I’ve just finished reading Rebecca Solnit’s brilliant and expansive cultural history of walking, Wanderlust. In her book Solnit charts the history of walking from its contested evolutionary history, to the English country garden, and from John Muir to American suburbia.
Whilst reading the chapters on urban walking and the impact of the growing suburbs and car culture on walking, I was reminded of the long walk I used to do on a daily basis when I was in college (non-compulsory education for 16-18 years in the UK). Despite living an hour and 15 minutes away (by foot), in my second year of college I decided to start walking there and back everyday. It actually began as a protest of sorts. The bus company – Stagecoach – kept hiking up their prices and finally, stepping on the bus one morning to find out the price of a weekly pass had gone up yet again, I decided to stop getting the bus and start walking instead. In fact, it turned out walking didn’t take that much longer than the bus, since the roads were always clogged with morning commuters.
I also discovered that I liked my two and a half hours of walking a lot. At that time I didn’t have a smart phone or even an MP3 player to entertain me. It was just me, my feet and my thoughts. Often I would wake from a daydream to find that I couldn’t remember walking the last few miles, or even crossing roads. I walked regardless of the weather; in fact, I particularly liked walking in the rain, sheltered in the small world of my umbrella.
Whenever I told anyone that I was walking to college, I usually received a response somewhere along the lines of: but that’s so far or you walk all that way? Walking for two and a half hours everyday seemed strange or unusual or even shocking. We’re told our time is precious, but as Solnit points out: like most “time-saving” technologies, mechanized transit more often produces changed expectations than free time… Machines have sped up, and lives have kept pace with them. Perhaps my friends and class mates thought it was strange to walk because it seemed to consume so much time in comparison to a much shorter walk or bus ride, but I felt as though those walks bought me more time. As I said, I spent a lot of that time just thinking, wandering through what Solnit (in a rather lovely phrase) refers to as the meadowlands of the imagination. It was time purely for me and no one else – and I rarely, if ever, encountered other people on my walks, despite walking through supposedly “rough” areas.
In Wanderlust Solnit writes that the three things required for walking are time, an unhindered body, and a place to walk in. She also writes about how the third of these elements – public space – is being eroded, particularly in America (Anna Minton also writes about this topic from a British perspective in her brilliant book Ground Control: Fear and happiness in the twenty-first-century city). As both Solnit and Minton point out, if we lose our public spaces we not only lose places in which to walk (or simply sit) but so much more besides – we lose access to those meadowlands of the imagination, as well as places in which to gather for celebrations, commemorations or protests.
I thought of the erosion of public spaces and rights of way as my boyfriend and I went walking into Amsterdam this afternoon. It’s something we tend to do most weekends, usually under the pretext of buying something or other, though the walk always feels like the destination to me. Reading Solnit’s book made me more alive to my surroundings. I noticed how much I enjoy overhearing snippets of conversation and being amongst people whose lives and experiences are different from mine; the sheer pleasure of navigating familiar streets and the joy of turning a corner to find something new or unexpected; and the markets with their rich variety of wares and chaotic contrast to the often sterile environments of the chain stores I usually shop in. The city seemed full of possibilities and those glimpses and impressions filled up the hours of walking in a way that an entire morning of pottering about the house hadn’t.
As we were heading home, a horse and carriage with a family inside passed by, and I thought to myself no wonder so many people were run over by those things – a thought that in all my years of urban walking and close encounters with cars has never popped into my head.
Machines have sped up, and lives have kept pace with them…