Last week I reached the end of a long walk. The North Downs Way stretches 153 miles from commuter-belt Surrey to the English Channel and I’ve been walking it in stages for over four years. Put like that, I seem a slow walker. But a lot has happened along the way. I’ve not only walked from Farnham to Dover; I’ve walked into a new life.
It was one of the first treats that I started, chosen because it was the nearest of the UK’s fifteen National Trails. I love the mystery of a long walk; you never quite know what’s going to unfold beyond that bend in the distance. There are plenty of other pleasures, too: the landscape changes constantly; you have to watch out for the direction markers so it’s a bit like a puzzle, and it’s a perfect opportunity to think. Much of the North Downs Way coincides with the ancient Pilgrims’ Way: the route from Winchester to Thomas Becket’s shrine at Canterbury Cathedral. And at times, in the ancient broadleaf woodlands I felt so far removed from modern life that it would have been no surprise to bump into a silent, brown-robed monk.
I shared some stages with family and friends. These were chatty and companionable. But other stages were solitary and helped me to think my way round some tangled issues. Wordsworth is well-known as a contemplative walker and is estimated to have walked about 180,000 miles. In The Art of Walking, Christopher Morley says that ‘cross-country walks for the pure delight of rhythmically placing one foot before the other were rare before Wordsworth. I always think of him as one of the first to employ his legs as an instrument of philosophy.’ The South West Coastal Footpath is also on my list and providing my knees hold out, I’m hoping for some stunning days of walking around the very edges of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. There’s much more to be said about walking, but this isn’t the point of today’s post, so I’ll save it for another day. Instead I want to think about the difference between treats and goals.
When I made my list, all the stages of the North Downs Way were quite accessible as day trips. But then I moved to another part of the country and it became more of a challenge. I managed some stages last summer, and eventually, there was just the final stretch left. The excuses of the winter came and went and then I got an image in my head of walking through fields with Henry, my younger son, and the English Channel coming into sight. He was happy to join me but finding a day we could both do was the first hurdle, and we postponed several times. When the agreed day finally came, we set off from home at 7.30am and with dire traffic it was midday before we were at the starting point. It was all quite an effort and I began to feel that I was doing it because it was on a list and needed to be ticked off.
But later as I sat high on the headland with my son, I had a moment of clarity. The Spring sunshine scattered diamonds on the water; the chalky cliffs of Dover were to our left and the transport hub of Folkestone bustled to our right. We ate sandwiches made from Henry’s homemade bread, drank lukewarm coffee, and chatted easily. I realised in that moment exactly what it is about a treat that makes it so different from a goal.
Goals are in your face. They’re the kind of guys that spout management jargon and make you feel bad about yourself because you’re never quite up to scratch; qualifications—deadlines—efficiency—success. Goals are necessary to some extent, but they’re voracious feeders. Tick one off to keep it quiet and there’s another one screaming at you. Treats are quite different. They hang back politely in the shadows and defer to the goals. They wait to be granted permission to step forward, and often get neglected. Sometimes they’re just the germ of an idea or desire but give them a chance and they’ll blossom. They’re the things that allow us to express our individuality and to grow into our real selves.
I’ve got many memories from my day of walking with Henry. There was the moment when we stood high on the cliffs above Folkestone and looked down as a train disappeared into the earth at the start of the Channel Tunnel. It was strangely thrilling to think that it would emerge in a different country. Another moment was realising, when stuck in traffic, that I had my son’s company and so the time was not wasted. And when we arrived in Dover we needed to make our way back to the car. ‘When’s the next train to Folkestone?’ I asked the ticket clerk at the station. ‘September or October,’ she said. We hadn’t heard that the line got swept away in the Christmas storms. So we got a bus instead.
I’ve many impressions, too, of other stages of the walk. Dappled woodlands, quiet lanes, steep climbs, streams, lakes, brick viaducts, Neolithic burial chambers, sheep, bulls, thatched cottages, ugly developments, quarries, vineyards, fly tipping, primroses, bluebells, barns, chapels, the noise of the Medway Bridge traffic, cake, being elated, being sad… On one of my walks I forgot to take any money. Solving that problem gave me confidence, as did walking alone. There were obvious pleasures and benefits but there were subtle, unexpected ones too. It was a multi-layered experience. And a true treat.
A final word – it’s now less than a month until the publication of 31 Treats And A Marriage. You can have a taster if you want—click here for an audio file of the prologue. I hope you enjoy it and that you like the music too. It was specially composed and performed by Henry.