When my eldest child was tiny and my youngest child was a mere possibility, I spent my days wandering aimlessly around Manchester. At least it would have appeared that way to an overhead observer. If you plotted my routes on a map they would look like webs spun by spiders given amphetamines as a science experiment. Actually though, my routes were carefully plotted in advance to take in as many interesting yet undiscovered bits of Manchester as possibly. Obviously, that’s undiscovered to me. I think the people who lived there had probably already cottoned on to their existence. I wanted to figure it all out, to be able to visualise a flawless road map in my head. I was channelling my inner cabbie.
I would pack up our bags in the morning – water and chocolate for me, milk and nappies for the other – then set off. On average we would cover ten miles, some days more, some less. When the baby was asleep I would put my headphones on and listen to music or radio 4. When he woke up, I would sit him up and we would have a chat, of sorts, then stop at the nearest park and have something to eat. After some lunch and a roll around on the grass it would be time for a bit more sleep (him, not me) and I would amble home again, preferably taking the most convoluted route I could muster1. I thought about all sorts during those long walks. I wrote a dozen novels. I had a hundred imaginary conversations with people who don’t exist. I decided to put on a music festival on the banks of the river Mersey. I thought about my career a bit and decided that I would like to be a cartographer/train driver/undertaker. I also concluded that if I ever had another child, I would need a huge project to fill the long, uneventful hours looking after two children2.
Most of my parenting colleagues were out doing other things while I was out walking. They tended to go to organised activities which involved being somewhere at a specific time and interacting with other people. This was a bit much for me. It’s not that I don’t like other people. In fact I think other people are endlessly fascinating but I find they work best in small, intense doses like food colouring. So I usually turned down their invites in favour of exploring the wilds of Northenden or Sale or Reddish or wherever. My long walks, in all weathers, were strengthening and healing and dare I say it, good for my soul. If my pelvic floor was grumbling at the trauma I’d put it through, it was nothing compared to the beating I’d given to my delicate little sense of identity. If you’re prone to a bit of good old introspection, then there is nowhere better to find it than 14 miles into a 15 mile walk on a rainy Tuesday in November. Over the course of a few months, my poor broken body put itself back together again and my brain, with its own space to meander about a bit, started to settle into its new normality.
As well as all the self-discovery guff, I also thought a lot about something else. I realised that walking – or running, or flying, or catching a train – is magic. Or at least, magical. Now, I freely admit that when I was newly post-partum I went a little bit mad. But this feeling of translocation, of being in one place at one moment in time and another place a bit later, still bewilders me. And I realised that I’ve always felt like this. It’s hard to articulate exactly what I’m getting at but essentially, I think that airline pilots are as close to magical as you’re ever likely to find. You get up in the morning in your normal house, you maybe snaffle down some Weetabix and off you go to work. Then, during the course of the day, you do something so incredible, that by the end of your shift, you’re on the other side of the world! It’s not teleportation but my goodness, it’s a close approximation. And I realised that my love of walking (and my love of maps, which definitely pre-dates my love of walking3) is all based around the idea that moving from one place to another, by any means including your legs, is a really, really remarkable thing.
While I’ve been writing this, I’ve had the following online exchange with my husband
Me – you know if you travel from one place to another
just on the bus or the train or whatever
so in the morning you’re in one place then
later on you’re somewhere different
do you find that a bit amazing and magical?
or is it just me?
when you fly over somewhere
isn’t that pretty amazing?
i’ve never been to siberia
but i’ve flown over it
which is kind of bonkers
(i promise i’m not on drugs)
it is amazing
we have flown over siberia
we’ve been over that bit of the earth
above it, but actually over it
I find the bus a little less magical
So it’s not just me, which is reassuring. And sure, the bus might be slightly less magical, as is stomping along the B5167 in the rain but the principle is the same. Translocation. There’s the altered perspective when you’re travelling too. I found out, on maternity leave, that you can walk the length of the river Mersey from Cheadle to Sale without encountering a single person. Unless you count the thousands of people zooming along the M60 as it crosses the river above your head. I saw herons and just once, a kingfisher along the river bank from a perspective that was mine and mine alone.
None of the drivers on any of the many bridges crossing my walks along the Fallowfield Loop knew what was going on right below their wheels, the hidden worlds of Victorian architecture, graffiti and broken glass (I didn’t say it was all pretty). One of my favourite train journeys is the transpennine school-bus-train from Manchester to Sheffield. The views are spectacular as you would expect but I’m always intrigued by the bits you can only see from the train. The creeks and rivulets coming down the hills. When was the last time a person stood in that exact spot? Has anyone ever? So much world right there on my doorstep and so little time.
I try not to think too much about the places I haven’t been and the things I haven’t seen because the enormity of it could send a person down a rabbit hole. A bit like flying over Siberia. I could make a list of places I would like to visit and start working on it now but it would never be complete. I haven’t even seen all of Stockport yet. I still go walking at lunchtime sometimes, pottering around, each journey giving me a slightly better internal road map. I always come back to my desk feeling like I’ve achieved something even if that something is merely a self-indulgent stroll through Hulme. I’ll probably never get to see the curvature of the Earth from space but there’s still plenty to marvel at on the 15.49 from Manchester Piccadilly.
- I know that I’m making the act of parenting sound disgustingly easy. It wasn’t though. These long walks were sometimes the only thing keeping my brain in its box.
- I would spend hours as a child looking through the road atlas searching for interesting sounding places that I wasn’t able to go and see because I was only 8 years old. So many places.