After Kim and I arrived back from India in the middle of March, I had a period where I was moving around a lot, mainly in the UK. At one point I decided to write a list of everywhere I’d stayed since we got back and counted over twenty moves in eleven weeks. It’s a lot, although in some ways was not as tough as it sounds since I was often returning to places I know well, homes of friends or family. Nonetheless, I got to a point where I was ready to stay put for a little while at least and finally found myself in the same place for a fortnight. At last I was able to reflect a little more on the preceding weeks.
The meaning of peripatetic
I’d been thinking of the term peripatetic to describe this period to myself and to others, but sitting down to write, I wanted to remind myself of the word’s etymology. The emphasis is on moving about, but specifically on foot. The root of the word relates to Aristotle who gave his lectures while walking up and down in the Lyceum. I was glad to be reminded of the origin of the word as, looking back on our travels, I realised it was often the experiences on foot that stood out for me.
The place of walking while travelling
In Greece, the walks in Meteora up to ancient monasteries perched on top of, or carved in to, rock faces; the strolls through old forests of oak, the hot sunshine filtering gently through the tall trees: all of this was a joy. A highlight in Turkey was standing on top of a hill, having walked up a steep winding road in a village on the Bosphorous. Catching our breath, Kim and I stood looking at the straits below, the traffic of boats, ferries and freight ships plying the waters. To our right was a bridge, elegant and expansive, finished only the previous year. It was mind-boggling to watch the activity, to think about the comings and goings passing under the bridge and to muse on how long trade had been crossing the Black Sea, from east to west and back again. We became transfixed and it was hard to walk away.
In Palestine one day, a new friend and I were making our way to some olive groves for a day’s harvesting. We got lost, the dusty tracks all looking similar. This gave us more time to chat and get to know each better, discovering our shared interests and routes through life as we worked out how to find the trees we were looking for.
In Egypt both Kim and I took long walks up and down the stretch of beach where we were staying in a hut made of palm leaves and bamboo. There was little else to do in this part of the South Sinai. We read, swam, slept. And walked. The colours were fantastical, pinks and violets that seemed other-worldly. Walking along the beach at sunrise and sunset was a sublime experience, feet sinking in to the sand as the water rippled, barely. In the afternoon it became as still as a lake, shimmering in the bright light. Saudi Arabia would appear hazily across the body of water, a place to ponder on as I strolled up and down the shoreline.
In Nepal the main purpose of the trip was to walk. Hiking through the foothills of the Himalayas, surrounded by lush, green terraces and colourful foliage, exchanging namaste with passers by on narrow, steep paths, was something I rejoiced in. Later, as the elevation increased and the backpacks got heavier, snowy peaks emerged through the clouds and around corners. The sight of them helped me put one foot in front of another.
In India walking was a challenge of a different kind. Avoiding open drains and garbage required keeping your eyes focussed downwards, yet unpredictable traffic, and much of it, demanded looking up. Visiting ancient, sacred sites was less life threatening. I remember walking in to the rock-cut temple caves of Ellora and Ajanta, often barefoot, and relishing the coolness both at my back and on the soles of my feet. The sculptures were intricate, beautiful, awe-inspiring. I would step a few paces then pause and gaze. The caves were numerous and both sites were large. Several hours passed by easily, happily, on these touristic, spiritual tours, my feet accommodating the slow, drawn-out pace.
No walking here
I had planned to take a trip in the spring, a sponsored walk in Palestine, hiking from Jenin to Jericho through landscape populated by old olive groves, deep wadis and ancient religious sites. I would have seen all this and more, my feet leaving light footprints on land walked by a whole host of people over the ages, yet now desecrated by the scars of military occupation. Sadly, I was denied entry to Israel when I landed at Tel Aviv airport and was forced to fly home the next day. Back in England unexpectedly and with no plans, I had a desire to walk, to pace and pace to cover ground and unearth some meaning from the experience of deportation, but I didn’t know where to go. The grey and chilly streets of London were not appealing. I felt restless yet drained, uninspired and too worn down by the unexpected turn of events to walk my woes away.
The meaning of walking
In the midst of the apathy I was feeling at this time, I nonetheless registered surprise at my lack of interest in walking. In the past, when life has felt weighty, unpredictable and confusing, I have tended to clock up the miles, pounding streets, parks and country paths. This has served to shift my thinking, unlock insights, deliver catharsis. A well-documented and noble tradition supports this notion of a connection between the fluidity of a body in motion and the fluidity of thoughts, feelings and ideas. It’s one that has been endorsed through actions and words by poets, artists and philosophers across the centuries. As noted earlier, Aristotle’s preferred mode of teaching was to walk up and down, to keep moving. Much later, during the Romantic era, focus was placed on the natural world, and on the significance of walking in nature. Wordsworth was just one such stalwart proponent, walking miles and miles everyday. A few years ago, I came across Frederic Gros’ A Philosophy of Walking, in which he explores his own meditations on walking while describing famous walker-thinkers, where they rambled and how this shaped their ideas, theories and lives.
Whether it’s for inspiration, catharsis, protest or spiritual enlightenment, walking somewhere, anywhere, usually works well. When I found myself back in London unexpectedly I realised that, to feel more inclined to put one foot in front of the other, I needed to make a move away from the streets and towards the countryside. I dug myself out of the city and headed to the more open landscape of England’s south west. There, as my instinct had told me, I regained my vigour for walking and with it the beginnings of a shift in energy and mood.
Since those few days in London, when I experienced a site-specific lack of wanderlust, I’ve been lucky enough to walk through the emptiness of Exmoor and Dartmoor and the wildness of Cornwall, to stroll along the wide sandy beaches of Calais, and to saunter in the gentle countryside of England’s Home Counties. I’ve moved around a lot over the last few months but while I’ve kept walking, the peripatetic nature of this year has felt just fine.