Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Walking in the countryside inspires many of us to write, connecting our imagination with the tangible. Using creative writing triggers while walking can enrich the experience, helping us to slow down and focus, freeing up our senses. Why not tap into the High Weald Walking Festival and try one of these triggers for yourself? Due to Covid-19 it's a virtual event this year, with 50 self-guided walking routes FREE to download until the end of September.
Here's what happened when walking guide and creative writer, Deirdre Huston showed me how to make to make the most of the experience.
It's Summer 2019, and I'm in Vicarage Wood, an enchanting space near the East Sussex village of Mayfield, enjoying a guided Writing Walk organised by the High Weald Walking Festival. Our leader, Deirdre Huston is the author of six popular guide books on walking and cycling in her native Sussex, especially the intriguing landscapes of the High Weald and South Downs, which inspire her own creativity.
'Walking can be meditative because its repetitive action enables us to drift into a relaxed and thoughtful state. In writing, there is a complex interplay between our subconscious and conscious minds. The natural landscape, with its symbolism and its sensory appeal, is a wonderful tool. It can help us to free our thoughts and so come to a better understanding of ourselves'.
As I sit in a shaded copse on a sunny afternoon, crouched down close to the earth by the side of a shallow river, pen poised and paper to hand, Deirdre guides myself and a group of fellow walkers through a series of creative writing triggers grounded in the natural landscape. 'Imagine you are a stone in the river. What might it see, hear, touch, know - in our time or the past, or even the future? Write a poetic list. Begin ‘I am a stone…’
At the beginning of our walk we have already learned a little about the history of Mayfield, stopping at the edge of the village to examine clues to the past and present: flora and fauna, field patterns, signposts, fences, ironwork. We were also joined by two children, a dog and a stick - all inseparable. Before entering the wood, we are asked to imagine who or what we may encounter inside. We have permission to let our imaginations run riot. One of the children predicts a horse, the other a clown.
But once inside, Deirdre encourages us to immerse ourselves in what is palpable, using all our senses to connect instinctively with the natural world. 'Our natural landscape evolves, yet there are clues to the past within its form, patterns and lines. Use these constant elements as anchor points to imagine other times. Why not take a notebook and find somewhere to rest near the babbling stream? Let the sounds wash over you and notice all five senses, scribbling any words which come to mind.'
An industrious yet companionable silence descends as we bend, like one, over our notebooks while the dog loses his stick and finds it again. The tree I am leaning against has a rough bark that scratches my back; above my head is a patchy canopy of leaves filtering the sunlight. The river is a faint murmur. Under the water, I see a riverbed bounty of smooth pebbles, glinting here and there, appearing and disappearing. Like fool's gold.
Time to move on, following a hollowed-out path steeped in stories from the past. 'As you walk along well-trodden paths, such as the old coach road in Vicarage Wood, you may feel inspired to put pen to paper. Deirdre explains we are standing at a crossroads on the ancient trading highways of Wealden Sussex. My feet detect ridges and funnels in the surface of the path. I'm walking where wealthy carriages have sped: highwaymen, smugglers - orphans of war perhaps? 'Imagine two people meeting. One has a secret which the other one is trying to discover. What will happen? Imagine their conversation. What do they do? Intersperse relevant description of the woods. How will it end?' So many questions needing answers - one of the best ways to start writing a new story. My notepad is filling up!
And finally, it's time to leave. Our group stands in a friendly circle to riff on what we have 'found' today: wildflowers, butterflies, the perfection of a single acorn I pull triumphantly from my pocket.
Lunch at the local pub beckons - but not before we have sauntered back through the village playing fields where a fair is being set up: men in shirts and jeans unhooking trailers, disjointed apparatus ringed with light bulbs, a stuttering sound system - and yes, a giant inflatable clown!
If you are looking for fresh inspiration or just want to escape the tyranny of your computer screen for a few hours, I would definitely recommend a creative writing walk as a fun and fruitful method of freeing up new writing. Try it for yourself with one of these self-guided walking routes or a walk from one of Deirdre's guide books. You can also subscribe to the Chalk Circle mailing list to receive news of future walking programs once guided walks are permitted again.
Deirdre Huston has an MA in Creative Writing from the University of Bath Spa. She is currently working on a historical novel about a destitute mother who, in order to get her son back, must solve a crime. The story is set in the nineteenth-century High Weald.
Danielle Sensier is one of Chalk Circle's founding members and Editor of Strata.
All photographs copyright Deirdre Huston: all rights reserved.