How does it feel to live without shoes?

I recently parked at Newlands Corner, a local picture-postcard beauty spot a few miles from Guildford, and walked the few miles to town for lunch by way of St Martha's church, a historic edifice with glorious panoramic views of the verdant Surrey countryside. But it was not just the slightly hazy vistas that I enjoyed. There was also the slightly rough surface of the asphalt & gravel car park, followed by the rough, sharp stones of the initial pathway onto the open hillside, and how that path gradually became gloriously smooth earth, one of my favourite textures.

The colour green is the most relaxing colour. It is in the middle of our optical spectrum, and the world is green. Trees and grass and all that grows is green. Mankind and the world are perfectly suited to each other. And so it is with feeling of the “dirt” beneath your feet. The dry dusty earth or soft moist soil, worn by the passing of a thousand soles, is uplifting.

Other textures are very welcome too. Just as the vibrant spring flowers or autumn leaves have their own splendid array of colours, so the rich diversity of surfaces are a feast for the mind and feet. As I approached St Martha’s church, the smooth, dark soil gave way to course sand that shared memories of those who had passed before. I added my own footprints, gripping a little with my toes where the hill became slippery.

The city streets then tell their own stories. The paved surfaces progress from the rough to the smooth as you progress from the suburbs to the town centre, where there are many different textured slabs, cobbles, curbs and floors of hewn rock. The road surfaces, painted road markings, pub, supermarket or takeaway shop floor are all distinctive, adding to the experience of where you are & your sense being alive, here, now.

On frequent trips to London, I know the rough vinyl floor of the train to Waterloo. The cold, polished stone station concourse, the metal escalators, the cracked city streets that feel slightly dusty if it has not rained for a few weeks, the raised pedestrian crossings, the rough resin cycle paths or the uniquely ribbed surface of the Millennium Bridge.

Unnatural surfaces
Most man-made surfaces are fit for purpose and equally compelling. Carpet, concrete or baked brick tiles are usually appropriate to their location, and are part of the experience of being in a particular place. Roads and pavements are fine surfaces for walking or running on. (Plenty has been written on barefoot running: “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall is a great introduction and a fun read.) The annoyances with some man-made surfaces is not usually the materials themselves, but what humans do to them:

Crushed stone gravel is a widely used unnatural surface, that can be very comfortable to walk on, if rather boring compared to peaty top soil. However, some land owners, in acts of mindless vandalism, deploy large (even fist sized) grades of gravel to “protect” footpaths against erosion (often by people unnecessarily shod in boots with treads like tractor tyres.) Land owners like crushed, sharp edged stone better than round stones because the sharp edges tend to get caught on each other so it doesn't roll away. Thus, they ignorantly destroy the beauty of that what they wish to protect.

Large gravel is uncomfortable to walk on because the proportion of your foot making contract with the ground is relatively small, so the pressure on that area of the foot is correspondingly higher. However, the seasoned barefooter has relatively inflexible soles that spread the load to a wider area; but walking continuously over such surfaces flexes the soles, breaking down the stiffness and reducing the radius of the load bearing area further. Another example of man turning nature against you is the sharp stubble left after wheat is harvested: Some machines that cut the stalks obliquely to short razor-sharp points, that dry into a blood-thirsty bed of nails. Thankfully we are equipped with eyes, enabling us to plot routes around such threats.


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