One of the more admirable traits of the English is their curious capacity to find big pleasure in small things. It almost makes up for their tendency for Grumbling While Pretending Not To Grumble (“I don’t wish to complain, but…”), and I simply adore the way they go into raptures over some activity that most folks in my nation of 1.1 billion would consider an essential non-activity.
Take walking, for instance. It is the second favourite pastime in England (the first is queuing, of course). Only here have I seen people go trudging across muddy fields on the most miserable day and coming back exclaiming, “Ooh! That was lovely!” It is astonishing.
If that is not heartening enough, there is more: people in England are beginning to go out into the gloom and come back happy more frequently. Statistics released by the Department of Transport show for the second consecutive year in 2014–15, there is a significant rise in the proportion of adults walking at least three times a week — 50.6% walk five times a week (up by 7.1% from the year before), and 61.8% (up by 6.9%) walk three times a week. Fifty-four percent of these walkers walk for recreation (making me suspect the English are happy only if they are miserable, which neatly explains Brexit in my opinion), with the boroughs of Test Valley, Gosport and Coventry recording the highest hike (14% up) in the number of frequent walkers (at least five times a week).
This would not have been possible without a focused drive from national authorities, who have spent a lot of money making the country a most walkable place. Did you know there are some 140,000 miles of public footpaths crisscrossing England and Wales? That is about 2.4 miles of path for every square area. If you wanted you could walk across mainland Britain, which is well serviced by trails of all sorts. It would take you 10 months to trudge the 4,500 or so miles, but you could certainly do it. If you played your cards right, you might even get a mention in the same breath as a persistent Canadian named Jean Beliveau who walked through 11 years and 54 pairs of shoes to cover 46,600 miles around the earth — at the very least, you would have a darned fine yarn to tell over a pint.
All this I have admired from a safe distance; I have never really warmed to the idea of walking for pleasure. But recently, for reasons that will always remain a mystery to me, I volunteered for some work that necessitated the purchase of a pair of hiking boots to climb over stiles and traverse a great many miles across muddy fields, at constant peril from marauding cows. The hiking boots necessitated further purchases of various specialist items I never even knew existed: a 2-litre “hydration system” with a “high-flow, bite-me valve”; sweat-wicking hiking socks to keep my feet cushioned and dry even after “10 hours of heavy walking”; special top to prevent my nipples from chafing; special plaster to cover my nipples if they did get chafed; sunglasses that offered extra-protection from UV, VU, SUV and various other combinations of the English alphabet; foot powder; foot cream; and a sexy-looking Forclaz 40 Air Plus rucksack with “a highly ventilated back”.
When my orders arrived, I unpacked them in my living room and stood there feeling a bit like Bill Bryson at the beginning of A Walk in the Woods. The hydration system proved to be a transparent water bladder with a long hose attached to it, but the rucksack was light and cute, with orange bits (for visibility in bad light, you understand, though it is possible I may have ordered a women’s version accidentally) and more straps than I knew what to do with. I spent a happy hour or two trying to unravel its mysteries (pulling on straps to contort it into shapes the manufacturer hadn’t meant it to acquire, mainly), before experimenting with foot cream, foot powder and blister plaster. After that, I filled up the water bladder and figured out how to drink through the high-flow, bite-me valve. Then I put on the hiking socks and lolled around in the living room, hydrating myself by way of the bite-me valve till my wife came home and had a good laugh.
I kept experimenting with the gear every day after work. In a few days I had exhausted all entertainment value. I am proud to say I also acquired a working knowledge of the main straps on my rucksack, but I still wasn’t any closer to understanding how this could keep a nation scurrying outdoors every chance they got. There must be more to this walking business then. The only way to find out — to truly understand the core of English life, if you ask me — was to do a bit of walking myself. I needed to embrace the misery the English put themselves through. I needed to become a frequent walker.
So I threw a few things into the faithful Forclaz, including a fashion catalogue we get for free (the man on YouTube who taught How To Pack A Backpack told me strictly that I had to have something heavy at the bottom to get the correct weight distribution). Then I stole my wife’s sunscreen and caught a train to Exmouth and stayed with Alec and Muriel, who take on lodgers.
In the morning, Alec dropped me to Orcombe Point on the seafront. I planned to walk the 95 miles home from here, along the breathtaking Jurassic Coast stretch of the South West Coast Path, which conveniently ends next to where I live. By the time I got home, I would have unimaginable insights into the English psyche. I would also have glutes of steel.