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?

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).

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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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.

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.