I ponder the list of walking holidays on the RWH website, and a pair of figures plods into view. Lake District and Pennine moors, Offa’s Dyke and Hadrian’s Wall, Mendip Hills and Wye Valley – there they trudge in my mind’s eye, a peat-stained and rain-drenched twosome. It is my Dad and I, walking away the father-and-son blues, footslogging through trials and tribulations to a better understanding of one another.
The childhood I enjoyed was typical of those in the 1950s. Children were expected to be outside all day, come rain or shine. In my case that meant a licence to explore, maraud and generally run about in the flat, flood-prone country of the River Severn. What a thrill for a little boy and his best chum Roo! We made hopeless flood-time boats that wouldn’t float, got chased by angry farmers and cows, broke fences and apple boughs, and shot recklessly with airguns at anything that stirred. From this anarchic dashing about grew a feeling for countryside and a love of being in the open air.
My father, John Somerville, served with the Royal Navy during the Second World War, in the blood-stained theatre of the Mediterranean. But once the war was over, he never talked about it. He joined Government Communications Headquarters, the secret signals establishment at Cheltenham known as GCHQ, and kept all his activities there to himself as well.
Dad wasn’t a particularly war-damaged or buttoned-up man, but like many of his generation he was modest and self-effacing. Duty and a firm moral compass steered him throughout his life. Fathers weren’t their sons’ best buddies back then. They didn’t give man-hugs or watch bloke films or go on cool adventures in the woods together. They were loving parents, but they were also arbiters of good and bad, right and wrong. Fathers were stern, sensible, grown-up men. A restless little show-off like me had no chance of leaping over a moral bar set so dauntingly high.
When in 2015 I began to write The January Man, an account of following the months and seasons on foot around Britain, my father had been dead ten years. I found the old man’s shade a constant presence, accompanying me among the winter floods of Gloucestershire and the springtime meadows of Teesdale, along the summery slopes of the Cheviots and through the autumn woods. I came to realise that it was walking that had helped us build a proper adult relationship. Walking and talking our way along the long-distance trails of England and Wales, outfacing mist and muck, getting lost (cheers, Ordnance Survey one-inch maps!) and baffled (thanks a lot, Alfred Wainwright!), we’d learned to enjoy each other’s company and tackle the challenges together.
By the end of Dad’s life we knew one other for what we really were – two fallible humans with feet of clay and boots of peat, who loved each other. Walking performed this minor miracle, and I’m more and more grateful for that.
The January Man – A Year of Walking Britain by Christopher Somerville (Doubleday, £14.99).