Hay-on-Wye on a sleepy summer Monday outside Festival time is a fine place to be. True, you have an acute feeling of being one of a dwindling number of ageing middle class readers as you wander from second-hand bookshop to second-hand bookshop. But serendipity, so painfully missing from an Amazon search, is a subtle and addictive habit. Browsing often delivers a pleasure more satisfying than sitting at home and nailing a named title on AbeBooks.
Today, looking vaguely for something to give to a south London-living daughter, it’s Southern rambles for Londoners that takes my eye. It’s a handsome pocket-sized, card-covered book of 144 pages, with rounded corners. Its author is S.P.B. Mais, and it was ‘published by the Southern Railway, price sixpence’ – apparently, if this is indeed the first edition, in 1931 (there’s no publication date given in the book itself). The faded but stylishly designed front cover reproduces a woodcut of a country scene. On the back cover the Cellular Clothing Company advertises its Aertex sports shirts, promoting as they do ‘freedom, comfort and health’.
There’s a foreword by Sir Lawrence Chubb, ‘Vice-President of the Federation of Rambling Clubs and Secretary of the Commons, Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society’. Chubb was a pioneering environmentalist and advocate of the preservation of paths and open spaces – though by the late 1920s his Fabian legal methods were regarded as too timid and gradualist by Communist Party and radical ramblers, who favoured mass trespass and other tactics to open up the countryside for ordinary people.
In his preface Mais gives us his reason for writing the book: ‘to remind you of a very precious heritage which has been bequeathed to you by countless generations of your ancestors: vistas of loveliness, quiet footpaths through green meadows, dense forests … that can be reached within thirty, forty or sixty minutes by train from Victoria, Charing Cross, London Bridge, Cannon Street or Waterloo’. His audience was the common people:
To reach these Elysian fields you need not wait for your annual holiday. You can find them whenever you have four or five hours to spare … All you need is a shilling or two in your purse to pay the railway fare, and the hungry heart of the explorer ever eager to discover what lies just round the corner.
My first thought was that our contemporary version of the Southern Railway (also called ‘Southern Railway’) was highly unlikely to sponsor so useful, cheap and enlightened a publication, let alone offer what’s advertised in it, a ‘Go as you please’ railway ticket especially to suit the needs of ramblers.
Petrie Mace (1885-1975), a figure almost entirely forgotten today, was a prolific journalist and radio broadcaster (he sent a weekly ‘Letter from America’, from 1933, 13 years before Alistair Cooke). He wrote over 200 books, most of them to do with travel and walking. According to a biographer, ‘when asked, ‘How many books have you written?’ he replied, ‘Too many’. Yet he continued writing until he was in his late eighties, driven by financial worries’. The subtitle of an account of him by Masie Robson is ‘ambassador for the countryside’, and Mais’s permanent passion was to convey the value of the country to urban dwellers.
Mais’s style is lyrical, informative and quirky by turns. Here he is on the transcendental walk:
I have no idea how happiness comes. I only know that no day passes but I find myself completely transformed, carried right out of myself, by some unexpected line of harmony or combination of colours, and it is this, combined with the exercise of walking, that brings balm to a troubled mind and soothes a restless soul.
His descriptions of the twenty routes selected are accounts of his own rambles – meetings with people, observations of buildings, historical notes and appreciations of natural features. He expects his readers to be fit – most of his routes are around fifteen miles, and some are over twenty.
The quirky Mais emerges in the appendix, labelled ‘Help’. A few entries:
CATTLE are seldom dangerous, but often curious. So are dogs.
DOGS are seldom dangerous, but often curious. So are cattle.
DRINK, – For the midday halt, half a pint of “old” mingled with a stone ginger beer is the most satisfying drink I know. It is the right length, it quenches the thirst, and it leaves no languorous after-effect.
FEET … Sock suspenders and garters ought never to be worn as they induce sciatica.
INNS, – Do not abuse the village inn. Use it. Use the public bar. It is at once more friendly, more cheerful, and cheaper than the saloon bar.
LOST, – If you have lost your way it is sometimes useful to remember that the crossbars of telegraph poles are always placed on the London side of the poles. The sun is on the south side of you.
SPEED, – I am always meeting people (non-walkers) who imagine that four miles an hour is an average walking pace. If you average four miles an hour it usually means that you are missing all the side-shows.
STICK, – I have never carried a stick in my life, and indeed its sphere of usefulness seems limited to one action – that of the scotching of snakes, and I prefer to let sleeping snakes lie.
WEATHER, – On nine days out of ten the weather is better than it looks as if it were going to be. It improves as the day goes on. The official weather forecast is seldom correct. The unofficial weather forecast of the postman or farmer is equally unreliable.
Mais is good value, but what also marks this book out is that it’s illustrated with some remarkable full-page photographs attributed on the title page to Charles E. Brown. Brown (1896-1982) was a London newspaper and aviation photographer (according to one source, ‘he was destined to become one of the century’s finest air-to-air photographers’). His 1924 picture of a Southern Railways King Arthur locomotive was chosen for a railway poster, ‘South for sunshine’ that remained in circulation in various forms for ten years.
The singular feature of Brown’s photos is that the human figures in them are exclusively of women. Indeed, young women. Although they dress so sensibly, in their cardigans or jumpers, knee-length skirts, stockings and stout shoes, they look prematurely old. Some carry small rucksacks. Most, contrary to Mais’s strict advice, carry walking sticks – not the Nordic poles of today, of course, but traditional shepherd’s crooks with rounded handles – the kind only the heir to the royal throne now carries. If this is 1931 then the flapper revolution has failed to reach south London.
But these women aren’t here as sirens, to tempt hot-blooded male ramblers on to the trains and into the countryside. They’re serious and self-sufficient. They enjoy one another’s company (most are in small groups). The more you stare at them the more you start to wonder whether they might be feminists. Women’s walking groups are common today, but had they already emerged by the ’20s and ’30s? Did Mais and Brown have a subliminal message to convey? Was their intended audience really female? The two of them seem on the face of it to be conformist characters, but were they supporters of the liberation of girls and women from the smothering conventions of their time? Is Southern rambles for Londoners, in short, a social tract masquerading as a celebration of conservative (and conservationist) values?
Mais the radical? It’s not impossible. After all, another writer, John Rogers, makes him out to be a modernist and a proto-psychogeographer of suburbia. Rogers links him with Guy Debord and the French Situationists of the late 1950s and early 1960s:
What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators. This “revolution of everyday life” is a radical shift that starts with placing one foot in front of the other.
For all his apparent traditionalism Mais was abrupt and ‘truculent’ by nature and could be rebellious. And creative. His biographer recalls,
One of his most adventurous ideas was to run night trains from London so that jaded office workers could be shepherded to the top of the South Downs by Mais to watch the sunrise. On the first occasion forty walkers were expected; 1440 turned up.
I wonder what response you’d get from today’s ‘Southern’ to such a proposal?