Kate Humble's new book makes a passionate case for walking to keep us healthy in body - and mind.
Words by Gill Morgan
When I speak to Kate Humble, at her home in the beautiful Welsh borders, the first thing we talk about – naturally enough, given the subject matter of her new book – is her walk that morning: “Teg, my sheepdog, has just come home from a month working with some friends of mine who are shepherds, bringing the sheep down off the hills. He’s come back looking like Mo Farah – super-fit and needing a lot of exercise. So we went for a good hour and a half – out of the house, across the neighbour’s fields, up to a high point, quite misty but absolutely beautiful, where you can see right out across the Bristol Channel. A good old heart-puff to the top, then a gradual descent, through the woods. That’s a pretty normal start to the day for me.”
To TV viewers who only know Humble as the breezy presenter of Springwatch and a host of other nature programmes, her new book will come as revelation. In Thinking On My Feet, Humble records a year’s worth of walking and the thinking that accompanied it – and it’s a book that’s filled with hard-won wisdom and quiet passion. “For me, walking feels as vital as breathing,” Humble writes. “I find the simple action of putting one foot in front of the other, and the rhythm of that action, incredibly therapeutic.”
Humble is a relatively late convert to the power of walking. Growing up in the countryside, her family took their surroundings for granted, so walks were never high on the family agenda. “Then I lived in London for 20 years, and although I walked to get from A to B, I never related it to my sense of well-being. It was really when we moved to Wales ten years ago, and I found the place where I feel content and happy – and I also needed to take the dogs out (she has 3) – that I became tuned into it. Walking every day makes me feel rooted, connected to a place.” On her morning walk, she makes sure she leaves her phone at home, though if she's trying new routes, she takes an old phone so she can use her trusty Ordnance Survey app.
I suggest she is “hefted” to her Welsh hillside – like the local sheep – and she laughs heartily. “Yes! You’re right, I’m hefted! But if you walk in the same place regularly, you really notice things. It’s like spot the difference – the landscape talks to you, sends you messages, like gossip… you’re picking up the next piece of nature’s news. And I find that wonderfully comforting. When you’re in a landscape and it’s so magnificent, I feel both small and insignificant, but also part of the magnificence, and I find that very levelling and calming. We humans can be so narcissistic, but walking puts things into perspective.”
The book’s structure is a diary format, which tells the story of a year of walking – some of it in exotic locations around the world, where she happened to be filming, but much of it on her own, very beautiful, doorstep. “I’ve always loved reading diaries – I like the everydayness of them, the way you can mix up the mundane and the exciting,” she explains. “I hadn’t kept a diary before, and I’m not very disciplined about that kind of thing, but once I got into it, I really enjoyed it.” She demonstrates a keen eye not just for natural detail, but for encounters with strangers and friends alike, plus lots of honest self-analysis and some illuminating forays into the scientific research around the benefits of walking on mood and cognitive ability.
Humble is passionate on the subject. Or, as she puts it in her self-deprecating way, will “bang on about it forever if given the chance. It’s frustrating because we know that walking is good for us – it’s hardly new knowledge. It’s simple, free, and so many people could benefit, even from 20 minutes at lunchtime.” She tells me the story of a woman who came to one of her book events who had been suffering from depression, then set herself the challenge of walking a mile a day for 100 days to see if it made a difference. “She emailed me recently and it made me want to cry! She wrote it so beautifully. She says she is happier, fitter, that she feels she has a weapon against her depression.”
As we finish our conversation, Humble quotes the writer Rebecca Solnit, who has written about the modern requirement for us to be productive all the time: “Emails, answering texts, you’re never allowed to be doing nothing,” says Humble. “So for me, walking allows us ‘doing nothing’ time, without actually being idle. Thinking time, dreaming time. We all need it.”