Why do we do the things we choose to do? Why was my father, for instance, thrilled and completely absorbed by anything that flew, the sound of a P-51 engine, quite literally, bringing him to tears. And why has my son, since he was a very young child, loved motorcycles? And why do I go thousands of miles to take a walk? Seemingly simple questions, but maybe impossible to answer, among the countless mysteries of the human spirit.
It isn’t just walking. I love to travel on foot with all that distinction implies. I don’t hike, which, from my perspective, is viewing a landscape or “conquering” terrain, for health considerations or the pleasure of moving in the fresh air, but not necessarily traveling. I suppose one might describe what I do as slow travel in the extreme, an infinitely more intimate experience of a place than by any other means. I don’t have a goal except to continue, or to reach my next accommodation, the extent of my ambition. The point is the simplicity of the going, and self-sufficiency as I go.
Why England? I might have said, why the UK, but I love England. Other parts of the UK become a bit wilder and a bit less convenient, both the landscape and opportunities to stop. And the weather in parts of England is better, although never predictable. And while I’ve also walked distances in France, no other place remotely compares to the industry of walking as it exists in the UK.
A vast network of footpaths covers the UK, on public land and private, rights-of-way used since the middle ages and guarded jealously by those who use them. Long ago, all ordinary people traveled on foot, to markets and anywhere they went throughout their lives, day to day, near and far. If you drive anywhere in the UK you’ll undoubtedly notice signs along the roads guiding walkers to the paths. Some of the paths have become roads but many others remain paths, still used, still maintained and essential to this nation of walkers. Associations, such as the Ramblers, local and national, are devoted to every aspect, from lawsuits (and other more physical demonstrations of outrage) to open paths closed by landowners to simply finding others with whom to walk.
In more recent decades, popular footpaths have been strung together across particularly interesting parts of the country and designated official national paths, with guidebooks and maps devoted to them. As you walk these official pathways you’re guided by posts and arrows, as well as the guidebook maps and descriptions. It is possible to get lost, even so, but never for long, redirected by another walker or the sense we’ve all felt that “this can’t be right”, steps retraced and correction made.
As a confirmed map geek, I must tell you that there are no better maps in the world than those of the Ordnance Survey (OS) and those they produce in the 1/25,000 scale are particularly useful to walkers, with paths, named and unnamed, marked and details down to the buildings making them indispensable to finding one’s way on foot.
OS maps are available in bookshops and at news agents everywhere in the UK, and online. My favorite vendors are mentioned below.
The names of the paths give a good idea of the variety of experience one might seek. Paths I’ve been seduced by include the Cotswold Way, the Southwest Coast Path, the Macmillan Way, the Monarch’s Way, named for the route of King Charles II during the English Civil War. Lately, I’ve largely given up hill walking and waterway paths, originally towpaths, have become my favorites. The Kennet & Avon Canal runs through a stunning part of the south of the country and joins, at its eastern end, the River Thames in Reading. Which brings me to the 184 mile Thames Path, successive parts of which I’ve been walking for several years. I began at the source, near a village called Kemble, and my next walk will take up again at Hampton Court Palace where I stopped last time. The official path ends at the Thames Barrier, not far east of London, so, God willin’ and the river don’t rise”, I hope to finish this path, always with mixed feelings.
These pictures were taken during my days spent along the Thames, specifically, the 51 miles between Oxford and Henley-on-Thames. The last is of a visit to the gravesite of Eric Arthur Blair, more popularly known as George Orwell, who lived a most interesting life in some of my favorite places and was buried in a modest churchyard in Oxfordshire, not far from the river.
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