The story of civilisation is one told entirely on two legs. It’s only because our ancestors decided to wander out of Africa 80,000 years ago that you and I are fortunate enough to be here today. From settlements to silk roads, those initial ramblers laid the foundation for everything to come.
The presence of humans in Britain has only been continuous for about 12,000 years during half of which, the Ridgeway – an ancient trail running from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Avebury to Ivinghoe Beacon – has been used by traders and travellers.
Last week, I decided to walk all 87 miles of it.
‘Because it’s there,’ was the legendary reply of mountaineer climber George Mallory when he was asked why he kept attempting to conquer Everest.
That’s from Walking: One Step At a Time by Erlign Kagge, the first person to reach both Poles and summit Everest on foot. I’ve also been reading The Wood for the Trees: A Long View of Nature and Orchard: A Year in England’s Eden this month.
Walking is meditation for me. There’s not much you can do miles away from the next settlement other than simply put one foot in front of the other to get there.
My new Muse S headband has also been helping me deepen my meditation practice. About the size of two postage stamps, it conducts a full EEG brain scan meaning that you get live audio feedback; it also doubles as a powerful sleep tracker thanks to its on-board acelerometer and heart sensors.
To accompany me on my walk, I laid my hands on a pair of ECCO Gore-Tex walking boots, trousers from Brasher and a lightweight backpack from Deuter alongside a tiny Ridgeway National Trail guide.
All walking guides tell you spring is the best time to walk but I think either changing season is perfect as each presents a radically different view of the landscape. It’s easy, especially if you live in a city or town, to divorce yourself from that natural cycle, where shop windows become indicative of which season you’re in rather than tree leaves. Walking is a reminder that I am part of that ecosystem, not independent of it.
My stroll soundtrack came in the form of Coldplay’s new album, Music of The Spheres, which was released the day prior. The band also opened the Earthshot Prize ceremony earlier in the month, a fund giving £50 million across the next decade to solutions that will combat climate change.
The Earthshot ceremony was beautiful to watch and is available on BBC iPlayer now. I’ve also been watching One Strange Rock on Disney+ alongside season two of The Morning Show on Apple TV+ and the third season of RuPaul’s Drag Race UK. I was also excited to see Professor Brian Cox’s new series, Universe, which airs on BBC Two.
Speaking at a press conference for the series, Cox said:
if our civilisation doesn’t persist […] whatever it is we decide to inflict on ourselves, it is possible that whoever (is responsible) eliminates meaning in a galaxy for ever.
The piece I wrote for The Week Junior’s Science+Nature magazine on the phycological phenomenon known as the Overview effect echoes this sentiment and is available in the coming days. Go and pick it up from your favourite newsstand. Here’s a tiny bit from the original draft:
Given the ongoing environmental crisis, adopting a sense of the Overview effect in our daily lives might be more important than ever. It leads to an understanding that everything on Earth is interconnected and that humankind’s very existence is dependent on a complex ecosystem that spans the world.
That weight is what leaders gathering at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow have to reckon with over the next fortnight.
The realisation has long dawned that first their actions and then their inactions are directly responsible for subverting and sabotaging the same delicate goldilocks locations that allowed us to walk out of our homeland 80,000 years ago. In a twist of irony, those cradles of civilisation are among the first to feel the impacts of climate change: a racism inflicted on one corner of the world from another.
We look to them to make the changes required possible and the Ridgeway is testament to the fact that history will remember whether they succeed or fail. Whether it’s Segsbury Camp (est. 700 BC) or Wayland’s Smithy (3,600 BC), the route is littered with memories and memorials of people of the past: civilisations lost to the mists of time.
Walking the Ridgeway imbued me with a great sense of sonder – the realisation that everyone around you is living a life as complex as yours with their own stories and their own successes and failures – and not just now but throughout all of human history. My footprints on that 5,000 year old road will fade like the footprints of the travellers and tradespeople before me but for a few days in October, our stories became one. I realise that I depend on them in the same way we all depend on each other.
I didn’t manage to walk the whole trail in five days as I had planned – zero training, poor pacesetting and overly ambitious targets don’t make for good ultra-distance walking – but I did cover a significant chunk of it and I’ll walk the rest of the Ridgeway over the coming weeks and months and continue my journey along Britain’s oldest road one step at a time.
And that’s the same spirit in which we need to tackle the challenges that bring leaders together today. We have a long distance to walk and there is much ground to cover but the solutions to the challenges we face are in essence the same solutions that got you and I here today: curiosity, collaboration, and unflinching determination in the face of adversity.
Humankind is is not inept; we are adept to change and we must adapt in the next 8 years to see the next 80,000.
You’ll next hear from me on December 1st 2021.
01 November 2021
My monthly dispatches recap what I've been up to. Get updates in your podcast app.