The right to roam

Today I went for a walk.  The urge to get out into the fresh air had been rumbling away all day – like an itch than won’t go away – & by mid-afternoon I had finished my work so decided to just go out into the vast swathe of beautiful countryside behind where I live.

By halfway down the lane behind the house, my shoulders had dropped into their relaxed mode.  The tension knot in my right shoulder blade vanished suddenly too.

Onto the canal bridge: a baby rabbit ran in front of me, looked at me, then carried on about its business.

Under the railway bridge: as I passed through, a train went by & I managed to wave to its occupants.  I go on trains a lot & often feel a pang of envy as I look out of the windows & see people walking.  Who are they, I wonder.  What kind of lives do they lead?  How are they out & about while the majority of us are in our workaday routines?  Today it felt good to realise I was one of those people, free of the usual ties & chores.

Over the beautiful metal bridge: looking down on the River Anker, I watched the minnows darting under the bridge & out the other side.  As I turned, a heron soared up from the opposite river bank & took flight, elegantly, amazingly, over the fields.  A skylark sat itself down on a branch not three metres from my head.  Despite its tiny size, I could see all its colours, the details of its plummage. 

I looked at the skylark & the skylark looked back.  I love walking because of moments like that – the sense of connection, the oneness with something beyond me & greater than me.  The sense of belonging that unites us with the world around us.  This is why I walk.  I have no urge to climb Snowdon or scale the world’s great peaks.  I just want to be in the world, & feel the world in me.

But such moments are, by their nature, transient.  I carried on up the bridlepath.  My steps got stronger & firmer.  Opening the next gate required just enough force for me to be aware of the muscles in my arm.  I love the way that walking makes me feel physically.  Like many women, I have spent too much of my life subjugating my body, despising it, trying to make it conform to some arbitary standard.  Walking makes me feel fit & strong & healthy & at ease with myself – my body is doing what it was designed to do – move around – & it does it well. 

Walking across the next field, I feel graceful.  My arms are swinging; my lips are singing.  There is no-one around to hear me singing & I wouldn’t care even if they could.  I probably look (& sound) like an enthusiastic extra on Lark Rise to Candleford.  As I bellow out some classic C19th hymns, I can feel my lungs expanding & contracting.  At one point last year, my lungs did not work & I couldn’t breath unaided.  Now I can walk & sing, & a wave of gratitude washes over me.

A sense of the divine is undercut by a more base call of nature.  Having found a spot that combines relative privacy without getting my bare bottom stung, I am able to resume the walk.  I move into the next field.  The path divides.  I choose straight on.  I always choose that way when walking alone; with others, I tend to go the other way.  I wonder to myself why is that?  It’s probably because the straight ahead path always seems a solitary route, which requires the solitude that comes from walking alone.

And today it doesn’t fail.  As I move further along the path, the noises die away.  Even bird song seems a long way off.  It always bleak & windy through these fields, no matter the weather.  It is the site where the last witches were burnt at the stake in this area.  It’s like they still haunt this place; there’s an eeriness & the corn stalks seem to whisper as you pass them by.  I strikes me that 300 or so years after the witches, my presence in this field also represents female transgression.  I am walking alone; it’s not the done thing for women to amble around the countryside alone – certainly not without a dog as an excuse to be there. 

As if on cue, my mum rings.  She has read my message saying I have gone for a walk.  In accordance with the ‘safety’ advice, I always tell someone when I go out for a walk & I always take my phone, ‘just in case’.  I am ok, I say.  It’s not really safe, she says.  She is right, of course.  It probably isn’t safe.  It makes me so angry that it isn’t seen as safe & even angrier that rather than trying to make it safer, we respond by just not going out alone into such places.  I have been to ‘reclaim the streets’ & ‘reclaim the night’ events; these things are good & certainly needed.  But we also need reclaim the fields & the hedgerows & the lanes.  I have the right to be out in the countryside as much as any man.  I stand still & feel proud.  I think of the witches & hope that they feel proud of me. 

Every step becomes a stomp, as if liberation depends entirely on my walking across this field.  By the time I reach the lane that leads back in the direction of home, though, my mind is being flooded by its usual woes & cares.  My desire for freedom is met by a backlash – what if I end up alone?  Am I becoming a harridan?  Why does it always seem that we have to make either/or choices?  Can’t I have both? 

By the time I reach the road, more mundane concerns have joined the mix.  I am hungry.  My right shoulder has a twinge of pain.  I need to wee again.  I make my way up the hill.  As the cars zoom past me, all the earlier serenity & sense of connection subside.  I am no longer a pioneer, blazing a trail across a deserted field.  I am just a woman walking along a road.

I get in & eat some jelly babies.  Then I have my tea.  Life is back to usual.  But as I sit herer now, looking down at the valley below, I can trace the paths I walked along earlier.  I can see the route that I took.  I can remember how strong & good & powerful it felt.  I have the right to roam.  It is dear to me, & I won’t give it up.

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