Old Ways and Other Ways – 4 Things Learned From Famous Walkers

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1. Charles Darwin

It’s not so much what you do when you go on a solitary walk, it’s what you stop doing. The act of walking mile after slow mile cleanses my mind of distractions and allows ideas to bubble up. Whenever I’m feeling stodgy and uncreative, when ideas won’t flow and I don’t know the next thing to do, I go for a walk. It usually takes only a few minutes to find a new thought appearing in my mind as if beamed there from the lonely sky above.

I was pleased to discover that I was not alone in this. Charles Darwin apparently had the habit of walking a circular route near his home in Kent. He would build a pile of stones at the start and, each time he completed a circuit, he knocked a stone off with his walking stick. He learned to anticipate how much walking would be required to think his way through issues of varying complexity, referring to the difference between a ‘three-flint’ and a ‘four-flint’ problem.

2. Robert Macfarlane

I know this I recently read Robert Macfarlane’s excellent book ‘The Old Ways’. There’s so much to enjoy in this lovely book: from the thrilling description of walking one of England’s off-shore public footpaths (travelling Essex’s Broomway at low tide), to stories of walking in Spain and Palestine. But the sections of the book that chimed most with me were those closer to home – the passages on southern England’s great chalk tracks; the Ridgeway and the South Downs Way.

Macfarlane is fond of landscapes a little more extreme than those I favour. But even he appreciates the ease with which a walk in the country connects you with the past. This seems especially true on walks within reach of London. The bleaker landscapes of northern England and Scotland have their fans, but I have always loved the gentler, rolling downs of the south. I suspect part of it is due to my own heritage, which is firmly in southern England, on the London fringes, which is where a lot of the chalk landscape lies. I like to think that chalk is in my bones. Chalk, bone – both pretty much calcium.

3. Edward Thomas

Just hope has gone forever. Perhaps

I may love other hills yet more

Than this: the future and the maps

Hide something I was waiting for.

– Edward Thomas, ‘When First’

Macfarlane hooks his reflections into the story of Edward Thomas, another lover of the chalk hills. Thomas was a writer who was prompted by Robert Frost to write poetry and who found his poetic voice late in life in a series of poems drenched in imagery drawn from his frequent walks on the downland of southern England, especially the Ridgeway and South Downs.

2013-05-18 11.31.26I didn’t think I had ever heard of Thomas until I read the Macfarlane book. But reading it prompted the recollection of a wet walk in Hampshire earlier this year, when we came upon a memorial stone high on the Shoulder of Mutton hill near Petersfield. The stone marks a spot where Thomas loved to walk, not where he died (his body is in France, where he was killed by a shell during the Battle of Arras in 1917).

Then – with delicious synchronicity – my holiday ended with the discovery in a second-hand bookshop in Arundel of a book of Thomas’s poems, which is open before me as I write this.

One thing I know, that love with chance

And use and time and necessity

Will grow, and louder the heart’s dance

At parting than at meeting be.

-Edward Thomas, ‘When First’

4. Virginia Woolf

Mrs. Woolf…went for a walk last Friday, leaving a letter behind…

– New York Times, April 3 1941

I confess I know very little about Virginia Woolf, and have never finished one of her books. But she prompted another connection with the past on a more recent walk.

Again on the South Downs, in the village of Rodwell, near Lewes, we passed the former home of Virgina Woolf. It was from here that she set out on a March morning in 1941 when she took her own life.

She walked down to the nearby River Ouse, and our path took us along what must have been the very route she walked that morning. Woolf filled her coat pockets with stones, perhaps picking them up as she walked, and waded into the river and drowned herself.

Some stones that Virginia Woolf missed

Stones on the path to the River Ouse

There was something very sad about walking along that road, thinking about how it must have been for Woolf to slip out of her house that morning, leaving behind her heartbreaking note to her husband (see below), and walk this path for the last time alone before stepping into the cold water.

I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to think and feel what she did that morning.

I hope I never do.

*************************************

“I feel certain that I am going mad again…I shan’t recover this time… So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I don’t think two people could have been happier ’til this terrible disease came… If anybody could have saved me it would have been you. Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I can’t go on spoiling your life any longer. I don’t think two people could have been happier than we have been. V.”

-Virgina Woolf’s suicide note to her husband, Leonard, March 28 1941

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