Stan Hey: There's nothing like a walk on the wild side

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During last autumn's bizarre petrol protests and refinery blockades, I got into the habit of leaving the car at home and walking into town each day for my usual late- morning chores. These embrace getting the papers, visiting the off-licence, having a coffee and a "bitch" with a small band of like-minded home-workers, and then putting on a bet on the way back.

During last autumn's bizarre petrol protests and refinery blockades, I got into the habit of leaving the car at home and walking into town each day for my usual late- morning chores. These embrace getting the papers, visiting the off-licence, having a coffee and a "bitch" with a small band of like-minded home-workers, and then putting on a bet on the way back.

With the roads stripped of traffic by the fuel shortage, it was actually a pleasure to taste the air and hear birdsong, rather than swallowing a cloud of exhaust gases, or having to listen to the throbbing bass notes from the mega-watt stereo of a passing Ford Escort.

Unfortunately it was only a brief interlude from our mechanised lives, rather like that period of emergency energy-saving in 1973 when the television stations closed down early, and families suddenly rediscovered the pleasures of reading or conversation, or that they had been living in the wrong house for years. As soon as each of these crises was over, most of us went back to our old ways of watching telly until midnight, not talking to one another, and taking the car for even the shortest trip.

Just occasionally, however, I still do the walk, when it's a bright winter's day perhaps, or when that persistent heart-attack infomercial has nagged away at my conscience. It is not a strenuous, Kendal Mint Cake-and- hiking-boot walk, except for the uphill bit on the way back. Nor is it a tranquil, Wordsworthian stroll across fields and hills, especially now that the cars are all running again. It is a functional walk, but that doesn't diminish its pleasures or its capacity to provoke thought.

The first stage is rural. A narrow road flanked by two hedgerows, one bordering a paddock for horses, the other a big field for grazing cows. The horses take no notice of me, but the cows invariably peer over the hedgerow and give me a stare. I was trying to work out why and all I could come up with was this: here are cows that only ever see humans encased in some form of agricultural transport - a tractor, or a Land-Rover. So when someone walking passes them, it arouses the cows' curiosity and they look at me, probably with justification, as though I am the dumb animal, because I'm not driving.

This is also the part of the walk where I get the highest volume of strange looks from car-drivers themselves. Despite being on the correct side of the road, facing oncoming vehicles, there's always irritation on their faces, as they have to pull out to pass me. You can also see a thought cross their eyes along the lines of: "What's he walking for? I think I'll call Crimestoppers."

Then there are the really scary ones that only see you at the last minute, because they're cocooned in 4WD all-terrain vehicles, talking away on the mobile phone or checking their satellite navigation screen.

On the next stretch of the walk, down a busy B-road, the environment is more hostile. Cars don't slow down for you at all. Some of the verges, fronting houses, are lined with prehistoric-sized boulders in a typical Little Englander attempt to deter parking. And the hedgerow is littered with empty cans of Red Bull and discarded packets of Lambert & Butler cigarettes, presumably the preferred choices of drunks staggering their way home. (Walks are rather good for market research.)

On the final stage, before the town itself, the road passes over a canal, normally a picturesque spot. But at the moment it has been drained for construction work. I therefore find myself staring over the parapet at such abandoned items as old prams, bikes, tyres and traffic cones, and wonder if the canal is being entered for the Turner Prize - although you can tell you're not in the city because there isn't a supermarket trolley in there with them.

Yes, there's nothing quite like a country walk.

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