The Walking Parson’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Walking Parson’s Tale

as told by Bill Laws

Canon Cooper may have hurried the final bars of the Nunc Dimitis one Sunday evensong in 1886. As he ushered the last parishioner out of the parish church at Filey, Yorkshire, he was mentally preparing for the long walk ahead.

Having collected from the vestry his walking stick and satchel containing spare shirt, socks and money deposited in three different pockets (plus a bank note sewn ‘in the waistband of my unmentionables’), he strode out into the night. Since he planned to be back at St Oswalds to conduct Matins the following Sunday, and with his destination, London’s Bank of England 200 miles away, he set a good pace.

Canon Arthur Neville Cooper, dubbed the Walking Parson, was a missionary in the domestic sense, his mission being to share the world of walking with the humbler person. He minded neither the weather nor the dark for ‘the open air to my mind is always enjoyable,’ the parson would record later in his book, With Knapsack and Notebook. Morris Marples in Shanks’s Pony judged him ‘essentially a plain, straightforward man . . . whose only unusual characteristics were his queer passion for making long, solitary walking tours and his belief that it was his duty to induce others to make them too.’ Canon Cooper particularly recommended walking to men like himself, men who were condemned to live their lives in smart clothes dining regularly with serviettes and finger glasses. Walking, he declared, was the best way of dispelling one’s cares and worries. It was an improving exercise, far better than the new craze for cycling, which, he thought led to an eventual loss of energy in the walking limbs.

In fact, he decided, the reason more people did not, like him, walk was their innate fear of getting wet feet. He claimed to have tempted Providence in a hundred ways by resting on damp grass and sleeping in wet socks without taking harm (his patent method of setting off with washed socks each morning was to sluice them in soap and water the night before and dry them on his feet overnight). In extreme situations he advocated that the wet walker pour a dose of whisky into his shoes to provide relief against the ordeal of wet feet.

Canon Cooper conducted himself well on his pioneering walk to London and he reached the Bank just before it closed at two o’clock, in time to collect a dividend. He had hoped to lose a little weight, but found he weighed as much to the ounce as when he had started. He did, however, attract the attention of the press and in the following months was gratified to received letters from ‘pedestrians of both sex’.

The walk from Filey to London was a test run for a six week, 740 mile ramble from Filey to Rome which he undertook the following year and on Easter morning, 11 April 1887 Cooper waved farewell to his parishioners and headed off towards Rome by way of the rather less romantic Bridlington. He was well prepared. He wore a black, trilby-like hat, a dark suit jacket smartly buttoned up over his knickerbockers, puttees and black leather shoes. In his leather gloves he carried his favourite blackthorn walking stick, and his satchel, slung across his shoulder, containing his brush and shaving kit.

Like any walker he slipped in a few nonessential items: a pocket edition of Horace’s Odes, a pair of slippers and a white tie for Sundays (like his Lord and Maker, Cannon Cooper treated Sunday as a day of rest). His spare vest and pants, however, he left behind in the rectory dressing room (blushing at the thought that he would manage by washing his unmentionables only once a fortnight). He carried neither raincoat nor umbrella. Experience had taught him to average forty miles a day – twenty five miles on the first – and not to exceed 180 miles in any week. He reached Rome in five weeks with change in his pocket from his budget of £30.

The Walking Parson went on walking and writing until he hung up his boots in 1920 having proved his point that: ‘The man who walks is the man who is well.’

From ‘Byways, Boots and Blisters – A History of Walkers and Walking’ by Bill Laws (The History Press).

Bill Laws
Bill Laws

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