The essay explores the role of paths (as opposed to roads and newly-forged ways) and our fairly recent but diminishing legacy of walking as a way to get somewhere which also becomes an incidental route towards learning. It draws attention to a peopled countryside, the fields as one-time places of social intercourse, where routes of work met and crossed. This was what I wanted to capture when I walked village paths in Kenya, meeting and chatting with people going about their ordinary business on foot; walking old ways such as drove roads with their legacy of footfall; and is one of the aspects of Thomas Hardy’s novels that I relish. The sense of travel along shared paths and social routes is very precious, when so much of our recreational walking now seems to suffer from both its deliberateness and its anticipation of relative solitude.
During the recent months of snow, I was intrigued to hear of a change in ‘normal’ patterns. A woman living a mile or so from the shop in Strathtay (where most people get to and from home entirely by car) told me how she and her neighbours, unable to get their cars out, established a new ritual. Each would walk the mile along the river to the shop, returning together, and finding that they enjoyed the unaccustomed pace and company. This would have been the natural way not long ago for rural dwellers, but I suspect now spring is here, and the roads are clear, it will be a rarity again.
Clare walked both for his travel to work – lime-burning or ploughing – and for his poetry, in order to look, to solve problems and to scribble furiously as he stopped in dips and hollows in the land. The effect of walking on a creative mind is profound, as Blythe says in this essay, ‘a great amount of our best poetry, novels and essays smell, not of the lamp, but of dust, mud, grit, pollen, and, I expect, sweat.’
But more interestingly for me, Blythe highlights how the experience of walking touches everyone: ‘.. it touches us because we are all descended from the walking men, the walking women, the walking children: and not so very long ago either. Sometimes we forget that it wasn't only the poets, novelists like Hardy, who had these wonderful ideas as they walked….. Certainly, these long walks to work, these long walks to school, these long walks with a friend, these long walks just to get out of the house, etc, were part of a pattern of life of people right up until the modern age. Whilst it happened, their minds ticked over in an extraordinary way. Because men and women haven't all been able to write, or paint, or make music about certain things, it doesn't mean they haven't experienced them...’
I particularly love Blythe's idea that countless people, not just writers, whilst on the way to work, or at work itself, were unwittingly visionary. And I love this line: 'It was the landscape being articulated in their heads, via their normal work practices. ' Walking is a great leveller – it democratises the visionary and gives everyone the opportunity to learn. But with the loss of these simple ways of getting around, I can’t help wondering what else we’re losing.
Now I’m off to try and find a copy of the out of print Fieldwork so I can read the rest of the essays, and while I’m at it, Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze, a novel featuring John Clare's time at High Beach Asylum in Essex.