Walking Dorset’s Purbeck Hills was a commonplace activity for the Powys family, just part of the ordinary daily routines for those who lived in that part of the countryside and their visitors. Powys essays and diaries are filled with reminiscences of recreational jaunts over fields to the cliffs, following narrow fox-paths over dewy meadows in the mornings, the soaring flights of sea-birds that greeted them; the nights they would climb hills to make a moonlight vigil over a frosty landscape.
For anyone who’s walked the coastal paths between Lulworth Cove and Weymouth, or taken any of the routes inland across the ridges of hills into East Chaldon, there’s something’s remarkable missing from these accounts. Many of these ancient pathways are vertiginous, and to follow any of them for any real distance takes a monstrous effort. At any time of the year there will be lean athletic types jogging their way from one peak to the next, sometimes squaddies set a yomping challenge – but for the average walker it can be brutal. Summer or winter the challenge is the same.
There’s nothing disingenuous about the family accounts of epic walks over the Purbecks, not an iota of false modesty. John Cowper Powys was open about his dislike for the attitudes among competitive, health-fad walkers of the 1920s and 30s. The point is that John and his brothers and sisters were perhaps a different physical breed to ourselves, more accepting of physical discomfort, more weather-stained, more robust. We’re used to easy comforts and instant treats, a modern ability to avoid the petty inconveniences of the material world. The resilience to the Purbecks – something earthy, salt-crusted and blistered – is translated, I think, into John’s writing, and into a simple principle that Powys readers know very well. Substantial effort, even angst, is repaid by what’s seen and experienced over the course of the journey.