Walking is all about exploring and discovering, but one thing I learned this year is that there is a lot to explore and discover by wandering both far and near, in long hikes or in frequent, short rambles around the same patch. The various lockdowns in Britain throughout 2020 kept us restricted to tighter spaces. Everybody discovered new patches of nature in their neighbourhoods but for me what stood out most was seeing the incremental changes in one place as the seasons flourished and waned, and the feelings of deep satisfaction and delight that such immersion brought.
When the first full national lockdown came into effect in late March 2020, I started to (respectfully) walk a 3km loop around the fields behind my family house, as the popular walking paths in the area were now visited by a lot more people consciously using their one permitted outing per day. I had never really bothered to loop around these fields in the past as I didn’t think they would offer me much in the way of excitement compared to the woods and parklands. I was wrong. Crop fields though they are, on the fringes were a plethora of wildflower gems, including a spectacular June-time burst of wild chamomile that I had never seen before, its heady scent carrying to me on the faint summer breeze. I watched the rapeseed crop bloom vibrant yellow, and delighted in the fluffy bumble bees that frequented it for the pollen that also dusted my clothes. Ruby red poppies sprang up. The wheat matured from green to soft gold.
As I would visit these fields almost daily, come rain or shine, I saw the flow of plant life as they rose and fell with the timing of the year. Where I’d only previously noticed bare soil or a vast spread of monocrop on my infrequent visits down the farm track, I now saw vivacious life. I saw families of foxes and badgers (including one notable afternoon out photographing, when the rapeseed crop started swishing violently in a Jurassic Park-like manner and out burst a big fox, followed rapidly by a mother badger and two babies! Or the time a fox was so absorbed in pouncing into the tall grass for prey that it didn’t even notice me). I paid close attention to details, spending my time drinking in the scents, shapes and colours. The big chestnut tree offered up thousands of flowers. The big oak’s canopy grew dense with leaves. Foxgloves, adorned with raindrops, swayed in the long grasses. It was almost unbelievable to me when bare, baked reddish soil churned by tyre tracks suddenly exploded with vast patches of knee-high wildflowers.
When I returned to Shropshire after the lockdown ended, I rejoiced in returning to my favourite woodlands. After months of wandering fields, the larches, beeches and oaks felt like sky-scrapers. I was actually awed by the height of them, even though it was only a few months since I’d seen them. With me came a birthday gift of Nan Shepherd’s The Living Mountain, a book that seems to capture the essence of a hiker more truly than anything else I have read. But, what I took most from the book was how Nan Shepherd’s love of the Cairngorm mountains meant that she returned over and over and over, year after year, intimately getting to know the same area. Although the Cairngorms are far vaster than my little patch of fields, the principle of wandering near really struck a chord. Hiking doesn’t have to be all about the glories of tackling this or that peak, or earning the spectacular views from up high, or conquering long distances, as incredible as all those things are. There is real merit in truly getting to know one place consistently over time. To watch how a familiar area is still constantly changing, and to feel that you understand it.
I hope I’ll always be able to hike far and wide, and I have a big bucket list of places that I want to visit and see, even if just the one time (such as Oregon’s stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail). But I will never underestimate the joy, satisfaction and meaning in continually revisiting the same place, season upon season, nor of being in or amongst the ‘wild’ daily.
In fact, as awful as the national lockdown was in many ways, in one way I was completely content and much happier than I normally am: the office-based 9-to-5 was gone, and there was a glorious pocket of wild nature just down from my doorstep that I could visit daily. Daily. It reinforced what I already knew in my heart that I need: time and space for that inner wildness to flourish, and balance me from the inside out. Who knows what the future holds but I know that, for me, that daily proximity to wildness is non-negotiable. It’s comforting to know that with the right lifestyle choices, that is going to be possible – and this year I will ardently pursue it with all the power in my heart.
As we begin 2021, my wish for you is that you can spend the coming winter months wrapping yourself in self-care and the joys of slowness, and that when the spring returns you can embrace the coming of the light and energy to make your dreams unfold. You’ll find me, as usual, heading into the outdoors as much as possible and I look forward to sharing more of my ‘rambles’ with you.
Happy New Year!