Don’t Be Fooled!

The plan: to walk a section of the South West Coast Path, starting at Clovelly and ending at Padstow.

The imagined route: an undulating, easy coastal path with the odd bump, reminiscent of the Seven Sisters cliffs, punctuated by cosy tea rooms.

The reality: a remote wilderness hike consisting of extreme climbs and descents with nowhere to fill a drinking bottle, let alone order a cream tea.

After spending most of the summer hiking the South Downs Way and returning to the Seven Sisters as part of our ‘training’, we thought this one would be a doddle. My hiking friend, Paula, and I have been across the world together on some pretty adventurous hikes but this one would be a proper holiday, we said. Not like Kyrgyzstan or Armenia, where we’d been wild camping and struggling up mountain passes at altitude. Let’s be kind to ourselves, we said. Let’s have a proper holiday in lovely Devon and Cornwall.

Hartland coastline

Trouble is, we thought the guidebook was exaggerating when it said the South West Coast Path, made famous recently in Raynor Winn’s The Salt Path, was ‘challenging’ and ‘relentless’. We thought that was just a warning for people trying to attempt it in flip-flops. Oh how wrong we were.

The first stretch, Clovelly to Hartland Quay was the ‘easy’ day at just over ten miles, but even that had its fair share of ups and downs. It took longer than we thought to reach our destination. However, there was at least a kiosk at one point serving ice cream. As we sat down to dinner at Hartland Quay Hotel (the only place to stay), we read about the following day’s fifteen miles to Bude. The hardest stretch of the entire path… Challenging/severe… Don’t be fooled by the easy start… People in the hotel gave us a look when we said what we were doing. One said we had ten deep valleys to encounter, another said five. Someone mentioned waterfalls. How challenging can it be? we said to each other. Surely not as bad as Kyrgyzstan, where I’d been in so much hip pain I’d had to get on a horse…

Worse. Worse than Kyrgyzstan. More than ten deep, deep valleys to climb into and out again. All the way down to sea level, over a little bridge spanning a waterfall and up the other side again. Relentlessly. No tea rooms. No scones. Just climbing. And then the next day, too: Bude to Boscastle.

Hartland coastline

No one talks about this side of Devon and Cornwall. No one says that it’s proper wilderness hiking with no facilities and no one around. It felt like being on the west coast of Ireland, Scotland – or even Iceland or the Faroes, Paula said (having been to both). And we agreed, this was harder hiking than Kyrgyzstan, which had been the hardest thing we’d both done together (Paula said only Greenland was worse).

We both belong in hiking groups that never venture here. It’s hard to get to and hard to herd groups of people here. We met people in ones and twos doing the same thing, most notably two women in their seventies who were wild-camping the whole thing and this was their last stretch. They didn’t even use tents – they were using tarpaulin to sleep under. “This is what you do in your seventies!” they shouted as we parted ways.

We met a young woman who had walked from Gloucester who was trying to find a suitable place to camp; we saw another who was lying against her pack, waiting for us to walk past so she could pitch her tent. It was next to a herd of goats. We yodelled and I think she heard us.

Speke’s Mill Mouth

As we took on every uppy-downy (as they became known) of the trail, we mused on how, if we’d known what this part of the trail entailed, we wouldn’t have attempted it at all. We wouldn’t have seen the incredible rocky outcrops pushing out into the glittering sea, or heard the crash of the Speke’s Mill Mouth waterfall as it plunges into the sea. We wouldn’t have seen the purple-heathered slopes at Cleave on the way to Bude, my personal favourite moment of the trip, or experienced the pride and joy of looking back at the valley we’d just traversed. Every climb and every descent brought a new ‘wow’ moment and a new angle on the breathtaking scenery and there was barely anyone else there to witness them with us.

We knew when we were approaching a car park or a village because people would appear with dogs and it would feel like an intrusion. As we got closer to the more popular stretches of the path we mourned the loss of the wilder stretches and realised that with cream teas came crowds. At Tintagel we finally lost it. The whole place was shrouded in fog and drizzle, and people were queuing up to walk across a new bridge to the castle from which they could see nothing. Get us out of here! we thought and promptly took a taxi to Port Isaac, which was pouring with Doc Martin fans.

As the weather improved, the hiking got easier, but our hearts were still in that wilderness we’d left behind. We’d overcome a psychological barrier and could face a deep valley without dread, just acceptance. We knew if you started counting them it was the road to exhaustion; you just have to get on with them. I had practiced my yogic ‘santosha’ – conscious cheerfulness – to get me through the hard stretches. I smiled and sang to myself, knowing that smiling is proven to make you feel happier. I can confirm that it works. I sang, “One singular sensation” as I walked sideways down hillside steps with my hiking pole, Bob Fosse-style.

The heathered slopes at Cleave

And joy of all joys – I’ve finally invested in hiking boots that are wide enough for my feet. I had no blisters. Nothing. After years of being crippled on day one of a hike. I am like a woman renewed – no hike is too far for me now.

We surprised ourselves on this ‘holiday’ (and agreed that it wasn’t a holiday). We climbed every mountain and forded every stream: without injury, without tears, without blisters. We each employed a different approach and it worked – Paula likes to get up a hill very quickly to get it done, I prefer to plod slowly and continuously and get there without breathing through my arse. Before now, I’ve tried to rush up hills and felt awful. It’s easier when you’re not in a group to take your time. “Steady as she goes” is my mantra. We’d meet at the top and congratulate each other on a job well done.

And can I sing the praises of a pasty as the perfect hiking lunch? A meal wrapped in a pastry case, still warm from the morning’s oven. Thank goodness we made sure we had packed lunches and pasties with us from every town we stayed in. There was nothing in between each stop apart from that first kiosk, the two cafes at Crackington Haven and Sandymouth Cafe outside Bude. They were like oases in the desert.

Crackington Haven beach

At first we were disappointed not to be staying in Padstow (aka Rick Steinville) but then we discovered the YHA at Treyarnon. What a find. A sea view, a glorious beach, food being served through a hatch. I’d definitely go back there.

A woman in her seventies (or eighties?) approached us as we waited for the bus into Newquay, hiking all completed.

“In my day when we were walking, we didn’t allow getting buses.”

Me: *death stare*

Paula, smiling: “We’ve just hiked from Clovelly, actually, and we’re done.”

Lady: “Oh!” *looks Paula up and down incredulously. Looks at husband in disbelief* “Oh wow – you’ve done all that!”

Us: “Yes, yes we have.”

*gets on front seat of top deck of bus and whoops with joy*

Descent into Boscastle – Beeny Cliffs

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…

Seaside Stories

As I’ve been walking the coastline here every day for my lockdown exercise, between Worthing and Ferring, I’ve been chatting to a few people along the way. It seems that the lockdown has made us all a little bit more open to talking to other people, at a safe distance, of course.

Fish for sale!

For me, it started with ‘fish guy’ – I still don’t know what his name is, but he has a small shack on the seafront where he sells fish every day. He started in about week two of lockdown, and had everyone queuing two metres away. I got chatting to him one day when I was buying some fish-pie mix for my landpeople (I’m a lodger in a family home) and asked him how business was. “My business is about 70% hotels, restaurants and pubs,” he said grimly, “but I’d rather be here, outside, eating a packet of crisps in the fresh air.”

In ensuing conversations I’ve asked him about his boat, which goes out every day from Shoreham, and his business, which he runs with a partner, and his dad (I think). He has good weather forecasting equipment so I’ve taken to asking him about the forecast each week too. I quite like that he calls me ‘honey’ – it started as ‘love’ – sometimes a woman needs a ‘honey’.

Sea Lane Cafe

I’ve also chatted to Pete, who runs Sea Lane Cafe in Goring with his brother. He opened tentatively a few weeks ago, to sell takeaway teas, coffees and the best scones I’ve ever tasted. He also has a fantastic two-metre system going on in the cafe where people come in one door and out of another, all maintaining a safe distance. He was in Thailand when COVID came in – he seems shellshocked by the escalation of it all, but I am so grateful that he has opened. I know he’s come in for a lot of flack for it online but anyone who goes there can see he is taking all the health and safety measures seriously. The much-awaited Bluebird cafe in Ferring opens its doors for takeaways tomorrow – I can’t wait…

Her name was Lola

One of my best chats was with ‘birdwatching man’ who sat with his chihuahua Lola and a large telescope on the WW2 pillbox near Ferring one day. I asked him what he was looking for and he reeled off a list of seabirds I can’t quite remember. I asked him what the best thing he’d ever seen was. “An albatross,” he said. “We tracked it all the way along the coast.”

My friend Paula has had a seagull who appeared to be talking to her through her window on a number of occasions, tapping the glass with his beak. Bird experts tell us that it’s a territorial thing. He is likely to be talking to what he sees as the opposition – himself – and telling him to move along!

Paula’s seagull

I’ve started to see the same people early in the mornings, doing their exercise at the same time as me, either down on the sands at low tide or up on the coastal path at high tide. I wonder if we’ll all carry on saying ‘hello’ to each other every day after all this is over… I do hope so. I wonder if they look at me and think, “Oh there’s flask-of-tea woman” as I go past, as I have similarly labelled them with obvious characteristics, oftentimes by their dogs.

I see Nordic the dog on a regular basis

I defy anyone to show me something more joyous than dogs at low tide. They are careering round the sands away from their owners and I love hearing grown men shouting, “Mabel!” at the tops of their voices. The dogs never listen. They often approach me to say hello, and I can see they’re wondering why I don’t bend down to stroke them.

Nerys the dog here at my new home won’t come with me on my walks. We’ve tried two or three times to get her beyond the end of the road with me but she pulls us back home each time. My landlady says she has separation anxiety.

Nerys doesn’t want to walk with me 😥

Most unexpectedly, my main animal relationship is now with Bob the cat. He’s the one waking me up with his mewing (his food tray is outside my room), he’s the one curling up on my bed (he’s there right now) and he’s the one stretching out on my yoga mat when I’m trying to teach or practice. Who knew a cat would be the affectionate one between a cat and a dog?

Bobbity

Agonda Diaries – week 14

This has been a week of reconnecting with friends after my Rajasthan week, and looking back on the whole experience. I fell in love with Udaipur so much that I’m going to stay there for a while next season. I need to not be in Agonda for the Christmas drinking season and will arrive here mid-January, when things have calmed down a bit.

Udaipur has little or no ‘ex-pat’ (aka immigrant) British population because it’s not easy to come by booze there, so people tend to pass through to look at the palaces, forts and temples and move on. Of course, I loved it, the chai-drinking culture, white people being in a minority, and I’m not done.

This started a chain of decision-making about my plans to return to the UK this summer and the inevitable question of what I’ll do next. I’ve decided to do a short-ish visit to Shimla-Spiti Valley-Manali before I return so I can suss out the Himalayas as a potential place to stay for a few months next summer. I like the idea of breaking up the year into two- or three-month chunks.

This also started a chain of people insisting on telling me about their own Indian odysseys and either insisting I do what they did, insisting I’ll love the places they loved, or refusing to dwell on the fact that they haven’t been to Spiti Valley, meaning they can’t tell me how much they loved it and how much I’ll love it. As someone who likes her own experience of self-discovery I wonder what compels people to follow in another’s path. I just need my Lonely Planet, not a trail of other people’s favourite restaurants. After Pushkar, which I disliked when most of my friends loved it, I’m going to blaze my own trail (and burn the evidence behind me).

I came back to Agonda to find the sand shelf on the beach had reformed, after apparently being flattened and then created again after a couple of stormy days. It hasn’t stopped the turtles coming on to the beach to lay their eggs, though – we have seven nests now, and the first lot is due to hatch next week. Watch this space!

We’ve also had a spate of high-tides in which pairs of dolphins have appeared just offshore in the early mornings. I’ve had the pleasure of accompanying one or two along the beach as they surf through what must be shoals of tiny fish.

I also had the pleasure of a day trip with The Most Handsome Man in Goa, who remains in my life in a different way, discovering the tiny Mashem beach near Galgibaga, and going back to Talpona and the little gem Tejas restaurant for vegetable biryani and Hello to the Queen dessert. TMHMIG is brilliant at these days out – the thrill of the bike ride there on coastal roads, playing in the waves, choosing the right food for lunch, and getting me back somewhere lovely to watch the sunset. I always feel the happiest I’ve been in years during and after one of these ‘dates’.

He also had to deal with the bothersome regular occurrence of Indian Boys With Cameras, who inevitably turn up right behind us whenever we find a deserted beach. Two of them popped up as we were in the water, putting their stuff right next to ours on the beach. I was fuming. They must have seen the steam coming out of my ears and one of them waded in to ask us if there was a problem? Yes, I said. You’ve got this whole massive empty beach, and you’ve chosen to put your stuff right next to ours. Plus I’m sick of being trailed by Indian Boys With Cameras. We’re on a roadtrip from Hyderabad, he said. We’re just taking pictures of the location. He probably did get a couple of pictures of us but I liked that he came to check everything was ok. The one thing that is a certainty in India is a gang of boys with phones, drones and cameras. That is the biggest problem I face in India. Maybe people just like to herd. I prefer to leave the pack behind…

Talking of packs, I got bluff-attacked by a pack of dogs by the river in Agonda last night. I didn’t take my stick because I wasn’t expecting a flat, wide beach to run on, and simply took my chance. To all those people who make fun of me for carrying a stick – you try being surrounded by ten dogs barking and snarling at you, while all the humans stand around not doing anything to help. They seem to get more feral when the weather is cooler for some reason. Even Sanjo is leaping up and scratching my arms with his claws.

This weather is reminding me of British summer – cool mornings and evenings and warm days… I can’t wait to experience the real thing in May…

Ahimsa

I didn’t expect to not hike when I booked this holiday in the Svaneti region of Georgia. I am with my hiking group and they have gone off ahead of me, booted and rucksacked, as I take in the view you see at the top of this blog post outside our guest house for one of the four nights along the route.

I managed to get a severe blister on my heel at the very start – a combination of not having hiked for a couple of months while I was in Goa, hot weather and boots that are slightly too big for me. I have been unable to walk uphill without the various compeed plasters and tape coming off so I’ve given up.

Instead of feeling devastated and down about this turn of events I have felt calm and peaceful – joyful even – at this new opportunity. An opportunity to have the restorative holiday my body was craving after two months of intensive yoga training. I feel broken physically, but very healed on the inside.

One of the values we learned on our course was that of ‘ahimsa’ – non-violence. This is one of Sage Patanjali’s ‘yamas’ – values attached to emotions in his ‘eight limbs’ (‘Ashtanga’) of yoga and I have thought about it a lot this week.

This non-violence applies to thought, word and action as they are applied to other humans, animals and plants. But perhaps the most important of these is non-violence towards oneself.

I began to apply this philosophy whilst yoga training because I had a shoulder injury that had come about by throwing myself punishingly into yoga classes during my first month in Goa. I tried to be kind to my body and allow the shoulder to rest. I could almost hear it thanking me.

In Goa and here in Georgia I have been struck by our need to punish our bodies in order to feel happiness. We have to do exercise in order to ‘deserve’ the food we’re eating or the drinks we have afterwards. Yet the yoga philosophy says that happiness is our true nature and that we don’t need to deserve any of it. It is our birthright and we just need to access it by stripping away the obstructions to it that our minds put in its way. This is the entire goal of yoga and it has worked its magic on me.

In Kyrgyzstan last year I had a terribly painful hip but was determined to hike up mountains until my body told me otherwise. The moment I allowed a horse to take my weight was one of the happiest of my life. Why did I have to climb every mountain pass to feel worthy?

Here in Georgia I was once again given access to a horse and this time took it gladly. I stopped thinking of this week as a hiking marathon with its rewards of cake and khachapuri (cheese bread) and started to allow myself to have the holiday I needed – a restorative one.

Good things happen when you give yourself permission to stop. You spend time with local people and that time slows down. You find that you enjoy riding a horse and are not so scared of them next time round. You learn to trust them when they take you through rivers and up steep hills. My horse this week was called Tornado – a name that filled with me with fear when I first heard it but it turned out the family he belongs to named him ironically.

Gegi, his owner, guided me around the paths the hiking group were taking and I got small insights into his world as we clip-clipped along. He knew every Georgian on the route and they greeted him like family, warming us and drying Gegi’s clothes when it poured down and giving me a seat by the stove, pressing hot coffee into our hands.

And now I have practised a little yoga in front of this glorious view while one of the young guys who lives here plays trance music that seems to match the mountain view. I am waiting for a car to pick me up to transport me to Ushguli but while I’m waiting I have created my first new vinyasa yoga class after getting my first call as a cover teacher.

I like this flexibility of thinking: turning what could be seen as a disaster into an opportunity. How great if you could apply this philosophy to your whole life.

I remember two things from the yoga training that really have become useful in my life. One, that we have the freedom to choose how we respond to any situation -I choose to reshape this holiday for myself into a restorative one. Two, that to avoid stress and anxiety we should simply do what needs to be done and get on with it. The simplicity of this last statement blows my mind. Just do what needs to be done: in my case, stop walking, take care of my open wound, hire a horse and enjoy the moment in this incredible landscape.

Ahimsa. Try it.

The Love Landscape

I’ve been wondering for a while now, about how to encapsulate the particular state a late forty- or fifty-something single woman finds herself in with regards to relationships. Every time I go on a group hike, there is the inevitable conversation with a woman around my age, who is confident, intelligent, attractive, adventurous – I’d even go as far as to say ‘sparkling’ – and before we’ve even discovered each other’s names I know what she’s going to say.

She’s going to tell me that she’s tried dating men her own age (the rare ones that don’t want to date younger women), but they can’t quite keep up with her in terms of get-up-and-go or sex drive. They don’t want to get out and do things as much as she does and she ends up leaving them behind to join hiking groups at weekends.

She’s going to say that she has her eye on someone a bit older, but then discovers that they’re dating someone twenty years younger than them, because they can. She’s going to say that she gets quite a lot of interest from younger men, but she wants someone to share a present and a future with and they don’t offer much in that way, because they’re just after the ‘mature’ experience. And they’re largely immature.

Then she’s going to share a recent experience where she’s been chatting to a guy her age online and it’s been going really well, but then he mysteriously disappears, reappears, then disappears again. In search of answers, she’ll tell me that men have called her ‘scary’ or ‘out of their league’ and I’ll nod in agreement. I too am a scary woman.

We then walk along together, chuckling in solidarity as we watch the guys our age and older chatting up the young women, sometimes the hike leader, and the young men chatting with anyone but us (for more than a few minutes). Interest from them comes in secret, by private message, maybe after the hike – but it can never happen in broad daylight. They can’t be seen to be into us. The horror!

Not that hiking is about finding people to date, but that is an inevitable sidebar of a group that is mixed and into the same things. (I laughed yesterday when one thirty- or forty-something guy was talking about not wanting to be part of outdoor groups where fifty- or sixty-somethings hung out. I didn’t bother telling him my age.)

I recently went to an event where a late-forties guy friend turned up with his girlfriend of twenty-seven. Another older guy friend discovered the news and had that look on his face when he reported back to our group – the one I’ve seen before when the same topic comes up among men. The “I didn’t realise we could do that” face. You can almost hear their brains working out how they could trade in their old model for a new one. I remember one of my ex-husband’s friends starting to date a girl in her twenties when he was nearly forty and it was like he’d scored a try for Scotland when his friends found out. I didn’t realise back then what a ‘coup’ it was. I also didn’t realise back then that I could play those guys at their own game.

Older men say to me that they want to date younger women because they still want children, but I don’t believe that to be true. I believe that they don’t want to date someone who is their equal in terms of ‘social power’ so they look for someone who is below their perceived standing. I’ve made my peace with that. I don’t want to date someone who is scared by my social power either. It’s really unattractive.

I seem to have recently acquired a crop of younger guys who can only message me when they’re drunk or high. Some are in relationships, some not, some are struggling to come to terms with being attracted to an older woman. In it comes, the text or WhatsApp message in the morning, sent at 2am. Sometimes they’ve been up all night and I get the ‘hey babe’ at 10am. We never meet up, and nothing ever happens.

For some reason the message frequency ramps up around early spring and autumn – I’m told it’s something to do with testosterone levels. I quite enjoy seeing what the morning brings when I switch my phone on, and I can’t seem to bring myself to block their numbers either. There’s a fascinating increase in messaging when I’m on holiday. Suddenly when I’m thousands of miles away on my own, I’m incredibly attractive. The minute I arrive home the silence descends. It’s a thing.

One guy who has appeared and disappeared from my life for over a decade, always seems to get in touch when I’m on holiday. We’re not connected on social media, but he seems to have a sixth sense for when I’m away. He’s suddenly telling me that he thinks he fucked up by letting me get away, that there might be a relationship there. He is four years younger than me but obsessed with the age gap. Like every younger man, he wants to know the age of the youngest guy I’ve ever slept with. I still don’t know why that matters (give me wine and I’ll tell you the number).

What was fascinating, before his predictable disappearance on my return, was his reaction to my saying that I have a lover. He kept coming back to the topic over and over, but not saying the word. He referred to my ‘friend’, my ‘boyfriend’, my ‘fuck buddy’, my ‘friend with benefits’ and over and over I corrected him. “He’s my ‘lover'”, I said. Why could he not comprehend it or type the words? Was it because it sounded a bit ’60s or ’70s?

‘Lover’ accurately describes the state of being with someone you care for deeply – not in an official relationship, not seeing them every day or even every week, but they are in your life and you acknowledge and love their space in it. My lover is thirty-two and Muslim and we know it can never be a thing, but I’d rather be with him – a man who is straightforward, kind, sexy and not scared of me in the slightest – than with a man whose idea of flirting is relentless ‘teasing’ (aka bantz).

Perhaps what I’m doing – maintaining my adventurous independence but with a love interest on the side – is a female version of the ‘I didn’t realise we could do that’ face. As more and more women my age opt out of marriage and into independent lover-dom, I feel like we’re the ones scoring the tries. The more I talk about it with other women, the more I think that we’re scary to more conventional men because we’ve discovered the big secret – we have a choice, and it doesn’t need to include them. Sure, it would be nice if it did, but if it doesn’t, our worlds don’t end.

In fact, they open up.

 

 

 

 

¡Group!

For my fiftieth year, I wanted to scatter adventures throughout the year, rather than focus on one big one. I began with a return to my beloved Isle of Wight and its hypnotic coastal path at Tennyson Down. Again, I found I had it mostly to myself. I smiled when I saw two older women (older than me) scurrying down the Down towards me one morning. One was obviously a fell runner, the other striding out at speed with her dog. ‘That’ll be me in fifteen years,’ I thought. I hoped.

My first Island adventure three years ago was one filled with blisters and exhaustion. All the hiking I’ve been doing since then has made me more robust and able to take in the miles. My feet have toughened up (whilst still maintaining the acceptable public face of a pedicure). A friend recommended boots that were comfy from the very first wear. You can find them here. (I recommend Ellis Brigham because their in-store service is brilliant).

I’d planned on doing a classic milestone birthday walk on part of the Camino, the network of pilgrimage routes that criss-cross Europe and end up at Santiago de Compostela in Spain. I mentioned it to a few hikers in my London hiking group, and they kept mentioning the joys of a town called Burgos, which sounded appealing. But a few kept mentioning a place I’d never heard of before – Picos de Europa: a spectacular mountainous national park in northern Spain that I would love. No none-hikers I mentioned it to had heard of it (and indeed, even in Spain it’s not widely known) so I decided that was my destination.

The week’s walking would be with adventure-holiday specialists Exodus, whom I’d never tried, but everyone recommended. In the recent past, I’ve avoided group holidays, preferring to ‘fly solo’, but a mountain region in Spain? It couldn’t be done on my own very easily. And having overcome my irrational bias against doing anything in groups (I used to think it was sad), it felt like the right next step. I know from my current hiking groups that people are largely great. There’s always the odd one you fail to click with, but I’ve made some really good friends through it and it’s changed my mind about shared experience.

I decided to throw myself into the group experience, starting at the airport. Most of our 15-strong group had been on the same flight and we’d all done the same thing: looked around for ‘hiking people’ on the flight and struggled to spot any likely candidates. When we met at Bilbao airport we were a disparate bunch – the only thing marking us out being above-average rucksacks with telltale bits of kit and huge ‘I can’t wait to hike’ smiles.

Hiking has taught me many things but this holiday taught me some more. It taught me that I am fit enough to walk up 1000-metre ascents with virtually no stops, whilst being able to play word games with fellow hikers. It taught me that the youngest person in the group is not necessarily the fittest – in our case, a 70-year-old man was the fittest, and most eager to scale peaks. I was happy to walk in his wake with his wife – we were the three Welsh ‘mountain goats’.

It taught me that some people hum or sing involuntarily when they’re happy and you know when they’re feeling below par because they stop. It taught me that unlikely people enjoy singing songs from the musicals, specifically My Fair Lady (I’m looking at you, Richard…), and that a slight, quiet man walking with poles, who knows everything about anything, can be a retired fireman with a heart of an ox, who has saved people from burning basements.

I learned that the group rally round people who are struggling. I attempted to scale a very small peak and freaked out about the vertiginous nature of the climb. I was ‘talked up’ by my more courageous colleagues and given a helpful arm to hold on to on the way down by the guide. It was one small step for womankind but meant the world to me.

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Me being triumphant on the peak wearing my new Picos t-shirt

I learned that it feels a bit rubbish not to join a splinter group for a more challenging ascent. As I waited for the others on the slopes below, I knew I’d made the right choice not to go (it was a scree slope with an even more vertiginous drop) but it wasn’t nice being left out. It occurred to me that the group thrived on shared experience, and each time we split up, it eroded that joyous feeling a tiny bit. They returned with ‘I did it!’ faces and it made me feel defensive and sad.

On the last day of hiking, I was striking out with my fellow mountain goats, mostly ahead of the pack. It was suggested to me later that some people had deliberately slowed down so that they could support people who were struggling at the back; that they could’ve gone faster, but chose not to. I felt selfish in my urge to strike out, to get the most out of the experience for me. Should I have held back?

I was reminded of the guy who sacrificed his own time in the London Marathon this year to help another who was struggling. I’ll confess that I’ve looked at that footage more than once and thought, “I’d run over the line first then go back for him”. Or maybe not. It’s made me question my self-professed team-player status. Am I in it for the team? Or am I just in it to get my personal best?

I think part of this thinking comes from a feeling of having been held back by people over the years. Held back from the horizon ahead, from crossing the finish line. I felt it when I finally made the decision to go to university (four years after sixth form), with no one around me suggesting that I should. My ballet teacher, whom I’d been working for, exclaimed, “if I’d known you were clever I would’ve suggested it years ago!” Indeed. Thank goodness I got there under my own steam.

I felt it when I’d got over the point where both my parents had died and was about to forge ahead unbroken, and my ex-husband’s parents started dying. It wasn’t his fault, but I wanted to run away and be free.

I felt it when I was on holiday with him and I’d want to walk over the next horizon, or stay out for that extra drink with the locals, and he didn’t. I’ve felt it when I’ve been out with friends who want to go to home early on a night out and I’m still yearning for action.

I’ve met all of these challenges by striking out on my own to continue the voyage, feeling like I’m peeling people’s clasping fingers off me as I pull away, thinking: “You can’t stop me doing what I want to do, stop trying to hold me back with you, I want to go further than you.” I’ve walked over the next horizon, stayed out for that extra drink and now it feels like my default setting.

But the best moments of this trip took place as a shared experience with the group (our Spanish guide, Alvaro, shouted ¡Group! when he wanted our attention). I genuinely forged connections with most of the group that I hope will last. After I’d hugged the last one coming through passport control at the airport, I had to rush off otherwise I’d have got upset.

All ages, all backgrounds, all experts in something fascinating (Janet and her plant knowledge!). Sharing G&T orders, bottles of cava, hairdryers, baguettes, bizcocho and an admiration for the guide.

I think my experiences over the years have caused me to be wary of other people trying to hold me back. That’s made me concentrate on the quality of my own experience, and that’s what solo holidays have given me the opportunity to do. But oh, the group.

Team Mountain Goat. You taught me oh so much about myself, about alpine plants, about Spanish history, about canals engineered in mountains, about hiking socks, about not washing waterproof jackets because they’re never the same after. But the main thing you taught me was how great people are. Especially hiking people.

Dedicated to Team Mountain Goat: Janet, Gill, Pete, Chris, Manisha, Anthony, Jenny, Vanessa, Hugh, Alvaro, Jennifer, Susan, Mandy, Richard and Jas.