Those Meandering Days
My father used to collect antique clocks. If there was an empty corner in a room or a space on a ledge or mantle, he would put a clock there. His carefully curated collection included every style, period, size and shape you could imagine. My entire childhood was played out to the background music of those ticking clocks. He particularly loved the chimes and dongs of the clocks and would set each one a minute apart so that he could hear each timepiece individually. And yet despite this he was never late for anything; he was as punctual as a pot of water coming to the boil. You may imagine that the constant cacophony of whirring and pealing clocks must have driven me mad but it honestly didn’t. I found the sounds soothing and comforting, a gentle reminder that these were my days and to make the best of them. Most of the time it was as though they were hardly there at all, they played their choruses to ears muffled by little moments of everyday life.
One late November morning though, the great grandfather clock in the hallway intruded on my sleep and woke me up as the sun was rising. I climbed out of bed, tentively padded across the room and drew open my curtains. Perched on top of a valley, my bedroom overlooked the fields and villages beyond. It was one of those perfect early winter mornings. The ground was covered with a heavy, glistening frost and the sky appeared as though it had been blended with pastels under a veil of calm water. A rosy hue had settled and engulfed everything as far as my eye could see. I opened the window and was suddenly struck by the cold air. It expanded in my chest as I breathed it in, invigorating me and wrenching me out of my sleep induced state. I knew in that second that I had to be out there and be a part of it.
I put on my jeans, jumper and thick socks are carefully crept downstairs. I could tell by the dancing, twinkling pools of light on the floor that my father had already come downstairs and turned the Christmas tree lights on. As I walked through the kitchen I could see the remnants of his tea and toast making on the table, crumbs and dollops of jam, where he had been so eager to get outside, he’d decided that reaching for a plate would slow him down. I turned towards the backdoor and put on my wellingtons, coat and hat and stepped outside. The world was silent. I didn’t dare breathe for fear of disturbing it. But then, as if right on queue, I heard him whistling. I couldn’t see him, but I could hear the melody of ‘Good King Wenceslas’ meandering up through the trees. I joined in, mirroring his tune. Then he stopped. He suddenly appeared in a clearing, waved and walked on.
I pulled my coat tightly around me and headed down the other side of the valley. As I walked I could feel my body begin to warm under my layers. I soaked everything in. As I turned into the fields behind the village of Barford St Micheal I could hear the sheep bleating in the distance. Their plaintive cries seemed lost in the vacuum of the morning. As I moved closer I realised they were barely discernible in the frosty morning, the warmth from their breath and bodies created a silhouette in the pale light, a halo of life to prove they were real.
I walked across the field towards the stream, following along the waters edge until I reached the trees on the other side. As I stood beneath their knarled branches, I looked up to watch the frost morphe into water droplets. I stood awhile against one of the trees. In that brief moment everything was perfect. Then as tiredness took over I turned to go home. With each step I retraced my legs felt heavier and my lungs tighter. By the time I reached the backdoor I was exhausted. I looked at the kitchen clock and realised I had walked for over three hours without even being aware of it.
My childhood was spent mostly outdoors. My mother could throw a picnic together at a moments notice; she was the standard-bearer of Tupperware and the crusader of the humble flask. She had a basket for every size of gathering and occasion. The school holidays were often spent out in the countryside with my aunt and cousins, climbing trees and building dens. Family holidays bought more of the same. Most years we would visit my grandparents here in Scotland and visit beautiful locations. We would walk for miles, without knowing it, before returning to the cars for lunch.
Even during the long months at home we were encouraged to be outside. My father, a keen gardener could turn any patch of land into something beautiful. I can honestly map out my entire childhood through the gardens I have grown up and played in. With each move the gardens got bigger as did his visions and ambitions and the less we saw of him. This wasn’t something that upset us, his garden was his sanctuary. My mum once bought him a stone bird bath which had the proverb about one being nearer to God’s heart in the garden than anywhere else on earth and that summed him up perfectly. His garden was his own personal church.
This love of being outside has never left me. When I met my future husband Alan, the first thing I did was take him up to Scotland to show him all of the places that were part of my history. We used to walk everywhere and it wasn’t long before he fell in love with Scotland too and bought his first pair of walking boots.
And then, a few years into our marriage, along came Jasper, our first cocker spaniel. Alan had been posted out to Northern Ireland and we decided that it would be better for me to stay in England with my family. We bought a beautiful double fronted Victorian villa in the village of Bloxham, just five minutes from my father’s house. Life was good to us but I was often lonely. So just before Christmas I rang Alan up and asked him how he felt about getting a dog. He laughed and told me he’d actually been thinking about getting me one for Christmas. Alan knew that I’d always grown up around dogs and missed not having one in my life terribly. So after a few enquires I found a litter of puppies due for homing near Beaconsfiled and so the Jasper years began.
There is something about walking a dog that brings an extra dimension to the experience and compounds your own joy of it. Seeing a dog plod home by your side with it’s tongue lolling and then crashing by a freshly lit fire to dry off is a happy sight and one that gently reaffirms your own needs as a human.
I used to walk Jasper for miles. I would often be out all morning without even taking any notice of distance or time. I would put him on his lead and walk down through the village to the church. I would walk through the old kissing gate, along the lichen-covered wall that ran the circumference of the churchyard and out onto the open fields beyond. It was never something I felt I had to do, it was something I did before the things I had to do. There is a difference, believe me.
Then many years later along came Eliza. She was a bundle of energy with little legs that seemed to never tire. As I imperceptibly took on the role of mother, the history pages of my life continued to be written on the same page, in the same ink and with the same words. Sundays were often spent walking in the countryside or in the grounds of a National Trust estate. I became the next generation of picnic purveyor and flask filler. As we walked, explored and played we were lost in time as much as we were in the landscape or the season. Walking and time spent outdoors was not something to be quantified or recorded, it was simply something that was woven into our daily lives.
And recently this got me thinking about the balance in my life today. I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world. The views from my house draw me outside and down to the loch most days. Yet somewhere along the way, I’ve become more preoccupied with the statistics of my daily walk rather than by the experience of it. By this I mean that I’ve got into the habit of being more interested in how long I’ve been walking rather than the physical and mental benefits it has given me. Of course I know exactly when this all started. It was when I joined a particular weight loss group a few years ago.
I’ve made no secret that I struggle with my weight. Although I am being much kinder on myself these days, there is still the odd occasion when I allow my insecurities to seep in and get the better of me. However there is one thing I can say with (almost certain) conviction and that is that I have no intention of ever returning to a slimming club again. It is that approach of documenting each activity that has robbed me of the pleasure I once took from walking. Taking Sizzles out for a stroll has become a daily chore, something that needs ticking off the ‘To Do’ list.
I once bought a pedometer as part of a weight loss programme and looking back I realise this has had a negative affect on how I feel about activity. I now see my daily walk as something that needs to be calculable, it needs to be measured so that it can be exchanged for food. In all honesty I think I now walk less because of it. I set myself a step target and once I reach it I stop. Why carry on? And yet if I just allow myself to enjoy the sensations of being outside, I’d probably walk much longer, like I did on that winter’s morning many years ago. Instead of relying on a digital screen to tell me it’s time to stop walking, I’d listen to my body instead.
Those of you who read my blog will know that I was offered the chance to trial one of the fitnaturally bespoke eating plans in the summer. Whilst it wasn’t feasible for me to follow it long term it was a hugely positive experience and I did lose some weight. More importantly though it helped me to gain some much needed perspective. Exercise should be something that you do because it offers the benefits you yourself need personally. For me, walking is about the chance to connect with nature, to feel invigorated and stimulated by the world around me. It isn’t a number crunching exercise, it’s a holistic experience, where all of the elements and benefits of being outside are interconnected and together create a feeling that is far greater than the sum of its parts.
The other morning I was taken back in time to the girl who walked down the valley in the mist one early winter’s day. The first hard, deep frost had taken hold over night and I awoke to a world covered in shards of white. After breakfast I grabbed Sizzles’ lead, wrapped up warm and went outside. As I walked down to the loch, a small flock of geese, perhaps the last flock of the year, flew over me and across the fields. I knew there were household chores bidding for my attention at home but I tuned out of those nagging excuses and kept walking. I just meandered. I didn’t count my steps, I didn’t set a timer, I didn’t decide on a point where I would turn around and head back, I just walked. And sure enough, time flew by with the geese overhead and before I knew it, I was miles away from home and I’d never felt better. I had regained the freedom of walking without goals or restrictions. I had once again meandered the morning away and lost myself in time.