Walking with Jane Milling on 22 January 2011

Hydro Walk

I am walking with my friend and former colleague from Exeter, Jane Milling. We are walking in Somerset, near a village called Hinton Charterhouse. This might well be one of the most unexpected walks of 40 Walks – and unexpected for a number of reasons. First, the choice of walk reveals that Jane, in spite of my assumptions, is not much of a walker. Second, the walk is actually in water; to be precise, it is in a pool. Third, it’s a walk in an outside, heated pool. Fourth, though we had driven through bright winter sun, by the time we actually walk, the sun has sunk and dusk is sharply cold. To call the pool heated is somewhat wishful thinking. Our walk, up and down the length of an outside, ‘heated’ pool – as the night gets darker and the temperature plummets to zero – is not one I had foreseen.

It is not intended to be torture or deprivation, though. The pool belongs to the sumptuous Homewood Park (Hotel, Restaurant, Gardens and Spa). This, then, is a luxury walk. Unsurprisingly, when we arrive at the pool in our fluffy gowns and unconvincing ‘disposable’ slippers, with darkness descending, no-one else is pool side. Beyond it, though, a glass walled building shows other guests reclining on spa loungers, relaxing in presumably warmer climes, a Jacuzzi bubbling away nearby.

Jane and I, recognising the madness of the act ahead, reluctantly drop our gowns, take a sharp in-breath, then plunge into the water. Another sharp intake of breath, more of a yelp. It is, no doubt about it, cold. “It’s like being in Sweden, in Finland, in Norway”, we try to convince ourselves. I also persuade myself that the walking will warm us up. And so we begin to walk the short length of the pool. Up and down. The deeper end is more satisfying as more of our bodies are in the water (and the water is certainly warmer than the air – the steam rises up around us atmospherically, lit by the pool lighting). We can still stand, even in the deep end, though the water reaches our chins. As we walk towards the shallow end, more of my skin becomes exposed to the cold air and I find myself walking with bent legs, trying to keep as much flesh under water as possible. In fact, Jane and I find ourselves perfecting our water walking technique; we both sort of throw our front leg out, then use our arms to pull us along, then kick out the next leg and pull with the arms. We get a rhythm going. Kick pull kick pull. As Jane says, it feels pretty anaerobic. And it is, to some extent at least, keeping our blood circulating.

The lights inside the pool throw the shadows of our walking bodies onto the tiles, like a shadow puppet theatre. A leaf floats serenely on the surface. Other than that, the water seems very clean and clear. We keep walking, counting the lengths as we complete them, wondering how many we should do. It’s quite hard work, and the lengths begin to add up – 8, 10, 12… The sheer madness of it lends it a certain thrilled excitement.

As we walk, we talk about Jane’s choice. In thinking where to take me, she realised she didn’t really have ‘a walk’. She also reflected on the fact that of all exercise, she likes swimming best. Swimming is her form of relaxing. Finally, one way she has recently taken a break from her packed life is spending time with friends at a spa. It’s not a regular feature; she’s only done it a few times. But it is a treat.

Jane and I also share anxiety about walking alone, and are acutely aware of an overblown sense of ‘stranger danger’. So walking, for Jane, is not particularly relaxing. Her memory has filed all the horrific stories of women being attacked. Of course, we both know that our fear and anxiety is irrational. We know that hundreds of thousands of women walk daily, with nothing adverse happening. But our fear is, nevertheless, real. We bemoan our lack of skills – map reading, compass reading – thinking that it prevents us from taking more adventurous walks. If a canal walk is safe because you just have to follow the path – no danger of getting lost – the pool walk is presumably even safer! But then we become conscious that, by now, we are very, very cold and – half joking – we wonder about hypothermia; whether, ironically, this walk is actually quite risky.

We agree to one final length, kick pull kick pull, then heave ourselves out, the concrete underneath our hands freezing to the touch. My teeth are chattering as I throw on the very welcome fluffy gown. The hot, bubbling, steaming Jacuzzi on the other side of that glass wall beckons. We may not have walked very far, but we’ve nonetheless earned the comfort it promises.

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