For most of my adult life I haven’t thought twice about jumping in the car from my cottage in Somerset and driving to the coast for a walk along one of the many beautiful beaches or stretches of coastline that we’re blessed with in this country. What I recently took for granted is now impossible but all of us can improve our health physically and mentally by taking a walk around the block.
With the lockdown set to continue into the Summer, our habits and movements have become limited. This includes walking. Where once we could hop in the car to drive to the beach, hills or our own favourite beauty spot, now we can’t.
All around the country – and the world – we’ve had to get used to a sudden change in the way we live, something that most of us haven’t experienced in our lifetimes. This will have a profound impact on the way we think and behave (if it hasn’t already).
The limitations on what we can do and where we can go creates a new way of thinking. Everything slows down – it has to – and it allows for a more careful focus on the near world, the world that we often just choose to ignore.
As an experiment today I walked out of the house and 100 metres up the road and back again. Huge masses of grey cloud cruised across the sky like zeppelins. A pigeon cooed from the laurel tree outside my window, her feathers ruffling slightly in the breeze. When I looked in closer later this afternoon she has 2 pale eggs slightly larger than chocolate mini eggs. Sap was oozing out of another tree on the roadside. The treacle-like droplet hadn’t been there yesterday. The hedges and a tree in the meadow beside the road had got a little bit greener, just enough to make the scene a bit brighter.
In my little 20 metre squared garden right now there are an abundance of primroses and forget-me-nots. The heavy fragrance of viburnum hangs heavy over everything. One of the first tortoiseshell butterflies I’ve seen flits energetically between the different bright white clusters of viburnum bending its proboscis into each little tube. I watch it for 5 minutes.
There are those who don’t have a garden and the hope is that green spaces are kept open and available to all at this time and for people to respect the social distancing measures.
We could do with noticing the things that we might normally ignore but that now we have the time to observe. What should we look for? What sounds are new? What feels different? It might be the sky or the wind or one of the 250 species of bee that exist in the UK. It might be birds and their individual songs. It might be the flowers that are appearing daily at the moment. It might be a bit of architecture or something of historical importance previously unnoticed.
In a big city it could still be fauna or flora that is changing – starlings, foxes, hedgehogs and butterflies and more are all examples of visible animal life that people can see at this time of year. Spring blossom is out. Nature is thriving as we have to stay indoors.
It has been widely reported how birdsong has been audible for the first time in years in even some of the biggest and busiest cities. There is less noise and less pollution. A walk along the river or past some of a city’s great historical buildings or through one of its parks might be more enjoyable now than at any other time in people’s lives.
As the lockdown continues indefinitely boredom and frustration will become normal emotions for all of us. We might experience depression, loneliness or anxiety as a response to the change in our own lives and others.
Being amongst the simplicity of the outside near-world has now become a welcome comfort after the constant and increasingly alarming newsfeeds, cabin fever or the slow queueing in supermarkets.
The advantages are plain to see. Walking has been proven to have huge health advantages from reducing heart disease and stress to allowing the brain to enter a meditative state and even improving memory and attention.
The professor of experimental brain research, Shane O’Mara, in his book ‘In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How We Walk and Why It’s Good for Us’ says that we have underestimated the positive mental health benefits that walking creates for us. ’Walking is holistic: every aspect aids every aspect of one’s being.’ More specifically he says how: ‘Walking is…associated with improved creativity, improved mood, and the general sharpening of our thinking. We need to start walking again. We, and our societies, will be the better for it.’
There is another positive that can be drawn from walking from home: many of us have felt a reconnected sense of community. Wandering around the top of my village on a balmy evening last week there was a wonderful silence and the illusion of time slowing down.
This is probably what it was like to live in the countryside before the last war. There is little traffic. People can’t travel such great distances for work or otherwise. The world we experience is smaller and more close to hand. People have a greater reliance on and appreciation of their community.
More people are out and about and have more time and there is more time to chat, albeit at a distance. With the ongoing threat of something that affects us all, there has been on the most part a greater sense of care and looking out for one another (naturally there are those who have become more inward looking too – buying unnecessary quantities of food or toilet products or quick to call out those who they see as pushing the restrictions).
We might hope for a renewed sense of community once this is all over. Relationships have been built, of that there is no doubt. It remains to be seen to what extent or how quickly we will return to our often hectic lives as readily as if none of this ever happened. For now, though, let’s get out there and see the world as we might not see it again.