What’s the best way to keep in shape during the lockdown? That’s the First World problem I’ve been using to distract me during these strange, distressing times. My wife and teenage children are doing online workouts, but that looks far too tiring. Instead, I’m walking round Britain — in my back garden.
I got the idea from a walking trail called Walk the Planets, in Ruislip Woods, not far from where I live. It’s a round trip of about two miles, which doubles as a tour of the solar system. At a scale of five billion to one, Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars are barely a hundred yards apart (on the same scale the nearest star system, Alpha Centauri, would be in San Francisco).
I’ve walked that route more times than I can count, and now I’m stuck at home it got me thinking: why not map out a similar walking trail around Britain, in my back garden? On a more modest scale (17,600 to one, if my maths is right), in a few minutes I can walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats and back again. As I complete each circuit fond memories come flooding back: Exmoor, Dartmoor, the Peak District, the Yorkshire Dales — outings I took for granted until a few weeks ago, all of them off-limits now.
It’s only now that we can’t travel that we realise how much these places mean to us — places we’ve never lived in, but places we feel a deep affection for nonetheless. ‘Tourist’ tends to be a dirty word these days but tourism is part of the history of these places — not only an essential industry, but something that connects pampered urbanites like me with the wilder corners of the country. Our parents took us there and we took our children there. Our happy holidays in these locations are part of the stories of our lives.
Naturally, it’s right and proper that these places are out of bounds in the current crisis. The last thing locals need is townies turning up and making life even more difficult. Yet our feelings for these places are sincere. Where would the Lake District be without interlopers like Beatrix Potter, Arthur Ransome and Alfred Wainwright? Where would St Ives be without outsiders like Barbara Hepworth and Bernard Leach?
So, where will you head for, when life finally returns to normal? I’d like to walk along the Water of Leith, through Edinburgh, once more. I’d love to go back to Catterline, on the Aberdeenshire Coast. It’d be good to return to Hadrian’s Wall, but most of all I want to be back on the Thames Path. When my son was small we walked from the Thames Barrier all the way to Henley. Now he’s bigger than me, maybe we can complete the trip, from Henley to the source. As I wander round my garden I revisit all these places in my mind’s eye. It’s no substitute for being there, but it makes me realise what I’m missing, and how much I’ll relish these journeys when we’re allowed to travel again.
In the meantime I’m getting to know my garden a lot better. This land used to be an orchard. These trees were here before I was here. They’ll be here after I’m gone. Somehow, that feels oddly comforting right now. ‘The world reveals itself to those who walk,’ said Werner Herzog. Even if you’re only walking round and round in circles in your back garden.