“An apple a day keeps the doctor away.” Nonsense. Read Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Frankly, humanity would be much better served by taking a peaceful and pleasant walk as frequently as possible — a daily stroll, if you will. Not only would this have more apparent physical benefits, but furthermore, a leisurely walk offers other advantages, unattainable from the joys of a good Granny Smith, and it is invariably cheaper than even the most affordable of Braeburns.
But there’s more to it than just fruit and veg; the very act of walking is such a profound part of our lives and such a thing of beauty, which is, sadly, insufficiently regarded as such. Consequently, it’s done less today as a thing of pleasure in itself. Often, it’s done because we must walk, when taking the car would be an abomination by anybody’s decent moral standards, or when it’s a convenient way to spend cherished time with friends. Of course, there are still many who take great joy in a tranquil walk through the British countryside, but even then, this is out of reach for much of the population.
Whilst out in the provinces, and in some of England’s more affluent ends, much of the countryside can still easily be explored; for those who live in a metropolis, amongst the swathes of forgotten apartment blocks and council estates, the countryside is a distant and exclusive phenomenon. Distant, for they are surrounded only by grey pavements and inundated with clouds of emissions nonchalantly left by the cars that outpace them. Exclusive, because of the obligatory Schöffel gilet which requires not only ample dosh, but also a sudden adoption of right-wing views.
Our bifurcation from bipedal ambulation is contributing to poorer physical and mental health. I believe that a new perspective on walking would especially benefit those of us residing in St Andrews, who have some of the nation’s best walking paths only yards from their front doors. Any perspective on walking worth its salt must comprise historical fact — right back from homo sapiens’ days as hunter-gatherers through to walking’s significance in modern culture — and an appreciation for the experience itself, which is surely amongst life’s most pleasurable, matched only by pineapple on pizza, and that glorious sensation of warm water running out of your eardrum some time after a swim or a shower.
To reappropriate the famous phrase of a fresh-faced Tony Blair in 1997, it is actually when one is walking, wherever it may be, that we should feel the “hand of history on our shoulders,” or indeed the footprint of history under our step. Think about the preceding millennia, in which our ancestors, without fixed accommodations or settlements, had to truck on incessantly, looking for fresh food, water, and safe space. Furthermore, reflect on the monumental journey taken by those suspected to have crossed for the first time the plains of seasonal sea ice that allowed one to voyage by foot from modern-day Russia to the United States of America. Closer to home, imagine yourself in the boots of Harold Godwinson’s army, which in 1066 travelled from York to Stamford Bridge and then to Hastings, where it was ultimately defeated by the Normans. None of these groups had cars, trains, tanks, bikes, or whatever other means technology has since magicked up; they made the most of the human body, an incredible machine with capacities that we so often take for granted. Obviously, I don’t advocate for a return to these days devoid of convenient travel. Though having said that, no one’s blaming the Anglo-Saxons of 1066 for their contribution to climate change, and they surely saved a fortune on train tickets and Oyster cards.
Not only is walking historically significant, but culturally it can be found across every known medium: film, music, language, literature, poetry. The Proclaimers so famously sang of the grand distance they would walk just “to fall down at your door,” turning walking and physical exertion into symbols of love and devotion. In languages across the world, figures of speech involving walking are used to express a variety of diverse concepts. In English, an abstract idea or concept can be “on the march,” meaning that it’s on the up, and gaining in popularity. Similarly in our neighbourly French, “ça marche,” which means literally “it’s walking,” now signifies in common parlance that something is working — even when said thing has no legs at all!
Although some of the Anglosphere’s most beloved films — Run, Fatboy, Run and Forrest Gump — felt the need to speed things up a little bit, which was necessary, given the two films’ storylines, numerous films, books, and poems have stood on their own two feet purely by virtue of a steady stepping rhythm. In 1979, Stephen King published The Long Walk under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. The story unravels a gruelling sort of walking Hunger Games. 2019 saw the release of 1917, a film based upon the long walk of two soldiers journeying against the odds. It certainly displayed more drama, upset, and emotion than a typical countryside dander, but it remains a testament to what humans can do and what we have achieved by lifting our head up and putting one foot in front of the other.
One of the film’s great lines, etched in my mind, is borrowed from Rudyard Kipling’s poem “The Winners”: “Down to Gehenna or up to the throne, he travels the fastest who travels alone.” The same man, Mr Kipling, highlights the importance of movement across a selection of his poems, and it stands out to me particularly in his masterpiece “If—”; it is, perhaps, one of my favourite poems in the English language. Kipling writes “If you can fill the unforgiving minute/ With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,/ Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,/ And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!” Modern readers may find the final line excessively androcentric and understandably distasteful by today’s standards, however I implore you to appreciate the value in what precedes it. If even when the world — your mental health included — constantly opposes you, you can continue to make distance, then what is there to stop you? It’s a lesson in life well worth learning.
But we can only learn so much. Walking is not only a historical and cultural phenomenon; it is an experience in and of itself. Importantly, walking allows us to appreciate the smallest of things. I say smallest, but truthfully, we just take them for granted; they are immense: air, water, plants, nature, the animal kingdom. We are lusciously enveloped by such things, and at no cost! Yet, so often we fail to appreciate them. Donning our wellies and going for a walk amidst these gifts allows us to anchor ourselves in the present. We start to see what a joyous world we inhabit. We become wealthy according to Epictetus, who said, “Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants.” And what more could you want than the pleasure of being presently at one with the world around you?
So when you feel down, take a walk. Walking allows us to immerse ourselves only in the present, alleviating ourselves of both pasts gone and futures filled with overwhelming anxieties that not even the most resilient of Nokias could sustain. Observe the colours, bright and dull. Hear the sounds, silent and deafening. Inhale and regard the space around you, where there is presence, and where there is absence. Rejoice that you have such power in the world. If a tree were to fall, it is you who makes the sound — for a sound can only be produced when there is an ear to absorb it. As a plant’s buds radiate gold, appreciate that it is you who is colouring in — for a colour needs an eye to perceive it. As you feel your soles push against the Earth’s floor, recall all those who have marched in times gone by and all those who will march in times to come. May walking instil within you the profound and true sentiment that by purely existing as you do, you have already gained so much — and may you gain all the more.
Illustration: Sarah Knight