Books

Why walking is such a great way to see, sense and stake a claim in the world

Duncan Minshull's book Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World contains a cast of wanderers who have ways with words

Illustration: Jacob Courtney

Spring is coming, and my London strolls start early. Before breakfast, before the news, and before sitting at a desk all day. The human traffic is low out there, as I open the door in Maida Vale. It’s just after sunrise. Where to, today?   

Well, the mood might take me to Hyde Park; to Camden Town along the canal; to Marble Arch down the Edgware Road. Greenish vista or urban edge – to be decided. After an hour I’m circling back with a keen appetite and a clear mind for the work ahead. And usually I’ve made a habit of setting off alone.  

Except, in recent weeks, I seem to have gained the company of others. Or the company of other voices. Compelling and often funny voices, telling me why, how, and where to walk. For they are the voices let loose: the 50-odd I guided into a book called Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World

Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter

Much has been said about footsteps covering the UK, so I went global with this new collection. Following the accounts of men and women who have traversed different parts of the seven continents. Be it for reasons recreational or necessary, rational or outlandish. And I think the voices stay with me because the best walking stories are universal and lasting; whether from the Bahamas in 1492 or Russia in 1982. 

Walking is a great way to see, sense, and stake a claim in the world; we get close to things and things open up on foot. That’s why lots of explorers tread the pages of Globetrotting – how else to record their finds? Charles John Freemont climbs the Rocky Mountains, while Isabella Bird roams the shores of remote Japan. And if he assumes a rather hackneyed pose – hob-nail boots and frosty beard – I still root for polar-explorer Roald Amundsen, who salutes the camaraderie of his men, ready to map out the territories. Hear “much laughter and chaff” over breakfast (cups of hot chocolate), before heading off into the white wastes together. I’ll recall his words when the going gets tough down the Edgware Road. 

City strollers are the polar opposite of Amundsen. They ‘dawdle’ and ‘daunder’ in nonchalant fashion. They delight in getting lost. They are explorers of a sort, but any finds are playful and ironic (a café napkin, a tweeting canary, a face at a window). It’s a dip into the surf of life, says Franz Hessell, as he navigates the teeming streets of Weimar Berlin. Being a trotter too, I want to hear of his adventures across the asphalt. I also like the voices (and insights) of Mark Twain in Geneva, and Taran L Khan in Kabul. On kerbside pranks and lovers’ lanes respectively. 

Michèle Roberts is one more stroller – through Kyiv. Newly arrived, she takes to the streets to orientate, to look at the buildings and the locals (a middle-aged man escorts his young, high-heeled girlfriend, ‘tittuping’ by). Likewise it’s a walk into the past for the writer, evoking St Michael, St Sophia and St Olga, each with a tale to tell. This is Kyiv of 2010: buoyant and eye-catching, yet who knew what lay around the corner? For me, such a sadness rings loudest in Globetrotting. 

The explorers and the strollers, and I aimed to gather less obvious types. Many of my globetrotters celebrate the joys of footing it – as a means of discovery and sensory pleasure, as a boost to physical health and idea making (Friedrich Nietszche says we think as fast as we move). But there is adversity for a few; their journeys born solely of need. 

I hear a protester in St Petersburg, marching to calls of “Death or Freedom!” And a runaway slave who trails the North Star from southern plantation to northern city. And soon, three further runaways, in the Western Desert of Australia. Molly, Daisy, and Gracie have escaped the constraints of the government camps. Yet despite the distances and hard yards, each girl remarkably retains a sense of play – wasn’t that a ‘Marbu’ we saw in the bush, creature of the Dreamtime? Let’s get out of here!   

They find a home eventually. Don’t we all? It makes me smile to hear a Victorian lady cuss the forests of Ohio. Still, she’s had an adventure beyond compare, has travelled very far from the conventions of the drawing room. Another homeward figure wanders Paris, to seek ‘a dry gutter’, repose in the lotus position, and feel incredibly ‘lulled’. He sounds like a self-styled ‘vagabond’, whose nightly turn along the boulevards is a creative act – a character in his own story. 

Not to follow, though. No, my daily walk is close to Helen Garner’s in the suburb of Flemington, Melbourne, which ends Globetrotting. There are areas of scuzz to negotiate (‘McDonald’s rubbish’), and beauty (‘pitto sporum blossom’), and oddity (‘the witches house’). But more, it’s Garner’s connection with the people around. She meets the good and the bad – an elderly Chinese couple, constantly afoot, and pack after pack of pinging cyclists – who enrich her ambulatory life. You won’t enjoy these moments sitting in a car, looking on. 

I’ll be thinking about this as I open the door tomorrow morning. Heading for Hyde Park? To be decided. 

Globetrotting: Writers Walk the World, introduced and edited by Duncan Minshull is out on 2 April (Notting Hill Editions, £15.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Top 5 books on future tech and video game fiction, chosen by star YA author Triona Campbell
Books

Top 5 books on future tech and video game fiction, chosen by star YA author Triona Campbell

We owe children an apology for the state of the nation, says Caledonian Road author Andrew O'Hagan
Books

We owe children an apology for the state of the nation, says Caledonian Road author Andrew O'Hagan

Top 5 inventive, speculative fiction books – chosen by poet and playwright Joelle Taylor
Books

Top 5 inventive, speculative fiction books – chosen by poet and playwright Joelle Taylor

I wouldn't exist if not for a gruesome mass murder in 1905 – we owe our lives to chance and chaos
Books

I wouldn't exist if not for a gruesome mass murder in 1905 – we owe our lives to chance and chaos

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know