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Wanderers – A History of Women Walking

A new book by Kerri Andrews, Wanderers examines the history of female walking by looking at ten women who, over the past three hundred years, have found walking essential to their lives. 

In a series of intimate portraits, Wanderers traces their footsteps, from eighteenth-century parson’s daughter Elizabeth Carter – who desired nothing more than to be taken for a vagabond in the wilds of southern England – to modern walker-writers such as Nan Shepherd and Cheryl Strayed. For each, walking was integral, whether it was rambling for miles across the Highlands, like Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, or pacing novels into being, as Virginia Woolf did around Bloomsbury. 

Kerri Andrews is a writer, keen hill walker and also the general editor of Nan Shepherd’s letters. Here she provides an exclusive edited extract from Wanderers. There’s also 20% discount for Walkhighlands readers.

“Walking and writing are both fundamentally empathetic activities. Literature connects ‘us to the lives of others’, Linda Cracknell writes, and it has evident parallels with pedestrianism: walking ‘“in someone else’s shoes” […] and on their paths connects one to their stories’. This is central to Cracknell’s attempts in her book, Doubling Back, to connect with the father she long ago lost. But she is also conscious of the importance of walking to her own creative practice, where it enables her to ‘think better on the move, think more creatively […] Attentive to both inner and outer landscapes’, and so Cracknell also seeks to follow other women for whom walking mattered in order to connect her story to theirs. The first is Jessie Kesson, the Scottish novelist, poet, and BBC Radio playwright who lived, for a time in the 1930s, above Loch Ness at Achbuie. A friend of Nan Shepherd’s in later life, Kesson wrote frequently about her experiences wandering the hillsides above the Great Glen in a number of her novels as well as her radio plays. These wanderings enabled Kesson to find solace in the land after a year’s incarceration in a mental hospital following a chaotic childhood. Walking for Kesson was a means of reconnecting with herself, something she learned as a young child while on the move with her much-loved but troubled mother. Later Kesson would write that:

“The first eight years of my childhood were spent in a small room in a city tenement. My mother, country born and bred, was alienated from her family, so that springs and summers were spent wandering through the highways and byways of her Morayshire roots. We haunted that landscape. Rarely able to afford public transport my feet became as tough as new leather.

Most people have a specific destination in mind on their weekend journeyings. A point to their travels, a stately home, a garden open to the public, an acquaintance whom they might “drop in on” in the passing. Not us. Never us. The countryside itself was the magnet that drew us.”

Kesson ‘haunted’ the landscape around Achbuie too for the six months that she lived there, ‘boarded out’, as Cracknell records, to live with ‘an elderly woman on her croft’. There Kesson was able to ‘ramble freely’, with no walls to contain her. Not needing a destination to wander, she simply walked where she would, and, as a result, Cracknell finds that ‘The visceral thrill of the place in springtime pulses through her writing in different genres ever after.’ Kesson wove her experiences above Loch Ness into a number of writings, from magazine pieces to poems. In them she explores the physical qualities of the place with a minuteness of attention that suggests how thoroughly she had come to ‘learn’ the place through her walking:

“A high hill-slope nine miles west of Inverness. It is curious – up there where one is surrounded by crags, deep gulleys and all the sterner stuff that goes to make a hill – to find Springs so profuse, and green, and gentle. It would be hard to find one bit of brown earth on that hillside in April, for bracken, rightly called ‘lovely curse’ by Highland folk, spreads like a vast, young, strong plantain, and all through the bracken, in countless multitudes, cluster primroses that are thick and yellow and smelling like spice.

The hill is composed of red rock, and in clear, Spring sunlight the rocks glow like fire.

It is so high up that you feel as if in any moment you might topple into Loch Ness below. They say the loch is bottomless and treacherous, yet, on calm days, it is, as Coleridge writes ‘a painted ocean’.

Spring in the hills would confront the greatest artist with too vast a panorama. I doubt if he could ever capture it. For Spring there is more than colour; it is music and scent. The burns literally hum down the hillside, the trees have rhythm in their shaking. The smell of Spring in the hills is a blending of peaty thickness, bracken-mould, flowers’ spicyness, and clean, quick purge of the wind. Down in the hollows anenomes, bereft of smell, gleam in pale patches.”

Like Harriet Martineau in the Lake District eighty years before, Kesson found in the hills a new freedom, a release from physical confinement. And like Martineau, Kesson celebrated and internalised this freedom by walking in a place in which life could now expand, so that, in Kesson’s case, she became attuned to the unique ‘rhythm’ of each tree’s susurration.

It is in spring that Cracknell comes to Achbuie, eager to bring herself into some sort of contact with Kesson’s ‘powerful influence’, to ‘share her exuberance’ for life and for walking. On the hillside above Loch Ness, Cracknell begins to imagine a young Kesson romping across the landscape, its ‘precipitous pathways of loose rock’ offering danger and challenge to her and to the young children who followed Kesson about. As Cracknell herself explores this place these imaginings become more substantial, so that the landscape becomes haunted in an eerie echo of Kesson’s characterisation of her early wanderings. Climbing higher onto the moor, Cracknell writes,

“The wind carved down the lochside, and the bare birches rang maroon against a clear sky. Deer poured uphill on winter-dusky heather whose wiry stems snapped at my bootlaces. I kept turning, wondering whose step it was that caught at the back of mine, half expecting to find a line of children in a giggling retreat.”

But it is by imagining herself into Kesson’s feelings, as she walked for the first time on this hillside after her release from hospital, that Cracknell populates the place. The spring air buzzes with sound, from the ‘Birdsong bubbles’ to the ‘buzzard-mewls’, to the ‘Soft unexplained pops’ which ‘rise from the grass’, just as it did when Kesson trod the ground here: the seventy years between the two are erased by the infinitely recurring spring symphony.

“I imagine Jessie Kesson stepping from the deadened enclosure and stale air of the mental hospital into this cacophony of sound and the sense of elevation. Coming from a regimented institution with every thought and activity crowded by other lives, this could hardly have failed to provoke her free spirit and to animate her feet in exploration. Perhaps it recalled her to those barefoot walks with her mother and a sense of inhabiting again her wild self.”

Cracknell is also attentive to the ‘music’ of the place and seeks to know the hillside as Kesson did by composing a detailed aural topography that is sensitive to the subtle variations in tone and sound. Descending from the high moorland Cracknell searches for the exact way Kesson came down from the croft. Once ‘Sure of Jessie’s route down the burn’, Cracknell retraces the older woman’s steps down secretive and cunning paths:

“I cross the burn, follow the lane a little south, wondering where Jessie would have found the next part of her descent. And there, between one burn and the next is a gate and a path marked by a scattered line of brown leaves, leading down between trees. It is unremarked on the map and delights me with the soft secrecy of its way. Here there is soprano birch leaf and the bronzy tenor of the first clusters of oak leaves.”

Cracknell is willing to use her body as Kesson did, to use ears and mind to listen with attention and discrimination to the mellifluous and multi-tonal ‘music’ of the burns. Consequently she moves beyond mere imagination to reanimation by bringing to life once more the sensations and experiences enjoyed by Kesson. At the end of her walk Cracknell feels like she has ‘brushed shoulders with a character’ in the ‘green song-tunnels beside the burn’. For a time Cracknell’s use of her body – from her feet to her ears – is able to recreate something of Kesson’s physical presence.

Wanderers is published on 14 September, get 20% off using the code WALKHIGHLANDS20 at Reaktion Books.

Extracted from Wanderers: A History of Women Walking by Kerri Andrews, published by Reaktion Books. Copyright © Kerri Andrews 2020.

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