The Boxing Day Walk is, as far as I can tell, a particularly British tradition. An excellent way to make you think that you are a healthy human being despite your gross overindulgences just 24 hours ago, it’s something cheap enough (free) to perk up the most tightfisted patriarch and is a guaranteed method for tiring out overexcited children and uncles to keep the peace. If you can end up at a pub with an open fire as we did today, it’s even better. Our ambling adventure this afternoon, on a route that mum traversed with the WI previously (phone call 1: ‘oh it’s just a bit of fun’, phone call 2: ‘you may call me Madame President of the WI’) may have taken half the time of the old ladies, but it was still quite remarkable.
As well as being gorgeously sunkissed and pleasingly crisp, there were, and this is not an exaggeration (might admittedly be a dodgy estimate), literally hundreds of other people out walking. We passed more people today than we have probably encountered cumulatively in the rest of the year. There were hordes of families in wellies and woolly hats, older couples in Proper Walking Gear™ (featuring unnecessarily technical jackets, sensible fleecy hats with no bobbles, and inevitably walking poles to aid the summit attempt of the canal), couples trying to hold hands and be seasonally romantic even in the face of paths too narrow to walk alongside each other, along with my favourite type of occasional walker – the technically appropriately dressed.
These TADs for short can be found most commonly on lovely sunny summer weekends, bank holidays, and, of course, festive holidays. Invariably glamourous enough to be seen in the candid pages of a magazine, they’re found gingerly negotiating muddy puddles in footwear that can technically be called a pair of boots but realistically, being made of suede, are better suited for concrete than the countryside. They, like other occasional walkers, enjoy the views and the fresh air and go home feeling good and like they should go for walks more often but never really have the time.
I, along with the rest of my family, am very definitely a habitual walker. It’s not even a pastime anymore, it’s just part of my existence, probably not surprising given the fact that I grew up surrounded by family dogs and walking them at least twice a day was never optional. It’s probably why my fashion sense never developed much beyond jeans and jumpers – nice dresses are all well and good but when confronted with negotiating a tricky stile combined with mud underfoot jeans are the only way forward, and I’m too lazy (or efficient?) to change clothes repeatedly during the day. Walking is something that I look forward to, particularly when a hill is involved. As soon as my final uni exams were over I was on the first train up north to hike Kinder on what turned out to be basically the only sunny day for weeks. We purposely arrange family holidays around walking, and there’s a long term plan of a walking holiday with at least two groups of friends brewing.
I am not trying to knock occasional walkers here, far from it. Walking is good for the health and good for the soul and good for the places we walk in. The only reason anything historic and cultural gets looked after in this country is because people go there, and in an era of increasing urban development encroaching on Greenbelt land, as well as the much-maligned inactivity crisis striking Britons down with various diseases, we need to get our boots on more. On top of the physical benefits and protecting our heritage, it’s been repeatedly proven that walking in nature makes you happier.
Indeed, there is something almost spiritual, if I can be mildly pretentious for a moment, about walking. This is obviously true of dramatic landscapes, and finding your place on the old ways, walked for millennia, but is also true of the much more prosaic walk down an unremarkable track, or even through a city as a commute. Presuming that you’re not plugged into music or constantly looking at your phone, the simple act of repeatedly placing one foot in front of the other forces you to detach yourself from the omnipresent immediate demands of an internet based world and process stuff properly. I walk when I have a decision to make, when I’ve reached a mental roadblock in my work and keep scrolling through Facebook instead, and when I just generally feel a bit crap. More than just stretching my legs and getting the blood moving, although that can’t be underestimated as a mood changer for me, walking gives me headspace and lets my jumbled thoughts shake themselves out. It’s the same with relationship rifts – if you force two people to walk along next to each other for long enough they will start talking about something, anything, and eventually find the words that have been building up inside them and, with any luck, will finish the walk in a happier place.
For me, there’s a point about half an hour into a walk when my muscles have warmed up and I’ve settled into a rhythm when I start to feel calm. There’s no meditative effort, no mindful process I follow, and no real order to it – if I’m wrestling with a question that carries on for most of the walk and often beyond, but at that magical half-hour turning point it starts being approached with a peace of mind that I couldn’t reach without my boots on. Even when you’ve scheduled time for being mindful, or reading, or whatever you do to switch off, it’s still inescapably allotted time, with the next task on the to-do list looming before it’s begun. Treating yourself to a day horizontal on the sofa, watching an entire TV series, is certainly a switch-off, but now you’ve made the active choice of what to watch, and you’re almost guaranteed to be watching it with phone in hand, still staying connected. Walking is a much more organic way of switching off and existing. There are no arbitrary limitations, only daylight hours, and there’s a lot of truth in the old idea that you can clear the cobwebs with a blast of fresh air, probably coming at you sideways on the top of a hill.
So all hail the Boxing Day Walk. All hail the Bank Holiday Walk. All hail any time that people get their boots on (suede or otherwise) and get out there. It can only be good for us all, and god know we need something good to carry us into 2017.