ambulando: ‘It is solved by walking.’
As a walker, you know this well.
This pithy saying – all the more pithy in Latin – is attributed to St Augustine. It captures the sense that walking is more than just a physical activity. Rather, it suggests that walking can be an act of mindfulness; a means of spiritual refreshment; a way of untangling the knots of the mind. For many, walking and thinking are the closest of travelling companions.
I went through a phase of reading book after book about walking. It was in the aftermath of my father’s death in 2014. I think, looking back, it was a way of reflecting on his life and its ending. Big, long walks in the Yorkshire countryside were a way of processing. I felt drawn to the paths of the East Yorkshire coast; it felt good to be small, yet strangely at home, in the rugged openness of the Moors; the gentle dales and valleys invited me to explore. Following ancient ways – paths that had been covered by countless pairs of feet – connected me to the unknown folk who have lived and moved across the same land.
When I wasn’t walking, I was thinking about walking. I was reading about walking. I read books by Robert Macfarlane, Roger Deakin, Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Gros, Rebecca Solnit, Geoff Nicholson, Nan Shephard, Patrick Leigh Fermor. There are shelves of books on walking, natural history, landscape and language, psychogeography – all kept in our little cottage in the North York Moors.
My inner teenager would be both baffled and appalled at this strange obsession with the act of walking. How on earth can walking be interesting? The Pavlovian response of most teenagers at the prospect of a long country walk is a derisory scoff or a spontaneous list of other more urgent priorities. For some, walking looks like a waste of time and energy. Especially the circular walk beloved of ramblers – why on earth would we walk in a big circle that ends up where we started?
The word pedestrian (as an adjective) has a telling meaning: ‘prosaic, commonplace, dull’. Doesn’t that tell us something about the status of a walk?
Most prosaically, of course, walking is an act of locomotion; of self-propulsion; it is the simplest practice of getting from A to B. It is a form of exercise and means of staying physically healthy. More expansively, walking is a way to discover and explore the external world. At a deeper level, walking can make us happier.
Like many of the routine capacities that the fit and healthy take for granted, the able-bodied take the daily process of walking unthinkingly in our stride. For those who find walking easy, we don’t often register that this unconscious process is supremely complex. The ability to walk was hard-earned, and hard-learned, over months of early childhood development. We learn to walk and are free. Viewed this way, walking is a privilege. More empoweringly conceived, it is an act of self-determination. And a route to inner discovery.
You can see why slow self-locomotion seems ordinary next to the rapid movement of car, plane and rocket. As the industrial revolution brought speed, along with so much else, shanks’ pony became equated with backwardness and poverty.
And yet… slow can be good.
During lockdown, the daily walk has become disproportionately important. For most, the local wander was the default leisure activity. Ask someone what they did at the weekend during lockdown and they will almost certainly reference a walk. Being pedestrian has been crucial to our wellbeing.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, pedestrianism was a spectator sport; an heroic activity that drew fans and inspired a degree of celebrity. Walking was a means to epic feats and the focus of wild wagers. For example, the legendary pedestrian Captain Robert Barclay Allardice’s most impressive achievement was to walk 1 mile every hour for 1000 consecutive hours between 1st and 12th July 1809. People travelled to see him walk. Many other men and women became competitive endurance or speed walkers. Over time, this craze for pedestrianism gradually passed and became obsolete. However, history shows that being a pedestrian was not always pedestrian.
Returning to the current day, walking is a means of exercise and relaxation for many. You come back from a decent walk feeling physically tired and mentally refreshed. The quick wander with the dog; the late afternoon perambulation – these all help to dislodge the lumps in the mind’s path.
I think it is one of the many uniquely special things about Shrewsbury School life that we – by which I mean pupils and staff alike – all do a lot of walking in our daily routines. Our 100 acre site has walking designed into it.
We have to walk from house to lessons; from one building to another; to and from meals. We walk through a shared place of calm, natural beauty. I think this is a very healthy thing for all of us.
Walking, woven into our daily routines, is good for the mind and the body. And it can also help with problem-solving.
Whatever ‘it’ is – it may well be solved, or at least eased, by walking.
Keep walking, dear Pedestrian.