On the first weekend of May this year, I met up with five of my oldest male friends at Waterloo station, took a train to Milford in Surrey, walked 12 miles across Bagmoor Common and the Devil’s Punch Bowl, stopped for lunch at The Three Horseshoes in Thursley, caught the train back to London from Haslemere, drank too much beer under an awning on the South Bank and went home. At the end of the day, the step counter on my phone said 42,235.
For the past 16 years, we’ve been doing something similar roughly every year. When we inaugurated this accidental tradition, smartphones weren’t a thing, Tony Blair was still prime minister and my friends had much more hair. The first walk we did was a three-day ramble along the Coleridge Way in Somerset and north Devon. It was a fantastic route: 50 miles of moorland and rolling hills. But at the time, there was still a faint air of incredulity about what we were doing. Going walking seemed like an absurdly grown-up activity.
The essential beauty of the thing is its simplicity: gather a bunch of friends, go for a walk, go home
Throughout my childhood, I loathed walking. It was simultaneously too slow and too strenuous. I see the same objection in my own children’s faces if I bring up the idea of a walk now. A walk for its own sake is a mystifying thing to a child. You have to rebrand it somehow: geocaching, a shopping trip – hide and seek, anyone?
I still remember choosing to go for my first walk, aged 23, in the countryside outside Salem, Massachusetts, and wondering what on earth had got in to me.
On our first organised walk in 2006, the gaiters one friend wore and the Ordnance Survey map he carried in a plastic case were a knowing wink at our precociousness. Another friend wore a flat cap. Chaps going for a walk! It was as though we had chosen to play bridge, or golf, or bingo. Yes, we were walking, but at our age, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to be kite-surfing, going to a nightclub, or playing five-a-side football? We jokingly named ourselves the Wandsworth and North Kensington English Rambling Society. Consider the acronym for a second.
However, the companionship and the exercise left a surprisingly long afterglow. There’s an ineffable pleasure about a walk with friends. It seems to tune you up like an engine and get everything running smoothly. Immediately afterwards, a couple of us disappeared into the chaos of new parenthood and it was hard to coordinate another walk for a while. Then, gradually, it established itself as an annual event.
Over the years we’ve done a two-day walk along the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, sections of the Ridgeway, and several chunks of the Thames Path, from Lechlade right up to the Thames Barrier, which we reached in darkness one stormy evening, then retired to a waterside pub. We’ve walked the South Downs Way twice, around Canvey Island one year, and along the Lea Valley another, emerging at Stamford Hill in the evening among the Haredi men hurrying home for Sabbath in their silk stockings and sable hats.
Usually we walk in spring, but last year we squeezed in a walk along the Regent’s Canal between lockdowns, at the end of the summer.
The logistical ambition of that first walk – three nights, booking various B&Bs – hasn’t been repeated. We’ve overnighted a few times and I hope we manage it again. There’s been much talk of more elaborate walks. Travelling abroad, I’ve visited places I thought would be perfect if we could just get it together: the Harz mountains in Germany is a destination I’m keen on, as are the Faroe Islands. But it’s a challenge to find a time and place that works for all of us, and anyway, the essential beauty of the thing is its simplicity: gather a bunch of friends, go for a walk, go home.
People change partners naturally like dancers at a Regency ball. The time passes very fast
Of the five friends who are regulars on the walk, I’ve known two since I was 13, two since I was 18, and one, Zik, who took the lead picture, was born in the same Kampalan hospital as me, while our hopeful young parents carved out lives in newly independent Uganda in the 1960s. One of the things the walks accomplish is to maintain our sense of connection. There’s a strange moment in life, when not seeing a friend for a while suddenly means a gap of five years or even a decade.
A familiar routine establishes itself every time we walk. Someone takes responsibility for the route. We fall into pairs and chat. And somehow, over the course of the day, people change partners naturally like dancers at a Regency ball. The time passes very fast. Suddenly, it’s late afternoon. We’ll often try to extend the day with dinner or a drink.
What on earth do we talk about? We tease each other a lot. We talk about work, and our shared acquaintances. Whoever’s in charge of the route gets flak for terrible map-reading. On the occasions when I’ve organised a walk – a disastrous, rain-blighted yomp along the Thames that involved wading through flooded fields of nettles springs to mind – I’ve felt quite stressed about it.
One of the other walkers is a trickster who enjoys practical jokes. He also likes leading mutinies against whoever’s taken on the paternal role in the group. A Freudian would find that interesting. But as we’re blokes, we don’t explore our emotional lives that deeply with each other. At the same time, the steady companionship offers a different, low-key comfort.
As we’ve got older, it’s not just our waistlines that have softened. Our preoccupations have changed. My friends have grown more open and thoughtful in the decades I’ve known them. We still chat about jobs and relationships and children, books we’re reading, films and TV shows we’ve seen. But ageing parents, more experience of life, its challenges and mystifying changes of fortune, I think, have made us a bit kinder to one another.
There was a very gloomy atmosphere on our walk last October. We argued over whether another lockdown was imminent. One optimist thought the pandemic had blown itself out. The rest of us were not so sanguine. We took a riverboat back to Embankment and a few of us had a drink at the only place open, Circa, a gay bar on Victoria Embankment where the waiter took our order, then closed up as we left because there was no business.
The contrast between that and our most recent walk is very encouraging. When we met at Waterloo, it was almost the first day that six people could legally meet since last year. Still we couldn’t shake hands or hug. Five of us were masked and one wore a blue bandana. On the outbound train, he pushed a pastry up behind it and it disappeared, as though he were a rich French gastronome secretly devouring an ortolan.
But the sense of hopefulness was palpable. The Three Horseshoes was doing good business. The route wasn’t crowded, but I recognised our counterparts among the other walkers: a group of men in their 60s eating sandwiches under a tree looked like the Ghosts of Future Rambles. At the end of the day, the South Bank was brimming with joyful energy. The crowds were rowdy but good-natured and seemed so young. We were the oldest drinkers among them. And I think, to varying degrees, the six of us have understood that’s why it’s important to make the most of the pleasures these walks afford: we’re beginning to glimpse what lies at the end of them.