‘A day without walking seems empty and forlorn’

Country Life's new writer Fiona Reynolds explains why she simply has to get out walking, every single day of the year.

For every hour you’ve spent huddled round the fire this Christmas, I’d be willing to bet that, like me, you spent at least some time outside, revelling in cold, fresh air, because walking is what we do.

Everyone does it: Prime Minister Theresa May loves the Alps; International Development Minister Rory Stewart trekked around his Cumbria constituency, through the Welsh Borders with his father and across Afghanistan; and many of us, like Chancellor Philip Hammond, use dogs as a reason (or excuse) to go outside.

We’re following a long tradition. Charles Dickens walked from Kent into central London to give himself time to think and avoid the crowded railways; Wordsworth tramped the Lake District hills for days on end, drawing inspiration for his writing; Paddy Leigh Fermor walked across Europe in the 1930s simply because it was there.

The historian G. M. Trevelyan wrote: ‘I have two doctors; my left leg and my right.’ He was right.

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We’re told that as little as 20 minutes’ gentle exercise each day is enough to keep us in good health and what better way to take gentle exercise than walk? In William Morris’s words, it’s both useful, in that it gets us somewhere, and beautiful, in the enchantment we can find off the beaten track.

I walk every day, without fail. I do it partly because my lifestyle would be terrible without it — lots of delicious food and good wine and literally no commute from my bed to my desk in the Master’s Lodge of my Cambridge college — but also because a day without it seems empty and forlorn.

River Cam, Cambridge by Rhoda Pepys (1914–2005)

I get up at 5.30am, rain or shine, dark or light, and walk up the River Cam to Fen Ditton and back. It takes me an hour and a half and I earn 12,000 steps. Although I always take the same route, it never looks the same. I walk in pitch dark, summer light or see the dawn break and I spy newly hatched goslings, diving cormorants and beady-eyed herons and terns.

I watch the students (mine, some of them) progress from flailing about with unwieldy oars to become smooth, strong rowers. I see fish leap in the gloaming, I jostle with lumbering cattle grazing on Midsummer Common and, once, I surprised a sparrowhawk as it took a young dove. I’m looking forward to another year unfolding before me.

At home in Gloucestershire this Christmas, I re-trod my favourite route, through the woods from my village near Cirencester in the sparkling frost of an early December morning. The Star in the middle of Hailey Wood is like a magnet, always at the heart of my walks, from which I can progress in any direction.

The walk I love best takes in almost every aspect of this landscape’s history: from the Star through Tarlton Down to Rodmarton along the old Roman road (now a tunnel-like green lane), returning home via the deserted medieval village of Hullasey, the source of the Thames, the tree-clad Iron Age hill fort at Trewsbury and, finally, along the mysterious, atmospheric (because it’s now defunct), 18th-century Thames and Severn Canal.

I feel enfolded in the history of these landscapes and I revel, each time, in new discoveries. I’ll be sharing my walks in Country Life over the coming months. Join me!

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Fiona Reynolds, a former Director General of the National Trust, is Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge. She will be writing about her favourite walks for Country Life. You can also follow her on Twitter @fionacreynolds.