After a three week hiatus (in which I returned to Hay to bolster dwindling funds) I left a gap in the map across Birmingham, and set out from Rugely, just to the north.
Rail companies having erased Sunday from their responsibilities meant a sweltering, crawling bus took me through the suburbs of porous employment to the Rugely terminus. Up the hill, a miner’s wake spilled into the street; above that, cresting the hill, furnace towers still dominate the sky. This is our industrial heartland.
Along the Brecons to Hay
Offa’s Dyke is a one of our more legendry national trails. Some forty or so times it criss-crosses the Welsh-English border, following the tumbled 8th century earthen dyke built to defend the Kingdom of Mercia. Beginning on the banks of the Severn, the trail rises through 177 miles of rolling borderland before ending in Prestatyn (whose unfortunate name brings forth images of cold summers on tarmac seafronts).
Offa’s is a popular route, peopled with fresh-faced hikers who cleverly pay for their packs to be carried from one comfortable B7B to the next. For the campers among us though the struggle remains real – sore calves, flattened feet, and growing ascents. Starting out I was grumpier than usual (the first two days back on the road are always hard, and occur too many times given the stop-start nature of my walking) and felt an alienation and a sad, visceral longing for home. I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect: Offa’s felt like a lonely and difficult endeavour in a way the homely Cotswolds and Thames paths do not.
One of the great pleasures of this walk has been the flowers: more varied, more beautiful, and more plentiful than I had realised in my country childhood.
I know the names of almost none of them (enlighten me if you can) but one day, one day… Until then, this is for Kate, in honour of her growing garden in Crouch End.
Sun setting on the Thames
I have begun writing – and stopped writing – about walking many times. It’s now four months since I began. Back then it was the close of April. Spring was bright in the sky and the hedgerows were noisy with life, hares watchful in the sidelines. The woods carried the high green of new leaves. Below, the ground was carpeted with wild garlic and blue bells stretching on and on between the trees. I thought I couldn’t write because I was charmed, but not moved. I thought that a walk which began pottering, under an overloaded bag, westwards along the Thames to its source just wasn’t interesting enough. There isn’t much to say about a narrowing band of water or the intermittent chattering and pause of birds.
But it wasn’t the surrounds that were boring, it was me. A while had to be walked to understand that.
For ten days in June I worked in a café in Hay on Wye as the Telegraph-sponsored book festival took place the other side of the town.
My favourite moments were those in which my colleagues and I stepped out back for a break, through the kitchen hot with cake baking and lentil curry and stews and into the garden. The next-door neighbour would wander to the fence and in their Welsh brogue slip comments into the conversation – ‘ee’s a dickhead’ (the director of the festival) – or bring a sickly, post-hysterectomy ferret to be coddled in an apron.
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.
After helping Ilse give a lesson to kids in Paysandu
Outside Resistencia lay the bird-famous Ibera wetlands. I saw heron, hawks, a stork with a snake, and bright yellow birds. There were cattle and horses up to their shoulders in waterways of lilies. Under the broad blue sky and through the grasses cowboys herded.