Every journey begins with a single step. When 250,000 people congregate in central London, then walk from one pre-determined place to another to protest about a visit from a foreign politician, we call it a march or a demonstration.
When a million attend a Pride march in central London to walk, celebrate and dance from one location to another we call it a parade or maybe a party.
Both of these are overtly political actions that include walking but they really have much more to do with visibility and solidarity than the steps or route being taken. So when does walking become a political act in itself?
The Jarrow march, or ‘crusade’, in October 1936, and other ‘hunger marches’ were organised protests against unemployment and poverty. Around 200 men marched from Jarrow to London and the walking was as much an integral part of the protest as the petition they were carrying.
In 2019, the pro-Brexit ‘March to Leave’ sought to capture the essence, authenticity and myth of the Jarrow march. It began in Sunderland with around 200 participants and followed a route through ‘middle’ England to London, where a poorly-attended rally marked its end.
We can look back to the mass trespass of Kinder Scout on 24 April 1932, when Benny Rothman of the Manchester Young Communist League was one of the leaders of over 500 walkers and ramblers who used the act of civil disobedience to highlight the fact that the public in England and Wales were denied access to areas of open country. Several people were arrested and some received jail sentences. This event is seen a working-class stand against the exclusive use of the moorlands by the wealthy.
The ‘right to roam’ movement saw several major Acts of Parliament passed – notably the Rights of Way Act 1932 and the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949. In England & Wales these Acts were added to over the years, culminating in the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 and the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009. In Scotland people have much more access to the countryside – an almost complete right to roam.
But the politics of walking is so much more than a marvellous but dry list of statutes and court cases.
I see walking as not only a literal physical action but also as a metaphor. In our language and perspectives we often make maps of places and situations in landscapes to better understand them. If life is a journey, we all have paths to travel, hills to climb, horizons to scan, streams to ford, bridges to cross and walls to scale. Indeed, with one sector of our political society hellbent on building actual walls and barriers while strengthening state borders, imagining ways to circumvent these seems to be our wisest course of action.
The most fundamental resource for human beings everywhere has always been the land itself. Land is not only the source of the food we eat and the minerals from which we build shelters and make tools; it is also the space we occupy. When it has provided for our needs, it accommodates our pleasures. Because it is a finite resource it has always been the subject of struggle between tribes and races, nations and classes, genders, generations and haves and have-nots.
In most of the world today, the idea that the land surface should be regarded as the private property of the relative few who happen to ‘own’ it comes so naturally that alternative systems are hard to conceive.
Yet the world faces the disaster of climate change, as well as an obesity crisis in many places. If governments were serious about tackling these and other issues, they would make it easier for people to get around without motorised transport.
There is much work to be done to make sure that the land can be enjoyed and accessed by anyone who wants to enjoy it and care for it. For example, the Disabled Ramblers charity campaigns to make the countryside of England and Wales more accessible to people with limited mobility. But walking – or getting out and enjoying the land in whatever way you can – challenges the nature of its ownership and exercises a basic freedom. A walk can not only bring adventure, but also space to think and escape from the everyday drudgery.
Walking presents itself to most of us as the easiest and least threatening way to make contact with nature, the environment and other people. These days I think that most of what I’ve learned about Britain I’ve learned through my feet. It’s walking the footpaths up, down, across and around the land. It’s chatting to folk in pubs and clubs; in queues for football matches, plays, gigs and shops; on railway platforms; at bus stops and walking leisurely along on pavements or in the countryside. It’s observing the dwindling number of starlings and sparrows and being appalled at the increasing numbers of rough sleepers. It’s witnessing the slow death of the high street and the rapid rise of the city skyscraper. Talking to Brexit supporters in coastal towns and on clifftop paths.
Some of this discourse is rancorous and polarised, but most is still the reasonable exchange of different viewpoints between people who may not have met otherwise, accompanied with an intense pride that so many people have in their city/town/village/county/country. It is, in my opinion, helped by being side by side, instead of face to face. Walking connects communities.
As outdoor adventures become increasingly popular, more and more people are putting one foot in front of another in one of the most democratic, beneficial and overtly political statements they could make.
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