There truly is no better way of exploring places than on foot. Walking heightens the senses like no other form of transport can, giving a genuine understanding of the world around you. Much of what I’ve discovered on my travels I’ve learned through my feet, walking through cities, coasts and countryside.
Walking feeds the senses
Moving at a slower pace, in, rather than through, your surroundings, enhances your awareness of the small sensations of a place. The reverberation of sounds from near and far, a sudden bright splash of colour or a sharp waft of smell, even the gentle movement of air, translate into the types of experience all travellers relish. Stumbling upon a pavement café with excellent coffee and cake, or a street food vendor dishing up a local delicacy. Catching a glimpse of the flyer for live music at at a hip venue, some distinctive local architecture, or the intriguing piece of street art, laden with political meaning. A fresh breeze round a corner showing the direction to the harbour, with the promise of freshly-caught seafood and a chilled glass of wine as you watch fishermen go about their business.
Then the intangibles of the place that confirm its geography: salt-loaded air, the shriek of gulls, sparkling crystals in the grey granite walls of my home town, catching the low sun of a northern autumn day. The lapping of water, the leafy shadows across the path, blossom on the trees, weather changes, birdsong. Noticing everything as an ardent naturalist to pin down the season, the latitude and longitude, the reason for being in this place, here and now.
Walking makes connections
Cities, in the main, are designed to be walked. Possibilities open up beyond bus routes and tube stations, and walkers invent their own ways to go, building new links between A and B. With many people now spending a majority of time indoors, at home, in the office, in shops, hotels, bars, galleries, a number of disconnected interiors, walking inhabits the spaces in between. It gives a sense of moving through the whole world, not just a modest part.
On foot, landmarks take on additional relevance, as travellers look for focal points in the landscape, building their individual maps and orientating themselves by experience. Coming and going, getting to know places, you seed them with a crop of stories and associations. Relating personal geography to maps provides bearing to locations in both space and time, revealing hidden histories through street names, districts, parks, trail marks, and creating new possibilities for exploration.
Walking is good for body and soul
Walking is the most accessible form of physical activity, requiring no special training or equipment. Almost everyone can do it, anywhere, and at any time. Those new to idea of exploring places on foot can start slowly, building up gradually as they gain confidence, whilst others more comfortable with distance and direction will know where and when they can push their limits. And like all physical exertion, especially that taking place outdoors, in the fresh air, the surge of chemicals within your physiology focuses the mind, and leaves the body relaxed.
Walking is free, and freeing
A mainstay item of the budget traveller’s itinerary, walking is magnificently free of charge. But more than this, the degree of self-reliance, the little bit of imagination, and the sense of adventure necessary to walk out and explore, gives you freedom. Freedom from schedules and timetables, freedom from the usual daily routine; the luxury of time and space. Freedom to think.
That great ideas and thoughts are formed whilst walking, especially whilst walking alone, is a concept many writers adhered to, from philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche to travel writer Bruce Chatwin to criminal mastermind Agatha Christie. New places offer up new thoughts, new alternatives. The frequent punctuation of a city, imparting countless grains of ideas, giving way to longer, more uninterrupted thoughts in open landscapes, stretching all the way to the horizon.
And then myself, the buoyant rhythm of arms swinging in time with legs that only comes from long miles, is a meditation on living in the moment, of being aware of here and now. As a child, roaming freely in my surroundings, the opportunity to be able to get a little lost and then figure out the way back, was what developed my sense of adventure, my imagination, and my independence. I relish the opportunity to go out of my way, beyond the boundaries of what I know, then find my way back those few extra miles, on a new trail or by the needle of a compass; to lose myself for a time, though I know where I am. Then to round a corner or crest a ridge and return to the start, to the familiar, and see it as if I have never seen this place before.