Thursday, 6 August 2015

Tube Strike! In praise of walking.

The claustrophobic descent to the tube.

Last Saturday I walked over 15 miles across London.  There was no tube strike, I hadn’t intended to walk any particular distance, and I would never have counted the miles were it not that my phone does this for me automatically.  I can’t say I gave much thought to the distance, either; it was simply the route I needed to walk from A to B. 

I got to London almost every week as part of my work and I almost never use the tube.  Walking is a much richer experience and full of health benefits, mental and physical, and some of these are not immediately obvious (more on those studies in a bit).  I hope that those some of those who are forced out of their routine with the tube strikes today might discover something very enriching in the act of walking to work.  And since my continuing summer project is to photograph nature within walking distance of my house, I thought I would chip in here about some of the benefits.

We’ve all heard the advice about getting off the bus one or two stops early to get some extra exercise, but it’s not just the exercise that benefits you – walking is a very natural pace not just for our bodies but also for our senses to take in the things around us. 

Discovering the benefits of walking - the benefits of discovering

I give here two examples of people who dismounted from their transport in order to explore the sensory benefits of walking.  The first, one of London’s most famous fictional inhabitants, the great detective Sherlock Holmes: the first time we find Holmes at work on a case, in A Study in Scarlet (1886), we see that he insists on getting out of the cab and approaching the crime scene on foot.  Dr Watson tells us of how he points out the Brixton Road to Holmes whilst travelling in the cab (drawn by genuine horsepower, of course).  Holmes replies:

'So it is.  Stop, driver, stop!' We were still a hundred yards or so from it, but he insisted upon our alighting, and we finished our journey upon foot.

The importance of approaching the scene on foot is spelled out towards the end of the book, when Holmes talks Watson through the ‘steps’ in his reasoning, for how he solved the case:

I approached the house, as you known, on foot, and with my mind entirely free from all impressions.  I naturally began by examining the roadway, and there, as I have already explained to you, I saw clearly the marks of a cab, which, I ascertained by inquiry, must have been there during the night.

Walking, for Holmes, allowed him to look keenly and perceptively on the details of the world around him, working carefully not to disturb it.

However, it’s not just our external senses that we explore when we leave our transport and walk, but the inner senses of reflection and memory, the mode of contemplation rather than examination.  In Goethe’s great German Romantic Novel, Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des Jungen Werther, 1774), the young Werther, battling the pains of unrequited love, writes in his diary of his visit to a linden tree in the town where he grew up.  In making the journey, Werther stops the coach and completes the final stage of the journey on foot in order to allow his memories of childhood to return more vividly:

May 9
I have completed the pilgrimage to my hometown with all a pilgrim’s devotion, and have been overcome by many unexpected feelings.  I had the coach stop at the great linden tree that stands a quarter of an hour before the town, got out, and bade the postilion go on, in order to taste on foot to my heart’s content every newly revived and vivid memory. 

Tasting on foot to your heart’s content – there are some things that travelling by tube just can’t give you.
Whatever your mode of transport, getting down and feeling the ground beneath
your feet will create a feast for your senses as you slow down and take in the detail.

To your good health

Naturally (very naturally) all of this spending time pacing around the great outdoors is very good for you, as has been proven time and time again.  A number of studies over the last few years have demonstrated that urban dwellers who live in a greener areas experience sustained benefits to their mental health (read more here, here and here).  It’s no coincidence that the streets of London are lined with trees, and spending time in that greenery is clearly very good for you.

Sunshine through the trees, Birdcage Walk, London.
No matter where, these green spaces are proven to improve your mental health.

The benefits of walking to physical health also tie in nicely with the mental health benefits.  A 2012 study showed that stressed supervisors who took regular exercise were less likely to given vent to their anger by aiming it at their employees. 

Don’t tell me that doesn’t appeal to you! Is it any wonder Holmes was able to remain composed in such trying circumstances?

Tube strike!

Many people whose working day has been altered by the tube strike today might well find themselves walking around the capital earlier and later than they would otherwise have to experience.  Charles Dickens, one of London’s great walkers, used walks around the capital at various times of day and night in order to meet the people and encounter the thoughts that inspired much of his fiction.  After contemplating the muddy streets at the beginning of Bleak House he goes on to talk of the morning fog:

Fog everywhere.  Fog up the river, where it flows among green aits [islets in the Thames] and meadows; fog down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping...Fog on the Essex marshes, fog on the Kentish heights.

Dickens’ greatest experiences, however, were probably his night-time walks around the city, on which he wrote the essay ‘Night Walks’ in 1860 (the same year in which he started work on Great Expectations).  During a period of insomnia in March, Dickens tells us, he went out walking the streets at about half-past 12 each night.  He used these walks mainly to educate himself about the experience of the homeless (or ‘houseless’ as he calls them, since the streets are their home).  Dickens’ love of humanity and human nature shine through from the heart of this essay, as he writes,

My principal object being to get through the night, the pursuit of it brought me into sympathetic relations with people who have no other object every night in the year.

And it isn’t simply the encounters that walking the city streets brought Dickens’; the gentle pace of the walk and these discoveries excited his imagination and dreams (as it also did for Sherlock Holmes and for Goethe):

The walk on to the bank, lamenting the good old times and bemoaning the present evil period, would be an easy next step, so I would take it, and would make my houseless circuit of the Bank, and give a thought to the treasure within; likewise to the guard of soldiers passing the night there, and nodding over the fire.

The Bank of today invites the modes of contemplation unchanged from Dickens' era - if only you have time to stop and think.

Slowing down

But for those simply pushed out of routine, it might be a good opportunity to bring new discoveries into your routine day.  It can bring great change gradually.  The Chinese proverb about the journey of 1000 miles is often quoted, but for finding green spaces amongst the skyscrapers on your city walks, the larger quotation from chapter 64 of Lao Tzu’s great Tao Teh Ching is perhaps more meaningful:

A tree as big as a man’s embrace springs from a tiny sprout.
A tower nine stories high begins with a heap of earth.
A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.

A thousand mile walk is not a journey that can be made quickly, especially not in August.  But we can learn to enjoy the walk for our health and slow down.  As the great father of medicine, Hippocrates, wrote in the 5th century BC,

In winter a man should walk quickly, in summer in more leisurely fashion.

Perfect for an August day like today.  Try walking for leisure, ‘tasting on foot’ everything around you ‘with a mind entirely free’.  It’s good for you (and you don’t need me to tell you that you’re worth it).

More on this soon...

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