Kenneth Grahame is famous of course for writing The Wind in the Willows and a few other children’s books. But here is an essay about walking alone that he wrote for the St Edward’s School Chronicle in 1913.1 Since then, this has only ever been published in Peter Green’s 1959 biography of Grahame, and a few extracts briefly went viral when Maria Popova quoted them on her Brainpickings blog. I have tracked down the full text and am pleased to offer it here for the first time online, with a few of my annotations:
The fellow that goes alone
Those who have browsed among the pages of Caxton’s Golden Legend—a story-book of much fascination—may remember how it is told, in a passage concerning the boyhood of a certain English saint—Edmund, Archbishop and Confessor—that on a day when the boy was by himself in a meadow, “sodeynlye there apperyd tofore hym a fayr chylde in whyte clothynge which sayd, ‘Hayle, felawe that goest alone!’”
Local considerations themselves should make us cherish the memory of this Edmund with a certain tenderness; for he was born at the pleasant town of Abingdon, that sits among its lush water-meadows and almost catches the chimes down the stream from the not so distant Oxford towers; and he ‘went to Oxenforde to scole,’ as of course a good saint should; and many a time he must have ridden out over Grandpont and along the old raised ‘Cawsy’2—still there, under the road—to visit his home and his good mother, who was thought worthy to have inscribed on her tomb that she was the ‘flower of widows.’ Also he ‘dwellyd long after at Oxenforde’ and ‘Teddy,’ the last of the old Halls, is said to perpetuate his name.3 But specially we should envy him his white vision in the meadow; for which he should be regarded as the patron saint of all those who of set purpose, choose to walk alone, who know the special grace attaching to it, and ever feel that somewhere just ahead, round the next bend perhaps, the White Child may be waiting for them.
For Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking—a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree—is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe—certainly creative and super-sensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as it were talking to you, while you are talking back to it. Then everything gradually seems to join in, sun and the wind, the white road and the dusty hedges, the spirit of the season, whichever that may be, the friendly old Earth that is pushing forth life of every sort under your very feet or spellbound in deathlike winter trance, till you walk in the midst of a blessed company, immersed in a dream-talk far transcending any possible human conversation. Time enough, later, for that—across the dinner table, in smoking-room armchairs; here and now, the mind has shaken off its harness, is snorting and kicking up heels like a colt in a meadow. Not a fiftieth part of all your happy imaginings will you ever, later, recapture, note down, reduce to dull inadequate words; but meantime the mind has stretched itself and had its holiday. But this emancipation is only attained in solitude, the solitude which the unseen companions demand before they will come out and talk to you; for, be he who he may, if there is another fellow present, your mind has to trot between shafts.
A certain amount of ‘shafts,’ indeed, is helpful, as setting the mind more free; and so the high road, while it should always give way to the field path when choice offers, still has this particular virtue, that it takes charge of you—your body, that is to say. Its hedges hold you in friendly steering-reins, its milestones and fingerposts are always on hand, with information succinct and free from frills; and it always gets somewhere, sooner or later. So you are nursed along your way, and the mind may soar in cloudland and never need to be pulled earthwards by any string. But this is as much company as you ought to require, the comradeship of the road you walk on, the road which will look after you and attend to such facts as must not be overlooked. Of course the best sort of walk is the one on which it doesn’t matter twopence whether you get anywhere at all at any time or not; and the second best is the one on which the hard facts of routes, times, or trains, give you nothing to worry about. And this is perhaps the only excuse for the presence of that much-deprecated Other Fellow—that you can put all that sort of thing on to him. For the world is fortunately well furnished with fellows who really like looking up Bradshaw, and paying bills, and taking charge generally; and it is wise to keep some such a man within easy hail. But spiritually he will be of little use, even if he were the angel that walked with Tobias.4
Much converse will he have, too, with shy bird and furtive little beast, the fellow that walks alone. I seem to have noticed a different expression in the eye of bird or animal at one’s solitary approach, from the way it looks at you when there are two or three of you about. In the first case it seems to say wistfully, ‘This may be a pal!’ In the second, ‘This is certainly a conspiracy!’ and acts accordingly. As for adventures, if they are the game you hunt, everyone’s experience will remind him that the best adventures of his life were pursued and achieved, or came suddenly to him unsought, when he was alone. For company too often means compromise, discretion, the choice of the sweetly reasonable. It is difficult to be mad in company; yet but a touch of lunacy in action will open magic doors to rare and unforgettable experiences.
But all these are only the by-products, the casual gains, of walking alone. The high converse, the high adventures, will be in the country of the mind.
– KENNETH GRAHAME
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July 1913, No. 321, Vol. XII – Grahame attended the school from 1868 to 1875. ↩
A medieval – and possibly Anglo-Saxon in origin – stone causeway, part of which, as Grahame suggests, does indeed remain underneath the modern Abingdon Road – some modern excavations have revealed part of it. ↩
This is an allusion to the tradition that the Oxford college St Edmund Hall was developed from a hall where Edmund himself had taught. Edmund of Abingdon (c.1174–1240) was known for his travels around England, and was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury in 1233. ↩