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.

10 things I learned about myself in Wales

Having just been on a trip to my homeland which didn’t go quite as planned…

1. I am adventurous but I have my limits, and I reached them. I hired a vintage 1973 campervan and had no idea they were so difficult to drive until I got stuck, seven miles in, on my first hill. I climbed what seemed to be a relatively low mountain but the weather came in and I couldn’t see my way down a scree slope off the summit. I turned around and found another, safer, way down the mountain.

2. I love tiny living. I already live in a very small flat and I love the challenge of finding a place for everything and finding uses for every hook, nook and cranny in a small space. The one rainy day I had, I did my laundry and was completely cosy inside my van all day. I loved it.

3. I love rain. I do. I’m Welsh and it’s what makes Wales beautiful (and Ireland, Scotland and the Lake District). The more it rained, the more the land shone in the ensuing sunshine and the more the lakes, rivers, streams and waterfalls sparkled.

4. I learned not to believe everything people say. Often, when you go on an adventure, people warn you that you won’t be able to do things or get essential items, usually based on experience from ten or twenty years ago. I will trust my gut next time because it was right. Ironically, the one thing these people didn’t fancy telling me was how difficult the van was to drive. They ‘didn’t want to say’. Sigh.

5. I have an actual family. I have constructed a highly independent life because I am an orphan with no familial safety net. When I found myself in trouble, my cousin and his family were there for me and I felt a sense of love and belonging in Wales I haven’t felt in decades. Watching the build-up to the Queen’s funeral with my lovely aunty (my mum’s sister) was a precious time – in the ‘80s, I used to go to her house to watch ballet videos (we didn’t have a video player).

6. I love my homeland. Hiraeth – the longing for the place your spirit lives – is present in me. When I am in the rolling fields, surrounded by the mountains, with the sparkling sea in the distance, I feel truly at home. I realised that I have found versions of this landscape around the world but they’re nothing like the real thing. Wales, I’m sorry I ever doubted you.

7. I am a people person. Yes, I’m an introvert, but I thrive on transitory contact with people. On one hike I didn’t see a soul for five hours and it was horrible. I need people. I love Welsh people, like the man at the information centre who saw me passing and ran out with his hand-drawn directions to a mountain I’d enquired about.

8. I flow like water. Like a Welsh river, I can change my course when there is an obstacle in my way. I switched from a coastal driving holiday to a mountain camping one in a day. This sort of curveball happens to me a lot on holidays – like my injuries in Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Georgia – each time my adventure turned into something even more amazing because I had to work around the original aim. This time, I knew exactly what to do, and the mountains were calling me to them. It turns out that my spirit lives in them.

9. I love Arthurian legend and my homeland is filled with it. I grew up reading the stories but wasn’t aware of their inherent Welshness until now. I wasn’t aware that the lake below Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) is Glaslyn, into which the sword Excalibur is said to have been thrown.

10. I can climb mountains. Yes, I get scared when the weather comes in, and no, I won’t climb an edge with a steep drop on each side for the ‘thrill’ but boy, I can climb a mountain. Being on my own gives me the freedom to go at my own pace, start and finish whenever I like, or change my course if I want to.

There is no freedom like it.

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.

The Sound of the Universe

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.

It is Om.

Be Your Own Valentine

The perfect Valentine gift for yourself or a friend – my seven secrets to a successful single life:

  1. You don’t have to get married – I used to think that coupledom was the only valid life choice. It isn’t.
  2. You don’t need a wingperson – I used to wait for friends to accompany me to drinks, dinner or a concert, before I realised I could do it all by myself, and love it.
  3. You can date whomever you want (and it doesn’t need to be forever) – coming out of a socially condoned marriage opened my life to dating younger men and men from very different cultures. All of these experiences have enriched my life, and continue to do so.
  4. You don’t have to have children – even though it seems as though everyone is doing it, you can opt out. It is a choice not a given.
  5. You can go on holiday on your own – you can do exactly what you want, when you want, without having to compromise. Win!
  6. Single life isn’t perfect (but neither is coupledom) – it’s a rollercoaster but I know which ride I’d rather be on…
  7. The greatest relationship you’ll ever have is with yourself – it’s a cliche for a reason. If we don’t put ourselves first, no one else will.

Now available on Amazon for only £1.99 (ebook) and £4.99 (paperback):

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…

Read my new memoir, CHEAT PLAY LIVE, and leave me a review! You can buy it here: https://linktr.ee/redwoods1

I wandered lonely as a cloud…

…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.

Because I Did

This truly feels like the end of an era. The era of essentially going to the same beach around the world, time and time again. The beach towns even look the same: Dahab, Agonda, Tamarindo – to name but three of my regular destinations.

This is the end of an era that lasted eight years, of losing myself in in far-flung beach towns, sometimes taking days to leave the place I’m staying in. Often crying hard, sometimes behind sunglasses on the beach, I now think of it as a form of self harm. Why not take myself to an incredibly romantic location to ‘really’ feel lonely and out of place?

Meanwhile I’ve been learning that wherever the sun goes down over the sea, there are always good people trying to make their way in the world. They just have different resources to hand and a different way of looking at things. But they all love animals, children, the sea, the sun and their friends and families.

I have journeyed back to the places I’ve loved twice, sometimes more times, happy to find a familiar place, a familiar face. I’ve said I’ve done it because I’ve wanted to really get to know a place, but it’s usually because the first time in a place I’ve spent days on my own feeling scared to go out. When I finally do, I kick myself for not getting out earlier and immediately plan to return. I want to experience a place properly from the start. And it’s always worked beautifully the second time round.

This is the first holiday I’ve had where I haven’t cried. Not once. Last year I sobbed all the way to the airport – the driver said, “madam, please control yourself!” This is also the first holiday where I haven’t drunk a lot. I’ve gone to bed early and risen early to go down to the beach to have coffee, say hello to the dogs and walk on the beach. Then I do a yoga class and have breakfast. I read books and eat ice cream. I buy beads and beach dresses and swim in the sea. Because I can now, having learned to swim this year.

I sit at the bar more for the company than the anaesthetic of booze. I find it don’t need it to chat to people any more. Even last year’s White Horse, with whom I completely identified as she roamed the beach and bars every day, has disappeared.

In 2018 I did an extraordinary thing. I pushed myself so far outside my comfort zone I was in a galaxy far far away. I went to Kyrgyzstan, with my hiking group. A trip that involved trekking, horse riding, camping, bitter cold, nomads, ‘natural toilets’. I knew there would be ups and downs (literally and spiritually) but didn’t know they’d be quite so up and quite so down. I had had a hip problem that flared up even before we’d started, on a walk round a market. I convinced myself I’d have to go home. I got my period on the first night in a yurt – two weeks’ early – no one tells you that altitude can do that. I cried and was convinced I was turning back.

My companions urged me to maybe get to the next stage before deciding, and little by little they brought me along with them.

Reader, I did it. I rode horses with nomads and climbed to 4,000 metres in the most epic landscape I’ve ever seen. I ate yak stew and drank vodka with Kyrgyz horsemen who laughed at our toilet humour. I am forever grateful to that group of people, and to Gary from Go London who organised that trip and knew I could do it. The ‘well done’ hug he gave me at the end of the trip made me cry, but this time from pride, relief, and joy.

Something switched in my brain on that trip and I’m not the same person I was at the start of 2018. I am discovering my boundaries and they are greater than I thought.

I am discovering the boundaries I need to put in place to ensure a happy and fulfilling personal and working life. I have seen a therapist who helped me beyond all expectation. She knew that I was carrying around a sadness deep inside of me that needed to be released and comforted. And so it is. She is. The ten-year-old little girl who lost her daddy and has been walking the earth ever since, looking for him. That girl lives with me, now.

I haven’t blogged this year because all of this was in progress. I couldn’t think of what to write down because it was in flux in my head and I couldn’t form a coherent set of ideas.

But do you know what? I think I’m ready to write my book.

A Walk of One’s Own

On Monday I’m going to be making my way from London over to the Isle of Wight for the very first time. My plan is to walk the entire 69-mile coastline over the course of four days, and blog about it as I go. I will, of course, be doing it solo.

St Catherine's Oratory (photo via www.isleofwight.co.uk)
St Catherine’s Oratory (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

If you’re not from the UK, then let me tell you a little bit about the island. It’s in the English Channel, just off the south coast of England. It’s famous for being Queen Victoria’s holiday destination of choice, the world’s oldest sailing regatta, a couple of great music festivals and having dinosaur fossils in its limestone rocks. To get to it you take a ferry or hovercraft from Portsmouth, on the mainland.

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Round the Island yacht race (photo via http://www.isleofwight.co.uk)

After a number of years in which I’ve perfected the art of going on holidays on my own abroad, this summer I felt the urge to explore my own country. I’d been reading Robert Macfarlane‘s wonderful books about walking and knew I wanted a walking holiday. I met someone from the Isle of Wight who extolled its virtues to me and thought a coastal circuit would suit me fine. Then I found Wight Walks, who organise everything for you, including accommodation and transporting your bags between venues.

Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)
Yarmouth Pier (© Jason Swain)

Day one is going to see me travel over to the island and stay for a night in Ryde. Day two will be the start of the walk, from Ryde to Shalfleet, 16.7 miles. Day three will take me from Shalfleet to Freshwater (16.6 miles); day four – Freshwater to Ventnor (17.6 miles), and day five, Ventnor back to Ryde – 19 miles.

Ouch. Here’s the full itinerary.

I’ve already blogged about my new-found love for walking, having been inspired by Cheryl Strayed and Robert Macfarlane’s books. I started walking to and from work in the centre of London (about 4.5 miles each way) last summer and now I’m addicted to it.

Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)
Freshwater Bay (© Jason Swain)

I build in a walk into town on most days, weather permitting, and have started choosing my wardrobe based on suitability for walking. Each walk gives me time to listen to the radio, contemplate things and even dream up new ideas for blogging. They also give me the chance to see some wildlife, as it involves a large canal section, where Canadian geese, ducks and moorhens roam. I need a bit of that in the city.

© Jason Swain
© Jason Swain

So I’m hoping to be able to Tweet, Instagram and Periscope a bit on the island, even though I’m told the phone signal is a bit dodgy. If it is, it is. I’ll do an update each evening when I find wifi. I’ll be using the hashtag #wightwalk.

Looking forward to having you join me on my journey.

Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)
Headon Warren (© Jason Swain)

Flying Solo – a further comment

Today I was asked to provide comments for a Huffington Post article on solo female travel, in response to this scaremongering one on the Mail Online. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2960567/Most-dangerous-holiday-destinations-women.html

They didn’t print everything I said, so here’s the full thing:

The only times I’ve particularly felt unsafe while travelling were when I had let my preconceptions about a country fuel my fears. I have been holidaying alone for nearly five years and taking those first steps into a Thai town, a Turkish city or an Egyptian village are incredibly scary. I once allowed myself to believe I’d been drugged in a shop in Dahab by a shopkeeper, when in fact it was probably a panic attack brought on by fear. Similarly in Kenya, a scary group of men on motorbikes I kept seeing when out running on my own turned out to be a taxi rank. Of course, women are viewed differently in these countries, and it would be stupid to not be on your guard, but as someone who is fully aware of the potential hazards, I walk in confidently and try to see things as they really are.

I always watch men on holiday with a sense of envy. They are completely free to roam wherever they like, without much fear for their safety. There is a reason why some of the best travel books are written by men and not by women, and I long to be as free as those guys riding round Thailand on motorbikes without a care in the world. But I know my situation isn’t the same as theirs and have to adapt my experiences to fit.

My advice to any solo woman traveller would be, be aware of the potential hazards by reading up before you go. Beware of scaremongering features like this one in the Mail, and opt for sensibly written guides from Lonely Planet or Rough Guides. Yes, it’s wrong to have to restrict your behaviour or clothing options in certain settings, but it does make sense. I do agree with this article in terms of trusting your gut instinct when it comes to certain situations. If something or someone is making you feel uncomfortable, get out of there, even if you discover later that your fears were unfounded.

I think it’s a shame that many women will read an article like this, which is typical Mail scaremongering, and be put off from travelling alone and discovering the world. Many people would prefer women to stay in a domestic setting and not discover the joy of solo travel. Yes, you should know the hazards and look at other intelligent travellers’ tips on staying safe, but never let it stop you from taking those steps into the wider world.

(Edited comments appear here: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/02/23/women-solo-travel-saftey_n_6734512.html?1424697457)