The ex ex­pat

Kate Birch per­fects the art of ram­bling and all its rules.

Friday - - Contents -

Along with the rather alien ac­tiv­ity of coun­try­side ‘walk­ing’ comes an en­tire new set of so­cial rules, as Kate Birch dis­cov­ers

I t was my mother’s birth­day re­cently and I called her to ask what she was do­ing on her spe­cial day. “We thought we’d go for a nice long walk,” she replied. You see, they have this thing in Eng­land called walk­ing. You may have heard about it. You know that thing you do to get from your villa to your car, or from golf cart to green, or from white choco­late brunch foun­tain to milk choco­late brunch foun­tain? Well, that’s walk­ing.

And here in Bri­tain, people do it a lot – to get to work, to school, to the shop­ping cen­tre. Come rain, wind or shine, people put one foot in front of an­other and pound the pave­ments (like roads, but for walk­ers).

Why would you walk, I hear you ask? Well, be­cause it’s cheap – petrol’s pricey here; quick, es­pe­cially at rush hour; eco-friendly; and healthy. The UK Chief Med­i­cal Of­fi­cer says adults should do at least 150 min­utes of mod­er­ate phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity, such as walk­ing, weekly.

There was lit­tle ar­gu­ing with such rea­son­ing, de­spite be­ing a walk­ing novice, when I landed in Bri­tain a year ago. But it took me a while to get into my stride, to sep­a­rate me from my car, to con­vince me that pound­ing the pave­ments wasn’t a point­less prac­tice.

The first time I walked my son to school (in Dubai, the fur­thest I walked was from my front door to car door) I ar­rived red-faced and pant­ing. It’s only a 15-minute stroll. Now, I’m do­ing it ev­ery day and do­ing it both eas­ily and hap­pily.

So hap­pily, in fact, that I’ve taken this ‘walk­ing’ busi­ness up for fun. I’ve joined the 9.1 mil­lion adults here who walk for re­cre­ation. Mad, right? Well, that’s how it would seem to an out­sider (or sci­en­tist). I mean, at least in the UAE we walked to get some­where. Ad­mit­tedly, it wasn’t far, and only as a last re­sort if we couldn’t hail a cab, but at least we walked with a pur­pose. Here, people walk nowhere, walk aim­lessly, for no rea­son, for great en­joy­ment, and in the muddy coun­try­side, to boot.

Yes, ac­cord­ing to an Ord­nance Sur­vey study in Bri­tain last year, walk­ing in the coun­try­side – think wet grass, mud, cow pats and bram­bles – came out as num­ber six of life’s great­est lit­tle plea­sures, usurped, only just though, by choco­late, cud­dles and clean sheets.

Recre­ational walk­ers are so pro­lific here that the species has a name

I know ram­bling is not the most glam­orous ac­tiv­ity, nor is it the coolest of pas­times – but I love it

(Ram­blers), a so­ci­ety (the Ram­blers As­so­ci­a­tion) and plenty of pointers – think scores of books of­fer­ing thou­sands of the ‘best walks in Bri­tain’.

Yes, my name is Kate Birch and I am a Ram­bler.

OK, so I know it’s not the most glam­orous ac­tiv­ity. Nor is it the coolest of pas­times (it’s taken me six months to come clean about my hik­ing habits). And I know it’s ac­quired an ec­cen­tric rep­u­ta­tion since The Naked Ram­bler (a man who’s been tramp­ing across Bri­tain for years wear­ing only socks and shoes) ap­peared on the hori­zon. But I love it.

That’s not to say I haven’t had my fair share of hik­ing hic­cups: I’ve been fol­lowed by strange dogs, got my wel­lies stuck in mud and been chased across a field by a bull. But still I ram­ble.

On any Sun­day af­ter­noon in my small town renowned for its walk­ing – partly be­cause we have the famed River Thames here and partly be­cause there’s lit­tle else to do – you’ll find func­tion­ally at­tired people of all ages ram­bling.

And like ev­ery other sit­u­a­tion in Bri­tain, there is a list of un­writ­ten rules, a spe­cial eti­quette that needs ad­her­ing to.

Firstly, there’s the uni­form. Vari­a­tions on the blend-into-the-back­ground brown and green colour theme reign supreme, with tweed flat caps, el­bow patches and tan-coloured cor­duroys for men, and green quilted gilets and match­ing wel­lies for women.

Then there are the greet­ings, which are like ram­bler rit­u­als. When five me­tres apart look up and make eye con­tact; ex­change brief smiles and when two me­tres apart, de­clare a brisk and en­er­getic “Morn­ing!” – giv­ing enough time to re­ceive a re­ply but not enough to strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with­out stop­ping.

Other rules of ram­bling in­clude: don’t talk on your mo­bile; do take a plas­tic bag to cover muddy boots in case you pop into the posh gas­tro pub for re­fresh­ments; don’t wear make-up; do swap your hand­bag for a stick; don’t pick wild flow­ers; do turn the col­lar of your shirt up; don’t look lost, even if you are; and do walk with pur­pose.

It’s a lot to learn, just to go walk­ing, I ad­mit. But now that I’ve mas­tered it all, I am left with just one se­ri­ous strider so­cial rule to se­cure – own­ing and walk­ing a dog.

Yes, here in the coun­try­side, you are noth­ing with­out a pooch. I can’t wait. I haven’t had the chance to train or gush over a puppy since my kids were small. There’s clearly life in the old dog yet. Watch this space.

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