The Joy of a Pointless Walk

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Every time I call my mum in England I get an update on two things — the weather, (both current and the range of rain, from drizzle to pouring, that has been experienced over previous days), and how many steps she has managed on her Fitbit. Walking is truly an English obsession, and in my time I have done my fair share of trudging over soggy fields, on a path to nowhere in particular. 

I, therefore, took great delight in reading Monica Heisey‘s essay for The Guardian detailing a Canadian’s perspective on the English love for the aimless amble. A particularly exciting walk might end with a pint of beer in a country pub — a reward for slurping through the mud, but England is currently in lockdown and pubs are closed, so Brits are embracing walking simply for walking’s sake.  Heisey writes of her experience of this great British pastime during Covid-19 with wonderful humor — so take a break from your lockdown walk, make a nice cup of tea, and give this essay a read instead.

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigour, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”. The prime minister has not brought appropriate attire (brown shoes, aforementioned huge socks, waxed jacket, head hanky), and is treated with scorn for it. But why?

There is something in the British that mistrusts pleasure. Why sit and chat in your lovely rented holiday cottage when you can walk through 40 different kinds of mud wearing the wrong shoes, everyone trying tensely not to be the first person to suggest heading home? Why take a gentle cycle ride near your hotel (or tent or caravan) in the Lake District when you can load yourself up with too much expensive gear and walk for hours, the only delight ahead a faux chipper “Hiya!” to the other miserable, sunburned walkers you pass, everyone somehow too cold yet also sweating in their moisture-wicking gilets?

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