INTRODUCTION - The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone

The 50 Greatest Walks of the World - Barry Stone (2016)


Walking, if you want to reduce it to its base mechanics, is little more than a ‘controlled fall’, a forward movement initiated by the legs, one of which balances us in an upright position before pushing us forward, while the other swings through in a rhythmic motion just in time to prevent us from collapsing flat on our faces. If you believe the best guess of evolutionary biologists it’s likely the advent of walking - of becoming bipedal - arose 4-5 million years ago when our ancestors first became providers for family units and so needed to free up their ‘hands’ in order to bring home food and provisions. At the same time that our heels, hips and knees were becoming enlarged to carry the extra weight required of them, walking on two legs began to free up those same hands for rock-throwing in order both to procure food and prevent the throwers from becoming food themselves. Over time - a lot of time - what began as something that was purposeful and survival-driven, a process of natural selection, morphed to become our most efficient mode of travel. From an exo-skeletal point of view running is, by contrast, 75 per cent less efficient than walking. Which I guess means apologies are in order to all the joggers out there who think it better to run than walk. Millions of years of trial and error, and the science of human design, say otherwise.

The era of ‘recreational walking’ - walking for pleasure - was inaugurated in England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries partly as a reaction against increasing industrialisation, partly because the ‘Industrial Revolution’ brought increased leisure time to an already leisurely aristocracy, and partly nudged along by the Age of Enlightenment. But mostly it was thanks to the era of heroic Romanticism, which lauded the visceral emotive responses born from getting out and confronting the raw beauty of nature, the expressions of which were then being seen everywhere in art, music and literature. ‘Pedestrianism’ - the pastime of watching other people simply walking - became for a time the largest spectator sport in late 19th century America, eclipsing even baseball, which was still in the process of finding its own ‘legs’. Walking marathons were so popular they began to take on gladiatorial dimensions when they were extended over so many days they doubled as rather gruesome endurance tests in how not to sleep. How different that is to the ‘new pedestrianism’ of today advocated by the American urban designer and futurist Michael Arth - redesigning urban spaces where walking and cycle paths take the place of roads, pushing the bitumen and those horrid cars that go with them out to a town’s perimeter, thus returning cities to the people.

People who indulge in recreational walking in the 21st century do so for many reasons. Me? Well, the reason I walk is not because I like the physical act of walking so much as because I like the landscapes, gorges, ridgelines and suspension bridges through and over which it takes me. I walk because for me it is reductive - it simplifies life, reduces it to a few core decisions. Turn left. Turn right. Go straight. Keep going. Ignore the weather. Be inventive. Don’t look back. I like to walk because it is a slow pursuit, rhythmic and repetitive and purposeful and exhilarating. My feet have taken me to places no other mode of transport could: through the sinewy web of iron and steel that makes up the 52,800 tonnes of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, thankfully now accessible to all who want to climb it and a prime example of how our urban environments are becoming increasingly accessible with every new piece of adapted infrastructure; and along the High Line, an old elevated rail line through New York’s meatpacking district, now a triumph of urban renewal National Geographic called the ‘Miracle above Manhattan’. Whether negotiating the fractured limestone pavements of Ireland’s Burren Way, rock scrambling through Utah’s Buckskin Gulch, moving over ice floes in the Russian arctic or along the Cornish coast - my mind works best when these places slow it down, when everything you need for the day is on your back and when the promise of a well-grassed campsite, cosy hotel, or B&B is all you need to keep you moving forward.

When walking I can be the vagabond ‘of no fixed address’ I’ve always longed to be, a wanderer who seeks anonymity and passes through landscapes unnoticed, a passive participant in life. I walk because, in words echoed by the French philosopher Frederic Gros, I have ‘a need for contemplation’. Contemplative walking is what inspired Walt Whitman, Robert Frost, William Wordsworth and C. S. Lewis. It frees up the mind to find rhythms otherwise suppressed by the demands of everyday life. It problem solves and ‘leaves behind’, according to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, ‘all base and terrestrial sentiments’. Rousseau’s mind only worked, he said, when his legs were in motion. Walking may not of itself provide solutions to life’s complexities, but it can facilitate them, expose them. Whittle them down into manageable, bite-sized chunks.

There have been times when I’ve been so immersed in the distractions and random thoughts I’ve conjured up that I’ve failed to negotiate the next step. I’ve had my fair share of walking mishaps. ‘Would you like me to carry you?’ my guide asked when he saw me struggling down a stepped section of trail on the Kali Ghandaki gorge, the ligaments in my right knee well and truly stretched thanks to a single ill-timed step. Pride, of course, prevented me from accepting his offer. On Italy’s Alta Via 1, I slid 30 metres down a snow slope after missing a foot hole while daydreaming, and cannoned into the only protruding rock there was - a fortunate trajectory, it turned out, as it prevented me continuing down the hill a further 100 metres. I’ve rolled down a slope above a Norwegian fjord, grasping at tussocks of grass to help slow my descent. I’ve even fallen off a suspension bridge.

The 50 walks in this book represent a cross-section of mountain and cross-country trails, circular loops, and historic and coastal walks that showcase the enviable network of trails that criss-cross the United Kingdom but also include some of the world’s classic trails such as the Appalachian Trail and the Tour du Mont Blanc. There are trails here that we should all be a little more familiar with than we are, such as Ireland’s Dingle Way and the awe-inspiring Trotternish Ridge on the Isle of Skye, as well as many of the ones we ‘think’ we know - the Pennine Way, the Coast to Coast, and the Cotswold Way.

We live in a modern world in which we are increasingly being ‘moved’ rather than moving, helped along to wherever it is we want to go by planes, trains, automobiles, electric bicycles, escalators, travelators, segways and hoverboards. Our comforts and conveniences are sapping our strength, and this is no recent phenomenon. Studies at Cambridge University suggest that ever since we gravitated from hunter-gatherers to farmers, our mobility and lower limb strength have been on a gradual decline. Humans, put simply, are past their peak. And urbanisation and a more sedentary lifestyle are to blame.

Now that’s not to say that getting out and going for a walk - even a lifetime of very long walks - is going to reverse the effects of the last few thousand post-hunter-gatherer years.

But it’s a start.