Walking Back To Happiness: Kate Finnigan On The Serenity Of Stepping Out

Four years ago, I had a big life change and a big shock. After 10 years as a fashion editor on a national newspaper, I left my job and began working as a freelance journalist from home. Six months after that, my marriage combusted. Sure, the signs had been there for a long time, but when did that ever help anyone?

One thing I am grateful for. Between the end of the job and the end of the marriage I’d started walking every day. It’s no exaggeration to say that I wouldn’t have got through what turned out to be a very long, drawn-out breakup with any semblance of sanity if I hadn’t taken up that habit. My brilliant discovery? Walking does a person a power of good.

No news there. Most people are intelligent enough to realise that it’s always the better option to pound the pavement to the train station rather than jump on a bus; for kids to walk to school rather than be driven; to spend Sunday afternoon rambling over a hill or along a windy beach rather than slumped in front of a film. Scottish walking holidays, hikes in the Hollywood Hills, country rambles – the benefits of putting one foot in front of the other are not a secret. But what I hadn’t quite realised was that a daily walk of just over half an hour, through a school playing field, a Victorian graveyard and along a few metres of the Thames for five minutes, could be a lifesaver. I do now.

What scares me is that I probably wouldn’t have started at all if we hadn’t got a dog. Dogs need walking and when I left my job I suddenly had the freedom to take my six-month-old pup out every day, as opposed to shipping the task over to a dog walker. I felt vaguely triumphant about this. It seemed an emblem of my newfound freedom. Look at me, choosing to not be at my desk yet. Choosing to start my day with a dog walk instead. Take that, micro-managers! But the real reward was still to come.

I live outside London in a village by the Thames. Another dog owner told me about the walk to the village graveyard. The dogs love it, he said. So I took myself off on the little route he recommended, through the playing fields, along a tree-lined walkway next to a fishing lake and into the neglected graveyard where the 19th-century novelist, Thomas Love Peacock, is buried. The trees were very tall, the headstones were crooked and the names on them were faded but evocative – Christiana Strong, Nathaniel Peasnall, Samuel Bird, and my favourite, Mona Yell. Never mind the dogs, I loved it here!

I started walking in the new year and that January it snowed. I tramped along in my puffer coat and boots. As the snow melted, drifts of snowdrops emerged and then yellow and purple crocuses, followed by primroses that smothered some of the graves and crowd-pleasing daffodils. It got warmer and the birds came back; they chirped as they flitted between holly bushes and the London plane trees and sycamores. All along my route, every day, the seasons changed slowly in front of me. In May, a whole walkway circumventing the graveyard became hemmed in by two walls of tall frothy cow parsley, turning it into a kind of dancing fairy path. Is it weird how much I now look forward to this every year?

By then, it had become obvious that I wasn’t taking the dog for a walk, I was taking myself for a walk. I may not have been scaling hills or hitting 20,000 steps at a time – I was, let’s face it, taking a turn around a cemetery with a cavapoochon. But this little meander was so much more than a leg stretch. In the midst of chaos at home and in my heart, it was help.

I knew it was, but I didn’t know why it was until I heard Julia Samuel, British psychotherapist and author of the best-selling book about grief This Too Shall Pass, talking on the Walk To Wellbeing podcast. Frankly, I could listen to Samuel speak about anything; she’s such a wise, calming and generous being (find her on Instagram: @juliasamuelmbe). But here she was articulating the personal benefits to her of a daily walk. Like me, she always takes the same route. “I could do other walks,” she said, “but I think doing the same walks regularly elevates the habit into a positive wellbeing ritual. So that my whole emotional system expects to feel good on this walk… The familiarity of it, the regularity of it, I feel a kind of warmth inside and a sense of wellbeing. I know that, physically, moving in the morning, having light in the morning, recalibrates your melatonin and your circadian rhythm and that helps you sleep. It all feels very positive.”

I love that idea of ritual and the expectation of feeling good. Important, too, is the decision to walk for the sake of walking, to make it an activity in its own right rather than a thing you do on your way to the office or the shops. Then it becomes a conscious act of self-care. Something you’re choosing to do for yourself.

There’s a moment on a walk when it starts to flow, when the distractions that you have early on – waiting for the dog to poo, crossing roads, trying to avoid someone who will want to stop and chat – have ceased. You’ll have gone some distance: usually, I’m halfway through my own walk and I’ll suddenly feel aware of my heart beating, of my breathing. I can feel the ground beneath my feet rising up in a regular rhythm and that’s it, now I’m walking. My friend, the fashion writer Richard Gray, is another daily walker. “You know it’s working when the white noise has gone,” he says.

Richard doesn’t always walk the same route, and when he’s on an ‘adventure’ he often walks a lot further than me, sometimes for up to three or four hours. He lives in east London and his walk is a distinctly urban experience, where he thrives on the interesting architecture that surrounds him as well as the green space of places like Victoria Park.

“When I started walking it was about making my world bigger – physically and mentally,” says Richard. “And that crystallised in lockdown when we were all so closed in. The idea of getting out for an hour became even more special.” Escaping the noise and incessant buzz of the world is key for him. “We’re all so distracted by the five-inch-by-three-inch devil’s work that sits in your pocket. Going out and walking in nature or the city, you’re less consumed by that noise continually bombarding you,” he says. “You’re away from your phone, the office, the TV, the laptop. Even if you have your phone with you, it’s actually quite hard to look at it when you’re walking – plus, Victoria Park has a really bad signal! So my only distractions are a tree, a baby in a pram or a dog on a lead.” For him, that creates an invaluable space. “And when you walk, that space gets filled with things that mean something better. Personal, creative, relevant thoughts happen when you give them space.”

Judging by current trends, it looks like the fashion industry has cottoned on to this desire for external and internal space. Performance brands and technical fabrics that can take you outside and keep you there whatever the weather (hello, Gorpcore) have never had so much love. (Richard also thinks there is a subconscious reason that ‘Balenciaga green’ struck such a chord in 2021.) If we want a stylish uniform for walking, we are currently being served many, many excellent looks.

But actually, all I want is to do is keep on walking. Because it’s not like one day you get to the end of a walk and say, “OK, that’s it, all better now.” Anxiety continues, the stresses and bad news and tragedies of life continue, and walking is one way of helping to cope with them. Put it this way: I have never come back from a walk feeling worse than when I set out. Ever. There aren’t many activities so easily undertaken which produce that result.

Like many people, I read Meg Mason’s raved-about novel Sorrow and Bliss. Towards the end of the book a particular passage struck home. Martha, 40, has been suffering since adolescence from an undiagnosed, unnamed mental illness, which has left her too afraid to have children and unable to focus on a career. Now her husband has left her, too. In the doldrums, she calls her mother in a drunken moment late at night. Her mum has been pretty useless in her life so far, but Martha is desperate. She says she doesn’t know what to do; her mother tells her to put on her shoes and coat: “Now, you are going to go for a walk and I will stay on the phone.” Martha obliges: “I walked slowly and felt sober by the time I got to the end of the towpath. She said, ‘Right, turn around and walk fast enough that you can feel your heart beating.’ I don’t know why she said that but I did.”

I do know why she said it. Martha’s mother may be a nightmare for most of the book, but she knows the power of going for a walk and indeed this turns out to be the moment when Martha starts to heal. Walk fast enough that you can feel your heart beating is sound advice. Try it sometime. In fact, try it every day.

Portrait by Joshua Tarn. Taken from Issue 68 of 10 Magazine – FUTURE, BALANCE, HEALING – out NOW. Order your copy here.


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