Walking to Listen – What are you listening to?

The other day I was walking back towards my house when a cacophony of bird noises grabbed my attention. My hearing told me that there were magpies and birds of prey somewhere nearby. I searched the trees above me and sure enough at the top of some tall trees a group of magpies and a few buzzards were in the middle of an altercation. As I watched the buzzards would, one by one, fly in to one of the trees only to be sent packing by a angry response from a few of the magpies. Once one buzzard had been repelled another one would fly in from a different angle which was again repelled by even more magpies. If it hadn’t been for the noise I’m not sure that i would have noticed this fascinating behaviour.

There are so many different birds to hear as I partake of my morning ramblings.

Last summer I watched a flock of noisy long-tailed tits leap from bush to bush along a local hedgerow. Their call is distinctive, particularly as they move around in these small flocks chattering away to each other as they go.

I love to listen to nature as I walk around but that’s not the only type of listening that I like to do. Recently I received a present of some bone-conducting headphones from Sue, my wife. These headphones don’t go in my ears, but rest on my cheek bones, because my ears are still open to the air I can still hear all of the ambient sounds around me while I listen to a podcast or an audio-book. The headphones are also quite good for music, but although I love music I tend to prefer the spoken word while I’m out walking.

There’s something about walking and listening to an audio-book that enhances the experience of both, for me. Listening regularly, even for relatively short periods of time, means that you can get through quite a lot of material. Some of my listening is fiction and as I walk I enter into the scenes that the author has painted. There are times when I feel like I am equally in two places at the same time, the real one and the fictional one. At other times my listening is more factual learning and listening as I walk helps the learning to become embedded in my mind. Walking is, after all, supposed to have a positive effect on creative thinking.

Often, as I walk, the loudest noise isn’t an external one, it’s the one in my mind. There have been times when, before a walk, that voice has become almost deafening and blocked out every other sound. As I set out on a walk that voice drives me to walk at a pace, but without any rhythm, and little delight. The voice may be setting the pace at the beginning, but something about the activity of walking steadily arrest and calms that voice and returns my steps to a normal tempo. Calm steps and calm thoughts. Sometimes I don’t have to walk very far before I experience this effect, but there are other days when I can walk miles before the calm descends. If I am out hill walking the motion and effort of an ascent is a great facilitator for calming the voice. It can feel like I’m fighting the hill at the beginning, but anyone who has been hill walking knows that it’s always the hill that wins. Once my inner voice has been calmed it’s then, and only then, that I can really hear it.

My life would be far poorer if I was to loose the ability to walk and listen, but more than that, I suspect that my mental well-being would be significantly impaired.

There are days when my primary reason for walking is to listen, that’s particularly true when I need to listen to myself.

header image: This is the side of Yewbarrow looking towards Pillar from a recent walk when I listened to the entirety of Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell.

Walking to Discover – Finding the Paths Less Travelled

I’m writing this post having returned from a day of discovery.

Today I walked a route I have never walked before and went to a place I have never been to in my previous 50 years. This place was number 197 on a list of 214 places that I have a plan to discover.

My journey started from a place I know well having already been on several different adventures from this base. Only recently I travelled a route that took me to the top of a hill called Base Brown, number 187, from the north. Today’s route took me around the south of that same hill with delightful views that were hidden from my previous route with rugged crags emerging through the low clouds that became the theme of the day.

The south of Base Brown

Up to this point I had been walking a well defined path which is one of the routes to a Lake District favourite and England’s highest peak. Even this was a discovery and something new for me. Having reached a small stream it was time to join a faint path branching off to the right, it was time for the real discovery to begin.

The Path Ahead

This path isn’t on the maps, well at least it’s not on the maps that I use, but it is in various people’s guides to this walk. While the beginning of this path was visible it was clear that further up the hill the path was indistinct at best. Sometimes when I am out walking each step is a discovery. There were times when I had to take a step to see the next step, by taking that next step, the step after it became visible. Then there were points where even the next step wasn’t visible and I discovered by moving forward without a path. I knew the direction I needed to head to reach my destination and I expected the path to become clear at some point.

I headed towards a small tarnlet which I knew that the guided paths went past, by now I was up in the clouds with very little wind, when it’s like this the world shrinks to the size of the area that is visible. I like it when it’s like this.

A little way along the path reemerged, still faint, but clear a direct to the top where I discovered the two tops of Seathwaite Fell. There’s the summit on the map,and the summit defined by the guidebook writer Alfred Wainwright.

The Top of Seathwaite Fell (as defined on the map)

The best walks are continue their interest all the way up and all the way down, with discovery after discovery and this walk was one of those walks.

Not far beyond the summit there was another small unnamed tarn shrouded in cloud without even the faintest breath of wind. The reflections were wonderful in the cloudy gloom.

Misty Tarn

A little further along Sprinkling Tarn emerged, this is a larger tarn nestled into the hillside with an array of mountains looking down. While the path skirts around one side of the tarn I decided that this feature deserved a wider discover.

The tarn has an unusual shape with an isthmus shaped piece of land sticking out into the middle where I headed. It felt like I was on my own in the middle of the water. What a discovery.

Sprinkling Tarn

From the isthmus I headed back to the path and eventually discovered another path along the route of the stream that flowed out of the tarn and back to my transport.

The stream flows down a cascade of waterfalls and rocky ravines with a different view every few metres. Eventually the path dropped below the clouds and opened up wonderful views across Borrowdale and Derwentwater beyond. This was a new view of familiar friends, another discovery.

The path to Seathwaite with Derwentwater in the background

It was a lovely day of discovery, discovery is connected to newness, but you don’t have to go somewhere new to discover. On my regular morning walks there’s often something to discover. Having said that, I do love to walk somewhere new, I love to discover. I still have 17 more discoveries on my list of 214, and then I’ll have to find a new list to discover.

You can, perhaps, discover more things, more quickly in a car, but discovering as you walk allows you to take in the experience. There’s nothing quite like a walking discovery adventure.

Walking with Delight – It's a World of Wonder

I was recently out and about on my morning walk and thoroughly enjoying the rhythm of it. It’s been very wet this year and my walking boots were covered in mud and wet inside, thankfully I had my waterproof socks on and my feet were fine. I was roughly half way around the circuit and I was starting to get that heading for home feeling as I left a country lane and headed onto a narrow path which runs alongside a brook. Just a few metres along a flash of blue down near the flowing water caught my eye. Instinctively I stopped still and turned slowly to look to where the flash had been. There, sat on a twig overhanging the brook was a kingfisher. It sat for a few seconds looked at me and darted off along the stream and into obscurity.

I was delighted.

That delight stayed with me for the rest of my walk and also as a slow fading feeling for the rest of that day.

On most of my morning walks I find something to delight in:

The drill of a woodpecker on a spring day.

The bronze glow of a beach tree in the autumn.

The taste of juicy brambles.

The look of disdain from a fox as is crosses the path and disappears into the undergrowth.

The roar of a stream in flood.

The smell of wild garlic and the beautiful white flowers.

The taste of plumbs ripened in a nearby field.

The mystery of a misty morning as trees turn into shadowy figures.

The excitement of seeing a deer effortlessly bounce down one side of a hollow and up the other.

The discovery of a new path that I’ve never used before and neither has anyone else from the look of the undergrowth.

The emergence of the buds in the oak trees and the promise of acorns.

The brilliance of a bank covered in bluebells hidden away from view.

The screech of buzzards circling overhead.

The crunch of fresh frozen snow.

The shock of startling a hare and seeing it speed across the fields.

The joy of the smaller birds as they scurry about their work.

The list goes on. I’m not upset if I don’t see anything new or unique there are plenty of marvelous things if I just have the eyes to see them. Seeing isn’t a passive thing, you have to train yourself to see, it requires attention, and walking gives that time for attention to build, but I think that might be a post for another day.

I’ve written about delight before – Count Your Blessings #143 – Delight – interestingly, also provoked by a walk and a song that I still love, who’s words I will leave you with:

Amid the rumours and the expectations
And all the stories dreamt and lived
Amid the clangour and the dislocation
And things to fear and to forgive
Don’t forget
About delight

Don’t Forget About Delight: Bruce Cockburn

Header Image: One of those wonderful misty mornings.

Walking for Rhythm – Finding the step, step, step, step

I find walking rhythmic.

The step, step, step, step of a potter from somewhere to nowhere moves from my feet to my lungs.

In my lungs the step, step, step, step says “in, out, in, out”.

The in, out, in, out of my lungs say to my heart “pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump”.

Somehow that rhythm says to the rest of my body “calm, calm, calm, calm”.

When I’m walking up a particularly steep bit of a hill I’ll count each step in a rhythm – 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 1, 2, 3… – continuing my progress, slowly, and rhythmically. When my body says that it’s time to stop I’ll make myself continue to the end of the current set of 10 almost likes it’s a bar in music. When it’s really, really steep I’ll make myself stop every two or three sets just to keep the rhythm.

Step, step, step, step.

One of the reasons that I avoid the very popular mountain paths where it’s become necessary to put in rock steps is because the uneven rocks destroy the rhythm, particularly coming down hill. It’s difficult to keep with the beat when you have to measure your every step.

In, out, in, out.

My working life has very little rhythm to it, each day the meetings, the conversations and the emails are all on different topics. A working day is really a set of interruptions, even in meetings it’s difficult not to get interrupted. Sometimes the stack of interruptions gets so high that I forget what the one at the bottom is. Then when the interruptions stop for a few minutes I don’t know what to do because the rhythm has been reduced to a cacophony. At times like this a few minutes walking reminds my whole being of the days rhythm and the calm returns, I’m far more productive in the calm.

Pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump, pump-pump.

A joys of a walk before work is knowing that I start the day with a tempo set by the steps I’ve already invested. While I try to make my morning walk stretching I deliberately avoid rushing it, I like to feel the beat. Days without a walk always feel a bit discordant.

Calm, calm, calm, calm.

The daily rhythms build into weekly rhythms.

The weekly rhythms build into seasonal rhythms.

Perhaps we’ll come back to that.

How can you explain that you need to know that the trees are still there, and the hills and the sky? Anyone knows they are. How can you say it is time your pulse responded to another rhythm, the rhythm of the day and the season instead of the hour and the minute? No, you cannot explain. So you walk.

Author unknown, from New York Times editorial, “The Walk,” 25 October 1967

Walking? Why walking?

We have recently been on holiday in a beautiful part of England. It’s a place steeped in history with an abundance of places to walk. While we’ve been out and about I’ve been pondering what it is about walking that I love some much.

As I’ve mused I’ve realised how important walking is to me. I’m currently 90% of the way through a challenge to climb all of the hills in the Lake District that are chronicled in the books by Arthur Wainwright. There are 214 hills in this list and I’m down to the last 19. I do most of these walks on my own and whatever the weather I love it. I have no idea how many hours I have spent on this venture, but it’s a lot.

Most weeks I go out for a walk before work on at least three days. One of the privileges of my life is the ability to walk. This privilege is multiplied when the walking is in the countryside, something I can do from my house. If I walk a little way down my street there is a gap in the houses and a path. The path drops down to another path that runs alongside a brook. From this starting point the choices of route multiply like the branches on a tree.

Walking is so natural to many of us that we barely give it a thought. We put one step in front of another and move from one place to another. Sometimes I walk with a purpose, but more often I walk to walk, it’s the walking that is the reward.

Although walking is, for me at least, an ordinary activity I still love it, and that’s what I’ve been pondering? Why do I love walking? Why do I get out of bed on a cold, wet, dark morning, put on my waterproof clothing and walk with a smile on my face? I’ve never really given it much thought before, and I’ve not really written about it, so perhaps it’s time that I did.

Header Image: This is Embleton Bay looking towards Dunstanburgh Castle taken on a late afternoon walk during our recent holiday.