Walking – it’s not just  exercise. 

In the first lockdown the roads were quiet, the birds were singing and the weather was great. Amidst all the fear and panic, the big outdoors became the only place we could go; but we were limited to where we lived.  

When we could not go to see friends or family walking was the only safe way to make contact with others. Dog-walkers. People…. from all backgrounds, and for all reasons, out walking.

And so, going out for a walk, and exchanging a nod with someone, or a smile, sometimes a big ‘hello’, became extra-meaningful.  Even, that little shift aside on the footpath, was at least an acknowledgement from a stranger of our mutual existence.

walking on road with green fence and trees

Throughout lockdown I walked, dandered, tramped and strolled through  public roads, parks, streets, private roads and alongside green fields.


Walking involves the movement, pace and rhythm of putting one foot in front of another. That simple shift in your body propels you forward, and away, towards  and past a changing landscape.

This action engages your body, arms and legs and brain to consciously, and unconsciously,  lead you to a place that blends into the place you have just been. Step by step, by step.

As humans, we were designed to walk, not to sit. And so every day  I am walking….walking… walking…

As I walk random thoughts come and go,  idly connecting me to where I am, and what I can see, smell, touch and sense. I am more flâneuse than athlete. Looking down at the pavement, staring ahead and gazing all around.

Walking puts your brain into a mode that helps you to see things in a new way.

It gives you  those sweet, little moments;  the sunlight through the trees, shades of shade…  texture, colour, pattern, form and space.  This connection comes out of the blue, from  a point of personal creativity, that  transcends normal thinking. When it happens it gives you the delight of a creative pause.

And, because this is something that I see, that catches my eye I find it spiritually uplifting and empowering.

The  steady, meditative  rhythm of walking is calming and grounding. Walking is easily the best way to dispel stinking thinking and to allow positivity and ideas to filter through. For me, that’s what makes walking worthwhile.

All the time I’m walking I’m thinking…and talking to myself and thinking aloud.

About how one street becomes another….. How this area was country and now suburbs, extending into the green fields, and redeveloped brownfield sites, into the large gardens sold off by big homes, new sites squeezed into old. 

I live in a new-ish development, right next to accommodation for the elderly, beside a large 1950’s housing estate. It lies on the edge of  working farmland, close to the leafy suburbs of the more prosperous and well-to-do. 

In just one square mile the housing style and stock and landscape in this area changes radically. The lifestyle and demographic seemingly worlds apart yet it is all walking distance, in the same localised district.

One hundred years ago this area was largely rural. 

Before that, it was home  to  the big, big  houses of industrialists and the landed gentry, the super-rich.  The only ‘big’ house left is now a nursing home. The memory of other grand by-gone estates, referenced in street names and random gatehouses.

As the city grew, all the adjacent space of woodland and fields and country estates were developed into  new places, streets and neighbourhoods. Below the remaining fields, lies a warren of mixed developments and housing clusters. 

Suburbia is dominated by housing of all types, all sizes and all styles.

The large 1950’s public housing estate was planned for the working class. It was designed with new ideas about community, residents’ relationship with nature and amenities including: schools, playgrounds, and green space. Sadly, the Post Office was closed and the parade of shops lie empty.  

Residents  in the estate have small gardens front and back, but no driveway. Each garden is walled, hedged or fenced in various states of repair usually with a scattering of toys and seasonal plants in bloom.

Sometimes you see the flicker of the TV, a cat sitting in the window, football nets and a trampoline in the garden. But also: grab rails, ramps, birthday decorations, a garden bench, a greenhouse and cooking smells – clues as to who lives there.

Many of theses homes are privately owned and have added sunrooms, porches, new windows and doors.

It is a community, that much is plain to see. But this is Belfast, and like most public housing estates, it is a community of only one religious group – one side.

Every year, flags commemorating the Orange tradition are erected on the main road. They go up on 1 June and (mostly) come down at the end of August.  Their presence clearly marks this as a territory, of Loyalism.  The aim is to visibly declare this place in terms of  a cultural tradition. And so every lamppost on the main arterial routes  flutters with one or more flag: Union Jack and  Red Hand of Ulster. But also the flags of the predominant paramilitary organisation of the area. 

The outlook and background of (some) of the people who live here is shout-out to everyone else – whether, they like it or not. 

And then there is a point along the road where the flags stop.

These are the detached homes and streets planned and built for the growing middle class. Designed, created by developers, architects and builders, in the ’50’s ’60’s and ’70’s in different styles and specs. Double fronted family homes with red roofs, neatly clipped hedges, tidy driveways, freshly painted fences, and blue/white lobelia bordering the lawn. 

Owner occupiers put their own stamp on their home and garden. They extend their homes outwards and upwards to upgrade, modernise and make the most of the plot and space. They add value by design and bring new life  into the old.

Past the park, the homes are mostly all bespoke private villas, designed more than a century ago. With two or three shiny cars at the front, in mature landscaped gardens, they project a solid patrician respectability. 

Set in expansive gardens these homes add grandeur, presence and character to this street; the house can only just be glimpsed.

And I’m thinking..

 What a gorgeous house…… I’d love to live there…. what they do for a living… How many rooms does one family need? What a big garden… who looks after it? I wonder what it is like inside? Who lives in a house like this? I wonder what their view is like?

I will never know…..

I can walk past, but not into, this home. I can admire it. I can imagine the interior and the history and speculate about what it would be like to live there.  But, that’s as far as it goes.

For me, a big part of walking is that notion of being able to pick out the homes  I like best –  the ones in which I would really love to live.

Whenever I see a really  ‘beautiful’ home I can tell this is ‘the one’ by that clinch of the stomach, that coup de foudre. It happens in every city, and country, and everywhere I go, that feeling of house envy.

I see myself enjoying that garden, welcoming friends and family, happy in these beautiful surroundings. The house decorated for Christmas…  and I’m sitting in that room, this room…. pulling into the driveway. I’m home….

These are random thoughts from a vivid imagination. I can admire a beautiful home, but  I know that I will never live in a house like that.

Short of a big lottery win, I guess that is true for most of us.

It is just a dream. It’s bitter-sweet. A nice dream to have, but one based on a realisation that there is a distance between what we have, and what others have.

We can admire other people’s homes because they appeal directly to our imagination and sense of aesthetics. We recognise there is a lifestyle that goes with it  – very different from the one we have at the moment. Oh, so far apart.

I know there are people out there who are wealthier than me, and people who are not. Who knows, maybe there is someone who admires my home and thinks: I’d love to live there.

It is all relative. There will always be the “Have’s” and “Have Not’s.”

Walking in suburbia is a great way to expose ourselves to different lifestyles and ways of living.

Although we may always be on the outside  – physically and socially – it gives us some level of contact, and that gives us something to think about. From every home – whether we appraise it or critique it – we can learn, or assimilate, something.

I like that front door… that colour is nice… that extension works well…I wouldn’t have gone with those windows… solar panels – good ideathis would make a good doer-upper...

Through the change of  seasons I am still walking. 

The houses on my various routes are now all so familiar.  Christmas trees in the windows, fairy lights in the gardens. Trees that drop their leaves in autumn and are bare through winter,  buds and leaves bright and green in spring and summer. 

In the pandemic when everything seemed to stop, nature carried on through all seasons. Appearing in the garden in sequence were snowdrops, camellia, daffodils, cherry blossom, clematis, azalea, rhododendrons, lilies, and geraniums…

The pandemic limited our social outlook and we were forcibly more focused on our own homes. And we also noticed other people’s homes more.

So…if one comes up for sale, of course we will check out the estate agents website. Just to see….

Nuala Rooney

I am designer, educator and researcher developing creative and holistic human-centred insights across the social/spatial sphere.

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