Sinclair McKay – ‘Ramble On: The story of our love for walking Britain’

I think it’s the result of being fed up with winter but at the moment I’m finding myself drawn towards books about outdoor pursuits or journeys. Sinclair McKay’s Ramble On was my latest read and I’ve just picked up No Fixed Abode: A Journey Through Homelessness from Cornwall to London by Charlie Carroll and Move Along, Please: Land’s End to John O’Groats by local bus by Mark Mason at the library.

My particular travelogue quirk is that I rarely read books about places I haven’t been to – probably because I’d rather visit them – but if I spot a book that features familiar places, I’m all over it. I just love finding out if the author’s managed to make the words match the pictures in my head.

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Ramble On was a great success in that respect. McKay’s book is neatly organised so that each chapter features a famous UK-based route, including journeys like Edale to Kinder Scout in the Peak District, Dorking to Box Hill in Surrey, the North Downs, the Gower Peninsula, the Lakes, the Yorkshire Moors and many more. I hadn’t walked all the routes but I loved wending my way gently around the British Isles via McKay’s vivid descriptions. Here’s a glimpse of the Peak District, as a taster:

“The round hills swooping up in a crest and rising away into the distance, promising mile after mile of austere pale grass; black, wet peat; and moist limestone. This is the skeleton of Britain, the nobbled spine protruding through the dark muddy flesh.”

Each chapter also features a theme, related to the geographical location. So there’s discussion of the history of the Rambler’s Association, including the hard-won political and social battles of early open access pioneers, the rise of walking as leisure pursuit, the creation of the National Parks, and even such topics as clothing, youth hostels and botany.

One of my favourite features of McKay’s approach is how often he weaves in a literary connection, whether by quoting the writings of someone closely connected with the landscape or exploring the stories that have been set in iconic locations. There’s Wordsworth, Milton, the Brontes, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy and lots more.

And in between all of that there are chapters that take a slightly less ‘well-travelled’ approach to writing about walkers. I particularly loved reading up on the history of walkers as ‘deviants, outcasts and fugitives‘, trespassing, forbidden land, night-walking and urban rambling.

Apologies for writing such a ‘list-style’ review but it’s hard not to when there’s such breadth of scope to cover. If you have an interest in walking there’s almost inevitably something here for you, and if you’re looking for some rambling inspiration this is a great place to start. McKay’s style is easy to read and manages to balance a good helping of information with a light, readable tone and a ‘tongue-in-cheek’ sense of humour when required.

I’ll leave you with McKay’s words, because he uses the word ‘yomp’ – one of my absolute favourites when it comes to walking:

“Generations have fought very hard, and with amazing persistence, to throw open those fields and meadows and river paths and coastal walks and great long moorland yomps. The best we can do is to get out there, enjoy them to the hilt, and ensure that the generations to come enjoy them too.”

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