More Than A Walk

I’m on an open-top bus. It’s Monday morning and as we swing and sway round twisty Cornish lanes we look down at huge fields of daffodils. New green leaves emerge from winter twigs and in the distance the sea flashes diamond signals from Porthcurno, our destination. “We’re lucky with the weather,” we say to one another and to strangers at the bus stop. 

We’re on our way to start a day of walking from Porthcurno back to Newlyn where we’re staying. It’s five years since we started on the South West Coast Path, taking a couple of trips away each year and making gradual progress along the edge of Dorset, Devon and Cornwall. Last year we reached the half-way point at Porthallow. That’s just beyond Falmouth and 315 miles from where we started. I’m torn between wanting to devour the experience and yet not wanting it to end. Never before have I felt passionate about a sport or outdoor activity but this haunts my daydreams and pulls me back for more. And it’s so much more than a walk—it’s like an immensely absorbing book. The sea is the protagonist and every mile introduces themes and characters into the plot. At the end of each section I put my metaphorical bookmark on the current page and long for the day when I can pick it up again. The best books are enjoyable, gripping and memorable. They change us and this one is no exception. 

Through Dorset and East Devon, the Path was enchanting and I was infatuated though it was often tough with crazy rollercoaster dips and dives. By the end of those days I’d have aching legs and stinging feet, and I’d hate it. But by the next morning I was always forgiving and ready for more. I wittered on about how I loved it to anyone who would listen. Then, in the wilds of the South Devon cliffs somewhere between Prawle Point and Salcombe I saw another side of the walk—and of myself. 

All had been going well that day. We’d set out from Slapton Sands and after passing the ghostly remains of Hallsands village we reached Start Point lighthouse where we stopped for elevenses. But as we unpacked the flask and banana cake, my stomach lurched. The drop was precipitous and the rocks below looked particularly treacherous. I felt extremely uneasy so while Mike sat happily in the autumn sunshine drinking coffee and enjoying the view, I retreated until it was out of sight. I didn’t mention my discomfort as I felt foolish but as we walked on towards Prawle Point things got steadily worse. The path was alarmingly narrow and seemed extremely high. Up until this point on our walks I’d not been bothered by height as there had always been a barrier—either a stone wall, a wire fence or nature’s own tangled defence of gorse and brambles. Here there was nothing and the exposure made fear fizz inside me like soda. I tried to stay calm, plodding on using my walking poles and searching for positive thoughts—it wasn’t a wet day, my boots have grippy tread, and thousands of people walk this stretch every year. But it was no good. As I scrambled over huge irregular boulders and slid down onto yet more of the spindly path I was acutely attuned to every gust of wind, bump in the path and minor slip. Eventually my final filament of logic drifted off in the breeze and I crouched down next to a stone and sobbed. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go forward. I decided that this was where I would have to spend the rest of my days. 

At this point, Mike retraced his steps and was astonished to find me there. It took a while to explain my predicament as I couldn’t point or wave my hands about—I had to stay very very still. And while this was going on there was further humiliation when a young woman came JOGGING past, as relaxed and happy as it was possible to be. Thirty seconds later along came another one—equally cheerful and fast but quite a bit older. I guessed that it was her mother. 

I didn’t know and was in no mood for analysis, but what I was suffering was an attack of acrophobia or what mountain rescue teams call cragfast. It’s not unreasonable to have a fear of heights in such an exposed area but most people can control it. That day I discovered that I’m not one of them and I learned later that I probably have a processing deficit. We all rely on a combination of information from the balance-sensing organ of the inner ear and visual information from our eyes, but in a situation like this where there’s a big empty space below with no landmarks to provide orientation, most people shift to relying more on the information that comes from their inner ear, as well as feedback from the rest of their body about its position. People with acrophobia don’t do that and continue to rely on visual information, becoming confused and cognitively overloaded.  One helpful climbing website describes it as being captured by the empty space.

There’s lots of advice online about how to overcome an attack of acrophobia but Mike didn’t have access to that and he did remarkably well with no resources other than kindness and patience. I held onto his hand and edged along, complaining ungratefully until eventually after what seemed a very long time, it was over. As we walked through woodland towards East Portlemouth the firm ground had never been more welcome. 

After that day, I lost my confidence and was unsure whether I could continue on the great walking project. I stopped wittering on about how wonderful it is. But like childbirth, the intensity of the memory faded, and by the following Spring I was ready to try again. A couple of days into the trip we rounded a headland and with the familiar fizz of fear I saw that the path on the opposite side of the cove was both high and narrow. “I can’t do it,” I said to Mike, already starting to hyperventilate. “I’ll walk up to the main road and avoid it.” 

“If you really want to,” he said, “but I think you’ll regret it and it will only make it worse next time you get to another section like this.” I struggled between reason and panic but I knew he was right, and at last decided to do it but without looking up or down. It took all the concentration I could muster, to keep my eyes focused on my feet and not to glance to the right where I could hear the sea crashing on the rocks. For five maybe ten minutes, I just put one foot in front of the other until the path widened out and dipped down again. And it was OK. I was so glad that I’d done it. 

The fear still lurks there though, quick to wake up with the slightest prod and today on this Monday morning as I sit on the bus approaching Porthcurno I can feel it rumbling about. The guidebook has told us that this section is strenuous and rugged and the trouble is that it’s almost impossible to predict what will trigger the vertigo. It takes a particular set of circumstances with height, slope, mud, buffeting winds, and exposure all playing a role in the mix. You cannot judge those in advance from maps and guidebooks. 

We start out across the dunes and up across the cliffs. It’s easy and exhilarating to be out on the path again for the first time this year.  “Strenuous?” we say after a couple of hours and agree that the book has got it wrong this time. We stop for tea and a superior chocolate chip cookie looking down over a golden beach that is deserted apart from a woman whose footprints create an A-shape of modern art in the sand, and a man who appears to be naked.

We set off again and I catch the raw juicy scent of wild garlic. On my way down a rough set of steps I see a thin tangle of light-brown rope which rapidly uncoils and does a disappearing trick into the bank. Its colour and markings tell me that it’s a young female adder. Headland follows headland and all is going well. Then I fall over in a boggy patch and shortly afterwards the rock clambering starts. We’re high up and it’s unsettling. “Don’t look down,” I say. It seems to go on for miles although from time to time it relents into wooded sections where I enjoy the view down to the waves. At one high, narrow point I pass a man and he says, ‘My wife doesn’t like this. She gets vertigo.” And I spot her edging along, bending inland like a windswept sapling. I guess I must look like that too. I stop to wait for her at a wider section by a large steady boulder and we share experiences. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. One foot in front of the other. 

Eventually the drama recedes and we descend into the pretty harbour village of Mousehole. A chaffinch poses in a bush and sings its heart out. All feels right with the world. 

But of course all is not right with the world. Summer may be about the reds, the pinks and the oranges but here in the Spring I see blue and yellow everywhere. The path is sunny with prickly gorse, shiny celandines, clumps of wild daffodils and pale shady primroses accompanied by dabs of sapphire speedwell and even some early bluebells. The blue and yellow is in so many hearts and heads. It’s in the Ukrainian flag hoisted high on a church tower, and in the harbour at Porthleven. In a quiet cove I see a sign that reads Please Believe These Days Will Pass. I don’t know what the writer intended but my thoughts turn immediately to the war and the people under siege in Mariupol. Last week like tens of thousands of others we applied to host a Ukrainian family. We don’t yet know when or if that will happen but right now we have space in our house, and spare time. So much is unknown and I feel afraid. What will they be like? What traumas will they have experienced? Am I up to the challenge? But I have to remind myself that this is not fear. What they are suffering is fear. And it’s a good time to invoke the lesson that helped me on the coast path. Don’t look up. Don’t look down. Put one foot in front of the other and just do it. 

Photos: Mike Poppleton and Lynn Farley-Rose

Colliding Treats

hitchcock

Recently I spent a contented day walking a stretch of the North Downs Way in Kent. This 156 mile walk runs from Farnham to Dover and I’ve been doing it in stages for the past couple of years, sometimes with friends or family, but often on my own. This time I’d had a break of nearly a year and it was a treat to resume it and to walk through cornfields, along wooded ridges and down deserted dusty lanes, all alone. It was a rare bit of peace and a chance to appreciate the capriciousness of English weather. The sun seared my face and then shortly afterwards a smattering of drizzle chilled me.

I’ve got two long distance walks on my list of sixty treats. This one and the South West Coastal Footpath. On these kind of walks you can keep putting one foot in front of the other and for a while you’re relieved of having to think about life’s usual worries. You know roughly what’s going to happen next, but there’s always the pleasure of wondering what precisely is round that bend that you can see in the distance.

north downs way 1

On this occasion as I walked through deepest Kent, I pondered what to write for my next blog post and settled on the unexpected benefits of treats. Some of those I’ve done so far have required me to try new activities or to tackle unfamiliar subjects and there’s plenty of research which suggests that mental activity can help to stave off forgetfulness.

This is becoming increasingly relevant. When I was young I could easily remember names, addresses, dates and all manner of other bits and pieces. I couldn’t imagine what it was like not to be able to retrieve them but this is one of those things that it’s hard to understand unless you’ve experienced it. Like gout, labour pains and carpal tunnel syndrome. Now I know about forgetfulness only too well. It’s getting on for a year since I moved house and I still can’t remember the names of any of the roads around me. And yet in my head I can easily walk around the streets where I lived thirty years ago.

One of my other current treats is to watch all of Hitchcock’s films and this is certainly giving me some mental stimulation. He’s often cited as the most influential director of all time and was noteworthy for the way he played with his audience and for the detailed control he exerted over all aspects of his films. There are over fifty to enjoy and so far I’ve watched six. The most recent of these, Stage Fright was interesting because it starts with one of the main characters telling a story in flashback. It’s only at the end that the audience discovers he was lying. This kind of manipulation would be thought clever now, but in 1950 viewers felt cheated and Hitchcock considered it to be one of the major errors in his long career.

psycho

In the warm Kentish sunshine my mind wandered to these films that I’ve seen recently and to other Hitchcocks that I’ve seen in the past and will revisit as part of this treat. As I reflected and walked down a track, I noticed a tractor going up and down in the distance. Up and down. Up and down. There was a light breeze and everything felt very still. Very quiet and rather sinister. A small plane circled in the sky above. Round and round. Dipping and diving. Apparently aimless. Or was it? Was I imagining it or were there more birds around than usual?

birds

This was no good. An enjoyable walk-treat was being sabotaged by an equally pleasurable film-treat so I distracted myself by trying to remember what I wanted to write about in this next blog. But there was just an empty gap in my head.

north downs way sign

Fortunately I eventually remembered that this current blog was meant to be about forgetfulness. And I also remembered this entertaining video which sums up age-activated attention deficit disorder. It makes me laugh and I hope you enjoy it too. It’s well worth spending three minutes on, but I suggest you watch it straightaway or you might forget.