‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – err… why not?

Written by Andy Bernhardt

13 August 2021

Some musings on the politics of solo walks and how Billy and Betty No Mates are onto something maybe…

It’s a sunny crisp autumn day of the kind that promises blue skies by day, creeping mists at dusk and a hot, one pot dish in the oven for supper. But this is all to come. We are gathering at Victoria Station; a small group of friends who have taken to walking the Kent countryside on Saturdays. Our navigator, and therefore effectively group leader, Seb, is late and our hourly train is due to leave in 10 minutes. We don’t want to wait another hour, but we can’t leave without him – he has the map and the route from Otford station.

With minutes to go he arrives in his familiar fashion – sweating and ticketless, gasping unconvincing excuses. The race is on for him to get a ticket; we hear train doors closing. We focus; we decide to board while he is convinced he can dash off, get a ticket and get back in time. From the train window we peer anxiously back at the ticket barrier, urging him to appear, convinced he will just about make it; he always does.

He doesn’t…

A collective groan fills the compartment as our train trundles away, minus leader, route and map. But wait! There’s this daring new technology which we are just learning to master – mobile phones. Ring Seb! Get some basic route instructions! He can catch us up at the lunchtime pub if gets the next train! I call; Seb answers. I explain the plan… Through gritted teeth he explains that we have boarded the train to Oxted while he is on the right train to Otford. No one in the group is even sure where Oxted is. The day is a rolling disaster.

Then, one day, I’m walking on my own… something starts to happen… I discover the crucial difference between being alone and being lonely…

Slowly over the years this event is threaded like beads on a string alongside other collective fiascos of group walking. Seb fades out of the walking scene and I become an occasional group leader and begin to realise that walking with my friends is not like herding kittens, it’s something a little more complex. It more closely resembles attempting to coordinate a mass escape from a zoo.

Then, one day, I’m walking on my own. I attempt to fend off the feeling that I’ve accidentally formed the Billy No-Mates walking club. A sad man in walking gear, alone, rarely a good look. No one to catch up with on the train; no one to chat to along the way; and, worse still, lunch on my own fending off the pitying glances of the other diners. The horror…

Then, after several more solo walks, something starts to happen: I realise I’m enjoying myself. More time to think, allowing myself to be governed by whim, interest and chance encounters and uncovering of an aspect of myself which I didn’t know existed: the capacity to enjoy my own company. And thereby I discover the crucial difference between being alone and being lonely. Having experienced both it’s a difference I appreciate profoundly.

Later I would add a dog as my companion; a succession of dogs in fact. Together we have trekked several thousand miles and have delighted in all of it.

Well, not quite all, but that’s walking.

Drawing upon a completely unscientific sample of observations made on the walks, I realise that my penchant for solo walking is a minority pursuit. I also begin to realise that the barriers against walking of any kind largely disappear if you are white, male and able-bodied. If you are none of these things then the countryside, as a solo experience, can close down – an idea I intend to explore in future articles.

In short, the more I walk alone the more I realise that it is a privilege. It’s also clear that while it can be a joy for me it is completely unappealing to many.

And what of the group walk today?
Inside a few years, accelerated by the desire to escape after a succession of Covid lockdowns, group walking is making a comeback. Social interaction sites, dating groups and a range of online forums are encouraging people to log off, head out and meet up.

I find myself also tending towards more collective walking of a limited kind; gathering together with one or two companions and delighting in their company. Besides, they make perfect pity deflection shields. At last I can proudly enter a lunchtime pub as Billy (At Least) One Mate.

Don’t shout about it but walking has become ever so slightly cool. It’s possible to board a weekend morning train at Victoria Station only to find the carriage filling with chattering, energised 20 to 30 somethings heading out of London on a social ramble.

And, even more impressively to me, they’re on the same train as the group leader…