In an era where a casual stroll has become a ubiquitous post-lunch ritual for many, the nuances of pedestrianism and the evolving culture of walking are often overlooked. Driven by a fascination with the historical transformation of this seemingly mundane activity, researchers are shedding light on the changing landscape of how, where, and why we walk in the UK.
Surprisingly, the concept of “going for a walk” was not ingrained in our daily lives until the late 1700s. The term “pedestrianism,” rooted in Latin, initially had sporting connotations in the 1800s, particularly in the fiercely competitive realm of “professional pedestrianism” or “race-walking” by the 1850s. Picture six-day tournaments in America, with participants covering a staggering 450 miles, complete with naps in tents and sips of champagne, adhering to the strict “heel-to-toe rule.”
Leisurely walking as an activity only gained traction around the 1780s. Prior to this shift, walking was associated with necessity, poverty, vagrancy, and even criminal intent. However, with the emergence of literary figures like Charles Dickens and the pastoral appreciation of the Lake poets, walking became a fashionable pastime.
Dickens, known for his religious commitment to daily “walking work,” covered an impressive 12 miles a day at a brisk pace of over four miles an hour. His perambulations through the gritty streets of London were integral to his creative process, capturing the eccentricities of urban life and inspiring the vivid characters in his works.
The 1800s presented a unique walking experience as pavements were still in their infancy. The bustling London streets accommodated an estimated 300,000 horses, leaving behind over 1,000 tonnes of manure daily. Dickens, amidst his nocturnal marches through the rat-infested slums, drew inspiration from the city’s peculiarities, creating a reservoir of street snapshots in his mind for future literary use.
City streets, laden with horse dung and other unsavory waste, spawned a demand for various workers, including “pure finders” who collected dog feces to sell to tanneries. Social reform and urban planning have since transformed the urban walking experience, making it considerably more pleasant.
Though the pavements have undergone significant changes, the codes of conduct governing Victorian pedestrian etiquette remain surprisingly relevant. A discreetly placed article in the 1780 London Magazine outlined “Rules of behaviour, of general use,” cautioning pedestrians against staring, loitering in conversation, or walking arm in arm – timeless advice that resonates even today.
As contemporary pedestrians embark on their walks, they would do well to heed Dickens’s example and avoid committing pedestrian faux pas, including inconsiderate whistling, loitering in conversation, or hindering others with a “sauntering gait.” While modern bugbears like distracted phone users may have altered implicit rules, the pavements continue to be a place of multiplicity, variety, culture, and commerce – a strip of land to be celebrated throughout the year.
In conclusion, the act of walking, once associated with necessity and poverty, has evolved into a cherished cultural phenomenon. From the competitive spirit of professional pedestrianism to the literary musings of Dickens, the history of walking in the UK unveils a rich tapestry of societal changes, reflecting the past and shaping the present. So, the next time you embark on a leisurely stroll, remember that you are not just traversing pavements; you are walking through time, embracing a tradition that has endured and adapted across centuries.