Little Walks – The Beaches Boardwalk

On a chilly, rainy, grey, November day that felt more like December, I was trying to cheer myself up with recollections of warmer days. Strolling in the Beaches came to mind. The neighbourhood is perfect for Little Walks on a summer’s day (and any time of the year for that matter).

I do like walking the Boardwalk. Starting at Ashbridge’s Bay Park, it follows the lake past Kew Gardens and Kew Beach, Woodbine Beach, and ends at Balmy Beach Park.

On mid-week summer’s day, there are parents and little kids, camp groups, seniors, tourists, ice-cream eaters, sunbathers, paddlers, cyclists, roller-bladers, and more. There’s usually a breeze off the lake, even on the hottest days, and there are lots of shaded benches, not to mention the lake itself for cooling your toes. The city has put lots of Adirondack-style chairs along the route, perfect for people watching.

There’s a hot dog stand and a pizza outlet. There are sometimes food trucks, and often ice-cream vendors. Nearby Queen Street has many restaurants, grills, pubs, bars, and food shops. Your options are many and tempting.

Come on a weekend and it’s busier, and there are different events going on in the parks – concerts, ball games, markets, and more.

Come in other seasons and it’s much the same but with autumn’s blazing colours or winter’s natural ice sculptures or spring’s new growth. You can walk over and over, and still smile at something amusing each time.

It’s one my favourite Little Walks. When my wife and I returned to Canada in 1999, after living in London for a few years, the first place we came was to the Beaches on July 1, Canada Day. That stroll along the boardwalk was our welcome home. A few years later, we walked it again, this time a few days past my wife’s due date awaiting our son’s arrival, in hopes that the stroll and slice of spicy pizza would spur things along. And then recently we’ve made a semi-habit of walking it each New Year’s Day, for a blast of chilly fresh air.

If someone said to me, what should I do as a tourist in Toronto, strolling the boardwalk would be at the top of my list. You learn a lot about a place in observing how the locals relax and this is Toronto with its hair down wearing its weekend clothes. Come see.

Big Little Walks

Sometimes there are curves in the path that you can’t see round.

This past Friday I was in Ireland, in Donegal Town. I took the biggest little walk I’ve taken in a while, when as a pallbearer I helped to carry my wife’s dear Aunt Nora out of the house to the waiting hearse, then into the church for the service, and finally up the hill in the cemetery to the grave.

My plan had been that on Sunday June 30, I would start my Big Walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake but that’s now been postponed. We won’t get home till mid-week and that doesn’t leave me enough time to do the walk I’d planned before I need to be back at work. I guess that will now wait till the autumn.

But more important than those plans was the walk I took on Friday. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, and the town turned out as we passed walking slowly behind the hearse. I’m glad we came, and that I was able to help on that short little walk.

Over the years, and especially the past few visits, when we were leaving Donegal Nora would always part with the words “I’ll not say goodbye, only farewell”. There’s an Irish saying that’s apt – may the road rise up to meet you. Farewell Nora.

Little Walks – The Abbey, Donegal

My wife’s family are from the town of Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. Back in 1991 we took our first trip together to visit family there, and I was introduced to the town and what has become one of my favourite little walks – the Abbey.

Her aunt and uncle lived then, and still do, on Castle Street. It’s a lovely little street, with the River Eske running in front of the house with a low wall to sit on and watch the trout play in the current. On that first visit, the waft of peat smoke and coal fires on a misty evening formed a permanent memory that’s recalled each time I’m there.

The centre of the town is just behind Castle Street, and the heart of the town is The Diamond, a market space surrounded by shops.

It’s a bustling little town on a summer Saturday, with tour buses, farmers on tractors, and families out shopping. Leading out of The Diamond, there is a street running down towards the harbour, and past that on a little tip of land is the Abbey.

Today it’s a ruin, with tumbled stones and partial walls from the medieval Franciscan priory and church to explore, and mixed through the old church grounds are more recent graves because today it’s a cemetery that’s still in use. Many of the town’s old family names can be found here, with the history of lives long-lived along with the little tragedies of young lives lost. Even though it’s close to town, it’s usually quiet and if there’s a bit of sun or a bit of misty rain, it’s quite charming and deeply moving.

On our first visit, I was indulging an enthusiastic photography bug – I would leap from the car at every thatched cottage or picturesque sheep peering through a hedge. When we got to Donegal town and we’d wandered around a bit, I heard the stories about the Abbey and I knew that I had to visit to explore and photograph the ruins and headstones. I must have spent a couple of hours there on that first trip, self-absorbed and utterly content, shooting rolls and rolls of film.

Since that first visit, we’ve returned to Ireland many times and each time we go I try to carve out an hour or so for my favourite little walk – up Castle Street, past the restored Castle and through The Diamond to the harbour and on to the Abbey for a wander through the headstones to see who’s passed on since my last visit. It’s become a ritual for me, recalling the memories of that first trip when I fell in love with the country and the town.

Each time I take that that walk I end by returning to Castle Street and a cup of tea in the kitchen. The warmth of Aunt Nora and Uncle Liam, their charm and sly humour, the chat round the kitchen table with the cousins and neighbours, and the gossip and questions about what I’d seen this time – it’s a gentle domesticity and a throwback to quieter times that we don’t get here in the Big Smoke of Hogtown.

That little walk takes me back in time, and then returns me gently to the present. I can’t imagine visiting Donegal without repeating my stroll, and wouldn’t want to try. Familiar places renew memories and reward the soul, like well-loved friends. Each visit plants new memories, and recalls past charms too. Little walks do that – they reward the comfortable and the familiar, like holding hands with your partner when the fit of each finger is as practiced as breathing, and just like holding hands they bring a warm rush of blood when those fingers squeeze even after decades together.

Little Walks – Glendon Forest

In the early 1980’s, I attended York University’s Glendon College. It was then, and still is, a small arts college attached to the larger university, maintaining a physically separate and culturally distinct campus. It is set in the former grounds of the Wood estate on the edge of the West Don River valley at Bayview and Lawrence.

I took an Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature with a minor in Canadian History, so my courses brought a heavy load of essays to write. I’ve always been a night owl, and as I moved through my degree I gradually organized my course schedule to take mostly afternoon classes. That let me work on papers late into the night, in fact often through the night – I would often go to bed at 6 or 7 a.m.

Come April, I’d be working on papers till the wee hours and the sun would be up by the time I pushed away the typewriter (pre-PC days!). I would be keyed up and jumpy from drinking coffee all night, so I developed the habit of taking a walk to unwind and relax before grabbing some sleep. I’d step out into a quiet, peaceful campus as the sun was coming up. Because I didn’t want to run into anyone, I would walk down into the valley and along the Don.

There was a path behind my residence that led the way down and I’d follow it, taking care to make as little noise as possible so that I could hear the birds. At that time of the morning, traffic noises were a faint distraction and it was often still, so you could hear the chirps and calls as birds awoke, and when you got closer to the river you could hear the lap and splash of the water.

In the valley, the Proctor Field House and athletic fields are bounded on the north side by the river. At that time there were walking paths on both banks, and I’d pick one or the other and follow the river downstream. Often there would be ducks or geese, and once I saw a muskrat. Squirrels skittered and racoons made their way to their nests after a night of garbage gathering. There were a couple of bridges that crossed the river, one at the west end of the campus and one at the east, so I could wander along one bank and cross to come back along the other.

It wasn’t a long walk, perhaps a km or 2, and I could be back to my room in about a half hour, relaxed and able to sleep. I rarely met another soul. Today there is just one path along the south side of the river, and the area is known as Glendon Forest. The path links to Sunnybrook Park, so there are more walkers and joggers about, and everyone seems to be walking their dog these days. But back then it felt like my own private wood, a place to think and to unwind, to escape the city and mentally return to the woods and fields that had surrounded my home outside Leamington, in South-West Ontario.

After I graduated, I rarely went back to the College and even when I did it was just for a social event in the pub. And then in 2016, 30 years after leaving, I developed some health issues that forced me to deal with the fact that I was out of shape and in dire need of exercise. I resolved to start walking, and my first destination was the Glendon Forest to walk that path along the river.

On an autumn day, the river level was low but the sun was bright in a crisp early November way. There were golden leaves falling and spiralling into the water to surf and ride the waves, and again not a soul about. As I walked, I remembered those dawn rambles and wondered why I had ever stopped walking.

It was the boost I needed – I’ve been walking ever since. I get back to the Glendon Forest at least once a season, each with its own character to savour. The walk always refreshes, and always reminds me that little walks lead to life’s long journeys.

Little Walks

Mozart wrote many pieces of music, including symphonies and concertos – what I like to think of as the musical equivalent of marathons and long walks. He also wrote Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, known in English as A Little Night Music, and it’s one of his better known and much loved compositions.

Then there are short stories, and poems like limericks or haiku, writing characterized by its relative brevity. Painters sometimes produce minutures, and chefs produce starters, appetizers, hors d’ourvres, and amuse bouche. Many artists like to produce work that is compact and brief, and yet offer intensity of experience. Small doesn’t have to mean boring.

Little walks are like little pieces of music, little poems, or little plates – walku if you pardon the terrible pun. We recognize the word “little” sometimes to mean “concentrated” – the phrase “a little goes a long way” comes to mind. A little hot sauce to spike your chili, a little anchovy paste to give richness to your caesar salad. That’s what I have in mind – a concentrated walk. Little doesn’t have to mean easy or light, it just means short or brief or small. Big things can come in small packages.

The point is that sometimes you just don’t have the time or the inclination for a big walk. Little walks are sometimes all you can squeeze in during a busy day – that 15 minute stroll around the block at mid-day to get some air and clear your head. Little walks can be like having a catnap, to rejuvenate and recharge.

Perhaps more importantly, sometimes you want a little walk simply because it’s little. Little walks through new surroundings are my favourite way to explore and introduce myself to a place. Just because it’s a little walk doesn’t mean you won’t learn or experience something interesting, even profound. Precisely because they are little, over a short period of time you can focus more, concentrate, really notice what’s around you.

Recently in Bermuda, we took a little walk through Hamilton, perhaps only 20-30 minutes, and yet we stumbled onto some interesting shops, public art, people watching, and a great little restaurant. That kind of little walk is like the appetizer before the main course, a way of tasting what the place has to offer and then diving in, and that’s what we did – the next day we indulged in a much longer walk covering many parts of the island.

Little walks in the evening, the stroll home from a favourite neighbourhood restaurant or the beachside amble on a hot day, can be magical. That feeling of carefree wandering, of relaxation, of openness to sensations like the breeze on your skin, the scent of newly watered grass, or the sights in a shop window – it’s lightness and calm.

Little walks add up too. 10 minutes here and 10 minutes there and soon you’ve gotten an hour in without consciously setting out to “go for a walk”. In fact I think of very short walks as micro walks. I set my exercise tracker to buzz every hour to force myself to get up and get in at least 250 steps, just to make sure I don’t settle into a chair and remain budgeless for hours. A micro walk around the office is a chance to say hello, stop at a desk for a quick check-in chat, and refill the water glass, all in just a few minutes, and yet it’s enough to ensure I’m connected and active.

Walking is an innately human activity. We’re the only species that routinely walks on two legs. We’re biologically optimized for it. That middle-aged tummy is there because in biomechanical terms it’s the optimal place to for a two-legged creature to carry an emergency calorie supply. Little walks are part of my strategy for keeping that tummy from become too tremendous, stringing brief bouts of exercise together for times when I can’t get in a big walk.

Culturally we often prefer bigness – go big or go home, bigger is better, what’s the big idea?. Bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger meals, bigger anything. Why bigger, though? Or at least, why always bigger? Why not little, sometimes. A little lunch, a little music, a little walk.

Here are some of my favourite little walks, in Toronto and elsewhere:

  • From our home to Eglinton subway in the cool, fresh, sunshine of an early summer morning, across the fresh-cut grass of Eglinton Park
  • From my wife’s aunt ‘s home on Castle Street in Donegal town, Ireland, up around the corner towards the Castle and then into town across the Diamond and down along the quay to the Abbey
  • from the Interpretive Centre in Point Pelee National Park to the tip along the nature trails
  • Along the Mall from Trafalgar Square to Buckingham Palace and continuing on through Green Park to Hyde Park Corner
  • Along the water’s edge the length of Hirtles Beach, outside Lunenburg Nova Scotia

I’m sure I can think of more and one of these days I’ll write up a few of these. Till then, go on, you know you want one – just a have little walk.