In my last post I mentioned three books about men on extended walks. This time, rather than fiction, I am writing about a real-life walk, during which Terry Cudbird retired from work and decided to walk the coast of France, an epic journey by anyone’s standards.
Just before his retirement, Terry was on holiday with his wife in the French Alps and told her that he would like to walk some of the Grand Randonées (the network of long-distance footpaths that cross the country in all directions). His wife must be either very tolerant or else wanted time on her own, for she replied, “why don’t you do it now, before you become decrepit”.
Terry leapt at the chance and immediately began to plan a journey of 4000 miles covering the edges of France. He wanted to test himself physically and mentally, and although he had to come home from time to time to deal with his aged parents, he was actually on his own for six of the twelve months in the year he spent walking.
The result is Terry’s book, Walking the Hexagon – a very well produced volume containing many maps and quite a few black and white photographs in-line with the text. I read the paper edition but no doubt the Kindle edition would work well enough. The publishers have gone to the trouble of compiling a very thorough index at the back which names hundreds of towns and villages, so Francophiles will be able to easily find what Terry thought about the places they know themselves.
I enjoy reading about the adventures of lone travellers, particularly when they are travelling under their own steam. In the middle of winter, its particularly good to read of someone setting off on a spring morning to see where their journey is going to take them.
I’ve already reviewed Susie Kelly’s book The Valley of Heaven and Hell in which she cycled with her husband on the trail of Marie Antoinette as she fled from Paris to Rheims (only to return later to meet her death). Now, Blackbirdebooks have published Susie’s earlier book, Best Foot Forward in which she walked alone from La Rochelle on the Atlantic coast right across France and into Switzerland, carrying a flimsy tent and a few essentials – an adventure indeed.
Having done quite a bit of walking in France myself, I could only marvel at Susie’s ability to find her way through such a great distance in the French countryside. Many’s the time I’ve been lost while walking in France even when walking for just an afternoon and with the car usually waiting for us just over a nearby hill. While there are way marks on all the major routes, a west-east journey like this required a lot of route-finding across dull terrain which the major walking routes never passed through. Susie was equipped only with a large scale map which frequently misled her and often had to rely on the knowledge of passers by who turned out to be far from reliable.
I’ve been away from A Common Reader for a week or so and while I’ve not been writing, I’ve had the chance to read two or three books which are definitely worth writing about.
Geoff Nicholson is best known as a writer of fiction who occasionally forays into writing non-fiction books about subjects which interest him – The Lost Art of Walking being one of the latter. This book is both an anthology of walking and walkers, while also being a set of personal stories aobut Geoff’s walking life.
Geoff isn’t one of those serious walkers who kit themselves up with serious equipment and attempt record-breaking distances or timings. But walking is a vital part of his life, even though it often he has “strolled, wandered, pottered, mooched, sauntered and meandered”. He’s certainly done some serious stuff too – a chapter on desert walking describes a more committed type of walking than many of us would attempt, but on the whole, there is more in this book about walking around cities than in the great outdoors.
I’m a bit of a sucker for this type of book. Like Geoff, I’ve walked all my life (in the sense of having gone out deliberately to experience pedestrianism) and agree with Geoff that walking is the best way to experience a city. Geoff is interested in psychogeography which Joseph Hart describes as “a whole toy box full of playful, inventive strategies for exploring cities…just about anything that takes pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolts them into a new awareness of the urban landscape”. And I think that’s quite a good description of this book too – the range is vast but certainly focuses on urban walking, the deliberate launching out on a walk through a city with no other purpose than to see something new and to be open to any new insights that come at you along the way.