Sunday, March 11, 2012

Walking Out

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.  


  1. Yes, this is a wonderful book! I only read it quite recently. As a young man I picked up a similar vibe and travelled through Europe with my trombone, sleeping roughish and busking. That's how I met my wife, a Dane. She heard me playing on the street in Perugia in May 1986 and started to chat to me to shake off a couple of Italians. Five days later she heard me playing in Assisi, and we've been together ever since.

  2. Your lovely post brings back many memories of moments in my life when I, occasionally only in hindsight, had found/ stumbled upon "something so right". As Laurie Lee came late to my life, for me, it was Dervla Murphy's Full Tilt that inspired and reaffirmed my love affair with cycling as a means to discover the world. She continues to inspire and motivate my wanderlust/cyclelust.

  3. How lucky you are that the seeds found in Laurie Lee's book ripened and bore so much fruit in your own life. With your myriad long-distance walks, especially the caminos, you clearly have both the experience and the skills to write books that would stand tall beside the classics you mention.

  4. It's remarkable how this writing called to your soul, remained and pulled you into your walking life. I am studying the concept of saudade, the Portuguese-Galician term for longing, a sense of deep and sad nostalgia, which can be for a missing person or place, known or unknown, in the past or in the future. I feel that sense of saudade so strongly here.

  5. I haven't a book to add to the list, but a recollection of walking in England. I've probably written this before, but I know of no place so inviting to the walker than the UK. I remember how astounded I was from the very first visit, how one could walk out the door and follow footpaths to anywhere (or so it seemed). In that first visit, we walked in the Yorkshire Moors to the Brontës' house, and the landscape spoke so clearly of their stories. I love the Ordnance Survey maps--perhaps they are my walking books. We've built up quite a collection over time. There is simply nothing like it over here. There are grand trails, but not that feeling of being a country villager, part and parcel with the land.

  6. Just noticed this on your sidebar:

    Truth is a pathless land.

    Interesting to trace back your passion for walking to its sources. I'm not sure what it was that got me out exploring the world on foot so early in life. I do remember being in my early 30s and reading about Georgia O'Keeffe walking alone, exploring all day long, in the wilderness in New Mexico and that I felt a kinship with her.

    Yes, a love affair with walking!

  7. I agree with George. You have so much experience and wisdom that could inspire many future generations of walkers and thinkers. I'll be the first in line when it is published!

    Enjoying this new blog Robert.

  8. patrick leigh fermor brings to mind kevin andrews as well and his book the flight of ikaros.

    yes, the ability to wander about at will without any specific destination.....just the road up ahead. bliss.

  9. Thanks for this window into your life, Danish Dog — and what a romantic story!

    Funnily enough, I've never read Dervla Murphy, Sabine, but have always wanted to. Thanks for your comment.

    George — I'm touched by your confidence in any writing skills I may possess, but I'm finding it really difficult getting going with the book I've been wanting to write for many, many years. A combination of laziness and self-doubt, I think.

    The sense of longing and nostalgia you describe reminds me of Portuguese fado singing, Ruth...

    ... and Susan, Ordnance Survey maps and English country footpaths are some of our great, national treasures, as you recognise...

    Thanks, as always, for your visit, am — and, Bonnie, thanks for your positive comment! It has bucked me up no end after a rather melancholic and listless day...

    Amanda — will check out Kevin Andrews. Thanks for the pointer. Wandering at will; yes, bliss indeed.

  10. This is another one for my to-read list, and another great post. It's made me wonder if I can isolate a single book as inspiration or catalyst for my peripatetic lifestyle. Will think about that - maybe during today's ramble...

  11. Glad to introduce it to you, my friend. It's a fantastic read.

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