In 2021 I walked just over 3000 miles, passing that milestone on the last day of the year. I discovered the joys of walking post sixty and after being diagnosed with melanoma.
My treatment is currently successful and somewhere deep inside there is an understanding that to keep things this way, I must walk. I think it is mainly for my mental health as with each step the anxiety decreases, but I do feel physically fitter than I did at forty.
The pandemic was another incentive to get out and remind myself that my fellow human beings are not the enemy, but rather people simply wanting to do the best they can. (I do not include those on electric scooters who ride them on the pavement or cyclists who are trying to avoid adhering to one-way systems!)
Living in London I have developed two different kinds of walks – one I do on my own and the other with friends.
The one on my own has gradually increased to a solid 10-12 miles a day. I stick to an intricate urban walk which takes me through Coal Drops Yard (behind Kings Cross), along the canal side, and then round through Islington to the top of Dartmouth Park Hill from where I can see the Shard and St Paul’s Cathedral.
I listen to music on these walks and it is always the same playlist, in the same order. It is all part of the rhythm I have built up which seems to calm my brain.
I read a very interesting Guardian article, interviewing the neuroscientist Shane O’Mara in which it states;
O’Mara’s enthusiasm for walking ties in with both of his main interests as a professor of experimental brain research: stress, depression and anxiety; and learning, memory and cognition. “It turns out that the brain systems that support learning, memory and cognition are the same ones that are very badly affected by stress and depression,” he says.
I have another reason for playing the music in the same order. Each piece I hear pinpoints an exact place on my walk. In my mind I can see it in detail and if I ever get to the stage when I can’t walk, I will use the soundtrack to recreate my outdoor life.
I sometimes envision my walking as a film reel which moves from black and white to colour.
During lockdowns I agreed to meet a friend once a week at Kew Gardens. We were both designated clinically as extremely vulnerable and felt justified in enjoying the beauty of the Kew Gardens as a safe space for us to be outside.
Watching the seasons change there has been a real privilege – so much thought has been put into the planting and landscaping. We both looked forward to our Wednesday dates and made the commitment that we would walk there whatever the weather. Our friendship has deepened as we have bonded over issues with our skin, family relationships, and a belief that despite being in our 60s, we are much younger!
We had booked to see the lights at Kew last year, having seen them being erected – a painstaking job! However, lockdown after Christmas thwarted our plans and it was with deep sadness that we watched them being dismantled. It seemed to sum up the whole mood of the country last January.
We did see the lights this year and it was utterly magical – each display signalling hope that things might be getting better.
I still feel a profound sense of distrust of those in charge.
However, the joy of walking is that it is free, outside and gives one control over mind and body. There is still a lot of beauty and joy in the world. Seeing small children skip and run with unbounded exuberance cannot fail to put a smile on my face.
The Christmas lights at Kew Gardens are available to visit till the 9 January 2022. You can visit their website for more details and to book tickets.
You can find support services for living with melanoma or other cancers from the NHS website.
You can purchase Shane O’Mara’s book “In Praise of Walking: The New Science of How we Walk and Why it’s Good for us” from Amazon.