Medicinal walking: the Isle of Wight and Suffolk

7th February I have learned two things today. First, that never having had any historical personal bond with the sea or coast, they have become part of me. Second, that one can walk off pain, as one can walk off calories. Perhaps not in quite such a calculable fashion, but walk for a day and the burden of pain at the end of it is noticeably less than it was at the start. I can almost physically feel it lessen with every step that I take.

There are some types of physical pain for which this is also true – for example, walking off pain and stiffness from an unaccustomed long-distance walk the day before, as I have done today – but I am referring to emotional and psychological pain. Precisely because of this, it has been more than two months since I last tried to write anything. Sometimes it did not manifest as pain, more as a mental shutting down, which was the greater barrier to any form of creativity. But pain was mixed up in it, and has now become acutely present.

I find I shy away from writing anything too personal; but how personal is too personal? Increasingly I notice when I read a book or watch a film, the less personal it is, the less engaged I am. Plot and fact do not interest me so much as the condition of being human: our lives and relationships with each other, our fellow creatures and the planet we all share. The ‘too personal’ is a predicament of human life, unless you sleepwalk your way through it. So I have decided to turn around and take it on, to find out whether it is possible to ‘write off’ pain, just as I have discovered it can be walked off.

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The idea of walking off pain occurred to me at breakfast yesterday, the first morning of my holiday on the Isle of Wight, as I was starting to read The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot by Robert Macfarlane. I had picked it up from my bedside table for holiday reading simply because it had been waiting there for several months to be read and I had only ten minutes in which to pack. I didn’t realise quite how suitable it would be.

I was intrigued by Macfarlane’s description of many long-distance walkers as depressive, and the idea that walking was one of the few things that could lift them out of it. This sparked a thought: if one could walk off depression, might it not be possible to walk off pain, often a component of depression, which was what I was experiencing in this moment? In fact, was this not exactly what I had been doing intermittently over the past six years?

It was only in thinking about this now that I became conscious of the fact that walking, especially long-distance and coastal walking, has become an important method of getting through difficult periods of my life, particularly bereavement. Over time it has gained further significance, not just in providing a sense of physical wellbeing, relief from anxiety or stress, and joy, as it always did, but also in becoming a medium through which problems can solve themselves, and ideas and inspiration present themselves, often seemingly without much active input from me.

It is also only now that I remember that after my mother’s burial in Hitcham churchyard, I decided to walk home, two miles or more uphill across the fields, despite the fact that it was raining and I was wearing woefully inappropriate shoes for walking, or for long, wet June grass. Despite knowing the footpaths well enough, I managed to get lost, extending my walk and wetness considerably. Part of my reason for walking was to be on my own: strange as it may sound, I could not think of anything I wanted less at that moment than to be in the company of my family. But the other reason, though at the time it was instinctive not conscious, was that walking was the only response I had for an impossible burden of pain and bewilderment. The more strenuous the walk, the longer I was ‘lost’ and the greater the discomfort I was in, the more effective the response.

In the months following, while on a work placement in Chile for six months, I spent hours repeatedly walking up and down the same stretch of Pacific coast, both on the beach and on the rocky coast path. I never got tired of it. Walking barefoot in the sand, just where the waves could reach, was not optional. Wearing shoes, or even sandals, felt like a deprivation to my soles and soul and senses.

But I also spent hours watching penguins, or doing nothing in particular: sitting on the rocks inhaling the smell of seaweed and listening to the waves, or crouching down and searching in the pebbles for particular shells. Watching how the tides collected masses of gleaming shell fragments in certain places, how the evening sun lit them up, and the next day they were gone again, or moved a few metres up the beach.

Very gradually, the bewilderment turned into a more tolerable and peaceful sadness.

Returning afterwards to England and moving to Suffolk, one of the first things I did was to buy Ordnance Survey Explorer maps covering the whole county. I had no specific plan of action as regards my future or life in general, but I knew that right now I was going to walk as much of Suffolk as I could. Earning a living was simply a distracting (though necessary) side project.

As with my reflections on wildness prompted by the subject of an earlier book in this ‘loose trilogy about landscape and the human heart’[1], I expect I will discover as I progress through The Old Ways that my uses of walking, and its significance to me, are scientific, artistic and historical truths, and that walking has carried such significance throughout the history of the human race.

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I did not intend for my holiday on the Isle of Wight to become a walking holiday, partly because I had no expectation of the conditions being favourable for such a thing. But, on my second day here, I notice how it is quickly becoming one.

Yesterday I walked along the coast path from Shanklin to Niton, east to south, without any clear intention of doing so until a few minutes before I left. I certainly didn’t pack my rucksack with the thought of carrying it ten miles, filled as it was with a number of heavy items. It was pain – the prospect of having to relive the unspeakable experience of my mother’s illness and death, and to watch people I care about go through that same, or similar, hell – that made the decision for me.

This repetitive, meditative bodily activity, accompanied by sea air and cliff views, making me red-faced and out of breath, was an instinctive response to these oppressive thoughts and emotions. It was a need for freedom and a desire for control, when the source of the pain was entirely out of my control. Having spent an hour or more trying to work out inadequate bus routes and timetables, I gave up and decided my own two feet would be a more liberating method of spending my day, and a more reliable way of getting from A to B, even if it took me all day to do so and even if my back and shoulders complained of my decision well before I reached my destination. That they did not was an unexpected blessing.

Today I continued on the coast path. The act of walking and its effectiveness as a treatment can, I suppose, barely be separated from the landscape, views, smells and sounds. Walking across London might well provide some benefit, but more often than not I would be rebelling against my surroundings instead of revelling in them. In contrast, leaving my accommodation at the top of St Catherine’s Down on this clear, mild winter morning, facing west I could see the white chalk cliffs on the Dorset coastline beyond those of The Needles headland. Searching the sky in vain for the diminutive founts of unbroken song, invisible skylarks were like heavenly spirits carrying the promise of spring. The sonorous cronk of a raven stopped me in excited surprise. A pencil line of startling luminosity divided the sea from the sky.

Down on the beach, once I finally found a cliff descent that was not eroded away, I did what I had spent so many hours doing on the Pacific coast: dawdling. Examining the shingle and sand for shells, pebbles and fossils, looking at the endless array of colours and shapes while absorbing the sounds and smells of the sea next to me.

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11th February In observing so closely the act of walking over the last week, I have become aware of details that I did not notice at the beginning. The first was a little unexpected: that walking long distances with a heavy rucksack seems to provide more effective pain relief than carrying a light day pack. Perhaps this is because of the added weight landing on the ground with every step: the solid connection with the earth beneath your feet gives a stronger sense of the pain being removed from your body and absorbed by the ground. Perhaps it also creates a greater sense of freedom and progress – you are not going to return to your starting point if you have your belongings on your back.

The second realisation came from the strong urge to keep moving. At times, pain seems like a swarm of mosquitoes: it can be kept at bay when you are on the move, but stop even for a moment and it will land, and bite hard.

Towards the end of my holiday I also started to ask myself how far the effectiveness of my chosen form of self-medication was dependent on a new and beautiful landscape. Would I be able to replicate this effect once back at home, in familiar territory? Yes, Suffolk is beautiful in its way – excluding the vast arable fields which I find heartbreaking, seeing in my mind how they might have looked well under a century ago. But it has fewer striking landscape features, and at home one is almost always walking within the context of time constraints and daily duties and worries – and, in this case, closer physical proximity to the source of the pain.

At first I thought it might be difficult. But then I began to reflect on the individual elements that made up the walks I was enjoying: looking for fossils and shells, hearing the sound of the sea, walking up hills, walking down holloways[2]… and I realised that, though I might not find mountains, cliffs and rocky shores near my home, all of the other things I could find within an hour of where I live. Even if the psychological reality of being at home rather than on holiday made it harder, I was hopeful of some success.

So, arriving home last night, I took out my maps of Suffolk and looked for the densest extended area of contour lines – which I knew to be on the Suffolk-Essex border around the middle reaches of the River Stour, approximately half an hour’s drive from home. I found an eleven mile loop, following the St Edmund Way on the Suffolk side of the Stour from Bures to Wissington, and the Stour Valley Path back along the Essex side via Wormingford, and set out to walk it this afternoon despite the cold and snowy day. It was easier than staying indoors.

Clearly no one else agreed with me: I didn’t pass a single Saturday walker in 4 hours. Taking in hills and meadows, rivers and wetlands, my first red kite sightings in Suffolk (or was it Essex), a church with medieval wall paintings, an isolated thatched chapel consecrated in 1218 and a view of the legendary Bures dragon carved into the hillside opposite, it was a good reminder that most important things are on my doorstep. Perhaps the effect wore off more quickly on returning home afterwards, but the walk itself did not fall short.

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14th February Jeremy died this morning, less than 2 weeks after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. A gentleman to the last.

I find myself at Shingle Street in the afternoon sunshine, crunching northwards over the beach towards the tip of the Orford Ness shingle spit, stopping to pick up shells and pebbles on the way. An offshore bell tolls, mingled with the sound of the sea like the ghost of a drowned church. A seal swims out on the estuary current and takes a left turn into the waves.

Shingle Street


[1] The earlier book is The Wild Places by Robert Macfarlane (2007). The first book is Mountains of the Mind (2003); The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot (2012) is the third. This quotation is Macfarlane’s own description of the trilogy.

[2] Sunken lane or path, usually centuries old.