| Modern * Surrey |
‘Rambling’ is the romantic idea of walking without a destination. And as the months of lockdown stretch endlessly before us there’s going to be an unhealthy amount of rambling to look forward to. My first ramble of 2021 led me over the hills of Surrey, with a few hours of getting lost in the mud, cold, and eventually the dark. Making it back home, close to freezing, I was very smug about my efforts: rambling is the epitome of a wholesome country experience.
The activity of walking for pleasure may seem self-evident. Fresh air, exercise, scenery: the obvious pastime for those of us who can’t bear to get their endorphins by lifting heavy objects up and putting them back down again. Walking has almost been pedestalised alongside our passion for well-being and individual development. It’s become central to the human condition, and interestingly it has also become fashionable: even my old work colleagues would try to create a chic identity by having ‘walking’ work meetings to build relationships and slow down the fast pace of business life.
But centuries ago, walking was a necessity, not a choice. In some cultures, it was a form of religious pilgrimage, in others it was way to run large estates, but predominantly, before the Modern era, it was just a way of getting from A to B when there were no other alternatives.
Walking as we know it is a modern phenomenon, emerging through the fog and the smoke of industrial life as a way to remember the rural roots of ‘little England’. However, it wasn’t just notions of romanticism which shaped walking for walking’s sake. From the 19th century different types of walking started to appear; promenading, mountaineering, hiking, tramping all became forms of leisure activity. This came about in part because, as travel became easier and more accessible, walking became a choice: having choices has always been a privilege and people have always embraced privilege.
This privilege of rambling across English countryside was created by the late 19th century open access movement. Alongside the growth of democracy in the UK came a sense of entitlement to landscapes around the country. Areas like the surrey hills, the lake district, the new forest, even the rivers and streams, came to be understood as national property – open to all, and protected for future generations (this is where National Trust stepped in from 1895). The backlash against supposedly selfish landowners who fenced off their acres and closed footpaths was severe: they were preventing people from healthy fresh air, pleasure pursuits, and more importantly from enjoying their birth-given right to all corners of the English countryside. Governments listened and, through a series of laws over a couple of hundred years, the land has been progressively protected for use by the general public. Now DofE’ers, ramblers, and quaratine’ers, can all enjoy most of the English landscape free of charge.
If there’s one thing to be grateful for over the last year, it’s the freedom of a footpath and the invention of the ramble.