Seeing stuff is really good


Swansea comedian Steffan Alun on what’s so great about walking

Recently, I was essentially stuck in my own home for nearly two years. I won’t get into why.

Instead, let’s talk about walking. For some time, everyone in my country was limited to an hour of outdoor exercise a day, and I saw countless friends and family getting excited about walking – some of them for the first time ever.

Well, I’ve always known that walking’s brilliant. While others discovered the surprising variety of walks in their local areas, I already had several favourite routes around my city of Swansea, and took full advantage of the government’s daily exercise allowance to explore my top walks:

  • Along The River
  • Up To The Lake
  • Down To The Beach
  • Up Past The Other Lake
  • Up The Hill
  • Let’s Do Both Lakes

Once I got back to work (I’m a standup comedian), these walks became an occasional treat rather than a daily routine. And yet, I’m still walking as much as ever.

Come closer. Take a seat. Let me tell you my secrets.

Why walking is brilliant

The internet’s already full of evangelical love letters to walking. Countless articles about the fun and freedom of walks, available to read as soon as you’ve expressed an opinion on cookies and waited for a five-second advert to finish.

The mistake they often make is assuming that what the author loves about walking is what will convince the reader. But an experienced walker probably loves hiking for hours on exciting, challenging terrain – and to the non-walker, that sounds awful.

Worse still, a lot of experienced walkers don’t even realise why they enjoy walking so much.

So let’s get into it. The real reasons walking’s so great.

Seeing stuff is really good

People absolutely love seeing stuff. Special effects in films, cats, beautiful strangers, snooker, rainbows, pornography, Doctor Who, ducks – it’s fun to see a thing, and think, “I have seen that thing with my eyes.”

So much of this is subconscious. But we’re built to enjoy seeing things. We feel happier when we see trees or sunlight. Fundamentally, if you go out for a walk, your day gets better. While walking today, I saw a bulldog, two cats, and a man who looked a bit like Gordon Brown. I’m not being glib – these things genuinely made me happier.

You get to talk

I don’t know about you, but my favourite activity in the world is chatting. I reckon that’s true for a lot of people.

People say they love the pub – but do they really? Or do they just love spending time with friends, and having conversations?

When I first met my wife, we didn’t go on many restaurant or cinema dates, but we walked endlessly. Exploring our university town’s nature reserves and seaside walks. The main thing we wanted was to get to know each other, and to gossip about our mutual friends (mostly fellow students) and enemies (mostly lecturers).

Nearly two decades later, we still gossip on walks. We talk excitedly and judgementally about anyone who’s been even mildly irritating lately. Such as [redacted] who has incorrect opinions about politics, or [redacted] who’s a bit of a bully, or [redacted] who still hasn’t paid my invoice from last July.

These are things we could discuss in a pub. But how much more freeing when we’re out and about, with no fear of being overheard? And it’s so much better, ranting and raving while walking, so the energy and adrenaline has somewhere to go.

In a world where the vast majority of services are provided by for-profit business, it’s harder than ever finding a good place to spend time with friends that isn’t a pub or restaurant. When we’re strapped for cash, it means we socialise less.

I started allowing myself to do something strange. I’d ask even casual friends to come for a walk instead of going for a drink. It’s really surprising how many people jump at the chance.

Phones make walking better

Some walking enthusiasts will talk about the beauty of connecting with nature, and switching off from the world.

I’m here to do the opposite. Your phone gives you access to two things that are great for walks you take alone.

Firstly – podcasts! Podcasts are the best. Those radio shows no-one asked them to make. The fact that I have a phone in my pocket means that, at any time of day or night, I can choose to immediately start listening to a twenty-year-old unsolved murder being investigated by an unemployed Canadian. The beauty of the modern world!

I know loads of people have podcasts and radio shows they’d like to check out: “But I can’t just sit and listen to something.” So go for a walk instead. Commuters know the value of a good book on a train; podcasts allow walkers the same access to entertainment.

The second excellent service your phone provides – phone calls! A bit niche, these. You might have to track down the app for it.

Most of my best friends don’t live in my city. I’d have drifted apart from so many if I hadn’t kept hold of my teenage obsession with phone calls.

So do this. Phone a friend. Tell them you’ve got some time to yourself, and you fancy a chat. Go for a walk, and see where the conversation takes you.

There are conversations I remember vividly when I walk past a specific bend on a path – bits of chat the come back to me as my eyes are reminded of what they saw as I talked. It’s so common for people to feel increasingly isolated as they get older, and as the demands of the real world keep them from being able to travel to visit friends. And I bet your friends would love a catchup.

Walking is often better than transport

I’m spending more and more time in London for comedy gigs, and every time I use their underground train system, I’m absolutely horrified. This is how people live? Squeezed into dystopian tubes in the smelliest, dirtiest holes that ever dared call themselves part of civilisation?

Unless time or distance have to be considered, walking is almost always preferable to transportation. We’re tricked into thinking that’s not true.

Last month, I bought a two-way bus ticket to travel and visit a friend. When I left, I realised I had enough time that I could walk the 45 minutes home instead of waiting for a bus.

This felt instinctively wrong. It felt like a waste of money! I’d bought my ticket already – I’d paid for a bus journey.

But – that’s wrong, isn’t it? Walking would be nicer, and I had the time to do it. But there I was, thinking I had to take the bus, or the money spent on the ticket would be rendered foolish. The only advantage to taking the bus was avoiding the feeling of foolishness for buying a return ticket.

Learning to walk

So here’s what you do.

Walking shouldn’t be an occasional thing that comes to mind. It should be the first option to consider.

I can’t drive, but even if I did, I like to think I’d always consider walking in the first instance. I certainly consider it before public transport or taxi. When I get off a train in a new town or city for a gig, I’ll always walk to the venue as long as I can get there in three quarters of an hour. Internet map services make it easy to estimate the length of a walk.

With friends, I’ll suggest a walk before considering a pub. If I’ve got some time to kill before a gig, I’ll consider a walk before I think of what I can do in the venue itself.

I haven’t mentioned exercise, because I’ve never cared about that. I walk because I like it. Because I can use that time to chat with a friend, in person or on the phone. And because I might see a man who looks a bit like Gordon Brown.

Steffan Alun

Steffan Alun is a standup comedian from Swansea.  He can be seen in
gigs across the UK circuit, and has performed five full runs at the
Edinburgh Festival.  He's a familiar face on S4C, as well as an
occasional presenter on Radio Cymru.