Walking when you’re old

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A typical way marker on the Great Glen Way near Inverness.

A few years ago Emmy and I were expelled from a beautiful country where we had been doing quite a lot of walking. It was a nice, peaceful country with wonderful scenery. We didn’t want to leave but we were told our visa had expired and could not be renewed. We were frog-marched to the border and forced across it into the neighbouring state. We’ve now put the frontier some distance behind us as we walk into this new and unfamiliar territory. It’s called The Seventies. It lies between The Sixties where we used to live, and a remote, rarely-visited state – a bit like Bhutan – called The Eighties. We have noticed that the countryside seems to be getting more and more Bhutan-like. There is a range of very high mountains in front of us and we can’t see what’s beyond it. So we have been trying to find an easy way through.

OK, OK… that’s enough of this allegorical stuff. This post is about the challenges of long distance walking when you’re old, so let’s get down to business.

First the bad news.

Stamina  When you’re old the capacity to persevere over long distances goes into decline. A decade ago I could knock over twenty-five or thirty kilometres a day and feel no ill effects. Now I find it a challenge to walk twenty kilometres a day. I can still do it, but I usually feel quite tired at the end of the day.

Strength  Muscles start to weaken in old age so you can’t lift a heavy backpack so easily or lever yourself up steep inclines. Worse, muscles hold the bones together, so as they weaken you are more likely to dislocate a joint or suffer a slipped disc in the back.

Fragility  The bones, joints and muscles become more fragile. It is easier to injure yourself – to break a bone, to pull a muscle, to sprain your ankle or feel stress-pain in the knees. And if this happens it takes longer to recover, for tissue to repair itself or a broken bone to knit.

Less speedy  Increasingly you lose the capacity to run or suddenly move fast. So when you have to cross a road (for example) you can’t rely on speed to avoid cars. You can’t run to reach shelter if it starts to rain. You can’t ford a stream by hopping nimbly from stone to stone.

This segment of

This segment of “path” was more like a rocky stream. Between Ardlui and Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015..

Balance  Balance becomes less secure as you age. This can be a problem when you are crossing stiles or moving over rough ground or when you are going down a steep incline or when the path is slippery. And the problem of poor balance can be exacerbated if your eyesight is also in decline because good balance seems to depend on collaboration between your inner ear and your eye.

Hydration and urination  Old people are less able to deal with extremes of temperature, especially heat. We get dehydrated and over-heated quite easily and this slows down the workings of the brain as well as the body. When you’re on your own in a remote place you don’t want to get mentally confused. You will also probably need to urinate more often (the ageing bladder seems to have less carrying capacity).

Now for the good news.

Long distance walking is low-impact exercise that you can do well into extreme old age. To be honest though, I don’t do it primarily for health reasons. The health benefits of walking are a welcome spin-off, of course, but they come second to the inner walk you undertake whenever you pull on your boots. I walk mainly because I enjoy the constantly shifting views, the peering around corners, the isolation and silence, the glimpses of wildlife, the sudden surprising sparks of thought, the guilt-free munching on chocolate. I’m pretty much in the same mould as Gu Yanwu and Patrick Leigh Fermor (both of whom have made an appearance in this blog) but needless to say I’m a bumbling Wile E. Coyote compared to these road runners.

In truth, the frailties I’ve laundry-listed above don’t amount to much. They can easily be combatted by keeping an eye on three key watchwords: preparation, caution and concentration.

Preparation  Don’t make the mistake of starting a long walk too casually. You need to know as exactly as possible what you’re letting yourself in for. I’ve failed to do this a couple of times and got myself into trouble. Afterwards I berated myself for being geriatrically unprofessional (a certain amount of professionalism is required to be a successful old person). For an example of what can happen if your preparation is careless have a look at my post of August 8, 2011: https://walktenthousandmiles.net/2011/08/08/i-misjudge-the-cumbria-way-and-pay-a-painful-price/.

Without over-burdening yourself you need to be better prepared than younger walkers, mainly because you’re more vulnerable if anything goes wrong (and rest assured, something will go wrong sooner or later). A check-list may be a good idea. Like an airline pilot you should do a disciplined pre-departure check:

  • well broken-in boots
  • a broad-brim hat and long-sleeve shirt
  • first aid kit
  • plenty of drinking water
  • rain jacket, water-proof leggings, waterproof backpack cover
  • lunch, plus a snack or two like a chocolate bar or a muesli bar
  • spare socks, foot talc and blister plasters
  • sunscreen and insect repellent
  • walking poles
  • maps, compass and/or GPS device
  • trowel and tissues
  • multi-function tool

Most important of all, make sure you’ve built up your fitness gradually but as fully as possible before you start your walk. Ideally you should do a couple of dry runs over similar terrain and distances to the walk you are planning. As far as distance is concerned it is sensible to cut your coat to fit the cloth available. But being “sensible” is a bit boring. Just between you and me it is also good to stretch yourself a little – maybe stretch yourself a lot. The grimace of doing so is quickly transformed into a smile when you successfully push yourself beyond what you thought was “sensibly” possible.

Caution  Be ultra-careful. There is nothing worse than pulling a muscle when you are putting your socks on, or leaving your maps behind in the grass after a trackside toilet break (I’ve done both). As you age you can’t recover so easily or quickly from mistakes and accidents. So err on the side of caution in all you do. And remember: slow is good.

But having said that, don’t get fixated on risk-free walking. Old people need to take risks as much as callow, shallow youths do. Taking risks is risky, but it is also very good for your mental resilience. A word of warning though… you should be selective about the risks you take. In particular, as far as possible your risk-taking should not inconvenience younger people, the public at large, or “the authorities”. Although some people admire risk-taking in old people, most people have a double standard. They don’t mind young people taking risks (that’s “normal”) but they may get annoyed when risks are taken by “some old fool” they think should be doing crossword puzzles with a rug over their knees in front of a heater. So try to ensure that you, and you alone, bear the consequences of your risk-taking. That way you can avoid being patronised when things go wrong.

This smug-looking walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glan Way.

This smug-looking elderly walker has just scaled the heights above Invermoriston on the Great Glen Way.

Concentration  Surprisingly, walking demands pretty intense concentration over many hours. You can’t just set your feet in motion, then daydream or rubberneck. It is mentally exhausting to walk a long distance. There are two main reasons for this. First, to avoid getting lost you need to concentrate hard on navigation. Most of the tracks I have walked have been well way-marked, but there are tricks and traps in even the clearest track. Sometimes path markers get overgrown, on some the paint may have faded or flaked, elsewhere signs, markers or landmarks may simply have disappeared. Even the path itself may disappear. And maps are not always clear either. It is often hard to match the coarse scale of a map with the immediate detail you are facing. Maps also get out of date quite quickly. GPS devices and compasses are very helpful but they have to be consulted. They can’t stay in your pocket. So even with this technology unrelenting vigilance and frequent stopping are important.

Another potentially dangerous descent on the north shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

It looks benign, but the gravelly surface makes this descent potentially dangerous. North shore of Loch Lochy, Great Glen Way, 8 August, 2015.

Second, tracks can be rough – stony, slippery, twisty, narrow, muddy. A lapse in concentration can bring a stumble or the potential disaster of a fall. Don’t forget, if you are carrying a backpack you will be top-heavy. So it may be more difficult to keep your balance, and a fall can very easily be a heavy crash. And tracks can be very up and down. For elderly walkers a steep descent is an obstacle to be feared. It threatens severe punishment for even a split-second lapse of concentration. But again there is good news. Concentration is an excellent tonic for the ageing brain. The more you have to concentrate the better you are able to concentrate. For old walkers a strong mind is as essential as a strong body. The ageing body is quite resilient and adaptable, but when it falters the ageing mind – stiffened by hours of concentration – can step in and push it on.

Now, as I puff and stagger towards the end of this post, I want to recommend two items of gear that walkers of any age, but elderly walkers in particular, should have. First, walking poles. Two of them. Walking poles have two main functions that are crucially important for old people. Most importantly, they help a lot with steadiness and balance especially on steep descents, but also, they take a bit of pressure off your legs by giving you a lot of extra leverage through the arms. So don’t even look out the front door without a pair of them.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Walking poles are essential to help get you through muddy patches. Near Crianlarich on the West Highland Way, 30 July, 2015.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Not beautiful, but an effective solution to chafing and blisters. Injinji toe socks.

Second, buy some toe-socks. These are specially made socks with a little pocket for each toe, like the fingers on a pair of gloves. I used to suffer from blisters caused by chafing between toes. My toe socks stopped this problem instantly and permanently. The brand I use is Injinji. Before putting them on I powder my toes and feet very thoroughly with fine, sweat-absorbing talc. I also powder the outside of the toe socks and put on a second pair of socks, ordinary ones, usually thin white cotton socks. So I have two layers of socks. There is a bit of slippage between them that helps prevent blisters. Since adopting this strategy five years ago I have walked many hundreds of kilometres without a single blister, or any other kind of foot problem.

Ah… the end of this post has come into sight. It lasted longer than I expected but I took it slowly and I got there in the end. Time to rehydrate with a pint of calorie-rich cider.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous.

You have to be careful going down steep descents like this one. The pebbly surface is treacherous. On the West Highland Way between Ardlui and Crianlarich, 30 July, 2015.


Santiago, killer of Muslims: food for thought from the Camino pilgrimage

There is a dramatic effigy in a niche in the Cathedral of St.James in Santiago de Compostela. It depicts St.James in medieval military garb astride a horse, brandishing a sword above his head. Legend has it that St.James – Santiago – appeared to Christian troops during the semi-legendary Battle of Clavijo in 844 in which Spanish Christians defeated a much bigger Muslim army. During the following seven centuries of conflict between Christians and Muslims in the Iberian peninsula – from roughly 800 until 1492 – Santiago was adopted as the divine mentor of the Christian forces. He was given the name Matamoros, “Killer of Moors” i.e. killer of Muslims, and subsequently became the patron saint of Spain. “Santiago y cierra, España!” (St. James and attack, for Spain!) became the battle cry of Spanish armies as they slowly recovered the Iberian peninsula from its Moorish rulers. The cry persisted into modern times and was frequently used as a nationalistic slogan during Franco’s long years of Fascist rule.

Santiago Matamoros as I photographed him in Santiago de Compostela Cathedral, late July 2011.

In the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, the saint’s horse rears from behind an arrangement of fresh leaves and flowers. As even the quickest search of the internet will confirm, behind this fragrant corsage Santiago’s horse is actually trampling over Moorish soldiers and his sword is meting out death. There is even a severed Muslim head on the ground below him.

The “unedited” image of Santiago Matamoros (Wikipedia open access image)

It is, I suppose, to the credit of the cathedral that it seems to be squeamish about the image. Perhaps the mangled limbs are camouflaged out of politically correct consideration for the feelings of Muslims. Perhaps (and I hope this is the case) the church has awakened to the realisation that nothing could be more contrary to the teachings of Jesus Christ than this sympathetic, even admiring, representation of brutal murder. Whatever the case, the full barbarity of the image is something the Church no longer wants visitors to see. Someone on the cathedral’s staff regularly replaces the leaves and flowers, no doubt standing back each time to check that the true character of the image remains well hidden.

It is the purpose of a pilgrimage not just to present you with a challenge and deliver you to a destination but to set you thinking about life, faith and the practice of religion. In this spirit, the image of Santiago Matamoros triggered my curiosity about the intrusion of martial imagery into churches. Naively I wondered how widespread this was. So while walking through England I visited several cathedrals and churches. Without being systematic or obsessive about it, I kept an eye out for images of war and murder inscribed – as it were – inside these churches. I didn’t have to look very hard or very far. Every time I entered a church the images were immediately in my face. I found that – without exception – every one of the temples of Christian peace that I visited displayed eulogistic representations and commemorations of warriors and war. The churches, irrespective of denomination, seemed to be showcases for state-supported military mayhem.

Zulu spears and shields: stylised war trophies in Lichfield Cathedral.

It would be a consolation if I could report that the images I saw only commemorated those who died resisting aggression by the enemies of freedom and peace. But I was struck by the many images – probably a majority – that commemorate Britain’s wars of aggression in distant lands. One of the most shocking is to be seen in Lichfield Cathedral. In one corner of the cathedral there is a prominent memorial to those who died during Britain’s wars of conquest against the Zulu people of South Africa (1878-1879). The memorial takes the form of a palisade of Zulu spears and shields – stylised war trophies, in effect. The names of the soldiers who died are inscribed on the shields.

The names of British war dead triumphantly inscribed on Zulu shields in Lichfield Cathedral.

Also in Lichfield Cathedral there is a memorial to members of the local Staffordshire Regiment who died during the first Anglo-Sikh War (1845-1846) in India, also known as the Sutlej Campaign. The brutal Sutlej Campaign was the very first for which medals were issued with metal bars or clasps that could be attached to a medal’s ribbon. In a bizarre touch, some of this purely military memorabilia is displayed in the “holy” precincts of the cathedral.

Medals from the Sutlej Campaign on display in Lichfield Cathedral.

Beyond the unfeeling crassness of such memorials there are many more subtle and more powerful tributes to war. For example, in Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon (where William Shakespeare is buried), there is a stained glass window depicting England’s national saint, St. George, providing succor to the Crusaders. There is also a stained glass image of medieval combat with soldiers clustered around a big crucifix.

St.George, patron saint of England, urges on the Crusaders (Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon).

Medieval battle scenes with soldiers clustered around the Cross (Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon)

St.Oswald in full battle dress with the halo of Christian piety (Carlisle Cathedral).

In Carlisle Cathedral, St.Oswald appears in full battle armour carrying an enormous sword with a halo of Christian piety crowning his head. In Lichfield Cathedral a colourful stained glass window is dedicated to the memory of a certain Sir Horiatio Page Vance who fought at the sieges of Sevastopol in the Crimea (1854-1855) and Lucknow in India (1857). It depicts British sappers, complete with a large shovel, undertaking a siege some time in the Middle Ages. In St.Mary’s Church, Painswick, a model sailing boat is attached to the wall. Beside it a plaque likens the Christian Church to a boat, then draws a parallel between the boat of Christianity and a battleship of sixteenth century England that saw action against the Spanish Armada.

Besieging the enemy under the protection of the Cross (Lichfield Cathedral)

The Christian church is likened to a battleship (St.Mary’s Church, Painswick)

It is possible to see these images as mere curiosities, toothless survivals from a cruel past preserved like exotic museum-pieces in the more enlightened times we now live in. But in the churches I visited, none of the images are presented as violations of Christian values. On the contrary, they seem tailor-made to normalise the uncritical depiction of violence within the precincts of the church. All of the images I saw – and no doubt countless more I have not seen – make a subtle but very powerful point: there is a hand-in-gauntlet alliance between the Christian church and the practice of war, and this alliance continues into the present.

The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount lie at the heart of Christian doctrine, and neither could be more forthright: Thou shalt not kill and Love your enemies… whosoever strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him your other cheek as well. These are tough admonitions so it is not surprising that in everyday life and politics they are pretty comprehensively ignored. And theologians too, from St.Augustine to the padres of modern armies, have tried to water them down. But (to me at least) it is surprising that they also seem to be almost totally ignored, even trampled on, certainly compromised, in the iconography and worship of Christian churches where, of all places, they should be prominently and uncompromisingly affirmed.

In short, on the evidence of what I saw in Santiago de Compostela and in England, many Christian churches are little short of arsenals stuffed with iconographic weapons and iconographic flak jackets for use by the propagators of war and their apologists. 

Images of soldiers charging into battle “to the glory of God” (from a war memorial window in Lichfield Cathedral)


Cynical thoughts at the foot of the Eiffel Tower

About five years ago Emmy and I visited Paris. We spent five days in a very large corner room on the top floor of the Regina Hotel overlooking the Tuileries Gardens. To our Australian eyes the hotel was an exotic, somewhat overstuffed, and very over-priced, baroque extravagance. But we really enjoyed it. The weather was clear and warm, and we had a dress circle view of spring suddenly jumping in vivid green from the trees and shrubs in the gardens below.

The Eiffel Tower: a tarnished icon?

I was in Paris to do just one thing… enjoy coffee and croissants in a streetside café somewhere along the Champs Elysees. But Emmy had higher ambitions. Versailles. Monet’s Garden. Cruising the Seine. Notre Dame. The Eiffel Tower.

On the first day we had lunch at a restaurant in the tangle of streets across the river. We chose a place at random. At the door we were greeted by a magnificent waiter – long white apron, starched serving cloth draped over his forearm, even a Poirot-like mini-moustache. This was the Paris of movie stereotype.

With great ceremony he conducted us to a table with the classic snowy tablecloth, gleaming cutlery and long stemmed wine glasses. He seated us with a flourish of politesse and handed us the menu. Better and better… not a single syllable of English despoiled the menu, and I understood not one word of it. This was the real France. I looked up:

“What do you recommend?”

From over my shoulder the waiter’s finger roved the menu. He glanced thoughtfully at me for an moment, then…

“For you, monsieur, I recommend ze steak and chips.”

Emmy had an aromatic cassoulet dish freshly made on the premises, served with crusty bread and a counterpoint of soft red wine. But my steak and chips with a Coke were also fine. Plenty of salt too.

The following day we got up early and went to the Eiffel Tower. It was a weekday and not yet into the tourist season, but already a mass of people were corralled in queues before the ticket boxes. It took an hour of zig-zag shuffling before finally we were able to squeeze into a lift and make it up to the second deck.

The view was dazzling – when we could see it, that is. For me, standing 194 cm in height, the crush at the balustrades was not a big problem. I could look over heads and see everything (or almost everything). But Emmy had to jostle and burrow and scrummage. And she had some very ruthless competition.

Feeling a little deflated we had lunch at a buffet cafeteria on the first level. It was one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten. Indeterminate organic matter wrapped in soggy paper washed down with lilac coloured lolly-water. If only I had ordered steak and chips.

Back on the ground we looked up at the rows of heads strung like beads along the balustrades of the tower. The Eiffel Tower is a dramatic, historic, even beautiful, structure, and it deserves to attract visitors. But it is being loved to death, or perhaps more accurately, exploited to death. The unavoidable crush of visitors and the fleeting contact they make with the Tower’s mystique, make visiting the Tower a trial. In some respects it’s even unpleasant. The Eiffel Tower embodies the classic paradox of mass tourism: its iconic status has bred a degraded experience. Somehow we were disappointed.

Minimalist travel (with carbon-steel telescopic walking poles).

Right then and there we decided, consumer travel is not for us. You know what I mean by consumer travel. It is travel built around shopping in one guise or another: luxury this and discount that, free day here and extra night there, with “gourmet” meals and “experienced” guides. It is a modular, fleeting, assembly-line world, full of packaged sights seen from the window of a bus and regulated by turnstile. The cruise ship is its purest manifestation, but the Eiffel Tower is now one of its innumerable offspring.

Of course, consumer travel is a soft target and it is very easy to be snooty about it. So it’s frustrating that you can’t escape it. It is hard to be pure and keep consumer travel (a.k.a. “shopping”) at an ideologically comfortable distance. It is virtually impossible to go anywhere without succumbing, somewhere along the way, to the powerful pull of iconic sights and pre-packaged convenience.

But by walking (with our Gore-Tex hiking boots, moisture-wicking merino wool socks, quick-dry insect-repellent shirts, sculptured backpacks and carbon steel, telescopic walking poles) we hope to fend off the worst blandishments of consumerism. How successful will we be? Hmmm, perhaps this paragraph has already answered that question, but we’ll keep you posted anyway.

First I inspect my toe nails…

… and if necessary I trim them and file off any roughness. Then I rub plenty of Prantal talc (expensive but the best I have found so far) into my feet, even into the heels and especially between the toes and under the ball of the foot. This puts a kind of dry slippery surface on the skin, and the talc absorbs sweat once you are walking. Then I put a Dr Scholls toe separator between the pinky toe and the neighbouring toe on the left and right foot (my pinky toes have a tendency to go under the neighbouring toe and chafe a bit). By the way, if you want to use toe separators, don’t choose the rubbery “gel” ones – they distintegrate fast. Sponge separators last forever.

Then I attach a blister plaster (Compeed is the brand name I use) over the slightly protruding joint at the base of my big toe left and right. This protrusion has the potential to become a bunion, I think, and I once had a biggish blister on the left one. So I put anti-blister patches over each of them as a precaution. (By the way, the Compeed patches stay on for at least a week, sometimes longer, so they are good for several walks and they won’t come off in the shower.)

Then I put an inner/liner sock on each foot. This sock is an Icebreaker brand merino wool sock from New Zealand that wicks moisture away from the skin of the foot. I scrunch the sock up first so that the toes go straight into the end of the sock, then I unroll the sock over the instep and heel, and up over the ankle. I then powder the exterior of this sock and put another liner sock over the top of it. So I’m wearing two socks. In theory any chafing should happen between the inner and outer sock, and not between skin and sock. Recently I have been trying Injinji toe socks. They’re slightly finicky to put on because you have to fit each toe into each “finger” of the sock. But once they’re on they feel nice, and they keep toes separated. As usual, I put a second “tube” sock over the first sock so that I am wearing two thinnish socks rather than one thick sock.

Then I put on my walking boots. I wear Keans Targhee half-height hiking boots, or Keans Targhee hiking shoes (I have a pair of each). These have a big wide toe box that allows for a bit of swelling in the toes and foot as your walk progresses. The lacing system allows you to relax the tightness of the boot across the mid-section of the foot and also tie the laces quite tightly above the ankle on the half-height boot.

Now I’m ready to stand up… and my feet are ready to walk.