Article first published in The Financial Times by Alec Marsh on 18 November 2016.
Rory Stewart’s stride is long and distinctive. Not Ministry of Silly Walks distinctive, more of a purposeful lope – like a greyhound in the moments before determined acceleration. I hurry to keep up as he tells me his desired speed is just over 3mph.
“Let me give you a sense of pace,” says the politician and author as we head towards London’s Hyde Park. “I have quite a long pace for my height – I’m just over 5ft 8in inches. My pace is almost exactly a metre long so I can count on doing 96 paces and knowing I’ve travelled 100m.”
After passing the tourists and evading the taxis, Stewart’s lurcher-like progress mercifully slows. “I have a romantic belief that walking solves things,” says the 43-year-old international development minister. “It solves my views on politics, my views on health, my views on life.”
A former soldier and diplomat, Stewart famously completed a 21-month walk through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nepal between 2000 and 2002, while on leave from the Foreign Office. The 30-day Afghan section in January 2002 inspired his first book, The Places in Between. “The Afghan walk changed my life,” he says. “It took me from what I was and changed my whole political philosophy. The next 10 years of my life were dedicated to challenging these interventions in Afghanistan and, later, Iraq – and almost all of the confidence I had to do that came from that 30 days of walking and the gap I saw between the rhetoric and the reality.”
Walking has continued to shape his outlook since his election to Parliament in 2010. “There is a Nigerian proverb: ‘You listen with your feet,’” he explains. “What I hope I take from walking is the idea that it is vital to get out there, that not much can be done from an office in the capital, and, in the end, politics isn’t a question of technical expertise or models, it’s a question of walking into different people’s lives and trying to elicit from them their descriptions of their priorities.”
Stewart’s new book, The Marches, is an exploration of the Anglo-Scottish border and includes a 380-mile journey from his cottage in his Cumbrian constituency to his family home in Crieff, in Perth and Kinross in central Scotland. The book covers geography, ecology and identity from before the Romans to the present day. It also explores his close relationship with his late father, Brian, a veteran of the Normandy landings and colonial administrator in the twilight of the British Empire.
He credits his father with instilling this passion for walking: “It’s ironic because he was 50 when I was born so he was already beginning to slow down but he had a real belief in walking and the outdoors and started me on these trips through jungles in Malaysia.”
This included a formative three-week stay in Borneo, when the young Stewart was about nine. “A lot of people associate the jungle with suffering because you’re always wet and sweating and there’s lots of creepy-crawlies everywhere. But, as a child, my impression of that huge primary forest was so positive – seeing a tiger floating down the river, imitating calls of white-handed gibbons, trying to walk quietly and completely incompetently through the jungle.”
At 16, Stewart hiked with his father in Thailand, finding hillside villages a world away from Bangkok. “Walking then became an idea of how I could reach a reality that you can’t in cities and you can’t find on roads,” he says.
As we stroll through Hyde Park, he notes how his father used to take him rowing on the Serpentine when he was aged two or three and shows me the spot where his father used to give him fencing lessons.
Stewart’s work in the Foreign Office also provided an interesting parallel between the generations. After the Iraq invasion in 2003, Stewart was deputy-governor of two Marsh Arab regions in southern Iraq. As the civilian agent of an occupying power, his role was similar to his father’s job as colonial official in 1950s Malaysia – though they had different approaches. At one point in Iraq, Stewart’s official compound was besieged by a mob. In The Marches, he recounts asking his father for advice while inside the compound with the protesters outside. The suggestion? Round up the ringleaders, shoot them and then impose a curfew. Stewart assures the reader that he had no intention of doing the former and no one had a clue about how to do the latter. He adds dryly that, as his father predicted, the building was stormed and ransacked.
His experiences and travels in the region led him to specialise in human rights policy as an academic at Harvard. In 2006, he founded a development NGO in Afghanistan and relocated to Kabul. Throughout his career he has kept on walking – chalking up some 6,000 miles across Asia and about 1,000 across Britain.
Stewart says he normally finds the first 10 miles of each day’s walk a pleasure. “Crossing 20 miles, it ceases to be fun. Past 25 miles, it’s actually becoming more of an act of willpower. And then if you get on to the silly distances, it becomes an endurance activity.”
What about walking tips? “My tricks are two pairs of socks on at any one time to stop blisters,” he says. “I try to rest on the fourth day; so three days walk, one day off, three days walk…”
He cannot overstate the importance of hydration. “If I’m in a serious place like Afghanistan, I carry chlorine tablets and take water from a river,” he says. “In each village, I drink prodigious quantities of tea, which is boiled. Never, ever, ever, ever drink unboiled water or unboiled milk.” He did the latter in Pakistan and ended up in hospital for three weeks.
Closer to home, he says you should “never underestimate how much English rural towns shut down” so know where your next meal is coming from. He advises beginners to avoid East Anglia: “That’s black-belt walking,” he says. “Flatter landscapes require a connoisseur’s taste.” I ask him about the ideal group size: “Three’s a disaster. Two’s good.”
As we come to an end, Stewart reflects on the meditative element of walking. In a typical eight-hour day, he says, “for about an hour or two you get a level of tranquillity and calm that’s very difficult to achieve in any other way. Your mind settles.”