Why do writers enjoy walking so much?

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

7 February 2020

10:00 PM

Writers like walking. When people ask us why, we say it’s what writers do. ‘Just popping out to buy a pencil,’ we cry, before tootling along the tarmac à la Virginia Woolf, Walter Benjamin or George Sand. BBC Radio likes walking, too, to judge by the number of programmes dedicated to the pursuit this fortnight.

Some revolve around mental health and the environment; Clare Balding saunters over Berkshire’s Winter Hill in Ramblings with Steve Backshall and Helen Glover discussing wellbeing, parenthood and sewage. More involve the walking writer, with five authors retracing memorable ambulations on Radio 3, and Professor Jonathan Bate taking us on an altogether more dreamlike journey for In Wordsworth’s Footsteps on Radio 4.

Bate’s is the most engaging series. In the second of three episodes, he follows the Romantic poet into revolutionary Paris, where the ground is soaked in blood. The Tuileries Palace has been stormed, the Swiss Guard slaughtered, and the aristocracy crushed in the September Massacres of 1792. It is not the first time Wordsworth has visited the city, and he is shocked and distressed by what he sees. In his autobiographical poem, ‘The Prelude’, he writes of ‘the fear gone by/ Pressed on me almost like a fear to come’. And yet, even in his poems of lament, there is an optimism to his voice. As Alice Oswald observes in the programme, Wordsworth tends to sound ‘vigorously, walkingly healthy’ in his poems. This is part of what makes them so readable.

Wordsworth was certainly a passionate walker. But what comes to the fore in this episode is less his curiosity as a traveller and more his kindness. During his time in France, he fell in love with a woman named Annette Vallon, who gave birth to his child, Caroline. The political climate being as it was, they were unable to marry, but Wordsworth kept them in his thoughts and supported them financially. Then, in 1802, he returned to France with his sister Dorothy. Bate describes beautifully the strolls they shared with his lost family along the beaches of Calais in evening light.

Before crossing the Channel, Wordsworth had paused on Westminster Bridge and admired the ‘Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples’ of London in the quiet, ‘smokeless air’ of morning. The bridge may no longer be so tranquil, but close your eyes as Simon Russell Beale reads the sonnet and you will be there, legs heavy, bonnet quivering in the river breeze.

Compared with Westminster, Wandsworth Bridge is unassuming, even plain. It ‘has little to boast about,’ says novelist Michael Donkor in his lively Strange Strolls on Radio 3. As a teenage boy in 2000 he would cross it, burger in hand, replaying the rows he had had with his girlfriend. ‘The northern foot of the bridge was dominated by sofa showrooms,’ he says. ‘Now… you’re greeted with posters advertising the new Fulham Beach.’

Like so much of London, the area has been rejuvenated, but still the bridge divides, Wandsworth Bridge Road standing as ‘a leafy denial of the austere industrial greyness a few yards south’. Londoner or not, you know just how Donker feels as he views the bridge through the eyes of his teenage self, pauses, and sees it as it is now. Change is such a blow.

In Sophie Coulombeau’s The Essay, the place, York, is the constant, and the change her own. A new mother, she pushes her daughter in a pram through the city, unable to stop walking for fear of waking her. ‘Little porous York thickly threaded with treasures’ exerts a force over them. She watches the waters of the Ouse rise and rise until they threaten to overflow, turns down Parliament Street with its café chains, and looks up at the ‘absurd size’ of the Minster.

The city, as we learned in last week’s In Our Time, was once among the leading centres of learning in the country. When the scholar and educationalist Alcuin joined the court of Charlemagne in the 8th century, he arranged for his books to be sent from York, a number of which he catalogued in a poem. York may no longer be a watchword for godly wisdom, but its Minster provides the most exquisite thoroughfare into its past. To walk beneath it, as Coulombeau does, with a tiny baby must be an unearthly experience.

It is not always easy to connect with another person as they walk and take in the sights that matter to them. Listening to monologues of other writers’ inner thoughts at times made me feel like their reluctant therapist. Stick with them. There are some wonderfully evocative moments, and if by the end you’re itching to walk away, they will have served a purpose.

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