On and Off the Beaten Track

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Words by Kerry Flint Photography by Elizabeth Pollard

There’s a Bulgarian Proverb that says, “From walking – something; from sitting – nothing.”

Is there anything better for blowing the old cobwebs off than a walk? This is not a question, it’s a statement. I was on my feet from the age of eight months and on the go ever since. You cannot beat getting away from the desk or the tube seat and getting the old pins moving. The adrenaline pumps and the head based orifices are filled with sights, sounds and smell both familiar and unfamiliar. There’s any excuse to walk and no excuse to reach plant like levels of static. Yes time is a premium these days, plenty of people is telling us this and thus taken up time by pointing out the obvious; we’re all bloody busy. But (and it’s a big but) on a Sunday morning as the world wakes up more slowly there is nothing like heading out of the door and up the street to explore.

One of my favourite things about a good long walk is the chance to indulge in some music. Sometimes it’s nice to leave the headphones at home and stay alert, especially in a new or buzzy area but for a song Sunday stroll you cannot beat immersing yourself in some tunes. You hear the birdsong and the yawns before popping on the headphones and heading off. The music sets the pace, the bass or guitar acting as a kind of aural heartbeat, filling your ear canals as you propel along streets. Death from Above as you mount that hill and take in the reward, that view, as the dulcet tones of The Velvet Underground caress your brain. Caribou motivates as you meander along the canal side taking a towpath under bridges as Janis Joplin creates a vibe. The family cyclists go past to a Talking Heads soundtrack and Public Enemy motivate the weariest legs as you cross another park. I don’t always soundtrack my walks but sometimes doing so can increase the sense of escapism.

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My walks are currently in South London, where I currently reside. Previously and still fairly regularly they take in Cheshire, Manchester, Hampstead Heath, Wales and Paris. The climb to Nunhead cemetery is always exciting because this little known gothic gem never fails to make me gasp at its stunning chapel and views over London. Meandering through the gravestones in the nature reserve it is often better to swap the tunes for the birdsong, dog barks and squirrel’s rustling. Exiting the park the rows of Victorian houses are pleasant and the bridge crossing offers a rewarding view of the railway and the old graffiti covered pumping station sat nonchalantly beside it. The tunnel over the railways line is a bit like one of those you played in as a child or something you’d see at dog shows but darker but more urine stained and subsequently pungent. Not all parts of a walk should be picturesque though. It is an adventure in which you take in the good and the bad. Entering Telegraph Hill Park on the other side more than makes up for the lingering stench as this is one of the best views of London and in a small pretty and peaceful park.

The next part of the walk takes me to the Honor Oak estate. It is big and the mass of social housing flats can loom a little but the adjacent streets are full of council houses like those I grew up in and later lived amongst in Manchester. They are less common in London so the nostalgia and familiarity I feel with the curve of the road, the small drives and the alleys in this estate is a highlight of the walk. Some may find this odd and not understand but that is why a walk is personal, this is my walk, my journey and part of my story. Walking through this estate I remember a time when I was about nine or ten and would ‘play out’ on the estate with friends. The streets did of course seem bigger at this age and everything newer. It makes sense seeing as a child is usually smaller in size and been on the planet for less time than an adult. A walk allows you us visit to visit this youthful enjoyment though, to notice things that we rush past now that we are super busy adults. Children appreciate cracks in the pavement to jump over, ledges to sit on and lamp posts to spin around. On a walk you see things properly, the leaves on the ground in autumn or the blossom on the tree in spring. A flower’s bloomed in a tatty bush and that old lad’s on his favourite bench again. The outside world is inspiring, as Nietzsche said, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” Wordsworth, Nabokov, Orwell, Beethoven, Dickens and Woolf were all walkers. These days it’s more important than ever and a kind of rare free luxury. The distraction of daily life – screens and the web – don’t come with you on your walk (or at least shouldn’t). There’s so much to see and realise before you turn to go home.
A long walk is the most rejuvenating of past times. Tchaikovsky walked daily, “who believed he had to take a walk of exactly two hours a day and that if he returned even a few minute’s early, great misfortunes would befall him”. There’s no need to get paranoid but remember that unless you’ve broken your legs or its 2am in a notorious area a walk is usually a god idea. Go outside and enjoy the breeze and the friendly neighbourhood cat who always tries to say hello.

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