Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 15, 2010

Slow Journeys (2009), by Gillian Souter

Slow Journeys, subtitled The Pleasures of Travelling By Foot, may seem like a strange choice of reading for someone with an ankle so wonky that a brace and a walking stick are essential accessories for walking the cobblestones of Europe.  However, Gillian Souter’s guide to walking the world is so entertaining that I suspect even a confirmed couch potato would enjoy reading it…

She begins by making a strong case for walking, which she takes care to differentiate from serious hiking or mountain climbing.  She’s none too keen on camping, and is alert to the misery of lugging heavy equipment about as well, but, she says, long-distance walking is such a satisfying way to travel that it’s worth it – and anyway there are plenty of walks that you can do where porters move your stuff for you while you walk from ‘hut to hut’ (0r B&B or lodge or pub as the case may be).

You may get a buzz out of walking ancient trails, or like Coleridge or Wordsworth you may be inspired to write romantic poetry.  The fresh air and beauty of nature will refresh your spirit  and improve your mental health, and of course there are benefits to your physical health from improving your blood pressure to toning up your muscles.  Walking makes holidays inexpensive, and you get to see the country properly – even if all you do is saunter around the back alleyways of cities and towns (which is all that I can do, alas).

There’s plenty of sensible advice about planning your journey and pacing yourself,  but the best part of this book is the overview of what’s on offer around the world, everything from pilgrimage routes to camel treks in outer Mongolia – all guaranteed to make your feet itch to be off and away!  I also enjoyed her sometimes tongue-in-cheek guide to choosing company for your walk:

Your choice of company – assuming you choose any – will have greater repercussions for you when walking than during any other forms of travel, for you will keep company more closely and be more reliant on each other.  You will depend on them for diversion, for shrewd judgement and, quite possibly, for physical assistance.  Heed the advice offered to would-be polar explorers by W.C. Stellar and R.J. Yeatman: ‘Choose your companions carefully – you may have to eat them’. (p90)

It’s ok to take dogs in some places, she says, and both the Brits and the French enjoy canine company, but

There’s no point trying to take a cat on a long walk.  They are not team players and their lack of enthusiasm for the venture will only disappoint. (p99)

In a wise and witty chapter about choosing and packing the gear, she concludes with this pungent advice:

For a long plane journey we wear some items of clothing that are on their last legs but that won’t get us arrested for vagrancy.  That way, as soon as we’ve reached our first night’s destination, we ditch the whiffy T-shirt, elastic-challenged underwear and holey socks and so postpone the inaugural clothes wash while instantly lightening our load. (p117)

Desultory or ankle-challenged walkers like me might find my ‘bibles’ more useful – Walking Literary London , 25 Original Walks Through London’s Literary Heritage by Roger Taghom and The Impressionists’ Paris by Ellen Williams – but Slow Journeys is much more fun to read.

It’s been reviewed locally by The Weekly Times and Australian Women Online but really, this terrific book deserves an international audience.  Alas, I can’t find any stockists overseas except on pre-release at Amazon. Here in Oz, Readings had it in stock when I checked there.

Author: Gillian Souter
Title: Slow Journeys
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2009
ISBN: 9781741759655

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