In my experience, one of the first things that a mental health worker will tell someone suffering from depression is that exercise is important. And I am sure that they are right. But, when getting out of the house seems like an insurmountable problem, the quest for exercise can take on very negative connotations. My C.P.N. (Community Psychiatric Nurse, sometimes called a Mental Health Care Worker) will frequently ask if I have been able to get out for a walk. And I will frequently have to respond with all the reasons why I have not, or all the reasons why walking has proved to be a major problem.
I grew up walking. I know, most of us have. But I grew up in a household which saw walking as an end, as well as a means to an end. We never had a car until I was sixteen, and then it was a two-seater Ford Escort van to which my father had access as a “perk” of his ill-fated building business. And even those two seats, as much as we viewed them as a luxury, were never going to go far in a household of six. So, when we went somewhere, we either walked or took public transport – the bus. And with so many children, and very little income, my parents more often than not judged that the bus was too expensive.
I grew up in Ely, a socially deprived suburb of the City of Cardiff and, apart from three years away at university, I have always lived within a mile of the house in which I grew up. At the time, so I was always told, Ely was the largest Social Housing Estate in the country. It had the advantage, though, of being on the extreme western edge of the city, so the countryside always seemed quite near. In fact, just four hundred yards or so from our front door, as the crow flew, was a hill that marked the start of the “the countryside”, and many an adventure within walking distance. Close by, was Trelai Park, sometimes called the Ely Racecourse, and for years one of the facilities developed and used for parks football, rugby and baseball. Trelai Park is also a site of historical interest, going back to the Roman occupation of Wales. Almost in the centre of the space is an area marked by long grass which covers what was an old Roman Villa. Closer still, on the hill visible from our front door, was St Mary’s Church, the old parish church, which dated back to Norman times. And that was, itself, situated on the site of an Iron Age Hillfort – Boudicca’s Fort, as it was sometimes called. And then, not too far away, was old Emerson’s Farm (locals still dispute what the real name of this farm was, as well as the name of the farmer who ran it when I was growing up!) The orchards at the farm produced some of the most sought after yet virtually inedible apples ever known to little boys. I’m still not sure what the draw was with those apples – probably the challenge of getting into the orchard and climbing the trees while dodging old Emerson and his two dogs. The fields around the farm were famous locally for their blackberries and their conkers. What could beat blackberry fuelled conker fights, right? And for the really brave of heart and stout of leg, there were also expeditions to be had to the Welsh Folk Museum at St Fagans and the quaint village of Michaelston-le-Pit, whose icy streams provided favourite bathing pools for those desperate enough to risk the wrath of “The Warden”.
Of course, such close proximity to the city’s western edge brought its downside too. It meant that we lived four miles or so from the City Centre. And because most, if not all, of the clothes shops were in the City Centre, trips into “Town” were often needed. Since bus fares for six (seven when my older brother still lived at home) were expensive, we often walked. I think I was four the first time that I walked into Town and back again, a round trip of about eight miles, plus whatever traipsing around the shops added on. It’s hard, now, to imagine how we all fitted on the pavement – we must have seemed like a tiny nomadic tribe on the move.
While both of my parents were very much city folk, and neither could really tell the difference between a herring and a gull, I never developed an interest in wildlife per se. But, both being committed Christians, I did develop, from an early age, an appreciation of the wonder of creation, seen in the multi-variety of fauna and flora growing within walking distance of my front door. My father, while not book-learned, was very observant, and he would often encourage me to talk about what we saw while we walked, getting me to tell him the difference between two birds, or two types of fungus. What he knew, he taught me, and what he taught me I stored away. But it was my mother who taught me the great value in just being still in the great outdoors – something that I have since learned has the rather grand name of “mindfulness”. I have to say that my mother was “forest bathing” long before it became a thing. It’s been a lasting source of regret that the lessons that my mother taught me while I was still a child were some of the first that I forgot as an adult when I most needed to remember and practice them.
On the rare occasions that we were able to get away on holiday, both of my parents instilled in me an appreciation of a changing landscape. My father loved the countryside, fascinated with hills and valleys and woods. My mother loved the sea. In fact, she loved nothing more than to sit on the pebbles at Porthkerry Park, in Barry, some ten miles from where we lived, and simply look at the waves and listen to the sounds that they made as they swept pebbles in and out in their peculiar rhythms.
I’ve no doubt that it was this combination of my parents’ interests that has given me such a love of Wales as a country, and West Wales, in particular. That and, of course, my mischievous and invariably drunk uncle’s insistence – and he a radical atheist to boot! – that Wales was “God’s Own Country”; a fact which he drilled into me from a very young age.
So, what went wrong? I have plenty of reasons for loving walking in the great outdoors. Why have I come to hate it?
I’m not altogether sure. But I think that sometime in my mid-thirties walking became for me a kind of “talk therapy”, an opportunity to think through the many problems I was facing but which normal life did not give me the space to address. The problem was that, as a mostly solitary walker, I ended up talking to myself. To put it another way, walking became a time when I would be locked in my own head. It stopped being a time to observe and to revel in the wonders of creation and became, instead, a time of intense introspection and interrogation. And, as time went by, the interrogation became, quite honestly, ruthless and unforgiving. I have always been my own worst critic. But the self-analysis and self-criticism I indulged in while I walked lacked anything positive or upbuilding. In fact, it did nothing but feed a sleeping monster – my paranoia. And by my early forties, a week’s holiday became something to endure, not to enjoy. My walks, most often along parts of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, became endurance tests, where I would set myself a target of so many miles per day, to exhaust myself, so that when I got back to my tent or my cottage, I would be too tired to think. By my mid-forties, more often than not, I found myself cutting short my holidays, sick of my own company. Somewhere along this increasingly tortured path, my mind forged a self-destructive and seemingly unbreakable association between walking and self-analysis. So much so that, even now, the prospect of a walk of any distance more than a couple of hundred yards fills me with dread.
I still live in Ely, a little closer to the Racecourse and a little further away from the hill-fort than when I was a child; and Emerson’s Farm is no more, long demolished and replaced with the awful “box-houses” that succeeding governments have made the unenviable but inevitable lot of low-income families. I’m still as curious as ever about the Roman Villa, and the Iron Age settlement that has recently been awarded Lottery Funding to develop. But now, my dread of crossing the threshold, a dread which is a part of my condition as one who suffers “severe depression with anxiety”, is made considerably worse by my fear of walking to these places that I once loved to visit. Part of my recovery has to be rekindling such a love of the outdoors, of God’s creation, of the history of my community, that I can once again look forward to “getting some exercise”.