Beyond the Bookcase – Windswept: Walking the Paths of Trailblazing Women (2021)

One of my favourite things to do is to get on my walking boots (pictured above and muddy to boot!) and go for walks. Long walks, short walks, sunny walks, wet walks. I walk in nearly all weathers and don’t go outside unless it’s particularly snowy or very, very, very windy, and wet. I have taken it for granted that I can go out by myself and feel safe and walk. I live in Ireland; it’s relatively safe to walk most places even hiking and solo walking trips. I took it for granted that it was always like this but lo, and behold this wonderful book made me think again about women who walked before me who were walking trailblazers walking in a time when women being alone was seen to be dangerous and circumspect.

‘Windswept’ by Annabel Abbs was released in September 2021 to critical acclaim. The Smithsonian magazine chose the book as one of it’s top ten travel books for 2021. Other magazines and newspapers described the book as thoughtful and a must read for women with a love of the great outdoors aka me! The hardback retails at £16.99 and the paperback retails at £10.99. The copy that I have is from my local library as I am loathe to buy books for reasons of space in my small flat. The hardback edition of the book is a beautiful sunset coloured picture of women overlooking some unknown outcrop on a walk. The women to the left of the cover is in my opinion wearing a very envious walking outfit of beret, blouse, breeches, and boots.

The book is divided into chapters reflecting the walks taken by women such as Simone de Beauvoir (French philosopher) , Daphne Du Maurier (famous writer), and Gwen John (bohemian artist) amongst other famous women. The author, Annabel Abbs, reflects in the introduction her experiencing of walking as a child, walking holidays with her family, and her love of walking in London. 

In each chapter Annabel has chosen to undertake the historic walks of the women associated with tha chapter. She walks the route that Clare Vyvyan and Daphne du Maurier walked in northern Italy, the route that Freida Laurence walked with D.H. Laurence in Austria, and the route through France that Gwen John took when she left England for good in the early twentieth century. In some chapters Annabel takes the journey alone is accompanied by members of her family including her teenage children. Much of the landscape and roads have changed beyond recognition which necessitates going by alternative routes e.g. country lanes that are now motorways and canals that are now dried out and not safe to walk alongside.

Annabel has done extensive archival work in the archives of the women mentioned in each chapter which has given her an insight into the psyche and feelings of these women as they undertook their epic walks. Annabel muses about how they felt when they saw the Jungfrau for the first time or experienced walking in the Tyrol in Austria. She also discusses at length the dangers women faced then and now when walking alone; making excuses to meeting someone when they weren’t, being hyper aware of their surroundings, and finding a safe place to use the bathroom in the wilds they walk through.

In each chapter the language and information used is easy to follow, flows naturally, and draws in the reader to keep turning the page. Annabel’s own insights into how the women felt on their walks gives particular insight into how we can relate to women’s lives from the past but also not envying them the somewhat claustrophobic life they may have led. Of particular interest was the chapter that written during a convalescence from concussion that sees Annabel tracing the walk virtually from her computer, maps, and dining room table. To be able to us technology to map this particular walk enabled Annabel to recover and gain strength to walk again after her illness. 

Similarly, throughout the book Annabel rhapsodizes about how walking is so important to physical and mental well being. That to walk freely and without hinderance is something of unknown delights for those who do not walk for pleasure. That to walk is to be free completely in body and mind.; this is particularly stressed in Annabel’s struggles on being a stay-at-home mother and the rarefied atmosphere of what happens to women whilst being at home with small children all day. Walking was Annabel’s cure to this depression and mental health problems, even with her children, to get outside their small flat was to break free from the small world that she inhabited at this time.

This book is for lover of walking, history, and interesting women alike; which was perfect for me as these are three of my favourite things. Even if you are not particularly into walking you may well be after reading this book; spending the £16.99 on this book is definitely worth it! A Beyond the Bookcase read of five stars out of five.

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