One's real life is often the life that one does not lead. OSCAR WILDE
Some time in my late teens or early twenties I chanced upon a copy of As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning and my life was changed for ever. This book was an incendiary device, igniting a young man's already fevered and romantic imagination. It describes Laurie Lee's year-long, bohemian journey from Vigo in Galicia to Almuñécar in the south of Spain, where he stays until the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July 1936. By day he walks through an extraordinary landscape, busking for coins with his violin in the towns and villages. At night he sleeps in a blanket under the stars. He encounters poverty, prostitutes and cheap posadas. He also finds a Spain of a wild and savage beauty, which he recounts in a style that's both realistic and poetic. This book kindled in me a lifelong passion for travel writing and a yearning for the open road.
I married, as one does, and life became centred on family and career. Weekends were dominated by entertaining children, by fitting kitchens, by visiting relatives. Holidays were child-focused: camping in Brittany, theme parks in Florida. I'm not complaining — far from it — but an imaginative part of me remained with Laurie Lee, drinking strong wine in tumble-down Spanish tabernas, tramping through the hoopoe-haunted cork-woods of Extremadura and the remote, rugged sierras of Andalusia. I walked when and where I could: circular day walks in Derbyshire's Peak District, canal tow path strolls in the English Midlands, Welsh and Cumbrian hill climbs during snatched hours on business trips. But, as I drove up and down the motorways of England, chasing the income that would keep my family afloat, I dreamed constantly of trekking the long-distance pathways of Europe, walking for weeks if not months on end, with only the sun and the rain, the rocks and the trees for company.
Later I would read many other books of walking adventures — Hilaire Belloc's The Path To Rome, Nicholas Crane's Clear Waters Rising, Patrick Leigh Fermor's A Time Of Gifts, Robert Louis Stevenson's Travels With A Donkey In The Cévennes. But, wonderful as these books were, none would ever quite recapture that thrilling frisson of excitement I felt when reading As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning for the first time. Finding this book was the start of a love affair with walking, and discovering new landscapes, which continues unabated to this day.