Walking for Life: Genevieve Dutton

In the fourth interview of the Walking for Life series I'm talking to Genevieve Dutton. Genevieve can be found on Instagram @helloquietx posting "the quiet bits of life from London with her two small boys and a mental health wobble or two". In this interview we talk about walking life in London, as well as the role walking played in her fight to overcome an eating disorder. I don't mind saying that this interview really affected me and has stayed with me since I first read it. I hope that you will find it as inspiring as I have...

Genevieve, you and I know each other on Instagram and I’ve always been struck by your gentle, calming and thoughtful posts from your life in London. What’s walking like for you in the big city? Where do you like to walk? Do you look for certain types of places?

Walking in London, for me, can be about getting from A to B - given the time, I will happily walk from central London to my home in North London, and before children I would often walk that distance before and after work. It has allowed me to have a very clear map in my head of much of this big city that has been home for 15 years, and I enjoy that in and of itself.

But more importantly I use walking to keep my own mind steadier. I like to be moving, it is when the creative bit of me is both content and fired up and when ideas come easily. It also keeps the mean voice in my head quiet for a while - I have a noisy inner critic who can be pretty hateful but she can't get to me when I'm out on a big walk. And whilst I would rather be in quiet places, I don't dislike walking the streets, often I enjoy the liveliness of them, the anonymity of me, and the quiet corners you find unexpectedly. I once spent a weekend walking 52 miles in London, I got a bit lost out east but I stumbled on some incredible things.

These days my life revolves much more around the area I live in because I am at home with my two boys. I am lucky to be near woodland, wetlands, a once-railway-line that is now a tucked-away walk, and not too far from the Heath.  I think the magic for me in these places comes from the knowledge that you are so close to so much noise and concrete, and yet you don't feel it; it makes the quiet greenness of it all even more special. If I had a choice I would walk beside wetlands or through marshland or wide open moors before anywhere else. I find the openness just everything. And then there are the birds, and the water. When I get the chance I visit the wetlands in South West London, and at Woodberry in Hackney. When I'm in those places I simply feel content and as close to me being me as I can get.

Writing this has sent me off on a tangent and I have just made a list of the 12 marshland areas in London so that I can make a plan to visit them all through the next year or so. Thank you for that inspiration!

As someone who knows very little about our shared Capital, you’ve really started to bring a different part of London alive for me there. There are 12 marshland areas? This is a revelation. Thank you. You’ve mentioned your family and I wonder do you like to walk alone, with others, or both?

I like to be alone as long as I feel comfortable and familiar with a place. But I confess to feeling fear in remote places or quiet woodland and then a companion is what I need. We are just beginning to do weekend walks as a family - nothing very far but just to offer it as a habit, a pleasure, an opportunity to do something together and explore somewhere new, to the children. My 7-year-old isn't always keen but he almost always comments afterwards that it was really fun. We usually find things along the way to climb or play on and in, and I bribe them by carrying a flask of hot chocolate!

I like the talks you find yourself in on a walk. When you are side by side with someone, as opposed to face to face, you can say things that you might not ordinarily. And in doing so connection comes naturally. I think as my kids get older it could be a really useful way of keeping in touch with them. (Though I am sure they might resist my excitable 'let's go for a walk' suggestion!)

Yes, walking and talking. I’m glad you alighted on that theme as it’s a big passion of mine too. Walking for mental health. You’re always very honest about mental health awareness on your Instagram feed, and I’ve noticed that nature is also really important to you. Is there a link between those two things in your life?

Being outside really matters to me. And out in nature especially. It is the best way, for me, of just being. Of not trying to get stuff done/plan what needs doing next but to really enjoy the time. (Seated meditation makes me panic but I do practise a bit of mindful walking when the mood takes me and it genuinely is a wonderful thing.) I can feel myself slow down and reset and feel comfortable with being me. It brings clarity.

I worry that it sounds pretentious to say it but, to sit in a wood whilst the rain is falling, or to be pushed about by the wind on the top of a hill, or to tramp along a winter beach as the sea roars... even as I type I can feel that inner bit of me leaping up out of the chair in excitement, knowing what contentment it offers, and saying 'yes please, can we go soon?'. I feel sheepish writing it, but I'm sure that others feel that too - whether they walk or run or swim or climb - that exhilaration and clarity is pretty addictive, in a good way.

We often went for walks at the weekend when I was growing up on the edge of the Somerset Levels, just over the Mendip Hills, and whilst I probably moaned a fair amount I remember how good it felt when you were back home with achy legs, windswept from being up on Crook Peak. I've never forgotten a university friend commenting on my walking, on her total acceptance that it was something I needed to do to keep well. I had almost never realised until then. It was just something I did - I used to walk round and round Victoria Park in Leicester where I was studying. I hadn't realised how vital it was to me. Funny how we need other people to point things out to us sometimes.

I can sense that sense of vitality as you talk about your love of walking. Linked to that I’m really interested in the role walking has in our everyday lives, and I’m particularly interested in the physical, emotional and mental journeys that we make when walking. Do you have any thoughts on this?

When I was 14 I developed anorexia and as it became increasingly severe, walking became both an escape route - time alone away from home and the tensions my illness had brought to the family - and, less happily, a means of furthering my weight loss, and my obsession with never allowing myself rest. I became too weak for other exercise but I didn't stop walking until I was admitted to hospital. I spent 8 months living in an NHS adolescent psychiatric unit after I became too unwell to stay at home. When I was there the idea of being free to be outside, to come and go as I pleased seemed like an incredible freedom as it had been taken away from me. Indeed, it seemed like the only freedom that mattered. And the outside world looked brighter, just more somehow, when I finally got back out in to it.

I remember a day in the unit when we were allowed to go out blackberry picking and even though I was being pushed around the hospital grounds in a wheelchair it was the best day. That was half a lifetime ago now but it took me 13 years to leave the anorexia behind and I walked and walked every day because that was where I felt most me. And then one day there was this time, walking, of all salubrious places, on Archway road, when I realised the anorexia was gone. It had taken time, but it had really genuinely gone. The need to be outside, to feel free and free to daydream and be me has stayed.

I don’t mind saying that this made me very emotional. The way you walked away from anorexia. The way being outside walking made you feel the most ‘me’. That’s very profound and inspiring. It sounds like you have learn a lot about yourself through walking. Have you also learnt anything about the world do you think?

In London people don't tend to say hello as they pass each other. But if you are on the Heath, or in Highgate Woods, or walking along the canal (or best of all on a rare snowy day) you might get a smile or an acknowledgment and I think that's of huge value. And when you are further out of London and you pass someone, there can be a wordless communication within which you know you are sharing something, valuing something. We all need that.

Yes, that shared unspoken connection is really important. I would agree. So can I ask, what is your favourite ever place to walk and why?

I like walking in wide open spaces - when I can see a long way ahead I feel safer and lifted too; and I look down at my feet less, and on at the horizon more. Often near water - whether that is the sea or a lake or wetlands. I like the extra sound - and the wind. Perhaps it is growing up in the windswept west country where things are not necessarily pretty but they are open and wild and that's ok.

You have a lovely way of noticing the conditions and the ‘wildness’. That seems to speak to you. What can you not go walking without?

Water and a camera (my phone usually does). Though, saying that, I am rarely without a curiously full bag or rucksack - and get much mocked for it. Half the time I don't know how it gets so heavy, but I just can't travel light! I mean, I might want to stop and read my book, have a sandwich, check my diary, right?!...

Thanks again to Genevieve for her thoughtful, honest answers which build to a thoroughly inspiring story of walking in the city, and walking for mental health. I hope you will show her some love over on Instagram