Walking and Re-Creation

How can we consider walking as a form of exercise and cultural performance that is socially conditioned? Are we able to unite health and creative perspectives on walking? How can the regenerative benefits of walking be accessible to all Bristolians?

During the early modern period, to go for a walk was a recreational activity, but it was also to literally re-create oneself. Heating the body up and opening the pores enabled the evacuation of superfluous humours, with profound physiological effects on the individual according to early modern thought. Elaine McKay describes this creative potential, and argues that:

By participating in recreational activities people undergo something of a transformation: they are enlivened, or become relaxed. Either way recreation refocuses the mind and creates a sense of ease and wellbeing […] people undergo a physical, mental or spiritual renewal which not only incorporates a reconstitution of health, but also offers opportunities to regenerate, or recreate, a sense of themselves as individual and unique personalities.

Taking up to one hour of physical exercise a day, as mandated by the government during the first Covid-19 lockdown, transformed the behaviours and activities of many. Before the pandemic, Dr Suzanne Audrey’s research showed walking to work enable people to achieve government guidelines for physical activity within their daily routine, but walking was not valued as a mode of transport. The value of walking has been recognised during the pandemic restrictions, and policies were implemented our high streets to support pedestrians. However, data analysed by Professor Howe on lockdown activity found that socioeconomic background, accessibility issues, family dynamics, gender, employment status, and mental health all impacted how individuals responded to the government instruction to exercise. Whether people had found themselves able to take more exercise or less, their sense of self had inevitably been re-created by the expectation to do so.

What did the project involve? 

‘Walking and Re-Creation’ was an interdisciplinary conversation which brought together the worlds of performance and public health, history and the contemporary moment, practice and theory. It took a long historical view of walking as a form of exercise, transport, healthy activity, and leisure to merge past and present, with the aim of discovering what walking then can tell us about walking and wellbeing now, in the age of coronavirus at the time. It sought to

  • Consider walking as a form of exercise and cultural performance that is socially conditioned.
  • Unite health and creative perspectives on walking, with the overarching ambition as the project moves to further stages of funding.
  • To think through how the regenerative benefits of walking can be accessible to all Bristolians.

The project drew together the expertise of theatre historians, health experts, performers, as well as participants from civic organisations such as the Bristol Walking Alliance and Bristol Walkfest, to imagine the future of walking and wellbeing in a post-coronavirus moment. The researchers asked what does the ‘new normal’ look like from a walking perspective? How can taking a long historical view on walking inform what it means to live well in the twenty-first century?

Early modern walking was increasingly seen as the province of a leisured elite who had the time and the economic means to stroll, as promenading and the environments to do so emerged in the early seventeenth century. Prior to this project, Dr Eleanor Rycroft’s research into the staging of walking during this era had revealed class, gender, moral status, ability, and access all conditioned who had the right to walk, and where. This project sought to enquire how might historicising walking illuminate the same questions today? What might being ‘out of place’ as a walker mean for a Bristol pedestrian? How might we bridge the structural inequalities that restrict physical activity on the basis of person, place, and position in the age of coronavirus, to ensure that the wellbeing of walking is accessible to all? However, the issue is also broader than this. The loss of cultural recreational activities has blighted the lives of many since the pandemic began, and this project sought to use walking as a lens for thinking about how to reconnect people socially again.

Who are the team and what do they bring?

  • Suzanne Audrey (Public Health, University of Bristol) is an activist and researcher with an interest in local democracy. She was a community development worker for 20 years in socio-economically disadvantaged areas of Bristol and Glasgow, before becoming a public health academic focussing on health inequalities. She continues to be active in neighbourhood and city-wide voluntary organisations in Bristol.
  • Angie Belcher is an award-winning facilitator, coach, and stand-up comedian who combines her love of creativity and personal development to help to inspire people to achieve their true potential. As a facilitator Angie trains, supports, and encourages people to feel comfortable in being confident, passionate, and authentic.
  • Jan Connett (Senior Project Manager, Bristol Health Partners) supports people to get involved in Bristol Health Partners’ projects, through their ‘Health Integration Teams’. Their aim is to improve the health of people living in Bristol, North Somerset and South Gloucestershire by contributing strategically to the design of services and environments; and by linking researchers up with people, health services and commissioners.
  • Laura Howe (Epidemiology and Medical Statistics, Bristol Medical School)is a researcher interested in the life course epidemiology of obesity and cardiovascular disease, and the complex and bidirectional relationships between social factors (such as socioeconomic disadvantage, adverse childhood experiences) and health.
  • Eleanor Rycroft (Theatre and Performance, University of Bristol) is an early modernist, interested in practice, performance, politics, and gender. She is fascinated by representations of the body in early modern history and drama, as well as in the performance of classical texts today.

What were the results?

The conversations at the centre of ‘Walking and Re-Creation’ took place over two socially distanced picnics in May/June 2021. The first took place to brainstorm ideas and perspectives on walking in an interdisciplinary way, and the second was used to develop concrete ideas for a larger bid for future funding.

The team began the process of producing a performance-based walk that has wellbeing and re-creation at its heart. Outside the consultation of the 2×2 hour picnics, Angie Belcher spent 6 hours developing ideas for walking events that fed into future bids and proposals for the project.

The ultimate outcome of this project was the development of a further bid for Brigstow Seedcorn funding which resulted in the next stage of the project. Please click here to read on to the 2022 ‘Walking and Re-Creation’ Experimental Partnership.