The great German philosopher Nietzsche said it induced all truly great thoughts, Dickens felt it was the only thing that prevented him from exploding and perishing, and Ellen DeGeneres said her grandmother had taken it up at the age of 60 and now, at 93, nobody “knew where the hell she was”! Moreover, it can boast almost two and a half million “likes” on Facebook.
If you haven’t already guessed, it is walking - simple, old-fashioned, placing of one foot in front of the other, the “first thing an infant wants to do and the last thing an old person wants to give up”. It is the most perfect form of exercise - health giving, stress busting, sociable and sustainable. It is no longer the sole preserve of gaggles of retired teachers and postmistresses hiking from pub to pub, though organised Ramblers trips remain popular, but it has increasingly become the focus for major fund-raising events (witness the many “walks for life” around the globe), and many couples and families view it as a key part of their social life.
It may surprise readers who cannot buy their daily paper from the corner shop without getting into the car that walking is by far the most popular outdoor recreation in the UK – the proliferation of guide books on the shelves of your local WH Smith store is striking evidence. Even in the home of the enemy – the internal combustion engine - the number of walking trips has more than doubled, from 18 billion to 42.5 billion, in the last 20 years.
Over the past couple of years my wife and I have, armed with one of those guide books, increasingly devoted our Sundays to a countryside or coastal walk of between five and ten miles in Kent. Lovely scenery – oast houses, meadow flowers, orchards and hedgerows - accompanied by birdsong and captivating glimpses of wildlife, all richly compensate for the occasional hardships of mud, barbed wire fences and impossibly steep stiles. A visit to a local hostelry or tea rooms, either en route or at the end of the walk, completes the perfect afternoon.
Yesterday was a case in point when, setting off from Frittenden church, we took a seven mile walk in the surrounding countryside, the mid point of which was the National Trust owned Sissinghurst Castle, the former home of writer Vita Sackville-West. Here we sat outside the newly refurbished Granary restaurant with a coffee and a scone before taking a stroll around the acclaimed gardens, designed by Sackville-West herself, and then resuming our adventure.
No walk would be complete without at least one unplanned detour, adding to the challenge and provoking a temporary raising of voices whilst the map is turned every which way and the book’s author is cursed for his imprecise use of the language. But we haven’t got completely lost yet!
Walking in the countryside also provides the perfect environment in which, free from the noisy distractions of TV, neighbours and traffic, we can chat calmly and clearly about our plans - the decisions to get married after 27 years and for me to take early retirement were both made on a cold February afternoon in a muddy field halfway between Shoreham and Otford!
Cynics will accuse me of over-romanticising the subject, of portraying a rural idyll that no longer exists (if it ever did), to which I plead not guilty. Walking is the perfect antidote to today’s rushing, thoughtless world and an refuge, if only a temporary one, from its bombardment.
On a more pragmatic level, it supplements the more frenetic gym regime and helps to prepare us both physically and mentally for the challenge of those lung bursting San Francisco hills and Lake Tahoe ski trails!
So, if you haven’t already, try it! Approach it with an open mind and you might just find it’s the perfect workout and therapy.