If Christmas is often synonymous with hours spent indoors, the lure of the sofa and endless screentime, our second festive season spent under the shadow of Covid is presumably taking those things to their extremes. The world has shrunk: our lives are full of cautious friends and relatives, cancelled trips and the imperative to stay where we are. The cold and dark complete the picture. Once again, this threatens to be a season of seclusion.
To temporarily escape, millions of us will be going for walks – that inbuilt part of many people’s Christmases, which also chimes with how many of us have coped with the past two years. According to Sport England, between January and March this year, against the backdrop of another full national lockdown, 24.7 million people said they had recently engaged in “walking for leisure”, an increase of 5.2 million people compared with 12 months before. In September, the Department for Transport published research showing that in 2020 people in England walked an average of 220 miles (the highest figure since records began nearly 20 years ago) and that the number of walks of a mile or more had jumped by 26% in a single year. The Ramblers, the UK charity and membership organisation that does a huge amount of work around walking and access to open spaces, says that in the second half of 2020 it recruited 30% more new members than it had done a year earlier. These are all fascinating numbers: proof, perhaps, that when our leisure options are suddenly shut down, a lot of us instinctively seek solace in one of the most primal pastimes there is.
At which point, an admission. I walk, I am well aware of being fortunate enough to be able to do so, and I cannot imagine life without it. The habit has roots in my childhood; when I lived in London in my 20s and 30s, I eventually became a fairly committed urban walker. But it was not until I moved out of the city and became a parent that walking grew into a gloriously restorative weekly ritual.
With my two kids – who, I know, will sooner or later decide to leave me to it – I spend most Sunday mornings rambling around where we live in Somerset. Given more time, we have also visited plenty of other places: Dartmoor, the Brecon Beacons, the South Downs that run parallel to the coast between Winchester and Eastbourne. But over the past two years, as Covid restrictions have kept us at home, our wellbeing has been bound up with the modest pleasures of exploring our immediate surroundings, and discovering things that were just outside the front door: ancient burial mounds, abandoned canals, the fascinating geography of the old Somerset coalfield.
Rural walking is a habit I acquired from my dad, who was a keen mountaineer and the son of a south Welsh miner. He got the bug from his older brother, back in the days when access to the countryside was an issue brimming with the raw class politics dramatised by the mass trespass of 1932 at Kinder Scout in the Peak District – the amazing act of organised civil disobedience that led to the creation of the UK’s national parks, among other advances. The roots of rambling in this kind of activism – not to mention thousands of working-class lives – rather belie its latter-day reputation for being a thoroughly bourgeois pastime, and these radical undercurrents have never really gone away. In the everyday activities of local footpath preservation societies and local Ramblers branches, there is a constant echo of what brought the Kinder trespassers together, and how far there is still to go.
After all, there is one unfinished story at the heart of modern walking: the so-called right to roam, and the contrast between its dire limitations in England and Wales and the way that Scotland has been opened up, a change that still meets plenty of obstruction. Five years ago, one beautifully symbolic story centred on the Aberdeenshire “golf resort” owned by Donald Trump. Freedom of information requests made by the investigative website the Ferret unearthed police documents relating to the Trump organisation’s attitude to public access: “Their belief is that the land is private and that they will be able to restrict access unconditionally,” one said. “This is obviously not the case and this is a potential area of conflict that will need to be managed diplomatically.”
Almost by definition, walking any distance highlights the fundamentals of our relationship with our environment: small wonder, then, that something as seemingly innocent as a love of being outside and moving around still creates flashpoints.
Walking is also the focus of a growing story about the politics of diversity, and what still needs to happen to make it a genuinely popular pursuit. Just before Christmas, I had a half-hour conversation with Cherelle Harding, a youth worker who lives in Coventry and has recently founded an organisation called Steppers UK, which aims to help “black, Asian and ethnic minority communities to build positive relationships with the outdoors”. For some years, she told me, she was a smitten rural walker, but she reached a point where “I was a bit annoyed that I didn’t see more black people out hiking”. She talked about “systemic and generational barriers” – among them the absence from images of the great outdoors of black and brown people, and the fact that her parents and grandparents’ generation “had come to a very hostile country – going to places like the countryside just isn’t something they would have done”.
Her first taste of organised walking came via the inspirational group Black Girls Hike, founded in Manchester in 2019, and Steppers is about a similar ethos, made all the more vivid by people’s experience of the Covid crisis. “This has been a time when a lot of us have faced trauma, particularly people from black communities,” she said. “And what we’re doing is about joy.”
Here, perhaps, is the beautifully simple key to why walking – in both rural and urban surroundings – connects with something very deep within the people who do it. As the writer and devout walker Iain Sinclair said, moving around on foot entails “opening up your system to the world, making the skin porous, [and] letting all the impressions pour through.” We all know what gets in the way: prejudice, traffic, locked gates, signs painted with the dread words “private – keep out”.
I think also of those stories smattered through the past two years of overzealous police officers stopping people whose walking represented no threat to public health, and one of the few means of staying connected to a world beyond their four walls. Fresh air, inbuilt social distancing, and the modest wonders of getting from one point to the next: as an alternative to gloom and seclusion, who would argue with that?
- John Harris is a Guardian columnist
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