Back in April, my niece Alyssa, medically vulnerable and shielding in a one-bedroom city flat with no garden, posted on Instagram about really enjoying a downpour.
“Was anyone else absolutely over the moon about the rain today?” she asked. “I spent the morning continuously opening the window to hear and smell it.” I replied that I thought we were all a bit more tuned in to the weather because of lockdown, and she agreed.
“Instead of running to the tube with my hood up, I took time to notice and enjoy the rain,” she said. “What a lovely thing.”
Going by social media, my niece was far from alone in looking at wet weather through new eyes. In lockdown, time outdoors is precious, and when life feels so uncertain, many of us have found comfort in the inexorable rhythms of the natural world: the cycle of the seasons and the British weather. But Alyssa’s cloudburst came during a record-breakingly sunny spring and a warm summer. How will we feel about rain during the coming winter, one that – given the effects of climate change – is likely to be wet?
In 2016 I published a book called Rain: Four Walks in English Weather. The idea for it came to me in Cumbria, on a walking holiday during which the lakes that give the district its name were generously, and daily, refilled. Rather than sit inside a rented cottage for a week, we kitted ourselves out and just got on with it – and the experience reconnected me with something I’d known as a child, but had somehow forgotten: that as long as you’re warm and dry inside your clothing, walking in the rain is a lot of fun. I was brought up doing long hikes on Dartmoor in all kinds of weather, tramping along with my siblings in plastic cagoules, led by my father on a hunt for stone rows or hut circles, or to summit a tor. But the resilience it taught me had dissipated during my years of city living. I’d become someone who whinged about rain and only went out in it reluctantly; a wet walk was one that had somehow been “spoiled”.
To write the book, I visited four very different landscapes to see how rain changed the ways they looked and sounded and smelled, and what effect it had on living things there, from swallows to shrews to butterflies. I walked in set-in, winter rain in the marshy East Anglian fens, explored Shropshire’s rich farmlands in showery spring weather, followed a Kent chalk stream during a thundery summer cloudburst, and scaled Devon’s granite uplands in autumn drizzle to watch how it ran off the high ground in “flashy” rivers such as the Dart.
Each time, I went out in what we lazily characterise as “bad” weather – in other words, the kind of conditions that are essential for agriculture and wildlife, that have formed some of our most beloved landscapes and make this such a green and pleasant land.
My year of wet-weather walking changed me for the better, not only making me more resilient but giving me more time outdoors. It changed my relationship with the natural world, too. Going out when other people went in usually meant I had the place to myself, and I often saw more wildlife than I would have otherwise: swallows flying low before an incoming weather front; rain flies congregating on Queen Anne’s lace; and scarlet pimpernel closing its petals at the approach of a storm. I got to experience a different aspect of the outdoors – a whole suite of sounds and smells and views – that had been denied to me when I’d been afraid a little rain would somehow wash me away.
I relished the smell of rain on dry ground, known as petrichor, and the way moisture in the air alters distance and sound. I realised that only wanting to walk in dry weather was like only ever listening to music in a major key. I’d been missing out on so much.
This winter, none of us wants to be stuck indoors with no fresh air or exercise. We can’t control the weather, but with a bit of preparation now, we can spend deeply pleasurable time outdoors in the wetter months to come. That means waterproof boots or trainers, a proper coat with a hood, and – my secret weapon – waterproof overtrousers.
Feeling resistant? Believe me, I get it: like all but the heartiest of hikers I hung on to my fashion principles for a long time. But oh! The smug glow when passing soggy jeans-wearers more than makes up for it, not to mention the ability to simply step out of them and be completely normally dressed.
There’s so much to enjoy on a wet walk, whether you live in the countryside or a city centre: the rainbow sheen on puddles created as decaying leaves release their plant oils; the prints of birds and animals in mud giving clues to the secret lives of our non-human neighbours; the differently coloured deposits of sand, sorted by weight and left there by water along a footpath that has overnight become a stream. The air is washed clean, birds in the hedges are fat balls of feathers, and the pavements shine; and as you walk, you can listen to the rain pattering on your clothing, which is like being safe and dry inside a tent.
There’s no need to let a bit of precipitation stop you enjoying the outdoors this winter. We all need to be connected to nature, whatever the weather – now more than ever, in fact.
• Melissa Harrison is the author of Rain: Four Walks in English Weather; her new book is The Stubborn Light of Things: A Nature Diary (both Faber)
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