Why I walk: a conversation with a walking guide

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Walking is as old as the hills, and yet so many aren’t getting out in their local areas. On a sunny October afternoon, with the backdrop of birdsong, I spoke to walking guide Emma Cunis about her story with walking and what she offers as Dartmoor’s Daughter; where she runs walks and nature connection events on Dartmoor, Devon.

Emma is passionate about the land, and our place in it. She shares how for her, it’s not all about hiking long distances, but taking time to enjoy the moment, be present and feel your connection to something bigger.

Emma tells me first how she got into walking:

I feel like I’ve always walked, even as a young child growing up in the countryside. Walking was a free activity to do, at weekends we would spend time walking on the moor, in rain or sun, climbing tors, having fun, swimming in rivers. 

Wherever I have lived in the world I have always gone walking. Always craving natural places and greenery while living in cities.

It was only after years of working in stressful jobs, that I’ve come back to walking on Dartmoor with a passion. 

After high expectations in my job and sitting in offices and board rooms for 20 years, I got ill, ME. Walking was a way of doing some form of gentle exercise without pushing myself. In particular coming back to Devon and walking on the moor. I feel passionately that illness is created in the body because it’s trying to give us a message and ME has been a massive challenge and such a gift. It woke me up to the priorities in life.

Why do you walk?

There are many different reasons. I felt some kind of compulsion to be out, to go out, to somehow feel the ground under my body. Feel the nourishment of this exquisitely beautiful place and walking helps to ground me. I’m less in my head, more in my body. Less in the future and the past, more in the moment.

Everything slows down. Everything is gentler and more relaxed, and I started to feel better.

Then there is the physical wellbeing and health.

I also feel connection and wonder all the way back through the ages of how men and women would have walked on the land and taken pilgrimages. There are all sorts of ancient tracks on Dartmoor that people followed, ancient routes. 

I walk to feel part of nature, and not separate from it.

As I’ve got older and having been unwell I walk more slowly, so I see more. And the joy and the connection of seeing a little beautiful flower or creature that I might not have spotted if I just hiked past is fantastic.

How would someone begin walking?

Firstly, just start. Find a woodland path, something thats clearly marked. Wander. Don’t go fast.

Don’t necessarily go with a set route, or if you do, allow it to change. 

Just follow a path, any path, and go.

Secondly, if you want to go somewhere off the beaten path, ask someone who knows the routes– if you don’t know the land – and people can fear bogs, livestock, animals, getting lost. Going with someone who can help inspire confidence in you and the route.

You could do some navigation training, I offer them with a mountain leader and we get 60-70 percent women – many say it’s so empowering and they feel more confident to go alone.

Can you talk a bit more about navigation?

It’s not all about a map and compass. Its also about noticing; how your feet are treading, the slope of the land. Which direction is the wind on your face, has it changed? Do you know which direction you are heading in? Is it the right direction? Really feeling your body in the land. 

You mentioned feeling part of nature – why is this important to you?

Thinking about the state of the modern Western world, the expectations we have to have a 9-5 job, earn money, mortgage, kids and then retire, then we have a good time. This fast pace and technology. Such a rise in mental health issues, suicide, heart conditions, cancers, so many things.

So I’m not saying feeling at one with nature will solve all the world’s ills, but to feel part of this exquisite planet brings stress relief – physical and mental or emotional. To feel part of something bigger than yourself, it is alleviating to not feel alone. Many feel isolated and disconnected. When I walk outside with the birds, how could I think I’m alone? I’m part of something, and I feel relief.

I love to forage when I walk. When you pick and eat wild foods, thats just what our bodies need at a particular time of year – in spring there are fiery bitter greens to waken our body out of it’s winter slumber. Even if just from a physical health perspective, eating foods growing in the locality and season you are living in can help your body be physically and emotionally better balanced. 

I just want to say – come for a walk, or lie on the ground… and feel. And feel!

Emma offers walks and nature connection events on Dartmoor, for transforming health, wellbeing and performance. For more information visit her website.

Walking guide Emma Cunis

Emma Cunis of Dartmoor’s Daughter