White Horse never leaves me

Anyone who’s read my books will know that horses, especially white ones (and the occasional dark ones) tend to follow me around in life.

On a recent trip back to my homeland, Wales, I returned to Point Lynas on Anglesey, the place where I’d seen the Risso dolphins last year, under a rainbow. It really is a special place, where wildlife appears to gather, possibly due to the accessible feeding ground afforded by the shallow waters beneath it.

I stopped to talk to a couple who’ve been coming here for over 30 years, to sit on a blanket with flasks of tea and watch for wildlife. The sun was shining and the waves sparkling. I could see why they kept coming back. I probably will.

I didn’t see any dolphins that afternoon but as I returned to the path, a white horse greeted me in front of the lighthouse. I laughed because she’s always there – my spirit animal, wild and free, alone yet not alone, looking out to sea with her mane blowing in the wind, feeling her soul come alive.

The Edge of Reason

Whenever I walk the Seven Sisters coast path, I notice a significant number of people who are prepared to stand – or even sit and eat lunch – on overhanging cliff edges on a stretch of coast that is known for its crumbling rock.

I am not one of these people and I would dearly love to know why they are prepared to take a very obvious risk and why I am not.

Do they simply have no fear or does it never cross their minds that a cliff fall would happen to them?

I’m the same with narrow edges and ridges in the mountains – my fear of falling off them is validated time and time again with stories of it happening yet people continue to do it. I would never take a risk that was unnecessary, just for the thrill of it.

Am I missing a risk-taking gene?

Which one are you? A cliff-edger or a far-away-as-possibler?

Misty

White horses appear to be a theme in my life, so when I sat down to eat my lunch during yesterday’s hike, I wasn’t surprised to find one munching some grass right next to me.

Misty’s owner told me that she is 15 (about 45 in human years) and that she was rescued from a bad life in Ireland where she’d been forced to have lots of foals and been in a road accident.

Now she lives a peaceful existence on the South Downs, but is still afraid of fast-moving bikes and cars.

What I didn’t know is that the grass that surges after summer rains is like crack for horses. It’s full of sugar and they go crazy for it, hence the munching. Misty’s owner said they’d ‘work it off’ by having a quick trot after lunch.

After she left, her soulful eyes looking at me sideways under long lashes, I thought about Misty in her midlife prime, having lived a difficult life but finding peace (and sweet grass) on the South Downs and realised we had a lot in common.

If you’ve read Cheat Play Live you’ll know how White Horse in Agonda was my spirit animal, showing me what a free and independent life could be like, by the sea. Misty, although not completely free, reminded me that the next move I make needs to be where the grass is sweet and the humans are kind. I think I know where that is.

The Child Within

Ever since I moved to Worthing just before lockdown in 2020, I’ve been walking by the sea and finding children’s lost shoes – always one, always glittery – placed on benches. I wish I’d photographed every one I’d seen because I’d have quite a collection.

They made me smile during lockdown because they seemed like a symbol of hope for the future and they make me smile now, because so many children love the seaside, as I did back in Wales. The lost shoe is a symbol of a fun day out.

Just because I’m childfree-by-choice doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate children. I love seeing them run towards the sea, giddy with joy. I remember one day during lockdown I heard a small child squeal, “It’s the sea!!” and her mum told me they hadn’t seen it in months. That little moment of #lockdownjoy stayed with me for a long time.

Here’s to the unfettered joy of children, that lies within all of us, waiting to run towards the sea.

The Ultimate Freedom

On today’s hike I saw a young woman carrying her paddleboard out of the sea, barefooted, about to cross the road back to her home. I told her that it looked like she was living the dream, and she said it was only the second time she’d been out on the water. She pointed to a distant structure in the sea and told me she’d got out as far as that and it felt really far away and she got scared, but she made it back. She had that look of wild elation.

She asked me where I was going and I told her about my solo hike. I told her how I loved the freedom to choose where I was going and sometimes I felt scared but it made me feel alive. I told her how good it was to see a solo woman coming out of the sea with her board tucked under her arm, the ultimate freedom.

I’m about to complete my final refresher driving lesson before my road trip in a campervan in September. I know I’ll feel scared, not having driven for over ten years, but I know I’ll feel free and alive. I’ll be announcing more details in my next newsletter (link on page).

Herd community

One of the best things about solo hiking for me is not knowing who I’m going to meet along the way. I often end up chatting to someone, briefly, and there is something special about meeting them on the open road, away from any distractions.

Last weekend I met a woman with a dog called Bonnie (sadly I’d didn’t get a picture of her but I feel awkward asking someone for a pic in the moment).

Bonnie was a sheepdog – a border collie. Normally these dogs are too intent on herding some unseen sheep to pay attention to humans but Bonnie came up and pressed her head against my leg.

I got chatting to her owner who said Bonnie has a gift for seeking out people who need a dog hug. In the woods near where they live, she told me, Bonnie has twice tracked down people who are crying and feeling lost and stayed with them. Perhaps she is using her herding instinct to look for humans who need contact with other beings to feel good about themselves. That certainly applies to me.

I love to walk alone but I love the people and dogs I meet even more.

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Wholehearted

This past week I have been listening to Brene Brown talking about the Power of Vulnerability. She is a researcher who has found that people who live ‘wholehearted’ happy lives have several things in common, many of which relate back to the yoga lifestyle. Her data shows that these people are spiritual in one way or another, that they believe that we are all connected by something bigger than ourselves. It also shows that wholehearted people engage in creative pursuits and practice gratitude.

Santosha is a 5,000 year old Sanskrit word for ‘contentment’ – being happy with whatever you have. As a yoga practice, it’s being grateful for specific things in your life. On my morning walks I find it improves my emotional state so much if I list these things in my mind. They can be as simple as finding a new path to walk on or having a chat as I buy a coffee.

Today I met Valerie, a lady who told me she’d been evacuated during the war to Shropshire, near the Welsh border. We talked about how much we liked wildflowers and the tamarisk bushes by the sea, even though they’re overgrown. Each person who walked past us said, “Ooh they need to be cut back, don’t they?” but we grinned at each other and said the bushes were lovely, filled with bees on the tiny flowers.

Thank you, Valerie, for reminding me that the obstacles in our path are sometimes worthy of the space they take up in our lives – we can simply walk around them, gazing in awe at the sight, rather than raze them to the ground.

Everything is food

One of the things I’ve been learning on my Indian philosophy course with Sudhir Rishi is the idea that whatever we take in through our senses is ‘food’. Whatever we taste, smell, see, touch or hear feeds not only our physical body but becomes associated with our thoughts and moods, our memories of joy and sadness. You might say, ‘we are what we sense’.

My hike yesterday was filled with the smell of wild garlic, the sight of yellow dandelions, the sound of birdsong and lambs, the taste of lemon drizzle cake and the feel of warm wood under my hands as I passed through gates.

While walking, I thought about how I feed my body and mind, not always with the things that make it happy, whether that’s scrolling on my phone, watching trash TV, eating processed food, drinking alcohol or listening to an argumentative political radio show.

Once you start thinking of all these things as food, it’s easier to cut some of them out. In Indian philosophy, everything in existence is ‘god’ including your own body, so why would you offer it something bad? I’m not saying I’ll be able to change all my bad habits overnight but it’ll make me stop and ask myself some questions before I let them in again.

Soggy Dog Story

I’ve been thinking about comfort zones. On Saturday evening, I walked up a heather-covered fell with no one else around, in wind and rain, at the end of the day when I really should’ve been heading back. I even tried to go further but my gut was screaming to go back. I found out later that I was heading into a notoriously boggy area so my gut had been right (as always).

Today I tried to cross that bog and found myself panicking (and crying) in the middle of it, believing myself to be stuck. There were fighter planes from the local RAF base flying at eye level with me as I stood in the middle of the bog. It was a most surreal moment. I got out, but I’d crossed my comfort zone again.

I know when I’ve stepped outside it – I start to breathe quickly and shallowly, I feel like crying, and then I start talking and singing to myself (and to sheep) to keep my spirits up.

I kept thinking about 26-year-old Alex Staniforth from Chester, the fell runner I cheered into town on Friday night, as he completed his Bob Graham Round in 27 hours – 42 fells, 66 miles, 26,000ft – unaided. I kept wondering how hard it must have been to have been on top of a fell at 2am, on your own, with only a head torch to help you.

I later found out that he has already attempted Everest twice, aged 18 and 19, stopped only by the Nepal earthquake and the avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas. The holder of the record for the ‘double Bob Graham’ – 84 fells in 45 hours – is a woman my age: Nicky Spinks.

The thing about the Lakes is that you keep meeting inspiring people. It’s where people congregate, bright-eyed, to share tales of fells they’ve traversed and people they’ve met. I realised that I’d met legendary fell runner Joss Naylor when I was hiking here last. I had no idea who he was at the time but he had an aura around him. He was the first to congratulate Alex on his Bob Graham, of course.

And then there was Lisa Bergerud in my last blog post, with her incredible story. I remembered what she’d told me about deep breathing when I started to panic today. Like many people here, Lisa has learned to keep pushing against her comfort zone, and in my small way, so am I.

And the soggy dog? I met a man and his very wet but happy labradoodle, heading towards the fell I’d been up on Saturday evening. I was so glad to see them both. He called his dog “Soggy Doggy” when I stooped to pet him.

“That’s the name of today’s story,” I thought, and continued on my way, stopping only to chat to two Scottish guys who were off to wild camp in the rain, grinning.

Happy Soggy Doggies, the lot of us.

Back down the fell, alive and well…

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East Side Story

In my last blog post, I talked about how I’m a West End Girl. I always have been. I grew up in North Wales, with frequent excursions to the west coast, I’ve found spiritual homes in the west of India and Ireland, and actual homes in the west of London and now Sussex. So when a friend who is a hiker and journalist asked me to be a plus one on his exploratory trip Northumberland, I did hesitate for a moment. I’d been there before, as a result of university summers with Geordie friends, so I knew how beautifully bleak it is, with long stretches of beach punctuated by castles, but east coasts don’t hold as much interest for me in general. They’re flatter, less shattered by wind and weather and I do like a bit of dramatic Atlantic coastline.

My friend’s brief was to hike the Northumberland Coastal Path (62 miles) over four days and write about his experience for BBC Countryfile magazine. I hadn’t hiked much with him before, but I thought, what the hell? We’re all staycationing now so why not start with this? It would be a chance to revisit all those places I’d loved in the ’90s – I had images of kippers from Craster and fish and chips in Seahouses in my brain, alongside the bleak ruins of Dunstanburgh castle. I’m in, I said.

Dunstanburgh

We’d be carrying all our stuff but staying in B&B accommodation so this was my opportunity to showcase my light-packing skills. I carried a 33L Osprey rucksack, which, when full, is a perfectly carry-able weight for a day hike. One thing I did before I set off was to make piles of the things I thought I’d need for the trip, and then systematically remove anything I thought was ‘excess’. As women, we often take multiple choices for outfits but I find once I’m out there that I can wear things more than once (shock!) and sometimes even three or four times. I learned that on my trip to Kyrgyzstan a few years ago where we didn’t have showers for six days. It’s ok to rough it a bit – and actually it’s quite liberating.

With my worldly goods on my back. Capture: Peter Elia.

Since I’ve started growing out my silver hair and not wearing any make-up except for mascara, my packing list has got shorter and shorter. Women are often burdened by what they think they’ll need for a trip, when really, if we just thought like men – “I’ll need four t-shirts, two pairs of shorts and four pairs of pants” – we’d be way more able to take ourselves around the world at a moment’s notice. I’d always viewed The Man Who Hiked The World‘s trips with awe, thinking, “Well, I could never do that”. But then I did, in Kyrgyzstan, and I’ve already told you how life-changing that trip was for me.

One thing we talked about during the trip is whether or not this sort of thing qualifies as a holiday. I felt very strongly on my trips to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia that they were not holidays. Adventures, yes, but not a holiday. For me, a holiday implies some sort of rest element, and maybe a bit of culture, not a relentless slog up mountains and camping next to glacial lakes with ‘natural’ toilets. We agreed that to be a holiday, you’d have a shorter day hike, perhaps ten miles instead of the 15-20 we were doing in Northumberland, then do more each evening and maybe include a rest day for cultural visits.

Pre-Bamburgh breakfast at the Bamburgh Castle Inn, Seahouses, overlooking the Farne Islands.

As always, I push myself too hard (and, I’ve discovered, wear the wrong size shoes) so I had an enforced rest day in Bamburgh where I was able to hike barefoot along the beach and back to the castle, limp around it, and then visit the Clocktower Cafe for a massive scone with jam and cream. TMWHTW went on ahead, determined to continue on the coastal path for his article.

You may remember this happening to me on the Isle of Wight when I tried to circumnavigate it. But magic happened that day as it did this time. I was forced to rest at Freshwater and duly discovered the delights of Dimbola Lodge and Wightwood Pizza. I have been back there every year since. If I’d just hiked through it, I probably wouldn’t have noticed anything was there.

Happy, freckly me! Capture: Peter Elia

Similarly, I felt happy and rested after my solo Bamburgh trip and happily caught up with TMWHTW over dinner that night, my blisters already healing. I think I need moments on my own and moments of rest. They make me happy.

The other thing that makes me happy while out walking is stopping to talk to people. TMWHTW had to do it for his article and I tagged along, finding all the ‘interviews’ with locals along the way fascinating. From a meat-pie merchant to a kipper-smoker, it was so interesting to hear how old and new family businesses had and were coping with seismic shifts in business opportunities over the past weeks, months and decades. There is a quiet, open gentleness to the (mainly) men we spoke to in the north east, which reminded me of my university friends’ dads who were both the same. There were people who were passionate about the coastline and its wildlife and the businesses they’d set up there.

Pilgrims veggie pies on Lindisfarne

One of the highlights for me was the starting point at Cresswell at the Drift Cafe. TMWHTW sat and talked to someone from AONB Northumberland who knows the coastal path in minute detail and the quiet owner of the cafe who offered us lovely coffee and cakes (all with great COVID measures in place, obviously). There’s something about a start point on a hike – it’s so full of hope, joy and excitement, and even though the weather wasn’t perfect that day, the size of those massive sandy beaches and windswept dunes is enough to make your soul soar.

The main highlight for me was the accommodation at Alnmouth at the Shoreside Huts. It was ridiculously romantic, in the original sense of the word: huts on a hillside perch, overlooking the sea but not overlooked; a woodburner that kept us toasty even with the door open; food supplied by a local deli for that evening and breakfast the next morning.

Shoreline Huts – I could live here…

I could have stayed there forever. We got up at 5am to see the sunrise holding hot mugs of tea made on the little stove. There was someone else doing the same thing out on the rocks below. The coastline is studded with incredible birdlife such as kittiwakes and Arctic terns and the locals know all about them. We laughed when we heard the owner of the Shoreline Huts, Dale, refer to the Farne Islands as the ‘Geordie Galapagos’. We did a Serenity Boats sunset trip, but sadly without a sunset. Still, we did see seals, the incredible migratory Arctic terns and the cutest little puffins, who were on their way off from the Farnes, we were told.

Sunrise at Alnmouth

I did feel discombobulated walking with the sea on my right – I like it to be on my left, but AONB Ian had told us that it is best to hike the path south-to-north so that the sun is on your back, not on your face (I like to walk into the sun, not away from it, but boy I was glad of his advice later on what was to be the hottest day of the year).

We ended up in Berwick-upon-Tweed – somewhere I’ve routinely driven or trained past on the way up and down to Edinburgh Festival or my ex-in-laws. I had no idea how beautiful it is, and worthy of a stay in itself. We met with a local tour guide and incredible information store, Derek Sharman (Derek from Berwick!). He took us on a sunset tour of the amazing Elizabethan walls that I had no idea were there. Put it this way, I ended up looking up housing for sale in this beautiful Georgian town.

Beautiful Berwick at sunset

Could I live on an east coast? I could probably get used to it… Having coffee early on a sunny morning on Lindisfarne kind of confirmed that for me. While TMWHKW was scrambling over the outer edges of the island to get the best shot of the Priory before the crowds arrived, I bumped into someone from Wrexham, near my hometown in North Wales. He was wearing an ‘Eryri’ (Snowdon) t-shirt so I had to ask him if he was Welsh. We get everywhere, you know. We looked out over the causeway where the tide was slowly coming in and I realised it was just like the River Dee which separates my hometown from the Wirral – a shifting quicksand area that stops hikers from walking on this part of the coast.

Lindisfarne in the early morning – tide coming in

“I wished we’d stayed here overnight,” said TMWHTW, packing up his camera.

Well, there’s always a next time…