Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill

Saturday. It is supposed to be hot – well, hot by English standards, but when you are used to cool weather, 27 feels hot – and I am going in search of the poet Edward Thomas.

It’s not the first time. Midsummer 2019, I went in search of the footpaths of Edward Thomas and his best mate, Robert Frost. They had matching cottages over the hill from one another in Gloucestershire and spent many fine, late summer evenings talking and walking through high grass on the path that connected them. Back then, I was in the middle of staring down the void – a ragged shell of a woman just after a series of ego-stripping life events culminating in being laid off from my dream job, the one I’d built my entire life and identity and friend circle around.

Three days alone, walking footpaths, climbing steep Malvern Peaks, one after the other: Midsummer Hill, Swinyard Hill, Hangman’s Hill, Millennium Hill, Black Hill, Jubilee Hill. Finally, Perseverance Hill, and this was the sort of metaphorical place naming synchronicity I couldn’t even take in fully at the time.

Years of perseverance, before and since, and now, we have reached June 2021. Well?

Back to this hot Saturday, and I pull on the lightest-weight mask I have (as there is now a choice of four masks, one for almost any occasion) and board a Southwest Trains service to Petersfield. I have been to this little town once before, and it occurs to me as I leave the station that Petersfield was, literally, the first place I ever really walked from. Sure, I had walked and hiked and all the rest of it. Most of my young life was hiking. But that trip from Petersfield was different. It was my first overnight across the South Downs in preparation for 2017’s coast-to-coast walk across England. I was haggard and in deep grief, my stepfather having passed away that week. I needed to cry, and spent 48 hours sobbing up and down chalk hills, through mud and rain; the Earth cried with me.

So, Petersfield is a special place.

Today, I am not going east to the South Downs, but instead, walk northwest out of the station, up over the A3 screaming with Saturday sunseeker traffic heading to the south coast, and into the hamlet of Steep. This Hampshire village was where Edward Thomas spent most of his life, moving from cottage to cottage with his wife, Helen Noble, and their family.

There’s not much in Steep. Some quaint homes and cottages. A large boarding school, where Helen Thomas taught for many years. A tiny, medieval church with a small yard full of wonky headstones – the windows on the south wall were apparently dedicated to Edward Thomas in the 1970s, but sadly the doors remain firmly locked on my visit. I go looking for the cottages where Thomas lived, but all are privately owned or difficult to find now.

Thomas’s name appears on a small but lovingly tended World War I memorial on the main corner of the village. Thomas came to poetry late in life at the prodding of his best friend, Robert Frost, and was only a working poet for about three years. His first poem, “Up in the Wind”, was published in 1914 and a slew of some of the finest verse on landscape, nature, solitude and love followed until he died in the trenches in France in 1917.

Thomas was a walker like me. He loved being in nature and revered the English countryside, and was lucky enough to have lived in it before the advent of motorways and mass tourism. Most of his poems address nature, many of them set in the hills around Steep.

These are the Ashford Hangers, a series of escarpments running north-to-south, west of Petersfield, perpendicular to the South Downs. A small internet wormhole into the etymology of the word ‘hanger’ yields very little, leaving me to believe these may be the only ‘hangers’ in existence.

A path leads me past a small waterfall marking the site of an old mill, through a dappled woodland, up a quiet country laneway and onto a steep forest path leading to the summit of the main hanger: Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill. At 750ft, it’s no Sandia Peak, but the rocky trail leading past pines to a view across what feels like all of Hampshire is perfect.

It’s hot and I’m sweaty and breathing as though I’ve been sedentary through a pandemic for a year. Partway up, I plunk down on a log and pull out my copy of The Selected Poems of Edward Thomas and turn to ‘When First’.

When first I came here I had hope,
Hope for I knew not what. Fast beat
My heart at sight of the tall slope
Of grass and yews, as if my feet
Only by scaling its steps of chalk
Would see something no other hill
Ever disclosed. And now I walk
Down it the last time. Never will
My heart beat so again at sight
Of any hill although as fair
And loftier.

‘When First’

Edward Thomas knew what it was to stare into the void. Later in the poem, he hints at a changing tide in the world, as whispers of the Great War were reaching Britain. Thomas vacillated and eventually decided to enlist in the British Army, motivated mainly by a desire to protect the pastoral life of the English countryside that he so loved. “Something, I felt, had to be done before I could look again composedly at English landscape,” he wrote to Robert Frost about his choice to go to war. He left England to fight in France in early 1917 and would never see his beloved landscape again.

Walking on this hot Saturday is easier than so many before it. For a good handful of years, I cried everyday. Purging things I didn’t know I needed to purge from childhood and maybe lives lived before this one. I was silent and felt broken, staring into the void. Walks were another place to commune with the darkness, and I found in those footsteps – one after the other – a form of meditation and healing that cannot be duplicated elsewhere.

Keep on walking! a friend messaged me during my coast-to-coast walk. There is no simpler and more profound a life meditation. These words are now etched on my heart.

Though many forms of movement can incorporate meditation – yoga being one I also practice weekly – it is only in walking that the body assumes a kind of methodical, gentle purpose. Running is too intense to be meditative and other sports occupy the mind in such a way as to distract. Only walking allows you to experience the void while moving through it with direction.

The day passes and the sun is high. I stop at the top of Shoulder-of-Mutton Hill to eat a warm chicken-and-tomato sandwich and some crisps in the company of a few pollen-fat bees. Today, there is only one other set of hikers – a mother and daughter, who I run into several times over the hours, each time offering one another friendly words of encouragement about the steepness of the trail and the heat. Keep on walking! I tell them.

By the end of the day, I haven’t come close to many Edward Thomas landmarks, but his soul is everywhere. And somewhere between back then and now along this long path of perseverance, I seem to have reached contentment.

Of the footsteps of life,
The friendliness, the strife;
In its beds have lain
Youth, love, age, and pain:

I am something like that:
Not one pane to reflect the sun,
For the schoolboys to throw at—
They have broken every one.

I am something like that;
Only I am not dead,
Still breathing and interested
In the house that is not dark:—

-excerpt of ‘Gone, Gone Again’

night walks

i think about darkness a lot lately. about the paradigm that says light is good and dark is bad. about why humans, myself included, are more often than not afraid of the dark. and why we use darkness as a metaphor for fear, uncertainty and evil. is it something primal? there are some easy answers to these questions, and yet taking a deeper look, you cannot see the light without the dark. they are two sides of the same coin. yin and yang.

these are things i am thinking about when i walk at night. the virus lockdown has caused us all different levels of anxiety, and for me going outside during the day has become untenable. there are people everywhere. but at night, everyone tucks themselves away in their homes and the world becomes less scary. this has been an interesting irony to me: the hours when conventional wisdom says it’s most dangerous are, at this time in history, the most reliably safe time to be out and about.

so i’ve been taking night walks. what follows are photos from these walks, a kind of visual diary of london, locked down, after nightfall.

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the bright glow centre-right is lewisham hospital.

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pilgrims way

2pm, march 12, deep hampshire and nearing the end of 16 kilometres. i set out to walk a portion of the pilgrims way, something i’ve been slowly and in pieces trying to complete for a couple of years. something in me knew this would be the last walk for awhile, i’d been headachy for a couple of days and thought dusting off the cobwebs might sort the stress (NB: still headachy a week later).

it wasn’t a particularly scenic walk, this one. it had its moments, but while the path’s name might suggest hallowed churches and prayerful hilltops, many sections are not particularly sacred-feeling. i’d earlier spent many long minutes tramping between a chain-link fence blocking a railway line – busy every few minutes with brain-rattling trains passing at full speed – and a sand pit where big trucks were rumbling around picking deeply at a huge earthen scar.

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it rained on england for most of january and february, and rivers and valleys i passed earlier were still receding; pools of floodwater and vestiges of overflown banks everywhere. when i arrived at this final seemingly unending stretch of mud, i was exhausted. legs crying, feet hurting, head aching. simply not sure i could physically get through it.

i started to weep.

it’s strange looking back on this photo now. with a week’s hindsight, what a beautiful spot this was. lovely overgrown ivy inching along edges, proud trees teasing at spring buds, high sun and a cold breeze hastening low clouds.

so much of my life over the past three years has felt like this moment. so many times i have thought, “this is it. i definitely will not make it through this.”

test after test. loss after loss. grief upon grief. getting through one and feeling relief, like maybe now things will just be okay. then another test, another loss, another goodbye, another crumbling tower.

each time, i have laid down and wept. grabbed my knees to my chest and wondered why. i have lost perspective and found it again. the legs of my soul have been broken and i have dug deep and found the healing powers within myself to stand up again. walk on. smile. feel the sun on my face. push up the next hill.

but looking back, every mud patch led to an island in the sun. and it turns out that it’s not about just being okay again. it’s about living in each second, fully, even when you are weeping.

i cursed my way through this one, told the universe to go fuck itself, told myself i couldn’t do it and then reminded myself that i absolutely could in fact do it. reminded myself of much worse mud patches. reminded myself about the day i climbed all of the crags on hadrian’s wall in one go and then walked 15km afterwards and saw ghosts of roman soldiers. cheered myself on with shouts of encouragement from voices just then a little out of reach. keep on walking! the voice told me.

when i started into this mud patch, i couldn’t see how far it went. climbing through mud with my legs aching, my head hurting, having already walked through a dozen other mud patches and maybe with a case of coronavirus really seemed cruel right then. in actual fact, it was probably a funny sight. the tears streaming down my face were clearing a lot of emotion, but they also blurred my vision and i swayed around, slipped and nearly fell several times. man alive, would i have been pissed-off then, and the birds would have had to listen to all sorts of obscene language.

some distance later, i emerged – my boots heavy with wet soil – and shout-sigh-growled out into the silent ether at the (mercifully dry) field in front of me. this release felt tremendously good in my body. we really don’t give enough credence to the healing powers of screaming.

the path led forward along a straight and long roman footpath, eventually past a roman settlement, marked on the map but of which there was not a visible trace.

there were no ghosts today. only my own higher soul whispering,

pilgrim, look what you are capable of now.

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winter solstice, greenwich park

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rain. the kind that feels like it will never let up, except it does and then starts again in another bucketing shower that sounds like someone put their thumb over the end of the garden hose and pointed it at at the roof. it’s been raining, mostly, since i arrived back from the desert a week ago – a fitting gush of englishness to counter-end a short new mexico stint, where every day was lizard-dry skin and ice-blue skies.

the shortest day of the longest year of the decade, and waking alone in a welcome sadness – polishing off bits of work, then nothing to do. christmas looms.

the rain is in fits and starts. sometimes it really gushes for awhile; a pool forms at my door and – oh those nights spent in the mudhouse last week remind me how possible a leak could be, but one does not spring forth and i marvel still at a roof which holds sway against this kind of downpour.

anyway, the rain is in fits and starts. in one of the starts, which i guess is when it’s not raining, i toss on a pair of gola trainers (remarkable shoes in water – i’ll always own a pair), an olive-green scarf and a corduroy coat and make for greenwich, not really aware of what is taking me there.

a pass through waterstones on greenwich church street yields a haul of books on nordic myth, darkness and the history of mysticism entirely appropriate for the winter solstice, which is lately my favourite day of the year.

it’s only just past one but the air is darkening like a dying candle – big grey clouds tell the weak, faraway sun where to go, and the wet, shiny street is full of people carrying overloaded shopping bags and unhinged umbrellas, rushing to get into the pub before another downpour.

i’m going uphill, into greenwich park, where a sandwich board reminds tourists the park closes at 6pm, though whole crowds are already descending the path from the observatory now under the dimming sky, as the sun inches toward 2pm. it will properly set at 3:53 today.

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i pause to let the lingering feverish sweat of a recent cold level off next to the meridian line at the top of the hill, under the statue of general james wolfe. an odd icon here, i always thought. the 1930s gift of the canadians to commemorate wolfe’s victory against the french at quebec stands a sentinel overlooking the park, the stately royal naval college and all a moment from the home of time, navigation, astronomy, the grave of edmund halley. weird.

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rain picks up. the view is immense – visitors here reap, after a little steep climb, an expanse of river thames and skyscraper, but i turn my back on all that and walk deeper into the park, bracing my umbrella up against another sideways rain starting to fall fast out of pink and orange cloudburst signalling the lingering rays of this abbreviated day.

it doesn’t last long. the rain. i cut across a small patch of grass, past a man walking a whippet in a puffy coat (the dog not the man) and onto a walkway away from tourists and baby buggies with their plastic partitions pulled down against the rain, which has already stopped again.

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clouds move fast. the sun cuts in a slice of yellow across a path leading to the park’s west exit, in the direction of the last light. it’s lined with ancient, gnarled, horny oak trees, whose black bulbous trunks rise to block the salmon sky into a mosaic of branches that resemble witches fingers.

i walk slow. let my umbrella drag a little on the ground. take pictures of piles of wet leaves and loiter while a couple passes loudly discussing what wine to buy at marks & spencer for a christmas party tomorrow. then the park gate is before me, and afterwards a small laneway where puddles reflect the pink sky.

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i duck down wellington grove and continue west, chasing the thin last sunlight through an unmarked footpath that leads steeply toward the georgian mansions on hyde vale, decorated for the season in pine wreaths and already lit for the evening by the warm amber glow of victorian porch lights.

this is how winter night falls on a solstice afternoon.

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paths i’ve walked before

walking along a portion of the north downs way, unexplainable experiences. i’ve never walked here before. otherwise known as the pilgrims way in reference to the fact that pilgrims have come here to walk along the route that st augustine (of canterbury) trod from lyons and rome to canterbury in the late 500s.

the sun is bright and high and a light breeze notes it’s now the first of september and i can feel the beginnings of the end of the year on the air. sunflowers point their faces southward toward the star, now starting to make its own pilgrimage south from this high latitude for the winter. a magpie hops in his tuxedo colours along the path ahead. everything is still in late summer heat, then leaves rustle. the dry chalk path is lined with a gentle layer of dust and small white stones not unlike many trails i’ve walked in the desert.

when did i start believing in signs? maybe i always did. doesn’t the modern world we’ve made teach us to put aside the things we feel but cannot see?

augustine was not the first person to walk here – trading trackways from folkestone to stonehenge followed these chalk hills as early as 1800 bce. after augustine died, canterbury became a pilgrimage site and several centuries later, this formed part of the epic road, the via francingena, along which christians travelled to and from the holy see.  later still, thomas becket became a figure of great veneration after he was slain in 1170 by four of henry II’s knights on the stairs to the crypt inside canterbury cathedral. canterbury’s status as a destination of pilgrimage was solidified, though the modern-day trackway that one walks through southeast england now was lost for at least two centuries and rediscovered in the 1970s.

the day wears on, the trail winds between the tunnelling green of holloways and out on chalk downs with views to yellowed hayfields already harvested and gone stalky for the autumn. i take my lunch on a bench at the lenham war memorial below a giant white cross carved into the hill.

later, past lenham, then harrietsham. more holloways, more fields, more hillsides, northwest forever. the path is straight and unwavering with few ups or downs and virtually no turns. just before hollingbourne, where i’d planned a refreshment at the 13th century coaching inn (and aptly named) the dirty habit, the path opens and the air stalls and becomes almost unbreathable. the whole world goes quiet.

i couldn’t say how long ago i dreamed of this exact spot on this exact path. several years, perhaps. the dream had lain dormant in my subconscious until the moment i arrived on the path and remembered it completely. in the dream, the sky had been covered in thick, grey cloud and the atmosphere was foreboding. nothing further happened in the dream, beyond my presence on that path. i stood for many minutes, staring at the ground ahead, trying to convince myself this deja vu was some trick of memory i’d already walked somewhere else, but the thick air remained and my soul knew for sure this path was the path of my dream.

what are dreams? the feelings of having been somewhere before. the sense you’ve met in some other lifetime. or that you can talk to someone on some other vibration. that your soul knows something your 3D body can’t quite define.

empaths, seers, mystics, those who can sense. we are told that this is nonsense. in different ages, these people have been cast away, hanged, tried by court, locked into prisons or mental asylums, burned at the stake, until science found some explanation for their feelings.

in the 17th century, galileo knew that the earth revolved around the sun. he could feel it. he could even observe it through his telescope, but he couldn’t prove it in a way that the ruling people of the day would make sense of. society blocked the idea as being unbiblical and galileo was put under house arrest, where he died.

the world is flat. the earth is the centre of the universe. there are no such things as other galaxies. the atom can’t be split. it is only ‘natural’ for humans to behave this way or that, until some other social norm replaces it, and we’ve completely lost track of the unseen world, our intuitions, what feels right. these days, most of us can’t even see the night sky, let alone work out what it means to follow our souls in the face of social onslaught.

let’s not be afraid of the magic, the unseeable, the things that move us which we cannot explain, the love we feel that seems contrary to what is acceptable. let’s recognise the paths we’ve walked in our dreams. let’s look for the signs and follow them. let’s love.

For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 
1 Corinthians 13: 12-13

mud

slurp.

that sound.

there is nothing quite as unsettling as the sound of mud. boots struggling through it. slop slop slopping. a momentary stuckedness, then the unsuctioning of a boot bottom and, with it, the noise.

there is nothing that a desert flower detests more than mud. i can assure you, being one. i’m not saying that british people like mud, because i don’t think anyone likes mud apart from 11-year-old boys and black labs.

but desert people are raised in an odd, waterless world. rain is a joyous, almost spiritual experience. it doesn’t make mud; it just causes more dust to be raised. a water droplet hits off of dirt so dry that it literally can’t form mud, it just poofs up in a small whiff of dry dirt, then settles into the soil and vanishes as if it never existed.

i used to feel like the wicked witch when it rained. water? on my skin? what is this devilry? i didn’t learn to work an umbrella until i was 20 and moved to the east coast. when new mexico rains come, they fall hard and fast, then they move on. it is a giant, violent and all-encompassing monsoon that sprays the landscape for 15 minutes and doesn’t dally, leaving you to wonder if you dreamt it. this happens once an afternoon at about 2pm everyday during the months of july and august. after that, it is bleak blue sky and white sun that washes out everything within view, until winter winds and, maybe, an overnight snow that brings a pile of white fluff. it, like the dust, blows away in the wind, and does not create any mud.

slurp.

my right foot suctions down into poopy-looking goop, then rises too easily against the force of my leg, spraying the back of my calf with droplets of brown semi-liquid. i plant my left foot forward, but it slides unsteadily a short ways, and this process is repeated.

it rained most of yesterday and dawned today a bright, cold blue. my companion and i are somewhere west of wendover, trudging through the chilterns on a mad mission to get through the first hike of the year. all things considered, it’s a good day for it (in british, this means it is not actively raining right now), and given a choice, i’d battle mud over sweat any day.

it takes about eight hours after a new mexico rain for the crunchies to form. this is the term my sister and i as kids gave to the mudcracks that would form where fleeting puddles lingered for too short a time to be splashed through. it seemed like the rain went straight from droplets to crunchies, and that there were never puddles to be enjoyed. rather, enjoyment came in the gleeful stomping on the crunchies, which made such a delightful crispy noise.

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long saturdays, we’d spend a full hour or two wandering up and down the length of our mile-long dirt driveway hoping to find a patch of crunchies after a monsoon. sometimes this would end in a fight as we battled for who would get the last toe over the final crack. who knew when it would rain again; you had to get the crunchies while you could.

walking in mud, for me, is overcoming a deep-seated and dark force. mud inspires in me a visceral dislike, such that i would do almost anything to avoid it, even despite the logical knowledge that i have on boots prepared for such an occasion.

this january walk through the chilterns is an exercise in mud-dodging. my companion picks her way up a small leafy slope while i spread my feet apart and hop from foot to foot straddling a slop of puddle. we face an epic slope, skiing our feet upwards and back in vain effort: moving a lot but not going anywhere fast.

then there is the constant struggle to dislodge the mud from the sides and bottoms of your boots as it tacks itself on, adding more and more weight to your already straining quadriceptic efforts. god, my knees fucking hurt.

in the desert, rain is a special thing. it freshens up a world that feels dead from the baking sun. it springs you to life, infusing the air with a coolness and the intoxicating scent of ozone and damp soil. the droplets hit your car windshield, and you roll the window down and stick your arm out to let the cool spray coat your hand, dried in an instant. and the rain stops before you can even enjoy it.

these moments are not unlike the fleeting hours of sunshine on a january day in britain. lauren and i break just before midday in whorley wood, too famished from mud-dodging to continue. there is a howling, icy wind that abates in a small clearing under a copse of giant elm trees. she ungloves a hand and tests a log for dampness, then another, finally settling on the ‘least wet’ one and we sit, unearthing sandwiches and crisps from the depths of our backpacks.

the wind carries on its way. our fingers go numb. clouds part for a moment. the sun hits our backs and suddenly it is warm like a summer. then all too quickly, the sun is gone again. like rain in the desert.

out here hope remains (on england, coast-to-coast)


i did a lot of preparation for the 84-mile (it turned out to be 97 all-in) trek across england along hadrian’s wall national trail. one of them was to make a playlist, which i titled ‘england, coast-to-coast’. in fact, i never listened to it once during the whole nine-day excursion. but the songs looking back offer some oddly spiritual foresight. maybe i would learn something from them after i was done. here are some of the songs, and stories, from the journey.

day one

feel the weight of letting go
feel more lightness than you’ve ever known
you can’t see when light’s so strong
you can’t see when light is gone
(ride, ‘twisterella’)

rain. i am about five miles from my starting point: bowness-on-solway, the west coast of england. the weather is surprisingly tempestuous; water is blowing in off the choppy irish sea, and it’s hard to say if it’s rain or oceanwater. probably both. the road is flat and empty and feels endless and i am walking on pavement that, at the wrong time of day in the wrong season, would be flooded over by the firth’s tide. it nearly is now.

first one sock begins to dampen. right down the leg, straight in through my waterproofs. some minutes – or hours – later, i feel the first slosh. water has breached my boots. i am officially english-wet. my internal screams of agony – why are you here. just turn back. what are you doing. walking across a country? you are incapable of this. you are going to have blisters on day one. give up now. you don’t have to. – almost best me.

walking across a landmass is, above all, a meditation. it is a self-coaching session. a test in the mettle of your mind. over the next nine days, these self-flaggellatory comments will transform into zen mantras – a study in how to carry out mind over matter. but for now, a shivery pub lunch of vegetable soup and hot whisky, then steeling myself back into a sodden jacket and onwards, because if i give up on the first day, i will never forgive myself.

i don’t, and i am never gladder than to reach ‘cosmopolitan’ carlisle and be greeted by adele, a chatty former finance manager turned guesthouse owner who overshares about her marital problems. she hugs me in all my wet things and doesn’t fuss about muddy boots on her floor and, after drying out and having a beer and a meal, i think, i can do this. i am doing this. bring on tomorrow, into the wilds.


day two

over the turnstile, out of the traffic
there’s ways of living, it’s the way i’m living

i want a range life
if i could settle down, then i would settle down
(pavement, ‘range life’)

evening light and it seems like it will never darken over walton, or this bunkhouse garden. there are the northern lasts of the pennines. it’s clearing to sun and blue sky and the closer hills are green with ridges lined by dark trees. you can differentiate the pennine fells because they are purple and tan and grey. i am reminded of connemara.

day two is a walk out of civilisation, over the M6 motorway on foot – an arresting moment on a pedestrian bridge – and the first glimpses of the wildness of hadrian’s wall that is yet to come: green fields, the beginnings of the vallum (a trench the romans dug alongside the wall, which becomes my closest friend on this journey), the faraway buzzing of light aircraft from carlisle airport at about midday.

nighttime: a deserted bunkhouse with a needy, pushy cat and some sheep outside my window for company. i set an alarm for stargazing but, at this latitude, it’s past midnight before the sky gets truly inky and i snooze right through it, my body racked with the surprise of two full days on foot.

day three

have you ever wandered lonely through the woods
and everything feels just as it should
you’re part of life
you’re part of something good
if you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods
(brandi carlile, ‘have you ever’)

the walk into gilsland, over the river irthing, curving south under limestone crags and lined by cool, early summer grass on its east bank. this is surely the best section of the walk: a path so close to the wall you could (but shouldn’t) brush it, fingering every fissure and chink as you go along.

at one in the morning, i descend a darkened stairwell, head still hazy from much beer and wine shared over dinner with a canadian couple and english brothers, all boomers, walking west opposite of me. the steep, narrow guesthouse stairs creak; have i woken them all? maybe not. i turn the latchkey to the giant front door and step out into the chill of the garden. a million tiny pinpricks of light through blackness form a dome over this magic place. i’m still in cumbria, but northumberland is on the other side of the road.

day four

i wanna walk and not run
i wanna skip and not fall
i wanna look at the horizon
and not see a building standing tall
i wanna be the only one for miles and miles
(dixie chicks, ‘cowboy take me away’)

crags, the start of them in greenhead. i am so worried about ascending the first one at walltown that i use the men’s room in the quarry picnic site and, upon realising my error (hmm, i think those are urinals.), simply shrug at a group of german walkers warming themselves with coffees at covered tables just adjacent to the loos. ‘been walking too long,’ and they chuckle knowingly. they must be on day five, headed the other way.

i have fallen in love with northumberland. it is a 1.5km walk from today’s guesthouse, which is perched along the wall’s edge on a bare bluff, to the only other building within view in any direction: the milecastle inn. the sun sets to the west, casting yellow, then orange and now the deepest of pink rays through my pint glass, nearly empty of a locally brewed best bitter. a late-running cyclist flies by in a hurry, probably on his way to once brewed for a more lively night’s stay, and as the sun reaches the horizon it’s time to stroll back to my bed. feet aren’t even tired, they are being good to me.

by the time i reach the b&b, pink is fading to purple and rich azure. i stop on a small stone bridge below the house and spend an uncountable number of minutes listening to the trickle of haltwhistle burn carving a ribbon out from under cawfields crag to the east. i will climb it, and many others, tomorrow.

day 5

i’m walking in your shoes
for just a mile or two

my heels are raw and torn
but i will dig them in for you
…i’m running out of faith, i’m tired of saving face, and where the hell is grace
(jonatha brooke, ‘walking’)

up, it goes straight up. you grab the first rock handhold and employ a tired knee to lift the left boot up onto a ledge. steady, and wonder why you overpacked. why do you need so much water. was that second protein bar a necessity? maybe not, if it means you might fall bass-ackwards off the back of a craggy face. it’s only the first of these today, there are at least 20 more ‘ups and downs’ to come. in places they are steep hikes, in places they are vertical climbs. take it easy, i say outloud to myself and the rocks. go slow, and go easy. you have all the time in the world. don’t fall. just go slow. one step, one rock, one climb at a time.

i tell the universe thank you for holding off the rain today. right now. and beg it to continue. i can’t do this if it’s slippery, i chide myself. i could have. but this first face is a watershed moment at the halfway point across england, on this journey’s most difficult place. i am not even to sycamore gap, that perfectly placed tree where kevin costner and morgan freeman jauntily scared away the sheriff of nottingham’s henchmen in robin hood: prince of thieves, and i’ve promised my friend joe i will send him a selfie from there. up, down, up again. stones, some of them slippery some steep, i am afraid of heights and why am i doing this again? have to get to housesteads and then i can rest. a huge ruin of a roman fort, a hastily scoffed tuna sandwich, nip into the portaloo and then i have to be on again, for i’m only halfway through today’s 26k trek and there are still crags to come, and rain. yes, rain.

sewingshields, one of two toppermosts on the whole walk. for me, the second and last one. there is a waymarker here, and the sudden realisation that i’ve climbed all the crags there are to climb, and that the tough work is done, brings a flood of tears. these turn to tears for a dear one lost, and three more kilometres have passed before my face is dried by the wind. just a measly 10 more kilometres to my bed, i think.

the path flattens out onto the treeless northumberland wilds. i am avoiding a group of walkers ahead and slow a bit. legs tire, feet begin to ache. there is nowhere to sit down, for leagues in any direction. the vallum carries on in a straight crevice, mile after mile. the elation of finishing the crags wanes more quickly than i’d expected. it’s here the positive voices surface to keep me going. encouraging words from friends, texts from family members, simple mantras from soul mates:

you got this kween!
you can do it, i got your back my girl.
i’m really proud of you sweetheart.
keep on walking!

i put this last one on repeat and meditate. kilometres pass. feet throb more and i think i can’t. i can. keep on walking! i begin saying it out loud, shouting it out into the nothingness, shouting it with cheer and a jaunty lift of the arms. a smile, it helps. up another hill. then, reaching brocolitia forti expend a few precious extra steps to enter the temple of mithras – now reduced to a collection of low stone ruins – and leave a few new pound coins. just in case.

days six, seven and eight

keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
and i’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
(caedmon’s call, ‘faith my eyes’)

by day six, i can do anything. walking has become as natural as breathing, as it should be for any human being. we are born to walk. we are given legs and we learn to use them before we can even communicate with other humans. we are born to walk. by day six, i am in my most natural state. strides are long. feet are in fine condition (a credit to my scarpa boots, and a careful routine of washing, moisturising and application of body glide and preventative compeed each morning). legs feel strong, soul feels stronger. i hope this walk never ends.

day six, i stay at the wonderful robin hood inn, a must for all walkers of the wall. it is the last point at which you feel you are walking the wall. from here, it is a simple two-day descent into urban newcastle, watching wilderness turn to farmland, and farmland to village, village to suburban riverside, industrial suburbia, and suddenly, you are counting six bridges crossing the river tyne and there are no more crags, just the pubs and mobile phone shops and hurried novocastrian pedestrians marching up dean street. where am i?

day nine

there’s forty acres, and redemption to be found
just along down the way
there is a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
and you will turn it over
cause out here hope remains
and all these rocks they are crying too
and this old land is crying out for you
(caedmon’s call, ’40 acres’)

i pack light. shed a small tear, then stuff my boots into the bottom of my large rucksack, which will be stowed in the hostel until the day’s walk is done. in a moment of planning madness, i’d arranged to catch a train back to london the same evening that my walk finished.

feet feel weird in trainers but slowly adjust to pavements as i stray out of central newcastle early and into the eastern suburbs. pound shops give way to endless blocks of modern red brick houses, then dual carriageways banked by greenery, and then a glimpse of water and some bobbing boats. i duck through a council estate and past an actual coronation street, then down to the shields ferry. this seven-minute boat ride will be the only form of non-foot transport i take on the whole 97-mile trek, and so close to the finish!

out of the boat, my heart is starting to race. i have to walk down south shields’ high street first, past mcdonalds and more pound shops and pubs with midday punters drinking tall, bubbling pints of lager. i can’t go fast enough, but i’m worried about the end.

then there’s the sea. i want to finish on a proper sand beach. pound, pound, pound…my heart is matching my footsteps for the first time since bowness. i stop at a bench and wrench off trainers in haste, tossing them into the daypack in favour of sandals, and finally, here is sandhaven beach. i can’t get up the dune fast enough and the tears are stinging at my eyes making me lose my way. toss the bag down, toss the sandals off.

the north sea water is freezing in may and feels blissful on my tired feet. i stay for awhile, because the sun is high. savouring the last few minutes of solitude, and the view out into the nothing of shimmering waters.

when i get on the newcastle metro, and then the virgin train to london, life will not feel real. probably ever again.

ivinghoe beacon


the top of ivinghoe beacon. all of england is in view, it feels like. a chill wind bristles from the south somewhere. maybe it passed cornwall or the north downs before causing a wave of horripilation under my pink-shell jacket.

i climbed a chalky escarpment. boot in front of boot, carefully. then, a directional stone offers some idea of which way is which.

north: a lone hawthorne steady against the gusts. beyond – miles of patchworked farmland. a man nearby tells his companion that the faraway spire, so small from here, is the church in their village.

south: a country road, here and there streaked with red and blue cyclists, winds into a copse of trees and away.

east and west: hills, forever.

a windswept jack russell and a westie waggle at a group of daytrippers playing tricks with the wind. if you lean into it, it will hold you up, a dad tells his child. maybe no one is thinking how iron age man came, too, for these views. not to admire them, but use them to keep hold of these lands.

overhead, a 737 – maybe wizz air by the juice-purple stripes on its tail fin – lowers into luton. i pull out a tesco ham and cheese and imagine the time of hill forts. life was short, uncomplicated and dirty. full of stars on frigid nights, and kinds of chafing we cannot imagine now.

if you lean into the wind, it will hold you up.