From the Highlands to East London
We recently went wandering with Justin Portess, regular to our photoshoots, advocate for the great outdoors and passionate walker. Portess, a north Londoner, often spends hours exploring the city by foot. Whilst out shooting the latest collection, Justin explained to us his advocacy for the vital act of walking.
Walking is about freedom. But my relationship with the act of walking has evolved over the years. I served in the British Army for almost a decade and much of my military service was spent outdoors, very often on foot. In the army you’re trying to move as quickly as possible, you don’t have time to think or explore the way you do when moving at your own pace. Since leaving the army I have grown to love walking for its own sake. It’s part of who I am. As humans, we are fundamentally designed to walk, we’re bipeds, and if you’re fit and healthy enough to walk, then you should take advantage of this, the benefits are enormous.
I often leave my home in Islington and take a train from King’s Cross or Waterloo to somewhere outside the city limits, and then walk most of the way back. I just wander, finding new routes as my mood takes me, maybe jumping on a rental bike or train for the last bit, but often walking all the way back, 15 miles or more. To walk back into London from any compass point can be magical, the city grows around you.
On the shoot we took a train from Waterloo to Kingston to walk through Richmond Park, a National Nature Reserve. There are endless path combinations in this beautiful place, and I have taken many routes back into town from here over the years. We chose an old favourite – from Kingston Gate, heading north, towards Mortlake. It’s a fascinating landscape: an ancient green space, preserved as it has been for hundreds of years with loads of precious woodland and wildlife; including deer and birds of prey. And yet you can also see central London from the park’s highest points.
We stopped for a moment to take a picture and a kestrel appeared above our heads, scouting for its lunch, completely oblivious to us. Just incredible. But the park is also symbolic of what is under threat. Whilst its status as a Royal Park will see its conservation, other areas of the city – less regal green spaces – are constantly at risk. London’s future prosperity depends on a much greener agenda and walking, making it easier and encouraging people to move on foot across the city, will play a big part. It’s really very important to me, which is why I am delighted to have recently joined the Board of Trustees for CPRE London, London’s Countryside Charity, to help drive their campaigns for London’s green spaces and natural resources.
Walking is also a radical act, a great way of challenging our right to roam in the UK, which goes right back to the days when access to our countryside was the preserve of a privileged few. When you walk you find a rhythm, and it can be hypnotic. And there’s a kind of transcendence you get from this. It’s also a real form of self-sufficiency, without the need for endless amounts of technology. I love walking by myself, but there’s a unique level of connectivity when walking with others –conversations really flow, you talk along endless tangents.
And whether you’re walking home from work or out on an all-day expedition, the benefits to mental health are immense. No amount of anxiety hasn’t been remedied by going out for a walk. It’s helped me get over some of the traumas of my military service. It can restore your self-confidence and enhance your ability to navigate life.
I’ve been lucky enough to walk in some incredible places including North America, Latin America, Africa and India. But more recently I have connected back to our own wild territories, especially where my ancestral roots lie in the north. Walking in the Pennines, further north in the Highlands of Scotland, or almost anywhere along our dramatic coastline, you drift into thoughts about the textiles that were originally designed for these complicated landscapes.
Wearing the tweed jacket, woollen overcoat and cotton trousers reminded me how comforting it is to use natural fibres in the outdoors. The cloth responds at different temperatures or times of the day, and the way it forms to your body, like any good tailoring, it felt part of my body. Walking in leather shoes too, designed for that very purpose of moving across natural terrain; nowhere do you test that concept of how well something fits and feels than when out walking.
Photography by Jim Marsden