Some of my fondest memories as a child growing up in Essex were the family outings on foot. That’s what Sundays were for. Grandparents, uncles and aunts and cousins, we’d all trek off into the woods, along the seafront or round the country lanes. We’d run on ahead, hide and jump out from the hedges, kick stones and show off how high we could leap, how strong we were climbing a tree. Looking back I wonder whether they did it to wear us kids out so we’d be quiet for the evening!
When I moved away, I kept with me that sense of freedom and curiosity that walking brings. It’s the only way to see both the big cities and the local sights wherever you are in the world. Jetting in and out, coach trips and organised tours are fine, but I’ll do that when my legs no longer carry me everywhere.
Many weekends I’d spend pounding the streets of London. Walking from park to park, then as the sun faded, enjoying the thrilling sights, smells and sounds of the nightscape. Getting off the Tube at Tower Hill then walking all along the Embankment through Westminster, up through Leicester Square and finishing at Euston. Wonderful. For contrast, getting right out of the city to really stretch my legs along the thunderous Atlantic coastline of Cornwall, feeling the salty air on my face. It’s those strenuous, bracing moments that you really feel that you are alive. Living in the moment. Stopping. Listening. Breathing in deeply and taking the time to look and relish the views.
When I had the fortune to move aboard, I kept this good habit going. My first weekend in Bangkok found me walking for 6 hours across the city (moving faster than the traffic in some quarters). A friendly construction worker saw me and cheerily offered his flask of ice cold water, seeing me caked in sweat and looking a little bedraggled.
As the months went by, I spent many happy days exploring the countryside outside of the cities. New friends, delighted that I took such an interest in their country happily took me through the fields, mountains and tiny villages. The magnificent Buddhist temples amid the dusty scrublands were grand rewards for our efforts. The sense that I was probably one of only a handful of foreigners that had sat with the families along the trail was very special.
So when it came to escaping the rat race once again back in the noughties for an early mid-life adventure, of course I went on foot. Walking from London to Moscow as part 1 would have been more than enough for most. My timing could have been better. The chilly days and nights of October/November through England, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany gave way to the frozen paths of Poland in December. What was I thinking? As ever though, the worst of conditions afforded me the best of humanity. As the kindness of strangers – inviting me into their homes, giving respite and care helped me along the way to the Kremlin. Dangerous? Yes it can be. Bu there are more good than bad people in this world.
Australia brought the end to the language barrier. Walking by now more than 25 miles per day, I was embraced by the great Aussie spirit of someone ‘having a go’. Even though they are a grand sporting nation that loves to win, the Australians I met were only too happy to support this crazy Pom taking a stroll across their south east territory. The days were dry, the landscape equally so. The long miles I spent walking the lonely highways afforded me spectacular views – and suspiciously lively grass as goodness-knows-what creatures hissed and scrambled around my ankles.
Walking all the way across the United States (LA to New York) was the biggest slice of the walk. And brought me new friends for life as well as some of the most hair raising moments. Walking along the side of the super highways with monster trucks roaring along was pretty scary, but gave the perspective of the vastness of the country. And the contrast of its living standards. You don’t get that sense from 30,000 feet in the air. As I found in the Far East, it’s always the poorest homes that provide the warmest welcomes. People seeing me on TV wanted photos with me, invited me into their homes and were genuinely enthusiastic to support me. I slept on a few couches and got ferried around from start/end positions along the way.
Walking therefore to me is a spiritual experience, as well as good exercise. It gives you time to think. It expends energy that can be either keep you awake or be used to fuel more negative thoughts. When you are putting on foot in front of the other, looking ahead and even the gentlest pace to the strident – it’s using your whole body and is great for the mind and soul. Most of my walks have been alone – and I do enjoy the solitude of a long walk alone. But walking with someone who shares your passion for adventure is great! Best of all would be a dog! But that’s rarely practical on the kind of walks I do.
I was joined by my Dad over the years for the big charity walks. He walked with me from Salisbury to London at the tail end of the global stroll, covering 200 miles with me at the age of 77. I think it’s from him that I inherited the appreciation of walking for pleasure and fulfilment.
More recently I’ve been walking with my dear friend and vlogging partner in crime Lucas. We walked from Prague to Berlin (200+ miles) last year and are about to set off on a 700-mile trek from Berlin to London.
55 days out on the open roads of Europe. And whilst there will once again be a sense of mission about it, I’ll be sure as always to enjoy the sheer joy of simply exploring new places, one step at a time.
(You can follow this new adventure at http://www.MarkandLucas.com)