The English don’t hike. We walk. Over massive mountains, through slithering streams, between towering trees. We walk.
Putting one foot in front of the other is nothing to an Englishman. It’s the first thing we learn after we’re born, so why should it be such a challenge when we’re adults? We’ve been doing it so long that it means nothing to us. And so. We walk.
After dinner has been eaten. Once the wife starts to wash the dishes. Masculine voices can be heard to grunt “I’m off for a walk, love.” But a physically demanding death-march would be out of the question. After dinner?! One could get indigestion! Instead a gentle stroll is perfect. Just a slow sway through a few country lanes.
That’s not very manly though. Not very English. Strolling?! Through country lanes?? I bet there’ll even be flower smelling. Dare I say you may sit on the grass. You puff! Fear not though, you can still keep your pride, you can still be a man, you can still feel like you’ve earned the right to hit your wife! As all strolls, all very English walks, have one destination: the pub.
When the Romans conquered England they covered it in long, straight roads. If you continuously followed these roads, eventually you’d end up in Rome. Thus the saying “All roads lead to Rome.” Once the Romans buggered off though, nobody gave a shit about Rome. Rome!? PAH! Can’t roads lead somewhere else? Somewhere more exotic? Somewhere we can all love and cherish? Yes. That’s why every road in England now leads to a pub.
Even on the most remote of walks, in the middle of nowhere, an Englishman can find a pub. A warm fire, a pint of ale, two old farmers talking with indecipherable accents, a saucy bar-lady, an overused dart board. From time to time a slanted snooker table. These all are the hallmarks of a proper English pub. Forget those fake English pubs abroad, they can never capture the pure filth and smoky essence of the real deal.
Knowing pubs were plentiful in England, I set off on a walk – with my friend Fraser – along another Roman invention: Hadrian’s Wall. An 80 mile wall built to keep the Scottish out of England. Unfortunately the majority of the wall no longer stands and it can’t serve its original purpose. In violent waves the Scottish come into England. Raping and pillaging. Stealing our wives, eating our babies. The heathens!
But thankfully the wall is still good for something. A gentle, easy walk, a few miles a day, from pub to pub, village to village. The only word to describe it is ‘lovely’. Not ‘memorable’ though, for the Hadrian’s Wall trail is memorable only in its utter lack of memorability. After 5 days of walking through English countryside – passing many a sheep and cow, drinking many an ale, from many a pub – I realised there was nothing to realise. I’d seen very little on my walk. I’d learnt nothing about myself. In fact, I’d learnt nothing at all. I spent my days in a mindless reverie, thinking of little at all but the smell. I’d breathe in deep, feel the fresh air going into my nostrils and I’d grunt with appreciation.
English air is second to none. It’s got a freshness that can’t be beaten, like picking apples straight from the tree and eating them. Maybe it’s the dew on the grass? Possibly it’s the many acorn trees lining the fields? It’s definitely not the abundance of cow shit though. It’s a well know fact that if you collected every cow pat in the English countryside and made a tower with it, the tower would reach from Earth to the Moon. Going on a walk, an Englishman is mentally prepared for the splat of stepping into a cow pat. In fact it’s to be expected. We judge the quality of a hike based on how much shit is on our shoes at the end.
Apart from cow pats, the English countryside is meditatively monotonous. There’s so little to distract you when you saunter through it that you spend hours each day thinking of nothing. Since every piece of land in England is owned by somebody, the majority of paths take you through farmers’ fields. Grass in other words. Nothing but grass. All day, every day, walking along grass. From time to time there’s an old wooden gate, naturally, but usually on the other side there’s just more grass.
This is not to say the English countryside isn’t beautiful. It is. Early in the morning, as the first rays of sun hit the trees, a light mist covers the land. A ghostly silence stretches along the small village streets, which only the squeak of a swaying pub sign can pierce through. There’s something magical about that time of day, you feel like you’ll travel through the mist and suddenly be sent back through time hundreds of years. Or possibly you’ll be walking along to be met by a talking sheep. Every fairy tale you’ve ever heard feels like it could be real. For a moment you think you spot a fairy then reality hits you in the face when you realise it’s nothing but a Snickers wrapper blowing in the breeze. Such things are to be expected, the countryside acts as little more than a buffer between cities nowadays. Civilisation has almost entirely conquered the countryside in some way. Grass only grows where we allow it to.
Halfway through my walk, I took a deep breath in. I turned to my friend with a smile “have you tasted that air, Fraser? Nothing better, eh? Er, Fraser?” I found him quarter of a mile away, hunched over his rucksack, his face contorted with pain. “What’s wrong?” I asked, eyeing up his boots, barely a cow pat in sight. “My feet” he screamed “I’ve got blisters.” Disaster, how would we get out of this situation? Then we remembered the one upside of civilisation. Within an hour Fraser was riding home on the bus and with a wave I saw him off. Then with a kick in my step I turned back the fields. To do the thing all Englishmen do. We walk.