the art of loitering · 8. March 2010, 22:06

I should save this for another project, but I love it too much to wait. I came upon a curious little book called In Your Stride by A.B. Austin (1931, Country Life), not so much a walking guide, as a guide to a walking life, with hints about where and how to spend your time throughout the year, rather than specifics. The Daily Telegraph called it “one of the most happy books of home travel.” The first chapter sets the scene, and it’s that that I reproduce here. It’s just a lovely piece of writing, full of character, useful tips, tales and stories. Like many authors, its hard to find much about Austin, other than the books he’d written.

Whilst the exact manner of his travel can’t be quite reproduced now, it makes me want to get out, to travel and to walk – or loiter in Austin’s parlance. I hope you enjoy it too.

THE ART OF LOITERING by A.B. Austin, taken from IN YOUR STRIDE, 1931

YESTERDAY I came upon the Portsmouth road, not far south of Liphook, where West Sussex touches Hampshire. I had not meant to come near the Portsmouth road, but that part of Hampshire is so distracted with ways—beech and oak lanes, heather tracks, sand paths, cart ruts, drives, rides and avenues, public and private—that I defy the most cunning in mapcraft to keep a straight course.

The Portsmouth road held me for a mile before I turned away to make for the woods that lie between Woolmer Lodge and Ludshott Common. I had not been walking on it for more than five minutes when I came to the conclusion that something must have stricken the inhabitants of London and the country to the north with terror. Panic reigned on the Portsmouth road. Panic had set these refugees hurtling southward to the sea. I began to feel quite heroic— a lonely figure walking north to face the unknown terror from which the rest of the world was fleeing.

Never before had I seen so many people in so many cars all streaking south at such a high average of speed —family cars, intimate cars, baby cars, limousines, open cars, closed cars, cars glittering and young cars, travel-dimmed and old, cars foursquare, cars aquiline, feline, purring cars, bronchial cars. There was hardly any pause in their flight. The rude, windy buffets of their passing became so monotonous that I felt as if some playful spirit were trying to turn me back by blowing an invisible bellows into my face. Yet when I looked at the faces of the drivers of the cars they did not seem to be panic-stricken. They looked eager. They crouched forward slightly, their eyes staring ahead, their lips compressed.

“ Perhaps,” I said to myself, “ they are not afraid. Perhaps they are full of hope. Perhaps someone has found gold near Portsmouth.”

And then I remembered that this was Saturday afternoon, that it was early in January, 1931, that it was the first time I had walked on a main road away from Lon- don since the new traffic laws came into force. This was neither panic nor hope. It was the first surge of delight at the passing of the speed limit. These were men and women clutching freedom with both hands as they bent over the steering-wheel. They were no longer merely licensed car drivers. They were citizens of the speed world. Let them not drive to the public danger and no one cared what they did on the open road.

I had really no business to be meandering along their road. My creeping progress might spoil someone’s new-found pleasure. For it was their road. It had been built, or rather adapted, for them. Without its glossy blue-black surface, its faultless camber, its generous width, its gentle curves, they could no more pursue their hobby, seize their thrill, than the railway train could run without its track.

When I left the Portsmouth road, feeling almost as apologetic as if I had strayed on to the course at Epsom while the Derby was being run, the perfection of this arrangement of modern England seized hold of me. Here was I, and doubtless innumerable others, born with a taste for loitering, a habit of exploring at leisure the bumps, curves, hollows, lanes and watercourses, all the places in this island, waste and fertile, that could be most conveniently come at by using legs. There, on the other hand, were the thousands who found their joy in swift travel, whose highest exhilaration came from the skilful handling of machines at the highest possible speed.

I felt that we, the loiterers, owed those others a debt of gratitude. Instead of being too ready to assume a somewhat priggish superiority, we ought to be thankful for the excellence of a compromise that has left us by far the greater part of this island or of any other country for our pleasure. They have taken from us “ the open road “ and have left us every lane, path, cart-track, hedgerow, field, woodland, forest, common, moorland and mountainside. Their pleasure demands the greatest skill that the road engineer can bring to his work, and the greater their demand for speed the more like a racing track must the road become. Nor, having once known the exhilaration of the perfect road, are they likely to be tempted by the less even surface of the tributary ways that branch off from it here and there.

It really is high time that we stopped making our futile complaints against the spoiling of a countryside, parts of which can never return to the quietude that possessed them when travel could only be on horse or foot. It is time that we began to take stock of the wealth that is left to us and to consider how we may best spend it for our own enjoyment.

We no longer grumble when we come across a railway track in some remote district. Why should we grumble because an arterial road happens to lie across our path ? It is crossed in a few seconds, it is hidden by the next hillock, the drone of its traffic dies away, the architectural and mechanical excrescences that may happen to squat upon its flanks are forgotten. For the loiterer it is merely an interlude, a reminder that there are other necessities and other forms of enjoyment than his.

It is also a reminder, for those who happen to live in towns, that nowadays there need be no specified times and seasons for journeying into the open. In the summer, in the holiday months, there is naturally a greater amount of coming and going upon the main roads, but there are few week-ends in any month when the roads running away from London or any other large city do not carry their quota of pleasure-hunting motorists.

Now the art of loitering is one that can be studied all the year round in almost every corner of this island. Perhaps I shall be accused of having twisted the mean- ing of the verb to suit my own purposes. I cannot think of a word that would better express this particular form of pleasure-seeking. To loiter, says the Oxford dictionary, is to “ linger on the way”, to “ hang about”, to “ travel indolently and with frequent pauses”. There are three kinds of walkers, and only one is a loiterer within the dictionary meaning. There are those who walk with a grim determination as if the world were a sanded track marked in laps of twenty or thirty miles to the day. There are those who walk with a bleak purpose, far enough to coax the appetite but not far enough to derange the digestion. And there are those who walk because they can’t help it, because walking is for them part of the business of living.

These last, for whom walking is an incurable habit, are the true loiterers. They are of so curious a mentality that they cannot bear in their leisure to be carried about too quickly for fear they should be missing some delicate touch of colour, some sound only to be heard by the unhurried, some stray human encounter. The bumps and hollows on the face of the earth have a fascination for them. They are collectors of days and hours and minutes, savouring the fine essence of each according to its season, storing in their memories its subtleties of light and shade, the quality of its stillness or its movement, the tone of each instrument in that orchestra of two players, wind and water.

How, then, could they fail to be loiterers? They pass along many ways, but they are given to lingering on all of them. Their curiosity about the details of earth causes them constantly to “ hang about”. They may appear to be more than normally energetic, and no doubt they do make great play with the muscles of their legs, but that is because the places of their keenest enjoyment can only be reached on foot. It is admitted that they travel. They frequently travel great distances, but if the habit of loitering is ingrained in them it will be found that, more often than not, they “ travel indolently and with frequent pauses”. How else could they “ hang about,” or “ linger on the way “ ?

This type of individual is, I am convinced, increasingly to be found in this country. England has an amiable way of falling in with his, or her desires. Not even a year of constant loitering will reveal all the intimacies of one district. Many seasons, with all the variety of mood of which each is capable, must pass before acquaintance becomes friendship. There is no naked magnificence, boldly etched against the sky, saying, “ Like me or dislike me, this is my face.” Ask three or four different people not merely what they mean by England, but what they mean by one county —Devon, or Surrey—and each will give you a different answer. And when you have counties lying side by side—Sussex and Hampshire, Devon and Cornwall, Yorkshire and Westmorland—each having a character of its own that differs strongly from its neighbour, it would seem that a lifetime of wayfaring would leave unanswered the question—” what is England ? “

Some, perhaps, would rather ask, “ What is left of England ? “ Their answer would be as shortsighted and as full of pessimism as their question. Theirs is a tacit admission that they find themselves defeated by modern circumstance. They have loved leisurely ways ; they find all about them a desire to turn leisure into meaningless haste. They have loved quiet ; they find the places of their solitude shattered by the noise that speed begets. They have loved the unbroken hillside, the unspoiled valley and the unscarred plain ; they find wayward roads, pleasant to the feet, being made straight, gashes being cut in the rising slopes to carry the new highway on an easier course, and a sudden thrusting outwards of dwelling-places from the towns into the country. They watch this transformation being accomplished with most undignified haste in their own particular district. They feel resentful, and uncharitably disposed towards the strangers who have suddenly squatted in their midst. They rush to the conclusion that this island has become a network of swift roads lined with raw villas.

Their conclusion is not unnatural, but it is very far from the whole truth. It is true that there is hardly a village or farmhouse in England, and in a great part of Scotland that docs not lie within easy reach of a main road or a railway line. But, as I have already said, main roads and railway lines are but streaks of speed. They do their duty by the traveller without regard to the country that lies on either hand. I could point to many stretches of countryside within twenty, or twenty-five miles of London that lie as quietly between the traffic routes to and from the city as if these were turnpike roads and their only traffic stage-coaches and hay wains. I am not sure that their quiet is not even more profound, partly by contrast with the bustle on the highway, and partly because those who use modern roads have less time and less inclination to turn aside into a maze of cumbersome ways and rutted tracks.

If that quiet can be sought and found and enjoyed within easy reach of London consider the rest of England. Consider your own county, your own parish. Think of the commons and woods, hillsides and valleys where, as one with a taste for loitering, you take your constant pleasure within comfortable distance, as modern transport measures distance, of your own home. Let the thought expand. Add to the places of your intimate knowledge other districts equally enjoyed by the loiterers of other counties ; think of Dartmoor and Exmoor and the Dorset heaths and coast, and the New Forest and the Sussex Downs and the Kentish orchards. Range from south to north, or north to south, according to your situation, over every county in England. Add Scotland and Wales to the sum total and then tell me that there is little left for your enjoyment in this island !

The thought is almost depressing to one greedy of his countryside. To sniff the thousand fragrances that go to make up England one would need to have far more leisure than falls to the share of the ordinary man. And yet the ordinary man has leisure enough, and the means of going where he pleases, if he has sufficient imagination to discover how speed can be made to serve his purpose. He has, as a general rule, thirty-six hours a week, and very often more, in which he is free to go where he likes. He has also a period, once a year, of anything from one to four weeks in which he is the master of his movements. Fifty years ago he might have had cause to complain that his movements were circumscribed. He could not, unless he were wealthy, wander at random over any part of England, Scotland, or Wales, except, perhaps, during his annual period of freedom. Now those who love speed have discovered that the roads of this island are theirs. They can devour, if they choose, thousands of miles of the finest tarmac in one year. They have no need to wait until the recognised holiday period. Every week-end brings renewed freedom, calling on them to set a vast space between themselves and the places of their daily occupation.

And what of the loiterer—whether he be also a motorist, or not ? Is not England his estate ? Can he not savour England afresh week after week, all the year round, in as many different regions as he has days at his disposal ? If he should happen to live in London can he not enjoy his spring on the Welsh border, or on the Peak, or in Devon and Somerset, as well as in Bucks and Hertfordshire, and Kent and Surrey and Sussex ? Indeed, he is no true connoisseur of England if he does not, for who can claim to know England who cannot tell you how April creeps up the downland slopes from the Sussex Weald, or blows a warmer breath through Lustleigh Cleave, or stands a few buffets from declining March on the hillsides above Llanthony ?

That, you may protest, is rather a tall order, for who has leisure to go exploring all the solitariness that is left in England while he has to find the means to spread butter on his daily bread ? The question may be answered by asking another. How much do we spend on holiday comings and goings every year, including not only our annual exodus to sea or countryside, but all our odd motoring, sporting, walking, climbing, butterfly-catching escapades ? How much, in other words, does our leisure cost us ? I have tried every variety of holiday, from the comfortable security of hotel, farmhouse or furnished cottage to the choice, dictated by your weather sense, that lies each evening between a barn or stable-loft, and a sheltered, heather hollow. Ten years ago I had no choice. It was sleep out or stay at home. One pound meant a week’s wandering in the Highlands or over the Border hills, choosing a sleeping place before dark where the pool tempted, or the wood was dry for kindling, or the slope of the hill cut off the wind. Four pounds in my pocket meant wealth and freedom for a month. My first extravagant outburst was the spending of eight pounds on a journey which took five weeks and carried me on a bicycle from Edinburgh to London, by boat and train from London to Dijon, on foot for three weeks from Dijon round the Lake of Geneva and across the Juras again to Pontarlier and so back to Edinburgh by train, boat and bicycle. That, too, was a nightly affair of seeking the most comfortable resting-place in the open. I did not dare to spend a night indoors for fear the expense would not leave me enough money to bring me home again. In more generous days I don’t think I have spent more than fifty pounds in any holiday year, and forty pounds would probably be a good average.

With forty pounds, or even thirty pounds, to be invested yearly in leisure, what can you do with England ? Not much if your desire is for one expensive “ rest “ in the height of summer ; a great deal if yours is the art of loitering. There is a certain convention in the matter of holiday-making, a tendency to observe times and seasons in going to Switzerland and Scotland, and the other migratory homes of our island species. In one way it is a blessing. Those who follow the convention no doubt do so because they find that it gives them the greatest enjoyment of their leisure, or because they find it hard to rebel against fashion. Those who are con- trolled, in their seasons of work and play, by the limitations of school terms or office routine, appear to accept their limitations philosophically. Those who have the opportunity, and the taste, for unorthodox holiday- making rejoice because the convention gives them chance to find the places of their choice unvisitored, living an unselfconscious life “ off-season”. And yet — it seems a pity that, in spite of the swiftness and (if you know how to go about it) the comparative cheapness of modern travel, we should make so little of our island — that we should only know Scotland as a grouse-drive, or leave Paddington in overcrowded trains because the heather only purples once a year in Devon.

It should be possible for a great many people to obtain, at small cost, greater benefit from the whole of our island year than they do from one unvarying period in the months of July, August or September. It should be possible to work, as the majority of us do, nt an occupation requiring a fixed number of hours every day, and yet from time to time to escape from London or any other town to almost any corner of Great Britain we choose, and there, thrusting away habit and routine for the briefest space, to find refreshment that lets us begin work again with vigour re-doubled, and to do this ten or twelve times in one year.

Assuming that our modern calendar allows most of us a week-end of two consecutive days in practically every month, may I draw upon one experiment of my own, not as a specimen for every loiterer (we all believe that our own choice of enjoyment is the most satisfying) but as a tested sample of one year’s rich experience of the people and the places in every seasonal mood that this country has to offer ?

I had not long been in England, and I wanted to see as many parts of it as possible, as often as possible, and in the way that happened to please me best— on foot. I had one month’s leisure in the year, and I did not want to spend it hurrying in unleisurely fashion between all the places of my choice. I divided my month into eleven periods of two days and one period of a week—eleven monthly week-ends, and one little holiday. There is unbounded freedom to be got out of forty-eight hours if you can make the most of them. To keep time at bay one must avoid long hours of daylight travel by rail or road. With two days to command, you can travel to Scotland, or Wales, or Devon, going by night and returning by night—sleeping one night in whatever inn or cottage chance, or your own forethought, has provided for you. Travel by night is not tiring nowadays, if you are in good health. And who minds the risk of two nights of broken slumber in one month, if they are set off by two days of unsullied air and bodily freedom ?

That was a year in which the most uninteresting work in the most unprepossessing surroundings would have seemed like a flat plain—uninspiring to the eye, but always touched with the heady air of hills not too far away and the promise of deep valleys and climbing pinewoods.

January found me on Dartmoor, a Dartmoor like a stormy sea, her tors billowing in and out of the wind- blown mist. Late in February I could bathe near Lulworth Cove— a Lulworth gone back to former loneliness, keeping company with cormorants—and then go inland over Bere Heath to watch the evening sun sitting on the edge of the world. In March I lost myself on the Black Mountains, just over the Welsh border in Brecknock. In April I took my week’s holiday, and, surrendering to nostalgia, caught the Cairngorm mountains in Aberdeenshire before the wind had stopped fretting the frost flowers on the snow slopes. I climbed, glissaded, fell through the snow crust into growling burns, and grew as black in the face as any yodeller.

May was more modest. I sought out the Chilterns before the rogue-haunted beechwoods of that old “ Hundred “ had lost their first freshness. But June found me once more over the Border— where Yarrow and Ettrick run down to Tweed, and spring begins all over again in the upland places. I spent one July night in a gamekeeper’s cottage on that more abandoned edge of the Peak district that straggles along the Yorkshire border, and was allowed to return next day along forbidden paths, over peat bogs from which the infant grouse were beginning to spread unsteady wings. August took me no further than the upper valley of the Wey. There Surrey touches Hampshire, and the heather bloom is as drowsy as any in the north.

September and October I divided between Exmoor and the South Downs up in the morning and down at night, from the valley of the Barle across the moor to Badgworthy Water, from Adur slinking out of the Weald up and over to Arun as quietly moving through its Downland gap. November sunshine refurbished for me the fading tapestry of autumn in London’s nearest wilderness-the less beroaded parts of the Forest Ridge on the edge of Sussex, between Balcombe and Crowborough. To end the year I tried the New Forest on two still days in December. The morning frost crackled under foot in the cart ruts of the rides. In the afternoon I looked across the Beaulieu River from Buckler’s Hard and saw the forest standing close on the further bank. The stark branches of the taller trees dissolved into floating mist as the day drew in.

And the cost of this month of leisure spread thin over the year’s work? For nightly lodging, food and rail- way fares (generally week-end)—something under £30.

I have tried to sketch, in barest outline, one year out of some ten or twelve that have been devoted to the art of loitering. For the moment the colour and character of each day, the pleasant flavour of adventure that hangs upon the mind’s palate after each of a thousand fresh encounters, must be left to the imagination. I am only concerned to convince those who live in London or any other large city, and whose movements are confined by a daily job of work, that theirs is the freedom of England whenever it pleases them to accept it, that it is possible for them to know the way from Chagford, on the Teign, over to Postbridge, on the Dart, or from Steyning across the Downs to Arundel, or from Kimmeridge along the Dorset coast to Lulworth as well as they know the way from Trafalgar Square to Ludgate Circus.

Many will need no convincing. Ten years ago the Cairngorm mountains, in Aberdeenshire, the highest group in this island, were looked upon as a kind of sanctuary by those who thought nothing of a thirty- mile march by glen and mountainside, and a night’s rest in the heather, or in some lonely stalker’s bothy. Last summer there was a different tale to tell. The hills were speckled with walkers—not climbers ; this was no rock-scrambling entertainment. The path that goes across the Lairig Ghru, and never touches a main road for between twenty and thirty miles had become a highway. The Lairig Ghru is the pass that cuts the Cairngorm mountains in half. It lies, a mighty fissure between the bare granite shoulders of Ben Macdhui and Braeriach, and it takes you from the headwaters of the Dee down to the valley of the Spey, out of Aberdeenshire into Inverness. You would meet walker after walker on a day’s march, girls and men, young and old, some still children, some grey-haired, stepping it along the toilsome track, over heather and granite scree, in all the chancy summer weathers, leaping the burns that hurtle down the mountainside, breathing the air so rare and fresh that it makes the limbs rejoice, and the lungs work as they never worked on the plain.

I am not suggesting that we have suddenly become a nee of mountaineers, but if this new enthusiasm is leading so many people to spend their holidays in a part of our island so comparatively inaccessible, it will not be stretching credulity too far if I say that our other uncultivable regions, lonely, but less difficult and expensive to reach, our heaths, commons, moors and mountain ranges, are coming in for their share of eager exploration.

Exploration. That is the word for it. There never were so many explorers in this country before. We have tried to make our world smaller by reckoning its surface in terms of time rather than of distance. In this island we have built highways to make accessible even those waste regions that were isolated before. The car and motor-coach have carried hundreds of thousands of people to parts of Great Britain whose existence had been for them almost as legendary as the Himalayas or the Andes. They have paid, at first, hurried visits to those new lands, noting, as they passed, the flying outlines of scores of places, lowland and upland, bare or wooded, whose silent appeal has called for quieter and deeper exploration. For some the experience has not sufficed. They have yielded to their curiosity. They have gone back, and they have gone back on foot, eager to explore byways, to climb hills, to scramble through passes and over moors that they had only glimpsed from the road. And the oftener they have gone back the less have they become tourists, and even walkers, and the more has the desire come to them to loiter, to abate their hurry, to become connoisseurs of the rare essence of this newly discovered land of theirs.

If my own private store of enjoyment is worth anything as a comparison, those who have recently found in themselves the instinct for loitering have a deal of fun to look forward to.

When I remember being broiled, and stung by the wind from Highland snow-slopes, and being soaked through, and covered with dust, and, losing my way in mists, and being benighted, and sleeping in turf huts, and under hedges, and cart-sheds and barns, and on the heather ; when I think of bathes in burns and lochs and rivers, and of most exquisite hunger, and of hospitality ungrudgingly given by total strangers in lonely places and most unblushingly received ; when I come to reckon up the total of value received from the hobby of loitering, I find myself quite undeservedly rich.