The month of May is, apparently, “national walking month”. Citizens across the UK are being urged to propel themselves on foot instead of (or as well as) by bike, motorbike, car, bus, train, plane, boat, ski, balloon, skate-board, roller-blade, scooter etc. The Scottish government has just launched an “Active Travel” campaign to persuade people to walk for all journeys of two miles or less.
This coming week is “walk to work” week (13th-17th) and the following week is “walk to school week” (20th -26th) and, out in the countryside, there are walking festivals being led by mountain rescue teams and ramblers clubs from Galloway to Caithness and the Angus Glens.
The campaign is being led by the Pedestrian Association, an organisation I confess I’d never heard of. It’s now known as Living Streets but it was founded in 1929 when it was first realised that cars were beginning to be a menace. It campaigned for a driving test, the Highway Code and zebra crossings. Now it is championing the cause of 20mph zones around schools and areas where children play and it wants Britain to return to being an archipelago of walking nations.
“Walking for just half an hour each morning can transform your fitness levels, reduce stress and vastly improve your concentration,” its website declares. It says recent surveys have shown that walking is in serious decline – a 24 per cent drop in journeys since the mid-1990s. Over 40 per cent of gym users, for example, take their cars to the gym even though they live less than two miles away.
A Transport Scotland survey in 2010 showed that less than half of secondary school pupils walk to school. Only 13 per cent of adults walk to work.
And yet we humans are built to walk. It’s our natural means of movement across the planet. We walked out of Africa 100,000 years ago. We walked across the English Channel 10,000 years ago. The Emperor Hadrian walked all the way from Rome just to see how work on his wall in North Britain was progressing. In Medieval times, pilgrims walked from Rosslyn Chapel to northern Spain to pray at the shrine of St James. And yet nowadays we only walk an average of 179 miles in a whole year (that’s out of a total of 4,652 miles travelled).
I’m old enough to remember Dr Barbara Moore in the early 1960s walking from Lands End to John o’Groats in 23 days. She then shocked the world again by walking from San Francisco to New York in just 46 days living on little more than a bag of nuts. The cricketer Ian Botham has since turned long distance walking into a charity sport.
There are now no fewer than 1300 long distance walks registered in Britain. And Scotland is to add another next year – the John Muir Way from Dunbar to Helensburgh, named after the man who famously walked a thousand miles from Indiana to the Gulf of Mexico.
I once met an 83 year old man on the West Highland Way who was walking from John o’Groats to Lands End for the 7th time. He was a retired GP from Surrey and was raising money for cancer research. He was a most lively and charming man and insisted on writing out an official receipt for the £10 I gave him.
But walking doesn’t have to be a such a heroic scale. And it doesn’t have to be in the country. Charles Dickens is said to have walked 12 miles a day around the streets of London.
Like the 18th century essayist William Hazlitt, I like to walk just for a little space to myself in a busy world, either in the town or in the country. “ Give me clear blue sky over my head and the green turf beneath my feet, a winding road before me and three hours march to dinner – and then to thinking. It is hard if I cannot start some game on these lone heaths. I laugh, I run, I leap, I sing for joy.”