The Land Lines blog is delighted to share this essay, with brilliant accompanying photos, from Andy Thatcher – a film maker, photographer, writer and researcher. You can visit Andy’s website and Instagram page for more. This essay reflects on the virtues of local walking in a time of lockdown. For more on this topic, check out Ian Tattum’s blog post on walking and COVID-19 here!
From the Periphery to the Centre and Back Again: A Journey through Lockdown
In the time before Covid-19, striking up a good conversation in Exeter frequently ended up with comparing notes on moorland, bluebells, coves or cows. Exeter’s easy access to two coastlines, two national parks and everything between them meant that sharing favourite places was often on a par with sharing stories about one’s children or pets. Exeter can seem more like a base for exploring than a destination, and while it does have some splendid green spaces, it’s difficult to shed the feeling of urbanity on foot; everywhere feels distinctly managed, tampered with, and not simply left to get on with things. You have to do a bit of investigating to find any corners of vegetal anarchy, and I’ve been doing just this over the past few years.
It’s a splendid thing to begin a long walk from one’s doorstep. I grew up in Tunbridge Wells, which is blessed with pockets of scruffy woodland, and from my home in East London, I explored the Lea Valley wetlands and the southernmost heaths and skinny woodlands of the Epping Forest. In Exeter, I’ve got to know the top of the River Exe estuary as it flows beneath the M5, the riding stables, farms and woodland at Stoke Hill, the pylon-dotted Clyst floodplain, and the town green and remote c.14th church at Pinhoe. Such places show heavy traces of human activity; the holloway leading down to Digby & Sowton station is tarmacked and the graveyard gate at Pinhoe leads into fencing protecting a vast new – and paused – housing development in an old clay quarry. There’s a kind of picturesque here, but it’s off, like a jigsaw of a thatched cottage with some pieces badly scuffed and others missing. Such places are popular with dog walkers, teenagers and young parents, but Dartmoor or the Jurassic Coast are seductive to those of us looking for a decent walk.
There’s environmental virtue in not driving an hour to go walking, and there’s an affirming satisfaction to staying local, but these aren’t my only motives: I get a certain pleasure gleaning what others overlook. Finding a stream clogged with retired lampposts fires my imagination no less than a mist-wrapped tor, and discovering a bee orchid outside a homeless hostel is if anything more of a thrill than finding myself within feet of a cuckoo up on the heaths. There’s also a pleasurable melancholy to overlooked places, and the bramble-choked paths behind a housing estate afford a very different kind of solitude to that of unending and empty moorland.
I realise I’ve made a lot of comparisons here, and that’s likely part of the pleasure: the choice of this place over that helps make it unique, precious, special. And so on March 23rd, when Exeter’s tracks became the only ones available, they changed utterly, and in ways that were fascinating.
For my wife, daughter and I, there is something celebratory about going for a decent walk. We take something sweet to enjoy, we chat about things beyond the mundane, we are happy being silent together, carry the stupidest ideas to their wildest conclusions, we find new things to talk about. We are not alone in this, and the hearty greetings with strangers and conferring over stiles, cows and ominous clouds is a major part of what makes walking such a pleasure.
When I showed my family my solitary, melancholy circuits around Exeter, they were no longer either solitary or melancholy, but had become well-populated with others. And the sense of celebration, already helped by the glorious spring weather, was helped further yet by those others like us, exercising their right to be out of their homes, to be with one another, and to be enjoying the erupting foliage and blossom in the face of mounting anxiety, confusion, anger and grief.
It was beautiful sharing my odd little walks with my family. It was beautiful sharing them with fellow walkers, and knowing that for some, they were exploring these tangled tracks and scruffy corners for the first time. I shared my knowledge of the holloways, and how paths interconnected, and it was beautiful recasting an activity I’d felt slightly perverse, slightly self-indulgent, as a contribution to a common good.
This experience, however, stopped well short of being rhapsodic. A reason I’ve always journeyed beyond built-up areas is not just to engage with a more raw and vital natural environment, but also to forget all that we are doing to it. While it’s thrilling to linger in the mist beneath a motorway bridge and experience the sublime dichotomy of awe and horror to be found there, doing so is catalytic rather than invigorating: it makes me confront the unfolding ecological catastrophe and challenges my role in it. After too much of this kind of engagement, a sickness creeps in and all I want is to dissolve into spaciousness, beauty and obscure green corners. I am fortunate that I can do so relatively easily: my nearest spot for that is a ridge of heathland, the Pebblebed Heaths, which became a National Nature Reserve in December and are a fifteen-minute drive away. You can see the ridge widely across the area, from the hills around Exeter and, before the trees come into leaf, from our upstairs windows. Lockdown turned the ridge into an island, put out of reach by an inundating channel, fierce and unknowable. While I savoured suburban blackthorn blossom, marvelled at morning shadows on the traffic-free M5, joked with strangers as we danced out our social distancing, I did not stop needing to escape it all.
Everything changes and the pandemic will end – somehow, some day. Many people, probably most people, will return to old habits. But many of us will have a knowledge of and relationship with our local area far deeper than before. It will always be available to open out and never be entirely forgotten. Many will remember lockdown and how good it was to be out walking, and how good it was not to have to jump into a car or decide on where to park. And my hope is that a deeper connection with the local will stimulate a wish to protect local green spaces, something proven time and again to be the most significant way of engaging people in actively pro-environmental behaviours.
My odd little walks around Exeter’s periphery will not be the same, either. They will return to being solitary, but the melancholy will be altered: the pockets of woodland and vestigial farmland will be infused both with the defiance of those lockdown walks and the bafflement and deep unease of that moment in time. And, perhaps most important of all to me, that memory will be a collective one.
by Andy Thatcher