There never seems to be a better time to set off on a journey, especially a walk, than first thing on an early autumn’s morning. It is late enough in the year to have a proper sparkling dew, usually covering cobwebs draped across bushes, and ideally there will be some bright sunshine, a hint of sharpness and the colours of leaves beginning to turn, berries in the hedgerows, and still an abundance of flowers. This is another hark back to my teenage years, I’m sure. It all seemed quite magical then, and it still does today.
I suppose, at the time, it could be said that I had a head full of hobbits. Of my contemporaries at the time, those with itchy feet tended to be either those who read and re-read Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’, and those who did the same with ‘The Lord of the Rings’. I fell squarely into the second camp, never really discovering the appeal of Kerouac. I guess they were largely the crowd who enjoyed ‘Easy Rider’ and wanted to travel Route 66. Later, I read Laurie Lee’s ‘As I walked out one midsummer’s morning’ and found the same atmosphere there. I walked from the London suburbs, where I lived at the time, with a friend down to Hastings. On the way we stopped at a couple of youth hostels, and had a couple of nights wild camping in woods. And everything did seem magical, although apart from the distance in time, I do not know why this should have been. All of the fields and woods, hills and hedgerows, seemed somehow to fill my head and assume a greater importance than anything else in my life at that time. Otherwise I would hitch hike down to the coast, or the West Country, and this would satisfy my sense of adventure, never knowing where I would end up and forever feeling as though I was travelling through an undiscovered land.
I don’t think, as a teenager, that I was ever happier than when I was off for a long walk with friends, or even on my own. I still get that same sense of pleasure when I arrive at my destination after a day’s walking, whether it be the spot that I’ve chosen for my wild camp on a mountain side somewhere, or a bunkhouse or hostel on the edge of a village where I know I can stroll to a nearby pub for a meal and a few pints in the evening. My chosen destinations then tended to be youth hostels, and I remember an awful lot of them fondly, still today. I think that my favourite, then, must have been Land’s End. I wonder how many people now remember the awesome murals that they had over most of the walls, inspired, of course, by Tolkien! The days were spent, whilst strolling through lanes and along footpaths, learning to recognise wild flowers and trees, butterflies, but not so much the birds. Even in those days my eyesight was too poor for that!
‘Rambling’ is used extensively as an insult by many of the climbing fraternity, yet it means no more than long distance walking, at a fairly relaxed rate. My dictionary defines it as walking for pleasure, with or without a definite route. This would seem a fair definition, and includes hill walking, trail walking, any type of walking, in fact. I think that the intended barb is that it is ‘soft’, yet people who would think of themselves as ramblers include very elderly people whom I have observed galloping over the fells at a rate to put roughtie-toughtie young climbers to shame. Its popularity, at least in Britain, stems from the last century when it was taken up by factory and mill workers in the north of England, in particular, as a healthy and cheap form of sport and entertainment. There is a point, in fact, where it merges into climbing, having passed through the scrambling and mountaineering stages.
Is it a coincidence that it seems that most of the best trips that I’ve read about in books have been done by solo travellers? If they have not been strictly alone, then they are using porters or guides who have been employed specifically to help the explorer along his chosen route, rather than suddenly say ‘Ooh, no. I don’t fancy that anymore. Let’s go back now.’
Most of my own distance walking has been done in my own company. This always has the advantage that I can decide when and where I travel, when to stop for a break, when to go off on a diversion to see a particularly interesting (to me) village or hill or something. I do often miss the company of others when I walk or travel, and enjoy it when I do get it. I find it good to travel with somebody for a while, and then to move on again by myself when we begin to disagree over the route, or want to move at a different rate (or politics or religion intervenes, of course!). I suppose that this is also not entirely disconnected with my love of solitude. When hill walking, especially, I almost resent meeting other people. Especially large groups. Amongst the list of things that I positively hate coming across in any wilderness area, such as discarded lunch wrappers, people bellowing into mobile phones (‘Yes, I’m on the summit, now!’ – do some people have these damn things surgically attached to their heads?), music, for God’s sake – why would anyone want to hike out somewhere remote, where the predominant sounds are bird calls and the wind in the grass, listening to a bloody i-pod? – comes the large group of walkers.
There is no logical reason why I should, and it is certainly not due to a feeling that they have no right to be there. I just crave solitude in those situations. If I was asked to name my favourite day out walking in the hills of Britain, I think that I would unhesitatingly mention a November’s day some years ago, when I walked the Carnedd Horseshoe in North Wales. This particular circular route starts at the village of Bethesda and heads up a gently rising valley onto a ridge until it reaches the mountain of Carnedd Dafydd, where you then amble up to the summit. From there, there is a ridge walk to Carnedd Llewelyn, a shorter ridge to Yr Elen, then gently back down to Bethesda. The day was unusually warm for November, with sunshine and a beautiful clear sky throughout. And although Carnedd Dafydd is the second highest mountain in Wales, after Snowdon, it sees far less traffic of human feet than most other parts of North Wales. Consequently, I had a day’s walking in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, in fantastic weather conditions, without meeting another soul. Perfect.
I always used to do this with photos to make up panoramas – it’s a lot easier today!
Some people, although they would prefer to travel in company, choose ‘alone’ because they become good at doing ‘alone’.
I’ve heard it said, and frequently read it, that there is nowhere left on the planet to explore, anymore. I suppose that if what is meant by that is that there are no longer maps of whole countries or continents published that have ‘unexplored’ or ‘here be dragons’ printed over large, blank areas, then, yes, that is so. But if I go anywhere that I have not been to before, especially if I have read little or nothing about it, then I am exploring. I may not be contributing anything towards the sum total of human knowledge, but I am making discoveries for myself.
Thank heaven, though, that there are still areas of the Earth that are wildly beautiful and lawless, where outsiders, especially westerners, fear to tread, and life is cheap but the landscape is breathtaking.