20 August 2014 by Anastasia French
“Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot”
I was humming this song on a walk I did a few months ago. The walk took me through some absolutely stunning bits of green belt land, that (rumour has it) the Government are keen to build on. My Joni Mitchell humming was my way of appreciating the paradise around me. The peace, tranquillity and beautiful views. I didn’t need to wait til it was gone, I knew how good it was.
A while later, I discovered that I took something else for granted – the ability to walk.
Reigate Heath, Surrey
I was trying to clamber over a fence and my trousers got caught in a spike. In trying to free the trousers, I ended up freeing a ligament in my knee. Ouch.
With the help of a friend, I got myself to A&E and was told that it would be at least six weeks before I’d be back to rambling again. Three months later and I’m still not fully fixed.
The past three months have not been the best, but they’ve given me a new appreciation for all the reasons why walking is wonderful.
1. It gives you independence
The day after I damaged myself, I had to go on a family trip to Blenheim Palace. My parents were not going to let my disability get in the way of a trip to Churchill’s family home. They organised a wheelchair and enjoyed the novelty of wheeling me around. The novelty didn’t last very long.
After about 10 minutes my mum’s comments went from: “Aww this is just like when you were a baby in a pushchair”, to: “Of course you were a lot lighter back then”.
After trying (and failing) to push me through some gravel, they decided to leave me on my lonesome while they went to explore the beautiful gardens. I couldn’t go anywhere, I was effectively trapped.
For the first month of injury, I was on crutches and had to depend on my friends and family for everything: “Can you pick this up?”, “Can you give me a lift?”, “Can I have the front seat to stretch my leg?”, “My bag of frozen peas has exploded, can I use yours, or do you need them for dinner?” (Note: I owe my housemate a lot of frozen peas.)
I hated how dependant I became on other people. You forget about the independence that having two functioning legs can give to you.
Ana French being wheled around, whilst the novelty lasted
2. It’s sociable
Walking’s a great way to catch up with friends. Just ask anyone on one of the 200,000 group walks that the Ramblers and Walking for Health organise every year.
But it’s not just rambles that are out of the question when you can’t walk. It’s a lot of other social activity.
I was housebound for my first few days. I was craving human interaction. I missed being in the office talking to my colleagues, even the ones that normally annoy me….Working from home in my pj's was just not cutting it.
Once I could leave the house, I still couldn’t do what I wanted to do with my friends. I had to cancel my birthday party in case I got drunk and decided to dance on a table.
3. It’s an amazing (and free) form of transport
I’m really lucky that my walk to work is from Embankment to Vauxhall, along the Thames Path, passing some of the world’s most famous sites like the London Eye and Big Ben. Sometimes, I put my headphones in, Aretha Franklin on, and imagine that I’m a character in a Richard Curtis film.
Most mornings, the walk wakes me up and allows me half an hour to plan what I want to do with the day. Half an hour of bliss that costs me nothing.
Albert Embankment, London, looking towards Westminster
This came crashing down when I had to get the bus to work as I could no longer walk. Every morning I’d approach the bus stop just as the bus was pulling away – no running for the bus when you’re on crutches. Once the 87 finally arrived, I’d hobble on and give fellow passengers a guilty look so they’d have to give up their seat for me.
The journey was very stop-start and winding, provoking travel sickness. By the time I got off at Vauxhall I’d feel worse than when I started the day. And I’d have to pay an additional £15 a week for this hell-zone.
(I was surprised by how many perfectly abled people would get the bus for really short journeys. With peak hour traffic, it probably took just as long as walking, it wasn’t as pleasant, not as good for you, and cost £1.45 a time.)
4. It’s exercise
I have gymophobia, so I use the outdoors to keep fit and healthy. Just by walking to work, I burn an additional 2,500 calories every week. Add the two runs I try to do every week, I can get away with having a bigger slice of chocolate cake without spending loads on gym membership and scary exercise machines.
Plus, being outside and exercising is much more pleasant than inside. I don’t see the point of treadmills and walking machines when you can just step outside and move.
I deliberately avoid scales, so I can’t tell you how much weight I put on, but I can tell you that that my clothes were getting tighter, and I'd have to do the wriggling, breathing in, pulling- up-the-trousers dance to get a pair of jeans on. That dance is made so much harder with a dodgy knee.
Worse than the weight gain, was the insomnia. Because I did no exercise, I had lots of excess energy that prevented me from sleeping. I’d just stare into the dark for hours, willing my body to drop off to sleep.
5. It makes you happy
I’d originally planned to go to Portugal for May Bank Holiday, but had to be cancel because I couldn’t cope with crutches on a plane. Instead, my rambling friends let me gate crash their weekend in the Lake District. They’d rented a cottage near Coniston and had a weekend of walking up the Old Man planned. I knew that I couldn’t join them on their hikes, but I hoped that the fresh air might do wonders for my knee and for my happiness. I was wrong.
It was so frustrating to be somewhere as beautiful as the Lakes, but unable to explore any of it. I felt claustrophobic in a small cottage surrounded by mountains that were just screaming at me to climb, when I couldn’t.
On the final evening my friends, exhausted after their hikes, wanted a quiet night in. The thought of spending yet more time in the house that I’d spent all weekend in, was too much to bear. I needed to escape and grab some fresh Lake District air.
If I’d been able bodied, I could have done that subtly. Slowed down by my injury, I couldn’t do anything subtle. I did eventually manage to grab together my crutch, coat and shoes, ignoring the concerned looks from my friends. I didn’t hobble very far before I broke down in tears.
Coniston, Lake District
It was raining (it always is when people have breakdowns in films - turns out it’s the same for me). And as I wiped away the rain and the tears, I stopped and took at the paradise of the Lake District. I started humming Joni Mitchell. Luckily, there are no plans to pave over this paradise and turn it into a parking lot, but I certainly told myself to appreciate what I’ve got.
It’s now three months since I damaged my knee and two months since my Lake-Down and I’m definitely on the mend. I’ve left the 87 bus behind me and I’m back to walking to work pretending that I’m starring in a film of me. It’ll still be a few months before I’m running or doing yoga (not that I ever did yoga). But life is good and I’m loving where my legs can take me.
And I'll never take walking for granted again.
Anastasia French is the Ramblers campaigns officer. Find out more about her, including her previous posts and follow her on twitter @ramblingfrench.