According to a report on the BBC News website today, a survey of 2000 adults commissioned by British charity The Ramblers has indicated that 25% of adults walk for less than an hour each week (note that this is the total amount of walking- not just, for example, leisure walking), while a further 43% walk for less than two hours a week.
Is this a surprise? Not really. When I’m wandering around the city, from Bulwell in the north to Clifton in the south, from Sneinton in the east to Wollaton in the west, there is always plenty of evidence to suggest that the pedestrian is a dying breed, despite the fact that Nottingham was named the third least car-dependent city in Britain (behind London and Brighton and Hove) in a 2012 study by the Campaign for Better Transport.
What’s really shocking for me is the somewhat blinkered consensus as to why all this might be a cause for concern. The thrust of the Ramblers response to the survey results is that Britons do too little exercise, with their chief executive talking of a need to ‘conquer this inactivity pandemic’, as if it were some sort of illness rather than a consequence of lifestyle choices in a consumer society that positively encourages sedentary behaviour. Local MP and Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health Anna Soubry, meanwhile, contributes the rather banal observation that walking is ‘one of the best ways to keep healthy’.
On the evidence of this article, it doesn’t seem to have occurred to either the BBC, the Ramblers or Anna Soubry that there might be other commendable reasons for wishing to venture forth using one’s own two feet as the sole mode of transportation, which is really quite extraordinary.
Soubry, for one, should be more than capable of exercising (pun not intended) her imagination in this regard. According to the Conservative website, Ms Soubry ‘spent most of her childhood living in Clumber Park’, which she has previously referred to (in her contribution to an online BBC quest to find ‘The Seven Wonders of The East Midlands’1) as ‘a glorious mix of natural beauty and the creativity of Man.’
Let’s pause for a moment to consider what else this unfashionable activity known as walking might have to offer other than simply being a means of physical exercise.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 18th Century philosopher and inveterate walker, may, in common with our aforementioned friends, have cited ‘the good health I gain by walking’ as one of the advantages of ambulatory activity, but he also enthused: ‘Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much, never have I been so much myself…as in the journeys I have taken alone and on foot. There is something about walking which stimulates and enlivens my thoughts.’ Already we can sense the nanny state’s emphasis on the physical health benefits of walking being shunted some way down our hypothetical list of its most desirable effects. As Rousseau continues to espouse the perks of perambulation, he concludes (of the benefits of walking) that ‘…all these serve to free my spirit, to lend a greater boldness to my thinking, to throw me, so to speak, into the vastness of things, so that I can combine them, select them, and make them mine as I will, without fear or restraint.’ Filmmaker Werner Herzog concurs, positing that ‘The volume and depth and intensity of the world is something that only those on foot will ever experience’, while one of Charles Bukowski’s (usually semi-autobiographic) characters asserts that ‘When I was walking I felt as if I had some portion of the meaning of things.’
For my own part, I walk for many reasons. Sometimes it is to escape – to lose myself in something greater, to be alone with my thoughts, to gain some sort of perspective. At other times, I might simply wish to observe and take in the world around me – to witness beauty and sublimity, to indulge my sense of curiosity, or to experience, as Nick Carraway puts it in F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, ‘the satisfaction that the constant flicker of men and women and machines gives to the restless eye.’ Any rewards that walking may offer in terms of physical health are, to my mind, a mere by-product of the more esoteric pleasures to be gained.
From medieval pilgrim to Romantic poet, individuals throughout the ages have set out on foot in search of something beyond themselves, both literally and metaphysically. Back in the present day, as the car and the digital age conspire to isolate and overwhelm us, perhaps it is time to reacquaint ourselves with the inspiration, succour and self-knowledge that walking can provide, and to do so on our own terms rather than outsourcing our lives to a government and society intent on suppressing individual thought and action at every opportunity.
1 The 2003 survey in question – a poll of BBC News Online readers – listed the following places (in order of most number of votes) as ‘The Seven Wonders of the East Midlands’:
- Lincoln Cathedral
- The Peak District
- Sherwood Forest
- Chatsworth House
- Chesterfield’s Spire
- Rutland Water
- Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem