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Historic Walks And History Of Walking


A path in Petworth Park, a reminder of the landscape in which mankind first learnt to walk?


According to a Government Social Survey quoted by Derek Birley, 1965 saw cricket as the most popular outdoor sport for adults. The most popular participatory sport in Britain today, according to the Household Survey, is walking. Since 1965 there has been a trend towards greater participation in sport for fun, with massive events like the London Marathon and the Great North Run. There has also been a rise in non-competitive sports in schools. Against this background walking might fit the bill as the definitive modern sport. But in case we see walking as all gentle ambles in the sunshine and stops for scones and tea we should remember that walking has a tough history. Walking has always been a means to survive, and this is true from the very earliest days of walking. Some historians of mankind have suggested that modern humans began to evolve on the savannas of east Africa. Two and a half million years ago a cooler climate caused east African forests to shrink, and those pre-human apes least adapted to life amongst the trees were forced out onto grasslands. Here they had to adopt an upright bipedal means of getting about, and in this sense walking links us back to humanity's earliest history. It is interesting in this regard that we like to walk in landscaped parks. The savanna of east Africa two and a half million years ago was a generally open landscape with clumps of vegetation or trees in which to hide and survey the wide open plains that stretched all around. This landscape is remarkably similar to a Capability Brown landscape, in which people still love to walk.




George Inn, Southwark, which stood close to the Tabard Inn made famous by Chaucer. Both inns would serve people walking on the pilgrimage route between Southwark and Canterbury Cathedral.


Once humanity adopted its bipedal gait, walking was always part of the way people lived and worked. People walked to work and to trade. This link between the world of work and walking meant that for the wealthy a sign of social eminence was not having to walk. The word "pedestrian" has negative connotations, suggesting all that is slow, dull and ordinary. The same word was also used in the nineteenth century to describe an athlete who competed for money, as opposed to a gentleman who supposedly competed for the love of the game. People who fell to the lowest social levels, who were so poor that they even lost their homes, were known as tramps, people who walked endlessly. So in many ways walking has always been associated with all that is most mundane in life. This makes it all the more surprising that walking has long been linked with spirituality. From very early in human history walking along processional avenues became an important part of religious ritual. Stonehenge for example, Britain's most famous ancient monument, sits at the end of a processional way, and dates in its earliest incarnation to around 3000BC. It was the nature of the monuments standing at the end of ritual walks that reveals the reason why plain old walking became a religious experience. Monuments were built to be reminiscent of castles, with both castles and religious sites consisting of circular banks and ditches. Defensive palisades of wood, or stone were mimicked at religious sites by lines of wooden or stone uprights. It is fitting then that ritual processions approaching these religious places should be, in the words of walking historians Nicholas Rudd-Jones and David Stewart, an "expression of togetherness and resolution" (see Pathways P31). What this really means is that the procession mimics an army on the move, marching on its symbolic way to symbolic castles. This idea of group walking as a representational army on the move continued to give feelings of togetherness and resolution in religious ritual through the ages. Into more recent history people would take long walking journeys known as pilgrimage. The longest of these journeys saw pilgrims travelling all the way to the Middle East. Within Britain there were routes to favoured shrines, at, for example, Canterbury Cathedral Kent , Walsingham Priory Norfolk, Shaftesbury Abbey Dorset, and Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. In the secular world walking also came to be linked with "higher things", particularly through the enthusiasm for walking shown by the romantic poets of the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Wordsworth and Coleridge were both great walkers, and the Coleridge Way in Somerset commemorates some of the epic hikes which influenced their poetry. Wordsworth and Coleridge also walked extensively in the Lake District where thousands of people continue to follow their example today.




The Mall, London

So there were always two extremes in walking, completely mundane on the one hand, and divine on the other. Between these two extremes walking took all kinds of forms. At the working end of the spectrum you can still walk Roman roads along which weary Roman soldiers tramped their way. Later in history there are canal tow paths, drovers' routes, and miners' trails where men worked long back breaking hours. Then in the middle of the spectrum there were environments built for pleasant walking. These carefully built walking places date back to private parks in which high ranking Romans ambled in comfort. In the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries private walking environments were opened up to a more general audience, with public parks, and long seaside promenades. Meanwhile at the sacred end of the spectrum there are of course the processional ways, which are as important now as they were in the heyday of Stonehenge or Avebury. Processional ways are still being built, with remarkably similar designs to those seen in ancient Britain. The greatest modern processional way in Britain today is The Mall in London, a massive ceremonial route in west London, with Buckingham Palace at one end, and Trafalgar Square at the other. Ancient processional ways generally had a stretch of marked path, with a circular area at the end marked with banks, ditches and wooden or stone uprights. The Mall has a very similar layout, though in the case of the Mall there is a circle at both ends, one around the statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace, and the other represented by the great circle of Trafalgar Square. On a smaller scale every church still has a miniature processional way, extending along an aisle that leads from the church door forward to the front of the church where ceremonies are conducted.





Daisy strewn North Downs Way on the chalk ridge near Detling, Kent.


It would be wrong, though to make too clear a distinction between workaday walking and special walking. George Orwell illustrated this point when he became a tramp in the 1920s. A friend commented on Orwell's tramping: "Walking can be just a means of getting from A to B; but with him it was like a voyage with Jules Verne beneath the ocean... A walk was a mixture of energy, adventure, and matter of fact." (quoted in George Orwell by Bernard Crick P209-210). This strange combination of the most grindingly mundane and an almost spiritual quality seems to have been present from the earliest history of walking. In ancient Britain long distance travellers used ridgeways extending for hundreds of miles along the chalk ridges of southern England. These routes were easy to follow, and took a traveller up above the bogs, rivers, and dense forest which impeded travel on lower ground. The ridgeways were no doubt as utilitarian as today's M25, but walking them must have always been in many respects a special experience. It can't be an accident that the ridgeways are marked by all kinds of symbols of reverence. The ancient Ridgeway walk, which originally ran from the Dorset coast to the Wash in Norfolk, has many religious symbols along its course. There's the ritual landscape of Avebury, at the beginning of the Ridgeway as it exists today. This is one of the most extensive ritual sites in Britain. At Uffington you will see the Uffington White Horse carved onto chalk hillside beside the path. Between Streatley and Chinor the route passes a huge symbolic earth work called Grim's Ditch, which accompanies the path for several kilometers. The last section from Chinor to Ivinghoe Beacon passes more sections of Grim's Ditch, and a number of long barrow burial monuments. The most obvious barrow can be seen close to the last long slope up to Ivinghoe Beacon, where the path finally ends at an iron age fort.





Abbey Road zebra crossing, London

The proximity of burial monuments to ancient walking routes brings us to the final way in which walking acts as a symbolic act in both ancient and modern societies. Walking is, obviously, an act of crossing from one place to another. Symbolically walking also seems to be always crossing over. You can cross the road to the shops. But there are bigger crossing's over in which walking is involved. At a funeral, for example, there is a long traditon of a walking procession taking a coffin to its final resting place. At Flag Fen near Peterborough there are remains of a monumental processional way dating to 1000BC, where the link between walking and crossing over is particularly clear. In the Flag Fen exhibition hall you can see a small section of a four lane wooden walkway which once extended for over a kilometre across an area of extensive water meadow. In the middle there was a large circular platform. This could have been a partly functional structure, acting as a bridge over flooded areas, the central platform perhaps serving as a place of refuge in times of crisis. It is fairly obvious, however, that this place went beyond the purely functional. It was too big and ornate. Surely there weren't so many people crossing here that they needed four lanes of traffic. And the wooden uprights would have got in the way if this was simply a bridge. If, however, the uprights intensified the sense of perspective disappearing into the distance, then this makes more sense as a ritual place of crossing over. Literature at Flag Fen describes how Bronze Age people may have believed that water was a looking glass through which people entered the next world. Perhaps the causeway was a visual representation of the great crossing over of life. My own favourite suggestion for a similar walk today is apparently very humble, and involves a zebra crossing in St John's Wood, north London. In the famous picture on the Abbey Road album sleeve the Beatles were crossing to the other side. There are of course allusions in the picture to crossing over, Ringo's undertaker's outfit, Paul's bare feet, John dressed in angelic white. These are all references to the kind of unfathomable, final, irrevocable journey to the other side that occurs at the end of life; but in this case the journey is happening on a zebra crossing in St Johns Wood. Perhaps the Abbey Road picture is suggesting that all crossings over, no matter how major they might seem to be, are in fact like walking over a zebra crossing. Is it too fanciful to see the same sense of lengthened perspective in the lines of the zebra crossing that you see in the lines of the wooden posts at Flag Fen? It is remarkable how walking shows a continuity between ancient and modern societies. Walking continues to make its journeys, both mundane and historic.

See our visits menu for all kinds of walks, from city walks in London, to chalk ridgeway walks, pilgrimage sites, park walks, and short walks over a zebra crossing in north London.