It took me 247 days to walk from England to Istanbul. 3,500 miles. Flight time is about 4 hours.
After years of writing about pilgrimage and campaigning against aviation, I decided that it was time to get away from the library and the banner drops. I wanted to see if it possible to have an adventure without flying. In 2010, with the trees still bare, I left my home and took the first steps on a journey whose challenges I could scarcely have imagined.
From London I passed through Canterbury and stood on the worn stones at Becket’s tomb where countless pilgrims had stood before me. I crossed the channel and walked through the storms of Northern France, and from Paris I followed the Seine to Dijon as winter finally turned to spring. The hills began to rise until the Alps surrounded me, the snow still thick on the ground in May. For weeks I climbed through almost impenetrable passes and finally emerged into Italy, and into summer. The temperature reached the forties and England limped out the World Cup.
One idea behind the walk was to put myself out in the world and see what happened in the simplest way I knew. A vicar’s daughter said to me that that was how she thought of faith. Certainly I found that a faith in strangers gave me a way into peoples’ lives that I had never found before. Every day I was looked after: offered a bed, a meal, a conversation. As an outsider, I began to see how crucial those interactions were. And I started to wonder whether efforts to eliminate risk are destroying the things that can really keep us safe, things like a strong community and an openness to strangers.
On the border with Croatia the customs official sat me down and toasted my arrival with brandy. England it wasn’t. I walked through dusty mountains that hid wolves and bears, skirting the edges of minefields. Ottoman influences entwined with the Catholic, and my days were punctuated with the call to prayer drifting across the landscapes. Everyone had stories to tell about the war, knew someone affected by it, had fought in it themselves. Every border was heavy with distrust, and each new country welcomed me ever more openly.
Maps became harder to come by, but it was mattering less. With barely any fences I could point my compass and walk, getting directions from the shepherds. Author Rebecca Solnit suggests that the mind works at 3mph. We have evolved to engage with the world at this pace, and anything faster is in some ways a reduction. I followed old pathways and donkey trails, routes trodden through the mountains that had been worn by the shepherds and armies and wanderers before me, lines that spoke of human habit and an intimate connection with the land.
A preoccupation with speed is severing those connections. And without them it becomes easier to desecrate the environment guilt free. Places so humanised that they are no longer human-sized. Vast fields of wheat or oilseed rape, the land so bare of trees that you can scarcely stand in the winds. Villages where the communities have long since disappeared under the advance of second homes, commuters and agribusiness, the cafés and schools now closed. The sprawl walking in and out of cities: business parks, car showrooms, shanty towns. Places we can only see comfortably through the eyes of a machine, moving at a machine’s speed.
The summer was fading, the nights longer, and I was eating walnuts and apples from the trees, instead of the cherries and figs of summer. One morning in Bulgaria I woke with ice coating the inside of my tent. I rushed through the last mountains of Eastern Europe as autumn mists drew in across the pines. Eight months after I left England I arrived in Istanbul, having gone through twelve countries, three seasons and two pairs of boots, at a speed unchanged since humans took their first steps out of the forests. I sat down on the bank, watching Asia and the ships cutting back and forth along the busiest shipping lane in the world. From across the Bosphorus blew warm winds that spoke of deserts, and I felt as though, finally, I had arrived.
Read the full story of Adam’s journey in Beyond Flying: Rethinking air travel in a globally connected world. Beyond Flying brings together 14 different authors’ perspectives on reducing flying. With sections on ‘thinking beyond flying’, ‘business beyond flying’ and ‘savouring the journey’, this book considers what we can do to reduce flying without giving up our ‘love miles’ to visit family and friends around the world, and the benefits that these changes offer.
All ongoing royalties from Beyond Flying are being donated to Friends of the Earth.
Adam Weymouth is a writer and some-times walker. His work has appeared in various publications, including the Guardian, the New Internationalist and the Ecologist. Follow Adam on Twitter: @adamweymouth.