You know the nervous laughter that erupts almost spontaneously when you’re about to do something you’re pretty sure is a terrible idea. I’m walking through Edinburgh’s Old Town, headed for the Walter Scott Monument in Princes Street Gardens, and I can’t stop laughing at the idiocy of going to a theatrical performance outside for an hour when it is zero degrees and snowing.
I’m headed to Chalk Walk, a one-on-one performance walk conceived by Grid Iron’s Ben Harrison in response to current Scottish COVID restrictions, and I’m trying to figure out how I feel about it. There’s the ominous weather, obviously, but this is the first ‘in-person’ theatre thing I’ve done in almost a year, and it’s also pretty much the first time I’ll spend an hour with someone who isn’t my husband or ‘extended household’ since March 2020.
Past Waverley Station, I turn into the gardens and find Emma Snellgrove, my performer-guide, bedecked in a delightfully bright pink coat, hopping about next to the monument, presumably attempting to keep warm. Her name and mine are chalked on the ground, either side of a big pink heart. Emma peeks into a small paper bag and reels out the available colours of chalk. I choose pink and Emma removes a small plastic bag containing a piece of pink chalk, spritzes it with hand sanitiser and places it on the ground a few feet away from me. Feel free to stop and chalk whenever you want, she instructs and off we go.
I’ve signed up for Chalk Walk with no expectations of what’s to take place. As you may have gleaned from the title, it’s a walk around Edinburgh with chalk. Before I arrive, I swear to myself that I’ll be completely open to whatever occurs. If my guide wants me to sing and dance, I will. If they want me to picture the moon in my mind’s eye and then howl at it, I will. And I say this as someone who loathes participation of any kind.
For the splittest of split seconds, I’m disappointed when it transpires that Chalk Walk isn’t scripted or choreographed or demandingly participatory. It’s just a chat and a walk and some chalking. And you know what, it’s really quite wonderful for being that and that alone.
We walk up the Mound and peer through the locked gates of the Divinity School where, Emma tells me, a statue of John Knox resides just out of sight. Around the corner, we have more success with an open door off Ramsay Garden—a street I have often walked past, but never along. The open door leads down a small corridor to another door, made largely of glass, through which we can see a large garden sloping down Castle Rock. There must be a dozen squirrels bounding about the snow-flecked grass. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many squirrels in one place before.
As a guide, Emma is infectiously optimistic (I’m deeply cynical at the best of times). Perhaps surprisingly, I also find her relaxing company. Neither of us are from Edinburgh, but have both lived here for a decent amount of time and it’s interesting to compare experiences. For one thing, her neighbours sound far friendlier than most of mine. She recounts a swashbuckling tale of her stolen bike being sighted in the possession of a teenager by her taxi-driving neighbour who, on confronting said teen, agrees to drive him home in his taxi in exchange for the return of Emma’s bike. Her deft retelling of the anecdote has me in stitches.
Given that I live in the Old Town, but often avoid exploring because it’s usually packed with tourists, Emma decides to wander down closes off the Royal Mile that I’ve never seen before. We end up in Tron Square in front of a splendid four-sided clock from 1933 that, symbolically perhaps, tells the wrong time. As we walk, we spend a lot of time talking about bodies and breathing and Buddhism. Emma’s a practising Buddhist and a dancer and movement facilitator, and I’m a horse-riding yoga fanatic still recovering from a year-old injury. We agree that injury can be a good teacher, though, and she sings the praises of something I’ve never heard of called Wim Hof breathing exercises. I promise to look it up when I get home.
On paper, Chalk Walk is such modest theatre; it’s an artless encounter rather than a complex performance. But given the events of the last year, there’s something almost radically celebratory about the ordinary act of two strangers coming together to simply walk and talk and chalk.
Chalk Walk runs in various parts of Edinburgh until 27th February. More info here.