I was a teenager when I came to the realisation that if I wanted to do something badly enough I’d better get used to doing it on my own: not everybody likes what I like and people don’t always want to join you if they do. It’s hard when you’re painfully shy as I was to put yourself out there, but I figured if I didn’t I’d have no fun at all. And no one to blame but myself. So I’ve ended up doing a lot of things on my own over the years; going to the cinema or the theatre, going for a meal, joining a class, or my running club…
Please don’t talk to me when I’ve just woken up. Actually, probably best to leave it for an hour and a half. Do not request a hair cut, even if it is “just a quick one”; don’t ask “have you got 80p in your bank account? There’s this Sonic the Hedgehog app I’d like”; please don’t request my help to decide how you can best waste £50 to make your new xbox controller work on your pc; in fact, just stop asking me anything. All I can hear is noise, and I really don’t like noise when I’ve just woken up.
“Why are you still in your pyjamas? I was planning on a long walk today, how am I going to do that now, if you’re not ready to leave? You were supposed to be meeting your friends at 11, it’s almost midday.” “What time do you want picking up? 4 o’clock? Well, that’s not gonna happen, I’m going to the Roseland for a walk, I told you.” And so it goes on…
I pull into the lay-by at Wrinkling Lane (don’t you love that name?) near Trelissick
I’ve been walking a fair bit of late, around 30 miles a week or so over 4 or 5 days; I keep asking myself why I’m doing it. I feel like I’m looking for something but I don’t know what. Answers maybe? But to what questions. I know that for me walking’s a time to notice things, like today as I was walking down a steep grassy hill in the finest mizzle. I was looking at my feet, transfixed as the water saturating the grass flung from my shoes in a silvery spray with each forward step. It seemed like something and nothing
We’re on to a new map, but my map of the area is holed and creased with the ink thumbed away to nothing in places. It’s been just a few weeks since I was last here, a beach stomp at Godrevy before the storms. It didn’t have the purpose of this walk and the further west we get on this particular mission the more excited I become. I’ve lived here 30 years, it goes to say I’ve walked significant parts of the coastline in that time
Sea water and rain pool on the rocks like spilt milk, reflecting the white misty glaze that washes the sky. Miles of sand floats on beyond the horizon, the clear edge of the land invisible, caught under thick, tumbling clouds. We watch the sunlight break through in silence. It creates a shifting tracery across the sand reminding me of light falling through high stained-glass windows onto the stone floor of a mediaeval cathedral.
Steps. Up. And Up. With each twist in direction I have to stop; my legs are heavy and my lungs won’t fill up enough. After a mile or so’s walking Katie and I have just started on today’s coastal section and I’m already exhausted. Man flu
I feel like I’m at school getting my bag all packed for the morning. Sandwich made, milk in a bright pink plastic bottle (left here by a 7 year girl ironically enough), both tucked up waiting in the fridge; flask on the counter ready for some fresh coffee, sitting next to some all important soon-to-be-crushed Cadbury’s mini rolls. Nothing healthy. It’s about 1am and I can’t sleep
Sometimes I just want to get things right, so I took ages packing my rucksack on Saturday, putting things in and taking them out again. Then back again. I was only going down the road: it was definitely more consideration than the journey warranted. I’d been faffing about for the last hour or more, trying to decide whether to actually go for a walk or not. I’d left it so late that it would be dark soon and I wouldn’t be able to walk far at all, so was it even worth it?
I’d lost track of time catching up with my favourite blogs. One of my particular favourites is Dirty Running and it just so happened that Dax had posted a report on his epic 8 day 225 mile hike/run on the John Muir Trail (California). Some years ago I bought a Lonely Planet guide to Yosemite with the intention of planning a trip there, but circumstances change and it’s back to being an impossible dream again. But a dream’s a dream and I couldn’t go for a walk without reading Dax’s account of his journey through a place high up on my hiking bucket list.
So time marched on and my own walk became even less likely, but for something Dax wrote that stuck a chord:
“That piece of the wilderness stays with you, it finds its way into your soul, and the only way to keep it there is to protect it, to revisit and refresh, to cultivate that feeling of freedom and wildness, to move beyond the drive-up tourist spots, to explore the trails that lead to the top of mountains, or just the intimacy of a sunset watched alone, a few hundred yards from a large RV “camp” filled with people who have forgotten to stop talking and just look up.”
What if I walked to the top of the Beacon, the nearby hill with a view, just to watch the sunset; what if I walked a familiar route in the dark? It could be like walking somewhere new. A mini adventure maybe.
So I packed gloves and a headband to keep my ears warm on the windy Beacon. I decided to take dinner too. I packed a sketchbook. And then unpacked it and put in a blanket instead. I wished I had a bivvy bag. I would’ve packed it if I had. Lights. Well remembered: a head torch and my bike light would be useful in the dark. And a map, just in case I decided I needed to find another route.
So off I went, down the valley at Chapel Combe as the light began to fade.
I’d got half way down before I realised the noise in my head had dissipated enough to leave me some space to ‘be’. I came through the woods into the light and the first thing I noticed were the cornflowers lining the path, little blue pom-poms on long stalks bobbing in the breeze. The blue was intensified by the low light and sang against the backdrop of deep green bracken. I wanted to paint those colours, just that blue and the green, keep them together forever.
I took a right turn onto a track that goes up beside a ‘gingerbread house’, as my friend calls it. You can imagine it: leaded windows, tall chimneys clothed in climbing plants, surrounded by dark trees. Ramshackle. Secret. Probably inhabited by a witch. Even the tracks hereabouts speak to you, this one said ‘O’! I said O back and got lost in a train of thought about Andy Goldsworthy’s art.
The path’s quite stoney and I’m wearing my ‘barefoot’ trail running shoes, and as the detail becomes blurred I realise how much more I’m relying on what I can feel to tell me about my surroundings. My hearing and sense of smell are pretty crap and once it’s dark I know I won’t even be able to see my own feet.
Going up the rough tracks on the Beacon my lower calves burn and feel like an elastic band about to snap under the strain. My achilles still hasn’t recovered from a 2 and a half mile run a few days ago and I try not to get caught up in the disappointment of realising it’s still not ‘cured’.
I distract myself by focussing on the textures of the landscape and the sounds they make, the rustling grasses, the shake of dried seed heads. I watch the changing colours as the rain clouds blow across and once at the top, skirt ’round the trig point and dip down just out of sight to sit on a granite bench facing the cold Atlantic, ready to see what the sky will bring.
I break out dinner. It’s not the gourmet picnic accompanied by a bottle of crisp wine that the romantic in you might think would befit the watching of a sunset. No. It’s the common or garden veggie hotdog accompanied by orange squash. Yes, that’s right: hotdog. I recently realised that you could easily have a hot ‘meal’ on the go by warming up a couple of these filling sausages, sticking them in a flask and covering them with boiling water. Bring along a ready split roll or two and a smidgin of tomato sauce (or maybe mustard), a plastic plate and a spork (for fishing the hotdogs out of the flask) and you’re good to go. No stove required. I’m a genius. At last.
As the sun drops I begin to feel the cold and dig out the fleece blanket to cover my legs. I look like an old granny. Or maybe an escaped lunatic. But I don’t care and there’s no-one around anyway. That’s the beauty of being on top of a windy hill near nightfall: you get the place to yourself.
It wasn’t the most spectacular of sunsets, more of a quiet, beautifully subtle fading. Watching the clouds gradually feather out across the sea was like watching a loaded brush drag pink watercolour across wet rag paper. The pigment sinks into the fibres and pools into depressions, gradually fading away to a mere trace. It’s mesmerising.
Looking in the opposite direction dark clouds seem to simmer low and quickly towards the light, ready to subsume it. The orange specs of Montbretia are the last colours to die away.
The lights in the villages begin to flicker into life, and the four red lights on the distant tv mast glow brightly. Godrevy lighthouse begins to blink. I pack up and head down the hill, torch on sweeping the path ahead. I still manage to trip over.
Out on the coast path on St Agnes Head I listened to the ocean booming 300 feet below. All I could hear were the reverberations, the wind battering my ears and my feet crunching warily along the narrow paths that rose and fell like swooping gulls. There was no moon to show the way and my torch was about as useful as a candle. If I didn’t fall off the cliff there was always the possibility of falling down a mine shaft instead. That added a frisson of excitement to an otherwise familiar walk.
Towanroath engine house, a mining edifice on the edge of the cliff, was a shadowy beacon that became even more poignant in the dark than it is in the light of day. It occurred to me that most people would find it eery, even sinister, but to me it marked a safer, wider path back down to the beach at Chapel Porth and I was glad to finally walk into it see it.
Heading inland, back up the valley, I suddenly became aware of absence. The dramatic exposure of the cliffs had given way to an overwhelming stillness. I couldn’t hear anything, even feel a breeze. All I saw was the fluttering of a moth as it crossed my beam of light. I had to stop, had to make sure the world really was still there. I listened, gradually tuning in to the hum of crickets and the screech of an owl across the valley. I walked up into the trees, feeling the ground turn from stone to sand to mud. I turned off the light.
Nope, I still couldn’t see my own bloody feet! Hopeless.
Back home I map my route: just 5 short miles. As I click a line around the paths I realise that I’ve seen them in a whole new way, experienced them without really seeing them at all. I think everyone should try it, take the familiar and turn it on its head. We don’t really need to travel to the other side of the world to be blown away by nature when we can discover a whole new world in our own back yard. I still wouldn’t say no to California though. Or the Lake District. Or Chamonix. Or just any old mountain really!
How come I have a child that doesn’t like exploring the outdoors? It’s not right, him being the antithesis of me. As I’m pulling on my jacket for a walk after the rain, he saunters back from the garage down the lane with his friends, pockets full of sweets. That’s his outing for the day done and dusted. I leave them to climb the walls in a sugar rush and head off to the coast on my own again.
It’s a ‘head down’ kind of day I’ve decided. A walk, not a bike ride. I needed a trudge in keeping with my slow, heavy thoughts; a path to follow blindly in the comfort of familiarity, focussing on the near not the far off or the bigger picture. I don’t know what I expect, or want, from this walk, but the need to get out is strong.
Head down, not looking more than a few metres ahead, I step onto the claggy path through the combe. The rain still lingers in the arch of trees above and cobwebs line the dark corridor below, laden with heavy rain drops that sag under the weight.
I feel like I’m sagging under the weight of depression, only it doesn’t look half as pretty.
Like every walker crossing through a wood after heavy rain, I take deep breaths through my nostrils saturating my insides with the earthy scent of the valley. And when my lungs are full and I can’t breathe in anymore I stop momentarily, like the top of a note, and close my eyes before I exhale. I stop to look at the fish in a stream that’s dappled with the weak light filtering through the gloom of the trees. I’d never do this on my bike: a bike ride’s about seeing the broader view. Finally I realise that today is about noticing the quiet things, subtleties; like the contrasts in texture between the bracken and the heather as I come out of the wood towards the bottom of the valley.
Or a golden path across the hillside to a grey scar in the purple heather.
As I reach the cove I realise how quiet the walk down has been. Suddenly people are everywhere; on the beach, queuing at the National Trust cafe, ambling up and down the cliff paths like ants. I get to the top of the cliffs as quickly as I can, pushing my heart rate up so that I can feel the pulse in my head, passing wheezing holiday makers with every stride. Over the crest they trail off and by the time I get to the Wheal Coates Towanroath engine house they’ve all but disappeared.
The wind is strong up here, but it’s still warm and clammy. The odd rain shower spatters the pinkish, loose-stoned paths as the clouds blow over. Looking out over the slate sea the horizon’s a vague smear, a soft Vaseline haze in the distance, and the deep hues of the heather are giving way to the sharp cadmium yellow of the gorse. The colours seem to be intensified against the greyness of the afternoon.
God knows what goes through my mind on a walk like this. Nothing profound. Nothing resolved. I feel really introspective. I haven’t been out for almost a week, a slave to the lack of motivation that descends with deepening depression. I haven’t done anything at all this week, I tell myself. Except survive. The thought pains me, along with feelings that my life’s as aimless as this walk.
The starry flowers of the drying thrift are turning a gentle white, nodding furiously in the wind. I come round onto Tubby’s Head and see three Hasidic Jewish men sitting on exposed rocks. The sight seems incongruous somehow. The starkness of their black and white clothes is startlingly sharp against the skyline, they’re not wearing coats and I wonder at the wind biting through the crisp white sleeves of their shirts. I pass them by catching drifts of Hebrew on the gusts. It’s a soft sound that dissolves into the grey, much like the rest of the walk to the steps at Trevaunance.
Single track paths mean stepping into the gorse to let the odd person and their dog pass. There are smiles and thank you’s, but I’m irritated that I’ve had to interrupt my pace, leave my thoughts and acknowledge the real world. The path widens towards the cove and there are more people. I recognise two of them, chatting as they run towards me. Friends from my running club. “Hi, how’s it going?”, they sing as they pass. I haven’t seen them for ages, months even. They don’t stop and once they’re behind me I have a fight to suppress tears that seem to rise from my stomach for no reason at all.
The stone steps are steep and people coming up are having to stop, holding on to each other to catch their breath. I realise that the beach will be as crowded as Chapel Porth and even though this is the place I intend to turn round, I decide to go up the cliffs to the garden on the other side, where I guess there’ll be fewer people. I’ve brought a flask of fresh brewed coffee and I want to sit and drink it, savour the views below and feel the warmth of my pink enamel mug in my hands. ‘Life is out there’, is the company’s motto that manufactured the mug (Fat Face). I contemplate the irony as I sit on a memorial bench under my umbrella, sheltering myself against the winds and another heavy shower. There’s no-one up here but me, it’s peaceful and the garden’s a lovely spot to watch the gulls hang in the air.
Time to head back. My thighs burn as I rush up the steps and at the top I turn into a full on head wind. After a while my ears ache with the cold. My cap blows off and I scramble into the heather to catch it before it’s carried off into the Atlantic on another gust.I’m quite close to the edge of the cliff and realise I could just as easily be blown away with it.
Back at Chapel Porth the cafe’s closed and the car park’s emptying. A scurry across the tarmac onto the path up to Mingoose takes me out of the brunt of the wind and I start looking up again. Noticing details. It’s my favourite part of the walk today. In 15, 20 minutes I’m back at the top of the valley and on my way home.
The boys are lounging around in front of a computer, laughing loudly without a care in the world. Life is out there. Sometimes I just have to work a little harder to see it.