A Quaint Talk About Long Walks – The Tale of the Walking Parson

Greetings my dear chums

Today I offer you a tribute to a man who’s whole life was dedicated to an outdoors lifestyle. Although little known about today, Arthur Nevile Cooper was in my opinion, the true father of the ramble, the man who encouraged us to walk and to wander and to explore the wonders of this natural world we share together.

I sincerely hope you find his life an inspiration.

Pip-Pip
Ever Yours,
Echo Sweetly BV
Proprietor and Editor,
The Gentlemen Adventurer’s Chronicle

Inside the fishermen’s church of St. Oswald’s overlooking Filey Bay on the Yorkshire coast, there is a small stone memorial plaque.  The wording is simple and unfussy:

‘In loving memory of Arthur Nevile Cooper

Vicar of Filey 1880 – 1935, Canon of York 1915 – 1941

Died 20th August 1943, Aged 93

‘They that wait upon the Lord shall renew their Strength

They shall walk and not faint’

 ‘Walk and not faint’ describes this lifetime perfectly. The Rev. Arthur Nevile Cooper was widely known to the Victorians as ‘the Walking Parson’. An unlikely adventurer, a popular writer and a much sought after raconteur. It is surprising that today apart from a small memorial plaque, he is almost unknown.

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His life was dedicated to improving public health. He firmly believed that ‘exercise was a joy and the open air to be the elixir of life’. He wrote, ‘the man who walks is the man who is well’. It was the gospel he preached throughout his life and one completely relevant to our lifestyle today.

As a young man he was keen on walking as a way to keep fit and healthy. Like many who enjoy the beauty of the natural world, he was also something of a romantic. He was inspired by the writings of English art historian John Ruskin, and much taken with passages from his epic Stones of Venice. He yearned all of his early life to experience what Ruskin described as ‘the delicious sight of a village nestling at the foot of the hill, where one might rest the limbs and refresh the body wearied with wholesome exercise’.

Arthur Nevile Cooper was the son of a Brewer’s Clerk; he was born in Pilgrim Place, Windsor, Berkshire in 1850. An appropriate starting point for a man who’s whole life became a pilgrimage. Born into a middleclass Victorian family, he was raised in a society where the difference between the haves and have not’s was huge.

In 1866, aged sixteen years, he began to make his way in life as a Civil Servant, working at Somerset House in London. A junior clerk with little money to spare for bus fares, he walked eight miles each day to and from his office.

In his writings later, he described the enjoyment derived from this daily exercise; ‘Passing though Kensington Gardens, Hyde and Green Parks and Pall Mall throughout all the changing seasons, no pleasanter walk could be found in London’.

After ten years in London he answered a higher calling. With a degree from Christ Church College, Oxford, in 1876 he was ordained to the Curacy of Chester-le-Street in County Durham.

He acknowledges that at his interview with the Rector, his eyes were opened to the splendid health he enjoyed. The Rector hope that he had good health as the work of his parish was hard. ‘I realised that during the ten years I had been in London I had never taken a dose of medicine and had only been absent once on account of illness and that was through toothache’. ‘My walking had saved the bus fares but the doctor’s bills too’.

From then on he believed that it was his duty to convert as many souls as he could to his way of thinking, and those today who enjoy the outdoors will feel his sentiments deeply.

He spent three and a half years in Chester-le-Street, describing the parish as a ‘wide and scattered and full of coal pits.’ He walked many miles every day to attend to his parishioners. In 1880, aged thirty, he was appointed to the living as the Vicar of the small fishing community at Filey, on the Yorkshire coast. The parish he served for the next 55 years.

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He had married Maude Nicholson, and together they raised a family, two sons and three daughters. From his parish by the sea he was able to reach out to a much wider congregation.

Arthur Cooper first attracted attention beyond his parish when he decided that he should publicly demonstrate the health benefits of ‘tramping’ as he often called his walks.

At the end of a Sunday evening service, he picked up his blackthorn walking stick, a satchel containing a few personal effects, and set out from Filey for London. His aim was to walk two hundred miles south to collect a dividend payment due to him from the Bank of England in Threadneedle Street, and be back in time to lead matins the following Sunday.

His tramp attracted the attention of newspaper editors along his route who reported upon his progress.  He must have been a memorable sight marching along the byways and green lanes through the English countryside, wearing what he described as ‘his walking costume’; a neat black trilby hat, short coat, knickerbockers, putties and a blue tie. He travelled light. ‘Take nothing but what you can carry’ was his advice for those who wished to follow his lead.

The degree of public notoriety that came from this walk gave him the perfect pulpit from which to preach ‘the gospel of tramping’, as he often called his mission. Over his lifetime he took full advantage of this opportunity.

Little did he imagine that his footsteps would lead us toward an almost national obsession for a ‘good walk’. Whether it be the dog-walk, or the Sunday stroll or a rambling day trip. The network of footpaths and trails which cover our countryside today are there in part because of the ability of this man to inspire and persuade others to share his passion for the outdoors.

Impressive as his walk to London had been, it was only the precursor to what was to come. The following year, once the celebration of Easter was complete, he left the parish again and this time was away for six weeks. He explains his absence in a typically understated and assuming way that became his trademark; “I casually remarked to a friend that I was going out for an evening stroll, and then and there started off for Rome”, a tramp of over 800 miles.

On his return he started to write about his adventures. His articles first appeared in the Yorkshire Post, and then in 1902 his first book was published, appropriately entitled: ‘The Tramps of the Walking Parson’.

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It received a favourable review from The London Standard which gave him the beginnings of a national profile. They described the book as ‘breezy and lively, written from first page to last with kindliness, humour and common sense’.

Encouraged by his success, other walks and other successful books followed. An amble to Venice, then a jaunt to Monte Carlo and journeys over the Pyrenees. He enlightened and entertained, recalling tales of his tramps from Yorkshire to Barcelona, to Copenhagen, to Pompeii and on and on.

The Victorians found much entertainment in his escapades. He had clearly struck a chord with his gentle style, leading readers to believe that they could improve their lives and their health by getting ‘out and about’.

As he travelled so he continued to write. ‘With Knapsack and Notebook’, was followed by ‘Round the Home of a Yorkshire Parson’. He received positive reviews from such diverse publications as The Spectator, The Scotsman and the Morning Post. ‘Fresh air blows through the book, and interest is to be found on every page’ was typical.

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His advice to those who wanted to assume a healthy outdoors lifestyle was always practical and his encouragement unfaltering; He recommended pouring whiskey into one’s socks, claiming it kept his feet supple and free from blisters.

He encouraged his audience to be resourceful; ‘sometimes the overnights were not as comfortable as I’d wish. In Paris I remember a difficult night when the only option was to sleep on the hotel billiard table’.

Throughout all of his wanderings he held on steadfastly to his Britishness, recalling; ‘I remember once being questioned by a French gentleman in the Pyrenees as to whether I was afraid of being robbed. I answered that I had only felt one fear since I landed in France, and that was lest I should not get asparagus for dinner’.

As his popularity increased he became much in demand as a public speaker, capturing audiences with accounts of his journeys were ever he was invited.

In the introduction to his most popular book, ‘Quaint Talks about Long Walks’, written he said for those who were unable to hear him preach his gospel in person, he begins: ‘one night, I was addressing an audience of nearly two thousand people in Dewsbury, on the subject of my walk to Monte Carlo’. To attract an audience of that size, full of hard working Yorkshire mill workers, and to hold them with a subject far away and remote from their lives says much about the power of his oratory.

He clearly enthralled wherever he was invited. He made listeners keen to get out and explore the world around them. His enthusiasm for outdoor exercise and an unshakeable conviction of its health benefits made him a man before his time. The poor living conditions and health of the masses would have concerned him deeply.

He had the ability to connect and communicate without superiority or condescension across all parts of society, and a true gift for empathy. He would have been greatly encouraged as he looked around his audience that his gospel reached those who toiled and laboured long in factories and mines and mills.

He would have been gratified, as J.B. Priestley was to describe later, ‘to see folk streaming out onto the moors on Sundays… with the enthusiasm for the countryside that had bred a race of mighty pedestrians’. Arthur Cooper should surely take some small credit for that.

Today, I sometimes sit quietly in his parish church overlooking the sea; I look at his stone memorial and think how appropriate it is that two of Britain’s magnificent long distance trails, The Cleveland Way, and The Wolds Way pass by within sight of St. Ostwald’s Church. The Walking Parson would also, I think, be pleased.

End

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