(George Macaulay Trevelyan as photographed by George Charles Beresford in 1926)
British historian George Macaulay Trevelyan’s long essay “Walking” was published in the collection Clio, A Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian in 1913. Clio, A Muse must have been a popular book; it was in its third impression within the year. I’ve heard about Trevelyan’s essay before, but it took comments on this blog, and the selections included in Duncan Minshull’s anthology The Vintage Book of Walking, to motivate me to find a copy online and dig into it.
“Walking” begins with two quotations: one from Rousseau’s Confessions, and the other from—surprise!—Leslie Stephen’s “In Praise of Walking.” They situate Trevelyan’s thinking on this subject within the Romantic tradition, I think, but Trevelyan’s first words are less about the experience of sublime landscapes than the psychological benefits of walking:
I have two doctors, my left leg and my right. When body and mind are out of gear (and those twin parts of me live at such close quarters that the one always catches melancholy from the other) I know that I have only to call in my doctors and I shall be well again. (56)
Walking helps Trevelyan when “[t]hat combination of mind and body which I call my soul is often so choked up with bad thoughts or useless worries,” and it is at those times that he calls on his “two doctors” to carry him “off for the day” (57). Often mental exercises, such as those recommended by Arnold Bennett in his book The Human Machine, are insufficient to shift Trevelyan’s thoughts away from “general misery”:
On these occasions my recipe is to go for a long walk. My thoughts start out with me like bloodstained mutineers debauching themselves on board the ship they have captured, but I bring them home at nightfall, larking and tumbling over each other like happy little boy-scouts at play, yet obedient to every order to “concentrate” for any purpose Mr. Bennett or I may wish. (57-58)
Trevelyan’s repetition in these first pages isn’t simply garrulousness, I think; rather, it’s his way of emphasizing the psychological benefits he finds in walking.
However, those walks, if they are to have any “medicinal use,” need to be rural walks. Trevelyan describes the benefits he has found in walking:
a Sunday spent with both legs swinging all day over ground where grass or heather grows. I have often known the righteous forsaken and his seed begging their bread, but I never knew a man to go for an honest day’s walk, for whatever distance, great or small, his pair of compasses could measure out in the time, and not have his reward in the repossession of his own soul. (58)
These need not be solo walks—“companionship is good, and the more friends who join us on the tramp the merrier” (58)—and their effect on the self will be limited to resetting the walker’s mood:
For there is not time, as there is on the longer holiday or walking tour, for body and mind to attain that point of training when the higher ecstasies of Walking are felt through the whole being, those joys that crave silence and solitude. And indeed, on these humbler occasions, the first half of the day’s walk, before the Human Machine has recovered its tone, may be dreary enough without the laughter of good company, ringing round the interchange of genial and irresponsible verdicts on the topics of the day. For this reason informal Walking societies should be formed among friends in towns, for week-end or Sabbath walks in the neighbouring country. I never get better talk than in these moving Parliaments, and good talk is itself something. (58-59)
Here is the Romanticism that Trevelyan’s epigraphs led me to expect: “the higher ecstasies of Walking,” “those joys that crave silence and solitude.” He is focused on a different kind of walking: a practice that is essential to mental health.
However, there are criticisms to be made of such a practice, Trevelyan admits, presenting a long quotation from Arthur Sidgwick’s Walking Essays complaining about the insensitivity of such walkers and the starvation of “their immortal being” between “the blind swing of the legs below and the fruitless flickering of the mind above” (qtd. 59). Sidgwick sounds like an impossible snob, but Trevelyan suggests that these remarks demonstrate a thorough understanding of “the high, ultimate end of Walking, which is indeed something other than to promote talk” (60). For Trevelyan, though, a day’s walk every couple of weeks can only refresh the body and exercise the mind. The kind of walking Sidgwick describes, he suggests, “requires longer time, more perfect training, and, for some of us at least, a different kind of scenery. Meanwhile let us have a good talk as we tramp the lanes” (60). Trevelyan is defending a rather unromantic, even prosaic, kind of walking against the nearly impossible demands of Sidgwick’s romanticism. He quotes Thomas Carlyle’s claim that walking and talking is “one of the highest of human functions” (60), but he also sees a connection between convivial and conversational walking and a more solo and Romantic approach in Carlyle’s walking practice:
because he talked well when he walked with others, he felt and thought all the more when he walked alone, “given up to his bits of reflections in the silence of the moors and hills.” He was along when he walked his fifty-four miles in the day, from Muirkirk to Dumfries, “the longest walk I ever made,” he tells us. Carlyle is in every sense a patron saint of Walking, and his vote is emphatically given not for the “gospel of silence”! (60-61)
Because Carlyle was good at conversational walking, he was good at reflective walking, and he might not be the only exemplar of that connection; surely the Wordsworths and Coleridge conversed while they made their walks together, and yet those walks led to a particular form of Romantic poetry.
Nevertheless, Trevelyan continues, his idea of “the perfect walk” involves both silence and solitude:
When you are really walking the presence of a companion, involving such irksome considerations as whether the pace suits him, whether he wishes to go up by the rocks or down by the burn, still more the haunting fear that he may begin to talk, disturbs the harmony of body, mind, and soul when they stride along no longer conscious of their separate, jarring entities, made one together in the mystic union with the earth, with the hills that still beckon, with that sunset that still shows the tufted moor under foot, with old darkness and its stars that take you to their breast with rapture when the hard ringing of heels proclaims that you have struck the final road. (61)
However, even at such times “a companion may be good, if you like him well, if you know that he likes you and the pace, and that he shares your ecstasy of body and mind” (61-62). Proclaiming that solitary walks are “perfect” makes him feel disloyal to such companions. He recalls walks in Italy with an unnamed friend in which they shared “the goodness and harmony of things, our bodies an animated part of the earth we trod” (62).
“Central Italy is a paradise for the walker,” Trevelyan writes (62). He praises the “hills and mountains, unenclosed, open in all directions to the wanderer at will, unlike some British mountain game preserves” (63). It’s not just the scenery, then, but the way that walkers are not considered to be trespassers that is important: “even in the plains, the peasant, unlike some south-English farmers, never orders you off his ground, not even out of his olive grove or vineyard” (64). He likes the fact that it’s possible to find lodgings in Italian towns even if you arrive at midnight, and the way that the locals will guide strangers “without bargain or demur” (64). From here, he shifts to practical concerns: the need to carry water, the importance of a siesta during the heat of midday. However, he never loses sight of the sensuous pleasures of walking in Italy: walking at night, or the chorus of frogs, which he describes as “one of the grandest tunes to walk by” (65), or the song of nightingales.
However, walking is also a way for a person—especially a young person—to learn “that the world was not created to make him happy”:
In such cases, as in that of Teufelsdröckh, grim Walking’s the rule. Every man must once at least in life have the great vision of Earth as Hell. Then, while his soul within him is molten lava that will take some lifelong shape of good or bad when it cools, let him set out and walk, whatever the weather, wherever he is, be it in the depths of London, and let him walk grimly, well if it is by night, to avoid the vulgar sights and faces of men, appearing to him, in his then daemonic mood, as base beyond all endurance. Let him walk until his flesh curse his spirit for driving it on, and his spirit spend its rage on his flesh in forcing it still pitilessly to sway the legs. Then the fire within him will not turn to soot and choke him, as it chokes those who linger at home with their grief, motionless, between four mean, lifeless walls. (65-66)
At first I thought Trevelyan was writing about those physically arduous walks (because of length or difficulty) that test one’s resolve, but then I realized he’s actually writing about walking as a way of addressing psychological or even existential depression:
The stricken one who has, more wisely, taken to road and field, as he plies his solitary pilgrimage day after day, finds that he has with him a companion with whom he is not ashamed to share his grief, even the Earth he treads, his mother who bore him. At the close of a well-trodden day grief can have strange visions and find mysterious comforts. Hastening at droop of dusk through some remote byway never to be found again, a man has known a row of ancient trees nodding over a high stone wall over a bank of wet earth, bending down their sighing branches to him as he hastened past forever, to whisper that the place knew it all centuries ago and had always been waiting for him to come by, even thus, for one minute in the night. (66)
What is this grief that propels Trevelyan forward? It must be related to that feeling that leads him to call his legs his doctors, but I know little about his life or whether he did suffer from depression or not.
That grief is not Trevelyan’s sole walking companion, however:
Be grief or joy the companion, in youth and in middle age, it is only at the end of a long and solitary day’s walk that I have had strange casual moments of mere sight and feeling more vivid and less forgotten than the human events of life, moments like those that Wordsworth has described as his common companions in boyhood, like that night when he was rowing on Esthwaite, and that day when he was nutting in the woods. (66-67)
Those moments only come to Trevelyan after 25 miles of walking, but he notes that they came more easily to Wordsworth, “together with the power of expressing them in words!” (67). Those moments are the goal of one form of walking—a Romantic form of walking—which is separate from but linked to the more practical form of walking Trevelyan sees as essential to mental health.
But those aren’t the only two ways to walk: “There are many schools of Walking and none of them orthodox” (67). Some walk on roads, “the Puritans of the religion” (67). They have learned that “[t]he road is invaluable for pace and swing, and the ideal walk permits or even requires a smooth surface for some considerable portion of the way” (68-69). However, for Trevelyan, “twenty-five or thirty miles of moor and mountain, of wood and field-path, is better in every way than five-and-thirty or even forty hammered out on the road” (69). “The secret beauties of Nature are unveiled only to the cross-country walker,” he argues (69):
On the road we never meet the “moving accidents by flood and field”: the sudden glory of a woodland glade; the open back-door of the old farmhouse sequestered deep in rural solitude; the cow routed up from meditation behind the stone wall as we scale it suddenly; the deep, slow, south-country stream that we must jump, or wander along to find the bridge; the northern torrent of molten peat-hag that we must ford up to the waist, to scramble, glowing warm-cold, up the farther foxglove bank; the autumnal dew on the bracken and the blue straight smoke of the cottage in the still glen at dawn; the rush down the mountain side, hair flying, stones and grouse rising at our feet; and at the bottom the plunge in the pool below the waterfall, in. place so fair that kings should come from far to bathe therein—yet it is left, year in year out, unvisited save by us and “troops of stars.” These, and a thousand other blessed chances of the day, are the heart of Walking, and these are not of the road. (69-70)
The experience of those “secret beauties of Nature” are, to a great extent, the purpose of walking, according to Trevelyan. He doesn’t deny the role of “the hard road” in getting walkers to and from those “secret” spaces, and he praises what he calls “the ‘soft’ road”:
The broad grass lanes of the low country, relics of mediaeval wayfaring; the green, unfenced moorland road; the derelict road already half gone back to pasture; the common farm track—these and all their kind are a blessing to the walker, to be diligently sought out by help of map and used as long as may be. For they unite the speed and smooth surface of the harder road with much at least of the softness to the foot, the romance and the beauty of cross-country routes. (70-71)
Where I walk, it’s rare to find “the ‘soft’ road,” never mind those “cross-country routes” Trevelyan prefers. Pavement and gravel are the surfaces I walk on. And, in my most recent experience walking in the UK, farm tracks have mostly been paved as well.
Along with his preferences regarding road surfaces, Trevelyan advises searching for “as much variety as is possible in twelve hours”—the time span of the walking he seems to recommend: “Road and track, field and wood, mountain, hill, and plain should follow each other in shifting vision” (71). He praises George Meredith’s poem “The Orchard and the Heath” for its depiction of “the effect of variation in the day’s walk” (71). Some districts naturally possess such variation, but variety can also “be obtained by losing the way—a half-conscious process, which in a sense can no more be done of deliberate purpose than falling in love. And yet a man can sometimes very wisely let himself drift, either into love, or into the wrong path out walking” (71-72). I am reminded here, strangely, of the psychogeographical trick of walking somewhere with the wrong map as a way of experiencing space differently. For Trevelyan,
there is a joyous mystery in roaming on, reckless where you are, into what valley, road or farm chance and the hour is guiding you. If the place is lonely and beautiful, and if you have lost all count of it upon the map, it may seem a fairy glen, a lost piece of old England that no surveyor would find though he searched for it a year. I scarcely know whether most to value this quality of aloofness, and magic in country I have never seen before and may never see again, or the familiar joys of Walking-grounds where every tree and rock are rooted in the memories that make up my life. (72)
But certain places provide better walking territory than others: the western part of England is better than the eastern; Wales is good; the coasts of Devon and Cornwall meet with his approval.
Scrambling up hills “is an integral part of Walking, when the high ground is kept all day in a mountain region” (74). Indeed, “[i]t may be argues that scrambling and its elder brother climbing are the essence of Walking made perfect,” although Trevelyan acknowledges that, since he’s not a mountain climber, he cannot judge (74). However, climbers have no reason to envy walkers. “On the other hand,” he continues, “those stalwart Britons who, for their country’s good, shut themselves up in one flat field all day and play there, surrounded by ropes and a crowd, may keep themselves well and happy, but they are divorced from nature” (74-75). Hunting “does well when it draws out into the heart of nature those who could not otherwise be induced to go there,” but hunters should instruct their gamekeepers to allow walkers onto the land “when they themselves are not shooting” (75). “The closing of moors is a bad habit that is spreading in some places, though I hope it is disappearing in others,” he writes, suggesting that closing off land because of the presence of grouse and deer means that it has “ceased to belong to Britain” (75). “One would have thought that mountains as well as seas were a common pleasure ground,” Trevelyan continues. “But let us register our thanks to the many who do not close their moors” (76). In turn, walkers have responsibilities “not to leave gates open, not to break fences, not to walk through hay or crops, and not to be rude to farmers,” as well as to burn or bury their garbage, since “all nature is sacred, and in England there is none too much of it” (76). In addition, when walkers trespass on private property, they should do it “only so as to temper law with equity. Private gardens and the immediate neighbourhood of inhabited houses must be avoided or only crossed when there is no fear of being seen” (76). The guiding principle, he continues, is “‘Give no man, woman, or child just reason to complain of your passage’” (76).
Tea is an essential addition to walking, and as British, by adoption, as wine is Italian. When he is tired and hungry, he states, he hopes that “a lane-side inn” will be able to provide him with three boiled eggs and a pot of tea (77). “Then, for an hour’s perfect rest and recovery, while I draw from my pocked some small, well-thumbed volume, discoloured by many rains and rivers, so that some familiar, immortal spirit may sit beside me at the board,” he writes. “There is true luxury of mind and body! Then on again into the night if it be winter, or into the dusk falling or still but threatened—joyful, a man remade” (77-78). For Trevelyan, walking at night is the best part of walking: “Indeed the only reason, other than weakness of the flesh, for not always walking until late at night, is the joy of making a leisurely occupation of the hamlet that chance or whim has selected for the night’s rest” (78). He praises the after-dinner walk at sunset—I’m surprised that after walking 12 hours anyone would want to walk some more—and suggests that “[a]fter a day’s walk everything has twice its usual value,” including food, drink, and books (79). He also advises taking a day off during a lengthy walking tour: “All day long, as we lie perdu in wood or field, we have perfect laziness and perfect health. . . . Our modern life requires such days of ‘anti-worry,’ and they are only to be obtained in perfection when the body has been walked to a standstill” (79-80). Even longer walking tours, it seems, are motivated by the need for psychological and physical health, at least as much as for their less prosaic effects.
Variety in weather is as welcome as variety in scenery, according to Trevelyan:
I love the stillness of dawn, and of noon, and of evening, but I love no less the “winds austere and pure.” The fight against fiercer wind and snowstorm is among the higher joys of Walking, and produces in shortest time the state of ecstasy. . . . Still more in mist upon the mountains, to keep the way, or to lose and find it, is one of the great primaeval games, though now we play it with map and compass. (80)
He recalls a week of walking in the Pyrenees, when he saw the sun for only half a day: “Yet I enjoyed that week in the mist, for I was kept hard at work finding the unseen way through pine forest and gurgling Alp, every bit of instinct and hill-knowledge on the stretch. And that one half-day of sunlight, how I treasured it!” (80-81). “So let us ‘love all changes of weather,’” he continues (81).
Trevelyan’s conclusion is perhaps rather abrupt. “I have no set down my own experiences and likings,” he writes. “Let no one be alarmed or angry because his ideas of Walking are different. There is no orthodoxy in Walking. It is a land of many paths and no-paths, where every one goes his own way and is right” (81). That lack of dogmatism—or at least that professed lack of dogmatism—is perhaps the thing I like best about this essay. Despite Trevelyan’s deep Romanticism, he acknowledges that there are other kinds of walking, and other reasons to walk. That openness is welcome. I’m also fascinated by the way that Trevelyan seems to be addressing a fairly large walking public. Was walking that popular in England at the turn of the twentieth century? Were people really going out to walk 25 or 30 miles on a Sunday? Were the concerns about access and exclusion that Trevelyan writes about widely shared? I can’t say. Answering those questions would take more research.
Minshull, Duncan, ed. The Vintage Book of Walking, Vintage, 2000.
Trevelyan, George Macaulay. “Walking.” Clio, a Muse and Other Essays Literary and Pedestrian, third printing, Longman, Greens and Co., 1914, pp. 56-81. http://www.tbm100.org/Lib/Tre14.pdf.