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.

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?

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).

For better or worse

I’ve had something in my mind for a while now, helping me navigate each day.

It was something Brené Brown said in her Power of Vulnerability audiobook, and it was basically this: “Are you trying to make the world better or worse? There is no in between – it’s binary.”

Sometimes the simplest of lines hits home hardest. It’s made me reassess every action or word since I heard it. Perhaps in my previous life I would’ve been sharp with someone on the end of a phone who is trying to sort out a problem for me. Now I think, “Perhaps they get angry people all the time and would appreciate a kind word.” Perhaps before I might’ve stood steadfastly in a queue for the checkout because it was ‘my turn’, but now I check behind me to see if the person there is only carrying a carton of milk. I let them go first.

It’s all those small actions that add up to a whole day of making things better or worse.

On yesterday’s solo hike, I sat outside a café in a small village and watched a woman in her eighties helping people. She appeared to be a community volunteer wearing hi-vis armbands.

If someone looked lost or confused, she got up out of her deck chair in the shade, put her hand on their arm and asked, “Can I help you?” Even if she couldn’t, I noticed that each person she approached looked so happy after the encounter.

That lady. That’s who I want to be.

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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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Mountain mantras

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.”

Instant relief.

“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.

Because you can.

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.

Freedom to roam

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.

Me (left) with Caroline at the Pink Pit Stop

“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.

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.

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