Shanks Pony

Shanks Pony

I have just finished reading Peter FitzSimons’ book “Burke & Wills” (read my review here) and one of the things that stood out for me was the amount of walking these explorers did. Not necessarily by choice though as they started out with horses and camels but the party had to walk much of the way as the horses and camels became simply supply carriers of essentials for survival. Walking for long distances is not something we do much of these days but in the mid-1800’s it was not uncommon to walk for long distances as the alternatives like riding a horse were not always readily available to many people and certainly not for Burke and Wills towards the end. It was however just something that many people didn’t think much about, they would just walk to wherever they needed to be, riding shanks’s pony as the expression goes.  This term goes back to the 1700’s as a Scottish term “shanks-nag” but it could be older as shanks is a very old word used to describe one’s lower legs and can be found for instance in Shakespeare’s soliloquy “Seven Ages of Man”.

My earliest memory of it is from my grandfather talking of working at a mine just outside of the township where we lived that would have taken him the best part of two hours walking each way to and from the mine on top of his work day and he would use this expression to describe his method of getting to and from work. But he never complained about the walking part, it was just part of the job.

That brings to mind another childhood memory of Pop walking up the wooded hill opposite our house, cutting down a smallish tree and dragging it home with one end on his shoulder to cut up for firewood to keep the kitchen stove going. I remember thinking how strong Pop must be and hoped that I would be able to do that when I was a grown up. I never did of course because by the time I grew up it had become illegal to just go and cut down a tree on public land.

I always walked to and from primary school as a child and one or both of my grandparents walked up to the town shops most days, Grandma to do shopping and Pop to one of the pubs on Friday and Saturday nights to have one or two beers and play some cards with his mates. It became my job to to give my Grandma a break during the school holidays and “do some messages”, a quaint term used to indicate going to the shops for a couple of items. I presume the term came from the careful notes that Grandma always gave me with instructions on what to purchase.

It was from one of these “messages” shopping trips that Grandma taught me a valuable lesson that has stuck with me to this day. We had two butchers in town with one being at the top of the main street and therefore further to walk to and from. Of course in my precocious childish way, I voiced an objection on one of these “messages” trips to having to go to the most distant of the butchers as I was certainly less than keen on walking further than I had to. “Why couldn’t I just go to the closer one” I whined. My dear old Grandma simply said, “They both live in the town and they both need to make a living so we share it between them“. Now there was the community spirit that prevailed in those times and a rare commodity not often found in the dog-eat-dog world we live in today.

A favourite memory of Pop playing euchre and thumping down the winning last card in the hand.

Pop shared the same sentiment and divided the little pub time he enjoyed between the three pubs in town. One week he would walk up to the Maldon Hotel, have a couple of pots while playing maybe a game or two of euchre and walk home again. The next week he would go to the Grand Hotel and the third week he would drop into the Kangaroo for a couple of pots.

The necessity of having to walk everywhere started to wane as the transformation of travel ushered in by the motor car in the early 1900’s escalated in the post-war 1950’s when cars for personal use started to become more affordable and available and it gradually became the norm to own a car instead of it being a rare luxury. We became a population of car drivers instead of walkers as more and more, bigger and better, roads and motorways were constructed to meet the demand. Buses, trains and planes met the need where a car was not an option so walking as a default over any distance became a thing of the past, consigned to the history pages of explorers past.

The reduction in the distances walked by the general population became reflected in the increase in health issues being experienced by the same car-driving, transport-riding population. As that realisation has dawned on a number of us we have turned to walking, running and other forms of exercise to recapture some of those health benefits. I see this change in my own family as my two sons, both in their 40’s, have gradually taken up long distance running in the last couple of years. A friend of mine in the UK, hello Lisa, has taken up walking for enjoyment and last year impressed us all by walking the El Camino de Santiago through Portugal into Spain and it became a shared experience as we enjoyed her daily photo updates through Facebook.

For myself I have never really been an athlete, fulfilling the promise shown by my early reluctance in the messages recollection above. However in later life I have been encouraged out onto suburban pavements by having to take various dogs for some daily exercise and we have probably walked hundreds of kilometres over the years (see Just An Old Cap and Walking Again). Now, sadly, my little wuppies are getting too old to do the same sort of distances so I now just take them for a short walk and then push myself to go on for a longer walk on my own. It is nowhere near as interesting on my own but a pair of headphones and a podcast helps as I accrue the health benefits of my solitary walks around suburban streets.

If you aren’t doing the same or better then can I encourage you to start riding shanks’s pony on a regular basis if you are able. It doesn’t have to be across Australia, just around the block will do, your body will thank you.

P.S.  I came across a video on Facebook recently of people being interviewed in the street in 1961 and a number of them used the term “do the messages” to indicate they shopped in just the manner my Grandma used it about the same time.  I haven’t been able to find the link elsewhere but here is the Facebook link if you want a touch of history.

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