The English Path

The links between English literature and walking are very well known. Many of our greatest literary figures were renowned walkers. Not just the obvious candidates such as Wordsworth and Coleridge, but also Shakespeare (whose plays are full of country lore), Dickens, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, George Borrow, John Clare, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy – the list goes on and on.

Many of these and lots of others are celebrated in Kim Taplin’s beautiful book The English Path, first published in 1979, which I’ve been re-reading. It’s long been a favourite of mine.

In its pages, Kim Taplin, looks at the way that crossing over the stile and following a path – which the Victorian country chronicler Richard Jefferies says we should always do – has shaped so much of our literature.

We are taken out in the steps of so many great and not a few lesser-known authors as they step out into the countryside. Kim Taplin also examines the importance of our paths for their own sake, arguing – as I try to do on this blog and elsewhere – that our precious network of rights of way is culturally and historically important.

In the wise words of the American visitor Washington Irving, quoted in this wonderful book, “the stile and footpath leading from the churchyard, across pleasant fields and along shady hedge-rows, according to an immemorial right of way, common features of English landscape, evince a calm and settled security, and hereditary transmission of homebred virtues and local attachments, that speak deeply and touchingly for the moral character of the nation.”

Quite!

Kim Taplin looks at how these writings inspired people to explore the countryside on foot, perhaps encouraging the creation of the Victorian (and later) rambling clubs. How the paths eventually became the moral property of us all and not just the well-to-do, as the working class used their few and precious hours of leisure to get out into our countryside.

Here are the vagabonds, the outlaws, as well as the honest travellers – all inspiring some of our greatest literary works.

Kim Taplin looks at the great naturalist writers – Gilbert White, Richard Jefferies and W.H. Hudson, as well as the literary figures who used illicit paths to penetrate places forbidden and out of bounds. Here you will find the literary inspiration for a thousand trespasses and the whole issue of land rights and reform.

This beautiful book, handsomely illustrated, is scandalously out of print, though it’s not difficult to find in second-hand bookshops and online book suppliers.

If you love walking in the countryside do read it. A most pleasant volume for the bedside or in the reflective hours after you’ve been out walking.

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Author: John Bainbridge

Rambler, hillwalker, stravaiger and trespasser, access campaigner. Novelist writing historical and period crime fiction.

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