Growing up, we would walk.
Holidays would see us trek from our campsite to not so nearby places for lunch and back again, whatever the weather. Visiting our childhood holiday spots as an adult revealed quite how far our little feet had travelled as my partner yells, ‘are we there yet?’ and I take on the role of parent by replying in an increasingly uncertain tone, ‘just around this corner now.’
We would walk up hill, over bridge and down dale.
I don’t recall complaining that I was tired, fed up, wet or miserable but I’m certain that with four kids to entertain, my parents may have disagreed about the amount of moaning taking place.
What I recall of my childhood walks, aside from the tug of Magnus on his lead, the often drenched to the skin weather, and their distance is that they were often accompanied by the discovery of treasure: a broken piece of pottery after scrabbling around in the hedges near our house, a fossil from happy hours spent breaking rocks apart at Sandsend, fish and chips once we arrived in Whitby, sweets from the corner shop on a Saturday.
My childhood conditioned me for walking, coupled with an inclination to travel sickness and an impatience to wait for public transport meant it’s remained my preferred mode of transport but somewhere along the way, I lost the joy.
As an adult, walking became an essential part of my existence but I’d stopped noticing what it offered me until I moved further south and stopped travelling to work. Moving south made me miss the satisfaction of a winter walk, failing to reach my destination with numb cheeks and the sting of icy cold on my eyes. I spent weekends longing to walk up high in a place that felt so flat. Working from home made me long for lungs full of fresh air and placing one foot in front of the other to leave my day behind.
It was participating in a 5 day walking and writing challenge in late 2019 that started me on my journey towards the joy of walking again. This commitment to walk without purpose over 5 days revealed quite how difficult it had become to walk just for pleasure. I share my published diary here with kind permission from the team at Womankind magazine.
I noticed on this first day quite how difficult it was for me to leave the house; gathering up my scarf, hat, gloves and wondering what else I’d need. Did we need anything from the corner shop? Did I need to drop anything at the postbox? Would I need my phone? As I finally left the house making the decision not to take anything but my house keys and begrudgingly popping an envelope in my pocket to post for my partner, it occurred to me how habitual it had become for me not to just go for a walk but to combine it with something productive. I couldn’t just give my body and mind the peaceful break it needed from the cacophony of noise and tasks in my working life; I needed to achieve something, to tick something off. Today was the day before the general election in the UK but the choice presented to us was not an easy one. The peace of the empty park, the squirrels chasing each other in circles around tree trunks, and the patter of rain on my hood gave me the silence away from social media I hadn’t realised I’d needed to make my decision. As I began to make my way home, I took advantage of an unobserved muddy zip wire and an opportunity for the kind of carefree joy it’s so difficult to permit ourselves as adults. I made the last few steps to my door with a beaming smile.
Today’s walk made me thankful to live in a quieter part of the world. With an early train down to London for the day’s work and a late train home in time to vote, there was very little room left for a purposeful walk. I felt frustrated by this but I took a moment of kindness to recognise that it was unavoidable in a day that would be commitment and people-filled. As I collapsed onto my train home, disappointed at having to rush off before the team’s Christmas meal dessert I reflected on the walks of the day, contemplating the feelings and sensations that had accompanied each. I noticed how often purposeful walks are spent with my legs tumbling over one another, my breath sitting shallow in my chest and my mind focused on everything but being present in my body. Environment can make such a difference to me and I realised how much my own response to walking had also been affected by the pouring rain, the bright lights and the hundreds of strangers passing each other by with their heads focused on the ground. I am so lucky to have somewhere I can take myself where few other souls are in sight.
I had booked today off work to get on top of the Christmas wrapping, card writing and house chores that mount at this busy time of year. My walk was in the back of my mind all day but I kept on getting one more thing done first: just this, just that, just the next thing. When I exited into the cold air, the dusk light was descending and I felt immediately dismal. Instead of heading in my usual direction, I turned right, took a few deep breaths and focused on being present in my body after a frazzling day. The light was unusual and as I wandered the cold and empty streets, the setting of a post-apocalyptic novel emerged around me, kept at bay only by the warm lights, cosy family scenes, and Christmas lights to be found in the windows of the houses I passed . As my eyes travelled upwards to gaze into the bare dark branches against a gradually dimming sky, my mind began to contemplate writing ideas and it was a welcome window of creativity and hope. As I rounded the corner, icy rain pounded my face until my nose began to run and my cheeks felt numb. This was a walk I returned home from feeling a little more alive than when I’d left and I was thankful for that. I don’t think the post-election glumness would have faded without it.
This first morning of the weekend passed leisurely with a pancake breakfast and time curled in my library chair reading a book as the wind howled outside and the rain poured down. As the skies began to clear and my chapter neared its end, I was contemplating heading out on my walk when there was an unexpected interruption. After much rushing to the other side of the city to check on my partner’s father’s house, it turned out to be a false alarm. We decided to turn the trip into lunch together and I offered to help my partner make a start on his Christmas shopping while we were out. As the sky darkened, I knew I wouldn’t get chance for my walk without purpose and felt disappointed but I allowed a more compassionate voice to emerge. As we made our way back to the car, I noticed how much we were marching; carried along by the hurry of everyone around us. I indicated to my partner that we slow down. I also suggested that we take a moment to step out of the human traffic lane and read the poem displayed on the side of a building in the city to greet its visitors. The dark and dimly lit street meant we had to spend some time deciphering and trying to remember the words. After a few minutes spent this way, I felt ready to enter the lane at a slower and more enjoyable pace. As we chatted about what to do for dinner, I reflected that there are many ways to inject calm and a less hurried purpose into most walks and that I might well benefit from that.
Today was Sunday, possibly my favourite day of the week for slow silence. I finished my book in the morning, did a few bits around the house, and headed out just before lunch. I pocketed my house keys, pulled my hat on and opened the door on the day. I celebrated the lack of effort required in leaving the house in comparison to the start of the week. It was raining yet again but I zipped up my coat, reminded myself the rain wouldn’t melt me, and enjoyed the feeling of the cold air on my face and the warmth of my fleecy hood and hat combination. The park was a little busier today than it had been earlier on in the week but in my part of the world, this meant an elderly man and his dog saying hello, a family to smile at, and a few young children running around. Sadly this did mean the zip wire wouldn’t be available for a moment of fun today. I extended my route a little, taking time to notice the nature around me and watching the robins flit from branch to branch. As trains whistled in the distance, I marvelled that a moment of calm can be found even when others are busy rushing around. I put a lot of pressure on myself to keep up with other people but these walks have taught me that it’s ok to set my own pace. As I head into the final working week of 2019 and all the frantic activity that will bring, I make a promise to put on a hat, grab my keys, open the door and gift myself the kind of clarity, calm, compassion and creativity I’ve grown to anticipate from a walk without purpose.
It feels right to reconnect with walking at this time. The last few weeks have felt like racing breathlessly up hill to an unknown destination, stumbling to a standstill, legs like jelly and shoulders up by my ears. But mindlessly forging on ahead, certain I should have reached the end by now.
In his book, Walking, Erling Kagge describes our usual way of spending life, ‘zooming past’, a state where ‘life is curtailed; it gets shorter’ (2019). We feel sick at the pace of it all and wonder how another week has passed already. Yet when we’re walking, ‘time stretches out, independent of minutes and hours. And this is precisely the secret held by all those who go by foot: life is prolonged when you walk. Walking expands time rather than collapses it’ (2019).
My siblings and I no doubt share joyous memories of cold, rain, soggy sandwiches and getting lost. Those days and walks feel endless. I’m sure nostalgia has a part to play in that feeling and yet my time spent reacquainting myself with walking more recently tells me there’s more to it as time slows down, I notice the stillness around me and my mind quiets.
We found many fossils at Sandsend, countless pieces of pottery in the fields for reasons unknown, and learned what our favourite sweets were to saunter along with, but the greatest gift of all from our parents was the power to find stillness, calm and peace just by placing one foot in front of the other.
I now look down from my harried race up the hill and see myself stood patiently at the foot of it where I unthinkingly left her. She’s wondering if it’s time to go on a joyous tramp for treasure.