An Enquiry into Walking

When Jim Kimmis died at the end of 2006, the neo-antiquarian world lost a figure whose contributions to its world-view went largely unrecognised. Here we have Jim embarking on a phenomenological journey that many of us will share.

Elements of a Journey

Any journey, from a short walk to a world tour, can be analysed into elements using a consistent set of categories. What follows is a first attempt to list and group these, ordering them from the most objective to the most subjective.

Physical Environment
  • Direction – expressed in absolute or relative terms
  • Change of height – expressed in absolute or relative terms
  • Distance – may be expressed in terms of time
  • Time of day/year
  • Light, temperature and humidity
  • Weather conditions
  • Geomorphology – description of terrain, soil, water, etc.
  • Ecology – description of land use and wildlife
  • Natural obstacles – indicating ease of route
  • Prospects, views and visibility range
  • Relation of locality to region
Worked Environment And Cultural Factors
  • Boundaries – may be part-natural
  • Significant markers
  • Settlement pattern – also indicating population density
  • Transport systems – roads, paths, etc.
  • Nodes, branches and diversions
  • Accessibility of resources
  • Place names
  • Land ownership
  • Group memories and stories
  • Events and encounters – including other travellers
  • Numen / genius loci
Personal Factors – Physical, Cultural And Cognitive
  • Health and age – capabilities
  • Attention, energy and mood
  • Means of travel
  • Cargo/ luggage
  • Company (or solitude)
  • Available time – affecting rate of travel
  • Sense impressions – perception of environment
  • Cultural models of landscapes
  • Class, gender, race – acculturation
  • Purpose of travel – rationale, urgency, degree of volition
  • Local knowledge vs novelty – mental maps
  • Personal memories and stories
  • Aesthetic and spiritual responses

The latter part of the foregoing list makes it clear that walking is not an innocent activity. If I set out for a day’s walk along the chalk downs of Purbeck, for example, I am carrying not just a rucksack but a great deal of psychological, somatic and cultural baggage. Any description I might offer of the walk will always be partial if I ignore this.

I am white, male, middle-class and middle-aged. The English language and parts of the British landscape have been part of my world for over four decades, often taken for granted. Some places – and Purbeck is one – are saturated for me with early memories, overlain with more recent impressions to form a densely-layered experiential map. Other places, visited less frequently or known only at second-hand, are still familiar because of the ways in which they have been coded and presented by others of my tribe. I have some assurance that I will not be out-of-place when I choose to go there.

Working in inner London, I enjoy the benefits of a multicultural and multiracial environment which – despite its political tensions – often suggests a hopeful model of what a truly cosmopolitan society might become. Walking in Dorset, or Cornwall, or North Wales, I am surprised to see a black face or to hear any language other than those spoken in these islands for centuries. Those whom I encounter in places off the tourist routes, walking for pleasure or in pursuit of knowledge, are overwhelmingly white.

They are also predominantly male, particularly if walking alone. It is more difficult to be sure of their class allegiances, but conversations on the way often suggest – by accent or manner – a similar background to my own. The age range, at least, does vary: if the walking bug bites before twenty, it is likely to infect the victims for the remainder of their active lives. The relatively high probability of meeting a fellow-tribesman leaves me with mixed feelings. On the one hand, no explanations are necessary: we can proceed immediately to a discussion of what interests us about the landscape in which we find ourselves, relying on a store of common knowledge to guarantee mutual understanding. On the other hand I may have little of value to exchange, because we already know each other too well.

This matters only insofar as encounters on the way enliven a day’s walking and offer fresh perspectives. What matters more is that the walked landscape still belongs to some more than others, and hence that available interpretations of the landscape are constrained within a limited ideological range. Pausing on the crest of a ridge, I still see only what I already know how to see. My gaze is conditioned by geography lessons, paintings, books, reminiscences, maps, photographs, all of them growing out of the same cultural matrix. I cannot look across this valley to those hills as might a Vietnamese refugee, as a woman whose family is divided between England and Barbados, as a seventy-year-old with a worrying heart condition, as a boy from Stepney who is struggling to take in a horizon not dominated by tower blocks.

But the conditioning is deeper and more insidious than that. I have referred to looking at the landscape because, for me, the experience of walking is largely made up of what I see on the way. I pay little attention to the sounds, smells and textures of the environment unless they impose themselves forcefully on my consciousness – the sudden roar of a low-level training flight, the reek of slurry as I pass a farm, the rough grain of a rock on which I am trying to rest my camera. Five thousand years ago, perhaps, I might have depended on these other senses for orientation and for supper. Now I have learned to rely on what my eyes tell me, absorbing and naturalising a long-term cultural trend towards the privileging of vision. I have read enough critical theory to know that the seeing gaze is also the controlling gaze, the means whereby we comprehend and own the totality of our environment. But I have yet to unlearn the habit.

What I see, moreover, is filtered through a set of cultural norms established both by my formal education and by the less structured process of learning that is part of socialisation. I am aware, at some level, that this land has been worked for millennia and that I am surrounded by evidence of human effort, even on a bare hillside. I am similarly aware that this land belongs to somebody, that almost every field has a legal title and that I can expect to be turned away if I mistake a private for a public path. Less urgently, I am aware that this land, in Dorset, has been described by painters and writers, that I am looking at a slice of ‘Hardy Country’, a Nash canvas, a dialect poem by Barnes. If that clump of trees recalls a certain verse or sketch, the recollection brings with it the whole apparatus of the English Romantic tradition. Face to face with Nature, I may take up a position of solitary contemplation or mystical reverence, even while my education warns me that nothing could be less natural.

There are other filters operating at the same time, but I will close this part of the discussion by selecting one that I have already hinted at above. This walk on the downs is a snatched moment. If I am here, then I am on holiday. I have put aside the stresses of living and working in London in order to enjoy a few days in a place I love, and I intend to make the most of the time. This makes me an avid consumer of the landscape. It sharpens my visual sense and encourages me to relish the slight aching of leg muscles at the end of the day. Because I know that my visual memory is not equal to the richness of what I see, I make frequent use of camera and notebook. I am appropriating the landscape piece by piece and adding it to my store of experience.

This is to say that I am walking with a purpose. When the visit is over, I may attempt to represent the experience in various ways, in paintings or stories or essays. Inevitably I will reproduce the values and perspectives I have internalised, the very filters which both enable and constrain me to see the landscape in a certain light. No matter how radical my intentions, any work I produce as a consequence of this walking will be in some sense white, male, middle-class and middle-aged. It will reproduce in some form the cultural norms which condition my gaze, and it will do so on the basis of the limited (and limiting) experience offered by a holiday from paid work.

I ought to be depressed by such a conclusion. If my way of seeing and being in the landscape is as predetermined as I am claiming here, how can I relish the experience? If my attempts to create something out of these hours on the downs must be articulated through a language – verbal or visual – that always already carries a suspect burden of meaning, then how can I hope to say anything new?

To answer such questions, and to preserve faith in the project I have undertaken, I have to resort in the end to metaphysics. At the point where both conscious knowledge and unconscious habits cease to interpret or explain the landscape, I experience something else which I can only call refreshment of the spirit. As I walk, something in me goes out to meet the land. On a good day, something in the land emerges to meet me. Out of that encounter I derive an energy and a sense of renewed purpose which, I believe, will prove strong enough to challenge all my learned assumptions – and to keep me walking.


Published in NE109, Spring 2007, pp.11-14


JIM KIMMIS, 1954-2006

It is with deep personal regret that we note the passing of Jim Kimmis. Jim was involved in the early history of earth mysteries in the 1970s, contributing articles to such journals as Nigel Pennick’s Institute of Geomantic Research Newsletter and editing Essex Landscape Mysteries.

Jim’s best-known contributions to the field may be the linguistic implications of the Indo-European ‘reg-‘ as regards straightness and power, and the Ongar Terrestrial Zodiac (both of which he later repudiated). It is ironic that the work which gained him high respect among fellow researchers was not published, as he was loath to publish something he felt to be still unfinished – though even unfinished it generally went further than much published in academic or non-academic spheres.

His interests took him into in-depth local landscape and cultural studies, but he returned to neo-antiquarian publications in 2004, with an important article in NE100, ‘People, Places and Phenomena’, suggesting a model for neo-antiquarianism that could yet serve to integrate and define the field.

Those who knew him well feel about Jim’s life how Jim felt about his own work; there was so much more to come. We hope to publish some of Jim’s hitherto unseen but significant work in the future; and we are pleased to have begun in this issue with his phenomenological reflection on walking.

John Billingsley

Published in NE109 (Spring 2007), p32