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5 October 2020

Why walking will be an important freedom this winter

It's a good time to embrace the most accessible form of exercise.

By Jonn Elledge

On Monday, having little to detain me and nothing in particular to keep me indoors, I decided to go for a walk. If I got a train to West Horndon in Essex, I reasoned, I could go on a quest for a place I’d never seen before: the easternmost point of Greater London. Then I would walk on to Upminster, where I could follow the route of the District line back into town.

So that’s what I did. The easternmost point of Greater London would have been a disappointment if I’d been expecting anything from it – just a slight line in a rural road, suggesting two councils are working to different maintenance schedules; nothing to indicate this point on the ground was in any way momentous, which it isn’t. But I hadn’t expected anything more. Locating a spot on a country road where one street sign says Havering and the other Thurrock was really an excuse to spend my day walking 18 miles and listening to audiobooks. The walk itself was the thing.

I’ve been dedicating spare days to walking aimlessly around London and its environs for so long that I’m no longer entirely sure how it started. I’ve long told myself that it grew out of a strange, irrational impulse to prove that the suburbs I grew up in were really part of the same conurbation as the world city in the middle, as if I could somehow prove that I grew up in London, not Essex, using nothing more than my own two feet. I first did that walk, between central London and Romford, around 2004, and have walked it perhaps a dozen times since.

But the impulse pre-dates that exercise. I can remember in my first weeks living in proper London in the autumn of 2002, using long walks around parts of the city I knew only from maps, to break the monotony of filling in endless job applications. For me, despite having somehow made a living cracking jokes about the Tube map, the experience of living in London is tied up with the feeling of walking its streets, not speeding under them. 

Just as I can’t really explain why I started, neither can I explain why I continue. There are things I’ve seen on my walks that count as interesting curios or which have aided my understanding of the city. (Three, off the top of my head: the Downham Estate is essentially the Becontree Estate, plus hills; one of the poshest areas of the capital has, for some reason, a statue of St Volodymyr commemorating the millennial anniversary of the Christianisation of Kievan Rus; and Croydon is a hell of a lot bigger than you think it is.) But these aren’t the point of the exercise, any more than finding that line in the road was.

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Partly, of course, it’s that the internet has ruined my attention span, and so I often find the best way of getting through a long or difficult book is to have someone, preferably Anton Lesser, read it to me. Partly, too, it’s about exercise: as a former fat child who disliked sports even before he didn’t get picked for them, any form of activity that leaves me pleasantly knackered without forcing me to interact with other human beings is welcome.

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(A sidenote: even in the age of Fitbits and 10,000 steps, you might think the idea that a walk can count as exercise sounds silly, because we all walk every day. To which I respond: you haven’t walked far enough. Get above 15 miles, say, and the next day you might find you ache all over, even those parts of the body that seemingly have nothing to do with walking. Do it in the wrong shoes, and you might even damage yourself in such a way that walking as far as the coffee machine is enough to make you nauseous. I do not recommend this part. Wear the right shoes.)

But the reason I walk, I suspect, has nothing to do with exercise or audiobooks or the city around me. Rather, it’s to do with my brain. There’s a quote from Toni Morrison’s Beloved that has always stayed with me: “The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order.” The character who speaks these words is talking about a lover; but a long walk can have much the same effect, focusing your mind on one activity while your subconscious quietly sorts through all the things that are bothering you, throwing up solutions without the need to consciously search for them. Walking is exercise; walking is also therapy.

Walking will be harder when possible lockdown measures are imposed once more. There’ll be fewer shops to provide food or water; fewer pubs or stations with loos you can use. And, at a time when we’re all meant to be avoiding public transport again as far as possible, my vague plan to spend the winter following the routes of each of London’s Tube lines one by one may become untenable.

This is a shame. Because as social contact winds down, and gyms and team sports shut up shop, the physical and psychological benefits of a long and pointless walk will become more valuable than ever. It’s going to be a long, hard winter. Sometimes, focusing on nothing more than putting one foot in front of the other is the best thing to do.