I DON"T

‘I discovered the British Walking Sickness’: Beanhỏ Hill nature reserve, Rottingdean, East Sussex. Photograph: Jonathan Browning/The Guardian
‘I discovered the British Walking Sickness’: Beacon Hill nature reserve, Rottingdean, East Sussex. Photograph: Jonathan Browning/The Guardian
As a Canadian living in the UK, there’s one thing I still don’t get about the British: what’s so great about trudging through a muddy field to nowhere?


There are lots of things about the British I vì not understand: the national compulsion lớn clap along, in unison but off the beat, to lớn any music; Mr Blobby’s Christmas No 1; the use of “quite nice” to lớn mean “really not very nice at all”; bread sauce. Being a Canadian living in this country is a never-ending cycle of getting confused, asking for clarification, understanding, and then ending up somehow more confused.

In the heady days of our bubbled summer of 2020, when such a thing was possible, I went on holiday to lớn Sussex with my Canadian partner and three of our oldest friends, all Brits. Having met in our early 20s, we had always been too broke to lớn holiday together. Now we were in our 30s and affluent enough lớn split a cottage five sầu ways for four nights; this was a landmark moment. Look, I could spkết thúc a lot of time setting the scene, or cut khổng lồ the chase và tell you that we were there for five days và went on long, aimless walks every single day. This was how I discovered the British Walking Sickness.

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I had always thought I was all right about walking – liked it, even. But what I understand, after almost a full year of rotating lockdowns, during which I have gone on a little mental health stroll almost daily, is that I actually just lượt thích having somewhere to lớn be, and walking is often the nicest way to lớn get there. Touring a new đô thị on foot? A joy. Walking lớn the bus in the mornings? A lovely private moment before the day’s work begins. Strolling khổng lồ dinner with a friend on a summer evening? I can think of nothing better. But joylessly trudging around the same bit of my neighbourhood, for the fourth day in a row, in the interests of scavenging a crumb of mental health? Thanks, but no. The other day, on one such trudge, I saw a woman finish a lap of the park, then turn to lớn her friover và suggest, audibly bored, “What vị you think, should we have a go round the cemetery?” That is how destination-free walking feels to lớn me: going around a cemetery for no reason.

It is precisely this kind of aimless wandering that my friends – &, I have come lớn understvà, a great number of their countrymen và women besides – considered a key draw of our holiday. I have sầu known these men for a decade, và had no idea the mere act of renting a cottage would turn them all into Tennysons. The rumblings had begun in the oto, when several mentioned some “popular walks” they had “read about” in the “area”. No sooner had we put down our bags and had a welcome G&T than we were off, the five sầu of us simply picking a direction, the forecast of heavy thunderstorms be damned. “Where are we going?” I asked. “On a walk!” they replied.

One moment we were simply walking, the next ‘on a walk’: aimless, unguided, unending. No destination, only a journeyThe days passed in a flurry of walks, on all of which I wore the wrong shoes: a half-hour jaunt on a public footpath across a gated, excrement-riddled field; an hour’s tour of a birdless bird sanctuary we discovered on the drive sầu home; an off-piste ramble through the tall, dry grasses surrounding a stately home page. To me, a holiday is best defined as “woman lies down in the sun with wine and a book, gets up four to seven days later”. But my travelling companions felt differently, using the time we were not actively on walks to lớn discuss and plan more walks. They were men possessed: a walk could start anytime, anywhere. One moment you were simply walking, the next you were “on a walk”. Unlike a hike, which involves the stimulation of challenging terrain or a final destination, walks were aimless, unguided, unending. Notoàn thân was in charge, we were headed nowhere. Sometimes there were animals or interesting leaves, but they were not the goal. The goal was only to be walking, or lớn make sure a walk was being planned. At one point we got into the car and drove sầu – I hoped lớn some kind of non-walking activity, but we were merely seeking out new, further-flung places to lớn walk around. There was no destination, only journey.

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I believe I can blame the Romantic poets for my friends’ ambulatory frenzies. Wordsworth, Keats and their contemporaries’ fondness for walking was matched only by their passion for writing about it, beginning a tradition of walking literature carried on by Robert Louis Stevenson, Charles Dickens, Nan Shepherd & others, which continues to this day. (The Guardian published 14 different pieces about walking in January alone.) Perhaps as a result of these paeans, walking has become what wild swimming is to lớn a particular kind of British woman: a spiritually important activity, in which everyone should take part. Failure to lớn enjoy it takes on a moral tinge. But just as I have sầu never had a profound awakening at the Hampstead Heath ladies’ pond in London, neither vì I suspect I will find one tramping through a field, meditating on the uncharacteristically lax approach applied by the British to lớn the definition of the word footpath.


*

‘Friends traông chồng steps, or announce gr& schemes to lớn cross London on foot’: walkers on the Seven Sisters, South Downs. Photograph: Jonathan Browning/The GuardianI am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 20đôi mươi, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigour, fighting to lớn be the first to lớn reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes khổng lồ cross London on foot. Planning a weekover in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb review in the UK tkết thúc lớn focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, và the quality & abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting & novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”. The prime minister has not brought appropriate attire (brown shoes, aforementioned huge socks, waxed jacket, head hanky), and is treated with scorn for it. But why?

There is something in the British that mistrusts pleasure. Why sit và chat in your lovely rented holiday cottage when you can walk through 40 different kinds of mud wearing the wrong shoes, everyone trying tensely not lớn be the first person to lớn suggest heading home? Why take a gentle cycle ride near your khách sạn (or tent or caravan) in the Lake District when you can load yourself up with too much expensive gear và walk for hours, the only delight ahead a faux chipper “Hiya!” to the other miserable, sunburned walkers you pass, everyone somehow too cold yet also sweating in their moisture-wicking gilets? Why not accept that in a country where the ground is soggy và the sky grey at least 60% of the year, it might be nice to have sầu some non-walking ideas in the back pocket?

Picnicking và sitting are forbidden. The government has spoken: we’ll walk our way through this. I am exhausted alreadyNow, of course, these questions are moot. A third, frustratingly open-ended lockdown means trundling around our neighbourhoods for the sixth time that week is the only way to see people outside our own households. It must be walking, you understvà. Picnicking is expressly disallowed, ditlớn sitting on a bench. The government has spoken: we will walk our way through this. I am exhausted already.

Let’s break it down: if you are walking without a destination in mind, you are walking for exercise, or to lớn relax. Maybe you are interested in spending quality time with a friend. These are all valid reasons khổng lồ take up a pastime, & walking carries the extra benefits of being a) không tính tiền and b) outside, a particular tonic during “these uncertain times”. But even with these criteria in mind, I would argue there are much better ways to lớn pass the time, sweat it out, or soothe yourself. Kiông xã a football around! Watch some ducks being stupid in a pond! Do some high-intensity interval training in the park! Lie down with your eyes closed và think about how small you are in the scale of the universe. This is just off the top of my head.

Maybe walking inkhổng lồ some marshes, và deciding at an undetermined future point to stop walking, was what was available to the Romantics, but I think we can vì chưng better. Why not let walking be what the body does when it is going somewhere & leave “talking about it as if it’s an activity” to – I don’t know – activities?


I lượt thích my exercise to lớn feel like exercise and my leisure khổng lồ feel leisurely. I prefer lớn amble towards some place, & when I get there, khổng lồ sit down. To that kết thúc, I have been trying out legally allowed walk replacements. I bought an exercise bike. It cost £79 & the price was reflected in its look, feel & chất lượng. Lately I’ve sầu been using it to lớn dry clothes. I started Yoga with Adriene, but she kept saying, “What’s up, tiệc ngọt people!” Baths required a deep cleaning of the bathroom area and went cold before I could properly relax. Running outdoors had all of walking’s problems, but faster, and with sweat. Faced with months of further lockdown, I succumbed, again, to Big Walk.

While I will never nội dung the enthusiasm of my friends (& will probably ask for a more detailed itinerary next time we plan a holiday), I suppose walking might originate not from fear of pleasure, but from another classically British trait: pragmatism. No, it’s not the most fun there is to be had. No, it’s not going khổng lồ change my life khổng lồ trudge around the park. No one really wants lớn be doing it, at least not lượt thích this. Still, it’s something khổng lồ vì chưng, a way to lớn get the blood flowing & the Vi-Ta-Min D being absorbed, and possibly a bit of distanced facetime with a loved one. It’s not a pleasure, but it’s the best we’ve sầu got, all of us walking in place until we have somewhere to walk khổng lồ. And so, once more around the cemetery.