On the right track: how walking connects me to the land and its people | Walking

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From the age of eight, I attended a little boarding school on the Derbyshire-Staffordshire border where I’d often get in trouble on a Sunday afternoon. The teachers would leave us to roam the edge of the grounds where we were supposed to pass time making fires, toasting marshmallows or playing cricket but my habit was to set out over the fences and stiles into the landscape and often, much to the teachers’ chagrin, no one knew where to find me.

Ashish Ghadiali out walking with the Kramblers
Ashish Ghadiali out walking with the Kramblers Photograph: Ashish Ghadiali

That was the point. To stand on unfamiliar ground and, for a moment, feel the world as something new brought with it a feeling I would crave and it formed a habit that stuck with me. By my mid-20s, I was a committed pedestrian, buoyed up by a privileged encounter on the streets of Whitechapel with east London’s resident visionary, Iain Sinclair, who warned against the underground as a way of getting around the city. He likened its subterranean networks to rabbit warrens that would cut us off from instinct and make it hard for us to know where (or who) we really are.

Shuffling on fast feet between Aldgate East and Soho, or kicking back for a languorous Sunday stroll up to Parliament Hill, that was an insight I carried with me as I stumbled over Roman ruins and hidden histories of romantic poetry. Making sense of the city’s vast topography, walking became a way of life that, in turn, gave shape to an itinerant decade and I would ease myself into new locations the world over by setting out on foot to get lost and then find myself again in the backstreets of Ahmedabad or Isfhanan, Ramallah or Bari.

Ashish Ghadiali’s black and white shaggy dog Dharma
It’s a dog’s life … Dharma leads the way into the woods. Photograph: Ashish Ghadiali

And then beyond the towns and cities and beyond the scale of human history, I’d walk in the foothills of the Himalayas or on the desert plains of the Jordan Valley and find new depths of experience. I’d watch the monsoon end in thick fog rising up the mountainside near Dharamsala or see the seasons laid out in space at the point where the fresh air of Ein-Al-Hilwe (“sweet natural spring”) presses up close against the heat and dust of Jericho. These were landscapes to fall in love in and I did, discovering while walking a feeling of transcendence that moved me beyond the narrow quadrant of my own identity-story, nurturing a feeling of connection with something deeper in myself, and with the person beside me, and with the planet that contains us.

By the time I returned to England in my mid-30s, I had got used to looking at walking as a way to cultivate a feeling of belonging. Back in Derbyshire, clearing out the house I grew up in, I was taken in by a community of Kashmiri hikers, the Kramblers, who had been thinking along similar lines.

The Kramblers, a group of Kashmiri walkers who live in Britain.
The Kramblers, a group of Kashmiri walkers who live in Britain. Photograph: Abdul Qayum

Home now in Rotherham, Sheffield, Salford, Oldham and Rochdale, each one of them was remembering a childhood in Mirpur where walking in the mountains had been an activity as natural as popping to the shop to pick up a pint of milk. Yet decades inhabiting an immigrant geography in northern England had turned them into dwellers of the cities and the suburbs – the “ghettoes” – cut off from the rugged rural landscapes that surrounded them.

In response, and to reclaim something lost, they had begun to organise themselves, every Sunday, to get out together across the peaks and valleys of Edale, Dovedale, Malham, Monsal, Kinder Scout – to stand up to unconscious narratives about who belongs where and what land belongs to whom. They began to cultivate, by walking, a sense of belonging with the landscape of England that lies deeper than the surface layer of racist nationalism. And for me, walking with the Kramblers became a way of piecing together worlds torn apart by geopolitics.

That experience strengthened a sense of belonging that, by the time I established my own home, in the landscape of south Devon, I knew could be cultivated here, too – along the coastal paths and forest floors that surround the River Dart. Here, walking now serves me (and my one-year old puppy, Dharma) as an essential daily practice. The world outside our front door is a refuge from a day of successive Zoom calls or from the intensity of a writing deadline. It’s a place where I can get out of my head. Where he and I can remember where we are (and who we are), recover a sense of our equilibrium.

We watch the seasons change and sense the movement of the sun and the light around the moon. We witness the earth and when I get home I make a cup of tea. The flowers of spring can feel just like a miracle. We walk the same path, day after day, but every minute of every hour can feel like new.

How to do it

The Ramblers Association has a tool for finding local walking groups and All The Elements is a volunteer-run library of organisations which help diverse communities enjoy the great outdoors. Gay Outdoor Club is another great resource for finding local LGBTQ+ groups and events to help you connect with people who want to run, hike and ramble. When it comes to finding new routes, National Trails can show you the way or look at the National Trust’s survey of Britain’s 100 Favourite Walks from 2018. If you want to try being an armchair walker, read Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking or London Orbital by Iain Sinclair.




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