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Walking Books

In last week's Guardian, John Mullan's Ten of the Best column featured long walks in literature. To his largely fictional selection of imaginary walks, we offer a matching number of favourites from the realm of non-fiction.

walker descending hill
Photo by Alasdair Pettinger

Bernard Ollivier, Longue Marche. When he retired from journalism at the age of 60, Ollivier decided to walk the Silk Road from Istanbul to Xi'an, covering (in stages) some 4000 kilometres over four years. His three-volume narrative heralded a literary rediscovery of the corporeal tribulations of travel in an age of speed and virtual reality.

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts. Published in 1977, this is the first volume of a trilogy (the third, posthumous, volume is due out next year) recounting Leigh Fermor's walk across Europe, setting out from the Hook of Holland at the age of 18 in 1933, his youthful enthusiasm filtered through the experience and literary flair of a much older self.

Allen Abel, Flatbush Odyssey. Nick Cohn and Bernard Levin tackled Broadway and Fifth Avenue respectively, but neither approach the historical warmth of Abel's report of his stroll along Brooklyn's longest boulevard from the East River to the Atlantic, not least because he grew up there and can measure its changes over several decades.

James Attlee, Isolarion. Another city walk by a local, this time a mock-heroic pilgrimage up the Cowley Road in Oxford guided by the ghosts of Robert Burton and Walter Benjamin. Attlee drops in on a range of local businesses and places of worship, and joins in the debate over the council's controversial street plans.

Ian Sinclair, London Orbital. An end-of-millennium journey keeping the M25 within earshot provides the perfect subject for this jeremiad, flavoured with the author's characteristic withering wit, alternative folklore and deadpan observations.

John Davies, Walking the M62. Partly inspired by Sinclair (but with an eye for the ordinary rather than the weird), Davies shadowed the trans-Pennine motorway in an attempt to enhance his appreciation of the minutiae of everyday life that we often pass by without noticing.

Jacques Lacarrière, Chemin faisant. A philosophically and etymologically joyful celebration of the art of walking, recounting the author's journey from the Vosges to the Mediterranean, a 'bush walk' that stages encounters between the sedentary and the nomadic, the motorist and the pedestrian.

Eric Newby, A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush. The title is not the most self-deprecating thing about this book, a classic of the bumbling Englishman genre that famously ends with an unexpected meeting with Wilfred Thesiger in the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. The explorer looks at Newby and his companion blowing up their air-beds. 'God,' he says, 'you must be a couple of pansies.'

Nicholas Crane, Two Degrees West. Straying no further than 2000m from what he calls 'England's Meridian' from Dorset to Northumberland, Crane is guaranteed of a good cross-section of people and landscapes in this fine example of 'straight line walking', a strategy that makes for a journey 'in raised relief, full of surprises and conforming to no predetermined theme.'

Maureen Stone, Black Woman Walking. There is a big difference between walking because you choose to and walking because you have to. Stone sometimes expresses this crudely as the difference between 'European' and 'African' walking, but her - often gloriously crotchety - anecdotes continually challenge the reader's expectations.
Posted by Alasdair Pettinger Thu 10 May 2012 21:21 GMT+0100


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