memorable walks

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kindness of strangers

Reading the blog, and talking yesterday with Liz, one of our researching walkers, I’m reminded of a walk I took this time last year. The whole walk followed a European walking route over a stretch from Stroud in Gloucestershire to Derby – a walk of over a hundred miles. My walking companions were able bodied and I was walking in a wheelchair. Needless to say there were lots of stretches of the walk that were inaccessible to me, and this story records one of the more subtle things about access, how we (or more accurately in this case I) experience obstacles emotionally. I often find myself chastising myself for being a wimp, feeling that I should be brave, take more risks, challenge myself and sometimes others.

In May of 2012 a small group of friends and I made a walk to Derby from Gloucestershire. The original motivation came from a conversation with my friend Richard, who is doing his PhD using drawing to facilitate people to engage in discussions about landscape. He had noticed that the second Affective Landscapes conference was being held in Derby, and saw an opportunity for us to do some more researching together, continuing some of the themes touched on in our slow walking towards the Severn project and some of the issues from our talking/writing group of friends, who had originally met through Local Agenda 21.

The project interested me, as someone who wants to challenge some assumptions about walking, particularly walking as research method (such as the assumption some people make that it should be a lone pursuit, undertaken in wild places etc), and to explore the distinctive contribution of disabled people in relation to embodied knowing, knowing about the body in space/place. It also pressed a lot of buttons in relation to physical access and the marginalised body.

The walk was planned in two and three day stages, to fit with our availability, and timed so that we would walk into Derby the evening before the conference and present a paper about the walk the next day.

Many things have come out of the Derby walking project for me, and one of them relates to kindness, specifically the kindness of strangers.

The towpath between Finwood and Kingswood Brook, north of Bushwood Grange.

Moving towards the M4 as it crosses the canal the speeding horizontal of the traffic sucks in the landscape around it, tugging at our attention, as if catching silk on a bramble. Tugged.

The other side of the motorway, pushing forward to find a lost tranquility we are stung by the rasp of quad bikes ripping their way out of the green lane and over the tiny bridge (‘insufficient to carry heavy cars’) and down the towpath the way we came.

So far, so far then…

At Kingswood Brook the towpath is commandeered by a garden, and the garden gate wears a ‘private property’ sign CIMG2925

 We take a detour onto the Grand Union canal towpath, passed (locked) facilities, including a disabled toilet – odd as this turns out to be a near inaccessible island! The alternative route at this junction of the two canals is guarded by steep steps. Just over the brow of the top step is visible another ‘private‘ sign on another garden gate.

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Lunch in the pub for everyone else it seems, but not for me as the pub where we arranged to meet is on the other side of those steps.

Alison runs up and down towpaths looking for an accessible way out, at this point it looks as if I may just have to backtrack a mile to Kingswood Junction, where we met the quad bikes, and resign myself to travelling by van again. Helpful cyclists stop, they warn of more steps at bridges, and shake their heads as they try to imagine what an accessible surface might look like. It’s hard to step out of mobility and into being disabled.

Finally we return to the steep bridge over the Stratford canal, which we passed earlier, its blue engineering bricks shiny and smooth, the surface ridged by small brick steps. I feel anxious that I might overturn on the smooth surface, vulnerable and exposed as I would be unable to right myself or my wheelchair. Alison makes off over the bridge to see where the path leads on the other side, I wait impatiently, feeling like a wimp, what would once have felt fun feels frightening.

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There is a way out beyond the bridge she says – still I dither, anxious, afraid of overturning like a black beetle. We turn away as Alison and I discuss what’s so hard about it.  And then it happens again, the kindness of strangers. Down the towpath two women are walking, both substantial, strong looking women. We are assessed, the immediate question ‘have you got a problem, can I help?’ I hesitate, then bolstered by the experiences of the last two days say ‘yes’. I admit my fears, explain my need. “Would it help if we came with you?’ another slight hesitation on my part, then ‘yes, please’.

We are on! I square up to the bridge, its brick lips, its camber and steep pitch. One woman either side of me and one behind I motor forwards, up and onto the bridge. I can see the basin and towpath on the other side. (What I don’t see is a real ‘view’ from the top. Getting over is such a struggle all my energy is expended on just overcoming the obstacle). Going down the other side is scary but do-able and talk-and-laugh-about-able. I reach the level towpath and thank them. They continue on their walk, smiling. I am warmed by their care, as I was stung by the ‘private’ notices and the steps.

Further round the canal basin we see evidence of the sell off of the waterways. Useful public buildings are turned into private offices, free boating facilities are locked up. Outside at the back of the building two chairs sit, sadly looking out through a gap in an overgrown hedge.

 

 

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Walking and noticing

I’m at this moment heading back from Bristol to London after our first workshop on the Walking Interconnections research, where as a group of around 25 people we gathered to begin a journey of exploration together on sustainability and disability. Already on the train, and with a couple of hours ahead to get to Paddington Station, my mind starts to fly all the way back through the day – I love these trips back home right after a group activity, where I get flashes of images, sounds and tastes of it; it’s like my mind is trying to grab those nice memories so that they wouldn’t slip away. It was, indeed, a great day.

Two words are still resonating in my head very strongly: walking and noticing. As the workshop evolved, Sue, Dee, Shawn, Suze and Alison presented the background of Walking Interconnections project, and we talked about the practice of walking, disability, sustainability and engaging in interdependency with others, with our communities. More and more, this idea of ‘noticing’ grew into me strongly.

I began to ask myself: How much do I ‘notice’ when I walk every day? How much do I allow myself to “feel the Earth below myself”? How much do I look at other people’s eyes when I’m walking, strangers as they might be, but people I’m walking with at last? How much do I let myself lift my head up, turn around and enjoy while I pass by?

Yes, we are running all the time. And yes, that’s how “the world works”, supposedly. But do I want to feel trapped in the clock, rushing for the sake of rushing? How much do I loose when I do that? What does the world of ‘noticing’ have to offer me that I haven’t realized about yet?

Now I’m out of the train, walking through the station to the underground, and I see… I notice that I don’t notice. That insight made me reflect on something: how can we expect change to happen, if we don’t notice the world that’s around us? I don’t want to fall into the trap of being overly simplistic and say that all the issues of the world will be solved once we start noticing – I wish so certainly, but as much as I would like it to be so linear and straightforward, it is not. However, noticing does feel to me as a major first step. If we want to make things happen, if we want change to occur, we need to start noticing more, engage our whole being, our senses, when we walk, when we talk, when we listen – being present, embodied, showing up completely. Otherwise, it feels to me that it all begins and ends in our heads, sort of an intellectual mind game where we supposedly understand what’s wrong and how to fix it – that’s it! All done! Yet, we are still falling apart…

One of the most transformational things that I have done recently was an eco-walk through the High Moor in Devon. And now I realized why it changed me so much. That day, during that walk, I was able to notice, to feel with heart, mind and soul, The Earth and the community I was with. That’s where the energy came from for me, that’s where I realized that, once I start noticing, I’m not excluding myself anymore from the environment – I merge within, my noticing becomes part of me and I become part of what I notice. And then I can connect, and then I can change, and only then, I can be a helping hand to overall change.

I’m at home now, still getting flashes and glimpses of the great day at Bristol, and fantasizing about the walks ahead; in the meantime, I have my everyday walks to start noticing.

Sole Riestra

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Concrete Purpose of ‘Aimless’ Walks

by Dr Shawn Sobers

 

It was said by someone in an early research planning meeting that, for them, walking was the natural thing to do if they wanted to have a good chat with a friend.  Most of the rest of the group agreed but I didn’t, as walking for walking sake isn’t something I normally do, and if I arrange to meet a friend to chat we would usually go for a drink.  I only usually walk if I am going somewhere.

Well yesterday was slightly different.  After a work-related meeting with a friend, we both knew we had something on our minds and wanted to speak about it to each other straight away in private.  This intuition was prompted by a brief email conversation the week before, so after the work meeting I suggested we go for a walk to chat.  (I did not suggest a walk with this project in mind, it just felt like the right thing to do at the time).  They put their bags and things in the car, and we proceeded to walk up the high street, around the block and back to the starting point, which in all took about 45mins.  Along the way we slowed when the talking got intense, negotiating narrow pavements by walking in the middle of a quiet street, I stopped them at one point walking through dog mess, and we even sat on someone’s front garden wall for a while to talk more closely.  The owner of the house opened the door and was coming in and out with bags, putting them into his car.  I shouted to him laughing, “I hope you don’t mind us sitting on your wall!”  He laughed back saying he didn’t mind.  Whilst sat there another man came past whom my walking partner knew, so they chatted for a while, and in their exchange I found out new things about them – about musical talents they were both pursuing together, which was lovely to find out.

Of course I cannot see through parallel lives and envisage what our conversation would have been like if we had drove aimlessly, if we went to a café, or if we found an empty meeting room in the building we had just left.  There was something about walking being a confidential space.  I knew what we were going to speak about was confidential, so on a walk any ears are transitory, not fixed or fixated.  We could easily have driven somewhere, but where? The negotiation of traffic, burning petrol and trying not to crash whilst concentrating on an important conversation would not be ideal.  The passenger would get the impression the driver is only half listening, (and rightly so!), and would not want to distract from the safety of the road, so the communication would not be equal, candid or spontaneous.  In hindsight we probably should have gone to a café, as our previous meeting ran through lunch time, but I didn’t have any money on me so that would not have been my first option at that precise moment.  It wasn’t raining, so a wandering walk it was.

The walk was beautiful not only for the incidents shared along the way, but also as a platform of communication.  We shared personal things we didn’t know about each other, both directly in the conversation we had, and also in the ease of our body language in such circumstances – for example, giving way to each other, moderating our pace of walking to accommodate the other.

I started this article saying I only usually walk if I have somewhere to go, what I now realise I actually meant, I only usually walk if the walk has a concrete purpose.  Yesterday, the concrete purpose was to communicate.  The exchange of communicate was the destination that gave direction to an ‘aimless’ walk.  Aimless only in the geographic, not meaningful sense.

Near the end I reminded them that this was not the first time we had such a long heartfelt conversation during a long ‘aimless’ walk, the first time being about ten and a half years ago when we got lost together during a group trip to a holiday camp.  They had forgotten all about it, but recalled it instantly when I mentioned it, and laughed.

Walking is a metaphor for many things, and can attach itself to many concrete purposes; you can take ideas for a walk (brainstorming), walking to clear you head, to calm down, to get fresh air, to save money, to see new sights.  Some can only walk with music pumping in their ears, others (like me ) need to feel aware of their surroundings.  During this research I will be interested in pulling some of these threads of social uses of walks in my writing, entwined with the core themes of this research project – of the communication and awareness of environmental concerns through the ‘meeting of minds’ of the people we recruit to go on mutual walks.

My walk yesterday was intimate, not romantic, but it reminds me of the song ‘A Long Walk’ by Jill Scott.  Enjoy.

 

 

 

 

 

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