Each lunchtime I take a walk, both for the exercise and to get what passes for fresh air in the centre of London. It’s a walk of about 3 miles, which is about as long as is decent for lunchtime. The terrain isn’t particularly challenging of course, but what it lacks in ruggedness it makes up for in terms of being able to just switch off, plough on and let my mind wander. Which is pretty much what this post does…
Of course sometimes I extend my walk into work in the mornings, which is usually dependent on (a) how early I get up and (b) how much I’ve got to do when I get into the office. On a good day, I get off the train one stop early at Limehouse, and walk the 3 miles into the City. If I’m working in Canary Wharf, then I stay on at Limehouse until Fenchurch Street and walk back along the river to Docklands. I must have walked that stretch of the Thames Path enough times now to equal the length of the whole path, and for an urban walk it’s a bit on the testing side – what with cobbled streets, steps to climb, cyclists to avoid and exposure to the elements if the weather’s a bit fruity along the river.
But first thing in the morning, although my riverside commute helps wake me up ready for the day to come, it’s not so great for generating new ideas. These walks are best for analyzing existing problems – be they personal, professional, financial, domestic or walking-related. Sometimes, like many people, it’s simply rehearsing upcoming conversations in my head. Or maybe I am just nuts. In any case, creativity has to wait for later in the day, when I’m more tired, the mental barriers are down and the ideas come by themselves. Sometimes, of course it’s more about reflection on past walking, and a number of my recent favourite fells posts were crafted in my head on a lunchtime bimble, as I allowed my mind to drift off and imagine being in those great places. Of course in my daydreams the weather is always great, I never get lost or tired and there’s no one else around. In fact it’s always a bit like this, the wisps of cloud matching the wisps of thoughts in my mind:
So most of my walk inspiration comes from my lunchtime strolls. Most of my recent ideas for my upcoming Lakes wild camping trip grew there. The idea that success on that trip could mean that I could solve at a stroke my accommodation problem on my coast to coast walk in the summer germinated on one of these strolls too. Sometimes, when I’m trying to choose between alternatives for a walk or a trip, these lunchtime strolls give me a chance to test my attitudes to the various aspects of the walk to work out what the most important things are. I know I often start out wanting to fit everything into a hillwalking trip and usually have to trim back my plans to be more realistic. My city walks help me prioritise and be comfortable with my revised plans.
I’ve tried standing or sitting still to think and had only limited success, and only then at tarns. The ideas just don’t flow. The one place it certainly doesn’t work is on a remote mountain top with a stunning view all around. I can’t concentrate then and all I can do is look at the view and give that my attention. But that’s as it should be. No, I seem to need both the motion of putting one foot in front of the other, and a lack of visual stimulation around me in order to generate quality thoughts and to let my most creative ideas come to the fore. The rate at which ideas come out is in direct proportion to my velocity. This is also how I get through the more tedious parts of “proper” walks – a long slog through woodland, featureless terrain, or the last 5 miles of the Cumbria Way. Or indeed almost any terrain that is familiar. My local walk along the Mardyke – an 11 mile out and back zombie plod being a case in point. I engage turbo-reflect mode and just go. Pacerpoles have helped massively as they help maintain rythym and induce the steady mechanical motion needed for my best thoughts.
When it comes to life’s bigger decisions though, a different approach is needed. My urban dream state walks are great for dealing with the day to day thinking and planning future fun. But they’re not so good at clearing through the fog to arrive at really important decisions. To take an example, in the months leading up to me leaving my last employer I was too close to the stress and day to day worries that were emanating from that situation to be able to think clearly enough. Deep down I probably knew the answer, but it needed a trip to the Lake District to allow it to crystallise and feel right. I made the decision to leave on the day I climbed Slight Side and Scafell. I needed a different environment to gain the perspective to allow a decision like that to form. In essence I needed to remove myself from the vicinity of the problem in order to see it clearly. Not that it was a matter of being able to hear myself think – I just needed somewhere where I could patiently let the existing thoughts settle and take shape. A strenuous walk acting as a catalyst for that process.
The Lake District has more places than anywhere else I’ve been that have sufficient for that kind of perspective. Not that they actually need to be that remote or desolate. Places like Alcock Tarn, Cold Pike, Eagle Crag, Easedale Tarn have all been good for this. And many more.
Of course this all sounds the wrong way around – creativity flows in the city, whilst hard-nosed decisions come in the outdoors – but that’s what seems to work for me. I need the solitude and silence of the outdoors to let the various strands of big decisions coalesce, and I need the lunchtime urban walk planning creativity as my recharge for the rest of the day, and as the occasional “panic room” refuge during a difficult day.
Unless I have a specific walking project in the planning phase, by default I’m usually thinking about the Lake District. I’ve calculated that I’ve done about 68 days of walks there – not too shabby for someone who lives getting on for 300 miles away and can’t just pop up on the spur of the moment. And this isn’t counting all the other non-walking and “rest” days up there. So it’s fair to say I’ve got to know the area quite well. So well in fact that I’ve memorised the main fells, valleys and lakes such that I can plan a walk, at a high level, without needing a map in front of me and just using what’s in my noggin. And I’m not sure if it is just me but any day I’m on a popular fell I always meet someone who wants to know what “that fell over there” is. I’ve not failed yet to tell them.
Now this isn’t just idle boasting on my part, I’m trying to make a serious point here. This familiarity means that my lunchtime city walks have everything I need for walk planning creativity to flow – motion, a mindless landscape and a decent map in my head. So it’s no wonder that many of my best walk ideas emerge in this fashion. Not that all of my ideas are necessarily great, or don’t benefit from a bit of subsequent refinement.
Take today for instance, when I mused on the fact that the Cumbria Way cuts Lakeland in half vertically and the Coast to Coast route cuts it in half horizontally. Almost immediately the mathematician in me came to the fore and the following question formed: Are there natural routes that cut each of these halves in half again ? And where would these routes start and end ? At the time I had vague thoughts of an Eastern Cumbria Way, a Western Cumbria Way, etc. That one actually proved a bit much for my mental map, so I’ve had to bring this one home with me.
[And the answer to today’s musings ? Well I reckon there’s some potential in a Western Cumbria Way and in a more southerly crossing of the Lakes from somewhere like Ravenglass, via Devoke Water, Dunnerdale, the Coniston fells, Ambleside and the Far Eastern fells to Shap. In fact this latter looks such a good route that it’s my pencilled in route for the Lake District chunk of my actual Ravenglass to Holy Island C2C route this year. The northern and eastern routes look a lot less promising.]
Anyway, I digress, which of course is what happens a lot mentally on my lunchtime perambulations. This post is actually a pretty good indication of how my thoughts wander and evolve as I’m walking. After the above topic got labelled too difficult on today’s walk, my thoughts drifted on to the idea of writing this post, and then onto the topic of my next post – my Lake District Bucket List. But you’ll have to wait for that one as I need a couple of lunchtimes and early morning commutes to knock that post into shape.