Dickens did it, Will Self does it. Wordsworth was famous for it. Baudelaire did it in Paris, Thoreau in Walden Woods and JK Rowling does it at night.
Walking and writing go together like bread and butter. Walking refreshes my mind with new sights and sounds, uncurls my spine from writer’s hunch, loosens my shoulders and gives me the time to let ideas mature. Writing feeds off walking, channelling the thoughts fizzing around my brain.
This last fortnight has been a walking festival. I’ve indulged my appetite for walking until my feet hurt. Back at the desk, I’m energised and refreshed.
Accompanied by friends, I walked the length of Saint Cuthberts Way, a cross-border path from Melrose Abbey in the Eildon Hills of Scotland, to the remote priory on the Holy Island of Lindesfarne. From there we walked up the Northumbrian coast to Berwick-on-Tweed, then ambled by bus back south to Newcastle, where I made one final walk from the city centre along the banks of the Tyne to the sea.
Long walks take you through different flavours and textures of experience. Days start with chatty, companionable walking, exclaiming over views and charging up hills, fuelled with eggs and bacon. Then you settle into rhythmic, quiet, meditative walking, steadily eating up the miles. Later, as physical weariness kicked in, it becomes a trudge, energy directed inwards to keep on keeping on. Finally, the joy of the last mile. As evening cools the air, you get the first glimpse of the final destination – a village, a church spire, a castle. Fatigue adds zest to the anticipation of boots off, feet up, kettle on. And you’re there, righteously tired, deserving rest and food.
The parallels with writing are obvious. Neither process can be rushed. You set down word after word, step after step. You might have a general idea of where you’re going, but you don’t know exactly how it will be. Sometimes you go wrong and need to retrace your steps, or lose your way and can’t see the path. You get bone-tired, wondering if you will ever finish. The excitement of setting out is a distant memory – until that grateful realisation you are near the end.
A long walk (London to Canterbury) seeded my first novel, Unlawful Things. I had hopes of similar inspiration from this northern walk. So did it work? Well, a conversation with a friend prompted a not-too-serious idea for a cross-dressing historical romance. I dreamed the kernal of a plot for a murder mystery one night. But it was when we shared snatches of remembered poetry as we walked one day that I suddenly felt that shiver of recognition, the hairs rising at the base of my neck. A short verse that repeated itself with the tread of my feet. Maybe it will come to something, given time.