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Sauntering: The writers walking their way to stories

With walking being a favourite pasttime across the lockdowns, Duncan Minshull, editor of ‘Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe’ takes a look at well-known authors and the walks they used to enjoy.

Our days of being room-bound and house-bound and garden-bound appear to be ending. Now we can be expansive, be sporty again. But – with a sigh of relief – I’ll just be walking, just as I’ve been walking for 40-odd years; it’s always an adventure.

My short walk – short, long, all outings are good – joins two of central London’s green spots, Hyde Park and Kensington Palace Gardens.

Two laps around their edges, plus various distractions, takes me three hours. Setting off early from home, it feels like three hours roaming a rural place; and I enjoy two sorts of walks, subject to the mood I’m in.

I love the word, even saying it… sauntering

There is what I call an ‘external’ walk, when I look out to the world, which comes closer on foot. Smell the earth, hear the birds, watch the trees. I talk to owners about their dogs, especially lurcher and whippet owners. For I want one of these beauties. I want to walk with him or her along miles of beaches and fields, aiming for horizons.

Then there is another walk: an ‘internal’ walk, when I’m half oblivious of trees and dogs because I’m thinking instead. The rhythm of such a walk stokes the mind, has me recalling the past, planning the future, toying with ideas. Last week the morning was crystalline as I paused halfway into my first lap, at the ‘Italian Gardens’, at the statue of Edward Jenner, inventor of vaccines, and thought about a book I had published called Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe.

I love the word… even saying it… sauntering (something on its origins anon). And my selection of pedestrian travellers was prompted by a Mr Hackman, who admitted that whilst tramping the continent, circa 1790, he never ‘looked up’ – at anything, at any point. But others across the ages do look up, locals and visitors alike, and I duly corralled them between covers. With Mr Hackman in tow of course.

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For many, Europe is a landmass of exploration, and they use their external walks to capture it for the page. Harriet Beecher Stowe records the white immensity of the French Alps, yet fixates on tiny flowers lining the path. Les Clochettes, the ‘little bells’, entice and she asks a guide to gather some. Another writer-tourer is Edith Wharton, moving among the “dense, febrile” foliage of Syracuse; and her external walk turns to an internal one after she re-imagines figures strolling here in ancient times, under the same Sicilian sun.

Stowe and Wharton are pleasure seekers, recreational people, without worries. So why not mix things up with Joseph Roth in a Berlin park, gazing quizzically at passers-by. He doesn’t like certain types with conspicuous gear and big picnics and rapturous reactions (“it’s all very picturesque!”) – who have idealised nature; no, who have actually “Baedeker-ised nature”. He levels this charge at them in 1921, but it is a timeless sentiment.

Pleasure seekers and flaneurs, adventurers and even shoppers. The peaks and pavements of Europe are settings for all types, and 60 of them wander through Sauntering. Yet Europe is also steeped in struggle, where walking comes from necessity, grievance, protest. We might follow Nellie Bly, reporting from the trenches of Przemyśl. (Poland) during the Great War. Or Robert Antelme, an intern of the camps, hobbling past the town of Halle (Germany). Or Amy Levy, weaving in and out of passages at Florence, attuned to the sad history of its ghetto area, as the locals enjoy carnival week.

But back to Mr Hackman. At the time of acknowledging a lack of curiosity, another in the collection is showing lots; and perhaps he connects with us now. Xavier de Maistre was a French soldier under house arrest in Turin, and to occupy his house-bound months would roam the rooms pretending he was walking the world. A room became a chosen country, next door became somewhere else. Hundreds and hundreds of miles were covered around the house, which bemused the neighbours and made de Maistre a ‘room-traveller’.
One of the original ‘psychogeographers’.

And talking of definitions, what about… sauntering? Well, I like one explanation. That in the Middle Ages people seeking charity said they were pilgrims heading for the Holy Land: La Sainte Terre. Sums of money, ducats to be precise, would be given to those called the ‘Sainte-Terre-ers’, those going ‘sauntering’ to an unknown place. True or not, a lovely word had entered the language, and ended up as the title of a book!

And this, then, was my cue to stop thinking at the ‘Italian Gardens’. On such a clear day I really should be lapping in external mode – and looking for lurchers.

Sauntering: Writers Walk Europe, edited by Duncan Minshull is out now (Notting Hill Editions, £14.99)

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