My earliest memory of walking in company is of refusing to do it. I am two years old, wrapped up like a fat little butterball against the winter, and I’m sitting bawling between frosty hedges in the middle of a green lane. It must be in Buckinghamshire: that’s where we were living at the time. My mother and sister are walking away. They’re leaving me behind. They turn the corner of the lane and disappear. I’m all alone in the world now. I sit and howl in pure self-pity. But I won’t get up. They’re just going to have to come back and pick me up and carry me. That’s it.
Contemplating my muddy boots today, 66 years after that disgraceful display, I’m wondering: when did I actually begin to enjoy walking around in the open air?
When I was three we moved to a small, scattered Gloucestershire village in the floodlands of the River Severn. There I enjoyed an absolutely typical 1950s outdoors childhood. Country children were expected to be out and about during the hours of daylight back then, away from the house, playing and exploring with siblings and friends until it was time to come home for a meal. We learned a very personal, local geography. We had meadows of kingcups to run across, a disused canal to splash about in, and wide skies over the river country full of lapwings and wild geese.
I didn’t necessarily ‘love’ all this. I didn’t consciously rejoice in the freedom and the wildness. I took it all completely for granted. But it instilled in me a deep-seated pleasure in wild landscapes, and a sense of being at home in the open air.
'Dad was another order of walker. He was a strider, a gobbler-up of miles, and a spartan one at that.'
‘Going for a walk’ was a different kettle of fish. ‘Going for a walk’ was something you had to do in adult company, something that did you good. It was tiring and boring, a dutiful slog when you’d rather have been chasing the cows or building a den or seeing who could shout the loudest bad words across the Big Meadow. It was something you did on Boxing Day, a sulky forced march under the eye of Mum and Dad.
Mum enjoyed a walk in the country. But Dad was another order of walker. He was a strider, a gobbler-up of miles, and a spartan one at that. Pub lunches were works of the Devil. Fizzy drinks ditto. A wafer of soapy cheese clamped between a brace of sparsely buttered Ryvitas, a weather-beaten Pippin, a bottle of weak home-diluted lemon squash, and Dad was good to go for fifteen tireless miles or so in his ancient mac, saggy cords and leather boots, no matter what the weather.
My father was a daunting role model for a reluctant walker like myself – and not only in the matter of walking. We’d moved to Gloucestershire because Dad had been posted to GCHQ, the secret signals establishment in Cheltenham. He never discussed his work. He couldn’t; it was the depth of the Cold War, he’d signed the Official Secrets Act, and lives were at stake. He was in any case a modest man, discreet and morally upright, with a strict code of behaviour, like many men of his generation. An ex-Royal Navy destroyer officer, he harboured some troubling wartime experiences he didn’t want to talk about. Even though Dad was in fact an unusually hands-on father when I was very young, getting to know ‘the man inside the man’ proved a tricky proposition, particularly for the motor-mouthed extrovert and natural-born showman that I turned out to be.
Readers’ reactions to my book The January Man have shown me that I’m not alone in this. I’ve learned from hundreds of letters, emails and conversations that many people of my own post-war generation found their parents enigmatic, troubled or just hard to get through to.
I was lucky enough, though, to find a way through. In my twenties I set out to explore the network of disused railways that threaded the country. Now that I had a sense of purpose, I began to enjoy ‘going for a walk’ along the old lines. And I found I could enjoy walking with Dad, too – warily at first, then with more ease and openness as we tackled the long-distance footpaths of Britain and Europe together. Getting lost, braving bad weather, sharing dodgy B&Bs, losing our tempers, finding them again, learning to laugh about silly stuff – it all helped to open channels of communication between us. Apart from anything else, the simple physical fact of walking and talking side by side, rather than face to face, lessened the potential for confrontation or misreading of body language.
Walking together was one factor among many that led me to realize, eventually, how much I loved the old man. But it was definitely walking that prepared the seedbed in which such realization could start to grow, and I’ll always be thankful for that.
If you have connected with any of the issues discussed in this article, or simply want to chat about the great outdoors, Christopher would love to hear from you. Get in touch at: firstname.lastname@example.org
More about the book
'Evocatively written and charming' - Countryfile
The January Man is the story of a year of walks that was inspired by a song, Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’. Month by month, season by season and region by region, Christopher Somerville walks the British Isles, following routes that continually bring his father to mind. As he travels the country – from the winter floodlands of the River Severn to the lambing pastures of Nidderdale, the towering seabird cliffs on the Shetland Isle of Foula in June and the ancient oaks of Sherwood Forest in autumn – he describes the history, wildlife, landscapes and people he encounters, down back lanes and old paths, in rain and fair weather.
This exquisitely written account of the British countryside not only inspires us to don our boots and explore the 140,000 miles of footpaths across the British Isles, but also illustrates how, on long-distance walks, we can come to an understanding of ourselves and our fellow walkers. Over the hills and along the byways, Christopher Somerville examines what moulded the men of his father’s generation – so reticent about their wartime experiences, so self-effacing, upright and dutiful – as he searches for ‘the man inside the man’ that his own father really was.
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