I enjoy history – in my early days at school I spent hours slaving over projects on subjects like the Vikings and the English Civil War, encouraged by my parents who took me on daytrips to battlefields and museums. The realities of academic history surfaced however whilst I studied the World Wars for GCSE with a less than inspiring history teacher and I lost interest (unlike my brother who went on to study Medieval History at University). Like with walking, my interest in history has been rekindled in later years, so I was quite excited to receive Charlie Connelly’s And Did Those Feet, walking through 2000 years of British and Irish history, from the aforementioned brother for Christmas.
Charlie, who studied History at university, decided, perhaps slightly foolishly considering he was not much of a hiker, to walk in the footsteps of some of the famous (and not so famous) figures from British and Irish history. These are not just short walks but in some cases some pretty epic trips – for example following King Harold’s route from Stamford Bridge near York to the site of his ultimate demise at Battle just off the South coast.
The book includes Boudica’s revolt, King Harold’s march south, Olaf the Dwarf (King of Man), Owain Glyndwr revolt against the English, Mary Queen of Scots escape from Loch Leven, Bonnie Prince Charlie hiding out in Western Isles and the tragic Doolough Famine Walk.
From the first chapter I was immediately drawn into not just Charlie’s journey through history, but his personally journey of hiking discovery.
She used words I’d never heard before, words like ‘wicking’ and ‘tog’. The list she’d made looked frighteningly long. My list hadn’t really got beyond ‘rucksack’, ‘cagoule’ and ‘biscuits’.
My choice to walk Offa’s Dyke was largely due to the historic nature of the route (and the castles, abbeys and other historically significant locations I would encounter along the way) – but I at least had the luxury of an existing defined route. Charlie put together his journeys based on research and a bit of guesswork of the likely routes his historic figures would have taken which, in the case of Boudica, left him with a few problems on the ground as he attempted to walk down the A140! All is not lost however when he discovers the wonder of OS maps:
In that moment I knew my walking life would never be the same again….. Suddenly my journey had acquired another dimension. I was seeing the map in layers, in relief. I wasn’t just looking at a map, I was reading it.
Each chapter covers a different historical journey – rather than being a step by step route guide, Charlie concentrates on the story behind the characters and the places he visits, and the stories of the fascinating people he meets. I really enjoyed how he imagined the thoughts and feelings of the people involved, for example at a war memorial following Harold’s progress south he ponders the feelings of the new recruits signing up to defend their country:
I felt a pang of sorrow that Harold’s soldiers would never have their names on a memorial like this one. Their names are long forgotten, their lives a mystery.
Charlie brings to life the history around us. As he discovered the joy of walking, the peacefulness of the outdoors and the slower pace of life when undertaking long hikes, I was reminded that the mountains, hills, woods and fields of these islands and the people who inhabit them hold the memories of our history – “history is irrefutably alive”.
I really enjoyed “And did those feet” – it is an interesting yet funny read about hiking and history which will inspire you to get out there and walk amongst our history.
I just have to share my favourite part of the book, as Charlie puts on some of his new hiking kit for the first time:
I put on the pants, curious to see if they lived up to the hype. I stretched, I squatted, I lifted my knees in an exaggerated marching movement ; I even tried an ill-advised star jump.. I was, frankly, amazed. This was by far the most comfortable item of underwear ever to pass my kneecaps.
We have all been there!