We are delighted to welcome back guest writer Ian Tattum to the Land Lines blog, with his thoughts on walking in a time of COVID-19. Ian is a priest in the Church of England and currently works in South West London. He has written feature articles for the Church Times on Gilbert White and Mary Anning, and the role churches can play in conservation. He has also written for the Land Lines blog on previous occasions: see the bottom of this article for links to his other articles.
Walking with COVID-19
Traffic sounds are faint, but the reassuring rumbling whoosh of the District Line which used to charm me to sleep in my last house – the line was at the bottom of our garden and gave the illusion that we had our own gigantic train set – crosses Wimbledon Park and Wimbledon Golf course in a single bound. It is the one element of the dawn chorus, apart from the honking of the Canada Geese arriving on Capability Brown’s lake, which I can immediately identify. My attention searches out the great tits sharpening their flints in the distance and a blackbird bidding farewell to the night, and a robin’s mellifluous war cry is launched from the hawthorn shadow just above my head.
“a robin’s mellifluous war cry is launched from the hawthorn shadow just above my head.” – Ian Tattum
The road to Wimbledon Tennis Championship is quiet, until the 6am bus passes. I have taken this walk many times before, but always in the daytime. It was one of the first long walks that I discovered on moving to London 13 years ago. In Hertfordshire I had relished long walks from home, often into the nearby Chiltern Hills, and I was delighted to discover that South West London offered similar possibilities, thanks to the green artery which linked nearby Wimbledon Park to Wimbledon Common, and then via a footbridge into Richmond Park. There was added appeal in the presence of the River Thames.
But my walk today was different. I had not set out early because I wanted to hear the waking birds, but because I wanted to avoid the emerging humans. I always relish unpeopled walks, but this was the first time I was seeking to protect myself from contagion. With a wife suffering from ME at home who is always vulnerable to any pathogens I bring back with me, and a professional role, which controversially for some is seen as meriting key worker status, I was conscious of danger. Even the act of sniffing the air to try to detect seasonal scents had been changed into a diagnostic process as I had been told that a loss of a sense of smell was one of the key indicators for COVID-19!
Already I had been greeted by a smartly dressed friend off to work at the hospital, who I didn’t recognise at first because I had never seen her before in twilight, and passed a slow-walking elderly Muslim man who I was to discover took the very same route every morning – whether because he had the same fears as me, or due to a pre-existing routine, I have yet to discover.
Last summer at The Borders and Crossings Travel Writing Conference I presented a paper on walking from home, subtitled ‘No Snow Leopards Required’ – a reference to Peter Matthiessen’s acclaimed, zen-soaked book about a Himalayan journey taken in the 1970s. Taking The Snow Leopard as a conversation companion, my argument was that what could be described, very broadly speaking, as ‘spiritual’ journeying did not need exotic travel in order to be fulfilled, and that in an age of environmental degradation local exploration could become a rewarding, and far less damaging, substitute. I also drew on the perspective of my age and working class background, and personal experience, to suggest that travelling far has been a very recent obsession, which might turn out to be a temporary habit, rather than what many people have come to believe to be an essential component of a life worth living. The speaker who came after me laughed at the idea that a little bit of environmental anxiety would hinder people’s search for cultural enrichment by travel. Neither he nor I imagined that a virus might have something to say about that!
Since last summer I have also read Losing Eden by Lucy Jones and In Praise of Walking by Shane O’Mara, so I want to revisit my reflections then in the light of what they have to say and our current experience of being forced to travel locally. The gist of my talk at the conference was that my practice of walking long distance was not born of Romanticism, or a taste for hiking, but out of necessity and familial kindness. One of my earliest memories is of setting off from our red brick council house in Bletchley with my mother and my brother, on a summer’s day in the very early 1960s, into the nearby farmland of Tattenhoe. The open fields have long since disappeared under Milton Keynes but ever since that day farm gates have held out the prospect of wonders beyond. When I told my mother that I can clearly remember coming eye to eye with my first ear of wheat on that day, her riposte, was that such a proximate encounter was due entirely to me refusing to get out of my push chair! She went on to tell me that she had to persuade my father to sell that push chair so I had no choice but to walk from then on. Even if I have to confess that I was not moving under my own power on that mythical occasion, my taste for exploration had begun, despite the cost in weariness for my mother’s limbs.
“The open fields have long since disappeared under Milton Keynes but ever since that day farm gates have held out the prospect of wonders beyond.” – Ian Tattum
An even more definitive walk came less than a decade later. My mother had a much younger sister, Lesley, who stayed with us often, and came to combine the role of aunt with that of grown up sibling. When she wasn’t buying us things my parents could not afford, or terrifying us by recounting horror stories at bed time, she encouraged our interests. So when Woburn Safari Park opened in 1970 and I expressed excitement about seeing the lions and other exotic wild animals, she immediately insisted that we should go. There were two major obstacles to this commitment however: firstly Woburn was over six miles from our home and we had no means of transport, and much more seriously she had become seriously ill. She had been recently diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was currently undergoing chemo and radiotherapy. The attrition to her body of these drastic treatments had caused massive weight loss and physical weakness.
But she insisted that she was going to take me to the park, whatever the challenges. In those days of quieter roads it was possible to avoid major traffic hazards by walking along country lanes. So on one memorable day we set off, walked to Woburn and all around the grounds accessible by foot. From the safari bus we were able to see the disappointingly inert predators. And then we walked home.
I was exhausted by the day but I have never failed to marvel at Lesley’s resilience and determination.
Since then, I have felt going there and back again by foot is the most rewarding way to travel and have remained possibly overconfident in the ability of will power to prevail over tiredness.
Over the years my perspective has shifted, from thinking of walking as the most readily available and convenient way of getting to a destination and back, to an appreciation of its more subtle benefits.
One of the attractions for me of The Snow Leopard is that it introduced the concept of mindfulness a long time before it became fashionable, and in its more fully rounded original form where presence and embodiment and the human condition are given precedence over the therapeutic – the spirit of Basho is never far below the surface.
Of this painful world.’
Walking has become a spiritual exercise of noticing and being and wonder; as I said in my talk last year, I may not have been able to glimpse sun-splashed Himalayan snows through the parting clouds or sit in stillness and watch a lammergeier ride the skies, but I have walked at night in Buckinghamshire when heavy snowfall has silenced the M40 and had a chance encounter with a vulture in Richmond Park!
“Walking has become a spiritual exercise of noticing and being and wonder” – Ian Tattum
I began this reflection with a description of an early morning walk and birdsong in the context of a world transformed by COVID-19. Like many other people who are concerned with the well-being of people and the rest of the natural world, I have great hopes that after this disturbing pause in what has become normality, we will not simply go on as before.
In their different ways, Lucy Jones and Shane O’Mara have enriched our understanding of the science which underpins the value of walking and engaging with nature. O’Mara uses neuroscience to argue that Descartes would have been better to say ‘I walk therefore I am’ and Jones draws on a whole range of disciplines to show why immersion in nature pleases us and works for us, and why its protection has become a new moral imperative.
Many more people now know their own locality. They have had to walk in it through necessity. They have begun to notice the seasonal changes and delight in the comings and goings of insects and birds, and the new clarity of the air. We are also, we like to insist, more appreciative of the ecology of human relations. It seems to me that this moment of collective fear could also be one of redeeming change, inspired by a peculiar kind of nostalgia for a few months of accidental rewilding.
by Ian Tattum
See Ian’s previous articles here:
- The Wildlife and Garden at St Barnabas Church, Southfields – Revd. Ian Tattum
- Mary Anning: A Short Biography by Ian Tattum
- David Lack and The Life of the Robin