In 1999 I was contacted by a BBC Radio 4 producer called Lucy Lunt. She had seen me on TV doing an interview with Terry Wogan for Auntie’s Sporting Bloomers and thought I looked like fun. As I was a “country sort”, she wondered if I might be the right presenter for a new series she was making. “Do you walk?” Lucy asked. “Well, I walk the dogs,” I said.
I sounded more confident than my experience warranted. But yes, in my understanding of the word, I was a walker. “Excellent,” she said. “Now, can you read a map?” I replied, a little too hastily, “Of course I can.” This was in the days before sat navs and GPS, and I had an uncanny knack of memorising a page from a road atlas so that I didn’t have to look at it en route.
I failed to realise she was talking about Ordnance Survey maps. A decade and a half later, I will still turn to Lucy as we’re about to announce the starting-grid reference and say, “Just remind me. Is it along the corridor and up the stairs, or up the stairs and along the corridor?” “The day you know that is the day you’ll probably have to stop,” she’ll reply.
Truth be told, I never want to stop. The Radio 4 series Lucy was signing me up for was called Ramblings. It’s a half-hour programme in which I walk with people all over the country. Lucy was hoping she might have found a format that would last for a few series, maybe even a couple of years, if we were lucky. Fifteen years and 45 series later, it is still going strong.
Of all the things I work on, of all the programmes I have ever presented, Ramblings is my favourite. You might think half an hour on radio of two people (sometimes more) walking around the countryside is an odd concept for a series, but it works.
At a rough estimate, I have covered about 1,500 miles of footpaths, for Ramblings, or just for myself. I have tackled apocalyptic thunderstorms, struggled with blisters, a bad back, a twisted ankle and the wrong clothes, and traipsed through the snow of the Perthshire mountains with no voice (me, not the mountains – they always speak).
All these miles have changed my perception of the countryside, as well as revolutionising my knowledge of it. I realise that I spent my childhood looking at a skeleton of Britain in which I knew obscure bones but not about the spine of the Pennine Way, or the capillaries of tiny footpaths that take us deep into the woods and along the riverbanks of our landscape.
I have felt the delights of the north-east coastal path, the Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William, the south-west coastal path and the South Downs Way. I have bounced on spring dews and crunched on autumn leaves, I have felt the brutal wind bend me like a misshapen hawthorn bush, and I have strolled for miles with the sun warming my cheeks and refracting off chalk and water.
We usually cover at least seven or eight miles. I love the stories that people reveal over those miles. I have told people all sorts of things during the course of a walk, and they have told me things they probably never thought they would open up about.
That’s because walking side by side is very different from sitting opposite someone. There is only occasional eye contact, so none of that awkward looking up and away if you think you’ve caught their eye for too long. You are sharing an experience, looking at a view together, puffing up a hill or watching the waves crash into the rocks below. You face the weather together, and as two or three hours unfold the layers peel back.
It is therapy for the soul. It’s as if walking has unlocked a part of my brain the way that riding did when I was a child, and walking with other people gives me a chance to satisfy my inquisitive mind. I can ask all the questions I want to ask, and they, for the most part, seem fairly willing to answer them.
Walking slows me down, it gives me time to think, time to explore the land, the seasons, the person and the dog I share my life with, and the beauty in every day.
There is a frequency your brain tunes into after about two hours, as the rhythm of your footfall becomes its only beat. It is like meditation, a means of earthing your body and your mind. I love it, and I need it. Now I make sure that I start every day with an hour-long walk with Archie, our Tibetan terrier, and I always look forward to the evening, when I get the chance to walk him again.
And whether or not we’re recording for radio, I never need an excuse to get out there and discover a new path.
Extracted from Walking Home by Clare Balding, published by Viking. Buy from the RT bookshop here