by Colin Speakman
Review by Jude Rogers
Walk! A Celebration Of Striding Out is sitting on the table in front of me, looking stout, solid and reliable. It is not a whimsical book about the art of dreamy strolling; more a manual about what it really means, in all senses, to put one foot in front of the other, work the calves well, blister the big toes. It attempts to be modern, with its glossy colour reproductions of hardy hikers and footpaths, and suggestions of how walking fits into our contemporary world. Instead, it looks and feels like a big, cosy annual; an old-fashioned, geeky hardback full of characters, facts and figures. It is not trendy in the slightest, and is all the lovelier for it.
Walk! is also by a man who knows his hiking socks: Colin Speakman, the man credited with creating the Dales Way (the 80-mile footpath between Ilkley in Yorkshire to the banks of Windermere in the Lake District). His book begins powerfully too, describing walking as one of the most human things we can do, before fighting against the ways in which the modern world stands, or rather lazes, in its way. Most people, Speakman writes, consider walking as “effort, being exposed to the elements…away from the air-conditioned sanctuary of the car…being exposed to other people…[being] something most people want to do as little as possible”. His earnestness often feels heavy-handed, but it has a rhythm to it, the tone of his book being workmanlike, but often persuasive. And as you pore through the pages, the sense of an old chap wagging his finger at a sleek car full of passengers slowly slips away…here is a person in love with something hardy and real, who wants to share that love with us, take us with him on his journey. Here is walking as leisure and sport, as a reminder of geographical proportion and scale, as a stirrer of the blood, the lungs, eyes and ears. Here is walking’s past and its present in a hundred-and-one ways, and like walking itself, it’s often hard work – but it’s good for you.
More than anything however, Walk! is a book about people and politics. It reminds us of the many individuals who siphoned the power and poetry of walking in their work: JB Priestley outlining its importance for the working people of Bradford; Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and John Clare firing our imaginations with their experiences of nature; lecturers like 19th century geologist John Phillips making the connection between physical activity and mental stimulation, and encouraging his students to walk as a consequence, and all the politicians and protest leaders who demanded their right to common land. Chapter 3’s focus on walking and protest and Chapter 4’s detailed discussions of the right to roam, form an especially revealing part of this book, especially when you remember Speakman’s opening words, and what these people were fighting for: the right to do one of the most human things they could do.
The book soldiers on, bones strong, muscles warm. The chapter on long distance walking is particularly lovely, accompanied by some of the book’s most rousing photography: a glorious full-page shot of Alfred Wainwright, anorak on, pipe in gob, and three sturdy women in shorts and heavy boots, making their way through the Three Peaks in the late 1940s. A chapter on urban walking is less successful, only concentrating on our cities’ green spaces – not surprising when this book is supported by the Campaign for National Parks, but a trick is missed by not recognising other sorts of urban landscapes, and how powerful experiencing them can be, too.
Nevertheless, the last chapter, Walking For The Earth, is full of hope and light. We are told about the growing popularity of Ramblers’ Associations; the growth of small bus networks in areas of natural beauty; new American research about walking preserving memory in the elderly, and the Mosaic Partnership’s outreach work with ethnic minority walking groups – accompanied by a lovely photograph of Sikh men and women sitting on Dartmoor Tor. A tone of trainspottery concern still lingers as we reach our last station – the worries of traffic congestion at rural car parks, the difficulties of promoting walking through education – but this is only because this book has its heart in the right place. Which is high on the hills and low in the valleys, on coastline cliff-edges and the wild, windy moors. A book for our soles, and our souls.