I have always loved walking. It’s one of the most effective and cheapest ways of exercising whilst connecting to the world around you. It is also a great way to step away from troubling thoughts or a hectic life. Since the start of my PhD, going for a walk both early in the morning and in the evening has become my ritual, my way to welcome a new day and then let go of it to relax and decompress. However, among many other things, the pandemic has changed my ‘walking habits’, forcing me to really see and appreciate life around me.
1. Leeds City Centre
Before Covid hit, the walk I would never miss was the one at the of the day. After closing books of all types and packing my things up, I would leave the library and just head home. Although I didn’t have to, I would always go via the city centre. There was something about the magic of the sparkling lights, the shops, the people rushing home; in other words, a city buzzing with life. I would have my headphones on, either listening to music or one of my favourite podcasts, and I would simply and seamlessly immerse myself into that rhythm.
2. Hanover Square
Just two or three weeks before everything changed, my partner and I moved slightly further away from the city centre and closer to the University. I knew I was going to miss the proximity to town, but I didn’t know just how much more I would miss it in a matter of weeks. Then the news about this new disease started pouring in from the rest of the world, from China, South Korea, Italy, until the inevitable happened; the coronavirus was here as well, and the UK was to enter its first lockdown. Anxiety and hypochondria entered my life.
And yet, my love for walking was still there, and it soon started to play a crucial role in this ‘new normal’. I started going out for walks early in the morning, which really helped to get some fresh air before spending most of the day working from home. I can’t remember how it happened exactly, but Hanover Square soon became an essential part of that. No matter where I was headed, I started including it into all of my walks, whether it was just walking alongside the gate of the park, or actually going inside and doing a lap or two. It was the beginning of spring, and I guess there was something soothing about being there in that little park, with all its creatures waking up to life, just as our human lives and activities were being put on hold.
Listening to podcasts or music was out of the question at that point, as my anxiety prompted me to stay alert all the time and watch out or listen out for anybody who got too close. But just like that, very gradually, I started developing a deep sense of appreciation for the silence as well as the sounds, the trees and the colours around me. With every step, I was reminded that, in spite of everything that was happening, there was still ground to stand on. I went to Hanover Square every day for almost an entire year, finding, every time, a sweet escape. I saw the park through all the seasons, from spring to sun-kissed summer days, with a few people scattered on the grass, having their socially-distanced picnics; through autumn and the beginning of winter, with red foliage on the ground being swept away by icy winds and snow.
3. University of Leeds Campus
More recently, as England entered its third lockdown, I changed my routine slightly and I’m now back to end-of-day evening walks. In this case, our university campus has become my go-to place. It’s still the dead of winter and the light is all but gone by the time I get there, but there is a reassuring sense of familiarity when I walk there. There are very few people around, some running, some cycling, but there is energy in the air, which I think comes from all of us, students or staff, still keeping apart and yet just waiting to go back, like satellites inevitably gravitating towards the main planet.
I do miss my pre-pandemic walks through the city centre, just walking without worrying. And while I look forward to all of us going back to at least some level of normality, I know that once that happens, we will have a deeper appreciation for all the beautiful things in life and for the beauty of life itself.
All photos credited to: Giulio Bajona