After more than 20 years presenting nature documentaries, Kate Humble is accustomed to early starts. But even when her schedule allows for a lie-in, she sets her alarm for the crack of dawn to walk her three dogs in the morning light.
“There’s something wonderful about being part of the world as it wakes up. I love seeing the sun rise and being the first person to leave my footprints in the dew,” she says.
Humble, who lives in the Wye Valley area on the English-Welsh border, says the stillness of sunrise helps her destress, collect her thoughts and regain perspective.
“The curse of the middle aged woman is that you never sleep properly and when you don’t sleep properly, you tend to worry about things, things get out of perspective or out of proportion,” she explains. “One of the things I find about walking is that the things that have been bothering you in the middle of the night suddenly become much easier to deal with.”
Walking every day – be it for 20 minutes or two hours – is a daily ritual that Humble can’t live without. She unapologetically describes walking as her “obsession”, to the extent she wanted to write an entire book on the topic. The end result, titled ‘Thinking On My Feet’, follows Humble on a year’s worth of walks, charting their impact on her life, and how walking has helped others.
“There’s something about the rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other, it’s a very gentle rhythm that’s a very conducive pace for thinking,” she notes.
“You may not think about something concretely, but those thoughts seem to pass through your head in a much more measured way. Something that may have been in the back of my mind gets dealt with in quite an unconscious way.”
Humble moved to the Wye Valley from London more than 10 years ago with her husband, TV producer Ludo Graham. Her walks usually consist of picturesque Welsh countryside featuring trickling rivers, impressive woodland and the distant sound of birdsong, but she’s a huge advocate of urban walking, too, and carries on her habit whenever she’s in London for work.
“If you have time to look at social media and do your emails, you have time for 10 minutes on your feet."”
“I try to schedule things so I can walk to them rather than get on a bus or a tube. It’s just really nice to have that headspace,” she says. “When you see a city on foot you look at it from a different perspective. You can be gloriously nosey – it’s quite a good way of people-watching and looking through windows.”
Feeling short on time is “no excuse” to reject the idea of walking, she adds.
“It costs nothing and the benefits of it are huge. If you have time to get up in the morning to look at social media and do your emails, you have time to have 10 minutes or 20 minutes on your feet and it’ll make you a lot more productive and a lot happier for the rest of the day.”
During life’s most challenging moments, Humble has found the simple act of walking can have life-affirming or even life-changing effects.
While filming in Kenya two years ago, she walked around the town where she was staying every morning to help her cope with the challenges of the particular documentary they were making. She was struggling to figure out how to “faithfully and honourably represent the thoughts and customs” of a particular tribe that were “completely anti what [she] believes in”.
“Everyone thought I was quite weird. I was the only white person probably for 100 miles in every direction, but it helped me feel like I could get under the skin of the place a little bit more by being part of the early morning routine, the market being set up, the people sweeping their doorways and heading off to work...,” she explains. “I did that every morning and it helped me to try to process what was a very difficult, intellectual challenge.”
The book also charts how walks have helped other people, such as Ursula Martin, who decided to walk every footpath in Wales – spanning 3,700 miles – after being diagnosed with cancer, raising £11,000 for ovarian cancer charities in the process.
Humble describes hearing her story as “reassuring, in a funny sort of way”.
“You sort of think ‘Am I a bit mad in my obsession with walking?’. But there is that reassurance when you meet other people who get what you’re talking about and who’ve taken to walking in far more extreme circumstances then I’ve ever had to and it’s worked for them.
“Sharing that experience with other people and seeing how it’s helped them just made me think, ‘Okay this isn’t a completely mad idea.’”
Humble recommends walking, particularly in the morning, for anyone who feels overwhelmed by modern life, as the perfect antidote to our ‘always-on’ culture.
“We give ourselves so little time just to think, away from distractions or intrusions, like a phone ringing,” she says, with a nod to her phone that just interrupted our interview.
“We’re constantly assailed by this stuff and we have so little time to literally just be, to look at where we are, to enjoy where we are and take in our surroundings.
“[By walking], I can start the day with a really clear, fresh head, rather than starting the day with turning on the news or looking at what’s happening on social media. And if that makes me a dinosaur, well, hurray!”
In ‘What Works For Me’ – a series of articles considering how we can find balance in our lives – we talk to people about their self-care strategies.