Walking for Life: Annie Spratt

In this new series we'll be exploring what walking means to different people, from long journeys to short wanderings and their impacts on our health, wellbeing and general daily lives. First up, is photographer, blogger and New Forester Annie Spratt talking about the way walking everyday has impacted on her life now. I hope you'll be inspired...

Annie, we've known each other on Instagram for quite a while now, so when you started your new ‘project’ I was really struck with what you were doing. Can you tell us a little bit more about Walking 365?

Being outdoors is one of things that I knew was good for me, both mentally and physically but often got put to the back of my to do list when life got busy. Of course it’s when life gets busy that it was more necessary than ever.

I actually tried a walking 365 a couple of years ago, vowing to walk somewhere different every day for a year and blog these walks. I only managed a couple of weeks, but in hindsight I’d set too many constraints to the challenge. With that in mind I decided to try again on January 1st, planning to make time daily to take a walk in the New Forest where I live, or wherever I happen to be located on the day.

It took a couple of weeks to re-jiggle life around to make time for a daily walk, but not it’s as much a part of my day as cleaning my teeth or eating dinner.

It’s clear that walking has become a big part of your life now, to the extent that you say you’re spending less time online. Perhaps you could tell us a bit more about that and why it’s been important to find a balance between the outdoor and online world?

The online world  was something that to me, had become a part of everyday life, a habit.

The recent news that our teenagers and children are more stressed than ever shouldn’t come as no surprise, they have grown up with the internet.

Most adults I know that use social media, particularly visual networks like Instagram, have confessed to finding it overwhelming at times. Comparison fatigue, inspiration-overload (yes you really can have too much of a good thing!) and the pressure to keep sharing high-quality content regularly. It seems that there’s a widespread acceptance that the way things look has become more important than ever - socially it influences how successful your business is, how many ‘friends’ you have, how many nice things people say about you.

Now take that whole paragraph above and apply it to young person experiencing the mental and physical changes that the hormones of growing up bring, the peer pressure of school friends  and the academic pressures of school life.

For me, the worrying part about this is that we’re all growing older with these strong online influences, the role models for children are more frequently online figures.

I’m becoming increasingly aware that I need to be showing my own children that time online needs to be balanced by time offline. And that’s not something that I can simply tell them, but limiting screen time and telling them ‘too much time online is bad for you’. It’s something I need to show them, to be outside more so that they too can figure it out and empower themselves to grow up with a healthy relationship with the online world.

How do you balance walking with other commitments in your life now?

After a week of walking daily I realised that I was going to need to make some fundamental changes to the structure of my day to allow it to become a sustainable part of my daily routine.

Taking 2 hours out of my usual day wasn’t an option for me, to work with the commitments that I have, family life and my full time remote job. But I really felt that walking should be a priority for me too, and so I looked closely at my daily routine for ways that I could fit in it.

Previously I’ve opted to work in the evenings, once my family have gone to bed. To be honest though, I’m not my most productive late at night, too easily distracted, too quick to make mistakes. And so I tried out the opposite, going to bed earlier and waking up earlier. Getting up in the morning has never been one of my strengths, nor has going to bed early, but the fresh air and exertion from the daily walks meant that I found myself tired by 9.30pm.

Now I wake up at 5am and work till 7.30am, before getting my children ready for and off to school. Getting this 2.5 hours of work in early means that I can use the 8.30-11am time slot to enjoy a walk. It’s worked out really well for me personally, I feel like I’ve achieved so much before lunchtime and breaking up the hours I work like this makes me more focused and productive.

You’re a wonderful photographer, and have a keen eye for details, tones and colours. Has walking affected your photography practice in any way?

Oh you are far too kind! Being outdoors in nature, especially in winter time, really challenges you to look closely at your surroundings. I always take a camera with me on my walks, one day I tried leaving the camera at home but  regretted it when a stag strolled casually right past me! Being outdoors in Winter is a beautiful thing, nature is humbling.

But it’s far removed from styling a photo full of pretty flowers and props, you have to really look for the details surrounding you. You become really in tune with subtle colour differences, weather and the light and start to appreciate how different conditions offer different benefits and challenges.

Just as with the gear I use for walking, I keep my photography simple when walking with my camera always in auto mode. There’s a huge misconception that one needs to know all the right settings for different conditions in photography to take a good photograph. I receive a few messages and emails every week asking me for which settings I used for certain photos - and my answer is always the same, I concentrate my energies on looking for for interesting shapes, colours and light and leave my camera’s auto setting to do the rest.

Walking past trees and ferns every day challenges me to look for different ways to take interesting photographs. There’s so much soul in nature, and the connection that you make with nature as you spend time engaging with it - capturing that soul is quite an art. 80% of photos that I take on my walks end up being deleted from my hard drive, but every single one teaches me something - what works, what doesn’t, what could I try next next time? Over time I’ve started taking less (but better quality) photos from this process.

As you know, I have an interest in therapeutic practice outdoors, specifically the power of ‘walking therapy’ and so I’d love to know whether you have experienced any emotional or mental wellbeing gains from your daily walking?

I walk alone, with my husband, with my children and with the family as a whole.

Weekends I take the children out for walks daily and in the week I walk alone or with my husband (who works shift work). I’ve seen benefits in the first month to both my own wellbeing and the relationships I have with my family.

Walking with my children gives a no-pressure, natural environment to talk about nature, school life, worries, happy memories and more. I learn from them and vice versa. Just seeing my son and daughter running ahead and deciding the route we’ll take brings me so much happiness.

My husband has been incredibly supportive of my walking, researching new routes online and joining me whenever he can. We’ve been together for 11 years and I swear that we’ve had more meaningful conversations in the last month than the whole of last year. Never underestimate the value of walking together and making plans for the future.

Without meaning to sound over-dramatic, walking on my own has changed so many aspects of my life.

I was one of those people that reached for their iPhone at the first sign of a spare minute; queuing in the supermarket, waiting in the school playground, waiting for the kettle to boil. “Ooo I’ve a spare minute I’ll just check in on Instagram!’ was a frequent thought.

The more time I’ve spent outdoors and offline, the less I’ve wanted to be indoors and online. It gave me time to step outside of my day to day routine and look in on it, and I soon realised how much time I spend online, and just how much social media influences how I feel and what I do. There’s been a positive domino effect on many aspects of my life that I hadn’t even noticed were bad for me.

What else has walking taught you, or what have you learnt about yourself and the world?

It’s taught me the importance of doing less things that I love more. I’ve developed better personal relationships and generally I feel more empathetic.

I've also learnt that I like the cold, the rain and the wind. I really didn’t think I did before, I’d be the first person to say ‘oh kids it’s raining - movie afternoon under a blanket on the sofa instead? Committing to be outside in all weathers changed that mindset. Turns out that feeling the rain on your face and the wind in your hair is a beautiful thing (and the whole  movie-afternoon under a blanket can still be done afterwards!) I love the sense of achievement after a wet-weather walk!

I’ve thought the most about the online world when I’m walking. It’s a real chance to look at things from ‘the outside’. Trump’s election is a good example of when retreating offline from the noise , and in many cases anger, of the online world is a really beneficial thing. On your own, in nature, you can form your own opinions, consider how you feel without anyone else’s input and find a way forward that works for you, be that acceptance or action. To me at times like this so much of the online world feeds and fuels the uncertainty, the unrest, the anger until it grows into being so much more to us that it might of otherwise.

I’ve learnt and acknowledged a few things about myself on my walks too:

  • Life is better when I am offline less.
  • I don’t like how certain aspects of social media make me behave and feel. Recognising and acknowledging this has been really powerful for me.
  • That I was spending too much time on my iPhone, and too quick to reach to it whenever I had a spare moment.
  • That being outdoors is a priority for me.
  • The importance of differentiating between real life friends and online friends and followers.
  • That it drastically improves my mental and physical wellbeing.
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Tell me a bit about your relationship with nature:

My relationship with nature is deep and sincere. I can’t identify many birds or wild-flowers, though I have recently bought a couple of handy pocket-sized guides. One of the best things about nature to me, is that you don’t need to have a wealth of knowledge, or a fancy equipment to get out there and enjoy it. Many years ago I walked up Snowdon, one Summer, in a pair of jeans, my old trainers and a packed lunch in a plastic supermarket bag - I loved that walk. Yes it might have been easier with proper walking boots, trousers and a rucksack but I really liked that it could be completed and enjoyed even without ‘all the gear’.

Do you have any dream places to walk in the future?

The Wicklow mountains, Ben Wivis and the Jurassic Coast are closer-to-home dream walks that I think are achievable this Summer. The ultimate dream for me would be the multi-coloured mountains of Landmannalaugar. I’ve read amazing tales of the most beautiful landscapes and wild-flowers there, especially during May.

What couldn’t you walk without?

At the moment, welly boots! I tend to wear thick leggings, warm socks, my wellies (which are comfier than any shoes I own!) and my everyday coat. I carry a small backpack with a bottle of water, pac-a-mac and my iPhone inside. Keeping my iPhone in the inside pocket inside my backpack has been great for weaning myself off the habit of ‘I’ll just check in on Instagram and see what’s happening’. I set a walking app off when I start walking that maps my route via GPS, that way if I end up getting lost I can work out the direction I need to go to get back on track (This has helped me twice already!)

I’m planning some longer walks and weekend away walking in the coming few months and I expect at some point I’ll bite the bullet and invest in a decent jacket, some base layers and a good pair of walking boots. But for now I’m perfectly happy muddling along with what I have - I’ve not needed to invest anything so far in walking, other than time.

What advice would you give other would-be walkers?

Just get out there and try it! I believe that most people already know that it would be good for them but feel that their lives are too busy already and can’t find time for it. If you find yourself thinking ‘I’m too busy’ then the chances are you need walking more than you realise.

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    All photos copyright Annie Spratt 2017

    Thanks so much to Annie for sharing her inspirational story (and photos) of walking 365 and the huge impact it's had on her life. 

    Annie shares her beautiful photography on instagram, and you can also find her work on her blog, as well as at Unsplash where she works as Head of Curation.