Richard Smith on the joy of walking

Richard Smith
My wife hates walking. For her it means trudging through the rain and mist, cold, exhausted, wet to her underwear, and with five miles still to go to a smelly bed and breakfast. It can be exactly that, but for me walking 15 miles day after day is one of life’ s greatest pleasures. Could I ever convince my wife of its pleasures I wondered as I walked with friends the 90 miles from Mevagissey to Marazion round the Cornish coast? I decided to structure my argument around the five senses and to begin with the least obvious. The smells were marvellous on this walk. We walked through acres of bluebells with their sweet, slightly sickly smell, but even better was the coconut smell of the gorse, becoming stronger as the weather grew hotter. All the way there was the fresh, salty tang of the open sea, but every so often it gave way to the fishy reek of stranded seaweed. At one point we walked through a field of freshly cut grass, and as we plodded along there were human, animal, and cooking smells, some enticing, some disgusting.

Much of the pleasure of walking is the variation underfoot, sometimes hard rock, sometimes mud, and sometimes grass like a carpet. Even tarmac and pavement have their place because it’ s the variation that brings most joy. Then there’ s the heat of the sun, the caressing breeze, the cold wind, and the rain trickling down your neck. A week without any rain disappoints, and a week of nearly constant rain – like last year on Offa’ s Dyke – has its own pleasure, like the darkest of comedies.

I’ m no masochist, but aching limbs and even blisters are part of the experience, and the half hour soak in the hot bath reading some of Daphne du Maurier’ s most romantic novels is bliss. Physicality and tiredness are central to the joy of walking as is the deep sleep that follows a long day.

The sound of the Cornish coast is the constant churning and boiling of the sea with the mournful cry of seagulls, each bird carrying the soul of a drowned sailor. The foghorn at the tip of the Lizard adds to the spell of Cornwall, a country of dragons, witches, poltergeists, doomed lovers, and lost kings. The chatter of friends is a key part of the pleasure, but unlike at a dinner party hours of silence are fine.

Taste features in walking in that the expenditure of so many calories justifies the intake of the hugely calorific foods of Cornwall – clotted cream, apple crumble ice cream, pasties, hog’ s pudding, and Proper Job beer. And all the way fish and shellfish – turbot, mackerel, John Dory, sole, brill, crab, mussels, oysters, and even whelks, my very favourite food.

The constantly varying sights are perhaps the most obvious pleasure of walking because as you walk you see in a way that you don’t from a train, car, or even bicycle. You see the deep blues and greens of the sea, the ancient churches, the robin in its nest, the yacht on the distant horizon, and the profusion of flowers – primroses, bluebells, thrift, fumatori, forget-me-nots, the invading hottentot fig, and a hundred others that I can love but not name. Every step presents a new tableau, even in the mist.

So will I convince my wife? Not a hope, but I’ ll go on until I drop, which may not be long.

Richard Smith is a former editor of the BMJ.