Like Dickens, we're learning the value of plodding through our frigid streets
T he walk from Ravenscar in North Yorkshire to Robin Hood’s Bay, further up the coast, isn’t hard going. High on the cliffs, the way ahead is marked by a cinder path that follows the course of the old railway line from Scarborough to Whitby; once you’ve dropped down to the beach, you need only stroll along the sand for your target (the pub!) almost to be in sight. Yes, it can be blowy. You look at the scant, gnarled trees and wonder at how the wind, like some malevolent sculptor, has turned them all into hunchbacks. But the beauty of it is that this stretch can be done with ease between lunch and tea even in midwinter, when the Yorkshire days come with their own particular concision.
To pinch from Robert Macfarlane, paths run through people as surely as they do through places. A familiar walk is etched on the heart, a ragged line one can retrace in good times and bad, in both reality and the imagination, and thanks to this, I felt a little proprietorial as I sat down to watch a new series in which the poet laureate, Simon Armitage, follows precisely the route I’ve described. This part of Yorkshire is especially beloved to me and never more so than at this time of year, its vast, grey-pink skies bringing to mind mascara on a tear-stained cheek. Yet, for now, I cannot travel there. Why, I thought enviously, should he be allowed to have his taciturn-lyrical way with it, roaming its Jurassic outcrops with such abandon, when I must remain in captivity in London?
On paper, Winter Walks, which begins on BBC4 tomorrow and continues all week, sounds irredeemably boring: five minor celebrities go a-wandering, accompanied only by a 360-degree camera, a bit of kit to which, should they have the inclination, they may confide their innermost thoughts. Filmed shortly before the introduction of social distancing, you feel, nevertheless, that such a straightforward and relatively inexpensive proposition could only have made it to the screen in a pandemic. But boy, does it work on you. Here is a spell. The gorse. The moss. The rasp of Armitage’s lungs as he climbs a hill. In its simplicity, there is a kind of abundance. In its gentleness, there is a certain intimacy. If it is lacking in excitement – plod, plod – this is half of the point. Walking, as Armitage suggests, involves travelling in several dimensions simultaneously. Beneath your feet is scar tissue: those remnants of the past, whether human or geological, which bring with them a sense of perspective, a vista that even as it chastens imbues everything with a feeling of hope and renewal.
What have we learned from the pandemic? How has it changed us? People talk of the end of the office and the high street; about kindness and community. They worry, sometimes rightly and sometimes wrongly, that things will just snap back into shape; that we’ll forget too quickly what this sad time has been like. Mostly, this is all guff. We can’t know, now, what we’ll carry with us into the future. But I do find it strange that no one ever mentions walking and the place it has taken unexpectedly in our lives – a new centrality to which Winter Walks speaks directly. This series, in all its austerity, doesn’t only celebrate walking. It encapsulates a striking paradox of the pandemic, which is that while we are all too often glued to our screens in lockdown, it’s also the case that we’ve never been more ambulatory: inclined to wander, to tramp, to stride out. Our daily constitutional is, perhaps, one of the few real things we have in common now – and it may, as a result, be one of the few things to which we’ll cling when better times return.There are Boz-like figures everywhere in London now, doggedly trekking the pavements
It’s not only that we know walking does us good in all the obvious ways (the air, the exercise, the greenery). Many of us are experiencing what was hitherto only theoretical: the connection between the rhythm of our footsteps and what I suppose I’m going to have to call our creativity, to my mind a word that can, and should, be extended to almost any aspect of daily life, from thinking, to cooking supper, to sorting your knicker drawer. Out on the city streets, I often think of Dickens, that great, compulsive walker: there are Boz-like figures everywhere in London now, doggedly trekking the pavements. Some stare at their feet, their minds far away, their regular circuit so familiar they could navigate it in their sleep. Others look up, seeing old things with new eyes, raising their phones prayerfully, as if to offer benediction to this peeling facade, that tinned-up pub.
But there’s something else. For months, we’ve only been allowed to meet others outside. In the summer, this was easy: one night I sat with a pal on some grass drinking margaritas she had brought in a flask and I felt both grateful and (even better) younger than my years. But then the winter came, it got colder and we had no option but to walk. In films, people often have difficult conversations in cars, their eyes on the road. What I have found in the pandemic is that it’s much easier to talk – honestly, openly – while walking than it is over a drink or a pizza, especially in these times, when the things that need saying are sometimes embarrassing. The other day, I walked with a friend I hadn’t seen for a long while and yet we spoke so easily of what was making us sad. Our route was not beautiful. The BBC wouldn’t have wanted to film it. But it was our confessional and when I returned to my desk, I felt stronger, more purposeful. Happier, I think.
Rachel Cooke is an Observer columnist