Friday, April 13, 2012

walking home from the office

‘Nothing educates the eye for the features of a landscape so well as the practice of measuring it by your own legs’. Leslie Stephen said this in an essay, ‘In Praise of Walking’, and it perhaps sums up best the impulse that pushed me out of my office and through the back gate of Stirling University to start my walk home on a sunny March evening recently.

I emerged into the leafy streets of Bridge of Allan, passing through sandstone mansions, the scent of cherry blossom, the thwack of tennis balls across nets. It was all pleasingly familiar, with the Ochil Hills just behind the town hinting at remoteness, and the A9 humming in contradiction. And yet I had never walked home before. I’ve taken an hour to drive this route countless times over the last 17 years, travelled it by trains and buses more recently, since not having a car. But I’d never had the experience of measuring it with my own legs, perhaps not surprisingly as the journey is about 50 miles long.

I’ve worked part-time as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Stirling over the last three academic years, and with my time there now coming to a close, it seemed appropriate to ‘walk home from the office’ as a sort of ritual of transition. Long journeys on foot make wonderful rites of passage – to draw a line under a job, mark a significant birthday, or any kind of change in our lives. There’s time to think and there’s the rhythm, the fresh air, the observations and so on, and there’s a pause in normal life while the transformation settles within and starts to flourish. It is meditation and refreshment.

On my first full day of walking, high up with curlews burbling around me on the Sherrifmuir road in the Ochils, the spread of Strath Earn still to cross below, and the rise beyond of hills marking the start of the Highlands where I would climb in two days time towards home in Aberfeldy, I took a phone call. A new position was offered to me, a departure and a challenge. It seemed an intrinsic part of the walk that I was leaving one position and could begin looking forward to another.

The timing of this walk was significant in another way. Queues were snaking from petrol stations as the fuel ‘crisis’ took grip. I’ve often enjoyed reading accounts of people walking significant distances to jobs, or to fetch a cow or go to university prior to our seemingly universal expectation of car-use, and I enjoyed a sense that I was doing the same – walking to get
somewhere because that’s what you do. I was appreciating the real distance. And perhaps within my lifetime, the real distance will become more of a consideration in the planning of our journeys.

Although the round hills and green valleys of Perthshire are unremarkable in some ways, at the pace of foot travel and with the dullness of familiar vision removed by a slightly different route, giving a fresh angle, they became less so. (Not to mention the delirious thrill of early Spring sunshine). There are so many natural features here to enjoy – the river Earn snaking me through rich farmland to lead into Crieff; the canyon-esque entrance to the Highlands represented by the Sma’ Glen. And the human features here whisper of layers of history and sometimes conflict – Roman forts; graveyards; abandoned farmhouses; a disused railway to follow as part of the route; golf courses and wind farms. But the final day of my walk was the most exciting in terms of undiscovered history on my doorstep.

I’ve always wanted to follow Wade’s Military Road between Crieff and Aberfeldy. In the winter light especially, I’ve caught sight of it marching straight across the moor when the road veers, but never fully realised that it’s possible to walk its 25 mile length with recourse to only tiny stretches on the A822. Built as part of the attempt to quell the Jacobite uprisings in the early 18th century, the road is not only still easy to follow, but also makes a really enjoyable route, passing over the delightful bridges which characterised Wade’s roads, and often still visibly bordered by two lines of boulders. It kept me marching all day, enthralled to discover each new section after 17 ‘blind’ years of living and passing so close by.

Finally it tumbled me down, sore-footed but exhilarated to be in my home valley. I crossed the field that I often walk, its path bordered with twin lines that I now realised were distinctive to something greater. With dusk falling and hunger rumbling, Wade deposited me in the Town Square, just outside the Co-op, where I prepared for a feast.


reindeer42 said...

Your description and photographs tie well together. Inspired by your experience I shall try a short stretch of the southern upland way and tap into some of the physical and spiritual benefit I've ben missing wihout realising how important it is.
Thank you for sharing.

Ethyl Smith
one of Paula's would be writers

Linda Cracknell said...

Happy walking and writing, Ethyl!

Anonymous said...

An inspiring post. Just been reading about DH Lawrence's time in Zennor, Cornwall during WW1, how he regularly used to walk the long and rough road to Penzance - there and back in a day. As you said - to get from one place to another that is what you had to do. The 'convenience' of being able to jump in the car robs us of so much