Walking back to Happiness
I am about to head home again for a week of British autumn and, as I pack my suitcase full of thermal undies and attempt to zip it closed (having first removed the dozing cat from within), I am reminded of the last time I packed my bags for a flight – back home in Canterbury after a long, glorious summer in England.
The summer of 2013 was filled with family, friends, sunshine, good food and, perhaps most memorably, some really fabulous walks. There was the wonderful Kent coastal walk I went on with my friend, Jeannine, from Reculver castle to Whitstable, on the hottest day of the year. We had a picnic on a remote bit of beach beneath a strange rocky outcrop and felt like Enid Blyton characters. We flagged down a passing ice-cream vendor on a tricycle to buy bottles of cold water, and ended the day with a blissfully cool sunset paddle and a well-earned pint of locally brewed beer at the Whitstable brewery.
I walked with my brother from Wye to Chilham through the beautiful Kent countryside, along the Stour Valley and up and down the Downs, on another day of booming blue skies and summer sun. The fields were golden with ripe wheat and barley, rippling slightly with the barely-breathing breeze. There were butterflies everywhere – Peacocks, Painted Ladies, Marbled Whites, Chalkhill Blues and many I didn’t recognise from my garden childhood of Red Admirals and Cabbage Whites: I’m told this summer was a particularly good one for the butterflies. There were dazzling patches of wild flowers at the edges and corners of fields – nature at its most free and colourful at the height of the summer – an impressionist blur of purples, reds and yellows. The walk took us through cool, shaded, badgery woodland and along the green banks of the river Stour, on its way to Canterbury.
Grove Ferry and Stodmarsh near Canterbury are favourite haunts of my family, largely for the birdlife, the fresh air and the tranquillity of the reed-beds. I walked here many times this year – more than I ever did when actually I lived in the UK I expect – with my parents and my brothers. Water rails screech from the reeds, ducks do crazy flapping take-offs from the water, flocks of geese honk by and a lone marsh harrier drifts high above, watching and waiting.
I wandered around the grounds of Sissinghurst Castle with my parents and my aunt, admiring the magical Rapunzel towers and the lovely, endless gardens arranged in different coloured ‘rooms’. I explored Batsford Arboretum with my dear friend Kate and her two tiny tots. I roamed the beautiful rolling hills of the Cotswolds with my friends Jo and Simon and their gorgeous little Pappy-Jack pups, ending our walk with chips and a pint of beer in a pub garden with stunning views of the surrounding countryside.
I scaled the rugged heights of Pen Y Fan and Corn Du in the Brecon Beacons with my brother, on a perfect day of fleeting fluffy-white clouds, taking great cleansing lungfuls of the cool, clear air as we climbed. We discovered the highest wheelbarrow in Wales, posed for pictures on cliff edges (well, he did – I was a bit scared) and ate our sandwiches at the summit, looking out towards the dramatically named Black Mountains.
I pottered through the cobbled streets of Canterbury: through the pretty Westgate Gardens with my friend Lou and her baby, Tom; over the bridge, past the wild flower meadow, to the Greyfriars chapel with my friend Stacy and her son, Milo; to the secret riverside butterfly garden with my mum and Aunty Ange; up St Margaret’s Street in the summer rain to meet my friend Kate for afternoon tea at Tiny Tim’s Tearoom.
I walked along the stripy-deck-chaired beachfront at Westgate with my friend Nicki and her two tiny girls; along the Thames and through Greenwich Park with my sister-in-law, Caroline; down a steep, narrow lane to paddle on a perfect Devon beach with my friends Kate and Jonney and their little boy, Finbar. I walked around a Kentish vineyard in the bright morning sunshine before sampling a dangerously diverse selection of their fine wines (I’m ashamed to say the sun was absolutely nowhere near the yard arm). I wandered around Brighton with my mum and my godmother, popping into jewellery shops and stopping at the Lanes for tea and cake.
Many people enjoy walking alone, but for me a pleasant walk is as much about good company as it is about beautiful surroundings. There’s something about talking whilst walking which is uniquely therapeutic. I think it’s to do with the healthy physical activity, the proximity to nature, the fresh air and the ever-changing landscape which stimulates and enriches the conversation. Even if there are other walkers around, a conversation while walking always feel private, and the necessary lack of eye-contact (in order to avoid rabbit holes, puddles or cow pats) somehow allows delicate subjects to be addressed or confidences to be shared in an easy, gentle way. On returning home as an expat, there are so many lovely people I am desperate to see. Going for walks with them is, in my mind, the best possible way to catch up whilst recharging with the healing essence of home.
I’ll be going for another walk tomorrow – along several miles of airport travelators: just a tad less picturesque than the Cotswolds or the Brecon Beacons perhaps, but it’s the way home.