Take a step back in time

The Herald - Arts - - BOOKS -

at­tempt to en­gage more in­ti­mately with Lon­don and its en­vi­rons. Among the hikes it chron­i­cles is that from his house in Stock­well, south Lon­don, to Heathrow air­port, where he em­barked for Cal­i­for­nia. As he com­mented of that no-man's land, “it re­ally was terra incog­nita, prob­a­bly no­body had done it since the prein­dus­trial era”.

Can one blame them? To the on­looker, there's no plea­sure in such a jour­ney. A sim­i­lar ven­ture by Iain Sin­clair, who walked the length of the M25 as recorded in Lon­don Or­bital, was, to my mind, nigh on heroic. In and around any sprawl­ing city, a walk on, over and un­der con­crete, with cars whizzing past, would feel to me like a forced march.

It's no won­der few who live in a city would con­sider try­ing to reach coun­try­side on foot. Even in 1934, when Lau­rie Lee set out to walk to Lon­don from the Cotswolds, he was nos­tal­gic for by-gone times. As he said of the Wilt­shire Downs: “Most of the old roads have gone, and the mo­tor car, since then, has be­gun to cut the land­scape to pieces, through which the hunched-up trav­eller races at gut­ter height, see­ing less than a dog in the ditch.” To­day, as all road-side pedes­tri­ans know, such driv­ers make their ex­pe­di­tions all but sui­ci­dal.

In his es­say, Self re­counts an­other of his hikes, this time to the Hamp­shire-Wilt­shire bor­der, which takes him and his 10-year-old son six long days (only 90 min­utes by train). His dogged am­bu­la­tion, like Sin­clair's, not only re­con­nects him with his own bit of the planet, but with a no­ble line of foot-sore lit­er­ary fore­bears whose roots go back cen­turies. Quite apart from the likes of drama­tist Ben Jon­son, who walked from Lon­don to Scot­land to meet his hero Wil­liam Drum­mond, writ­ers over the ages have walked for pur­poses of cog­i­ta­tion and con­so­la­tion, and in so do­ing have of­ten found in­spi­ra­tion. Some of the finest works have sprung from walks, be it Wil­liam Wordsworth's ram­bles in the Lake District and Nor­man Mac­Caig's in Assynt, or Pa­trick Leigh Fer­mor's epic cross­ing of Europe in the 1930s, which re­sulted in two of the most ac­claimed books of the last cen­tury, A Time of Gifts, and Be­tween the Woods and the Water.

Ar­guably, jour­neys such as Self's and Sin­clair's tell modern read­ers much more of in­ter­est than if they were pass­ing through a ru­ral land­scape. In their of­ten dystopian re­flec­tions, they not only stretch the elas­tic that binds the ur­ban dweller to his tiny, re­stric­tive do­main but chal­lenge the tyranny of wheels and wings. A trip through and be­yond the sub­ur­ban sprawl of Lon­don may not have the same dra­matic im­pact as John Muir's across the Rocky moun­tains, but it is a lat­ter­day ver­sion of an­cient ex­pe­di­tions, when the in­trepid re­ported back, for the ed­i­fi­ca­tion of those at home, on the habits and habi­tat of those in far-off places.

Of course, the rich­est wan­der­ers' lit­er­a­ture ex­plores the mind, not the map. As the writer gets to the heart of the land he's cross­ing, and thereby of­ten to the core of him­self, read­ers may also find a glim­mer of their own place in the scheme of things.

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