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When he retired, Julian Stanford didn’t expect to learn the art of honesty on a series of riverside walks. But after starting to stroll with friends in lockdown, he discovered the vital importance of being vulnerable

We started as two men and a dog. The dog, a handsome pointer named Percy, unfortunately, became a sporadic participant as arthritis took hold, but it was his need to be walked that prompted it all. Over the last year, with Covid having disrupted life’s usual daily rhythms, I have found these walks to be a source of routine and calm.

Percy’s master, Paddy, lives in a quiet village on the banks of the River Thames, 30 miles west of London. I live 300 yards up the road and Paddy and I have been friends for years. Friends in a blokeish sort of way: manning stalls together at the village fête and exchanging bottles of red wine at dinner parties. But something else we have in common is a well-disguised mental fragility.

It’s not something talked about at the usual social gatherings, barely acknowledged, in fact, but it’s something of which we were both aware. When the coronavirus hit England, Paddy was taking a break from a high-pressure job in finance and I had recently retired, ostensibly to learn to paint in oils, but empirically to put on weight. One day in March, Paddy invited me to join him and Percy on an illicit morning walk. We followed the Thames Path to the local deer park and back, part of the route taken by the characters in Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men In A Boat. It was pure joy and during the first lockdown, became a regular three-day-a-week five-mile habit.

The weather during the first lockdown was stunning and the river offered beautiful scenery in both directions. The birdlife was a revelation. Every sunlit morning we saw the ducks and swans raising their lines of pike-prone chicks, seemingly fewer each time. We spotted moorhens, coots, cormorants, gulls, terns and herons. Kingfishers flashed low over the mirrored water; buzzards and kites keened high above our heads. In the peaceful lockdown water meadows there were even cattle egrets and lapwings. There was no river traffic, no road noise and no planes banking on the Heathrow approach. It was sunlit peace such as you rarely find in southern England. The few people we passed were from the village, all physically wary, but friendly. During lockdown a sense of camaraderie and relief prevailed along the river that was heart-warming to experience.

PADDY AND I HAVE BEEN FRIENDS FOR YEARS. FRIENDS IN A BLOKEISH SORT OF WAY: MANNING STALLS TOGETHER AT THE VILLAGE FÊTE AND EXCHANGING BOTTLES OF RED WINE AT DINNER PARTIES

Of course, as we walked, we talked. If you take a long walk several times a week with the same person, there is space enough to ease into topics and explore. We talked about everything with disarming ease. Paddy is honest and open and his company makes one aspire to be a better person by example. There is something about talking while you are actively doing something that makes the process easier. Especially, I would suggest, for men. I always find talk less inhibited shoulder-to-shoulder rather than face-to-face: like on a car journey, watching cricket, fishing or even on a ski lift. There is closeness without the constant face-watching that many men find tough to endure.

So for many weeks Paddy and I walked our riverside trail, putting the world to rights, berating this self-serving and incompetent government, bemoaning the idiocy of Brexit and gently revealing to each other the pattern and depth of our anxieties. It is notoriously difficult for men to open up about their feelings and frailties, exposing themselves to others and admitting weakness or vulnerability. But on the riverbank, to the gentle rhythm of our footsteps, on a regular path, it was easy to share with a friend some of the worries and hurt everyone feels to their own degree.

Paddy has worked in several widely different but equally stressful jobs and I have careered through my working life with notable ups and downs. We share a love of Bristol, France, sport, good wine and getting gregariously involved. But we have both fallen prey to different forms of sadness and to self-doubt. In the experiences we related there was no competition for misfortune, no automatic reciprocation in confession. But each of us over the miles covered was able to unburden himself and, by sharing problems and receiving counsel, to find salve and greater peace of mind. It was not just the exercise and the fine weather that brought us back so often to the Thameside path. The species of walking cure we developed helped both of us find a better balance. At a time when the coronavirus brought new stresses and uncertainties, while established normality was melting all around us, our country walks provided not just solace, but comfort and a sense of security.

Everyone has inner fears, regrets and anxieties; everyone would benefit from the ability to share the confidence that we enjoyed. We were very lucky, but our walks are an easy formula to replicate anywhere friends can stride out. Eventually, Percy had to stay in his bed, but we two seemed to have found a perfect recipe. Our walking talks became my guilty lockdown pleasure. But then, as regulations eased and without asking me, Paddy invited a friend of his to join us.

Harry is a lovely and remarkable chap: a tall man, with a life story as a groundbreaking black aircraft pilot that will surely one day be made into a film. It turned out three was as good as two and my initial reservations were completely overcome. Had Harry not been as calm, humorous and engaging as Paddy, things might have been different. But had Harry been different, Paddy might not have invited him. Another Covid lesson: you have to trust your friends. But almost as soon as we three had settled into a new rhythm and established an open exchange, Paddy upped and offed to France and became marooned there by the quarantine rules. So Harry and I were faced with several long walks a week together without the existing bond of an old friendship. Being English there was no question of backing out. Being two again and walking side by side encouraged the same easy confidences. Harry’s life experiences are enrichingly different from my own conventional upbringing. In some ways our lives are the inverse of each other. His was a single parent family and his life progressed through a series of orphanages, while mine was a large, happy family and grammar school in Bristol. My predictable path led on to university and Unilever; Harry went into the RAF, where he learnt to turn failures into accomplishments and solitary exclusion into belonging and thriving. A hugely successful career in civil aviation followed.

I ALWAYS FIND TALK LESS INHIBITED SHOULDER-TO-SHOULDER RATHER THAN FACE-TO-FACE: LIKE ON A CAR JOURNEY, WATCHING CRICKET, FISHING, OR EVEN ON A SKI LIFT

Harry and I told each other our life stories at some length and discussed many current issues, such as race, class, family, marriage, what constitutes achievement, happiness, fulfilment and the concept of “flow”. I think we have learnt huge amounts from each other, sharing issues and quandaries and swapping advice and observations. In the process we have become, I hope, firm friends. Without Paddy’s slightly reckless and typically generous invitation, I would never have had the privilege to learn so much. It is particularly wonderful that, during this Covid time when social contact has been contracted and constricted, our friendships have grown into a model of how men can reach out without reaching out.

Paddy was allowed back and we were three again. Percy was sadly still hors de combat, but his work was done. We three friends, as a trio or in any combination of two, had learnt the art of companionable and restorative conversation. Theodore Zeldin would be proud, as I believe are our wives. Paddy and I have both benefited by a greater sense of balance and control in our lives and go forward with more confidence and assurance. Harry too has aired problems and received well-intentioned advice from friends. All three, in our different ways, have grown more secure in ourselves during a time of increasing uncertainty. Now as we enter another lockdown the walks are less frequent: the ground is wet, the weather is untrustworthy and we can only walk as two, but nevertheless, the charmed companionship is always there.

At the farthest point on our walk, at the park’s elegant estate fence, we always pause to survey the herd of pure white deer, deer the colour of unicorns. Every time I see them, I rejoice, not just because we are about to turn for home, but for the deep, masculine magic I have discovered on our walks.