Walking to forget: Reese Witherspoon in the film version of Cheryl Strayed's book, Wild

Wandering women

The women who always walked alone

This article was taken from the September issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

There is a tradition in our family: the D. J. Freeman Memorial Walk. The Walk was inaugurated, in tribute more than in memoriam, while my grandfather was still very much alive and kicking up the leaves on Hampstead Heath. The characteristic of the Walk is that it should be undertaken at marching pace — think National Service circa 1947 — and that it should leave sons striving to keep stride, and wife, daughter and daughters-in-law straggling at the back. We Freeman women may have shorter legs but, by God, we work hard to catch up.

No wonder many women choose to walk alone. No mountainside machismo, no feats of hiking heroics, only one’s own thoughts, taken at one’s own pace. The reader of Kerri Andrews’s Wanderers: A History of Women Walking laces her boots and strikes out with ten women who walked, wrote and wrote about walking. Some names are familiar — Dorothy Wordsworth, Virginia Woolf — others less so, such as Ellen Weeton, a Lancashire governess who set off up Snowdon alone in 1825, and Elizabeth Carter, an eighteenth-century parson’s daughter, whose dearest wish was to be mistaken for a vagabond.

In a letter to a friend, Carter described her routine: “I get up at four, read for an hour, then set forth a walking, and without vanity I may pretend to be one of the best walkers of the age.” She resented anyone holding her back — those “fellow-travellers, who come panting and grumbling at a considerable distance” — and she wrote proudly of her reputation for “impetuous rapidity”. Walking the Kentish coast, Carter found “the freedom of absolute solitude.” On a tour of Europe, she was prevented from walking by “a set of villains lurking about the woods”. But hiring a guard was unthinkable: “I should lose all freedom of rambling and thinking.”

Wanderers: A History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews
Reaction Books, £14.99

Again and again, the two go together. Virginia Woolf wrote as she walked. “One day walking round Tavistock Square I made up, as I sometimes make up my books, To the Lighthouse; in a great, apparently involuntary rush.” Woolf happily called herself a “tramp” and as a young woman on holiday in Yorkshire took pleasure in her ragged ramblings. “You can imagine that I never wash or do my hair,” she wrote to her friend Violet Dickinson, “but stride with gigantic strides over the wild moorside, shouting odes of Pindar, as I leap from crag to crag.”

Periods of illness and bedrest were like being chained to a rock. If only she could walk “dusty & hot, with my nose turned home, every muscle tired, & the brain laid up in sweet lavender, so sane & cool, & ripe for the morrows task. How I should notice everything — the phrase for it coming the moment after & fitting like a glove … so my story would begin telling itself.”

Woolf walked to create, Cheryl Strayed to forget. In Wild, the American describes the 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail she walked after the collapse of her marriage, the death of her mother and a period of drug use. She called her rucksack “Monster” and the straps cut into her skin, leaving welts. This bodily mortification becomes a catharsis. She has bled, but she hasn’t shed a single tear.

Harriet Martineau, novelist, abolitionist and campaigner for the rights of women and the poor, also sought salvation in walking. After a period of unidentified sickness, and attempted remedies of opium and mesmerism, she discovered a cure: walking with “firm and almost manly strides”. Martineau soon took on the “brown hue of health”.

She delighted in outstripping others: “In the mountain roads, Mr Greg & Mr Hy Romilly are obliged to beg my mercy, being wholly unable to keep up with me.” Her rubric for health was as follows: read, write, “work hard in your garden, walk a great deal: not much for the sake of seeing friends, for that is apt to degenerate into dawdling. Go for miles at a quick pace, till you are heartily tired, go to bed early and you will sleep sound.”

There are some lovely vignettes: Dorothy Wordsworth taking her brother William’s infant son for a wild winter walk “wrapped in flannels” and “delighted with the wind against his face”; the poet Nan Shepherd on being young and in the Caingorms in June: “Nothing could have held me back. Like a spurt of fire licking the hill, up I ran”; Ellen Weeton, crossing a 200ft ridge, giddy, frightened and pulling her bonnet close to her cheek to prevent her from seeing the precipice.

The book is at its best when imaginatively recreating the sole-tiring, soul-stirring, stomping simplicity of walking alone

The distances covered are prodigious — 17 miles in under four hours by Dorothy Wordsworth, 35 miles in a day by Ellen Weeton, 170 miles in a week by Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, estranged wife of William Hazlitt — and the picnics are immense. In the Lake District, Weeton reaches a summit with friends and unpacks a meal of veal, ham, chicken, gooseberry pies, bread, cheese, butter, hung leg of mutton, wine, porter, rum, brandy and bitters. Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt thought alcohol more useful without than within. After walking the 15 miles from Perth to Dunkeld (though it felt more like 20), she rubbed fine Scottish whisky into her aching ankles and knees.

At times, the author, a senior lecturer in English Literature at Edge Hill University, suffers outbreaks of academese. Of Dorothy Wordsworth: “Her walking, and her reflections upon that walking, therefore become part of a conscious attempt to create, and to reinforce, through the motion common to their bodies, sympathetic and creative connections between herself and her brother.” Of Ellen Weeton: “Walking opens up for Weeton access to non-human perspectives that both empower and destabilise the self.” The book is at its best when imaginatively recreating the sole-tiring, soul-stirring, stomping simplicity of walking alone. Then the reader shares the rapture of Virginia Woolf’s cry: “Oh the joy of walking!”

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