A diagnosis to the “British walking sickness”

By Hannah Kettles

No competition, no leaders, and enough biscuits for everyone. Here is how geographical landscapes have the capacity to shape collective identity. 

The Canadian journalist Monica Heisey, observing us as a nation, wrote a piece peppered with puzzlement last month as she ogled the British relentless and undying passion to walk. Deliberately devoid of purpose or ambition, “going on a walk” is something we do and Heisey isn’t the first to notice. A quick Google search resulted in a chorus of spectators that came before her; some introspective writers searching for purpose in their own rambling and many in a similar vein to Heisey that took to the keyboard to express, put simply, they just don’t get it. 

The triage 

Firstly, let me express my surprise at the Guardian publishing anything with an aversion to: the outdoors, escaping from metropolitan trappings, getting your trunks on and wild water swimming, warming up with a butternut squash and sunflower seed soup afterwards (‘click for recipe’). I’m as hungry of a Guardian reader as the next 20-something year old, but we can’t deny the stereotypes. This being said, it didn’t go unappreciated that each time Heisey mentioned the word “walking” in her article, the Guardian took the chance to insert a hyperlink to various guides and suggested paths. I believe, non-ironically. 

Our national fixation has been reflected even in our Lockdown measures. Having lived in France for the Winter Confinement, I came home bearing news that Emmanuel Macron was not concerned with the details of how far one may walk, who with and especially not if they take a coffee and croissant to enjoy en route. It is a cornerstone of the British zeitgeist, and many of us don’t even realise it. 

But why? In truth, I think those that do indulge in regular wandering may each give you a different reason. There are typical purposes such as light exercise, escapism, time away from screens and work, prime podcast listening opportunity, maybe it’s Christmas; for me, it offers routine and some new colours to my day. Plus, I know plenty of people that don’t like walking. I have a friend who famously would rather get two busses (first, 10 minutes, second, 35) than walk half an hour home. Having a dog definitely changes the game as well. Walking then becomes not so much a self-motivated activity rather than a care-taking necessity. Undeniably though, there’s truth to the countless prosecutions against our walking obsession. 

The examination 

You might be relieved to know I’ve had a think about this one and would like to offer you an answer. We (collective) don’t like to walk because we are British, we walk because we live in Britain. 

If you placed a quadrat over Britain, your results would yield that only 8% of the country is urban area. Not only do we have a quantity of open space, but we also have such a vast variety of it; we have beaches, moorlands, peaks, and most uniquely so much of it protected, practically untouched and free to visit. Even in our cities, you are never too far from a park or green lacuna. In most cases driving just half an hour out of town will land you in pretty rural terrain. This, I can’t explain, but from an extensive history of British Romantic poetry and art, I can tell you it’s been this way for an awfully long time. 

Granted, high rise buildings, factories and, naming no names, particular train lines are all culprits to the declining space that we do have. However, unchanging throughout it all is the human instinct to utilise that which surrounds us, which means: we walk. And I mean walk, you can run these landscapes we have and you can cycle them if you’re that way inclined, but speaking for the majority, the rugged, weather-beaten surroundings are easiest by foot. As religiously as chicken, goes egg, goes chicken, we are a product of our environments, which shapes our environments, which makes us a product of- you get it.

Doctors’ notes & further thoughts 

What Heisey documents about our walks specifically is there are no leaders, it is no race, there is no glamour, there is rarely an important destination point (other than the location at which it’s agreed you will turn around and walk back) and there’s certainly less tranquillity than expected. But how could any of these things exist, other than comically, though vicious mud, in surly farm-animal inhabited fields and under overcast skies? The Canadian and American equivalent to what we do is hiking, the hardcore cousin to a walk. And why? Because this is what their landscape offers them – wide expanse, dusty, hard underfoot trails and for the most part glorious instagrammable sunshine. 

It seems simple when you read it in black and white, but I believe it’s worth taking these ideas a hint further. I think this discussion evidences the importance of asking how our environments not only shape our habits but perhaps our national personalities and values too. We respect those that wait (as we yank our leg from a bog), we value good conversation, we adore thoughtfulness when someone packs enough biscuits for the group.  A brief glance over any given UK based CV will likely boast variations on the characteristics of ‘team-player’ with ‘great communication skills’ and a ‘carefully considerate mindset’. Perhaps in a subtle way, the historic and famous American drive and individualism are reflected, and gently reinforced, in their regular and wildly popular hiking activities. It’s hard, fast, difficult, and a real source of unabashed pride if you’re able to hit the top first. We are not the same.

Undeniably, the evidence is stacked that the performance of ‘going on a walk’ is prevalent in the British national identity. Over centuries it has seeped in, step by step to our collective consciousness. I believe there’s cause for reflection in how that has happened as well as something to be taken from the impact our physical environments may have on other seemingly habitual natures. 

The specifics regarding why some actively enjoy walking might be ineffable, but the reason we do it is right in front of us. 

Graphic courtesy of Tilda Trevitt