It’s a mid-December morning, close to the shortest day of the year in the UK. I want to enjoy every bit of the light, so I am up on the seafront by 6.30am, walking.
I pass the squat stone circle of Deal Castle, then follow the shoreline along to the rather grander Walmer Castle. Commissioned by Henry VIII, these buildings have stood guard over this stretch of the English coast for over 500 years.
I’d hoped for a repeat of the previous two mornings, when the dawn coloured both sky and sea in glorious shades of red, pink, purple and gold, and the gulls rose up from the beach in noisy, joyful crowds to greet it.
But today the clouds are low and heavy, and the day creeps in without drama. As I walk, the sky simply fades from black to a bleak, metallic grey. Most of the birds remain on the shingle, drowsy and confused.
Still, it’s a mild morning, so at the castle I turn up the steep, muddy track that leads up to the chalk grasslands of Hawkshill Freedown, an old World War 1 airfield, high above the sea. From here, I can see the ferries disappearing into the morning mist across the Channel. Today France is invisible, when only a few days earlier, it was clear enough to make out car headlights on the cliffs near Calais.
I follow a narrow path leading between high hedges of hawthorn and sloe, opening out into a field sloping gently back downwards into the village of Kingsdown. A peregrine looks imperiously from the top of a skeletal tree and a hare lopes away slowly, only mildly bothered by my intrusion. It’s lonely here, this early, but also exhilarating.
I feel awake, alive, happy.
I walk like this most days, since moving to Deal, on the east Kent coast of England. After living in London for more than 20 years, we left suddenly, impulsively. We wanted to be able to see the horizon and to watch the seasons change. We were working 12-hour days to pay a mortgage on a house we didn’t love, while buying far too many things we didn’t want or need to somehow compensate for that overwork.
Instead, we wanted to slow down. To grow vegetables, keep chickens and have long, lazy weekend lunches with friends. And we’ve done all of that. The walking, however, came as a bit of a surprise.
I started it to get to know my new home.
I carried on because it makes me happy. As a writer, it also makes work easier. Walk, and the words tend to come. But mainly, it puts you in your place, both literally and metaphorically. When you leave the buildings behind and get out into an open landscape, you quickly realise how small and insignificant you are.
There’s something humbling about passing a tree or a rock that will be there long after you’re gone, or passing Roman forts and solid Tudor castles that emphasise how our own short lives are but a blink in time.
It’s also very liberating. Your own issues, the stories you turn over and over in your mind, seem pretty insignificant when you’re looking out into the vastness of sea and sky, or treading paths that have been used for hundreds, even thousands of years.
Robert Macfarlane explains it best, in his best-selling books celebrating landscape and our place within it: Mountains of the Mind, The Wild Places, The Old Ways, and most recently Landmarks. A beguiling mixture of scholarship, memoir, travel stories and literary criticism, his books are extended prose poems to the quiet joys of walking, on our effect on the landscape and its effect on us. Their surprising commercial success shows, I think, a hunger to reconnect with something we feel we have lost.
In The Old Ways, Macfarlane tells us that Charles Darwin made a ‘thinking path’ at his home in Kent. He walked there regularly, at least twice a day.
‘Sometimes he would pile a series of flints in a rough cairn at the start of the path, and knock away one with his walking stick after each circuit. He came to be able to anticipate.. a “three-flint problem” or a “four-flint problem”, reliably quantifying the time it would take to solve an intellectual puzzle in terms of distance walked.’
Last summer I went to Downs House to see Darwin’s study, his laboratory and the rather lovely gardens. Walking a few circuits of his thinking path, the Sandwalk, was inspiring.
I’m never going to imagine anything as important as Darwin’s theory of evolution. But I like this idea of walking while tussling with a specific problem. It’s extraordinary how often an answer that’s eluded me for hours while sitting at a desk will suddenly spring out, fully formed, as I walk along the seafront, or out through the fields. Walking keeps my mind moving as well as my body, and I heartily recommend it if you are stuck creatively, lacking in ideas, or unsure what direction to take next.
Walk, and the answers will come — step by step.
Walking is a great way of changing mood, or shifting energy. Most of us have had the experience of feeling low or tired, angry or upset, then feeling better almost instantly once we get outside and move. No one has written about this more beautifully than Cheryl Strayed in her 2012 book Wild. Her epic,1100-mile solo hike along the Pacific Crest Trail led her away from heartbreak and addiction, and into a new life as a writer.
“It had to do with how it felt to be in the wild,” she wrote. “With what it was like to walk for miles with no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets.
“The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.”
So what’s the science behind it?
Evidence for the power of walking was largely anecdotal till recently.
We know that writers from Charles Dickens to Stephen King have advocated daily walks as part of their creative routines. Beethoven and Tchaikovsky also walked regularly, carrying notebooks to jot down ideas for new music. Centuries of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and thinkers of all kinds have claimed that their best ideas came while walking.
But it wasn’t until 2014 that Stanford academics Marily Oppezzo and Daniel Schwartz proved a link between walking and creativity. The professors got their study group to sit in a plain room, then take creativity tests. They then put the group on treadmills facing a blank wall, and found that a stunning 81 per cent performed better on the creativity test after walking.
They then split another study group into four. A quarter did both tests sitting in the plain room. A quarter walked on the treadmill again before the second test. Another group went walking outside, in a pleasant environment. The final group also went outside, but were pushed in a wheelchair rather than walking. The walkers again performed far better the second time around — whether outside, or on the treadmill. The group who went outside, but didn’t walk, didn’t see the same improvement.
“It could be mood, or maybe maybe walking takes just enough focus that it lets seemingly irrelevant possibilities come to the forefront,” Oppezzo says in Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s excellent book, Rest. Or perhaps it “just allows more ideas to bubble up”.
Either way, it seems to work.
Walking mindfully can also work as meditation.
Try clearing your mind., walking slowly, deliberately, while concentrating on being fully present in the moment.
In his book Life With Full Attention, Buddhist author Maitreyabandhu offers a detailed guide to mindful walking. He recommends starting with short walks of at least five minutes, but no longer than 20. It is hard to stay focussed for longer, at first.
‘The body is the anchor of our awareness,’ he says. ‘Every time we come back to the body, we are establishing ourselves in immediate sense experience instead of being “somewhere else”.’
He recommends following the same route daily. Perhaps one you already do, to the bus stop or train station, or to a shop. Bring your attention to your movements as you walk, counting each step as your foot hits the ground. Or repeat a phrase such as “walking peacefully”, in your mind.
Try to let go of worries or thoughts, relaxing into the present moment. Whenever you find yourself engrossed in thought, simply gently bring yourself back to counting your steps, or repeating your phrase.
As a practice, this can be surprisingly powerful.
But if meditation doesn’t appeal, just try walking while fully in each of your five senses.
Walk for 30 minutes. Spend five minutes fully experiencing each of your senses in turn. See the light and colours. Hear all of the sounds around you. Feel the air on your skin. Smell the leaves on the ground, the sea, the traffic, the food being prepared in kitchens and restaurants you pass. Are there tastes, too?
For the final few minutes, try to experience it all as a whole, and tune in to your sixth sense. Is there something your intuition, your subconscious is trying to tell you?
Sheryl Garratt is a writer and also a coach helping creatives to step up and do their best work — and get paid for it. Want my free 10-day course, Survival Skills for Freelance Creatives? Click here.
Like this? Then check out my blog at www.thecreativelife.net.