Walk like the Dickens, Charles that is!

Winter Walk in the City Woods

It snowed the other day. Ted, my trusty wire fox terrier, decided that my hours at the desk were done, and it was now his time for his walk. We set off into the city woods, an acre or two set aside as a green belt. It was a different world. Gone were the teenagers giggling and whispering. Now there was silence. Birds huddled high up in the trees. Branches scraped, oh so softly. The loud crunching of my winter boots cut through the deep snow, the silence of Ted’s stealth hunter’s walk accompanied us. His breath hanging frozen in the air. We were inside our own snow globe.

We spent a good hour walking in the woods, away from my desk. I was well pleased; it was an hour’s walk after all. Ted was not impressed and could have gone on for hours, as recommended by the great Victorian Doctor Thomas Allinson, who published essays on healthy living in the 1890s, and claimed that we should all walk three hours a day.

He writes, “I am of fair complexion, have a sandy beard and a good head of hair, brushed back over my head, but not parted. I am full in the face, and my cheeks are ruddy; when walking I stoop a little from writing so much.”

Caricature of Thomas Allinson. Caption read &q...

The Good Doctor, Thomas Allinson

A quick check in the mirror, I am not in the least bit stooped over, but Good Doctor, your warning, taken note. I can easily sit at my desk for hours, lost in writing, and if a volcano erupted, it would annoy me, rather than bring me to my senses, causing me to get out! We were not meant to sit all day. We were built to walk, to use our bodies and not just our minds, so I keep telling myself.

It was at my desk and not out walking that I came across the archives of Dr Thomas Allinson, first published in 1893.  His name is still known for the Allinson bakery, which recently published for free, his original guide to health. His advice on health was ahead of his time. He advocated against smoking…

“Nicotine is a foul poison. One drop of it kills a rabbit in three and a half minutes, and a man has been killed by this poison in four or five minutes. A single cigar contains enough poison to kill two men.

The best way to stop this injurious habit is to give it up suddenly; there will be a great craving and a feeling as if something were lost for four or five days, then the natural man will predominate, and health and comfort be gradually restored.”

This advice so appalled the doctors of his day, who were advising, smoking cleared the lungs and gave immense relaxation, that he was struck off. This recommendation that smoking was good for you, didn’t fade away in the Victorian era, my father told me, his doctor in the 1940’s and even late 1950’s still advised– a cigarette as a good way for one to relax. That advice along with the romanticised image of smoking in the black and white films of his era, was what got him hooked, and irreparably damaged his health.

I like to start my day slowly, ignoring Ted for as long as possible, but the good doctor writes…

“When dressed, I go out for half an hour’s walk before breakfast, no matter how cold, wet, or foggy.”

I on the other hand, stumble on my long walk from the bedroom to the kitchen, to make an espresso, and allow my eyelids to open slowly, and preferably with no interruptions. The good doctor will not have that!

“I walk from eight to 12 miles every day. Often on Sunday I manage to get 16 miles walking. The weather never prevents me going out. I rarely wear an overcoat, except when it is wet or if I am travelling. At night I do not always wear my hat when walking, but let the cold air strengthen my scalp and keep my hair from falling off. Fresh air I try to get everywhere; in my bedroom and sitting-room the windows are always open three or four inches night and day, and in all weathers.”

Along with the absence of cars, or their expense, walking to work was commonplace, and walking just to walk, wasn’t so out of the ordinary. My father used to walk from Southend on Sea, to Chalk Well, which takes about 42 minutes along the front. It was a stroll to him, not a walk, not serious exercise, just a stroll.

From the Victorian days to ours, things have not changed all that much, and the good doctor reminds us…

“As a rule, English people eat too much food and take too little exercise. Let us follow the daily routine of many town-dwellers. They get up in the morning, swallow a hurried meal, and go off to business by ‘bus, tram, or train; write all the morning until dinner time, take this meal leisurely, read the paper, and then return to their offices, where they sit writing until 4, 5, or 6pm. Then they ride home, get their evening meal, and in many instances never stir out again, but read the latest novel, the evening paper, or study, or else practise on the violin, piano, etc. They retire to bed at 11 or 12, and think they have done wisely.”

Well, we may no longer go home and practise the violin or piano these days, but we are sitting at our computers, face booking, emailing, and watching endless hours of television. Trying to make his advise more palatable to the stubborn Victorians who preferred nights in reading a novel, the good doctor writes…

“When I advise people to walk nine miles a day, I am only trying to make them conform to physiological laws, for nine miles can be walked leisurely in three hours. I should advise every person who wants to keep himself in fair average health to walk to and from business daily, if not living more than four miles away. But if he rides to and from business, then he must exercise before he starts in the morning or when he gets home.”

So even in Victorian Times, there was no escaping exercise if one worked all day. You either go in the morning or after work, and today after work we find the gyms full of people running on treadmills and breaking into a good sweat.

Reading between the lines, most of his advise was for men, and those that worked in offices. For women, who did not have servants, they worked long and hard hours in their homes. Everything was done by hand, beating rugs, beating clothing clean, beating the eggs to making a simple cake, and trying to beat the coal dust away from the walls. The women led a hard physical life, but even so, he’s not letting them off the hook, and he advises women,

“To my young lady readers I say take exercise. Help your servants or mothers to make the beds, then if you have a little spare time put on your walking boots, whistle for the dog, and take him for a good run somewhere round the neighbourhood; then your vivacity, cheerful spirits, rosy cheeks, and general good health will more likely gain for you a husband than if you become sickly and pale, and unable to walk a mile without being tired.”

I quite like that, help my servant and even gain a husband, all by following his advice!

Writers are often  great walkers. Charles Dickens whose birthday is Feb 7, was an avid  and compulsive walker.  He wrote…”I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.”

"Charles Dickens as he appears when readi...

Charles Dickens

I beg to ask the question, what writer has three hours a day to walk, and Dickens just put that question to shame. It’s mind boggling to think of all the novels he wrote, articles, serials, plays he produced, charity work, talks, building a house, managing a family, and if that wasn’t enough, he was a dedicated walker.

Dickens found physical and mental relief in walking. It was a practise started with his father, so I imagine there were also great comfort and a strong sense of familiarity in continuing the practise. It was not uncommon for him to walk as many as twenty miles in one day. On one occasion with marital disharmony in the house, he set up from his London house to walk to the Country House, Gad’s Hill, in Kent, some 30 miles away. He often walked from Gravesend, Kent to the Gad’s Hill, just to check up on the builders.

Walking serves a writer in two ways, besides the physical, when you are out and about, walking helps fires the imagination. You see people, hear snippets of conversations and maybe not that day, those images will find its way into writing. Imagination needs fuel and walking in the city, or taking the tube will give plenty of fodder. So, I think I will walk, but then I read on, the good doctor is not going to let me get away with just not walking, he wants more. He’s going to take me to task on coffee and tea!

“Tea and coffee I have practically given up since 1886. I found they made me nervous, fidgety, anxious, low spirited, and took away some of my energy. Tea made me tremble, gave me brilliant but false ideas, and confused both speech and writing; coffee gave me wind and colic and took my memory away for four hours, so I have given both up.”

Egads, can only be my own response. I think that’s just going too far now. I can’t start my day without coffee and so far, I am free of wind, and always in good spirits and can always remember where the coffee cup was last put. Tea always gives me brilliant ideas, never confuses my writing, unless I spill it. Not to mention the brilliant ideas that the hot beverage stirs up… like this brilliant one– it’s time to settling in and read Claire Tomalins’ new biography of Dickens, Charles Dickens, A Life,  with a good strong mug of tea. Cheerio,  I think I’ll go for that three-hour walk tomorrow!

“The sum of the whole is this, Walk and be happy; and be healthy. The best way to lengthen out our days is to walk steadily and with a purpose” Charles Dickens

About susan sheldon nolen

It’s rare to catch me without coffee, a form of camera, or my beloved wire fox terriers. I love the history, the art, and it’s a massive part of my life, as I either paint, write, or get interrupted by my dogs, reminding me of the real world. I hope you enjoy your time here. It’s such a privilege to have readers.
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8 Responses to Walk like the Dickens, Charles that is!

  1. I remember some research about active imagination physically stimulating muscle groups, and I can see that happening to my old collie when she lies dreaming about her dog park days–her paws scrabble as she runs in her sleep, and her bark, though faint, is felt as ferociously as youth.

    Having the formidable logic of a writerly mind, I have just realized that all I really need to be doing is writing ABOUT walking–no need to get out of the chair after all (or, to maximize the leverage, writing about wrestling, and bungee jumping, and cross-country skiing). Even READING about walking has to be good exercise, since imagination is required there too! No wonder I feel invigorated and refreshed, just from a few minutes with you and Ted in the woods.
    Thank you!

    Seriously, I do remember that the best time of my life, even though it was also the hardest, was when I was living in the country with my young son and terminally ill husband: my son and I did a LOT of walking by the river that ran through the place, and it kept us–even better than healthy–sane.

  2. speccy says:

    Walking, even a little potter about, is great. I always look forward to doing it. Tomorrow.

  3. I do like a good walk, Susan, along a beach or through a forest or wood somewhere, but I think that if I did walk for hours a day, very soon I’d run out of energy rather than gain more… although perhaps I’m not looking at things the right way! I like the idea of writing and reading about walking!

    • Tom, me too. Nothing like a good old walk in the countryside as long as it ends in a cracking good pub! I am an avid armchair traveller! So reading about walking is also just my cup of tea! Right with you there!

  4. Dickens was nothing if not a walker….and I knew nothing about Allinson’s background! Now I am tempted to motor down to Rochester and try a brisk walk around the venerated author’s old patch…

    • Kate, was really surprised to read as to how much he actually walked. A lot of it was relief from pressure. Rochester is amazing! But even so, I can’t imagine walking from Gad’s Hill’s Place to Gravesend, or more so London! 30 miles in one night! Mind boggling! Allinson was a really interesting person. A lot of his advice is sound and others…well… I am never going to walk three hours a day, maybe three miles, but never hours!

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