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Address to AGM of Long Distance Walkers Association

Grange-over-Sands, 2nd March 2012
by Christopher Somerville


Kind ladies, lords and gentlefolk,
To lecture you would be a joke;
To give you all a bracing talk
On what to wear, or how to walk
When GPS is on the blink,
The latest probiotic drink,
The Lyke Wake Walk done twice or thrice,
Or any other stern advice.

I've seen your website now, you know;
I know how far you guys will go;
I've heard John Johnson talk of fools
Who plunge themselves in mountain pools;
At your ‘Gold Challenge’, reason teeters -
Walking 2,000 kilometres?
As for all those walk events –
Who with any common sense
Would dare instruct the folk, I wonder,
Capable of the Blackdown Blunder,
Grim and Gruesome, Mid Wolds Wobble,
Fontmell Farce, or Lane End Hobble?

So I will not attempt to teach you,
Preach or reach you, or beseech you.
'Stead of battering you with theory,
I will pose one modest query;
Let us get right down and to it –
Here it is: 'Why do we do it?'

An existential question, friends,
That makes one bite one's finger-ends;
A knotty poser, you'll acknowledge,
Fit for debate in hall or college –

O where, my lieges, lies the point
Of straining every nerve and joint,
Of hiking till our toenails split,
Of walking till we're sick of it?
'Why do you do it?' comes the cry
From yon bystander, standing by;
A fair enquiry, in my book,
And worthy of a little look.

Why do we walk so jolly far?
Why don't we do it all by car?

I have cogitated much
On cause and grounds and roots and such,
And here's the crux of what I've learned,
Deep within my brain it's burned:
The very heart and soul, the nub,
The point of walking is ... the pub.

Now I was once like you, my nobles;
I'd sooner suck on stones or snowballs,
Sooner mortify the flesh
Than drink new ale when it was fresh.
Pubs to me were most abhorrent -
I would seek the mountain torrent,
Gather raindrops, quaff the tarns,
Drink at rusty troughs in barns,
Sip the dew from off the grass,
Gulp a melted Haagen-Dasz –
Anything but enter in
A public house, that den of sin,
Siren's lair of sloth and slackness,
Gorgon's hovel, pit of blackness.

Ere I had my pub renaissance,
I ate naught but nuts and raisins,
I drank only Adam's ale -
I was puny, poor and pale,
Good for little, fit for nuffin,
Long of face and short of stuffin.

Picture me, one fateful day,
Battling with the Pennine Way;
By the tempest almost felled,
On the bleak moors north of Keld;
Head bowed down before the wind,
Feet all blistered, ankles skinned,
Sixty pounds upon my back,
Fit to make each rib bone crack;
Smeared with peat and soaked with rain,
Lost in bloody mist again,
Night a-creeping o'er the lea;
No-one there to comfort me,
Steer my steps or set my brain right
Save the Master, sainted Wainwright,
Guiding me through cleft and canyon
With his Pennine Way Companion,
Stained with rain and earth and sun,
Open at Page 91.
Though black misery filled my cup,
Though I'd almost given up,
Though my will was growing dim,
Still I kept my faith in him.

Now I fumbled for a match,
'Twas the last one of the batch,
Struck it with a trembling hand.
As the Master's page I scanned,
Following the dotted line,
There it lay, in print so fine,
As the dark and mist closed in -
The fatal legend: 'Tan Hill Inn'.

Peering forward through the night,
There I spied a wondrous sight -
Lights a-twinkling in the gloaming,
Whispering, 'Traveller, stop your roaming!'
I was absolutely knacked,
And so, my lords, my willpower cracked.
Through the door I dragged myself,
Dumped my pack upon the shelf,
Tottered forward to the bar –
Out then, like a jaguar,
Sprang the barman, and he cried:
'Y'muddy bugger - get outside!'

God, my friends, I nearly died!

I dropped Wainwright with a rustle,
I simply couldn't move a muscle;
Then the miracle occurred!
The landlady appeared and purred,
'Hither, son, and do not fear –
What you need's a pint of beer!'

Then I found my heart's desire
As she sat me by the fire,
Pulled the boots from off my feet;
'Would you like a bite to eat?'
Bound my blisters, combed my beard
(That was nice, though somewhat weird);
Brought me, like a magic wish,
Steak and kidney in a dish.
There beside the fragrant pudd'n,
Dark and foaming like a good'un,
Stood a glass ... I will not fool yer –
It was Theakston's Old Peculier.

Nobles, that was it for me;
That was my epiphany.
Once I'd got the first one down me,
I drank quite enough to drown me,
Scoffed the pudding, then one more,
Went to bed for eight hours' snore;
Rose at seven, ate six eggs,
Felt as if I'd got new legs,
Kissed the lady, took my leave,
And reached Kirk Yetholm late that eve.

There is a message clear for all
Who heed the hills' seductive call -
When dusky eve comes creeping o'er
Benighted bog and moody moor;
When hard-worked feet have swollen so
You cannot feel each heel and toe,
When you are out of power and puff –
In short, when you have had enough –
You know you do not have to wait
Until the hour is growing late;
You do not need to yomp the path
While mortal folk are in the bath;
You're not compelled to keep it up
Till you have drained exhaustion's cup;
There is no need to cross that beck -
Consider cutting short your trek!

O friends, take warning by my tale!
Do not shun good steak and ale!
Cast away that stale Ryvita,
Hurry past the Happy Eater;
Shun that isoponic bottle;
Get some strong ale down your throttle.
When your Brashers start to rub,
Hurl them hence and seek the pub!

If you are a sentient mammal,
Quit the flask and shun the Camel;
Pour yon pallid tea away,
And drink with me the livelong day.
One word of warning to you, sonny -
For God's sake, don't forget your money!
For there is nothing in this world
So guaranteed to get toys hurled
Out of the pram, when in the bar,
As being thirsty for a jar,
Eyeing the beckoning pumps, inspecting
What's on offer, then selecting
A tasty pint of Killer Rocket,
Putting your hand into your pocket ...
Discovering, as you stamp and cuss,
You've left your wallet on the bus.

So let's forget the rambling bug;
Come on and join me in the snug
Where no rude winds roughly blow,
Where there's neither sleet nor snow.
Bring me to the Pheasant Inn,
Hark-to Bounty, Poacher's Pin,
Hunter's Lodge or Heights Hotel,
The Bull, the Bowl, the Ball, the Bell.
In the Black Lion I would sojourn,
Rain and wind and hail a-dodgin';
In some fabled watering hole
Where the fires burn proper coal,
Where the landlord's cheeks are rosy,
Everything is quiet and cosy,
No-one talks a bit of sense,
And a pint costs twenty pence.
Jokes are funny, laughter hearty,
Every day's a birthday party;
Roast beef sandwiches, of course,
Plenty of horseradish sauce.
Table-tops are wide and stout,
You can spread your maps right out.
Beer comes from a wooden barrel;
No-one minds your strange apparel;
Floors are muddy, no-one cares
If your boots are on the chairs,
Dogs are welcome, walkers too,
And there's paper in the loo.

Should you, by some happy chance,
Through the lamplit window glance
And see a walker limping past,
Shivering in the icy blast,
Do not pity him his lot,
Do not weep for him one jot -
Thank your stars for what you've got -
He's outside – and you are not!

Life goes to and fro – it's tidal.
Make the most of being idle;
There's no need to grasp the nettle;
Put your feet up on the settle.
Greet each stranger like a brother;
Take your time and have another,
Chase it with a warming noggin,
Open the stove and put a log in.
Start a song and sing it through;
Get the cat to talk to you.
Inspect the pictures, watch the telly,
Contemplate the landlord's belly ...

Soon the hour will strike, you know,
When through those doors you'll have to go,
Into wet boots squeeze sore feet,
Don a coat against the sleet,
Scowl as though you'd Colin Firth it,
Growl and wonder if it's worth it;
Out into the storm a-stumbling,
Hat and gloves and gaiters fumbling,
Tripping over rock and boulder ...

If the devil on your shoulder
Shows you, through the haze of beer,
A handy bus stop, standing near;
If his charming voice you hear,
Whispering softly in your ear,
'Let's give up this walking lark;
And let's get home before it's dark' -
Do not feel ashamed, my friends,
If there your expedition ends;
Do not slink with guilt away -
You can walk another day.

I'll conclude, my patient hosts,
By offering you the best of toasts.

Here's to the babe in hat and gloves
Carried by the ones it loves,
Learning atop the mountain's crown
The lifelong thrill of looking down.
Here's to the child that I was once,
Who would not walk on, silly dunce,
But sat down like a sulky pup
And howled until they picked me up.

Here's to the youth who'll lace his boots
In expectation of new routes,
Of paths to bear him far away
From ordinary everyday.
Here's to the girl who hoists her pack
With jubilation on her back
Intending to assault the peaks
Where ravens call and magic speaks.
Here's to those of riper years,
Grinding through the lower gears
With creaking bones and wonky knees,
Still keen to sniff the mountain breeze.
And here's to the man, and woman too,
Who can't do what they used to do,
But still contrive a last hurrah
By telling whoppers in the bar.

To walkers, one and all!