Image Credit: Sophie Lutkin, 2020
Walking is the fastest way to go slowly in life. Whether it be turning off to tune in to the melodies of the blackbird and the robin, or delighting in the urban cityscape’s rush, and roar of pedestrians, walking nurtures not just the body, but the mind.
With the sun on your back and the wind in your hair, time appears to stretch as long as the pathway in front of you. Recalibrating your relationship to the beauty around you, movement often prompts emotion as you discover new avenues and street corners of your mind.
It is no surprise, then, that a whole host of creatives including writers, philosophers, poets, and painters valued walking as a part of their daily routine. Charles Dickens documents his midnight strolls in The Uncommercial Traveller, in which he immerses himself in Victorian London’s spirited nocturnal pursuits. Immanuel Kant strode through his native town of Königsberg at exactly the same time every day in search of refreshment and inspiration. John Constable’s English paintings are the products of countryside walks rendered faithfully on canvas—you can pinpoint exactly where he must have stood to create his Scene on a Navigable River.
For these artists and thinkers, walking acted as a suspension of the self. Walking through meadows, past alleyways and over stiles, you are free to cast off the shackles of everyday life and to become someone else for a short while. Unencumbered by relationships and responsibilities, walking positions the self inside, a temporary postponement resulting in freedom and enjoyment.
Wandering my own flat Fenland landscape, affectionately termed “Big Sky Country”, there is an agreeable anonymity involved. Choosing less-frequented walks, I am guaranteed stillness, reflection; the thin brushstroke of marshland is easily eclipsed by scudding cloud and a vast expanse of cornflower blue. It is here, close enough to touch the sky, that Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquillity” finds resonance.
Taking a moment to pause, all troubles and cares seem to melt away like leaves in winter—nature is a great healer, inciting the most lyrical lines and original thought. Travelling through the town centre, I mingle with the lives that have populated this corner of the earth for generations; noting perhaps the red flush of a silk scarf, a face’s quiet intensity, the way the crowd moves like a murmuration across the street. Each one reads like a chapter in a well-worn, well-loved book.
The possibilities that walking opens up are a topic of debate even in academic circles: Robert MacFarlane, a Cambridge professor and author of the best-selling Landmarks, The Lost Words, and more recently, Underland, writes extensively on the connections between nature, landscape, people, and place. In the middle of the 19th century, the French poet Charles Baudelaire coined the concept of the “flâneur”, the masculine observer of the rhythms of city life, which recent feminist scholarship has responded to with the notion of the “flâneuse”.
Moving away from the academic sphere, however, you can still detect how walking has filtered into popular forms of media: blogs about travel writing are on the rise; the foundational principles of the “cottagecore” trend are steeped in a penchant for the outdoors; and the global impact of environmentalism has resulted in many more of us connecting with the outside world. Walking lies at the intersection of these ideas, situating us at the heart of wider conversations about climate change, art, and the conservation of nature.
As a result of the government’s latest lockdown, the maintenance of our physical and mental health remains paramount. Walking allows us to take a moment to pause, reflect or meditate. Surrounded by the natural world, with a book or pen in hand you can almost reimagine yourself as Wordsworth, Keats, Byron, or Shelley, drawing inspiration from a daffodil or the song of a nightingale. Although the majority of us will be spending much more of our time indoors, the great outdoors remains an escape from anxiety and stress, with walking affording us an unparalleled pleasure.