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