Dickens was from childhood an avid, even compulsive, walker. He once wrote. “I think I must be the descendant, at no great distance, of some irreclaimable tramp.” Scarcely a day went by that Dickens didn’t flee his desk and take to the streets of London and its suburbs. He routinely walked as many as 20 miles a day, and once set out at 2 a.m. to walk from his house in London to his country residence in Gad’s Hill, Kent, 30 miles away. As several of his walking companions described it, he had a distinctive “swinging” gait. And, like many a serious runner of today, he “made a practice of increasing his speed when ascending a hill,” according to his friend Marcus Stone.
Dickens’s walks served him in two ways. On one level, they were fact-finding missions during which he recorded with his keen eye the teeming urban landscapes whose descriptions were his stock-in-trade. A letter from Paris to a family friend, the Reverend Edward Tagart, begins innocently enough, “I have been seeing Paris.” But what follows is a foot tour of the city that is characteristically Dickensian: “Wandering into Hospitals, Prisons, Dead-houses, Operas, Theatres, Concert-rooms, Burial-grounds, Palaces and Wine Shops. In my unoccupied fortnight of each month, every description of gaudy and ghastly sight has been passing before me in rapid Panorama.”
The man’s Fitbit stats would have been something to behold.