Organised walking equates to purgatory for me. The very thought of being shepherded along for several miles with a bunch of people I don’t know from Adam brings me out in a cold panicky sweat. Harsh I know. In my defence though, I’m not being judgemental without having given it a go; I did once join the Ramblers Association and spent a good few sessions stepping out in the English countryside with other RA members.
One weekend we embarked on a long hike knowing that the weather forecast was dreadful. Everyone had geared up for it but it wasn’t enough. When it came the rain was torrential, flooding the roads and lanes. We were wading ankle deep in it and there was nowhere to shelter from it. I can only speak for myself – the cold water forced itself into any gap and every seam of clothing, until I was wet through to my skin. We were too far along the route to go back and a very long way from the end of it. I had travelled with two friends to join this walk, and once we made it back to the car the only solution was stripping down to my underwear, wringing out the water from my clothes, and journeying home wearing very little, with the car heater blasting hot air at us. As I recall it was a completely miserable experience. Had this been a walk just for the three of us, we never would have commenced it considering the grim weather threat; we would probably have gone to the cinema instead. But organised is organised and come hell or high water the plan had to go ahead.
Similarly, I remember a walk across soaking wet bean fields; it had poured with rain all day then faired up later on and the sun was shining. It was a beautiful summer evening. The serious walkers among us wore waterproof attire and sturdy boots. The beans were shoulder high. There was one middle aged gentleman new to the RA group that night and he turned up in suit trousers, a leather jacket and shiny black lace up shoes. Most incredibly though, he was wearing white socks. I could not look the poor chap in the eyes when we all sat down to enjoy a well-deserved drink in a local pub at the end of the walk. He was wet through, his legs blathered in mud and his shiny shoes wrecked.
These organised walks always took place in stunningly beautiful countryside, except for the occasional bean field. Unfortunately I didn’t get to appreciate much of it. I quickly learned that the whole point of the Ramblers Association for most participants is the social side of it. They want to chinwag the whole way along. And it’s very difficult to switch off when you’re bombarded with someone’s life story and the occasional question; you have to pay attention. At the expense of the view. And even when you purposely dawdle and drop to the rear of the group to give yourself a break from the incessant chattering, there’s the brave old soldier who’s volunteered to be the rear guard waiting there to round you up and herd you along.
Out front is no better either. Up at the head of any train of walkers you’ll always find the wise guy of walking, the one who’s done a million miles, who knows every Ordnance Survey Map route in the county, and in the surrounding counties too. And he can’t wait to bore you to death with the details. And every so often, this clever clogs makes everyone stop and wait until the rest of the slow coaches have caught up, all the while delivering his monologue. There really is no escape.
I have an elderly aunt who is suspicious of any sort of group activity – it reminds her of the 1930’s and Hitler’s brownshirts. My father was the same; he belonged to the Young Farmers Association as a teenager, but nothing else after that. I think I must have inherited this odd family trait, because as I’ve grown older I have developed a real aversion to organised groups and clubs.
It’s much better to walk with close friends I think, with people who understand you, and you understand them too. They know to pipe down when you’re simply drinking in the view. They get it when you stop to examine freshly sprung oak leaves. Or tiny wild field pansies. But even then, it feels as if you’re stretching their patience. For absolute perfection you have to walk alone.
So now I do. And it makes complete sense. I can race up hills just for the fun of it, and amble across sheep meadows trying to get as close as I can to the stinky jittery bundles of wool, before they become alarmed and make a run for it. I can wander aimlessly through pine forests with my eyes looking upward, savouring the woodland scent; I can crawl through undergrowth and hedges to find out what’s beyond.
May’s walking has been particularly good, but then May is my favourite month of the year, when every living thing is bursting out at the seams. Mother Nature has laid on a fabulous tumbling profusion of greenery and a stunning riot of colour wherever one looks. The buzz of insects and multi-noted birdsong are a joyful musical accompaniment, and the pungent aroma emanating from the lush vegetation warmed in the spring sunshine dizzies my senses and makes me glad to be alive. This is freedom.
How do you feel about organised group activities?