A Mile A Day #1: I’d Rather Walk, Thanks

Edinburgh Waverley

“Nah, not a chance,” says the taxi driver.

My travel companions, hidden under a mound of luggage, peer out anxiously. Six people plus the luggage to sustain them for one month will clearly not fit into one Edinburgh taxi. It doesn’t add up, but it has to, because the train leaves from Edinburgh Waverley in less than an hour. We have to get there. How will we fit in without leaving anything important behind? How?

“It’s fine! I’ll walk. It’s just up the road. Meet you there in 15 minutes?”

A friend clambers out and joins me – and in the eyes of the four people remaining in the taxi, we’ve picked the short straw, making a sacrifice for the greater good – while the exact opposite runs through my mind.

It’s socially awkward to admit it. It sounds antisocial, masochistic, eccentric. Why walk when you can ride? Why drag heavy luggage through cold city streets when you don’t have to?

But I want to say to them, “I’d rather walk. Seriously. I know it’s weird, but I want to be a sweaty mess. Taxis feel like planes: if you have the time, why would you willingly choose to seal yourself away in a machine for [x] minutes, when you can enjoy the outdoors for twice the time? Why ride when you can walk?”

I find it tiring to not walk. A counter-intuitive truth about exercise: if you’re feeling drained, it’s sometimes because you haven’t exerted yourself enough. Any exercise expands your capacity for energy, even while it drains your reserves of it – and walking is the great gateway drug of fitness, possible to do even when you’re bottomed out. It’s never hard to go for a stroll at your own pace, and the health benefits are not in dispute.

This year, I’m walking at least a mile a day (usually much further), and writing about it five days a week in this blog – but I’m not doing it to get fit. That’s a nice side-effect – and a welcome one, since my knees aren’t what they used to be since I became a writer for a living…

But that’s not why.

walking tube map

This is the London Walking Tube Map. It shows you how long it’d take to walk between stations (maybe dragging your luggage, in a bit of a sweaty mess).

It’s not always practical – and the Underground is there for a good reason – but for me, if I was unladen and had the time to walk, it’s irresistibly attractive. I know so little of London, maybe because it’s so well-served by public transportation that it’s easy to know very little about it – including if you’re A. A. Gill, one of its most celebrated travel writers:

Trying to be a tourist at home is tricky. It’s a good discipline, and rather disappointing. I know as little as you do about being a visitor in this town where I have lived since I was a year old, having been born in Edinburgh. We all look at the crowds of tourists on the Mall and think: What is it you see? What do you get out of this? Like every Londoner I know, I’ve never seen the changing of the guard. It’s an inconvenient traffic snarl-up every weekday morning.

– New York Times.

Everywhere is like this, and more so every year. Modern life seems prejudiced against life-affirming outdoorsy experiences, like the awareness-spiking thrill of getting lost, or what map-reading can do for your brain. Our gadgets seem to be hijacking our ability to break the ice with strangers. Our vehicles protect us from the elements, but at great cost to our mental wellbeing. We don’t listen to what the natural world is telling us anymore (which makes this guy’s work so refreshing). We’re just not seeing stuff like we used to.

Down with technology! Everyone take a digital detox! Elon Musk is a witch – burn him!

All this apparent bias is nonsense, of course. It’s not tech’s fault. It’s ours, through the choices we make – so maybe we can make different choices, here and there, to see what happens.

Me? I’m tired of being taken. I’d just like to go.

St Pancras International

My first walking-miles of 2017 are used to haul luggage, from an apartment in Edinburgh to the train station, up the carriages in search of somewhere to jam suitcases, and finally, hours later, through London St Pancras International and out the front doors towards a nearby Travelodge.

There will be more entertaining and enlightening walks – but it’s a good start. I’m moving.


Every weekday this year, I’m going for a walk to explore the limits of my ignorance and write about what I find. Want to follow along?

Sign up here for week-day updates.


NEXT: A Mile A Day #2 – Travelling Without Moving


Images: Mike Sowden
  • Pam Mandel

    I heart you, Mike, and I heart this idea. And I can’t tell you how great it’s been for me to walk a mile (usually more) every day since I got my doggo. Sometimes it’s the same mile, but I have met neighbors, noticed the seasons change in ways I don’t recall being aware of previously, and bonus, I’ve been quite healthy. I didn’t drop the weight I had hoped to drop, (and for a while, I had rather bad plantar fascitis, oops, too much walking) but whatever, and cake, but it has been grand. It is, in a very real way, how I got my book written this fall, too, because it focused my attention to walk every day.

    I’m psyched you’re doing this.

    • I’m psyched too. :) Once I run out of morbid essays about being British in the rain, it’ll force me to get creative. (Maybe I can stand *just out of the rain* and talk about how that makes me feel, etc.) And I’m looking forward to seeing changing seasons. I’ve rarely had a reason to watch the seasons shift and right now, everything is locked down and icy, so I have time to practice before the great thawing. (Unless this is truly the end, Brexit, Trump, etc etc.)

      I can’t wait to read your book. So glad it’s in the world now.

      (But I also want it on paper, bound and on my reading table. I know, I’m greedy.)

  • Love this and will be following along too!

  • Cathryn Kay

    You told me a-g-e-s ago that exercise was the way to get enough energy to exercise, and you were of course right. But it takes effort to start, which is where (in my limited experience) most people fall down. Your friend Pam had the right idea – get a dog! I got 2, even though I didn’t really want dogs, and the effect they have had on me has been miraculous. (Probably not literally, but everything’s relative, and for me it’s been a miracle!). Some weight lost (about 2 stones in 4 years, and I reckon the dogs are responsible for about half of that), and my fitness level improved massively. I also have – energy!
    When you’re right, you’re right my friend. ^_^

    • This makes me so happy to hear. :)

      It’s really hard to do because your entire body screams “NONSENSE!” – but I’ve never found anything better for building physical stamina than using it. Over time, it’s magical. And right now, after having spent wayyyyy too long not going for walks, my body is complaining every single day. But I know best. Buckle up, body – we can do this.

  • ‘Love this post Mike! And I’m with you every aspect of the way!

    I used to live in London. I had a car but it wasn’t worth driving. The Tube was a killer, and always made me pull my hair and my purse out, as the crush, the crowd and the dismal faces of commuters, always depressed me. It was easier, and far more interesting to walk!

    I live in Berlin now where public transport comes every 3-5 minutes. I still prefer to walk because I can. And I’m the crazy English girl around here who finds 3 minutes far too long, and prefers to walk rather than cycle….!

  • This is such a great goal to have – and I totally agree with you about walking. It’s a much nicer way to travel if you can take the time, and sometimes it’s even quicker than public transport. Plus you get to know what’s around you. I’ve seen people get on the tube at Charing Cross & then get off again at Embankment. I mean seriously – that’s more time just waiting on the platform than making the walk in the first place!

    http://www.teabreakproject.com

    • Couldn’t agree more. :) And it always shocks me how close stations are to each other in London. All that going up and down steps and squeezing into metal tubes, and you could just walk up the road for 2 minutes instead. I’m so glad they made that map to encourage people to do exactly that.

  • Great photos Mike!

    I love walking in London and will always do so if I have the choice.