How walking became therapy for my soul

I used to think walking was something you did purely out of necessity. You had to take the dog for a walk or, trapped without a car, you had to walk home.

I spent my childhood at a faster pace. I always wanted to rush on to the next thing. I was, as they say if they’re being kind, ‘irrepressible’. Or, if they’re not, ‘a pain in the arse’.

Up on the Downs above my family home, in Kingsclere, there’s a sign. It reads ‘Wayfarer’s Walk’. The arrow pointing left reads ‘Emsworth, 58 miles’. The one pointing right reads ‘Inkpen Beacon, 12 miles’.

I sometimes wondered what it would be like to walk the whole thing. It was just an idle thought. Andrew, my younger brother, always asked me where Emsworth was.

‘At the end of the Wayfarer’s Walk,’ I said, while giving him a Chinese burn.

‘Or at the beginning,’ he hissed.

I let go of his arm. He had a point.

‘Maybe we should find out,’ he said.

I waved my hand airily. ‘One day.’

In fact, growing up in a racing yard, I used to know the geography of the UK only by racecourses. I knew where Alton Towers was because you can see it from Uttoxeter racecourse, and I could plot my way down the east coast of Scotland and northern England via Perth, Musselburgh, Kelso, Newcastle, Sedgefield and Redcar.

I thought it was perfectly normal to have never travelled to Cornwall, because there are no racecourses west of Newton Abbot. A bit like my brother thought the seasons of the year were Flat and National Hunt, I regarded Newmarket as the capital of the world.

I didn’t have time to just walk. I was too busy rushing on. Then, I wanted to take risks, I wanted an adrenalin rush. I wanted to gallop. In my family, walking just took too long.

‘Why would you walk without a dog or a pitchfork?’ my father would ask. He carries a pitchfork to repair hoof marks in the gallops. Get the prongs in under the divot, lift it up, then tread it level with the grass around it. ‘No point doing a job unless you do it properly.’

Claire-Balding-Nov07-02-590Clare and Archie: all the miles Clare's walked have changed her perception of the countryside

This is the mantra of his life. Dad is a doer, not a thinker. ‘You won’t catch me sitting like a saddo drinking at lunchtime,’ he says, pouring a quarter of a bottle of sherry into his Cupa- Soup.

Maybe that’s why walking never appealed to him. He couldn’t see the risk, or the point.

My mother likes walking, with the dogs or the grandchildren. She picks blackberries or mushrooms and checks the hedgerows for hidden gems. She doesn’t walk with my father because he can’t stroll or forage. He’d be diving off into a field to pull up ragwort, or checking on horses.

If she needs time to think, Mum will take the dogs for a walk. When our puppy was hit by a car and died in my arms, my partner Alice and I were in that state of shocked grief that you never forget.

We drove home to Kingsclere, where Mum had organised for a grave to be dug out. After we had buried him – I still feel a catch in my throat at the horror of it all – Mum took us for a walk.

We trudged in silence, tears blurring our vision, until Ruby the boxer snuffl ed up, her back end waggling with joy. We had to smile at her and we had to keep moving, one foot in front of the other, away from the ghastliness.

Mum believes, as Hippocrates did, that walking is the best medicine for all ailments, mental and physical. She is a lone walker. I cannot imagine her joining a group of strangers or going very far. The word ‘ramblers’ makes her come out in a cold sweat.

‘They have all that kit. Then, when I tell them that they’re not on the footpath, they get aggressive.’

So I didn’t exactly grow up with ambulophobia, but there was a degree of ramblerophobia.

This all changed with a single phone call. In 1999 I was contacted by a BBC Radio 4 producer called Lucy Lunt, who needed a presenter for a new series.

‘Do you walk?’ Lucy asked.

 ‘Well, I walk the dogs,’ I said.

I had moved to London, where my feet were mainly deployed on pavements. I did go home to Kingsclere regularly, and when I was there I made sure I always took the dogs out, so I figured that counted. I had no idea there were people who walked for the sake of it.

Claire-Balding-Nov07-03-590Clare with Lucy Lunt, who produces Ramblings for BBC Radio 4

‘Excellent,’ she said. ‘Now, can you read a map?’

I replied, a little too hastily, ‘Of course I can.’

The Radio 4 series Lucy was signing me up for was called Ramblings. It’s a half-hour programme in which I walk with people all over the country. Fifteen years and 45 series later, it is still going strong.

Of all the things I work on, of all the programmes I have ever presented, Ramblings is my favourite. At a rough estimate, I have covered about 1,500 miles of footpaths, for Ramblings, or just for myself. I have tackled apocalyptic thunderstorms, struggled with blisters, a bad back, a twisted ankle and the wrong clothes, and traipsed through the snow of the Perthshire mountains with no voice (me, not the mountains – they always speak).

All these miles have changed my perception of the countryside. I realise that I spent my childhood looking at a skeleton of Britain. I knew obscure bones, but not about the spine of the Pennine Way, or anything about the capillaries of tiny footpaths that take us deep into the woods.

I have bounced on spring dews and crunched on autumn leaves, I have felt the brutal wind bend me like a misshapen hawthorn bush, and I have strolled for miles with the sun warming my cheeks.

I have walked with historians, geologists, twitchers, botanists, poets, artists and adventurers. They usually have boundless knowledge and endless enthusiasm, so I always learn something new. With every step I discover more about the land in which we live.

I have told people all sorts of things during the course of a walk, and they have told me things they probably never thought they would open up about. That’s because walking side by side is very different from sitting opposite someone. There is only occasional eye contact, so none of that awkward looking up and away if you think you’ve caught their eye for too long. You are sharing an experience.

It is therapy for the soul.

Now, I also try to walk alone as much as possible, or just with Alice. Except we’re not quite on our own – we’re with Archie, our Tibetan terrier. The other day in a London park I suddenly noticed a tree I had never seen before: it looked like a twisted rope leading up to a shaggy head of hair. I stopped and stared, lost in the moment. Archie sniff ed the tree and cocked his leg. He does have a way of bursting your bubble.

I love walking, and I need it. Now I never need an excuse to get out there and discover a new path.

Walking Home, by Clare Balding, is published by Viking, priced £20: