Just over a year ago I was one of small group of volunteer walk leaders sharing thoughts about a new virus being talked about on the news in the UK. Some of us had just returned from visits abroad where warnings about Covid 19 and measures to limit its spread were already happening, in sharp contrast with the seemingly nonchalant approach of Johnson and his Government. We speculated on what limitations would mean to all those involved with the walks we led and shortly afterwards we found out: all our group walks had to stop.
Poole Healthy Walks forms part of a national scheme, Walking for Health promoting walking as a way to sustain and improve physical and mental health. It provides a range of accessible walks in the local area in parks, along the sea front and across heathland. These are usually coupled with an opportunity to chat over a coffee at the end of the walk. For many people living on their own, or new to an area, it is a good way to meet others and motivation to get out and about. As the walks have varying levels of difficulty, they also provide a route back to fitness for those recovering from illness or injury.
During the first lockdown, there was a sharp increase in the number of people walking during the one hour a day of permitted exercise and a whole new set of people discovered the joys of this simple form of exercise. Curious to know how these strange circumstances were impacting on people, I sent out a questionnaire to ask. Limiting the time and range people were allowed to travel encouraged many to explore their area in depth. Whereas before people hopped in cars to go to work, now working from home meant they explored those nearby paths that they had seen, but never knew where they led. Our area is fortunate to have areas of heathland linking across very urban zones which some people found closer than they thought.
People working from home found walking a useful way to take a break from the zoom calls and screen-based environment and, in some cases, to provide some structure to their day. Not letting work impinge on free time was a concern, so a walk was a good way to ensure it didn’t take over completely. Getting out into a more natural environment was described by many as calming and vital to assuage anxiety caused by uncertainty and working under different conditions. Nature around us operates at a different pace to the 21st century world of work.
It came as no surprise that dogs were a big reason to get out and about. Many people explained their pets’ needs already had priority in pre-Covid 19 daily routines, and dog owners tended to interpret the ‘local’ rule more liberally than others (eg, a car journey before a walk). I was amused to find dogs were not the only exercise companions. While limited to her garden for exercise, one friend was accompanied by Frank, her son’s tortoise, who took a stroll too.
Katie Azulay, Recreation Development Officer for Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council told me:
“Walking locally has been a lifeline for many and has become more important than ever during the COVID-19 outbreak. We are extremely thankful to our close-knit group of volunteer Walk Leaders for continuing to support walkers offering to phone them for a chat, and by sharing photos via our social media Facebook page.”
Connecting with people across the country it became clear, once lockdown was eased, that those living by the sea or in other attractive rural locations were concerned by how difficult it was to escape the crowds that suddenly appeared. Bournemouth and Durdle Door made the headlines down here in the west country. In other areas of the UK, the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme brought elevated numbers to places such as the Mercia Marina in Derbyshire. Here, narrow boat resident Elaine felt trapped by the presence of visitors and increased footfall, but kept her walking ambitions alive by signing up to the Walk 1000 Miles challenge.
Nature’s healing touch reaches out to us during walks. Luscombe Valley, Bourne Valley, Talbot Heath and Upton Heath opened new eyes to the precious wildlife we have in and around the very crowded urban area of Poole and Bournemouth. Unexpected pets too can lie in wait. Who would expect to see alpacas in a garden backing onto the Bourne Valley in Poole?
Our more famous natural residents include Dartford warblers (sylvia undata) and adders (vipera berus), although the adders’ aversion to human company makes them a lot more difficult to spot. Roll on summer, when butterflies and other insects will be out and about. Seeing any of these on a daily walk is a privilege and inspiring to the spirit. I defy anyone not to find their day vastly improved by the experience.
Ed Nicholas, the Short Group Walks programme manager for the Ramblers Walking for Health told me:
“The one good change has been that walking has seen a significant increase with the number now walking for leisure topping out at 21 million adults. This however masks a significant problem that the number of people who are now inactive has increased by 3.4 million to 16 million. This is where the challenge lies as this group will include people who are socially isolated, have a health condition and/or live in an area of deprivation – all real issues that we need to tackle. With lockdown poised to end we’re very hopeful that we can use this time not just to provide activity to those that are already active but to support those that need it the most.”
As more and more of us are vaccinated, our expectation is that we will be able to reinstate our group walks and, hopefully, lots of new people will join us for the social and health benefits. Wherever you are you should be able to find a scheme near you and, if the walking bug has bitten you, why not join us and train to lead some walks? It could be just an hour or so a month or, if you have more time on your hands, an hour a day. Fingers crossed it will not be long before we are all walking back to happiness.