We all of us - those at any rate fortunate enough to be able-bodied - walk. It may be only from the front door to the car, or from the armchair in front of the television to the fridge to get another can of beer. We do it without thinking.
But once you use the word 'walking' it conjures up a swarm of unpleasant associations: they may stop short of the full vision of four hundred German ramblers in lederhosen and rucksacks singing 'Valderi, Valdera', but a disagreeable whiff of voluntary exercise none the less hangs in the air. There is, I should therefore make it quite clear, the world of difference between Going for a Walk and Walking, as much as there is between Going for a Drive and Driving.
Going for a Walk, unless accompanied by a dog or a bag of golf-clubs, could be dismissed as a slightly frivolous activity. Walking is serious stuff, a means of getting from one part of London to another without spending money.
I have timed, for instance, the journey from Kensington to Soho. By taxi, depending on traffic, it takes about half an hour. That now costs at the very least pounds 6.50. By Underground, changing at South Kensington, being bashed by backpackers, pestered by buskers, standing with your face crammed into some stranger's armpit as the train sways its way through tunnels, takes about the same time, and costs 90p. Buses, I've never got the hang of. On foot, breathing in the smell of the trees, going between the
flowerbeds behind the Albert Memorial where squirrels pose seductively by railings with nuts between their forepaws, along the Serpentine to the quacking of ducks, through the gardens behind the Catholic church in Mayfair and the charming maze of mews and lanes south of Oxford Street, the same journey takes at the outside an hour. It costs nothing, and you get there feeling wonderful.
When I was working at the Whitehall Theatre last year I could walk all the way on grass, except for having to go down the stairs and up again at Hyde Park Corner. There are all sorts of other routes through the parks, and even in the busiest places enough cobbled back streets and squares keep you away from traffic.
What amazes me, as I walk through the park into central London during the rush hour, with the traffic jammed nose to tail all along the road that runs parallel to my footpath, is how few people do it. They prefer to sit and be stressed, jerking forward every few minutes, operating machinery in an expensive airless box on wheels.
There are times, clearly, when walking is not the answer. Going to a fancy dress party dressed as Little Bo Peep or The Hunchback of Notre Dame, carrying heavy luggage, or in a monsoon.
But what usually seems to stop people is
prejudice. A lot of them imagine it's on the verge of jogging, and therefore energetic. In fact it's the laziest way of getting around there is. Your legs go of their own accord. There is none of the grisly panting and gasping you see the wretched
joggers doing, you breathe in the fresh air without realising you're doing it, except when you get a whiff of blossom or a cloud of exhaust fumes. Otherwise you do absolutely nothing.
That, I think, is the best thing about it. You can, as John Betjeman recommended, look at buildings above shop-level to enjoy the architecture, you can take in the Household Cavalry rehearsing outside Knightsbridge Barracks or hear the birds singing. You can even, if you want, listen to an opera or the news on a Walkman.
But the real pleasure of walking is turning off, letting thoughts sail through your mind like clouds on a windy day, clearing your head as it clears when you're asleep, day-dreaming.
There are, I have to concede, disagreeable things about walkers; they have a way of turning up at parties, lightly beaded with sweat and telling you they have walked in from Battersea or Hampstead in a tone of voice that seems to demand general awe, as if they had just come up the North Face of the Eiger.
Some walkers are obviously mad and mutter to themselves. I myself have occasionally got some odd looks for not noticing I was singing.
It's a very traditional activity. Jonathan Swift used to walk back to Chelsea from St James's Palace when he could just as well have taken a coach, because he preferred it; so did Thomas Carlyle, and so did hundreds of other literary Londoners, natives and visitors. I think it might be time for a revival.
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