Talking walking: An interview with Kate Humble

“The world always has the capacity to surprise and delight!” Kate Humble on walking, well-being and her new book…

7 mins

We’re fond of a good walk here at Wanderlust Towers. But it’s not just an ideal way to slow travel and explore a destination. According to Kate Humble, it could be the key to restoring a sense of wellbeing. Her new book. Thinking on My Feet: The small joy of putting one foot in front of another (out now, £20) talks us through a year of her walks, and the reflections, observations and insights they gave her.

Wanderlust Editor-in-Chief Lyn Hughes caught up with Kate to find out more.

What gave you the idea for the book?

It wasn’t an idea that happened instantly. I didn’t wake up one morning and think: ‘I’m going to write a book about walking’. What happened is that, I did a lot of walking. I live in an area of the UK where, if you don’t walk, you’re basically wasting a landscape that is jaw-droppingly beautiful.

I also have three extremely demanding dogs so I don’t have any choice: I have to start my day on foot, out in the countryside. Which is not a great hardship. So, when I was home, I would start my day by letting the chickens out, feeding them, feeding the pigs, gathering up the dogs and going for a walk.

It might be 20 minutes, but if I have the sort of day where I can squeeze in an hour or an hour and a half, then I do that. What it made me slowly realise was that this is actually, for me, a really perfect way to start a day. Not just because it loosens you up physically – you know, gets your limbs moving, heart moving a little – but it also gets you away from a world where we are constantly bombarded by images and noises, by notifications on phones, by pings.

Because I have livestock, that has to come first, I don’t look at my phone or my computer first thing in the morning. So, I realised that when I was going for that walk, I was going with an uncrowded mind. It was a few minutes of just having my mind to myself, of having my landscape to myself.

Kate Humble (Claire Richardson)

Kate Humble (Claire Richardson)

Those little things give you great cause for optimism, and you wouldn’t notice them if you weren’t walking.

Doing it at walking pace, and not wearing headphones, not looking at your phone, just allows yourself to be a part of where you are. I feel connected – I want to feel like I belong in the world, not that I am just skating over the top of  it, dealing with emails.

I realised how that then helped me notice things - you know when it’s getting to early March and you are thinking, ‘it should be spring’ but it’s still dark, it’s still bloody cold, you are still wearing a vest. But then you’ll notice that there is a celandine in the hedge or the first beech bud is starting to burst open. Those little things give you great cause for optimism, and you wouldn’t notice them if you weren’t walking.

The other thing that I have discovered is that if there is something niggly making you unhappy or anxious, what I find tends to happen is that through walking, a solution might start to present itself. It won’t necessarily present you with a lightbulb answer but – and I researched this, so it is a scientific fact – walking does good things for the creative parts of the brain. So, something that felt insurmountable and upsetting takes on a different perspective and suddenly feels like you can deal with it. It might take several more walks, to dissipate an anxiety, but it works.

The thing is, this is not a groundbreaking discovery, human beings have to relearn stuff with every generation. People have been talking about walking for a very long time. I found a quote from a Roman Senator from the first AD saying that we should walk more, it’s good for your head.

But, it was my little personal discovery. ‘Wow, this is a really nice way to start a day.’ It makes me feel really good, and of course you want to tell everybody about that. I hope not in a vainglorious way, you know, ‘Look how clever I am, I have made this amazing discovery’. It’s more like when you find a great restaurant, or a great book, or something on the telly, you want to share that, but I wasn’t quite sure how to do it.

Kate Humble (Claire Richardson)

Kate Humble (Claire Richardson)

First of all, there is a massive leap you have to mentally take when writing a book, particularly if you are someone like me who loves books, so the idea of sitting down and writing is terrifying. And anyone who has ever written anything, even a postcard, when you get half way down a postcard and you think, really? Is anyone going to be interested in this? So, it is a massive leap.

I started thinking, ‘Maybe I will do a diary?’ I’ve always loved reading diaries and letters. There’s something I love about them, the intimacy, the ordinary, everyday-ness of them. I thought, maybe if I kept a note in a diary of the things I notice, or things that I am feeling, then maybe it might come together in book form.

So, I mulled this over for a couple of years. Then I thought I really do want to make this into a book. But then you get very self-conscious, that the book is all about me and what I’m feeling. I was aware enough that there were other people who also walked, but maybe for different reasons to me. So, I sought them out.

I went to meet an artist, who walks for inspiration, and I went to meet a young woman who got ovarian cancer at 30, and said an incredibly poignant thing. ‘Cancer took the life I had a way, and didn’t give me a new one. So, walking gave me back my identity.’ She ended up walking 3,000 miles around Wales and raised huge amounts of money for an Ovarian cancer charity.

And I met a man who was serving in Afghanistan who was suffering from raging PTSD and tried to kill himself three times. On the third attempt, he got a voice in his head that said, ‘Put your rucksack on and start walking’. I met a therapist in New York who said, ‘What is the point in me seeing my clients in another box?’ He walks them round Central Park. He has found it to be a tremendously effective way.

So, it’s a book that is really, in a funny sort of way, about travelling. I love that sense of discovery – this was about mini travels, but on a mental level as well as a physical. 

Do you get a sense of immersion when you walk?

The world always has the capacity to surprise and delight, you just have to keep your eyes open. You just have to be open to it. You have to allow yourself the time and the space, to be able to notice things and to see things.

I had this moment where I walked the Wye Valley, which was 136 miles. And I live in the Wye Valley so essentially, I could go to the source and walk home. So that is what I did, with my dog. So I took everything in a rucksack, I did a couple of BnBs because you can’t carry nine days of dog food and a sleeping bag it turns out. So, we did a few little food drops at BnBs along the way.

A friend of mine, said I want to come and do a day with you, and it turned out that she picked the day where at the end of the previous day – because I had had wet feet for three days before – I had developed the most excruciating blisters on the balls of my feet. I have never been in so much pain in my life.

Wye Valley (Dreamstime)

Wye Valley (Dreamstime)

And she was so delighted and just that little moment, overcame the unbelievable pain of walking with blisters, on the balls of your feet.

So, the next day I thought, ‘I am going to be able to do this.’ It was absolute agony but as we walked down to the river, I heard this ‘beep,’ and I said, ‘That’s a Kingfisher.’ And she said, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen a Kingfisher before,’ so I said, ‘Just stand still, look at the branches along the river, look, look.’ And we saw it.

And she was so delighted and just that little moment, overcame the unbelievable pain of walking with blisters, on the balls of your feet.

When you walk off the beaten track on your travels, do the locals look at you like you’re a bit mad?

Sometimes, particularly in places where people walk because they don’t have any other choice. That is the way they get around. But it’s a really nice way of picking up the vibes for the place. So, I open the book with a story about being in a remote African border town in Kenya to film a very emotionally and intellectually challenging documentary.

I needed a lot of headspace to work out my reaction to things, to just be able to deal with it. So, every morning I would walk around this small village, and there were no other white people there – certainly not scruffy blondes, wandering about at 6am, looking a bit haggard.

But of course, people started recognizing me, because we were there for three weeks. And I did it every day, and it was lovely because the woman on the corner selling goat milk would say hello to me. The guy selling Mandazi, these fried, little very African things, would say, ‘Hi! Are you going to have Mandazi today?’ The boys on their motorbikes would say, ‘Hi! Do you need a lift today?’

Actually, it was lovely because it made me feel like I wasn’t just visiting, like I was investing more of myself in the community by hanging out.

One day, there was a riot, gunshots and police everywhere. And it turned out that someone had been murdered. The next morning, I walked down to the place where this man had been stabbed. There was a big crowd standing around, and I met a shopkeeper who spoke English, so I went to him and asked what had happened. He explained that the man was the schoolteacher and he was somebody that we all really respected and I was at church with him on Sunday.

So, I said to him, ‘Why is everybody so angry?’ He said, because he was stabbed by people who were on foot and the police did nothing. They could have caught him and they didn’t. They were both angry and sad, but what I would never ever have noticed if I had not been there among them, was this sense of resignation. That these things happen. Which is quite shocking, when you come from a society like ours. 

A rural market in Kenya (Dreamstime)

A rural market in Kenya (Dreamstime)

The walking allowed you to be part of the crowd – would you have been able to ask those questions without that?

No, I don’t think I would. I felt comfortable, because I felt part of this town now, and I walked among these people every day. So, they didn’t look at me like I shouldn’t have been there, it was more like ‘There’s that funny white woman,’ if they even noticed at all.

There was one day when we had been filming and I thought I am going to walk back to the hotel. We had two local fixers, and one of the guys, Samson, was there for security. We said, ‘We don’t need security!’ And he said, ‘I’m afraid you probably do. It will be low key, no one will notice.’ Of course, everyone noticed he had a gun down his trousers.

So, I set off and started walking, and a few minutes later he came and caught up. He usually works for the President of Kenya and was not used to walking. We walked for two hours together – the sun came down and it got really dark, we were on dirt roads. Other people were walking, bringing their goats home, lighting their fires for cooking.

And we talked, about loads of different things… About his family, his children, his job, his community. He was a modern-thinking man who was often at odds with other members of his community. Not only that, I had lovely other insights to life in that very rural part of Kenya – just little life moments. When you walk down a street in a city and people haven’t drawn their curtains. What are they watching on the telly? What is their sofa like? We do it.

So, it was like that, going past somebody’s hut you know, and they have got their cooking pot and the kids are running around, or they are tying up their goats, those moments that make you feel like you are part of their day. You are part of a landscape if you like.

One of the things I’ve discovered is that, as the therapist in New York who walks with his clients told me, walking is a very unconfrontational way to have a conversation because of the difficulty of making eye contact when you are walking and talking. Also pauses in conversation are entirely natural, you can look at other things, listen to other things. So, you don’t feel that pressure to keep talking like you would if you were in a room. And if I had been in a bar with Samson, or in a room at the hotel, we probably would never have talked about the things we did.

Your passion for Wales comes through in the book. You seem to enjoy getting home as much as getting away?

Yeah, and it’s odd because, as far as I know, I don’t have a shred of Welsh DNA. And yet, when the talk of leaving London came up, it came with an urgency – ‘I can’t live here any longer.’

I used to look, quite tragically, at the A-Z of England. If you look in the South-East, it is the bugger’s muddle of colour. Roads everywhere. If you look at Wales, it’s brown, there’s about one road. I said, ‘I want to live in that brown bit, that’s where I should live.’ And my husband said, ‘No-one lives in Wales. You go on holiday to Wales.’ He was the one that got offered a job there!

It was only a year-long contract, so he said, ‘Let’s rent out our house in London and we will rent one in Wales and see how we like it?’ And I thought, not a chance. Once I get over that bridge I am not coming back. So we sold everything and moved.

I have always been quite nomadic by nature, but we have been in our house in the Wye Valley for almost 11 years, which is the longest I have ever lived in my adult life. And it is the only place I have ever felt homesick for. It’s really weird. I love the fact that I have found a place that I am really happy to be.


The book is a celebration of the natural world?

I love the natural world. Where we live in the UK is not terribly natural. It has been very heavily influenced by humans and human activity. There are still great joys to be had in being out in nature. There have been myriad studies about nature being good for us – for our wellbeing, for our stability.

A fox in Wales (Dreamstime)

A fox in Wales (Dreamstime)

One of the things that I appreciate is the wonderful opportunity I have to witness tiny little natural events, that make you feel joyful. The other day I was running with my dog, through the woods and we had an encounter with a fox. A huge fox, and my dog didn’t notice it. Honestly if I had to survive with her, I would only last a couple of days, she is absolutely useless! But I just stopped and had eye contact with this fox. Or you see a deer or badgers. Or it’s weather that is indicative of a season. So, for now in Autumn, all the Jays become really visible. They are all collecting acorns and you get that dusty flash of pink and white…

So, I suppose it is a celebration of what you can see and notice and be a part of if you stop moving so fast and stop looking at your phone.

Thinking on My Feet tells the story of Humble’s walking year – shining a light on the benefits of this simple activity. Humble’s "inspiring" narrative records her walks (and runs) throughout a single year and charts her feelings and impressions throughout – capturing the perspectives that only a journey on foot allows.

Humble hopes that her book will encourage more people to discover the pleasures of moving through the world at walking pace.

The book is available to buy now. Click here for more information. 

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