With only three weeks to go until I return to the Lake District (can’t wait!), reading firstly The Lighthouse and then The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Pye has reminded me of how long-distance walking unclutters the mind. Both novels feature men – one in middle age and one in his retirement – who, the further they stray from home in the physical sense, the closer they become to it an emotional sense.
I wonder if Rachel Joyce’s inspiration for Harold came from the film maker, Werner Herzog, whose Of Walking in Ice documents his walk from Munich to Paris, where his friend, German film critic Lotte Eisner, lay dying in hospital, in the hope that his pilgrimage would prolong her life. But, when questioned about Herzog’s trek, Ms. Eisner apparently replied, “Nonsense. I met him off the train.” (I have some sympathy for walkers who take a shortcut or two. When walking the West Highland Way, knowing my limitation is sixteen miles a day, I took a six-mile bus ride so that I wouldn’t slow my companions down.)
Merlin Coverley in The Art of Wandering argues that walking and writing are inseparable: it is by walking that the writer unlocks his inner world. Certainly, there is a lengthy association between writers and walking. Wordsworth is said to have walked 175,000 miles in his lifetime and Thoreau regularly took 20-mile rambles through the forests and over the hills. Walking forces you to slow down. As Brenda Ueland put it: “If you would continue to be alone for a long time, amblingly swinging your legs for many miles and living in the present, then you will be rewarded: thoughts, good ideas, plots for novels, longings, decisions, revelations will come to you.”
Dickens’ night-time walking habit provided him with access to seedier areas of London many of his readers would have avoided. In Sketches by Boz he acts as tour-guide: ‘We will endeavour to sketch the bar of a large gin-shop, and its ordinary customers, for the edification of such of our readers as may not have had opportunities of observing such scenes; and on the chance of finding one well suited to our purpose, we will make for Drury-Lane, through the narrow streets and dirty courts which divide it from Oxford-street, and that classical spot adjoining the brewery at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road, best known to the initiated as the “Rookery.”’
The only cars my parents ever owned were unreliable at best. Walking wasn’t for exercise: it was a necessity. And yet it is a discipline I’m glad I have clung to, equipped for all weathers. I was introduced to mountain climbing at the age of 18 and it has been very much a case of onwards and upwards.
Treading a 4-mile circuit from my home has also furnished my books with characters, and not only those of the human variety. I Stopped Time features an aging but rather dignified German Shepherd I christened Isambard after seeing him every day in my local park. He found his way into the plot as a companion for Sir James Hastings. I no longer see Isambard and I miss him dearly.
I also find inspiration for settings. Sir James Hastings lives in a village in the Surrey Hills called Shere, which is the start and end point of one of my favourite circular walks, having the advantage of two excellent pubs. Much of the action in my new (and as yet unpublished) novel, A Funeral for an Owl, takes place within a stone’s throw of my front door.
As the essayist Northcroft recommends, ‘Never neglect to take pencil and paper with you to jot down anything that may strike you.’ You never know when it may come in useful!
The title of this blog is the title of a carole composed by my grandfather, Stanley Taylor