Autumn treasure 2: Walking

7/10/2018 For a number of years I have used walking as a therapy without really being conscious of what I was doing. I knew that it relieved stress, helped me solve problems and generate ideas, but I wasn’t aware that on occasions when I was at a loss as to how to cope with what I was feeling, particularly after my mother’s death in 2010, instinctually I turned to walking.

Early last year, something I read at the difficult start of a holiday on the Isle of Wight made me begin to pay attention to the physical, psychological and emotional effects walking had on me. Before the end of my holiday I had concluded that, as well as being a physical relief, it was one of the most effective remedies for emotional and psychological pain I have yet encountered1.

Of course, walking is not just an autumn gift. Thankfully it is a year-round one. But this specific walk – from St Ives to Penzance along the South West Coast Path – has been a particular gift to me, now, in autumn.

Not for the first time before a long-distance walk, I left home half unwillingly, pulled back by sadness and pain. A mid-day fox or dog attack had claimed the life of one of my beloved rabbits, Smudge, in more traumatic circumstances than strictly necessary, even for such an outcome. I didn’t want to leave her sister, Dusty, and felt too upset to be proactive about anything, even a holiday. I was already exhausted, and this only added to my feeling of wanting to curl up in bed and shut out the world. But finally I remembered that the remedy – walking – was waiting for me. Then I was able to resume my holiday preparations with more enthusiasm.

The sun shone and it was warm; but the breeze was cool enough for short sleeves and dripping sweat to take care of the excess body heat generated by rucksack-laden cliff ascents. I couldn’t imagine doing this in high summer, and the heatwave might have put an end to my walk more effectively than rain. I climbed 1700m in total over five days’ walk. The views were spectacular, and the smell and sound of the sea were blissful. The colour of the water was something that we east coast folk can only dream about. It might as well be the Caribbean.

Cornwall coastThe walk and the scenery slowly began to work its magic. All I had to do was put one foot in front of the other.

I have concluded that everyone – physical ability and temperament permitting – who is suffering any kind of overwhelming emotional or psychological pain should be prescribed solo walking in a beautiful place, at a level of strenuousness that is challenging enough to occupy their immediate attention, but not so challenging as to add significant physical pain to the psychological pain. Although, admittedly, it is sometimes tempting to blot out one with the other.

I have also vowed to myself that I will self-prescribe this remedy whenever life throws such challenges in my direction. I have never been one for demonstrative rituals, not even funerals, but if there is any ritual that would help me – has helped me – through, I believe this is it.

I happened only this week upon a quotation from Hippocrates, while engaged in something as mundane as searching for accommodation on the South West Coast Path website:

‘Walking is man’s best medicine’.

I have no idea in how literally he meant this, but it doesn’t matter. I am reassured to know so little has changed in more than two thousand years.


1. Medicinal walking: the Isle of Wight and Suffolk