Our book of the month for September was Kerri Andrews’ Wanderers: A History of Women Walking. We caught up with Kerri to chat all things walking, writing and the fascinating – and seemingly overlooked – history of women walking.
Why is walking important to you?
I’ve been walking since about 2007, though I was interested before then. I don’t come from a family with an interest in the outdoors, or walking – or anything like it, so I had to find walking myself. That took a while. Walking was one of the ways I decided to get fit, starting in 2007, and a walk was the goal I set myself – to be fit enough to walk the Yorkshire Three Peaks (Pen-y-Ghent, Whernside and Ingleborough) within the time limit of 12 hours.
As well as taking up running and squash, I started to get out into the Yorkshire Dales around Leeds, where I was living. I climbed the three peaks separately and did a few other things. Then I discovered the Lake District and began climbing the hills there. I walked the Three Peaks in 2009, completing it in just under the twelve hours!
Since moving to Scotland in 2010, I started taking walking more seriously. I fell in love with the mountains and the Highlands in particular – I’d never seen anything so grand. I started counting Munros, but they were really just a structure through which I could get off and find new bits of Scotland to explore.
I’ve never stopped loving, or valuing, lower level routes. I adore a river walk pretty much the same as a mountain peak, though the experience is different. So, I’ve walked thousands of miles across the Scottish Borders, as well as over a hundred Munros, and there are some routes near my house that I’ve walked almost every day.
Walking for me is escape, recovery, a place to think. Different walks do different things. Being in the mountains brings the most enormous sense of accomplishment and the sense of smallness within vastness, which I find very comforting. There’s the sense of testing yourself, but also of belonging. I also love being able to see where I might go next. Walking is also a way to keep fit, or to get fit (!) – the latter is more true just at the moment – I can walk for hours on end, whereas I hate running.
What made you want to write this book?
The book originated in a feeling of quite extreme exasperation at the extant literature on walking. I am a huge fan of Robert Macfarlane’s writing, but I have to say it was reading his book The Old Ways, which made so much of the walker’s relationship with Edward Thomas, and other men, that made me start to wonder what women walkers thought.
I then started to do some serious reading, but found every book about walking totally dismissive of even the possibility that women might have walked. I’m an expert in eighteenth-century literature by training and archives are my happy place, so I figured I could do some digging and see if what these books said could be true. I doubted it very much and, sure enough, stories started to appear. The book really grew from there, as I found more and more women walkers whose connection with walking had just been totally ignored.
How did you choose the women who feature in this book?
It’s really important, I think, that my book is seen as just a first attempt at exploring the meaning of walking to women – there’s a huge amount of thinking and writing to be done about women walkers before they’ve had the same exposure as male walkers. My goal with this book, then, was simply to demonstrate conclusively that women did walk. It seemed to me really important, given walking literature’s obsession with male walker-writers (think, for instance, the ways in which Wordsworth’s practice of composing poetry while walking has become legendary) that I establish that women writers also found walking really important to their creativity, as well as their experiences as humans more broadly.
I therefore chose women for whom I could find evidence that their walking was tied to their writing, and for whom I could find materials where they reflected on the relationship between walking and writing. This meant excluding a huge number of women who walked – like Jane Austen. She walked miles and miles around Hampshire, but I couldn’t find her saying anything about it except noting that she’d been for a walk – not much of a story for me to tell. The ten women who feature, then, fit my own very strict criteria that they be walkers and practicing writers, with a good amount of writing about their walking.
If you could have included one more woman, who would it have been and why?
I’d have loved to include Mary Wollstonecraft. She went on a tour of Scandinavia in the 1790s, likely on a clandestine mission for her estranged lover Gilbert Imlay, who was the father of the child who accompanied Wollstonecraft. The whole circumstance of the trip is just so interesting – few people visited Scandinavia then, almost no women, and Wollstonecraft’s relationship with Imlay was extremely troubled. On top of that she was travelling as a mother and held significant power to negotiate on Imlay’s behalf. She walked while she was there, and recorded this in the journal she kept, but didn’t make the connection, which was crucial for me, between her walking and her writing. Hers is such an incredible story, but I just couldn’t make it work for the book I was writing this time.
If you could go for a walk with one of the women in your book, in person, who would it be?
I’ve been lucky enough to walk with Linda Cracknell, one autumn evening in Edinburgh, which was wonderful. Of the others, I think it’s a toss up between Anais Nin and Cheryl Strayed.
Reading Nin transformed how I felt about urban spaces as a woman walker and I would love to talk to her about the relationship between her sense of her own sexuality and the creative power she found in walking. It would also be an excuse to go walking round Paris, somewhere I’ve never been.
Walking with Cheryl Strayed would just be such fun – of all the women I wrote about, her humility about her own abilities came across most clearly. She’s a formidable walker, but I think she’d be a very generous walking companion. I’d also love to see more of the mountains in the American Pacific – I had a glimpse while I was in LA a couple of years ago, but there’s so much more I’d love to see.
What are your thoughts/feelings about women walking alone?
I don’t think there’s a right or a wrong position here for women. If you’re not comfortable doing it, that’s fine. But if you are, or if you want to be, go for it. I don’t walk alone all that often, but I do do it reasonably regularly, including some bigger walks. I had a very special time on Ben Lawers alone (though I found myself among a swarm of quadathletes so I was only briefly on my own properly) and I’ve done some reasonably long walks in the Borders on my own.
I tend to have different interactions when I’m alone – women speak to me more and I’ve had some wonderful encounters. I’m not very confident with a compass, though, so I’d hesitate to disappear off into the true wilds without a companion. But that’s a confidence and skills issue, not because I think it’s not ‘appropriate’ or because I might get attacked.
How long did it take you to write the book?
I’ve been working on the book since 2012, when The Old Ways came out! Quite a lot of time was needed to do the archival research – a lot of the material I looked at wasn’t exactly hidden, but the centrality of walking was certainly rarely discussed, so it took some investigative work to identify the women I cover.
Three years, though, were taken up more with trying to place the book. I spent a long time writing to, and being rejected by, both agents and publishers, some of whom were complimentary and supportive but didn’t think the topic had enough commercial potential. This eventually knocked my confidence, so I sent the manuscript to The Literary Consultancy for feedback and advice – and to see if I was wrong to keep believing that the book had value.
Latterly, having a child and experiencing Post Natal Depression meant that it took some time for me to work on edits and revisions. So, it’s been a long and sometimes strange journey, but I’m very proud of the material in the book and that’s the product of that long and strange journey.
Tell us a bit about Women in the Hills, the project you’re involved with.
Women In the Hills is a network aiming to bring together participants from across the spectrum of those interested in the hills – walkers, runners, landowners, clothing manufacturers, physios – to explore how we can make it easier for women to access upland landscapes. The network emerged from my work on Wanderers and also a book being written by one of the other directors, Rachel Hewitt, on the history of women mountaineers (which will be terrific), and the work by the other director, Jo Taylor, on the involvement of Dorothy Wordsworth in pioneering mountain routes in the Lake District.
All three of us are keen hillwalkers and runners with our own experiences of struggling to find kit that fits, pelvic floor health after giving birth, discrimination in mountain events, old-fashioned attitudes to women walking alone, difficulties in accessing mountain training because of childcare/confidence/skills. Through the network we are able to bring together both personal and professional interests, and those of others working in the field.
In particular, we are interested in exploring what happens when we return to the historical record the stories of women as walkers, mountaineers, wanderers. What does it do for girls and women to have role models? To read stories about people like them? There is so much written about men adventuring, enjoying, conquering, being inspired by, remote places, but what about girls who might be interested in being explorers? Who do they look to? My book came to consider this as it matured, and I now think it’s one of the most important things it will hopefully do – and Kathleen Jamie’s foreword making this point is so important.
How hard was it to find information about female walkers from history? Where can their stories be found? Were many recorded?
It was both absurdly easy, and quite challenging. All the material I found was easily accessible – Elizabeth Carter’s letters are all on Google Books, for instance, and you just need to do a keyword search to find where she talks about walking. Dorothy Wordsworth’s letters and journals are in libraries. Ellen Weeton’s books are cheap on Abebooks. Harriet Martineau’s works are also on Google Books. That Virginia Woolf walked is well known, and her diaries are easily accessible, likewise Nin. Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain is cheaply available (and her status as a formidable walker is, thanks to Robert Macfarlane, established beyond doubt). Cheryl Strayed’s walking was made into a Hollywood movie. Linda Cracknell’s book about walking is easy to find and her columns on Walkhighlands are full of stories about walking and writing.
The only one who was tricky to find was Sarah Stoddart Hazlitt, because her journal was never published except in an obscure literary journal, which is accessible only in national lending libraries like the National Library of Scotland. So, getting and reading the material is largely very easy indeed.
What was hard was identifying women who walked in the first place, because those writing about walking simply don’t discuss women or, if they do, don’t find their walking significant in any larger context. Jo Taylor (of Women in the Hills) told me about Harriet Martineau and I found Elizabeth Carter through a chance discussion in LA with some women who were experts on Carter’s writings. The others I found through passing references in other books, so there was a lot of hard work and some luck involved for most of them.
What advice would you give to a woman who wanted to get into walking for the first time?
Don’t worry about the kit and if you can join a club. I became confident walking in Scotland because I found a couple of walking clubs based in the Central Belt – their walks were graded by ability, so you could do a walk you could complete confidently. They were also supported by experienced leaders and lots and lots of very nice people. I started with easy C walks, then B, before trying my first A walk (an ascent of Bidean nam Bian in Glencoe) and I made some dear friends on those walks.
Then, confident in my ability, I started to do walks with my husband or on my own, or with people I met in the club but separate to the club’s walks. Being in a club means you have to worry so much less about what if… scenarios. The support I received from the Glasgow Hillwalking Club and the Scottish Hillwalking and Activities Group was amazing. That’s why they’re thanked in the book’s acknowledgements!