World events, eh? I’ve just come back from a trip overseas and those world events, they just have a way of biting you in the arse. Not that I’ve been helping Uighurs towards autonomy, Christians out of Nigeria, or pretty much everybody across the border into Kurdistan. Nope, I’ve just come back from Ibiza, where for a while it looked as if lucky Johnny Spaniard may have had to put up with my fretful dependence on shady spots for a while longer because of Johnny Frenchman – or more specifically, Johnny Air Traffique Contrôle.

L’histoire de la lutte? Something about pensions, comme toujours, though I imagine it’s been beefed up with a hefty stir of guff about the French way of life being undermined by erm, modernity. But thanks to capitalism vs la France profonde, one of our number was forced to stay for an unscheduled extra night. He seemed considerably less pleased with the situation than we were, responding to ‘Yay! Simon!’ with tight smiles and ill-concealed anguish about his toppling tower of work back in Blighty, but despite our tactless delight, he made it away about 18 hours later.

In fact, this year had a good bit more coming and going than usual. Another of our number had pitched up after a three-week yoga course somewhere else on the island. The course sounded hilariously awful, with its progenitor and chief beneficiary emphasizing the importance of ‘karmic yoga’ – an essential element of yogic practice, apparently. She took it to mean carte blanche to bully her suggestible and high-paying clients into weeding her garden, cleaning her house, doing the laundry, taking out the bins etc – crucially for no payment – in order to enrich their spiritual Tikka Vindaloo Masala. 

Around the dinner table jaws dropped with admiration at tales of this woman’s exploitation of her ‘students’ – a loose term because it seems everyone else’s karmic yoga took precedence over her own, inasmuch as she shirked almost every opportunity provided, and paid for in advance, by her houseguests to actually teach the poor sods. So they all ended up teaching each other.

The plan was that Alice was then going to test her teaching wings by taking a few classes around the pool with us as her guinea pigs. Good luck with that. Mixed ability is the polite term for her motley crew; I’d forgotten to bring any yoga garb so would have had to prance about in my pants; we all drank far too much every lunchtime to risk even touching our toes and the pool was practically a not-on-your-nelly area as some kind of malfunction left it greener and murkier every day. In fairness, Alice did manage to squeak one past the guardians of indolence: the two leanest members took to the mats on the first morning, while the rest of us lolled about, dreaming up excuses to see off any future threat of activity.

The only two who did manage regular exercise were the little girls – aged four and two – who didn’t know each other beforehand but swiftly forged their allegiance through sandcastle building (after the standard-issue quibbles over exciting bucket and boring spade) and tempered it hard as steel by bedtime avoidance. Lily, the elder, was negotiator and battle-toughened rebel leader, while Bo had speed, lightning reflexes and total faith in her commanding officer. Bedtime rolls around. Lily, master tactician, can read the road ahead: the moment the vagaries of Hide and Seek put both players in the same room, beside the grown-ups, battle is lost. And so it happens. Two small, breathless pyjama’d figures are suddenly within reach of outstretched adult arms. Lily, channelling Mel Gibson in Braveheart urging the fight for freedom, howls a heartfelt: ‘Run, Bo! Run!’ And Bo, channelling Mel Gibson in Gallipoli, does. Unforch, things don’t pan out so well for Mel in either, and history repeats itself here. Scotland gets squished, the cute one in Gallipoli buys the farm and Lily and Bo are fast asleep within 10 minutes of capture.

 

 


Did I use nasty chemicals to poison the slugs? No. I felt too guilty about messing with the garden’s organic credentials. Did I even use Mother Nature’s methods, like salt, to kill them in some ghastly frothing mucus soup? No, I’m too yeller-bellied for that too. Nope, I spent an hour picking up the little blighters one by one, putting them in a bucket, carrying them up the garden and releasing them into the compost bins with a ‘Godspeed, and eat all you can.’ Pfft. Useless mass murderer I am. The result, unfortunately, remains Slugs: 1 million; Crops: zero, but hey ho.

The last couple of weeks have been spent looking for a new housemate. Actually, it’s only been a week, but if you add up the dread beforehand, and accept that time drags badly when you hear yourself say ‘Erm, gas hob, electric oven’ for the fourth time in one afternoon, then yeah, it actually feels like three months. The doorstep yielded the usual grab-bag mix of you-look-nice versus I-find-you-obscurely-frightening, but we finally struck gold and eagerly await our newbie who moves in at the end of the month.

The delay is officially to enable the landlord to give the place a wash and brush-up, but it also gives us time to do the same, by which I mean through the kitchen and bathroom cupboards. After years of two people cohabiting with a floating third, the shared areas have definitely accrued peculiar products of unknown provenance. I’m guessing some of the bilious mouthwashes, rancid pastes, sticky jars and part-flattened tubes will turn out to be the property of some long-gone housemate, products that we have carefully wiped and put back for years without realizing they were already orphans when Twitter launched. ‘No! I thought that was yours’ will be our watchword. Say farewell to the tahini, the mace, the mushroom ketchup, the fish sauce, the minced garlic, the beef jerky marinade and the pickled walnuts. And say hello to a dustbin that smells like a slum drain.


This morning, before work, I delivered two more courgette seedlings to my garden partner’s doorstep, ready for this evening and my return, when I shall plant them out in the big wide world. As I walked up the street with them, their long, hothouse-attenuated arms and lily-pad hands waving zanily with each of my strides, I noticed I was scowling. Why?

It’s surely impossible to walk down a London street past commuters, bearing comedy-looking plants without looking cheery, and yet I caught my expression in a shop window and it was thunderous. The plants themselves seemed so excited about their new home but I realised that my face was shaped by my heart, and it was heavy with guilt. Without slug pellets, I’m surely taking them to their death. These lovely, lovely plants I’ve raised from seed. Oh, God, the rage. The rage and the sorrow.

But soft! Who goes there? Call me Lucrezia Borgia, but there’s a small twist of slug pellets secreted deep in a pocket of my rucksack. Look to your households and bar your doors, there may be foul murder this night…


Organic matter

28May14

Oh, this rain! It has at least usefully told me just exactly how unwaterproof much of my walking gear has become. The Berghaus that got drenched on Easter Sunday; the boots that caught the attention of the dog and carried me across Northumberland, both are provably unable to cope with hour after hour of rain and swishing through long, sodden grass. Yesterday I carried out the same experiment with a different jacket. It was very waterproof but features a hood of such poor design that the water trickled down my face and, by then warmed to unnoticeability, flowed on down my neck until I unpeeled at home and found my front was wet to the waist. Bah.

Today I was supposed to be enjoying more of this unseasonal grey chill at my nephew’s school open day. He was due to row in the parade of boats but, during a rehearsal the other day, another boat was caught by the current and smashed into his crew’s, catching his hand between them. Seven stitches in his writing hand later, he is looking forward to his AS level exam next week. He’s going to be one of those special kids in a side room, with his own invigilator and a stopwatch, to let him take time off if his hand hurts too much. This is glamour beyond my ken. Such a risk-averse, unsporty and swotty kid was I that no way would I have been nursing any kind of injuries beyond something caused by slipping on spilled food as I hastened my waddle to the lunch counter.

Anyway, the school decided that the river was too swollen and they couldn’t afford any more bashed-up students, so they cancelled the parade of boats. Since this was the centerpiece of our day, my brother called the gathering off, and thus it was that I swapped a cold, muddy riverbank for an attractively warm and dry office.

More plans changing: a trip to my garden partner last night was postponed as the rain drilled on and on and on. The plan was to take round some seedlings/infant plants – courgettes, cucumbers and lettuce – that I’ve raised from seed ready for planting out. This will be the third lot of vegetables I have nurtured for Phyllis’s garden, only to have them eaten completely by slugs. In my own garden the yield is high, thanks to slug pellets, but Phyllis’s laudable insistence on the organic method (the buggers even ignore copper tape) means that absolutely nothing beyond hairy, sharp-tasting tomato plants survive. However, my will is broken and yesterday, for the first time and safely over the phone, I uttered the phrase ‘slug pellets’. Lettuce hope that from this small seed sprinkled on the breeze, Phyllis will come round to my way of thinking and let me give up on beer traps, human hair, copper tape, picking them out by hand and hoping for the bloody best. I’ve had enough, bring on the big guns.


Well, now that I’ve had the tooth repaired this morning – a large white filling/rebuilding, at a tenth of the price of the dreaded crown – things are looking a lot upper.

But by midweek, all in all, I was feeling a bit low, plodding back to the coast on a sunny, breezy morning, a bit out of sorts, a bit – whisper it – bored. Bored! And additionally annoyed with myself for being unhappy (‘What more do you want, ffs, if the Northumberland coast under cloudless skies isn’t enough? Unicorns? Free puppies? A starring role in a Busby Berkeley musical?’) and a bit why on EARTH am I doing this? And then, suddenly, in the distance, sunlit, was Dunstanburgh Castle. And in that instant, it all came right.

Nevertheless, a sizable bluebottle in the ointment was the misjudging of distance/strength. To give an idea, I weigh nine stone exactly, but the rucksack and kit added about 24lbs, adding up to not far off 11 stone. Carry that lot for 11 hours and expect to do 10 hours the next day and suddenly your left knee has formed a close-harmony yowling group with your ankles, and your arches are humming along.

Still, the landscape was wonderful; I met some really lovely people – a local historian at the next table in a pub, a Canadian woman travelling with her daughter, some very jolly B&B owners – and as I walked across to Lindisfarne the grin was unwipeable. It’s wonderful wonderful wonderful. I was staying in a retreat centre run by a Celtic Christian order who holds a service every evening, so I thought I’d go along. That very day, Friday 16 May, was the day of St Brendan, an awkward-sounding bugger who nonetheless became the go-to guy for ‘journeys, pilgrimages and adventures’, according to the order of service. Well! Big up to Brendan! Yes, ok, there were blisters, a crocked knee and a broken molar, but still, thanks for bringing me home safely, big guy.

I’d like to say that Lindisfarne gave me a great sense of peace; I certainly had my only really good night’s sleep there. On these trips sleep is not voluptuous – it’s more a case of collapse for a few hours and then awake, thinking about timings, checking gear and plotting the next route. But perhaps subconsciously I knew I couldn’t get off the island until 9am anyway, so I could let go. It’s also true that the injuries were really mounting up by then so it might have been that the need for emergency repairs simply fused my lights.

All said, it was a great adventure – high highs, unexpectedly low lows and meeting some really lovely people along the way. The repairs are nearly complete, thanks to my spanking new molar and Birkenstocks, the sandals that bring pleasures twofold: first, they’re not walking boots, and second, my horrid heel blisters are left untroubled to heal – and turn the stomach of anyone walking up an escalator behind me. It’s always nice to share the joy.


Home I have hobbled, like those marathon runners who probably decided around the 20-mile mark that this really isn’t for them, just as the lids have worn off their blisters and it suddenly feels as if they’re running on knives. Not that I have been running anywhere, just walking and walking and walking.

But what walking! In what weather! Even the factor 60 was not able to stop the Northumberland sun from drawing out the freckles. These were not the only parts of me to be relocated. In Alnwick, about 18 hours after I’d been crapped on by some sort of Great Auk, a quarter of a molar broke off and disappeared down the hatch with a mouthful of Fruit’n’Fibre. I can only speculate where it is now: west of Beadnell? North-west of Lindisfarne? Or perhaps still with me, anxious to make even more trouble and lodge in what has been up to now a trouble-free appendix.

See? There’s no point worrying because the thing that really floors you is so out of the blue, you simply cannot prepare for it. Last autumn, I fretted about map-reading, legs and a heavy cold turning into a chest infection. And instead, my boots got mauled by a dog. Not expecting that. This time I fretted about left knee, arches of feet and waterproofing on coat, and instead, my molar collapsed. Not expecting that. What next time? I hardly dare think.

The walk proper started last Sunday, with my cousin who offered to come with me for the first day and then catch a bus back. Which was very nice of him, especially since the second part of the walk, with Whitley Bay a pretty memory, was mostly mud, building sites, car parks and abandoned Asda trolleys in the middle of fields.

In fact, it wasn’t until lunchtime the next day that I got a friendly smile out of anyone who wasn’t related to me, although the smile in question disappeared fast when she heard the answer to the question, Where are you staying in Alnmouth? Turns out I had chosen ‘Britain’s most haunted hotel’ (according to Google), which has been certified twice by the British Poltergeist Society. Quite why the society felt they’d done such a ropey job the first time around that they’d had to have a second crack at it, history does not relate, but still, apparently there are 60 spirits vying for elbow room at The Schooner.

Fact No. 1: ghosts don’t exist. Luckily for them, because of Fact No. 2: I was in such a fury by the time I got to the Schooner that anything attempting to clank, moan, sigh or puckishly move stuff around the room ho-ho-ho would have been sent to HELL with TINNITUS. The day’s walk had been further than anticipated – walking along a Northumberland beach is very beautiful, but 16 miles of the stuff is hard going when you’ve already done eight miles cross country and you’ve got a disaster up ahead.

The disaster’s when you discover that the bridleway on the map across the river south of Alnmouth (the river Aln. Mouth into sea, yeah?) is not a bridge or sand bar or stepping stones or magic frigging carpet, but literally a bridleway because only a horse can cross it, not a human. Not a human with sense anyway. An empty-headed couple did manage it in fact, but barely, and even more stupidly, carrying a dog. ‘Will you call the coastguard if we get into difficulties?’ they asked me, both clambering into the water at the same time rather than waiting for one to make it safely across.

So there I stood, adding time to a long day, watching Dumb and Dumber lurch heart-stoppingly to right and left, jabbing sticks to gauge depth and up to their thighs in the swirling waters. Not a chance was I foolhardy enough to try that little caper, wearing a large rucksack, with no sticks and heavy boots, so I had to go round. Round the estuary, over the dunes, round the saltmarsh, punching the Follow Diversion, Path Closed for Resurfacing (‘Not any more, it fucking isn’t’) signs out of my way, over the bridge. Another hour, another three miles. Fortunately I had phoned ahead – several times, having been assured by the landlord that the remaining four-mile walk would take 45 minutes. Surprise! It didn’t. Even without the ford fiasco it took twice that. The kitchen was closing at 8.45. At 8.25 I burst through the doors of the hotel shouting ‘Burger and chips!’

So yeah, ghosts? Come on if you think you’re hard enough…


Oh Lord, it’s all a disaster. I’ve massively overreached, what was I thinking, give up now etc. For here we stand, on the eve of Big Walk MkII and I don’t mind admitting I’m really quite scared. I’ve tried rationality (‘You’ve done this before’), taken a punt on logic (‘The days are so long you can pace yourself’) and given it some old-school (‘Buck up, Sniveller’), but the way I’m feeling, it’s going to take the combined power of Mr Snuggles AND Blankie to make it right.

Hips and legs had been feeling the pressure of late, until the tube strike nearly finished me off. Then I ramped up the stretching to more-than-15-seconds per rep and – miracolo! – now I have the lower limbs of last autumn. Then at the weekend I had two marvellous walks – the first alone on a section of the North Downs Way near Guildford, where I saw, in no particular order, thousands upon thousands of bluebells and two men lassoing goats (I think – they were quite far away and I didn’t like to stare). I had a sensational cream tea in Farnham (the Vintage Cake House, you live in my dreams) and at the gate of a rare-breeds farm bought some eggs that gave their lives for a wondrous mushroom omelette 24 hours later.

The second walk was to Marlow, this time with a friend and her dog, a tall, elegant French poodle whose energy levels were so high he was still able to chase a field of calves (or ‘Oh, shit, are they bullocks?’) four hours in. Fortunately, poodles are extremely obedient and Benjy came when called, narrowly squeaking us past what was unmistakably shaping up to be a Fenton moment

And so we arrive at last night, and the map room (ie my bedroom floor), which was heavy with silent concentration that became less silent as the minutes ticked on. The crunkle of new maps unfolding, the whistle of pursed lips, the soft curses as index finger slid across the sheet, diagonally, before sweeping back again, tracking the sandal prints of St Oswald. Bloody Google maps! They’re all very well for planning a walk in sketchy outline, finding a Nando’s in suburbia (or a B&B in the middle of nowhere, booked two months ago, ok, yes, they are useful sometimes), but they don’t show terrain clearly – or indeed at all – and now I’ve seen the OS version, the time for wailing is upon us. Great chunks of that coast are unstable-slash-unwalkable, thanks to a toothsome supergroup of dunes, power stations, marshes, estuaries and industrial estates. Which is presumably why St Oswald, with remarkable prescience, walked his Way with at least one enormous swoop inland. It’s hard to say for sure through a veil of unshed tears, but that looks like an extra five miles right there. Which is fine, unless you’ve allowed for, at a pinch and a prayer, walking 23 miles that day and suddenly find yourself staring down the barrel of a 28-mile minimum.

On the plus side, this has pushed to the back of my mind the previous worry that it was going to pour with rain. I’ve had the freedom to choose between two websites: the one that says it’s going to sheet with rain all week, and the other one that says sunshine and occasional light showers. Some Yank site versus the BBC, respectively. Light showers it is.

As an aside, my neighbour has already advised me on how to be a London nob when I’m up there, learned from experience, she claims. Just stop at the window of any estate agent in Newcastle, peer at the photographs, point and shout ‘Oh my God, you could buy that OUTRIGHT! For CASH!’

So, there we have it. Unsure of ability, troubled by an achy ankle, having to grind through 26-30 miles on some days. Well, sunrise is at 0504; sunset is 21.00. The days are 15 hours 52 minutes, plus there’s about 45 minutes of civil twilight each end. Yeah, that should be fine don’t you think, Mr Snuggles? Mr Snuggles?




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