Tuesday 28 February 2012: Best foot forward
We rambled around the hillside above the nearby village of Dinas. Scattered dwellings, some ruined, some restored, are connected by ancient tracks leading up, down and along. Most retain their status of public rights of way providing access across the small fields and onto the open grazing land of the mountainside. Signs and stiles facilitate direction finding.
For me, walking is one of the chief pleasures of life as it is and has been for countless others. However, these little striding figures on a finger post turned my mind to the lost sport of pedestrianism which generated such huge interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Competitive walkers could make a fortune from feats of bipedal endurance, since spectators would pay to watch them stagger around a track for days on end. If they succeeded in meeting a challenge they could also make big money from wagers.
One of the best known walkers was Captain Robert Barclay, born in 1777 at Stonehaven in Scotland. His family were famous for their muscular prowess: pastimes such as wrestling bulls, carrying sacks of flour in their teeth and uprooting trees with their bare hands were part of the Barclay family tradition. In 1801 he walked 90 miles (the same mile backwards and forwards!) in 21 hours and worked up to his pre-eminent achievement of 1000 miles in 1000 hours in 1808. He lost two stone during the proceedings despite eating and drinking heartily throughout, but made a vast amount of money from taking bets on his success. Barclay continued to devise new pedestrian endeavours but eventually died, ironically perhaps, from the kick of a horse.
Barclay's fame inspired many others and the craze crossed the Atlantic too. Women also competed. One of them was the French Canadian Exilda La Chapelle. Orphaned at an early age, by 13 years old she was walking for a living, attracting crowds and benefiting from wagers. Tragedy struck when, having married young, she lost a child. She returned to competitive walking determined to defeat the rival female pedestrians who had challenged her during her absence and in 1890 Exilda set out to walk a quarter of a mile every quarter of an hour for a month around a sawdust ring in a Chicago theatre. Her endurance attracted huge crowds and was financially successful but, despite her diet of oysters, eggs, beef tea and sherry, her health declined over the course of the month and eventually she was asleep on her blistered feet (which had no chance to heal since she had to walk on them every quarter on a hour.) Her success encouraged other women to compete and the sport started to attract adverse attention; it died out in the 1880s.
Needless to say this kind of walking, in agony and exhaustion, is not what I have in mind when I set out for a pleasurable ramble such as we enjoyed today. Guinea Pig Zero's blip shows where I ended up.