There was nothing pedestrian about one Edward P Weston

Edward Weston and judges on long-distance walk in 1867

Lomanagh Loop, Sneem, Co Kerry

thumbnail: Edward Weston and judges on long-distance walk in 1867
thumbnail: Lomanagh Loop, Sneem, Co Kerry
Conor O'Hagan

At a time when the tag 'pedestrian contest' would typically describe nothing more pulse-raising than a mid-table, end-of-season fixture in the Airtricity League, it's a tonic to learn that little more than a century ago, one of the most renowned, colourful and controversial figures ever to adorn the back pages was nothing more or less than a professional walker.

One of the Victorian and Edwardian eras' greatest sportsmen – a man who once drew an estimated half million New Yorkers on to the streets – enjoyed a highly public and often lucrative career of more than 60 years, despite rarely if ever breaking into a trot, let alone anything more frenetic.

Edward Payson Weston was a grey-haired 71 when, in 1910, he completed a 3,100-mile trek from California to New York in just 77 days.

In truth, pedestrianism as a competitive sport was on the wane by the time Weston completed an epic walk around Britain of more than 5,000 miles 130 years ago. The feat was described by the Royal Society as "the greatest recorded labour that any human being has ever undertaken without injury", and was part of a prolonged European Tour during which Weston took on and trounced all comers.

Incidentally, he began the long association of recreational drug abuse with professional sport, by quite openly and enthusiastically endorsing the benefits of cocaine during his visit. He was about as American as they come; being descended directly from two Mayflower immigrants. At various times in his pre-pedestrian life he had worked on a steamship; sold newspapers on the Boston, Providence, and Stonington Railroad; spent a year travelling the country with the most famous travelling musicians in America, the Hutchinson Family Singers, selling sweets and songbooks at their concerts; and gone into business for himself as a journalist and publisher.

In 1860, Weston had made a characteristically misjudged bet with a friend on the outcome of that year's presidential election. As a result of Abraham Lincoln's historic victory, Weston had to walk the 478 miles from the Massachusetts State House in Boston to Washington DC to watch the inauguration.

He set out in the deep winter of 1861, but with an instinct for publicity, made sure that a large crowd gathered to see him off, with a group of drummers following him. He walked for 10 straight days through snow, mud and ice, sleeping an hour here and there, followed by a carriage hauling his supporters, eventually making it to the Capitol just hours late for Lincoln's inauguration, but word had spread, and he attended Lincoln's inaugural ball at the White House.

The new president offered to pay Weston's train fare back to Boston, but he dramatically insisted that since he had failed in his challenge, he would walk back. Thus began a lifetime of highly public and prodigious walking achievement.

For half a century Weston was one of the most famous people in America and the entire English speaking world. He loudly proposed that walking was an antidote to a sedentary lifestyle and to the "lazy culture" encouraged by cars. Ironically, a week after his 88th birthday, he was knocked down by a New York taxi and never walked again, dying two years later.

It ain't what you do, it's the way that you do it.

Conor O'Hagan is editor of Walking World Ireland magazine.

Walk of the Week: Lomanagh Loop Sneem, Co Kerry

Length: 11k

Ascent: 160m

Estimated time: 3hr 30min

Grade: Moderate

Grid ref: V 690 669

Part of the Kerry Way network, the Lomanagh starts in Sneem on the Ring of Kerry and leads mostly on quiet country lanes and on a few grass tracks through sheep farms and forests with beautiful views onto the Kerry Mountains, Kenmare Bay and Beara Peninsula.

From the North Square in Sneem, follow the minor road to Lomanagh, past the GAA grounds. Look for the signs in the square. After the GAA ground, the route forks left along a tarmac minor road. For the next kilometre, the road runs parallel to the Sneem River.

At an appropriate vantage point you can take in the view, which embraces the geological history of the Kerry Geopark, with red sandstone rocks tilted steeply to form the mountain range.

For the next 1k, observe the increasing roughness of the landscape, the outcrops of sandstone, the sound of rapids in the Sneem River. Note the small farms and their farming economy. In the areas of boggy, undrained ground you will see (in season) a profusion of wild flowers including orchids.

After another 1.5k the route now forks left, away from the Sneem Fermoyle Loop Walk (white markers) and the tarmac minor road comes to an end after about 300m.

A pedestrian gate has been placed alongside the forestry gate. From the gate, the forest road winds upwards through glacial-polished and scratched rocks, new plantations of trees, amazing views of the glacially sculptured mountains and corries as well as many wildflowers, including butterwort, an insectivorous plant. The track winds down the hillside and opens out to views of the Kenmare River and the Beara Peninsula. The Kenmare River is a Ria – a drowned river valley formed with the rising sea levels caused by the post-glacial ice melt.

See for further details.