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