Best walks in literature

Dan Woodger for Penguin

Life is unlikely to get back to "normal" for a long time beause of coronavirus, but one thing that has made the days a little easier is the fact that we're now allowed to take as much exercise outside as we like, for as long as we like. And what could be more perfect than taking a long walk?

Walks, particularly lengthy ones, can be found throughout literature, offering writers the opportunity to send their subjects on emotional journeys as well as physical ones. Here, we've rounded up the best fiction and non-fiction books featuring long walks, to give you inspiration and keep you company. 

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The temptation may currently be strong to just take off on a long walk, but we don't recommend doing it the way Harold Fry did, however touching his story was. In Rachel Joyce's moving novel, the 65-year-old goes out to post a letter, and instead ends up embarking on a journey that will take in almost 700 miles over the course of 87 days. He has nothing but the clothes on his back and whatever is in his pockets, but he's compelled to continue by his desire to save someone else's life. He’s helped on his journey by the kindness of strangers, so not only will you travel vicariously through Harold, you'll also be reminded of just how good humanity can be.

The Old Ways by Robert MacFarlane

While in lockdown many of us have probably discovered hidden beauty spots on our walks, whether we're in the city, suburbs or countryside. If you haven't, take inspiration from Robert Macfarlane's The Old Ways to go out and find the under appreciated secrets of our natural world. In it, Macfarlane follows tracks, sea paths and more, criss crossing the British Isles and beyond. This is a book not just about the physical journeys we take, but also the journeys which inspire our imaginations, and the stories certain places hold.  

Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte

Just how many hours did Cathy and Heathcliff (and their ghosts) spend walking the moors in search of each other? Many, many hours is the answer. Emily Bronte's descriptions of the Yorkshire moors as the bleak but atmospheric setting for the tragic love affair evoke a real sense of place. So popular is the setting of Bronte's novel that there are dozens of websites offering information on how to walk the landscape of Wuthering Heights. One to add to the list after lockdown (unless you're lucky enough to live near the moors).

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn

Raynor Winn's epic 630 mile journey with her husband Moth was taken after two major events in the couple's lives. First, Winn found out Moth was terminally ill. And then, just days later, their home was taken away and they lost their livelihood. So, they made the decision to walk the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, carrying just the essentials for survival. Their remarkable journey is about walking to come to terms with grief and loss, about the healing power of the natural world, and about how home can be rebuilt in unexpected ways. 

The History of Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

Some walks are about finding a purpose, such as the one in The History of Tom Jones, Henry Fielding's classic novel. In the book, foundling Tom Jones is deeply in love with the seemingly unattainable Sophia Western, although that doesn't stop him from succumbing to the charms of other women. But his escapades earn the disapproval of his benefactor, and Tom is banished to make his own fortune, embarking on a long walk from Somerset to London. Along the way he encounters a host of people, and gets himself into a bit of trouble. This is not just a book about a long walk, it's about a character searching for his place in the world.  

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Sometimes it's the journey and not the destination that matters, as evidenced by Bill Bryson's attempt to hike the Appalachian Trail, the longest continuous footpath in the world. Spoiler alert: Bryson didn't manage to complete the 2,200 mile journey through remote mountain wilderness. But his attempt makes for a better story anyway, as he encounters terrible weather, merciless insects and unreliable maps.

The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien

Arguably a journey that could have been much shorter (why did Gandalf's giant birds not just fly Frodo to his destination?), the hobbit's journey to cast the One Ring into the fires of Mount Doom saw him and his band of companions take in the Elven kingdoms of Rivendell and Lothlorien and the mines of Moria. Even after they split, the fellowship of the ring carried on with its epic walks, through Rohan and to Gondor (with the occasional help of a horse), or through Shelob's Lair to Mount Doom. Either way, there was a lot of walking involved.

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

Walking is a perfect opportunity for contemplation, and contemplate is just what Mrs Dalloway did on her journey through London on a June morning in 1923, in Virginia Woolf's famous novel. During her walk, which covers St James’ Park, Piccadilly and Bond Street, Mrs Dalloway covers years of her life through memories. She considers the time she was as young as her daughter, her romance with Peter Walsh, and the friends of her youth. And she walks her way towards a collision with Septimus Smith, who on the other side of London is suffering from shell shock.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Ok, Elizabeth Bennet's three mile walk to Netherfield – to see her sister who has fallen ill and is holed up there – might not seem to qualify as a 'long walk', but hear us out. First, three miles was a long distance in Jane Austen's time, in a world where people – especially women of certain classes – stuck close to home. Second, we're sure walking any distance in a long skirt and multiple layers through fields would feel long. And third, dare we say it, really what Elizabeth was walking towards was love, and that was a long journey for her and Darcy.  

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

If you're finding your daily walks dull or uninspired, take comfort in the fact that you're not walking through the world of Cormac McCarthy's The Road. Set in a post-apocalyptic society, McCarthy's novel is about a father and his young son who make their across a landscape that has been ruined, by an event which destroyed much of civilisation. 

Of Walking in Ice by Werner Herzog

Like Raynor Winn's journey, filmmaker Werner Herzog set out on his long walk because of a major life event. In November 1974, Herzog found out his mentor, the filmmaker and critic Lotte Eisner, was dying in Paris. So he set out from Munich to walk to French capital, believing that she would stay alive if he made his way to her on foot. This book records his observations from his journey, as well as how he felt and what he experienced. 

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