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Walking – Introduction to Item 78

A small brown dog standing in the sea. The sky behind is pink and a white lighthouse can just be seen in the distanceWhen I was deciding the title for this post, I wasn’t sure what to go for. ‘Walking’ perhaps sounds a bit vague, as there are so many variations on this as a pursuit. Hiking I always think of as being up hills or at least out in the country, and promenading requires a long dress and a parasol. Walking, of course, is also a practical solution to get from A to B.

As we now have a dog, we find ourselves obliged to go out for a walk in all kinds of weather, much to the dismay of the dog, who unsurprisingly dislikes being wet or cold. But we’ve always gone walking in my family, or hiking, depending on where we were. My grandma once made us do an epic trip from Winlaton to Prudhoe, a 12-mile round trip. We also used to walk on the beach at Christmastime, when it was bitterly cold and nobody else was out. 

The History of Walking

Obviously walking as a physical activity is something we’ve been doing as a species for a rather long time, and the purpose of this blog is not to look at evolution and the history of humanity!

The proper term for walking as we do it is ‘bipedalism’, from the Latin ‘bis’ – ‘double’ and ‘pes’ – ‘foot’ or two feet. It’s a way of moving across the ground, and most mammals are not bipedal. The fastest bipedal mammal in the world (which is not extinct) is the ostrich, which can run at 70 km/ph. I’ve not seen an ostrich up close, but I have seen emus running, and it’s a weird sight.

Most bipedal animals rely on a tail to help them balance, and move in an almost horizontal movement. Primates are

An Australopithecus example (early hominid ape)


the exception, as they don’t always have tails, and can walk almost upright. However, their locomotion isn’t exclusively bipedal.

When it comes to our ancestors, there are a whole range of theories as to why they evolved from moving on all fours to travelling upright, including changes in their living environment, elevated eye level, ability to access food in trees, feeding their young, and travelling great distances.

The best assumption is that several of these theories are correct, and we evolved into bipedal creatures out of necessity. It’s believed that the Sahelanthropus species of hominid apes may have walked seven million years ago, and there is definitive evidence of biped fossils dating to around four million years ago, from the Australopithecus species.

Walking as a Pastime

So what about walking for fun, rather than a purpose? It would be reasonable to assume that once humans realised they could do move on two feet, they’d do it all the time, but they didn’t. Apart from anything else, early humans would need to conserve energy and keep themselves safe from predators.

Then, as we became civilised and evolved into societies, walking was only done by the very poorest, who couldn’t afford to transport themselves by any other way. Anyone wandering around the countryside would have been assumed to be a vagrant, which was against the law.

In the Middle Ages, vagrancy was a crime punishable variously by whipping or hanging. In more ‘enlightened’ times, you might only find yourself sentenced to hard labour, forced military service, imprisonment or sent to the poor house.

Two pairs of walking boots, one grey, one blueIt wasn’t until the end of the 18th century that walking was recommended as a leisure pursuit. In 1778, priest Thomas West published a book about the Lake District, and suggested that the many lakes and breath-taking views could best be appreciated by walking around them, and proposed routes and lookout spots.

12 years later, the poet William Wordsworth took himself off for a tour of France, Germany and Switzerland, and indulged in a great deal of walking. In 1798, he took his sister Dorothy on a walking holiday in Wales, and the year after he and Samuel Taylor Coleridge did a stint in the Lakes.

The following century saw author Robert Louis Stevenson travelling around the centre of France with a donkey and turning the experience into a book. The end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th saw the popularity of travel guide books increase, as more people combined walking with holidays abroad.

By the 1930s, there were believed to be more than half a million ramblers in Britain alone, with 10,000 of them descending on the Peak District at the weekend. This led to the formation of groups such as the Ramblers Association, who existed partly to support their members and partly to lobby the government to allow people to walk on mountains and across fields without being accused of trespassing.

Pilgrimages on Foot

While walking without purpose may have been illegal, pilgrims have been traipsing across countries and continents for hundreds of years. Possibly the most famous is the Camino de Santiago, sometimes referred to simply as ‘The Way.’

The Way starts at the foot of the French Pyrenees, at St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and walkers travel about 500 miles (800km) to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. The Camino Primitivo, or ‘Original Way’, is considerably shorter, at 230 miles or 370km.

Pic © LailaBrocker1 via Pixabay

The walk commemorates St James (Santiago), patron saint of Spain and one of the Twelve Apostles. The story goes that he went to preach the Gospel in the Iberian Peninsula, and when he got back to Judea Herod put him to death.

His body was laid to rest at a place in Northern Spain after being moved there by boat. The city built on the site is Santiago de Compostela. His tomb was discovered in the ninth century and pilgrimages began soon after. As far as I can tell, the earliest pilgrims went from France, hence why that’s still the starting point. They would have walked as a penance for sinning.

Pilgrimages are common all over the world, of course, and many are still undertaken today, whether from religious beliefs or a desire to test stamina and experience the world in a different way. It’s even possible to book onto a guided tour for some of them.

In Peru, for instance, a pilgrimage to Las Huaringas to be healed by medicine men (curanderos) is popular, but a considerably shorter, if steeper, walk. 13,000 feet above sea level, pilgrims come to 14 sacred lagoons.

In Japan, pilgrims have been winding their way through the Kii Mountains for over 1,000 years to walk the Kumano Kodo to visit Buddhist shrines, and in Norway, people have visited the tomb of King Olav in Trondheim since 1031 – he was canonised for introducing Christianity to Norway.


Brittanica: Australopithecus
Brittanica: Walking
Odyssey Traveller: European Pilgrim Walks