Walk a Mile in my Shoes

I walk everywhere. I walk to work, I walk home from work. I walk into the city centre, I walk out of it. I hike in the countryside, I hike abroad. I hike on my own, I hike in groups.

Almost imperceptibly, I adjust my behaviour according to location, daylight hours, who I’m with. I’ve found places where I can walk alone in confidence, but still hold my breath when the figure of a lone man (or group of men) comes into view, and blow it out in relief when I get a cheerful ‘hi!’ from them.

I do what every woman does when walking alone – I make sure I’m in a lit area at night, I hold my body in readiness for potential assault, I sometimes hold keys if I feel under threat, I avoid eye contact with men, my pace quickens.

Now that the nights are drawing in I’ve had to adjust my route home to avoid a lit, but lonely path that runs up the side of a park. I’ve tried walking it as darkness falls, and it is simply too long for me to cope with the rising panic as I rush through it. There are sometimes couples who walk it and I make the most of the company, but in the end, it’s worth the extra half-mile walk to avoid it. That’s what I did last night.

I’m used to hearing men shouting as I walk – shouting into their phones, shouting at each other, shouting at me. I push my earphones in further and comfort myself in a great podcast. Sometimes they mouth obscene things at me while I’m listening to Woman’s Hour – “Ssh, the women are talking,” I think.

Last night, a man shouted things at me. I could sense, outside the busy tube station, that he’d singled me out for his unique attention. He had the mark of the crazy, and I told him to fuck off. Not content with just shouting, he slapped/pushed me on the back, twice, and I turned to the nearest person in the crowd, a man, to ask for help. He looked at me blankly, as though I wasn’t actually there.

I had to run, fast, into the nearest Sainsbury’s. Thank goodness I’ve ditched trying to walk in man-pleaser heels and now wear trainers when I’m travelling. I was able to sprint headlong into the supermarket, where the high-vis-jacketed security guard muttered, “he’s always out there”, and followed me out. His response was to slap/push him on the back to move him on.

A man I’d originally asked for help joined us, saying, “oh he’s always here, he’s harmless.” “Is he?” I say, “because I can put up with men shouting because I’m wearing earphones but when it comes to hitting me, I don’t think that’s harmless.” Cue blank looks from both men. Another man joins us and watches the crazy stumble up the road. He recognises him too, and tells me he’d have ‘punched him’ if he’d witnessed what he’d done.

“He’s harmless, he’s gone now. Are you going to get the bus?”

“No I want to walk home.”

“Ok, I’ll watch while you walk.”

My brain momentarily processes a stream of men passing me, making eye contact, as potential attackers but it doesn’t last for long. I ponder the look on the guys’ faces back at Sainsbury’s – like they were holding their breath, waiting for me to get angry, hoping I wouldn’t. Maybe hoping I wouldn’t have a massive rant about men who attack women on the streets and men who make excuses for them.

I wonder if I should’ve phoned the police, or if that would just making a fuss. The same thought passed through my head when I was flashed at a few years ago while on a solo walk. A man I’d asked for help told me I should. This time online friends (pocket friends!) tell me I should. I call the non-emergency line of the Met Police. They log the crime and promise to call me back.

I get home and post a quick description of what happened on Facebook. The comments are so predictable. Instant support and outraged comments from a stream of female friends and that same handful of supportive gay and straight male friends whom I know won’t shy away from the topic. Then the silence from all the other men who don’t want to get involved.

They don’t know how much it means to a woman just to have this stuff acknowledged. Just to have a man say, yes, this happened to you, yes, I think it’s shit, and yes, I stand next to you in outrage and I do not like that it happens. For some reason they often feel personally responsible for it, as though they themselves have committed some outrage for which they should feel ashamed.

I wonder if the silent men are thinking, “What was she doing to attract that attention? Why didn’t she just shrug it off and walk on? Why is she sharing it on here? Why didn’t she just get on a bus?” A little bit of victim-blaming to ease their consciences. For the avoidance of doubt, I am not getting on a bus because women should not be getting off the streets just to stop men attacking them. It’s not us that need the curfew.

A man did it. It’s always a man. It’s #notallmen but it’s always a man. As soon as I got into the office today a colleague told me about her story of being chased along a tube station platform by a man. When I was flashed at, women of my acquaintance reported that it had also happened to them, some of them THAT DAY. They hadn’t bothered to say anything because it’s such a regular occurrence, let alone report it.

Men we know can’t believe it happens, and that it does so so frequently. I once live-tweeted my street harassment throughout the course of a day. It happened, on average, every half an hour, on a lone walk. My followers were astonished.

These men get you when you’re on your own. Not necessarily in a lonely place, but you’re on your own. It can happen on a bus, a tube, in a crowd, in a shop, in darkness or in full daylight on a busy street. But you are always on your own. Every woman I know has a story like this.

Just believe us. It makes it all so much easier.

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Wight Walk – Day Four

Well today was unexpected. In good and bad ways.

This was the day when I had to stop walking due to Blistergeddon and ‘pivot’ into a totally different trip. Freshwater Bay isn’t exactly a terrible place to explore or chill out in so at least that timing was good. Here’s my Periscope of it.

Gorgeous Freshwater Bay

Gorgeous Freshwater Bay

But first I met Clare at breakfast. I’m guessing that Clare wasn’t her real name as she’s from China, but is a blogger like me, studying in Sussex. In fact her blog sounds *exactly* like mine so I’m curious to Google translate it when she emails me the link. We both remarked on ‘the kindness of strangers’ as we’d both bumped into Christophe the German on Tennyson Down the day before. Maybe he’s cruising it…

Pen-Y-Bryn - I'll be back...

Pen-Y-Bryn – I’ll be back…

Before I left the wonderful Pen-Y-Bryn (I can’t recommend it highly enough), landlord Joe let me watch him wake up their pet seagull, Ziggy. Here’s my Periscope of it. Ziggy is a herring gull who hatched just down the road from the property, but couldn’t fly due to a deformed wing. Sue and Joe now keep him as a pet, and he sleeps in a rabbit hutch to keep him safe from foxes and buzzards (he’s already been attacked by both).

Ziggy the Seagull comes down the ramp for breakfast

Ziggy the Seagull comes down the ramp for breakfast

I loved the story of them carrying him down to the sea at Freshwater Bay and him having a nice wander around the beach. Apparently gulls are very territorial, approaching the same fishing boats and perching on the same roofs. Ziggy regularly ‘talks’ to his folks on the neighbouring rooftops.

Dimbola - home of Julia Margaret Cameron, Victorian photographer to the stars

Dimbola – home of Julia Margaret Cameron, Victorian photographer to the stars

Dimbola Lodge in the Bay was a revelation. I had no idea that the area had been a magnet for Victorian ‘celebrities’ lured by Tennyson and his Freshwater ‘set’. Dimbola had been the home of Julia Margaret Cameron, a Victorian woman who turned the Victorian passion for celebrity into a career, taking photographs of them in her beautiful home. Among her models were Tennyson himself and Alice Liddell, who would become the muse behind Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Twenty-year-old Alice Liddell, photographed by JMC

Twenty-year-old Alice Liddell, photographed by JMC

JMC had been given a camera as a present from her children when she was forty-eight. During her lifetime she was accused (presumably by men) of being amateurish, unprofessional and unworthy of her celebrity subjects, or of an exhibition space. I’m so pleased that she is now getting the recognition she deserved then – Dimbola is a wonderful place to visit, and had I not had Blistergeddon I would never have gone there. It’s currently showing a great exhibition about the seminal 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, complete with Jimi Hendrix garden. Fantastic memorabilia of that world-class line-up.

Original 1970 poster for the Isle of Wight Festival

Original 1970 poster for the Isle of Wight Festival

After a slightly terrifying vertiginous bus drive to Ventnor, I discovered that the shoe shop I’d planned to buy comfy shoes from was shut so I decided to use a wine spritzer at The Mill Bay as a method of pain relief. It worked. Enough to see me through popping them all and treating them with spray plaster, anyway.

View of Ventnor from The Mill Bay

View of Ventnor from The Mill Bay

And now to the much-lauded Cantina for dinner. The owner is bringing me aperitivo as I type, along with a gorgeous Elderflower Mojito Frizzante.

What blisters? Salute.

Wight Walk – Day Two

I’m sitting in a pub called the Horse and Groom in a village called Shalfleet, which is (allegedly) 16.7 miles from Ryde. My feet are throbbing and aching under the table, testament to the extra eleventy one miles they added because of a diversion inland, due to coastal erosion at Gurnard.

Gurnard beach

Gurnard beach

I think I’d rather have risked a cliff falling on me.

What I expected to be a quick detour inland actually turned out to be a whole heap of extra mileage, and at 16.7 miles, the walk was already at the limit of my capabilities. And I’d decided to stop off to see Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s holiday home (at least an extra couple of miles). And I got lost in Thorness which saw me going in a complete circle, thanks to a girl who was so sure the coastal path was ‘just up there’. It was ‘down there’.

Not that bad for a diversion - view over Thorness Bay

Not that bad for a diversion – view over Thorness Bay

Anyway. The question tonight is whether or not I’m going to continue tomorrow? I’ve got blisters – one big one on my right inside heel and under my third toe (weird). I’ve burst them in the hope they will be ‘aired out’ overnight and then Compeed will save me. I’m wearing Merrell cross-trainers – they’ve never given me blisters before – but even they were unable to cope with the strain of today. Really pleased with my Fabletics outfit and North Face jacket though (they’re not sponsoring me).

There were so many good things about today. A full English breakfast to start the day followed by a ‘send off’ from Poppy and Heidi – two spaniels resident at San Remo B&B. Then met at the other end by Mia and another Heidi, resident at Brookside Farm Cottage B&B.

Mia the 'jug' – Jack Russell and Pug cross

Mia the ‘jug’ – Jack Russell and Pug cross

My many encounters with Mary – the woman who is cycling the same route as me, but can’t seem to be able to follow the path. She passed me three times before Cowes, unable to comprehend that I was walking ahead of her. She made me laugh – no doubt we’ll meet again before the trip is through.

Then the glory of Osborne House, an absolute jewel in the crown. I just had time to wander around the gardens (you only have to pay to get into the house, I discovered) and I’ll definitely be going back.

Osborne House

Osborne House

The little chain ferry that links East and West Cowes and costs 40p. Apparently fares have only just been introduced and the locals are outraged. In an Isle of Wight, really-quite-nice-actually way.

And lunch at the Well Bread Bakery in Cowes followed by the insta-glamour of Cowes marina. It literally took my breath away with it’s blustery charm, gun salutes, and outrageously green waters contrasting with white boats. Here’s my Periscope.

Glorious Cowes marina

Glorious Cowes marina

I set off from Cowes, the half-way mark, with so much joie de vivre, mainly brought on by a huge coffee and a massive focaccia baguette containing emmental and ham.

The diversion away from the coast did exhaust me, but even during my lowest point, I was able to laugh about going from Cowes to cows, as I passed a big beef farm en route to Shalfleet.

The final straight - almost too much for me, today

The final straight – almost too much for me, today

I knew this was going to be tough – I like to challenge myself. I will be so disappointed in myself if I wake up and feel I can’t continue. Tomorrow it’s all coastline – white cliffs and everything. I have to do it, even if I end up coating myself in Compeed…

All By Myself

I’ve recently started using Periscope – a new app that allows you to broadcast live from your phone. Your followers are notified when you begin broadcasting and you can see them join you as you hold your phone camera at whatever it is you want to show them. They can comment and ‘heart’ your footage.

Today I went for a walk on Hampstead Heath and decided to broadcast from there, once I could get a good enough signal. I was taken aback by one follower, who asked me if I was really walking ‘all by myself’ and why did I not have friends with me for ‘talks’. Quite apart from the strange phrasing, I was surprised that this was even an issue. To me, doing things on my own is just a way of life – a freedom, rather than a sadness. I know I can call friends to join me but I choose to be alone sometimes, thinking my own thoughts, just taking things in on my own, without anyone else’s viewpoint to skew it.

Their comments reminded me of how far I’ve come. There was a time when, like lots of people, I would hardly do anything on my own. I wouldn’t dream of going to the cinema, to a lecture, or even a gallery on my own, let alone a pub or club, or a foreign country. Now I do all of them, all the time, and I feel liberated. I can do exactly what I want, when I want, without having to rely on someone else being available, or wanting to do the same thing. I love spending time with my friends, but they don’t have to always be there. Plus I always have social media if I fancy some ‘talks’.

Thinking about it, though, I’ve always gone on solo walks. As one could in the seventies, I roamed around on my own in the Welsh countryside from about the age of eleven. No one thought anything of it, then. I used to walk through field after field to get to the local church (St David’s in Pantasaph), roam around there for a bit, and walk back. I definitely met a few ‘wanderers’ on the way but we would just pass each other and not blink an eye. I’d play solo in a disused lime quarry which would probably be surrounded by a ‘keep out’ fence now. If another kid was around, fine, but I made my own entertainment.

As a teenager, I roamed the moors near our house with our Jack Russell terrier and pretended I was Cathy about to meet my Heathcliff. I had, and still have, a very romantic imagination and it is possible that other people would’ve reminded me that I was still in the real world. I used to love looking at a field disappearing over the horizon and wondering what was over the top. In a way, I didn’t want to know that there was just a hedge and another field. My mind filled in the blanks.

It’s only recently that I’ve started walking again, solo, building in walks in and out of London, depending on where I’m working. I even walked to a party in Soho last Friday, taking my nice shoes in my bag. Until today, I’d forgotten that this was what I used to do all the time in my youth. Walk, walk and walk.

Just me. No ‘talks’.

Sometimes I have a whole day, which I refer to as a ‘Wandering the Earth Day’, where I just walk and commune with myself, and look around me at everything that’s going on, often recording it on Instagram, Twitter, and now, Periscope. I see lots of couples, families, groups of friends, enjoying each other’s company, or not. I pick up snippets of conversation, and I observe all-but-hidden behaviour. For instance on Friday night, I noticed a lesbian couple dropping hands as they passed by a busy pub and I felt sad that they felt the need to do that. I’m not sure I’d notice that if I was with someone else.

There really is something special about just being on your own in the world. It can feel lonely sometimes, but that really is just a state of mind and I can always call someone if I don’t fancy a good wallow in it. I look at people that can’t do anything without someone else being by their side and think they’re the ones that are missing out. Again and again, I think of the therapist who once told me that freedom was the most important thing for me.

And again and again, he’s absolutely right.