May is National Walking Month, so we asked Clare Balding why she so loves putting her best foot forward.
Sometimes it really is the simple things in life that make you happy. For me, it’s the simplest activity of all: walking. It keeps me physically fit but, more importantly, it is good for my soul. I try to do about five miles a day and sometimes I’ll venture further, exploring new places and finding a view to savour. It gives me thinking time, allows me to sort things through in my head and turn my brain into a creative force, rather than worrying about decisions I’ve made or the list of things I’m meant to be doing.
I walk the dog, walk to meetings, walk to friends’ houses and walk home whenever possible. It’s amazing how close things are in London and how quickly you can cover four miles if you put your best foot forward. The only things you need are decent shoes and a good sense of direction or, if you don’t have that, Google maps will do. You’ll be amazed at how much more you can eat (always a bonus) if you’re walking some of it off and how much more enjoyable it is to arrive at work having already taken some exercise.
Earlier this spring I went Nordic walking for the first time. I’ve always been a bit suspicious of walkers who need poles when they’re not going up and down mountains but having had a go, I now understand why they do it. Nordic walking gives you a full-body workout, using the arms, shoulders and activating stomach and buttock muscles that ‘normal walking’ doesn’t really stretch. I walked with a group that had been set up for young adults with special needs and I was interested in the confidence walking with poles gave them, because it helped their balance and made them feel part of a team. Their parents also benefitted because, as one mother told me, it can be easy to stick to the safety of indoor activities and end up not taking any exercise at all.
“I can attest to the satisfaction and sense of achievement of looking at the map when you’ve finished and being able to say, ‘Bloody hell, I walked all of that!’”
There are so many options for walking in the UK and some great online guides along with the always-essential Ordinance Survey maps that will tell you exactly where you can walk. Whether it’s a short circular walk or a long-distance path, there is something for everyone. For those who want to really clock up the miles, the South West Coastal Path at 630 miles should keep you busy for a few months, or you can pick a shorter one that can be done in less than a week, like the Yorkshire Wolds Way (79 miles) or the South Downs Way (99 miles). Having walked the latter, and the Dales Way in Yorkshire and St Oswald’s Way in Northumberland, I can attest to the satisfaction and sense of achievement of looking at the map when you’ve finished and being able to say, “Bloody hell, I walked all of that!”
If it were down to me, I’d have ‘walk to work’ and ‘walk to school’ days at least once a week; I’d make walking meetings the coolest way to discuss ideas; advise those who enrol in marriage counselling or relationship therapy to go walking together; tell all parents to take their kids for a walk if they want to discuss a difficult subject and take young offenders on an extended hike.
You can talk about things when you’re walking that can be tricky face to face and you’ll reveal more while sharing the same experience and looking out at the same view than you might sitting awkwardly opposite each other at a table, worrying about where to look. I know of at least one ‘bereavement walking group’ that started up because it’s easier to talk about grief when you’re on the move and, just as importantly, it’s easier not to talk too much and to allow people the space and time to say what they want to without feeling under pressure.
People talk about the need to ‘move on’ after a traumatic event but I think it’s nearly impossible to do that without time – and actual movement. Walking seems to help; literally taking one step at a time towards a future that will be different from whatever you expected it to be. I know of groups set up for people with early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s; I have met singing walking groups, bird-watching walking groups, bell ringers who walk from one church to the next and dieters successfully walking off the pounds. It’s a great way to make friends and share interests.
I’m now planning holidays around my love of walking and thankfully Alice isn’t objecting, so this summer we’re off to the Dolomites for a week of walking and eating as much as we like. I can’t wait.
Walking Home: Great British Adventures… and Other Rambles by Clare Balding is published by Penguin, £7.994591 Views
Winner of the BAFTA Special Award and RTS Presenter of the Year Award for her expert coverage of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, Clare Balding is one of Britain's leading and best-loved broadcasters, presenters and writers. Photo credit Bill Walters.