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I wonder if we’ll go back to the ‘walking everywhere’ habit

PUBLISHED: 07:20 20 January 2018

Children walking at Burgh Castle in April 1960. Back in the day, almost everyone used 'Shanks' pony' to get around. Picture: Archand library.

Children walking at Burgh Castle in April 1960. Back in the day, almost everyone used 'Shanks' pony' to get around. Picture: Archand library.

Archant

Remember ‘Shanks’ pony’? Once, everyone seemed to use it, says Keith Skipper.

Some malinger. Some march. Others make it obvious how long it’s been since they put one purposeful foot in front of the other. I wonder just how many New Year resolutions banked on “a good walk” as a short cut to the paths of redemption.

The festive season tends to be the last major blow-out before the lantern of new hope is lit. Jogging suits and exercise bikes take over from party hats and groaning tables. A frantic search for twinkling toes and determined jaws starts all over again.

Sadly, it’s not long before most of those good intentions are lost on the very next lap of the rat-race. Even “a good walk” becomes as common as an empty parking space in the middle of Norwich when the sales balloon goes up.

Yet it seems to me like only yesterday when walking and biking some distance was an integral part of daily life. Of course, much of it was born out of necessity before the car ruled the roads but much of it could be called a simple pleasure because the traffic was not there to clutter up the system.

Youngsters walked to village school and back. Men walked to the fields and spent most of the day outside on the move. Mothers walked to the shop for a bag of sugar, to the chapel to dust pews, to church to change flowers, to neighbours to chew over news.

Paint any Norfolk picture of 60 years or so ago and you find folk walking, chatting to each other, soaking up the gossip and keeping cobblers in business by wearing out their boots and shoes. The contrast with current trends is all too plain.

Children mostly travel to school by car or bus rather than take the air. In some cases, this makes good sense, especially with the need to safeguard the very young against the twin perils of congestion and pollution.

However, older pupils could make more of an effort to get there under their own steam, particularly when you tot up the number of vehicles used for the school run. The sheer habit of driving or being driven anywhere and everywhere leads eventually to the sort of chaos we see regularly in Norwich, with useful impressions cropping up in many towns and villages.

What prospect, then, of the walking habit catching on again? I fear only harsh legislation will cut out mechanised mayhem in many quarters. Left with a choice, a clear majority would still take a chance and crawl while complaining long and loud that something really ought to be done about this mess.

Still, it’s worth offering vibrant examples from Norfolk’s past in the hope of inspiring a resurgence of walking wonders to stride in harmony with our much-vaunted passion for treating ourselves and our precious environment with a dash more respect.

Walter Rye was the last Mayor of Norwich in 1908-09 before the office was elevated to a Lord Mayoralty. From the age of 21, all his holidays were taken up by walking and cycling excursions into darkest Norfolk or sailing on the Broads before they became a brazen tourism playground.

He was a big chap, just under six feet, and he weighed 14 stone in middle age. He became a champion walker and rowed, sparred and took up pistol shooting and archery. He became a pioneer cyclist at 43 and rode a tricycle well into old age.

Another prize pedestrian from over a century ago, Ben Bray was a late developer. He first put on his racing shoes at 38 and soon tasted success when he came first from virtual scratch in a two-mile walking handicap at King’s Lynn.

Bray, founder of the West Norfolk Harriers, improved with age and his most successful season came when he was 43. He finished second to Butler, the world champion, in the prestige London to Brighton Walk, covering over 52 miles in nine hours, six minutes.

Let me suggest that when they do get around to banishing all cars from the centre of Norwich, and a few suffering towns, the Brayvadoes will stroll in from north and south and the Ryesanshins from east and west.

When that lead-free gun goes to signal the start of car-free strolls, will you be there to breathe new meaning into that old line about enthusiasts from all walks of life?

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