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Friday, 30 March 2012


Some Victorian and Edwardian photographs of ramblers

"They're scavengers. The absolute scum of the earth,"
Property developer Nicholas van Hoogstraten on ramblers: 1998

'Militant dog walkers.'
Jeremy Clarkson: 2010

 Stephen Gough sits in a prison in Perth, Scotland, seeing out the end of a 657 day sentence. It has been suggested that with his present attitude he could spend the rest of his life behind bars. He was first sent to jail in 2006 and this is something like his 17th stretch. His crime has been to ramble naked through the British countryside although to be absolutely legalistic about things, he was jailed this time for turning up to court in a similar state. He has walked the length of Britain, from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in the nude. Not many have done that fully clothed. Gough is just one from a long list of ramblers who have fought the law for rights they have regarded as sacred. In the 1930s socialist ramblers had pitched battles with the police and in recent year ramblers have won partial victories against Madonna and Jeremy Clarkson (Partial for some still meaning utter defeat.) and all in the defence of a long held British tradition – the freedom to cross public land without hindrance. There have been gunfights, arson attacks, threats of murder and we thought a rambler was a middle aged Pom wearing an anorak and gumboots and carrying a copy of What Bird is That? in the rucksack.

The first walking club was established in England in 1824 and went by the long yet innocuous name of the Association for the Protection of Ancient Footpaths in the Vicinity of York. The group came together to protect the access of ordinary citizens to open spaces and encourage walking as a way to health but you could also describe it as an early environmental campaign. The 1820s were coincidentally the high point of British Romanticism, when John Clare and William Wordsworth were turning to nature for poetic inspiration. The link may be tenuous except you imagine the people behind the APAFVY were educated enough to read the poets yet not so high born that they considered the land theirs by entitlement. 

The photographs here come from the turn of the century; late Victorian to Edwardian. You’ll notice the women especially don’t appear attired for anything strenuous, but that’s because rambling wasn’t expected to be. As the name suggests, it was about walking casually and paying attention to your surroundings. The health benefits came from breathing clean air, not raising a sweat. The routes people took were often dictated by the availability of local pubs. 

Naturally, one didn’t ramble without at least a passing interest in the countryside’s nature and history. Around the time these photos were taken a cottage industry of books was springing up that helped invigorate a new enthusiasm for popular history. Jottings on some Wiltshire Monuments, Our English Villages and various county guides were written with an eye to walkers, giving them specific directions and pointing certain architectural features, an inn built during the reign of Henry VIII on their way out of a village or menhirs from a more ancient time standing in a field. It all sounds very benign but it also represented a class divide. The aristocracy and its hangers on assumed that heritage meant grand houses and long held family titles and a weekend in the country a hunt – what Oscar Wilde acutely described as the unspeakable in pursuit of the inedible. Ramblers liked to find their history in less obvious places and no foxes were harmed on their outings. 

 These photos were taken before the politics turned nasty, before anyone considered that heritage and the environment could become political issues. They are also from the early years of amateur photography, when a camera was an essential item to take on a ramble, and by camera we mean something bulky that needed to be mounted on a tripod. You’ll notice than in the three central photographs, taken on a walk near Bodnant Estate in Wales sometime around 1900, that the sitters are carefully arranged. The top photograph has the inscription,"Taken on a ramble Good Friday 1911" on the reverse. Clearly, rambling was something the British took very seriously.


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