I tackled a mountain horseshoe hike this week on my own and I’m so proud of myself. I hike solo a lot but there’s a big difference between the South Downs or a coastal path and the big Lakeland fells. There are steep drops, which I’m really afraid of, and some scrambling (meaning you have to use your hands). Scrambling at the top of a fell with a steep drop to one side had me chanting mantras and practicing my yoga breathing.
The thing is, you’re never alone up there. I met and chatted to lots of people and there is an exchange of information that really helps you make the right decisions for your walk. It’s all too easy to find yourself in difficulty on the side of a fell if you pick the wrong path.
I completely forgot about everything that’s been plaguing me recently – I focused on my map and how to place my feet on the rocks and I feel like my brain has been replaced with a new one.
I use an app to navigate – Outdoor Adventure – and today I had a paper map as back up, which I had to use. But it was the human input that really helped me that day – people here really know these fells and they’re keen to help other people enjoy them too.
I met two Yorkshire women who were doing the same route and we compared maps to check we were on the right path. I met them at the end in a sunny pub garden for a pot of tea and they gave me a lift back to my B&B.
Yesterday I had pain in my knee going downhill – after the strenuous horseshoe hike – and was really struggling to get down a fairly easy descent. Two men who were putting out flags for a fell race immediately said, “IT band. Get a roller on it when you can.”
I’ve had this issue before – when the side of your thigh tightens up and pulls on your hip and knee and knew exactly what I needed to do. It used to happen when I ran a lot and pushed myself too hard.
“Extend your poles going downhill – it’ll give you more to lean into.”
“We can give you a lift back into Keswick if we see you at the bottom,” they said. But I declined – there was a tearoom waiting for me and a regular bus schedule.
Think you can’t hike on your own? Wondering what the point is? I’ll say this – you’ll talk to more people when you’re on your own than you would with a sidekick.
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.
I love hiking on my own. It makes my soul happy. When I wandered the hills around my home in Wales as a girl I felt like I was looking for something – or someone – to complete me. It felt circumstantial that I was on my own and not my fault, but now I realise that I’ve chosen to be on my own for most of my life. I need it to recharge, especially in nature.
I think this is the definition of introversion and for so many years I pretended to be an extravert. I had to, to get somewhere in my career, but she ultimately was not me. Now, I sit alone in silence, working in my flat and listen gratefully to the silence. I love it – no noise to fill the space. I don’t need it. The sound of birdsong is my music. There’s so much of it, when you tune in.
I remember someone asking me what I listen to on my long-distance hikes. Nothing. Absolutely nothing. The sound of the universe, maybe, the Om. I always used to wonder what the thrum of the earth underneath my feet was and now I know.
Hiking solo means that I often meet people I wouldn’t otherwise get to chat to if I was with someone else. It’s the great advantage of being alone – I actually meet more people, but not for very long, which is just perfect for me.
I met Caroline and Dan, two old friends catching up over a two-day hike, at The Pink Pit Stop – where there always seems to be someone willing to chat.
“I’ve just seen the happiest dog in the world!” Caroline said, in the queue for coffee and a brownie. I was amazed that it wasn’t Gnasher, the resident terrier.
They were going my way and happy for me to join them hiking and we spoke about freedom. Caroline spoke about having lived in San Francisco for a long time and how much she felt free there. I told her that SF had been the setting of a life-changing moment for me, finding a shell on a beach there and making a decision to leave my marriage.
We talked about ‘home’ and what that means and decided that we both felt nomadic and tied down by mortgages and property ownership. She has a husband and two children and feels the pressure to put down roots to provide stability for her family. It goes against her DNA, she said.
Dan was scampering around taking pictures as we talked but he said there was a woman in his life who wanted her freedom too and he wasn’t sure if he could cope with her being away travelling so much. I told him about my long-distance relationship and how it had made me reassess what is ‘normal’ versus what feels right. Perhaps it was time for Dan to think about the advantages of being in a relationship with time spent apart, we concluded, especially as he’s an adventure junkie too. Not every life adventure has to take place in a couple.
At the end of the hike they were going to the pub in the evening sunshine and I experienced a pang of longing for my past life of downing a chilled glass of white wine (or three)after a long walk. Instead, I said goodbye, felt grateful for such wonderful company and chose freedom from alcohol. It’s the only path for me.
During the first lockdown, I started walking along the seafront each morning, further and further, until I established a regular walk with regular stops to pick up tea and coffee along the way. I greeted the same people each morning, first with just a wave, then a ‘good morning’, and not long after, a proper conversation. They became part of my morning social life – I’ve largely replaced socialising in the evenings with mornings.
Almost every day someone will tell me that I’m ‘late’ or ‘early’, or not where I am normally on my walk. They’ll ask me how far I’ve walked, where I’ve come from and sometimes even tell me off for not going further. Only last week, a woman spotted me on my way back home and said, “That’s too quick! There’s no way you’ve walked to X beach!” I’d never said I’d walked to that beach, so I don’t know why she was measuring me on it.
The next day a man I vaguely know tapped his watch and said, “You’re running late!” The day after that, the same man noted that I was carrying a second cup of tea. I confess that I slightly lost it with him. “Are you tracking me or something?!” I cried. He laughed nervously and dragged his dog away.
I get this commentary all the time and it’s something I would never say to someone else. I see the same people each morning doing their thing and might observe a change in their routine, but I wouldn’t dream of pointing it out. This is their precious morning time, to do with whatever they choose.
I never walk at exactly the same time every day, so the ‘you’re late/early’ comments are a waste of breath. I’m hoping they work it out soon. I don’t understand why me being on time is so important to them. The lack of fixed routine is one of the greatest joys of my new freelance life – why would I impose a fixed schedule on it when I don’t need to?
A few weeks ago I met another solo woman when I was out hiking and helped her with some directions. We stopped to chat while eating lunch and shared our favourite walking books – Wild, The Salt Path, The Old Ways…
It turned out that her husband and two children were waiting for her a mile up ahead. Her husband had got her into travel and nature writing and wanted to encourage her to walk alone and experience the joy of it.
“How wonderful,” I told her, and she beamed.
“I love being on my own in nature,” she said. “Just a few hours where I’m off grid, untrackable.”
I couldn’t have agreed more.
After we parted ways I showed my face to the sun and took a huge gulp of air, knowing that no one knew where I was (apart from the woman I’d just met) and that I could choose to go wherever I wanted, in whatever direction, quickly or slowly, with no commentary from anyone else.
As a solo woman, you know that you should probably leave details of where you’re going with a friend in case something awful happens, but that’s the last thing I want to do. This is about disappearing from view with nobody else’s input. I want to hike alone and tell no one about how far or where I’ve gone. I used to post everything on social media but it always came with a commentary I didn’t need: someone who’d done the same route and told me about their favourite bit, someone who wanted to do it, someone who’d done it twice as fast, someone who’d done it naked…
As a solo woman, you also encounter ‘Challenge Man’ – the man who questions you intensely about whether you’ve ‘completed’ the path you’re on, how fast you’re doing it, and how many days you’ve ‘allowed’ yourself to complete it in. These men are often my age and dragging around a woman who is trying to enjoy nature, not complete a challenge in a set time. She, like me, wants to stop for tea and cake in the sunshine, and not be concerned about how that is impacting her overall time or Fitbit stats. She smiles at me apologetically, standing slightly behind her competitive other half.
The approach I’ve decided to adopt with all these people is to be as vague and non-specific as possible.
They ask me how far I’m going: “I haven’t decided yet – I’ll see how I feel…”
They ask me if I’ve completed the path I’m on or planning to do another: “No, I’m doing my favourite sections of this path, over and over again.”
They tell me I’m early or late: “I don’t have fixed times…”
They ask me if I’m not working that day: “Yes, I just start whenever I want.”
But when they ask about my second (or third) cup of tea, I might just smile politely and walk on by.
Last week I went for my one and only Christmas meal out with a group of friends and they were asking me about my relationship with Shubham, The Most Handsome Man in Goa, who is currently on a ship sailing around Madeira and the Canary Islands.
“So, what’s the plan?” one of the ladies asked. I scrambled around for an answer, remembering that my original plan was six months in Goa and six months here. Then Covid got in the way.
The following day I thought about that conversation and remembered something else: I do not like plans. I don’t even like the word ‘plan’. When someone tells me they ‘have plans’ for the weekend I baulk internally. The word triggers something in me.
I have realised that I have weathered the Covid storm (which continues to rage) principally because I have no plans to scupper. I haven’t booked anything that could have been scuppered, only recently having bought flights to India when the pre-omicron world appeared to be opening up. Those have been cancelled and I’ve got a refund. I will not rebook until I know I can definitely go.
People say to me, “Oh you must be DEVASTATED not to be going to India or seeing your man,” and for a while I think, “Why aren’t I?” But he’s the same as me – of course we miss each other, but our love doesn’t diminish because we’re not in each other’s presence. One could say it gets keener because we continually tell each other stories in our videocalls – how we met, how we split up and got back together, and what will happen when we see each other again. The latter is never a defined plan – we both have a ‘what will be will be’ approach to it. Anything else is just stressful and pointless. We can’t control it, so why attempt it?
I’ve realised that this plan-less existence serves me very well as a freelancer. Yes, I have a set of things that I must work on week to week, but I decide which ones get done when on the day, depending on how I feel. I often work from 11am to 7pm (or even 12pm to 8pm) because that’s when I feel most motivated and creative and I can make the most of the hours of winter light. I never like the fixed-hours culture of corporate life and made mine as late as they could be, avoiding those ‘first-thing’ morning-stealer meetings as much as I could.
I’ve never enjoyed planning too much of my time ahead and love to leave weekends open to chance and spontaneity. I like to book a cinema ticket on the spur of the moment or get up and go on a hike. Mid-hike, I’ll change the plan because of how I feel in the moment. I go with my gut.
I’ve found that the more I plan in to my life, the more open it is to change, and the more open all of it is to commentary from other people. I prefer to keep my ideas fluid and silent like an underground stream. I don’t want to have to explain why I’ve changed my mind about something so I don’t mention it in the first place. As a chronic sharer of things, this new strategy has taken some doing.
So my answer to “What’s the plan?” with me and my boyfriend is, “Why do you think we need one?” Why does every aspect of life need a plan? If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we’re mice when it comes to best-laid plans.
I plan to let life unfold just the way it’s meant to be.
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I had an epiphany last week. I’d got bogged down with my book promotion and temporarily forgot why I published it in the first place – to help other people trapped in unhealthy situations, be it a marriage or an addiction to alcohol. I’d lost sight of that as the pressure for my book to ‘perform’ mounted. I am someone who is deeply suspicious of free things (and people who only want things because they’re free). I would never have thought that making my book free for a day was the key to something so good.
In publishing, we’ve forgotten that writing is an art form that we might pursue for pleasure or to spread enjoyment locally. It’s an industry obsessed with sales figures and book deals; recognition and validation from an elite group being the main goal. We’ve forgotten that people like to write stories and feel pleasure when someone else enjoys reading them. We’ve forgotten that there is a pleasure in a local group of people enjoying art and aim for global recognition, sometimes not even showing anyone our writing because it hinges on a deal that may never come.
I’m asked all the time about sales figures. How are sales going? How many books have you sold? I get asked this every day. A little light in my heart goes out every time. Is that all you can see? I think. Let me tell you about the people who have loved my writing and messaged me to say that the book changed their lives. Let me show you what success really is. I often use the analogy of painting to point out this weird commerciality attached to books. I know that if I hung a painting of a sunset on Worthing Pier, people wouldn’t ask me how many I’d sold. They’d hopefully stand and enjoy it and invite their friends to look at it. Just because it’s not on a global tour to major art galleries, doesn’t make it any less valid. I think of my self-published book in the same way.
My free book day brought me so much joy. Perhaps there is someone out there now, a woman, who needed to read my story in order to make the leap into freedom. I spent the following day hiking on the South Downs, thinking about what it meant to be free and happy. For me, it’s a solo hike in the sunshine, the wind whipping my hair, a warm down jacket and everything I need in a pack on my back. I sat eating a slice of apple and cinnamon cake in the sunshine with a hot mug of tea and simply felt happy. I am happiest when being in nature, when writing, when helping other people, when being alone.
My book (and this blog) is about freedom in all its forms: from the confines of an unhappy marriage, from alcohol addiction, from unhealthy relationships, workplaces and friendships, from dieting and beauty standards, from society’s expectations around marriage and motherhood, and from the toxicity of corporate life. Most importantly, it’s about asserting oneself as a solo individual. To me, freedom is about not waiting to be validated or given permission to do anything by another person or entity.
I am reigniting my writing here with the fire of freedom and changing my branding to suit. No more Because I Can – it’s Because You Can from now on.
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.
…except I didn’t. I love walking alone but I also love bumping into incredible people on the way, especially when I’m a bit scared in a white-out on a narrow path on a Lake District fell! As always, a guardian angel looms out of the mist to guide me on. It has happened so many times…
Lisa Bergerud is a fell runner who has done the Bob Graham round twice – once in her twenties and once in her forties (42 fells/66 miles in 24 hours).
She also fell off Sharp Edge ridge on Blencathra and smashed her entire body up. She recovered with physio and now works as a ranger for John Muir Trust, dedicated to the conservation of wild places. As we walked along (fast) she was picking up litter as she went.
She left me as I found a place for lunch and I watched her run off down the heather-covered mountain. She’s not supposed to run for her job but she loves it too much. What an amazing woman.
I’ve got this mantra in life. It’s about always sharing information if I think it’s going to help people. In more recent years I discovered that not everyone does this.
I have walked into toxic work environments that have been known to others and they haven’t said anything, choosing to let me find out for myself. I have also walked up mountains at altitude not knowing that my phone will immediately lose all its charge in the cold (keep it in your sleeping bag overnight) or that my period could start at a certain height, even if it’s not due. These are all items of information I now share with people, because I want them to have the benefit of that knowledge.
I mean, why wouldn’t you? In many ways, it’s the whole point of this blog. I want people to know about some of the things I’ve learned so that they can avoid the same pitfalls if they can, such as the hugely damaging effects of drinking, working in a toxic environment or of marrying the wrong man.
I recently thought about this mantra again when I was walking the Cumbria Way with The Man Who Hiked the World for his latest journalistic endeavour. For one thing, no one had ever told me that there even was a Cumbria Way – even though I’m from the north west, I only knew the Lake District through its sets of mountains and lakes. I didn’t know there was a trail linking them all together. Until now. And TMWHTW is going to tell the world about it in his next article.
One of the best stretches of this 70+-mile path is the section taking you through Stake Pass, in the Langdale/Borrowdale area. What we didn’t know, as we left the wonderfully cosy and comfortable Langstrath Inn, was that we’d be walking through a series of streams and rivers all along the way. Recent heavy rainfall had made small tributaries gush into the main river and we would both become adept at hopping across stones and boggy land to reach our destination.
That morning, an elderly hiker stopped us to say that he’d encountered ‘a huge amount of falling water’ that would likely obstruct our onward journey. He’d had to turn back, and he looked seasoned in the hazards of walking in the Lake District. He did say that there was a broken fence sitting across the water that we could perhaps hold on to as we crossed. “If we were feeling agile,” he said.
We’ve often been told about upcoming hazards on hikes, only to find them easily surmountable. This time, we found a family of three staring at the falling water, wondering how they were going to get through it. Completely out of character for me, I found it easy. I saw the fence the old hiker had talked about, I saw a series of stones I could step across, and I went for it without thinking too much about it. I was over in seconds.
Later on, in the ensuing days, my journey across bogs and streams wasn’t as surefooted. I found that if I spent too much time thinking about the crossing, I was more likely to stumble. When I just walked up to it and made the leap I was fine. More often than not, we employed teamwork – TMWHTW would go across first, and then extend a supporting hand to me. I know that first journey across the river was made easier by the information handed on to me by the old man.
TMWHTW tried to pass on the information about the water hazard to another hiker going the other way. “We’ve already seen it,” he said gruffly, clearly not enjoying being told about it. It made me realise that not everyone wants key information to be shared – they do want to encounter challenges for themselves. I think it’s a bit like my aversion to ‘looking for recommendations’ when I’m visiting a place. I don’t want to be told to repeat someone else’s experience, I want to tackle and discover it myself. I get it. Still, I was very thankful to that elderly hiker that day.
The same theme of sharing information came up in a more amusing way when we started our two-night stay in Keswick at the amazing Sunnyside B&B. At breakfast on our rest day, I noticed a tiny pair of scissors nestled perfectly in the centre of a pot containing sachets of sauces. “They’ve literally thought of everything!” I exclaimed, in awe of their attention to detail. Later the landlady said it had come about when she spotted that a customer had brought her own tiny pair of scissors for this very purpose. She could never open the damn packets. “Why didn’t she tell me??” the landlady demanded. “I know…” I said. We are both people who tell everyone everything, clearly.
We barely saw anyone during our time on the less-popular stretches of the Cumbria Way, but we did spend a day with Harrison Ward, aka Fell Foodie, who cooked us a Moroccan Chickpea Stew on a Wainwright – Castle Crag. This is someone who shares his love of the outdoors through the medium of cooking in it. Why rely on a butty, he says, when you can bake a loaf of bread while you’re swimming in a tarn? Well, indeed. If I was still a publishing director, I’d be offering him a book deal. Now.
I was so impressed by people like Harrison who run about on the ‘fells’ (you’re not allowed to say ‘mountains’ or ‘hills’ in the Lake District) being all clear-eyed and flushed with exercise. Fell runners were all around Keswick, heading up into the foothills (probably ‘footfells’) of Skiddaw, which I was told is ‘Skidder’, not pronounced like ‘jackdaw’ as I’d previously thought. I used to run a lot in my thirties – I later realised it was a subconscious bid for freedom from my marital home, but I suddenly missed it terribly and vowed to start again once I returned home. I’ve been out twice – for some reason my hamstrings really hurt, so I’m not going crazy with it. Baby steps…
I’d describe as half ‘Type 1 fun’ and half ‘Type 2 fun’. Type 1 is fun at the time while Type 2 is only fun after you’ve completed it. There were many sun-drenched Type 1 moments, notably on the way into Keswick from Skiddaw, walking out of Keswick towards Castle Crag and along the banks of Coniston Water. But there were also long stretches of boggy stumbling in between. As always, for me, I might not enjoy every moment at the time, but I look back with so much pleasure on what I’ve done when it’s complete. All I can remember now is hopping over stepping stones in Langdale, being followed by flocks of smiling Herdwick sheep in Coniston and devouring sandwiches in a storm-tossed bothy near Caldwick.
We managed to complete the path just before Lockdown 2.0 hit our shores and I’m so glad we did it. I’ve been so lucky this year to have done so much. Not only did I spend the first three months of 2020 in India, visiting the Jaipur Literature Festival plus a stay in Udaipur, but I managed to fit in the Northumbrian Coastal Path, the South West Coast Path, the Cumbria Way and the Isle of Wight into my summer and autumn hiking schedule. In many ways, this has been one of my best years. I’ve even found joy during lockdown, on the sun-filled shoreline in Worthing.
I’ve had a slight wobble, in that the plan was for me to return to India for the winter season again. I was supposed to shuttle back and forth and had plans to live in different parts of the country for a while, now I’ve ventured outside Goa. That plan has obviously had to change and I’m now staying in Worthing, and the UK, for the foreseeable. But, I can’t help thinking that this is meant to be, and universe is doing its thing again. I love where I’ve chosen to live and I like what’s happening in my life here. It’s Type 1 fun.