LEAVE THE GOLF CLUBS AND GO FOR A PROPER WALK
The prospect of running a marathon has never appealed to me. It’s not simply the exertion, it is the speed at which the countryside flies by. As a lifelong naturalist, I would have to keep stopping to examine a wild flower, listen to a blackbird or admire the view. That’s why walking has always been such a pleasure – without anything like a bag of clubs to get in the way. Mark Twain had it down to a tee (sorry) when he described golf as “a good walk spoiled”. I asked a golfing friend the other day how often he had returned from a game feeling uplifted and satisfied. He thought for a moment before replying: “Once in the past three years.” If ever there was an argument for selling your mashie niblick that was it. So leave the clubs behind and go for a proper walk. The satisfaction is so much greater. Not infallibly, I admit: you can walk up a Lakeland fell and find the summit shrouded in mist, or decide on a walk that turns out to be over-peopled, such as Snowdon on a sunny Sunday. But you do not have to choose what you might call an “epic walk”. For me, there are sojourns closer to home that are wonderfully energising – something that the Prince’s Countryside Fund has latched on to in its Walk a Country Mile initiative. You will notice that it is not entitled Walk a Country Marathon. No. A mile is a nice length for all but the most infirm, and if that walk is in good company, so much the better. That said, when it comes to observing wildlife and admiring the view, I do enjoy walking alone. I can stop without irritating my companions, lean on a fence to get my breath back without embarrassment, and lie down on my stomach to watch insects among the grass without being thought bonkers. Ilkley Moor is the cradle of my walking life. On Sundays in the Fifties, before dad’s plumbing firm provided him with a van and “a run up the dales” became our weekend treat, we would go out for a walk to shake off the effects of the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The moors, the woods and the riverside – Ilkley straddles the River Wharfe – would provide a variety of terrain that could (with some effort) be negotiated by two adults, an eightyear-old boy on foot, and a threeyear-old girl in a pushchair. I can never remember not wanting to go, but then nature has always held a fascination for me. When I was 10 or 11 I was allowed to go out exploring on my own. Children were less constrained back then, so long as we let our mum know where we were going and were back at the appointed time. She knew nothing of the fires we lit or the rafts we made on the river. Just as well. Although my walks today are less eventful on the pyrotechnic and riparian front, they are every bit as exhilarating. Today, most take place in my adoptive counties of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight. The island walks have a special place in my heart, for they offer fantastic views of rolling meadows, woodland, cliffs and coastline, which often appear all at the same time. If I had to pick one island walk, it would be one that crosses a golf course. You can keep Augusta and its flamboyant rhododendrons; for me the golf course at Afton Down on the Isle of Wight is more spectacular. It traverses part of the chalky spine of the island, which broke away from the mainland as recently as 7,000 years ago after the last Ice Age, when meltwater widened the Solent river into a narrow stretch of sea. Walking from east to west along Afton Down, you can look to your left and see the vastness of the English Channel, while to your right lie the usually calmer waters of the Solent. There is a strange kind of empowerment at being able to view both coasts at once. Perhaps that is why the “caulkheads” – the name given to Isle of Wight natives – refer to mainland Britain as “the north island”. The wind blows up here. If it is raining, your face will be stung, but the walk is never less than invigorating. On a sunny day, the water on both sides will sparkle – you will see competitive yachts skimming across the Solent, along with oil tankers bound for Fawley refinery; car transporters bringing Audis and BMWs from Europe; and, early in the evening, one of the Cunard Queens or a leviathan “celebrity” cruise ship leaving Southampton Water and taking several thousand holidaymakers to warmer climes. Warmer, but not necessarily better loved. On the Isle of Wight downs I have marvelled at clouds of common blue butterflies and, in certain years, at startlingly large colonies of clouded yellows fluttering among the vetches and the campions, the field scabious and the marguerites. Bees buzz, larks sing and there is a feeling of being allowed to be a part of the greater scheme of things. There are no grey squirrels on the Isle of Wight – only reds – and they are tame enough to come close in our gardens to avail themselves of nut-feeders. When you come down from the upper reaches of the walk, you’ll see them bounding across the road and scampering from tree to tree. Oh, and you’ll never hear the roar of distant traffic, for there is only one short stretch of dual carriageway on the island. Outside the towns and villages – Cowes and Newport, Sandown and Shanklin, Seaview and Bembridge, Ventnor and Yarmouth – many roads are narrow, equipped with lay-bys so that cars can pass, and surrounded by fields and woodlands, clifftops, creeks and harbours, many offering walks of a different kind. Oh, and the eating is good, too. All those folk who went to the Isle of Wight as children when it rained, and who have never found the will to go back, will be surprised at the variety of its treasures. They do not begin and end with the sands of Alum Bay or the amusements of Blackgang Chine – there are greater diversions than many expect. It is closer to most of us than Devon and Cornwall, and deserves to be better known and more deeply cherished. It is the world in miniature; a world that does not involve hour after hour of “are we nearly there yet?” travel. But enough for now. I will write more in future about this island that I have come to love. For now, perhaps, my Afton Down walk might be a taster of things to come. Should you pack your waterproof? Well, yes, I suppose you should. But the sun shines more often than not. Honest. National Countryside Week (July 14-20), the Prince’s Countryside Fund is asking families, community groups, villages, businesses and individuals to walk together to raise money, which will support the people who maintain the countryside. How to get involved: Get a group together. A country mile can be any distance. To register your support and make a suggested £3 donation, visit princescountrysidefund.org.uk. Once signed up you will receive an email with maps, tips, and details of where your donation will go. Take a WALKIE: To maximise awareness on social media, the Fund is asking participants to take a “WALKIE” – its version of a “selfie”. What else is happening? If you would prefer to join an existing walk and see some of the work supported by the charity, then join one of the Project Walks across Britain. For details, visit princescountrysidefund.org.uk. The Fund is also hosting a series of Celebrity Country Mile walks at the CLA Game Fair at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire. If you would like to join a walk with Phil Vickery, JB Gill or Alan Titchmarsh, sign up at the Game Fair (gamefair.co.uk). Where the money goes: The Fund gives grants to organisations and initiatives across Britain to help create and sustain a thriving rural community, from apprentice schemes to school farms. In just three-and-a-half years, the fund has given £3.8million to more than 90 projects, touching the lives of 64,000 people.
Feet first: ‘It is not Walk a Country Marathon. No. A mile is a nice length for all but the most infirm, and if that walk is in good company, so much the better’