Moving at the speed of life

Adam Weymouth journeyed on foot from England to Turkey and found that walking, with an attitude of openness, offered a unique understanding and experience of the world

In early spring 2010 with the trees still bare, I took the first steps on a journey whose beauty and challenges I could never have imagined. It took me 247 days (8 months) to walk from the village of Whiteparish, near Salisbury, to Istanbul. 5000 km. Flight time is about 4 hours.

I had walked to Santiago de Compostela in Spain several years previously, and that journey had led to a number of years researching both pilgrimage and walking as a form of protest. I was now 26 and had decided that it was time to get away from the library and put some of what I had been writing about into practice.

From London I passed through Canterbury and stood on the worn stones at Becket’s tomb where countless pilgrims had stood before me. I crossed the channel at Dover and walked through the storms and barren spaces of Northern France, and from Paris I traced the Seine to Dijon as spring eased into the world.

After a month on the flat, the hills began to rise in slowly growing folds until the Alps were surrounding me, snow still thick on the ground in May. For weeks I climbed through almost impenetrable passes, and finally emerged into Italy, and into summer, traversing the Apennines and following the coast to Slovenia. The temperature rose into the forties and England limped out the World Cup.

When I began, I had decided that I wanted to try to relinquish the control that we seem to increasingly obsess about, and rather just see what happened to me in the most simple way that I knew. Invited back to a vicar’s house for Sunday lunch during the first week of the journey, his daughter said to me that this was how she thought of faith. And certainly I found that having a faith in strangers, and a story to share with them, gave me a way into people’s lives that I had never found before.

Every day I met people and every day I was looked after, offered a bed, a meal, a conversation. Spending so much time as an outsider I began to see just how crucial those interactions were. I started to see that our efforts to eliminate all risk from our lives are destroying the things that can really keep us safe, things like a strong community and an openness to strangers.

On the border with Croatia the customs official sat me down in his office and toasted my arrival to the east with rakija, the ubiquitous local spirit. England it wasn’t. I walked through dusty limestone mountains that hid wolves and bears in their folds, skirting the edges of minefields. The old Ottoman influences started to entwine with the Catholic, and my days were punctuated with the call to prayer floating across the landscapes. Everyone had stories to tell about the war, knew someone affected by it or had fought in it themselves. Walls were still thick with bullets and different ethnic groups bristled side by side. Every border was heavy with distrust, but each new country welcomed me ever more openly.

Maps became harder to come by, but it was mattering less. With very little private land and barely any fences I could simply point my compass southeast and walk, getting directions from the occasional shepherd. It was incredibly liberating. In her wonderful book Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit suggests that the mind works at 3mph. We have evolved to engage with our land at this pace, and anything faster is in some ways a reduction. I followed old pathways and donkey trails, routes trodden through the mountains that had been worn by the shepherds and wanderers and armies before me, lines that spoke of human habit and an intimate connection with the world.

Our obsession with speed and arriving at our destination is severing many of those connections. Places have become so humanised that they are no longer human sized. I saw vast fields of wheat and oilseed rape, with the surrounding land so bare of trees that you can hardly stand in the winds. There were small villages where the communities have long since disappeared under the advance of second homes, commuters and agribusiness, the cafés and schools now closed. I walked through the endless sprawls in and out of cities, through places we can only see comfortably through the eyes of a machine, moving at a machine’s speed. Walking seems to me like one way of trying to recognise all parts of this world, in sickness and in health.

As I moved on, the nights got longer and I was eating walnuts and apples from the trees instead of the cherries and figs of summer. One morning in Bulgaria I woke with ice coating the inside of my tent. I rushed through the last mountains of Eastern Europe as the autumn mists drew in across the pines.

Eight months after I left England I arrived in Istanbul, having gone through twelve countries, three seasons and two pairs of walking boots. From across the Bosphorus blew warm winds that spoke of deserts. I sat down on a bank, watching Asia and the ships cutting back and forth in the dark. I had crossed Europe, at a speed unchanged since humans took their first tottering steps on two legs out of the forests.

My life had been defined by the simplicities of the weather, how to find food, where to sleep, which way east was… I now began the gradual reintroduction to a life of cities and of speed that I had not known for a very long time. After a week in Istanbul and four days of trains, hitches and buses, I found myself back in London, trying to make sense of it all.

Almost everyone walks, and I think this is one reason why people understood and appreciated the story that I was carrying. Whether walking to the shops or Istanbul, the process is the same – it simply comes down to the number of footsteps you take before you stop. Walking was, I came to see, a fairly mundane thing to do, and because of that, it was something people could relate to. I wasn’t telling a dramatic story of distant travel and fast experiences, I was simply putting one foot in front of the other, just the same as them. We were sharing a journey together, and as I continue to walk about my life back in England, I am on that journey still.

The people and the places that I saw stretch out from where I write this now, not as unconnected points but as a continuous thread. It is this that serves to show that both the good and bad of my journey, the environmental destruction and the beautiful landscapes, the recent wars and the incredible hospitality, are all part of my world, and as such, must be embraced.