Middle class optimism--at least in relation to walking-- emphasised the simple pleasures and the joys that no amount of money could buy. In 1838, Albert Smith, the man whose name was to be identified in the middle years of Victoria’s reign with the climbing of Mont Blanc, went, as a young student, on a five week walking tour of the Alps. Smith and a friend accomplished their vacation on an expenditure of twelve pounds per man. “If there is anything more delightful,” Smith later wrote of the experience, “than travelling with plenty of money, it is certainly making a journey of pleasure with very little.”
“The walking party,” London Society noted in 1879, “is certainly the cheapest, and, if properly managed, may be the healthiest and most enjoyable of summer holiday excursions.” Cheap indeed, for the middle and upper class excursionist, but still well out of the reach of the labouring man for whom walking was an everyday fact of life.
For the pedestrian with either limited time or limited funds, there were dozens of attractive walks close to the cities or, as the railways continued through the century to make their inroads into rural areas, near suburban and nearby country stations. Some of Victorian England’s loveliest scenery could be found in Kent, Surrey, Middlesex and Essex. Indeed, one could walk a delightful seven miles starting at Lower Sydenham Station and “keeping down the lane to Southend, walk to Bromley through Boyd’s Park, and on to Chislehurst by way of Scott’s Park and Bonner’s Park.” Yet this walk was accessible to even the most metropolitan of the Queen’s subjects, the Londoners.
For the more serious walker, travelling greater distances, every day was something new and different. The walker might be awakened in a new village or a new market-town by “a different chambermaid, with her sweet, ‘if you please, sir, the hot water is at the door’” Following a good wash, the wanderer would dress in walking gear and stout boots and after nothing more than “a glass of creaming milk, mildly mixed with spirits or sherry,” he would be on his way. A good two or three hours of walking was usually more than sufficient to bring on an appetite that could be assuaged at a country inn.
It was the freedom to go “off the beaten track” that appealed to so many young Victorians. Theirs were middle-class lives already mapped out. Their education was carefully selected, their futures secured to the greatest degree within the power of their families. Much of life was, for them a ritual of controlled behaviour with the constraints of convention. So to be free, really free, to wander where one would, was the greatest joy. When Albert Smith remembered his wanderings of 1838, he noted how he and his companion left the beaten track and “not being bound by any conventional laws of travelling, you are more independent to wander wherever you please. And in the mid ‘80s, James Purves commented that “the greatest virtue a walking tour has is its freedom.”
The breakfast, served in a parlour hung with coloured coaching prints, is by no means to be despised. There are honest chops of Southdown mutton, rather bigger, perhaps than altogether desirable, but tasting of the wild thyme on the neighbouring downs. There are fresh-laid eggs forming a symphony in white and gold with the slices of frizzled bacon; and there is golden butter too, with home-baked bread, and coffee of which the short-comings are covered by the cream.
Walking was, as another writer noted, “the true life of travel.” Going on foot allowed one “to see, hear and feel – to gather thoughts and pictures.” It meant that the Victorian heart could be filled “with images of beauty, … with impulses of love and truthfulness.” Walking “set the soul in its fitting sphere of contemplation and worship.”
A man can live unto himself; for the remainder of the year he lives to his family . … So long as a man is not a cripple has a few sovereigns and a knapsack, he need never be miserable.
Robert Louis Stevenson's 1878 memoir of a 12-day walking tour through the Cévennes of France's Massif Central with a donkey can be read by clicking here.