We learn the importance of toiling along our frigid streets like Dickens.


One of Lockdown’s joys is rediscovering long walks, as a new television series will show

It is not difficult to walk from Ravenscar, in North Yorkshire, to Robin Hood’s Bay, further up the coast. The route is marked high up on the cliffs by a cinder track that traces the direction of the old Scarborough to Whitby railroad line; all you need to do is walk along the sand once you have descended to the beach to have your destination (the pub!) almost in reach. Yeah, it’s windy, it can be. You look at the scrawny, gnarled trees and you wonder how the wind turned them all into hunchbacks, like a cruel sculptor.

But the beauty of it is that, even in the middle of winter when Yorkshire days come with their own peculiar conciseness, you can cover this gap with ease between lunch and tea.

Paths pass through individuals as certainly as they do through locations, to paraphrase Robert Macfarlane.

A familiar walk imprints itself on the heart, a jagged line that can be traced, in reality as in fiction, for better or worse, and because of that fact, when I sat down to watch a new series in which poet laureate Simon Armitage follows the very route I mentioned, I felt a bit like an owner. Especially dear to me is this part of Yorkshire, and never more so than at this time of year when the huge, gray-pink sky resembles the mascara of a tear-stained face. But I can’t fly there at the moment. Why should he be allowed, I thought enviously, to have his tacitly lyrical way of roaming his Jurassic foothills with such abandon when I have to remain a London prisoner?
Winter Walks, which starts tomorrow on BBC4 and continues throughout the week, sounds irredeemably boring on paper: five minor celebrities wander around followed only by a 360-degree camera, a device to which they can entrust their innermost thoughts if they have the inclination. You also get the impression that such an easy and comparatively cheap proposition might only have made it to the screen in a pandemic, shot just before the start of social distancing.

But boy, it’s going to work for you. Here’s a charm. The Gorse. The Gorse. The moose. The rasp of the lungs of Armitage as he scales a slope.

In its simplicity, there is a sort of abundance.

There is a certain intimacy in its gentleness.

If it lacks passion – plod, plod – that’s half the fight. When you walk, says Armitage, you travel at once in many dimensions.

Scar tissue is under your feet: the remains of the past, human or geological, taking a sense of perspective with it, a look that imbues everything, even as it chastises, with a sense of hope and rebirth.

What did we learn from the pandemic? How did it make us change? People speak of the end of the workplace, of kindness and community, and of the mall. They fear, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, that things are just going to calm down; that we’re going to forget what the sad time was like too easily.

This is all nonsense much of the time. Now we can’t decide what we’re going to be bringing into the future.

But I find it curious that nobody discusses walking and the role it has taken in our lives unexpectedly-a new centrality to which Winterwalks speaks explicitly. In all its rigor, this series doesn’t just celebrate walking.

It gets to the heart of a curious paradox: while all too often, as if shackled, we are glued to our phones, we were never more ambulatory: inclined to wander, to trudge, to venture out. One of the only real things we now have in common may be our everyday constitution – and it may also be one of the few things we hold to when better times return.

Not only do we understand that running is good for us in all the obvious ways (the air, the exercise, the greenery).

The relation between the pace of our steps and what I think I have to call our imagination, a term that I think can and should be applied to almost every aspect of everyday life, from thought to cooking dinner to sorting underwear, is the only theoretical thing that many of us experience. Out on the streets of the city, I always think of Dickens, the great compulsive wanderer: there are now Boz-like figures doggedly walking the sidewalks all over London.

Some are looking at their feet, their feelings far away, their normal route too far away.


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