Arising in popularity during the Romantic era—an artistic and literary movement from the late 18th to the mid-19th century, which glorified emotion, individualism, and nature—rambling is akin to ‘roaming’. Compared to ‘hiking’, which suggests a more determined and energetic activity, rambling implies a certain aimlessness; even if the destination is known, the destination is not the point.
Within England and Wales, there is a comprehensive network of ‘rights of way’ that permits access to walk about at pleasure over the land of another person. And since the “Right to Roam” Act was passed, access to uncultivated and unenclosed land has opened up, making the UK one of the best places in the world to ramble freely in nature. Celebrated interiors architect Ben Pentreath meditates on the pleasures, and power, of his walks through the English countryside.
From our house in West Dorset, my husband Charlie and I can step out in any direction on a series of beautiful walks: down the valley, through the farm; up the old, thickly wooded drive of the big house that sits at the heart of our village; up on the high hills over the valley, past ancient Neolithic burial tombs that still survey the huge expanse of the hills and coast below which we live, tucked in the sheltering valley. But most days, we go on a simple round, past the old cricket ground (immortalised by the painter David Inshaw in his famous series of paintings, the Cricket Game, in the 1970s), up the incline, and onto the high chalk downs thatare home to no-one but peacefully grazing cattle, wildflowers and, in a hot summer, hundredsof Adonis blue butterflies. We take this walk unfailingly, most days; most often in an anti-clockwise direction, but sometimes saying ‘let’s go the other way around’; which is a little harder, with a steeper climb at the beginning, and a whole different panorama of views unfolding as we go.
I’m always in two minds as to whether to carry my phone (for its camera, nothing else) on a walk. Part of me knows that the lens curiously places a filter between our eyes, our minds, and reality; part of me is conscious that every time we’re up there, there are atmospheric conditions, fog, mist, clouds, early morning slanting sunshine of such ethereal beauty – more beautiful than any painting in any gallery in the world – that fleeting moment which I want to stop and capture. And as a result, I must have photographed those hills, and the old clumps of beech trees, thousands of times in the twelve years since I moved here. The extraordinary thing is how every single day is different.
Like so many people, lockdown has gently forced us into completely staying put in a way that would have been unimaginable before it happened. We realise how suddenly mobility has crept upon our society, really; the handmaiden of modernity. Rarer and rarer are the peripheral rural communities in England, Scotland or Wales with their revered older residents who have famously ‘never left the county’ or ‘never been to London’. For hundreds, indeed thousands of years, people lived in our valley going no further each day than they could walk. And for a brief few weeks, that was all of us, too. It is a different form of travel; the form that allows you to know one page of the book intimately, rather than looking at the whole library. I imagine that many of us have simultaneously missed the riches of the library yet loved the intensity of reading and re-reading that single page.
Walking is a consolation, particularly with dogs, which provide constant amusement and entertainment. There is something about the pace, especially with hills, that stretches the legs and the mind, without ever leaving you strained; there is something about walking together, often in companionable silence, every now and again commenting on something or another in the landscape, or on an event of yesterday or of tomorrow; there is something beautifully powerful in seeing the same track every day, the same hills, the same trees and distant views, and in noticing the tiny changes in nature or weather unfolding daily, weekly: astonishing transformations, as bare woodland bursts into leaf like the slow sonic chord of a huge orchestra, growing in intensity; the astonishing moments when the hills are covered in cowslips, or bluebells, or the blackthorn gives way to hawthorn and now elderflower.
I’ve always known the consolations of walks in nature – I suppose that is, after all, why I’ve tried to live this dual life of London and Dorset for so many years now – but they held me in their gentle embrace most fully last year, perhaps, in the halting, terrible few days after my Mum died, and then, just a few weeks later, my father. No words are needed: just the business of putting one foot in front of another and carrying on. An activity, in the strange weeks and now these dark days of the summer of 2020, that feels more vital than ever before.
Ben Pentreath is one of the United Kingdom’s leading architectural and interior designers. Ben lives with his husband, Charlie McCormick, in London and in a Regency parsonage in West Dorset—and now also in a tiny cottage on the far west coast of Scotland.