This book gathers together a marvellous collection of intrepid women who walk, or walked, usually alone, and who write about the intellectual and physical freedoms afforded by getting out by themselves. Some of the feats of physical exertion are incredible – Dorothy Wordsworth walking 33 miles from Kendal to Keswick in one day, Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt covering 170 miles of the Scottish Highlands in eight days – but Andrews also highlights the intellectual and creative exertions that are a result of Woolf’s and Anais Nin’s city walks. Using Woolf’s diaries, Andrews shows the clear link between Woolf’s walking and her writing:
‘the slow, but fresh change of down, of road, of colour: all this churned up into a fine thin sheet of perfect calm happiness. Its [sic] true I often painted the brightest pictures on this sheet.‘ (Woolf’s diary entry for 2nd October, 1934.)
Andrews’ subjects span four centuries – from Elizabeth Carter walking in Kent to Linda Cracknell actively seeking out previously trodden routes in Scotland in an attempt to connect with other women walkers – and the majority share the same sense of euphoria at proving to themselves just what they can do. For the likes of Wordsworth, it is a sensation that binds her to her beloved family. For Harriet Martineau, it is her way of learning the Lakes landscape she has adopted as her own; she imprints it on her mind by means of her feet. It is also clear from many of these accounts that the best thinking happens when you walk alone; it’s the open-air equivalent of Woolf’s ‘room of her own’.
There is also another aspect of walking as a lone female that runs through these narratives too – that sense of being vulnerable in the landscape. It was during the first Lockdown that I had to explain to my husband that I wasn’t as comfortable as him taking a certain route out the back of the village alone. It was something of a depressing realisation to both of us that our experiences of being alone and remote are different – I have a sense of potential fear that he does not. Reading about Cheryl Strayed’s account of walking the Pacific Crest Trail for that reason, really resonated. She is not defeated by her fear, however, and hers is a book I’m about to order (there’s an excellent list of further reading suggestions at the end of Wanderers – which in itself also shows just how many women have been out and about through the centuries).
It’s a seemingly inescapable fact that women have (and still do) shouldered the burden of domestic life, meaning that their time is not always their own (see Dorothy Wordsworth again, making sure that the house is in order before joining her brothers who are already out in the hills…); whilst I have enjoyed many accounts (by men) who have taken themselves off to explore new routes and new spaces, I have often wondered who’s at home paying the bills or running the house, things that life requires, whilst X is charging around the mountains? This is one of the many reasons why I was drawn to this book – this is the women shedding those jobs and duties and getting out there by themselves. And that warrants a big Hurrah from me. Highly recommended.