Walking for fitness & pleasure

As well as beer and travel, one of my other main interests is walking. By walking I mean being out in the great outdoors, travelling from one destination to another, preferably across country. This cross-country walking, as opposed to pounding the streets in urban areas, is variously described as hiking, rambling, hill walking, trekking, or backpacking. The latter two terms refer to long-distance walking where participants carry their entire luggage required for a multi-day hike, on their back in a rucksack. Walking, particularly in high mountain areas for several days, is also known as trekking.

Rambling normally refers to organised groups of between six and twelve people, following a clearly defined route plan. To me, rambling, conjures up middle-aged men in shorts, over-sized leather boots, brushed-cotton shirts with the sleeves rolled up and a large, stiff, and well-worn canvas rucksack on their backs. The women are of similar age and similarly attired; possibly with a tweed skirt replacing the shorts. Whether it’s a rucksack, a knapsack, or a backpack they’re carrying (the terms are largely inter-changeable), it will invariably contain an Ordnance Survey map, a flask of tea, packed lunch, plus that confectionery no serious rambler would be without – Kendal Mint Cake.

I prefer the term walker, and most of the walking I undertake is either a circular hike to a nice country pub, or a linear hike following an established long-distance footpath (LDP), of which there are many in the UK. The former are normally undertaken with a small group of friends, whilst the latter are either solo walks, or with just one fellow walker for company. They quite often involve at least one overnight stay, and often several more. The latter two are my favourite types of walking, as they afford a real opportunity of getting away from away from it all; a break as it were from the stresses and strains of modern life.

I have only completed three long-distance footpaths all of which are in the UK. The first of these walks was the South Downs Way, which is one of the oldest of Britain’s LDP’s. The SDW is a 100-mile trail which follows the line on the chalk South Downs uplands from Eastbourne on the East Sussex coast to Winchester – the ancient capital of England. The second LDP is the Wealdway, an 83-mile trail from Gravesend on the Thames Estuary to the town of Eastbourne, on the south coast, overlooking the English Chanel. As its name suggests, the walk traverses the Weald area of Kent and Sussex, in a roughly north-south direction.

I completed both these walks over 10 years ago, and last autumn (2022), I finally finished the North Downs Way. The latter LDP is perhaps a mirror image to the SDW, as it takes a similar east-west route, but along the chalk escarpment of the North Downs. It broadly follows the historic pilgrims would have taken, from the Surrey town of Farnham to the shrine of St Thomas Becket in Canterbury. It doesn’t end at the cathedral city, as it carries on towards Dover and the famous White Cliffs, and just to complicate matters, the path splits just to the west of the river Stour, with northerly and southerly routes, both of which finish at Dover,

It took me much longer to complete the NDW, as with a couple of exceptions, I walked the route a section at a time, on the odd day off from work. This was in contrast to the other two walks which were completed several sections at a time, with overnight stays, either at pubs or bed & breakfast establishments along the way. Overnight stops were a key feature of these walks and added to the sense of freedom and relief that goes hand-in-hand with “getting away from it all.”

Sometimes it's nice to walk alone, especially when you fancy a bit of solitude, but the enjoyment which comes from shared experiences on the trail, such as appreciating a spectacular view, laughing at a particularly funny joke, or sinking that first pint of the evening, is something which cannot be under-estimated. It’s nice to set a challenge, plan it out and then set off to accomplish it. If the challenge is a physical one, then so much the better, and as I experienced on the NDW, walking the entire length of the county, and then heading into neighbouring Surrey, took me to places I hadn’t been to before, even though they’re at most a few hours’ drive or train ride away.

There are several other LDPs I would like to have a go at, Including the famous Pennine Way, the Cotswold Way, and nearer to home the Greensand Way. If I had my time again, or was perhaps 20 years younger, the world famous, 2,200-mile-long, Appalachian Trail in the east of the United States would be the long-distance walk to aspire to. The American writer Bill Bryson famously recounted his experiences attempting to walk the trail, in his book, “A Walk in the Woods,” but the book that really inspired me was “Journey Through Britain,” by British walking enthusiast, John Hillaby. 

Published in 1968, the book describes Mr Hillaby’s epic eleven-hundred-mile trek from Land’s End to John O’Groats. My father, who was an avid reader, as well as a collector of books, lent me his copy. I read it whilst in my teens and still living at home with my parents. I eagerly devoured the book, fascinated by the author’s narrative and descriptions of the places he passed through on his epic journey. From memory, he had an interesting and slightly eccentric view of life, and this comes across in his often-witty observations. A few years later, he published a follow-up in the form of “Journey Through Europe.”

Both books inspired me to take up walking for both fitness and pleasure, and I have enjoyed walking since my mid-teens. During this time, I lived in a small village, with poor or non-existent public transport links. This meant it was often necessary to resort to shank’s pony as a means of getting about. I was also a member of a local youth group which, during the school holidays, embarked on a number of Youth-Hostelling trips. I’ve got the leader of the group to thank for taking us on these holidays, which involved a fair amount of walking and, whilst it may on occasion have seemed hard going at times, just being out in the fresh air and enjoying the local scenery, instilled a love of the great outdoors which I still have today.

For the record the group leader was the local vicar, and the locations we visited, and walked, included the South Downs, North Wales, the Peak District, and the Isle of Wight. On one of these trips, I learned how to take compass bearings and follow these across open moorland, without getting lost. You don’t lose these skills and even though navigation by GPS has largely augmented proper map-reading, there is still no substitute for being able to follow a map, unaided.

A few years ago, I heard an article on the radio entitled, “It’s the sitting down that kills you”. Apparently, research has shown that sitting down in excess of sixhours a day makes you up to 40% more likely to die within 15 years, than someone who sits for less than three hours. This applies, even if you exercise! Fortunately, as stated earlier, I’ve always been fairly active, and my current job allows me to walk around the factory on a regular basis.

I also go for a walk most lunchtimes, covering between a mile and a mile and a half. This allows me some exercise before getting back to my sandwiches and a cup of tea. I really enjoy being out in the fresh air and getting away from the factory, whilst the rural setting of my workplace adds to my enjoyment. Following a small number of set routes also allows me to appreciate the changing seasons; something which is obviously far more noticeable in the country than it is in a town.

I shall end by describing briefly, the sense of achievement and euphoria I experienced on my first LDW, which was the South Downs Way. It was the spring of 2008 when a friend and I set off to walk the 100 or so miles from Eastbourne to Winchester. We completed the walk the following year, having divided the trail up into three manageable sections.

We stayed overnight at B & B establishments along the way; some of which were pubs, and in the evenings especially, there was normally plenty of beer consumed to rejuvenate a tired and aching body. I cannot overstate the enjoyment of walking through some of the most attractive landscapes in southern England, the camaraderie, and the people we met along the way. 


We felt a real sense of achievement at finishing this LDP, and the following morning celebrated our arrival in Winchester, by visiting the Hospital of St Cross, just outside the city. Having followed the outward path through the water meadows surrounding the river Itchen, we arrived at this venerable Christian establishment, where we asked for, and received the "Wayfarer's Dole" of bread and ale. Whilst neither of us are religious, we still felt like modern day pilgrims, and that sense of fulfilment is something I still remember to this day. Walking then, can be good for the soul, as well as the body, and is an activity that I highly recommend.



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