I used to go climbing several nights a week, but I haven’t the time any more. And when we lived in the old house, I cycled to work; now my wife drops me off at the college before she goes to paint. In short, I don’t do any exercise. I’m constantly zipping about at a thousand miles an hour, juggling my different jobs, but that’s hardly a substitute.
Walking is the only activity I can really make time for. Mon and I both love walking. We’re lucky enough to live in an amazing part of the planet, and our little corner of it has some excellent trails. We can walk from our wee cottage in Burneside to see friends in town – or strike out in any other direction to find open countryside.
I’m not a purist about the countryside. I like edgelands and places of threshold where the natural and the man-made have grown old together. Yesterday, we walked to Staveley in Kentmere and back. It’s a great walk for rusted farm machinery, gnarly stiles, fallen trees and tumbledown barns. There’s a troll bridge with missing slats, and a beech tree strangled by a noose of barbed wire. The tree’s bark has enveloped the wire completely, lapping over it like the slowest wooden wave. In one spot, a fence has been mended with an old iron bedhead. It’s lambing season – we passed new lambs, minutes old. I saw my first ever kingfisher.
Walking gives me more than physical exercise. It’s a source of constant, ever-changing inspiration. Walking around London fuelled my first short stories. My walks on Islay, Gigha and Kintyre fed into Riptide Heart and the fictional island of Bancree. My longstanding work-in-progress, Year of the Whale, is about walking – and the need to walk. Location is crucial to the way I write, and walking in real places fires my imagination. I try to create a geography – physical, atmospheric and emotional – that I believe in. When I get it right, my characters play out the story in that environment like a drop of water on a slope, finding the simplest route to ground.
Walking is good for the soul.
I’m calling a character in my next novel Kingfisher.