I’m Reading “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn

I recently found myself in an unusual place, not knowing where to turn next, because I’d reached the end of a couple of series of books. I’ve recently been re-reading the Narnia Chronicles by C.S. Lewis which has been wonderful, but the Last Battle had been and gone. I’ve also been loving the Sidney Chambers series by James Runcie, but that had recently concluded with the prequal. Then there’s been the DCI Ryan novels by L.J. Ross and they finished with a Christmas mystery (although a new one is arriving tomorrow). Like I say, I wasn’t at all sure where to go next when a birthday present arrived – “The Salt Path” by Raynor Winn.

Series of books are great because you get to go deeper with the characters, starting something completely different can be a joyous revelation of new things.

The series above are all novels, “The Salt Path” is more of a biography charting a very personal journey along the The South West Coast Path by Raynor and her husband Moth. The South West Coast Path is a 630 mile ramble from Minehead in Somerset to Land’s End in Cornwall and then on to Poole in Dorset.

I love walking coastlines, but they are hard work especially in somewhere like the South West coast where you can’t walk the beach and spend your life descending into steep valleys and then ascending out of them.

While the physical journey is part of this book, it’s not the major part. Without giving the story away I can tell you that Raynor and Moth have been through a terrible time and for most people even contemplating this walk would be madness, but in their position it feels dangerous, deadly even. Yet, when they set out I understood, absolutely, why they were doing it. The alternatives to the hike were significantly worse.

For Raynor and Moth this walk becomes a journey of discovery, a journey of redemption and ultimately a journey of new resilience.

Most of the time I don’t talk to others about the books that I read, the nearest I get is to write one of these posts, but I’ve found myself talking to numerous people about this one. There are so many anecdotes and stories that I have wanted to share with friends and family. The stories are often funny and regularly amazing. I’m not going to tell any of those stories here, because you can buy the book, and that’s what I want you to do – buy it, read it and let it impact you. This is a book that impacted me and I’m quite sure I’m not the only one.

Header Image: This isn’t Cornwall, this is Barra in the Outer Hebrides.

Walking the Parish – Parochial Pathways

I’m trying to reclaim the word “parochial”. In the dictionary it has two meanings:

  • Relating to a Church parish
  • Having a limited or narrow outlook or scope.

The most common meaning, narrow, is primarily applied in a derogatory way. If you are called parochial it’s not likely to be a complement. Being broad in outlook is regarded as a good thing and it probably is, but there’s a dark side. We flit from tourist destination to viewing area collecting selfies like rewards badges. People are measured by how many countries they’ve visited, or how many famous landmarks they’ve visited and yet we have a certain admiration for people who have found a place in which they are happy just to be. We chase an illusionary peer-pressure defined outcome while looking, enviously, behind us at people who have chosen a different path – a more parochial one.

We live in an age desperate to discover the next big thing. No one wants to miss out on the latest craze. This is, sadly, even true for walking people, there’s a kudos in being able to climb the biggest hills or travel the longest walks. I have to admit to having fallen for this comparison myself. I have, after all, been trying to tick off the Wainwright hills for a while now, this is primarily a person target, but there are times when the dark side raises within me. We treat the parochial with contempt as small, narrow and inferior.

Most of England is split up into more than 15,600 Ecclesiastical Parishes a designation that dates back to the sixth century, signifying an area looked after by a priest. Parishes are not defined by size they are normally bound by natural features and represent a community contained within vale, valley or the immediate vicinity of village and town. Many parish churches still follow an ancient ritual of walking the boundary of the parish at least once a year, it’s known as beating the bounds. This can be quite challenging in areas where the border stretches over over mountain, moorland, lake or shoreline. The purpose of this activity was and still is, multifaceted at one level it is about defining the boundary, but there are also spiritual elements to it as the priest and the parochial leadership pray for the community within the boundaries. Rather than looking at the riches in adjacent parishes beating the bounds created a deeper sense of community for those within the perimeter. It’s an inward looking celebration, a parochial event.

It’s this sense of looking and seeing where I am that I am trying to reclaim, having parochial perception. By keeping my looking narrow I am finding that I am seeing more than I did before. There’s a richness in the parish that wasn’t visible when I was looking to other fancies of other parishes.

While walking one of the parochial paths recently I first noticed the drilling of a woodpecker. Walking that same path on another day I saw the woodpecker fly past me towards a particular set of trees. A few days later and I watched a black-and-white bird hopping up the side of one of the boughs of those trees. A few days later and there were two woodpeckers spending most of their time around a particular branch. I’ve seen these woodpeckers on this same branch a few time now, in one particular place where I suspect there is a nest, but it’s away from my view so I can’t confirm that. The woodpecker is a fabulous bird to watch, full of character, they are completely at home in their parish in the woods. I’ve probably walked past these same woodpeckers on several occasions before, but it’s only by having parochial eyes that I saw them.

It’s not just woodpeckers, as I think parochially there’s so much more that I see.

There are the parochial land features of nab, lane, farm, field, hedgerow, wood, house, bridge, well, brook, aqueduct, and fold.

There are the parochial names of Clarkson’s, Dingle, Haighton, Fulwood, Fernyhalgh, Ladywell, Tunbrook, Redscar, and Boilton.

There’s the parochial fauna of deer, fox, rabbit, hare, buzzard, barn owl, lapwing, woodpecker, bullfinch, goldfinch, sparrow, squirrel, kestrel, and frog.

There’s the parochial flora of blackthorn, hawthorn, bramble, crab apple, oak, ash, bluebell, wild garlic, marestail, primrose, cowslip, yew, maple, and foxglove.

There’s the parochial colours of moss, mint, lime, butter, grass, clover, violet and verdant whites.

There’s the parochial light as it illuminates the different features throughout the seasons.

During this time of lockdown there is little choice but to walk the parish, but I’m determined that this time of thinking parochially will be one of revelation. By focussing in on what is local I’m seeing more each and every day, there’s an enlightenment in being narrow.

Header Image: This is one of the local lanes on a recent evening perambulation.

Walking in Strange Times – The Polarizing Effect of Distance

This is a strange time, many of the things that we used to regard as normal are different and are changing on an almost daily basis – we are presently in a period of lock-down and will be for some time to come. Within the UK our current lock-down levels allow us a single period of outside exercise, so I’ve been continuing my morning walks.

One of the things that’s important in a strange time is to maintain routines as a structure for the day and one of my most treasured routines is a walk before work. The paths are still the same as they were, the countryside has started to awaken into spring, but the walk has changed substantially.

One of the most significant changes has been background noise from the local roads. Many of my favourite walks take me through a tunnel underneath the M6 motorway, which at this point, is usually 8 solid lanes of tire and engine noise. The travel restrictions have reduced this traffic to a few sparsely filled lanes of trucks accompanied by the occasional van and car. As I step into the woods the birdsong used to shout above the rumble from the motorway, but now the song echoes in a less strained throng. The quiet has, itself, become noticeable.

The number of walkers has also reduced significantly. I was surprised by this because I suppose I expected people to do what I did and continue doing what they’ve previously done, but most of the regulars have disappeared. People I’ve seen at least once a week for many years I haven’t seen for a couple of weeks now. Some of those people are older which, here in the UK, means that they are under additional constraints, so that’s not surprising. If you had asked me whether I regarded these people as part of my community I think I would have said that they weren’t, but that hasn’t stopped me missing them.

We are instructed to keep 2m apart as part of our distancing guidance. This rule isn’t a problem for most of the places where I walk, but it has changed the interactions with the walkers that I do meet. The meeting of walkers has become polarised into two reactions – the hiders and the projectors. Some people now treat the meeting of another walker as a trigger to immediately hide, like they’ve just discovered a tiger on the path. As I approached one couple this morning I respectfully moved to the far edge of the path as they chose the other side, they responded by covering their faces, rigidly staring ahead, holding their breath, and hurrying past me, glad to escape the danger that I clearly posed. I’m not judging them for this, these are troubling times and people need to respond in ways that they choose, and they may be right about how dangerous I am. There are other people, though, who’ve gone the other way, they are doing whatever they can to connect, even if that means projecting their voices across a 2m gap. There was another lady, again this morning, who I’ve never met before. As I passed her on the other side of the road she looked up and smiled. Her bright smile was followed by a projected voice asking how I was and encouraging me to “keep safe” and to “keep enjoying the nature as long as you can” – connecting at a distance of over 2m.

Change tends to polarise people and this lock-down is a big change for everyone. I have been surprised that even on my daily walk the change has resulted in such a significant impact. We are going to be in lock-down for several more weeks and perhaps even the morning walk will be curtailed at some point, but once it’s passed I wonder what change it will make to the way that we treat each other. I hope that this strange place will make us more considerate and more compassionate as we learn the importance of connecting.

Header image: This was taken this morning on my walk, I’ve taken this picture many times, from the same place, but they are all different – #fromthefencepost

Teaspoons: Lessons of a Failed Experiment

Some weeks ago a wrote about the teaspoon situation in the office where I work. I had a theory that the presence, or lack, of teaspoons in the kitchen was an example of scarcity theory. Having provided new teaspoons most of them stayed in the kitchen for a while and then disappeared quite quickly. In that article I set out several resolutions to the challenge of disappearing spoons, one of these, was to buy some more spoons and see what happened.

My expectation was that these teaspoons would also, over time, be removed from the shared facility, it happened once the most likely outcome is that it will happen again. If the last set of tea-making cutlery vanished in just a few weeks, then surely the same would happen to another set. I’m giving the plot away far to early, but I can tell you that I was wrong, so far at least the majority of the spoons are still in the kitchen.

This is what happened – with the generosity of Christmas in my mind I decided that I would replenish the supply of stirrers the brew facilities in late December. This resulted in me adding four dozen (48) new teaspoons into the kitchen in the week prior to the Christmas break.

My expectation was that I would be able, within a couple of weeks, to write an article stating that yet again all of the spoons had vanished and that a nice chart would show a rapid drop off once numbers became scarce. To prove this we decided that we should take regular audits of the number of spoons by a manual count.

I didn’t get to write that article because this is what has happened:

The Teaspoon Experiment – Round 2

That’s right the number of spoons did drop off reasonably quickly, but then it stopped and has stayed steady for a couple of weeks now.

Why should that be?

This experiment has left me with more questions than answers, although I do have to admit that some of the questions are caused by my own tinkering.

The normal rule of experimentation is that you only change one thing at a time so you can understand the impact of that change, I ignored that rule and have made things confused in the process.

Could it be Posher Spoons?

When buying the second set of spoons I wondered whether people would treat better spoons any differently to cheap ones. Someone commented to me that they had broken at least one of the first set and I couldn’t be sure that others hadn’t met the same fate. I also wondered whether people might be more inclined to look after a posher teaspoon.

Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not talking about the difference between a cheap spoon and a silver spoon; the difference was between a cheap teaspoon and a very cheap teaspoon.

Anyway, the smarter stirrers have lasted longer than the cheap ones, but I can’t say whether that’s causation or just correlation.

Have we reached saturation?

Another theory is that we’ve reached the peak of people who regard removal of an item from a shared utility as an acceptable thing to do. This is partially evidenced by the fact that some of the cheaper spoons have returned, these being people who want their own teaspoon, but also want it to be the best spoon.

We definitely haven’t provided everyone in the building with a spoon, that would take significantly more spoons to achieve and quite frankly I’m not sure I’m willing to go that far for a bit of fun.

Will it change over time?

Perhaps this chart reflects people’s New Year’s resolution to be better people and to be kinder to their fellow human beings. Or, maybe not.

Perhaps the cause is people’s desire to drink more water as part of their January health kick resulting in lower usage of teaspoons. Or, maybe not.

Is it because the kitchen has changed?

Some of you will have read: The Suboptimal Kitchen – The 10 Steps to Getting a Cup of Tea

Since publishing that post someone decided that sub-optimal wasn’t good enough and we needed to make the place super-sub-optimal. The change in the kitchen is deserving of another post at some point, but for now you know all that you need to know, there has been a change. This change has meant that for many people getting access to a teaspoon has become something of a challenge causing many to abandon their use.

Are people messing about?

Another, less likely, theory is that people read my previous post and have decided to mess with my experiment. I’d like to think that this was true, but my ego isn’t so big as to think that many of the people in my office have even read the post.

Concluding

The scientific method is there for a reason, the implications of messing with it were obvious in this case. I will keep an eye on teaspoon numbers to see if anything changes, but perhaps it’s time to move on to something else.

Doing experiments with people is always fraught with unexpected complexity.

At least now there are plenty of spoons available in the kitchen again.

Header Image: These are Rydal Caves where we decided to hide for a while whilst the rain descended.

Walking in Conversation – Talking Side-by-Side

I was out for a walk with a friend the other day; as we walked and talked my friend said something along the lines of:

“The conversation always flows much better when you are on a walk.”

I agreed wholeheartedly.

There’s a phrase that I use, which is a quote from someone but I don’t know who:

“Women talk face-to-face; men talk side-by-side.”

This isn’t a rule, but more of an axiom that I see playing out regularly. What better way to be side-by-side than to go for a walk.

I’ve led all sorts of walking groups, sometimes the groups are just men. When it’s an exclusively male group they will fall into line two-by-two and the conversation will be contained within the pairings for almost the entirety of the walk. There’s something in this arrangement that men find safe and helps the conversation to flow. I’ve also led groups that are exclusively women (except myself, of course) and they interact in a very different way, but still the conversation flows.

From time to time someone will ask me if they can have a chat about something, whenever this occurs I try to make our meeting include a walk. This is how the meeting normally goes, we meet at a cafe and have a drink during which time we’ll chat, but the conversation won’t go very deep. Once we have finished our drink we’ll start off walking, almost instantaneously the level of conversation will go deeper. The further we walk the deeper the conversation goes.

I’ve been in situations at work where things were getting tense in a meeting room. When I’ve had the opportunity I’ve arranged for a break in the proceedings and encouraged everyone to go out for a walk. The change in conversation as people walk and talk is remarkable. The change of posture dissipates the tension almost immediately, the fresh air lightens the mood considerably, and it all flows together to make for a much better outcome for everyone. There was a time a few years ago when walking meetings were the latest management “thing”. Walking meetings may not be a “thing” anymore, but that doesn’t stop them being a very valuable tool. If you’ve never tried it, you should.

Some of my fondest memories are of conversations that I have had whilst out for a walk with friends and family. There are more of these memories than there are of conversations over meals or sat in a coffee shop somewhere.

“The conversation always flows much better when you are on a walk.”

Steve

Walking to be Present – Being Here and Now

How much of our lives do we spend in the future or the past?

I’m someone who can chew on regrets for days. If I make a mistake, or embarrass myself, that can become the burden of my thoughts and feelings for far too long. I know that I’m overthinking each of these situations but that doesn’t stop me living in the past. Interestingly my temperament is such that positive experiences rarely have the same impact, I let delight slip from my thought far too easily and hold onto the negative far too quickly.

Worrying about the future is another pastime that has been a prevalent companion. I have an expert level certification in imaging catastrophe, not surprisingly most of these imagined disasters have never happened. I’m living in a future that doesn’t exist and will never exist quite how I imagined it.

Neither chewing on the past nor worrying about the future are worth anything like the amount of time that I spend on them.

There are times, though, when my time travelling starts to feel like it’s getting out of control and that is when I need to make a conscious effort to return to the present.

The best way I know of returning to the here and now is to go for a walk.

I’ve written previously about starting a walk at a high pace and how it takes a while for me to drop into my rhythm. My mental presence follows a similar cycle.

When I start out on a walk my head can be in all sorts of places depending upon the events that happens just before setting out. Sometimes my thoughts race between something that’s just happened and a worry about the future, like a tiger in a cage pacing backwards and forwards. I’ll then switch inexplicably to another concern and a different worry, but still bouncing from one to another, backwards and forwards in time. After a few minutes, having visited the various corners of the cage the tiger starts to calm down and move to a place of rest. This phase doesn’t, normally, take more than a few minutes before peace starts to build.

On one of my regular walks there’s a gate just a few minutes from my house, reaching the gate is often the symbol for me to step out of the cage and into the present. There are times when the steps before the gate are a blur as all of my attention has been soaked up mentally pacing the cage.

Stepping through the gate and into the present I start to notice everything around me. This morning I’d hardly noticed how misty it was until I stepped through the wooden kissing gate. It’s in the present that I start to put things into perspective and set aside my worries and concerns. It’s in the present that I start to see hidden things. It’s in the present that delight arrives. It’s in the present that in a strange way I step out of the present and into a daydream.

You are a success when you have made friends with your past, are focused on the present, and are optimistic about your future

Zig Ziglar

Header Image: A sunset on one of my morning walks. It’s taken a little way through the gate.

Walking for Physical Self Care – Learning from the Bus Conductors

Two of the books that I’ve read in the last 6 month have referred to the same study by a team lead by Jeremy Morris in 1949 to 1952.

Morris was interested in the connection between cardiovascular disease and physical activity. The link between exercise had been a long-held popular view, but there was little data to support it. On his daily commute in post war Britain, where money for research was scarce, Morris noticed a perfect sample for an experiment in the two people who operated the famous London double-decker buses on which he travelled – the driver and the conductor.

The driver with a mostly sedentary working life, the conductor on their feet most of the day, up and down stairs and from front to back. The difference in cardiovascular disease between the two cohorts was significant with drivers twice as likely to experience a heart-attack as the conductors. Neither of these roles required breathless physical exertion, the difference was between sitting all day and walking about all day.

Since the 1940’s the population in the west has moved from active jobs to sedentary ones. We may not be driving buses, our vehicles are apps, our steering wheels are screens, mice and keyboards.

Sitting all day is killing us, and it’s not just our cardiovascular system that is suffering, extended sitting is linked to a whole cluster of conditions. The recommended counter measure to these issues is exercise, in particular, walking.

Speaking personally, I can’t say that I can directly attribute any particular aspect of my physical well-being to regular walking, but I do feel the difference between active days and sedentary days. On active days I am less stiff, my brain is more alert, I sleep better, I feel less stressed, my posture is better, I am more creative, I am more motivated, my mood is better, I breathe better, in short I feel better.

One thing I’m not doing is walking to burn calories. While walking gives a reasonably good return on energy burnt, I’m more interested in the broader benefit to my overall well-being.

There’s still some debate about how much walking is enough walking, but for me I’m not sure that’s the right question. It appears that the 10,000 steps movement was created as a marketing event in Japan with no scientific research to support it. For me the question that I’m asking myself is how I build in as much activity as possible; can this meeting be done as a walking meeting? Can I take this call while I go for a walk? Even if I need to be near a screen for this discussion can I stand? Can I park my car away from the office door to make me walk in? I find it interesting that as a society we still regard these approaches as a bit weird.

Another question I ponder is which type of walking is best for me? In this regard it appears that we have to walk in a way that increases our breathing and heart rate. A number of people reference that phrase “you can still talk, but you can’t sing”. I rarely amble anywhere, but I don’t speed walk either. Perhaps I should be a bit more exerting as I walk, or perhaps I should just do more walking.

My morning walking routine has made a significant different to the amount of walking that I do, sadly it doesn’t stop me from sitting at a desk for 10 hours at a time occasionally. Most of the time this is broken by a lunchtime walk, whilst this walk does do something for me physically I find that it’s primary benefit is to my mind, perhaps that’s a subject for another day.

Header Image: Seathwaite Valley on the way back to the car after a fabulous day walking.