Neil and I arrived at the end of Hadrian’s Way on Friday evening, sore but very content. I am so fond of spending days walking through the countryside, pack on back, and am growing to love it even more as the years go by, and as I find myself caring more deeply about the English countryside. For a few days everything slips away in the rhythm of the trail, and the modern demand for distraction is replaced by attention to maps and stiles and aching feet. I can’t claim that I ever quite manage to forget about the difficulties of work, but it’s much harder to interrogate the wisdom of going to law school all those years ago when you are trying to make your way to the top of an exceedingly steep hill. People say hello to one another as they pass, and when you see a familiar face from the trail in a pub, nobody asks what you do – they want to know how far you’ve walked, whether you’re camping, and how many days you’ve been on the go. Apart from posting a jubilant picture of Neil when Australian wickets started to fall on Thursday, I didn’t go anywhere near Facebook, and I didn’t plug myself into my music – as I usually do every day to distance myself from the traffic or other people in the gym.
I have always had a tendency to drift about not really looking at things, and this holiday made a conscious effort to try to change that. As a result, I spotted scores of tiny frogs creeping through the long-grass at the edges of Cumbrian fields and plump slugs scattering the footpath – which I would certainly have missed in previous years. The new focus was a welcome development – every philosophy of happiness I’ve come across talks about the importance of living in the moment rather than worrying about the past or future. Forget mindfulness – slug-counting is the thing.
Lots has been written about the philosophy of walking and the importance it can have in people’s lives (I intend to read Frederic Gros’ book shortly) – for me it is the perfect way to quieten my mind; untangle worries; experience the world at a gentler pace; and to find that you can still walk for miles without seeing another human being, should you wish to. It is also the ideal justification for eating lots of custardy puddings.
Kilvert’s Diary is proving to be the perfect back-to-work antidote. From what I have read so far, Reverend Francis Kilvert spent a great deal of time yomping through the countryside around Clyro, with a flask of wine and some apples in his pocket. “Struck over the top of the Vicar’s Hill and as I passed Cross Ffordd the frogs were croaking, snoring, and bubbling in the pool under the full moon.” Even if I can’t strike out across the fields for a few weeks now, this lively diary from the 1870s is sure to keep my spirits up.