Insight: Walking back to happiness after Covid lockdown

On a dreich May afternoon, Dee Heddon emerges from her tenement flat wearing a pair of sturdy Brooks shoes and wielding a multi-coloured umbrella. The professor of theatre studies at Glasgow University is leading a research project into walking, arts and the pandemic, and has invited me along on her daily constitutional.

Dee Hedden takes Dani Garavelli on her daily walk where she points out various bits of art that she has discovered. Picture: John Devlin

As a tour guide, she combines the brisk efficiency of Mary Poppins with the gaiety of Gene Kelly in Singing in the Rain. “Oh, wow - that smell!” she exclaims as we brush by a profusion of white flowers at a gate. “Orange blossom,” the householder calls out, congenially. “It’s lovely!” Heddon hollers back.

Heddon, who holds the James Arnott Chair in Drama, was a walker before Covid-19 Holidays and weekends would see her heading off to Argyll and Bute or the Great Glen Way with her partner, Rachel. In term-time, she would trace the same route through Glasgow’s West End: across the Botanic Gardens, along the River Kelvin, up and down the broad streets and back alleys that skirt the ancient university.

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She found the pace of walking - the rhythm it created - an aid to thinking. “If I had a research problem I was trying to work out, or I had to give a talk, but didn’t know what to say, I would walk and by the end of the walk, I had it all worked out,” she says.

A random art work. Dee Hedden takes Dani Garavelli on her daily walk where she points out various bits of art that she has discovered. Picture: John Devlin

But lockdown, with its many restrictions, changed everyone's relationship with the outdoors. It made walkers out of those who would once have driven to the corner shop. But it also kept seasoned ramblers closer to home, exploring the same few square miles day after day.

For some, the hour of state-sanctioned exercise became a solemn ritual; a means of imposing structure on amorphous days. For others, it was an opportunity to connect with their neighbourhoods and with one another.

Heddon saw the Botanic Gardens grow busier. But she noticed something else, too: chalk rainbows, fairy trails, painted stone snakes and aphorisms appearing on pavements and walls. “There were all sorts of interventions - messages of hope in scary times,“ she recalls. “People seemed to be saying: 'We have to be apart, but I can leave something for you. And, in doing that, I can continue to participate in culture, society, and community. I can be human.'”

Early lockdown was met with creativity and fellow feeling. As people walked, they noticed things, and the things they noticed, they were eager to share. So Twitter timelines filled up with images: of cityscapes and sunsets, gravestones and graffiti, wally tiles and woodpeckers. Outside, post boxes were adorned with woollen berets, while origami flowers appeared on walls and traffic lights: votive offerings to the God of Pestilence.

A map made by Dee Hedden, who takes Dani Garavelli on her daily walk where she points out various bits of art that she has discovered. Picture: John Devlin

Deprived of their livelihoods and audiences, professional artists, too, looked to walking for inspiration. Returning to Glasgow after months away, Jenny Brownrigg, exhibitions director at

the Glasgow School of Art, was alarmed to see nature reclaiming the empty School Board of Glasgow buildings in the Calton. Weeds wound themselves round doorways; bushes thrust themselves through windows.

She thought about how those schools had been built in the wake of the 1872 Education Act which made lessons compulsory for five to 13-year-olds; and how Covid was now disrupting children’s learning. Then she set herself the task of walking to, and photographing, the 31 school board structures that remain. Although some are derelict, others have been repurposed as offices and flats. A few are still schools.

Crossing Glasgow on foot made her see the city in a different way. “I understood how things joined up,” she told me. “I became aware of urban planning, how things had changed over time, the sort of layering of it all.”

Louise McVey is a sculptural ceramic artist and musician based in Glasgow. Picture: John Devlin

As Brownrigg created her archive, Heddon was thinking about the impact and legacy of walking in lockdown. Was it recasting our relationship with our local environment? And would the changes wrought in us endure? Once we could, once more, go anywhere, by any means, would we cleave to or forsake those spaces we had grown to love?

These are issues being explored in Walking Publics/Walking Arts, the project she is leading in collaboration with academics from University College Cork, the University of Liverpool and the University of East London.

In an attempt to understand how creative walking might mitigate isolation and enhance well-being, they produced two surveys. The first asked members of the public what walking had meant to them during Covid. The second asked artists how they had used walking in their work.

Most of those who participated in the surveys appear to have been engaging imaginatively with their surroundings. One respondent told of walking with old Ordnance Survey maps so they could track how much the landscape had changed, another of memorising “scent walks” made up of “daphne, honeysuckle, roses, lime and mimosa”.

Alec Finlay, Glenshee, photograph by Mhairi Law, 2018

Some saw walking as an expression of freedom at a time of captivity, or progress at a time of stasis. They found comfort in noticing tiny seasonal shifts. “During lockdown, when everything felt the same, to see landscapes/art changing was a reminder that time was moving on,” wrote one.

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My own association with walking began in a dark place, though not the pandemic. In the summer/autumn of 2018, I hit a wall of depression. I tried to work my way through it, but it wasn’t to be. There were days I could not sit at my computer.

The trick is to keep breathing, the author Janice Galloway wrote, but, for me, the trick was to keep walking. When I was at the office, I would stalk the paths along the Clyde; when at home, my local graveyard. As my world tilted, the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other was what prevented me from falling off. Later, on antidepressants, it felt as if my brain was firing electric pulses to every part of my body. My face and fingers tingled, but the charge passed through my soles into the soil. As long as I kept moving, I was literally earthed.

By the time Covid-19 came along, I was much better, but still wary of my mind’s capacity for self-sabotage. I created a ritual to marshal my thoughts. Every day, I chose an unfamiliar album and listened to it as I walked. In sun, snow or smirr, I would lose myself in music. With my headphones on, I longer heard my feet connecting with the ground, but soon I could feel them moving to the beat.

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Jenny Brownrigg Photo: Lesley Punton

Keeping step with Heddon now, I can hear everything: the rustle of the wind through leaves, the coo-cooing of a wood pigeon, the thud, then crunch, then squelch of our shoes as we move from concrete, to gravel, to mud. She sees everything: a heron hunched on an islet; the fresh stickers in the echoey tunnels under the bridge. “They’ve painted over the anti-lockdown slogan,” she remarks from time to time. Or: “That poem wasn’t here yesterday.”

We chat about the lockdown guerrillas: those people who livened up the parks and streets with ad hoc artistic interventions. Earlier that week, I had tracked down the mystery Milngavie granny who crocheted emojis and hung them on gates and railings around Mugdock Reservoir.

Though she wanted to remain anonymous, she told me she had been bored during lockdown, and had alighted on the smiley faces as something to keep her busy after reading about a girl who had enjoyed a local treasure trail. “After I started putting masks on them, it went all over

Facebook, with people trying to guess who’d them there,” she said. More recently, she hung wee animals - owls and bears - around Kilmardinny Loch in Bearsden. “I enjoyed doing it because it made people smile,” she said.

I also met Louise McVey, an artist who has been making “ceramic graffiti” and placing it in spots close to her Dennistoun studio and her West End home.

McVey was wearing a dainty skirt and big hoop earrings with the words “F*** the Patriarchy” picked out in gold lettering. For many months now, she has been placing flowers in cracks in walls, and hearts - the organ, not the loveheart shape - on the sides of buildings. There are also golden ears and tiny teapots to be found by those who pay enough attention. It is the femininity of her work that makes it subversive, graffiti being traditionally male. Whereas tagging is territorial, McVey’s work reaches out to others.

Some of her pieces have been taken, some snapped by small fingers, but transience is the essence of street art. And, increasingly, those who take pleasure in her work see themselves as its custodians.

“When you create a piece of street art, you are putting yourself out there, making yourself vulnerable. Even if you are anonymous, you can feel small, but it’s good to feel small, it’s good to realise the tiny part you play in the world,” she told me. “If something is destroyed it just becomes part of [the experience]. But sometimes it gets claimed by the community and when it disappears people contact you because they miss it .

“The feeling [the ceramic graffiti] gives me is that I am not that important but, I am also investing in moments. I am making humble connections. If a child I don’t see finds and touches and smiles at a piece of my work, that’s greater than a gallery acknowledgment.”

Later, McVey forwarded emails she had been sent by people whose lockdown she has brightened. “I love finding your work around,” wrote one. “It’s like a little bit of magic sprinkled around.”

Another said finding McVey's work made her want to walk different routes every day. “I have taken pictures of the pieces I have found and shared them with my sister in LA,” she wrote. “Thank you for doing this. It makes my day.”

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So far, Heddon and I have been talking about the walks people have been able to go on during lockdown. But, in fastening us to one place, Covid-19 denied us others. Confined to barracks, many of us have experienced what the Germans call “fernweh”: an ache for far-off places, and a yearning for experiences we once enjoyed.

Heddon has brought some props to perk up our perambulation, and, on the banks of the Kelvin, she pulls out the first: a drawing of a forest trail at Crinan. The circular route, which Heddon used to walk several times a year, has been lovingly recreated: the harbour, with its little houses, the paths and the otter she once saw.

“At the beginning of lockdown, the Lancaster-based artist Louise Ann Wilson came up with the idea of ‘memory walks’," Heddon explains. She asked people to think of a walk they could no longer do and draw it. “I chose this trail which takes you up a hill overlooking Rum and Jura. I drew for two and a half hours, which is roughly how long the walk takes, and was transported imaginatively to this beautiful place.”

Further on, Heddon brings out her second prop: a set of Other Ways To Walk cards created by the artist Rachel Howfield. Each card has a prompt which encourages the walker to look more closely, listen more intently. I pick one from the deck. “Stick to the shadows,” it reads. Heddon's instructs her to “choose a sound and only move when she hears it”.

Howfield is not the only artist invoking fresh perspectives. Writer and psychogeographer Sonia Overall is a fan of “derives” or “drifts”, a concept which originated with Situationist Guy Debord in the 1950s. He saw the drift as a walk without objective, dependent on chance and the whims, impulses and reactions of the wanderers.

When lockdown hit, Overall realised people were not going to be able to go out together. So, on the first Sunday of April 2020, she used her own prompt cards to create a synchronised Twitter distance drift. Walkers around the country responded to those prompts in their own neighbourhood, posting photographs of what they found. It proved so popular she has been organising distance drifts every Sunday since.

Overall’s imagination runs wild. Sometimes she chooses light-hearted themes, such as Punch and Judy. That week she urged walkers to seek: “stripes to decorate your puppet booth; crocodiles, ghosts, babies, policemen and strings of sausages." Other drifts are more political, focusing, for example, on borders and boundaries.

Over time, she has gathered a hard core of around 20 Twitter distance drifters, with dozens more dipping in and out. “Those of us who do the drifts regularly have begun to spot the same kinds of things,” she told me. “I will ask them to look for textured rectangles, and four people will post a photograph of a doormat. It is almost as if we have found a common language.

"But there are also very individual approaches. We have one great regular with a dark sense of humour. She is good at finding isolated stains that look like crime scenes, along with discarded clothing."

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Not everyone was able to walk during lockdown. Some people have disabilities; others were shielding. What must it have been like to listen to endless conversations about daily exercise, when you were stuck indoors?

Laura Fisher, who specialises in dance and participatory performance, can empathise. She lives with chronic pain, fatigue and fluctuating mobility in her hip joints, which means some days she can walk further than others.

During the pandemic, she made two complementary guided audio experiences, the first called Going Out/ Going In, the second, Going In/Going Out. With Going Out /Going In the user is invited to put on headphones and listen while walking. “It’s an invitation to physically go outside, but to slow down and notice the built environment," Fisher told me. “I guess it comes from a place of being a person who moves through space at a slower pace, and who [because of impaired mobility] has to read the environment in different ways."

Having experienced periods of isolation, however, Fisher wanted to provide a similar experience to those confined to the house. Going In/ Going Out is designed to be played indoors. It asks the listener to tune into their body and to their breathing, then to follow the lines and corners of the room. Eventually, they are encouraged to access memories: long grass grazing bare legs and the cold shock of water as a wave crashes over them.

The piece is scored by composer Sonia Killman. She and Fisher wanted the final tracks to replicate the meditative rhythm of walking. “I was reading The Body Keeps the Score [by Bessel van der Kolk] at the time and there was a passage about the use of rhythm and collective tapping or chanting as a way of processing trauma,” Fisher said.

In Edinburgh, artist Alec Finlay explained the concept of “proxy walks”. From the age of 21, he has suffered from ME, which made it difficult for him to walk long distances. But then, in March last year, he developed Covid which turned into Long Covid, and his world was further restricted. Now, most days he walks from his home in Newhaven to the Milk Cafe in Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop, touches a brick in the wall, and comes home. It's as much as he can manage.

Despite his ME, Finlay has always made art in landscapes. Pre-Covid, he would go to a place, walk a couple of hundred metres, lie in the heather and look. “I could be in a valley or on a hillock and look at the mountains and say their names and feel a connection with places I couldn’t get to,” he said.

Once, he collaborated with a friend to write a poem describing the Dalwhat Water in Dumfries and Galloway. The river’s source - in a cleuch between two hills - was beyond his reach, so his friend went in his stead.

“He brought back a description of a chipped enamel cup chained to a rock by the spring. As he drank, a fawn leapt away,” Finlay wrote in his essay On Not Walking (Part II). “No, I didn’t taste the water, or flinch with surprise at the fawn, but, with the help of his eyes, the poem was complete."

Finlay believes this process could be extended, with disabled people experiencing walks vicariously. Their proxies would absorb the sights, sounds and smells, then offer their impressions up as gifts.

He hopes to create a dual experience where two people walk the same route simultaneously; one, physically, for the first time, the other imaginatively from memory. They would each record their responses and the two texts would sit side by side. “When I first came up with this idea, I saw myself as the one doing the walk,” Finlay said. “But I guess now someone will have to do it for me.”

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The Walking Publics/Walking Arts surveys closed last week. Heddon and others are now sifting through more than 1,200 public responses and 151 artists’ responses. They will look at the obstacles to walking they have identified, and challenge artists to come up with ways of overcoming them. Eight will eventually be commissioned to develop pilot projects.

At the end of our walk, Heddon takes her last remaining prop from her bag. It’s a tiny cardboard box, tied with string, made by artist Noëmi Lakmaier for a walking festival in Norwich.

We hold our breath as she opens the lid. Inside is a spool of 1,000 metres of bright red biodegradable thread. The idea is to loop the thread round something solid when you start your walk, and allow it to run through your fingers as you go, so you leave a trail, like latter-day Hansel and Gretels.

We pass the spool back and forth between us, feeling its weight in our palms. I close my eyes for a second and imagine the country crisscrossed with silk filaments. A lattice of all the walks taken during Covid. A scarlet tapestry connecting us at a time when we were forced to be apart.

ends

And link to Jenny Brownrigg's schools project
Laura Fisher
And link to Jenny Brownrigg's schools project
Jenny Brownrigg Photo: Lesley Punton
Laura Fisher
Alec Finlay, Glenshee, photograph by Mhairi Law, 2018
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