Nature’s Remedy

At last spring is here, and as I’ve just heard that April is National Stress Awareness Month, this seems an opportunity to highlight how nature can ease the stresses which have become so common in everyday life. No, nature won’t remove these stresses, but it might help rein them in or create a sense of proportion, and become a space for us to let off steam.

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Nature eases stress most of all, I think, by freeing us from ourselves and by opening a door to a different perspective, to a different experience of what it is to live. Overthinking can be our downfall when it comes to stress, particularly overthinking the future. While we can’t enter into a bird or a dragonfly’s mind, as far as we can tell they live in the moment more than we do. So maybe as we spend time in nature, we overthink less. Maybe we too live more in the moment, as we focus on the here and now. It might last only as long as we connect with nature, but that alone can be a counterbalance, limiting stress’s power to overshadow all we think and do.

Different encounters with nature might help different people. Maybe the elemental liberates some people most – seeing an immense sky or sea. Maybe others respond more to the specific: to a known local tree, to birdsong, to watching marching ants or a spider’s web. Or it might just depend where we are and what nature we can experience. As wilderness shrinks in so many places and parts of the world, there’s less “otherness” to counterbalance our own perspective, there are fewer havens for us.

When I go for my regular walks I have mainly just spent time online, and I find walking then s helpful in clearing my mind. Some days, when my mind is whirling with what I need to do, getting outside slowly sets it all in perspective as the screen’s importance recedes. Of the three areas Medley focuses on, music boosts my mood, art absorbs and energises me, but I think on balance it is nature which calms me most.

Nature too is in an endless battle to survive. It has to feed, it needs space and shelter, it needs to be alert to threats from predators. But from our perspective, nature seems simpler. So many of the causes of our stress just don’t exist in nature. So it is that connecting with nature is an opportunity to forget, and to recharge. That might be by focusing on the local and familiar, on a species like the house sparrow which spends its life within just one kilometre. Or it might be by opening our eyes to the wider world, to species like migratory birds which cross the globe every year. It might be through walking or cycling, or it might be virtually, encountering nature through podcasts or slow radio, like the BBC’s new Soundscapes for Wellbeing on BBC Sounds. I also recently heard about the Virtual Nature Experiment, which is exploring the impact these virtual encounters have on wellbeing by asking questions about how you respond to different video clips. You might like to take part at bit.ly/natureexperiment

It would be great if you would like to share how nature helps reduce stress for you in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

Creativity And Autism

To mark World Autism Awareness Day on 2nd April, I’m focusing this blog post on how and why art – and music and nature too – can help people who have autism. World Autism Day was founded by the UN and is held every year on 2nd April, as an opportunity to rais eawareness of autism and its impacts – so it also seems an opportunity to explore the part creativity can play here, in boosting wellbeing.

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At the moment, particular research priorities for autism are mental health, communication and anxiety issues, specifically in adults (as although autism is lifelong, much autism research focuses on children). Creativity and nature connection are in a strong position to contribute to these priorities. Enabling people to express themselves is integral to so much art, music and nature for wellbeing and this could liberate people with autism who find communicating with others difficult. By fostering new ways of thinking, experimenting with art or improvising music could help people who have autism, who may commonly think in a more logical and literal way than many people. And drawing, painting, crafting, music and nature connection can all be calming, easing anxiety.

Art, music and nature are flexible too. People can be free to enjoy them alone, but they can also create common ground to draw people together, which may be useful if interacting with others is a struggle for people with autism.

I’ve recently learned about the charity Aspens’ work with children, young people and adults. Art is one focus of their work, and World Autism Awareness Day is seeing them run a My AuSome Art competition, as well as sharing videos on how art helps the young people involved. On 2nd April their Instagram feed will showcase the young people’s artwork. It really sounds as if art and creativity make an immense difference to these young people, during lockdown more than ever.

It was also great to learn that Aspens is linking art and creativity up with nature and sensory spaces too. As you may know, Medley is committed to connecting different art forms (like music and art) and nature. Their benefits feed off each other. That’s why Medley’s regular Creative Ideas cover all three areas, and why my recent art for wellbeing project has featured music & nature ideas as well.

I believe that a multi-sensory experience is likely to have a greater impact on most people. Art can have many benefits on its own, yes, but when music and art are brought in too, there’s a wider perspective and different stimulus. This may be all the more important for people living with autism. I have heard that young people living with autism in particular respond more to multi-sensory ideas, maybe art therapy outdoors with a musical element as well.

Back in December my blog post Through New Eyes highlighted the work of abstract artist Mahlia Amatina, who has Asperger’s syndrome (an autism variant) https://medley.live/2020/12/03/through-new-eyes Mahlia is now marking World Autism Awareness Day and Month by creating a new artwork each day in April, and I’ll be following that journey.

If you have any thoughts, experiences or reactions on creativity, nature and autism, it would be great if you would like to share them in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

One Year On

Last Tuesday’s national Day Of Reflection set me thinking again about this last crazy year and how I for one have seen positives emerge in amidst all the darkness. Positives like people turning to nature, to music and to creativity in their droves, painting, drawing and crafting.

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Sometimes this has helped distract us, liberated us from over-thinking, to look instead at colour and line and no more than that. I’ve written before how art makes me more observant, as I focus more closely on what I see, while on a walk maybe: on shape & form, light, shade and colour. Maybe as people become absorbed by artwork and creativity, there’s less space for the darkness. And lately I’ve found that using different colours while painting has lifted my mood, literally brightening what might have been gloomy winter days.

Music too has helped many people through lockdown. Particular musical styles have stood out. Feel-good songs and anthems have become the most streamed, while classical music has gained new listeners. The impossibility of most live group music-making or singing has only highlighted how important gathering to sing in choirs or other groups is to many people’s mood and wellbeing.

Someone I know was writing about seeing the last year go by in her garden: as spring bulbs gave way to roses, to dahlias, eventually to bare trees – and now the bulbs flower again, and still we are in lockdown. I’ve thought this on my walks, as still, regardless, nature has gone on growing. Still the birds fly, still the cycle of the year moves on as if there were no pandemic, and that can make nature a refuge and a haven. As lockdown is eased and some people may struggle to adjust to freedoms restored amidst the continuing threat of Covid-19, that haven could be more important than ever.

It is absolutely true that there are many times when neither art nor music nor nature help. I know that it can be impossible to focus or concentrate. Art might seem impractical, music too emotional, nature too elemental when it is contact with other people, crowds, events that you miss. But there are many times when they do.

With so many virtual gallery tours, Zoom art classes or choirs and online music performances, lockdown’s move online has only accelerated the issue of digital exclusion. Significant percentages of older people and of lower-income households do not have broadband, and for them many doors have closed altogether. The loss of face-to-face gatherings and support groups has been all the more severe for these people, who are left with few or no alternatives. This is an issue where “levelling up” is hugely needed.

Maybe at a time when our opportunities to explore different places or to take part in different events are limited, we’ve become more open to the stimuli we do encounter. Maybe we’ve learned not only to look but to see, not only to hear but to listen. Art alone is so diverse and so rich in styles and media that it opens up new ways of seeing. It enhances the everyday, as do music and nature. And they will go on as lockdown recedes: and maybe evolve in new ways?

All About Folk

Medley’s blog is running an occasional series on different music genres and their particular impact on wellbeing. Last time I explored musicals’ impact (https://medley.live/2021/02/18/all-singing-all-dancing ) and now it’s the turn of folk music. Does folk music reach people in different ways to other genres? And if so, why might this be?

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Maybe the clue’s in the name: folk is all about people. As folk songs explore people’s hopes and experiences, they might help other people to understand themselves, as they listen or perform.

Obviously folk itself is a diverse genre. Memory and heritage are integral to many traditional folk songs as people celebrate, recall or lament together. In a fast-changing world, this might be a helpful way to draw together past and present. But folk never needs to be lost in the past. Folk musicians go on reinterpreting tradition and writing & performing new folk songs. Either style could boost mood and wellbeing. For some, folk music drawing on memory and even nostalgia could be reassuring and familiar. It could be positive for people with memory loss. Many of the songs commonly sung in care homes, such as Molly Malone, are folk songs. As people who have dementia are known to remember most clearly songs they first heard during their youth, folk songs might enable them to respond.

For others, newer folk music could mirror their own experience in the here and now. Folk music has never shied away from issues like justice and pacifism. Folk greats like Woody Guthrie (This Land Is Your Land) , Bob Dylan and Joan Baez all responded to the controversies of th eday. Owen Shiers, a folk singer from Wales, is one musician now using folk to show all that we stand to lose as biodiversity is threatened. This might help people lament and maybe inspire them to act for change.

One way folk songs impact on us is by rooting people in asense of place. Some, like the Skye Boat Song, directly refer to place. Fewer of us now have strong roots in a place, as we move more, and this can make people feel dislocated and isolated. Folk songs may help people hold on to their links to a specific place. But they also root people in a new, maybe wider, kind of community.

Voice has a very important part to play in a lot of folk songs, sometimes taking centre stage while instrumental music forms no more than a background. This in itself can be powerful, highlighting the lyrics, unlike some other genres where you struggle to hear the lyrics at all. These lyrics might be comic, dark, reflective or rousing, reaching people in diverse situations.

In a recent BBC Radio 4 series, children’s writer Michael Morpurgo explored the power of folk songs, a power to unite. He has found returning to singing with others in later life to be a joyful experience. Integral to the success of the National Theatre play of his book War Horse was the musical score and specifically the folk songs written for the play, like Rolling Home.

So there are lots of possible ways in which folk music might prove beneficial. It would be great if you would like to share how folk impacts you in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you.

The Sound Of Nature

Experiencing nature through sound might boost mood, calm us, excite or uplift us. Nature’s impact on wellbeing usually focuses on the sights we see, or on exercising outdoors. But there’s a wealth of sounds to draw on as well. Biophony (as sounds of the natural world are known) has become a tool for monitoring biodiversity, and it also has power to improve mental wellbeing.

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Hearing more birdsong was one of the positives which stood out from the first lockdown last spring. The novelty might have worn off, and the traffic may have returned, but again the birds sing now it is another spring. It’s a wet and windy day outside a sI write this, but as the gusts subside I still hear birdsong. It lifts the depressing scene, making the day feel alive with activity. Birdsong is known to boost mental wellbeing, and it isn’t alone. Many trees and plants add to the way we experience nature by creating distinctive sounds, rustling, fluttering or shivering in a wind. Hearing and absorbing sounds to calm and ground yourself is integral to the idea of forest bathing, immersing yourself in nature.

Familiar sounds have a part to play here, but so too do the new and the unknown. Over 50 years ago Roger Payne’s album Songs of the Humpback Whale, which recorded whale song, became a chart hit. To this day, whale song hints at the mystery of the deep oceans, and entrances many people.

Just as we have depended on technology this last year to open doors to the world, so it opens our ears to nature’s sounds, and not just during lockdown. Podcasts have developed which share sound recordings from all different settings and countries. Slow radio also draws on this idea. When the Timber Fest was forced to cancel because of Covid-19, the organizers instead built a global soundmap called Sounds of the Forest, collecting recordings to create an aural picture of life amidst the trees.

I wonder if biophony’s impact on wellbeing could mirror music’s specific role? Music has so deep and lasting an impact that maybe sounds in nature could prove just as powerful. As music is one of the last memories to be lost by people who have dementia, maybe other sound memories also survive. Cognition declines more quickly than emotional memory, so people might still respond to sounds they recall. Hearing sounds of the natural world is also all the more important for people with sight loss, who may be unable to experience nature visually – narrated audio walks could be one possibility.

Different people will respond to some sounds more than others, and at different times. Some people might find the sound of water calming, relaxing or reassuring, while for others it might help by energizing them. And the sounds themselves will differ, for nature is never still. One outdoor patch might sound very different on one day from another, or at different times of year: all boosting its impact, and allowing us to experiencee nature’s many moods. There’s huge scope here for so many of us.

It would be great if you would like to share how sounds in nature impact you in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you!

In The Frame

Great art might open up great opportunities for wellbeing. So far Medley has mainly explored art’s impact on people who themselves take part in painting, drawing or crafting. In this blog post the focus turns to how looking at art might in itself also boost wellbeing and enhance life in diverse ways.

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How might enjoying artworks do this? It might be calming, mindful, a positive visual and mental stimulus. It lets you see the world through another person’s eyes, so it could free you from your own perspective for a while. It might brighten mood by creating a space for beauty. It could transport you to a different place and time. It might also inspire you to experiment with creativity yourself.

Specific impacts will depend on the art itself. Perhaps art’s emotional impact on viewers is more openly explored by 20th and now 21st century artworks than it was in earlier eras. This more experimental art clearly highlights knotty and difficult questions about mood and emotions, about life and death, about war and conflict: maybe through the use of colour, the brushwork or the subject matter. Think of Oskar Kokoschka’s paintings of the trauma of war, or of art focusing on isolation and loneliness, like Alberto Giacometti’s unusual figure scculptures, or of Abstract Expressionists like Mark Rothko or Barnett Newman who used colour to create emotion. Art like this might liberate the viewer and enable them to express – or to see reflected – their own pain or fear. But it might also be too disturbing or depressing.

Art might be more helpful as a refuge, an escape, a distraction, as a glimpse of beauty or order: maybe Impressionist seascapes or landscapes, or portraits painted centuries ago.

The charity Paintings In Hospitals was founded over 60 years ago to share art with people in health and care settings. Its unique collection of thousands of artworks is regularly loaned out to hospitals, as the name suggests, but also to GP surgeries, care homes and hospices. While the charity does also run art activities enabling people to respond to the loaned artworks creatively themselves, their main work builds on long experience of the hugely positive impact the sheer presence of artworks in healthcare settings has on patients. The charity works on a range of projects and recently cooperated with The Wallace Collection (a central London gallery) on a research study entitled Contemporary Art and Primary Care.

Initiatives like this brighten what could be impersonal, clinical settings and share great art more widely. More and more art galleries and museums now have outreach and wellbeing programmes engaging people in all different circumstances. But people may also find art helpful if they enjoy looking at art in books, online or on television. Technology has transformed this, with virtual tours of many art galleries only a few clicks away. Yes, this is a different experience from seeing art in real life, which many people would argue is richer and more authentic. But there’s a positive side to enjoying art virtually or through books, at your own pace: and it’s more practical for people who are too ill, frail or busy to get to agallery.

Maybe there are as many different ways to enjoy and respond to art as there are artworks to experience.

All Singing, All Dancing

By their sheer exuberance, musicals transport us to a different world. What specific impact do they have on health and wellbeing, maybe more than other music genres?

I hope this will be the first in an occasional series within Medley’s regular blog posts, exploring how and why different music genres have particular impacts on us. Are popular songs the most beneficial? Is folk music more expressive, is classical music always calming? Do impacts across all genres depend on the individual, or are there common patterns of response?

So, to musicals: an explosion of colour, life and sound. They balance comedy, excitement and flair (as in the verve and momentum of “America” from West Side Story) with real drama, suspense and poignancy (like the song “Memory” in the musical Cats). So they cover a spectrum of experiences and emotions, but with bells on, with sparkle. Some tell a fictional story, others, like Evita, draw on history. Where the one story is dramatised as a play and as a musical, the musical may well prove the more memorable of the two, simply because the score adds another layer.

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All this has obvious impact on those who attend a live musical, who perform in one, or who hear songs from the shows or watch a film musical. I know the songs immediately boost my mood, and many, many people have experienced this for themselves through the years. Depression-era America saw a surge in musicals: partly a response to the dark days the country was enduring. With huge job losses and anxiety about the future, what could be more welcome than to lose yourself in a celebration of music and movement? Top Hat became one of the great film musicals of the age. And musicals held that power on through the 1940s, 50s and 60s, with enormous success for shows like Singin’ In The Rain, Paint Your Wagon and Mary Poppins. Their impact has endured down the years as new musicals have emerged through composers like Sondheim, Lloyd Webber and Miranda.

There’s also scientific evidence for musicals’ power over us. In 2018 researchers at the University of Lancaster and at University College London cooperated on a study on the impact of musical theatre. They monitored members of the audience at a performance of the musical Dreamgirls in a theatre in London’s West End, and found that people’s heart rates quickened considerably during the performance, as they would if taking part in physical exercise. Not only may this have cardiovascular benefits, it also proves that musicals do have a specific, objective and measurable impact.

Yes, some people find musicals farcical, and they might require you to suspend your disbelief as the cast bursts into song at the most unlikely moment. But is that not what a musical is all about? They are larger than life. Just because they may have a touch of the improbable about them is partly why they have such power.

Musicals may also be called musical theatre or musical comedy, highlighting how they focus on performance & entertainment. Maybe they are the very essence of showbusiness, as they draw together song, music, dance, costumes, sets and lighting: virtuosity at its most diverse. So it is no wonder that their all-singing, all-dancing power to enthral specifically boosts mood, uplifts and energises so many of us.

It would be great if you would like to share how musicals impact you in Medley’s Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/359291215486002 Thank you.

Wild And Urban

For people and nature alike, towns and cities can be places of opportunity – or wastelands. Many people find urban living exciting and positive, while others find it overwhelming or depressing. And urban environments can be hostile to wildlife too, as light pollution confuses species as different as moths and migrating birds, street trees may be felled, and concrete dominates. But towns and cities can also be a habitat. Stag beetles for one have become a highly urban species, mainly found across south London and suburbia in the UK. And as farming has intensified, the countryside has become far less viable for wildlife, so that urban habitats have become more important in turn.

Nature’s impact on our own wellbeing is proven. Hearing that, you might picture walking in a wood or forest, or by a remote lake. But now that far more people live in towns and cities, connecting with urban nature (where it may be found) is more important than ever before. This is highlighted now as lockdown has forced people to stay at or close to home, in what may be very urban, concrete environments.

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Parks and green spaces may be a refuge in the midst of a town or city, somewhere to walk, run or cycle and to breathe cleaner air. They help combat air pollution, which is causing high rates of asthma and other lung diseases and may make Covid-19 more severe. And they may boost emotional and mental wellbeing. But the sad everyday reality is that too many are unsafe, intimidating places to be avoided where possible. This further divides people and nature.

Sometimes a chance encounter with nature might help. Seeing a plant straggling through the pavement, a murmuration of starlings over a city skyline, or even species which might be seen as pests, like the feral or town pigeon, can all brighten mood and create a new perspective.

Species which not only survive but thrive in the most urban environments have become known by scientists as “edge” species, because they live on the edge where urbanisation and wildness co-exist, maybe on disused land. These might be birds like house sparrows, rooks or gulls, or plants like buddleja. Seeing how they find a niche for themselves in these unlikely habitats confirms nature’s flexibility, and might be a sign of hope for us too.

Creating some space for nature in a town can in itself boost wellbeing, as knowing that you are making a difference has a positive impact on mental health. We can all feel powerless and disillusioned as we see how biodiversity is declining, but simple ways of helping, like growing plants on a balcony or taking part in a community garden, can be active and empowering. And as well as creating opportunities for nature, you could make a difference to your local area for yourself and other people. Wildlife organisations also have more focus all the time on urban nature. Bristol is just one city where the local Wildlife Trust has created detailed street-level maps demonstrating how biodiversity could be improved.

Maybe making space for urban nature could also make mental space for people living far away from the great outdoors.

Opening Doors Through Art

Like life, lockdown is peppered with ironies. Art classes or groups have closed or moved online. Art galleries have mainly been closed for most of the last year and exhibitions have been halted or postponed. Such a practical, physical activity as art or craft might now seem literally out of reach.

But as one door closes – or even as many doors close – others open. Art has boomed.

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People have lost opportunities for connection, for travel and gathering, but many have gained the time and freedom to create, some for the first time in years. And as lockdown has followed lockdown, our need of creativity has become more recognized than ever before – not only by people who work in the arts or in health and wellbeing, but by the mainstream media as well.

In the Grayson’s Art Club series of programmes, to take one successful example, Grayson and Philippa Perry have created a space where people can experiment with art freely in their own homes, maybe through drawing or photography, montage or painting. People have responded and taken part in all different ways, and the latest series has just started.

And as many people have struggled with isolation, fear, anxiety and depression, art has become all the more important particularly as these later lockdowns have dragged on through the winter. Art has become a way to express thoughts and emotions. It has also become a way to forget.

It has power to help across so many experiences and situations. I recently heard about the charity Headway’s art studio in East London, Submit To Love. This unites some 40 artists who all live with a brain injury (https://submittolovestudios.org) The brain is so fundamental to our awareness and to our selfhood that brain injury could close too many doors. But all Headway’s work witnesses to hope and opportunity in living with a brain injury, and their Discovery Through Art initiative connects this specifically to creativity.

Obviously integral to Submit To Love is the strong community spirit and sense of shared creativity within the studios. Usually the artists gather regularly in person, but during the pandemic this has become a Home Studio on Zoom. It’s clearly keeping that community spirit alive as week by week, the artists spend time together virtually, sharing how they interpret a set subject in different ways.

Submit To Love covers a wide spectrum of styles and artwork, some focused on colour, others in monochrome, some exact, others more experimental. Some of the artists have exhibited widely. One recent event was a showcase at the Autograph BP Gallery, which displayed works by 4 of the artists. People can buy works from the artists online (either paintings or items like a print tote bag) or commission their own piece.

Creativity’s positive impact on the artists is clear, as they share, communicate and express themselves – all while creating beautiful, striking and distinct art.

Living under lockdown and living with a brain injury are very different, but there might be parallels. Either situation could force people to live differently than they would usually. Few of us would ever have imagined that we would live under lockdown, and few people imagine that they would have to live with brain injury. Art will go on revealing new ways to free us at different times.

Stepping Out

Any walk is a journey, or even a story with a beginning, a middle and an end: although it might not seem like that as you trudge through the wind and rain. Walking is linear. It has a start and end point. I wonder if this is why walking helps many people when life is chaotic or muddled or when we struggle to concentrate or to focus.

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For walking can be only about getting from A to B, but it can be far more. You might have noneed to get anywhere, but just want to get outside. Walking opens up space and can seem a liberation. I went out for a walk yesterday while preparing to write this, and felt that the mechanical movement of walking freed up my mind to think – or even not to think but just to be more aware of what I could see,

To some people, walking has become more important during this last year. As lockdown has followed lockdown, walking has been one of the few ways to spend time outside, and it has become a lifeline for many. For others, who live in areas where space to walk is limited, unsafe, crowded or polluted, even their usual walking has been limited by the need to remain local when before they might have travelled further afield to go for a walk.

Any walk can be a stimulus, opening up another setting outside our own immediate one. Simply going through the door and walking along can draw us out of ourselves and creat ea sense of purpose. More and more people find that walking can boost mood or ease depression: if you can only steel yourself to open that door and set off.

If you walk one particular way regularly, you get to witness time gradually move on, little by little through the year. A friend was saying how she likes to walk by the sea every day, seeing sea and sky alike in all their different moods. Walking just one local patch can be as helpful as walking in different places, for I find that I notice little changes I might miss if I walked more different routes. By simply covering the ground you can notice a lot. I used to know someone who liked to walk barefoot on occasion. She felt free that way, connected to the earth. I don’t think I’ll be kicking off my shoes anytime soon, but walking is still an elemental experience: feeling the wind rush over you, hearing the rain fall, looking and seeing.

Walking can even become an art form. This is seen most famously in the work of land artist Richard Long, who turns his walks into art. Sometimes he creates an actual artwork on the route, like an arrangement of stones. But his main focus is the way he records his walks using maps and photography, which he has exhibited all over the world. Maybe they are powerful partly because they build memory of a walk, which could be a transitory, fleeting event soon forgotten. They’re also powerful because they show that walking can spur us to be creative. Writer Robert Macfarlane has reflected how walking can make us think, learn, see and create – and how it can also so exhaust us that we are too weary to do any of these.

Walking can be so simple an act that we might overlook the impacts it can have. But obviously it is not always simple at all. For some people, walking is physically impossible, while for others it is an enormous struggle as illness, disability or age limit mobility. Or you might find little freedom or opportunity to get outdoors. You are not forgotten.