Walking is, and probably always will be, my preferred form of exercise. Swimming, admittedly, runs a close second, but walking is the one I’ll always choose.
However, it really took me an awfully long time to figure this out. (This is a consistent pattern in my life; self-knowledge is the wisdom that comes hardest to me.) The signs were all there. As a child, I used to spend a lot of time looking longingly at the hills that surrounded the town where I grew up, wanting desperately to walk and explore them.
There was one hill in particular, just outside of town, that lingered in my imagination. It was just a little mound, really, with a small copse of trees on the top. But I’d read enough adventure stories to imagine the possibilities of that little copse. And I desperately wanted to climb that hill, and just spend time among those trees. But I could never persuade my family to head there with me. It took years before I actually visited it in person.
Why? My family, for all their wonderful attributes, were not walkers. Oh, they walked. A stroll before Sunday lunch? Sure. But anything more adventurous was a big undertaking. Heck, we used to drive down to the town centre, a 16-minute walk away. That’s roughly the same distance from my current home to our local town centre, something I’d never dream of driving now.
Once in a while, we’d use two (two!) cars to set up a walk. Mum & Dad would drive to a pub, leave one car there, and return together in the other one. And then we’d spend the rest of the morning walking to the pub, before having lunch there and heading home.
The days that stuck in my mind were ones spent at places like the RSPB’s Vane Farm — now known as RSPB Loch Leven — where we could spend the day walking, exploring, and the learning about nature in the visitor centre. My affection for the place was so strong it was where I chose to spend my spare time on a trip back to Scotland last year.
A Cairngorms adventure
My real first sniff of the joy of walking came in my final year of school. I headed to Aviemore with a bunch of school friends, taking up residence in the youth hostel and spent a few days walking in the Cairngorms. I loved it.
Walking all day, and only seeing a handful of other humans. Getting caught in a whiteout, and sheltering in a bothy. It was exhilarating. By the summer before I headed off to university, I spent what time I could making my way in the local hills.
And then came university. I left Scotland behind for the street of London, and what a shock that was. From a village of a few thousand people to one of the world’s great metropolises; it was an adjustment. And I loved it. I was the classic small-town boy discovering the joy of the big city.
Life as a flâneur
Once I’d settled in, which took a while, I started actively exploring the city on foot. I was a flâneur, literally decades before I’d actually encounter the term.
That became a constant in my life in the coming years. Whenever I could walk, I would. Sometimes I’d walk for several hours, when I could catch the night bus, just to explore the sleeping city. On weekends, I’d wonder on the open spaces in and around London. There’s a joy to exploring any space on foot, on encountering the details you won’t see any other way.
And, often, that joy is doubled when you have no idea where you are going. You’re just enjoying the path, and letting your feet take you where they may. Back before the pandemic reshaped all our lives, I used to do that still. If I was visiting a new place, I’d take the time to walk it. When I was working for Estates Gazette, I’d schedule my trains and interviews in a way that let me explore the city on foot. I told myself — and my colleagues — that I was doing it to learn about the city for reporting purposes.
“Nothing beats walking the streets, and seeing the shops that are open or shut, and how busy the offices are, to stop the local property guys pulling the wool over your eyes,” I’d tell my co-workers. And I nearly believed it, too. But the truth was I just enjoyed the walks, the glimpses into open spaces and hidden streets I would probably never visit again. But that one visit was enough.
Two decades later, I’ll still do that, if visiting a new town to deliver some training, or otherwise away from home, I’d engineer some time to have a wee walk somewhere. Some of my happiest memories of my eldest daughter’s first few years is going on long walks around the beach, which was one of the few sure ways of getting her off to sleep.
Learning to walk with daughters
Lockdown brought this aspect of myself into sharp focus. Those months when our out-of-home exercise were restricted ate away at me. Over a year ago, I’d drawn the line between time in nature and the state of my own mental health, and taken steps to change things. I’d force myself out of beach walks even if I felt stressed and over-whelmed with work, recognizing that my natural response of “work harder” wasn’t a healthy one.
This was yanked away from me for a while, and I felt its absence keenly. Those walks, consciously crossing the street to avoid anyone else, glancing at our watches to ensure we weren’t spending too long — too long! How ridiculous! — outside were a pale mockery of what I truly enjoyed.
Now that restriction is long gone, and unlikely to return in quite that way ever again now that we understand more about the risks of viral transmission, I need to rebuild my habits in a more healthy way. I need to find ways of integrating my need for nature and walking with a busy family life.
And so, I’m right where I was back when I first registered this web address, more than five years ago. I’m finding ways of taking the girls walking with daddy. And another thing I’ve learnt over the past 20 years, is that I’m more likely to do something, if I can write about it afterwards. So, let’s see if I can kick this blog into gear as we head into the autumn.