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

In the Moment - - Contents - Illustration: Abbey Withing­ton Sarah Bax­ter

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.

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