From a daily constitution to an epic trek, a meander through city streets to a bracing, headland hike, stepping out on foot has a way of bringing you back to yourself. Charlotte Sinclair explores the healing power of the humble walk
Something sad happened to me in late spring. The only relief was to be found by walking. Every day in Wormwood Scrubs, with the trees green and the light soft, I would walk to a bench set in the grass meadow part of the park that I love the best, where the pipits nest and crows creak in greeting, and there’s only the occasional dog walker for company. Behind me, as I sat on the bench, a forest of bramble, horse chestnut, oak and sycamore rose up the embankment to the railway sidings of the Old Oak train depot; in the distance I could see the grey towers of the prison and the unlovely silhouette of Hammersmith Hospital. Yet here I was enveloped in green, sitting in the heart of an emerald, cow parsley up to the waist, bees rising at my ankles, trees in full, bud-bursting exultation, everything wild, everything communicating that, yes, life might be sad, but it was also beautiful, and anyway, it continued regardless and so would I. Each day as I walked there, I felt my frayed edges drawing in again.
Walking can do that to you. Can do that for you. It is a means from A to B in more senses than one, though not all walks are equal: epiphanies are seldom prompted by a quick clip to the Tube. Released from productivity or purpose, conveying yourself through an urban or rural landscape becomes more metaphysical than physical. It is a journey in search of the ineffable. It has to do with the mind, which takes its own journey over large distances, into the realms of magical thinking. A specific state of thought that the writer Rebecca Solnit in her superlative paean to the topic, Wanderlust, defines as, “the mind at three miles an hour”. Or, in Greek, "solvitur ambulando": problem-solving by walking. The brain, freed from distraction, at the pace of your step – the rhythm itself a meditation – has the opportunity to braid the disparate worries, preoccupations, dreams and irritations that comprise our harried thoughts into a unified thread. Walking provides a rare encounter with yourself.
When I was sad, I walked by day and read by night, specifically a book called The Living Mountain by Nan Shepherd. Probably the best nature writer no one has heard of, Shepherd’s book is an exquisite close study of the Scottish Cairngorms she loved and daily traversed, “its weathers, its airs and lights, its singing burns, its haunted dells, its pinnacles and tarns, its birds and flowers, its snows, its long blue distances”. (My favourite among the book’s hoard of extraordinary imagery: the “small frogs jumping like tiddlywinks”.) But Shepherd’s essays are also a discourse on walking’s spiritual aspect. “I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain,” she writes. “The journey is itself part of the technique by which the god is sought. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own… I am not out of myself, but in myself. I am.” To a friend, she once wrote that one should “use the whole of one’s body to instruct the spirit”.
For those of us who live more and more separately from contact with nature, as the writer Robert MacFarlane asserts, “We have come increasingly to forget that our minds are shaped by the bodily experience of being in the world – its spaces, textures, sounds, smells and habits – as well as by genetic traits we inherit and the ideologies we absorb.” Walking is a remedy for this lack. It’s an exchange: you walk into a landscape, but it enters you too. A ramble creates space in the mind. For all the emphasis on out-of-the-box, disruptive thinking in our age, there’s little value placed on the act of a daydreaming dawdle nowhere in particular. Yet walking allows for great ideas by means of accident and surprise; the absence of effort coaxes thoughts you didn’t know were lurking there.
Different walks offer alternate and equal salves and solutions. Old routes are as good as new – encountering the ghosts of our former selves along familiar ways serve to show us how far we’ve come and the experience of strolling an unfamiliar city is no less invigorating to the spirit than hiking a blustery headland. To walk in Manhattan is to feel the city’s effervescent possibilities enter your body from the feet up. Of the enlivening thrum and theatre inherent in city walking, Solnit writes, “The street means life in the heady currents of the urban river in which everyone and everything can mingle. It is exactly this social mobility, this lack of compartments and distinctions, that gives the street its danger and magic.”
Indeed, walking is an inimitably democratic activity. Almost anyone can do it. When my father was 66, we trekked the Nepalese Himalayas over three weeks, crossing high-altitude mountain passes in an oxygen-starved state of exhausted, snow-blind rapture. The intensity of that experience – hour after hour, mile after mile, accumulating more time in my father’s company than since I was a child – has burned a bright mark in my memory. But not every walk need be so long or arduous. (Nor involve sharing a bedroom with your father for three weeks.) Endurance is not the point. There is no point other than the union of movement to thought.
Which is lucky, since autumn, our current season of mists and mellow fruitfulness, is perhaps the most delicious time of year to journey abroad by foot. Afternoons bathed in gold, the scent of wood smoke in the air, gentle decay underfoot and the trees ablaze. I’ve always envisaged the word perspective as a long path leading through an autumnal wood. And as I walked last spring – and walked and walked and walked – I put steps between myself and my sadness, gradually finding the way back into myself. But really I should have planted a stick: “An Eskimo custom offers an angry person release by walking the emotion out of his or her system in a straight line across the landscape,” writes Rebecca Solnit. “The point at which the anger is conquered is marked with a stick bearing witness to the strength or length of the rage.” There’s something so beautifully and precisely right about that: strong emotions meted out across a landscape. But walking has always been the best way to measure the distances in ourselves.