Take a step back in time
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.