I thought about this book earlier today as I was on my morning walk with the dog. It was rather an overcast day in south Devon, the kind where you can’t tell whether it is raining or not. I picked a favourite route, through woodland along a riverbank for about a mile and a half. It was quite muddy underfoot, especially in places where the path isn’t well drained. The fallen leaves are beginning to rot and can be quite slippery. In these woods we see many primroses later in the year, and wild garlic (ransoms). Today there were no wildflowers. I had to make do with the sight of snowdrops in the hedges of the lane on my way out of my village.
I love walking this route. It is always changing. When I first discovered it, I had no dog, and it was not well walked. You rarely met anyone. Since Covid we meet plenty of dog walkers. As people in Devon do, we greet each other and pass on. The river has a strange name: the Lemon. I haven’t been able to establish where it rises, but it collects the water from many hillsides and eventually joins the Teign just before that river widens into its estuary.
The river undermines trees all the time, and those on the banks often fall. Some create barriers across the path; some create bridges across the narrow river; others lie where they have fallen. But one that I previously relied on for a seat has been removed. It was perfect for sitting and watching the dog leaping into the water, so I had to find another. The dog loves swimming, even in January. She has an absorbing hobby: collecting stones from the bed of the river and taking them away onto the dry bank. I can sit until I feel the cold, watching her leap into the water and emerging after some bottom exploration with a huge wet stone. I don’t know why she does this. She did it yesterday at the beach as well.
Walking with the dog, rain or shine, twice a week has been part of my life for about five years. Even before I moved down to Devon from London I would frequently go out on my own. I have walked around the LOOP (the London Outer Orbital Route, which encircles London without going beyond the M25). It took two years to complete all the segments, but I understood London and its edges so much better when I had completed it.
With my friend Sarah I have also walked the Thames Path, from the source of the river near a patch of snowdrops in a soggy field in Gloucestershire to the Thames Barrier. That was in about 15 stages. Given that we were following the route of one of England’s greatest rivers, I am not quite sure how we got lost on one section. Our current walking and musing often takes place high above the Vale of Pewsey, in the area of Salisbury Plain – think white horse of Westbury and Eric Ravillious.
Walking is a such a good activity, on your own, with a dog or with other people. It puts one in touch with the landscape, especially a familiar landscape when one can notice the small changes of the seasons or the topography. And it is an excellent social activity, bringing people together, creating shared experiences, providing opportunity for interaction, reflection and quiet togetherness.
As I walked this morning I noticed a new perspective on a ridge, and how some foresters had been clearing some of the scrub and hedge material that had previously hidden the river along sections of the path. I considered as I walked, the notion of belonging to a place. This summer it will be eleven years since I moved to this part of the world. I have walked some part of it every week. Do I belong? How does walking help me to belong?
I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain
This book was a Christmas present from the previously-mentioned Sarah. Thank you Sarah!
Anita Sethi experienced nasty racial abuse on a train in the north of England. She reported it to the train officials and the man was prosecuted and found guilty. Upset by the incident and previous experiences of racism and sexism, she seeks to gain equilibrium through hiking in the north, specifically the Pennines as she was born and brought up in Manchester. Some of this walking she does alone, sometimes she has some support.
Having been told to ‘go back where you belong’ she asks the question, where do I belong, and how do I know. She considers the experiences of Black people in the countryside, of women walking alone, of the meaning of belonging. Along the way she meets people, talks with them, is rescued and helped by them. She considers literature of walking. I especially enjoyed her descriptions of the geology of the areas she walked in, including Hadrian’s Wall. This is a fusion of memoir and nature writing, justly popular and prize-winning.
Of course she belongs. I do too. Belonging is not in the gift of White male racists. Belonging is a function of living.
I Belong Here: a journey along the backbone of Britain by Anita Sethi, published in 2021 by Bloomsbury. 320pp
Shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize for nature writing in 2021 and winner of the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Non-Fiction Award 2021.