The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines ‘pedestrianism’ as walking undertaken as a form of exercise or competitive sport, its earliest citation dating from the early nineteenth century, reflecting their growing popularity. Robin Jarvis (1997, 23) argues that, despite the long-established association of walking with ‘indigence, necessity and fate’, long-range excursions on foot became a sufficiently widespread leisure pursuit in Western Europe from the 1780s to create a demand for specialized guides and advice, such as the Instructions to Pedestrian Tourists offered by Robert Newell in 1821 (Jarvis 1997, 13).
But, in the wake of recent historical studies (Amato 2004; Gros 2014 ; Nicholson 2008; Solnit 2001), the term has found a new use that captures something the OED misses, the idea of walking ‘as an investigation, a ritual, a meditation’ (Solnit 2001, 3). It has come to refer to an art of walking, undertaken self-consciously, sometimes as a defiantly transgressive practice. Pedestrianism in this sense embraces a wide range of activities from hiking trails to walkathons, from pilgrimages to protest marches, as well as solitary expeditions of varying lengths and levels of difficulty.
Pedestrianism in this sense is primarily associated with the Romantic poets and philosophers who first celebrated and promoted it. To begin with, pedestrian travellers felt the need to justify their unusual activity – pointing to the freedom it gave them to deviate from the standard route (and more figuratively from social, political and intellectual convention) (Jarvis 1997, 29–61). As the practice became more accepted, it generated essays of a more reflective character, distinguishing walking from more routinized activities emblematic of modernity, becoming increasingly prescriptive and moralistic in tone (Solnit 2001, 118–24).
Frédéric Gros (2014 , 140–41) identifies two main forms of Romantic pedestrianism. First, those rambles ‘off the beaten track’ in woods, fields and mountains in which ‘the trekker with his rucksack opposes civilization with the burst of a clean break, the cutting edge of a rejection’. Second, the more ambivalent practice of the urban stroller or flâneur, whose mode of resistance, by contrast, involves not ‘opposing but evading, deflecting, altering with exaggeration, accepting blandly and moving rapidly on’, whose target is ‘solitude, speed, dubious business politics and consumerism’. If the first is often associated with writers like Rousseau, Wordsworth and Thoreau, the second might be represented by Baudelaire, Dickens or Poe.