When I moved to Sheffield to do a PhD, I didn’t know a single person in the city. Even my supervisor was a stranger. On the very first weekend, before I could lose my nerve, I signed on for a walk with the local Ramblers group. There were no logistical obstacles: sign-up was online and the rendezvous was one of two city carparks within walking distance. I was assigned a ride and went for my first walk of many in the Peak District. It was easy.
For my first year in Sheffield, these walks and the undemanding company they provided saved me from the isolation of postgraduate life. A hike is a mobile party: you’re never stuck in a corner and you can always move on when a conversation has run its natural course.
With a few exceptions, the folk were friendly and, unlike many people at university, genuine locals. For some, the Ramblers group and its pub nights and parties was their entire social life. I enjoyed the voluntary aspect: I could sign on for a walk when it suited me, with no further obligations.
My very first walking club was the somewhat grandiosely named Melbourne University Mountaineering Club. There are no serious mountains in Australia; the few members seeking genuine alpinism went to New Zealand to do a course on Mount Cook. Most members were devotees of kayaking or caving or rock-climbing. I had a notion of ski touring, and bushwalking was the gateway activity.
I signed up for a new members’ weekend, in the outdoor facility of Geelong Grammar. This was a bold move for someone who, as a shy child, shunned sleepovers and school trips. I almost didn’t go, and my best friend at the time bullied me back into it.
And I returned triumphant to Melbourne on Sunday evening, heady from the fresh air and unaccustomed exercise and simple companionship and acceptance. That was how I became a walker.
In my London years, I joined the ‘Saturday walks’, run on the self-organising principle outlined in the Time Out Book of London Walks: you looked up the walk for, say, the second Saturday of a given month, and got in the middle carriage of the first train to Godalming or Lewes after 9:30, brandishing your copy of the book. Some people went every weekend. Other people dipped in and out. It was a social lucky dip, commitment-free yet reliable. Someone would always turn up on the given date. If you didn’t like the look of them, you could just tuck your copy of the book away and get in the end carriage.
Some people sneer at membership of clubs like the Ramblers. A previous partner, not a very nice one, and a very short-lived interlude, thought walking clubs were for ‘saddos’. He preferred to go walking in the company of a much younger woman and was in the habit of cultivating several at a time.
On some deep, self-judging level, I see club membership as a social failure, the default option if you don’t have friends. I mentioned this in passing to Bear, and he reacted strenuously, pointing out that most of his social life has been from organised activities: Spanish classes, tango, ukulele. He doesn’t really do hanging around together, apart from in pubs.
When I moved to Glasgow, I intended to join the local Ramblers and repeat my Sheffield success. Before I got around to this, I met Bear and all my weekends were spent in Edinburgh rather than bagging Munros.
When the restrictions on group activities were lifted back in May, I finally signed on to a walk with the Glasgow Ramblers.
I almost didn’t go. It’d been so long since I’d gone walking with a group of complete strangers, I almost lost my nerve.
Remembering that first MUMC hiking weekend, I set my alarm for 7:30. When I arrived, several minutes late, at Central Station, a group of strangers, yet familiar in their hiking trousers and fleeces and battered daypacks, was waiting for me at the designated spot outside M&S Food.
On the train, I was spoken to by a retired lady who’d spent ten years studying at the University of Glasgow, most recently, for a Master’s in Art History. Many of the other students were rich foreigners, the children of Russian oligarchs, who’d already done internships at Sotheby’s or Christie’s. (Her own speciality was graffiti.) Another retired lady used to work in the public sector, for the Scottish government careers service, a job that took her to the islands. Yet another had lived for 15 years in Spain and moved back to Scotland to be near her grandchildren. I heard about the purchase of a new couch from John Lewis and cheap walking gear for grandchildren at Decathlon. Several people, picking my accent, told me about their visits to Australia. Many had grown-up children there.
When we were decanted back at Central Station, mid-afternoon, within the off-peak window, I felt replenished, both conversationally and by the view of the snowy Isle of Arran across from the coastal path.
Sometimes all you need to feel part of the world is a brief common undertaking and small talk with people you may never see again.