England: the downgrade years

Back in 2015, I thought I needed another adventure. Even as I was still in Buenos Aires, having reached the Atlantic, and with my brain fizzing and imploding with the shock of my fear being over, I knew I wanted it all again. Emotions lived as big and ungraspable as they had been in those mountains are tantalising. I wanted more.

I assumed I would want a replication; as much isolation, endurance, mountains. The obvious thought was to the Himalayas. But we grow old, and as we do, we tire. My knees were absolutely unkeen. Two years of therapy put pay to the more self-flagellating sides of my personality. I began to understand why there is a trip of a lifetime and there cannot be several.

So I find myself now, very much less arduously, less heroically, less needily, on a campsite on the Welsh border. I am walking round England. Small steps this time, near home. Within my culture rather than out of it. In many ways, all the opposites of before.

The only constants are the sheer pleasure of nature (but I shan’t go on about that – you know what I mean) and the daily satisfaction of having moved, however lumberingly, from one place to another under my own steam. I pitch my tent each night with tired feet and sunken hips and a great big happiness in my heart that I have come however far I have come.

The route walked isn’t as purposeful as I’d intended. I had grand plans to write a book: some kind of bouncing, wry anthropology of England in her moment of swivel-eyed, post-colonial rampage. But – and I say this despite being full of the audacity purchased through private education – not everything I do is inherently interesting.

A lot of my time is spent not recognising trees, or my overtures being rejected by lambs. An awful lot of it is spent tramping heavily and without much thought. As each day wears on I get steadily dumber and grumpier. Post 15 miles I can’t really care how beautiful the landscape is, I just want my Ainsley Harriott cous cous. In my tent I watch each weekly episode of Vanderpump Rules and bemoan the fact summertime means days just carry on for longer. 

Maybe I am over egging this. I also – on completion of the first ‘trial’ week of walking – felt an amount of pride that I haven’t felt in my professional life for years. I was surprised I had done it. Even though I can’t name trees, I am more deeply aware of them. I make a lot of eager and bad jokes to strangers as I pass. I’ve swam in cold, fresh rivers and laid in meadows so lush the grass is clumped and lumpen. I stop and trace bird sounds with my ear. I’ve looked over my shoulder only to be surprised by a sudden castle. I have relieved myself in places so beautiful I’ll remember them forever. I’ve seen the flash of a night fox so red I took it for a flame.

So while it quickly became obvious I’m not about to write a book or cycle to base camp, England is being rather lovely, and loveliness is enough to be getting on with. 

Rio Cotagaita


Setting out from Cotagaita

From Uyuni for two days south the roads runs over sandy, windswept high plains to the mining junction of Atocha. These were some of Bolivia’s worst roads: deep sands and washboard. The ride was unnnesesarily slow, a deadening endurance made worse by the empty horizon. Again and again I got off my bike and screamed my blunt frustration out into the expansive quiet.


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