Life on foot

By Matt Elton, 10 March 2010 - 9:22am

Alan Crosby considers the central role that walking played in the lives of many of our ancestors

Wednesday 10 March 2010
Alan Crosby
, editor of The Local Historian
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Giving a talk earlier in the week about 'Crime and punishment in the 17th century', I was reading out some documents from the quarter sessions records for the period, full of vividly-phrased text and giving valuable insights into the lives and lifestyles of local people three or four hundred years ago.

Among them were a few which related to vagrants, and after the talk some of the audience began talking and questioning about how far people walked ‘in those days’. We live in an area which is close to hills and mountains, where many people go walking at weekends (or if they have any sense, and are retired, in the week when there aren’t so many people about). The Lake District is 45 minutes away (in the car!) and so are the western Yorkshire Dales, while almost on the doorstep we have moors and beautiful valleys. But of course 350 years ago people were walking not for the love of the scenery or the good fresh air, but because they had no choice.

It was a really interesting discussion – one of the examples I’d chosen concerned people who spent almost their whole lives walking, and because the documents described their movements in some detail we could work out how far they went each day: between eight and fifteen miles seemed about standard. They slept in barns and outhouses, cadged food and shelter where they could (or stole goods on the way, which was how the couple in question ended up in the stocks in a small Lancashire market town).

I remembered how I’d read, years ago, that in the early 19th century some of the lead-miners at Alston, high in the North Pennines, lived with their families 24 miles away in Keswick, and would walk to and fro twice a week, crossing the dauntingly steep two thousand foot high Hartside Pass en route. They took it, literally, in their stride.

Of course, many of those who walked ceaselessly along the roads and lanes of Britain died en route – most parish registers have at least a few entries for the burial of people ‘found dead by the wayside’, and communities on main roads and busy routes were used to seeing a constant raggle-taggle procession of the down-at-heel vagrants, pitiful beggars, demobbed or disabled soldiers and sailors, individuals and families moving from one place to another almost like refugees.

Now we drive along the same roads in a few minutes. For them, every bend, every pothole, every gateway was a few yards further along a wearying journey through life.

 

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