CALM ON THE CANALS Let your mind wander on a waterside walk.
With little chance of losing your way on a waterside walk, your mind can wander in any direction it pleases, says
The scene is calm. Mist hovers on the water’s surface like an exhalation, as if the canal itself is practising its early-morning deep-breathing, slowly readying for the day. In the trees and bushes, birds rejoice, their song serenading the just-risen sun, the reopening blooms, the rabbits in the verges, the voles in their burrows. Boats painted gaily in vivid reds, yellows and greens, their roofs festooned with plant pots, sit quietly tethered to the bank. Suddenly, something catches my eye: a ash of turquoise. Too quick to bring into focus, but – that colour! – it can only be a king sher, probably on the hunt for breakfast.
Like the canal, I take my own deep breath. It smells of damp earth and woodsmoke, a hint of blossom, a dash of wild garlic. And then I begin to walk along the towpath, following its simple course,
allowing this unambiguous trail to convey me into the countryside, with the water beside me as a reassuring guide.
Walking along a canal isn’t just exercise; it’s also a medicine and a meditation. Walking full-stop is good for us, physically and mentally. Walking beside water has been proven to be especially bene cial to our mental health; studies have found that interaction with ‘blue spaces’ can be e ective in reducing stress and improving perceived wellbeing. And walking by a canal is, in many ways, the pinnacle of that. Not only do you have the balm of the blue, you have a degree of clarity. When you follow a canal, the route ahead is clear. You can let your mind wander without fear of getting lost. You can surrender to the certainty. You can go with its easy ow.
“While I enjoy walking and running in all types of nature, there is something about the simplicity of the canal that appeals,” says Renee McGregor, a dietitian who specialises in performance sport and eating disorders (www.reneemcgregor.com). “You choose to go left or right, and then you’re left to your thoughts until it’s time to turn around”. For Renee, her local canal provides a calming antidote to a stressful – and often distressing – job. “In the early mornings, when I’m on the canal with my dog, it’s more meditative; more about waking the body and setting myself up for the day. Later, when walking in the evening after a long day in clinic, it’s my time to re ect, unwind and breathe.”
I feel the same sense of unwinding as I trace my local canal, the 87-mile-long Kennet and Avon, which links Bristol and Reading. As I walk eastwards along the K&A from the city of Bath, I feel the plunge into history and nature. I pass honey stone and Georgian glory, deep locks and the beginnings of the Cotswolds. I walk through willow-wept
Sydney Gardens, where Jane Austen used to take a turn, and onwards via an old pub, ducks and swans, verdant valley sides and the grand Dundas Aqueduct, which carries the canal over the railway and the river. But this waterside footpath is also a release. A chance to leave the city and my stresses. What am I thinking about as I stroll? I hardly know. Everything and nothing. ‘What bird is that?’ ‘What should I do with my life?’ And all thoughts in between.
Even a short walk along a canal can recharge your batteries. But a walking weekend? That could really reset your mental wellbeing.
From Bath to the Caen Hill Locks at Devizes is around 20 miles. With an overnight stop in pretty Bradford on Avon – once named by The
Sunday Times as the UK’s most liveable town – you have yourself the perfect package. Today, I keep on walking…
While Britain’s earliest canals date back to the Romans, the real boom time for these manmade waterways was the late-18th and early-19th centuries, when mine owners and merchants saw their business potential (but no one was contemplating their potential health benefits). The canals’ glory days did not last. The advent of railways rendered a lot of them unprofitable or redundant and, by the mid20th century, many had fallen into disrepair.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Transport Act, which classified the national waterways and sealed the fate of some canals. Those deemed unit for commercial or leisure purposes were classified as ‘Remainders’, and left to their own devices. Some were lost. But, thanks to the e orts of passionate volunteers across the country, many Remainders – such as the Kennet and Avon – were saved. They have reopened for boat navigation and have become excellent routes for walkers and cyclists.
Today, the Canal & River Trust safeguards 2,000 miles of waterways across England and Wales, a varied network that cuts through mountains, incises cities and trickles amid bucolic countryside. These waterways can provide refreshing escapes: they are green and vital headspaces for local communities to escape their urban confines; they are mercifully at thoroughfares for those put o by hills; and they are accessible routes for all abilities and ages. They can also provide crucial corridors and environments for local wildlife.
Clockwise from top: canalwalking provides quietcontemplation; take ahike from Bath to Devizesalong the Kennet & AvonCanal; admire the colourfulhouseboats on the water.