Saturday morning, 29th August.
Get up at 6.45am (the 5am alarm having failed to go off). Pack son (3 ¼) and husband (43 ¾) into car. Drive for 6 hours, plus stoppages. Arrive at Minehead at 3pm. Change into walking boots.
‘We’ll walk with you for the first bit,’ says H. I suddenly feel a tiny bit choked. This is symbolic, surely?
What actually happens is that they both dawdle along for 100 metres while H looks for a public toilet and I get increasingly irritable. Then Bert spots a playground and suddenly I am ahead, and H is calling, ‘Bye! See you in Porlock!’
And I am on the South West Coast Path, starting a journey of 630 miles that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind for the last month or so. I’ve walked bits of it before, but mostly the stretch between Batham and Hallsands in the South Hams of Devon. That place is the most soul-soothing, heart-soaring place I know, and yet I get down there maybe once every two years, and then spend half a day walking it. Less, now I’ve had Bert. I had started to tell myself that maybe parents of young children don’t do walking.
What changed? I don’t know. A few things. Something about being 38 and the tops of my eyelids suddenly touching the bottoms, so that my eyeliner leaves a neat arced imprint every morning. Something about the stiffening of my limbs and the thickening of my middle. Something about the feeling that my best hope is a process of managed decline. Other things, too. We went to Gara Rock in July, which is my favourite beach in the world, and for the first time we sat in the cafe at the top instead of mountain-goating down to the cove itself. As we left, Bert turned to face the extraordinary view, and started to sing:
All the clouds are in the sky,
And the wind, the wind, the wind
To blow us away!
I’ve told everyone I know about that moment and they all say, Yes, they do make up funny little songs at that age. But to me, it was more than that. My little boy turned to look at the sea, and reflected my own thoughts back at me. The clouds. The sky. The wind. The awe of those things. And then, a week later, I got lost in the woods. I stopped off for a short stroll on my way back from work – something I do every week – but found a group of Japanese schoolchildren about to set off on my usual circular path. I wanted to be alone, so I thought it would be a good idea to just follow my trail backwards. I am an idiot. I’m not sure how early on I took a wrong turning, but pretty soon I found myself at the beginning of what looked like a fairy path, covered in thick moss and deep cobwebs. The sensible thing would have been to retrace my steps at that point, but no. I thought I’d be clever, and rejoin my intended route just as soon as I’d explored this untouched part of the forest.
Three hours later, I emerged, thirsty and dead-limbed, having ranged all over the ancient woodland, disturbed a man taking photos of his girlfriend’s breasts, and called a friend to ask if he could pick up Bert from nursery because I knew I wasn’t going to make it. The thing was, it felt fantastic. Once I’d sorted the childcare, I was free to get confused and exhausted. It was funny. It was liberating. There was one point, deep into the woods, when I stopped to see if I had a phone signal, and slowly became aware of a noise like the crackle of electricity. I put my phone back in my pocket and listened. All around me, the forest was alive, growing and shifting and drawing up water from the soil, and putting up new growth, and letting go of its dead. It was so loud, so absolute. If I were ever to believe in god, I would have found it right there, at that moment. It was exquisite.
So I got home, endured a fair amount of disbelieving ribbing from my friends and family, and quietly made plans to walk the entire South West Coast Path before I turn 40 in September 2017. 630 miles in 26 months, which, pleasingly for fans of Edwin Starr, is roughly 24 miles a pop. The actual walking part would be easy enough; it was getting there over and over again that would be the challenge. I told all my friends before I told H, because I knew he’d have kittens. But, actually, he didn’t. He said, ‘Okay then,’ and ‘Can I do some of it with you,’ and we agreed to work it out from there.
Setting off from Minehead on Saturday morning, I quickly realise that the walking won’t be easy after all. The first two miles are uphill, and steep. I emerge onto Exmoor, where the blackberries are just beginning to ripen, and the sea is always in sight. I barely see another soul, except for a man who tries to chat with me as I overtake. I don’t slow down. I’m on a roll. I yomp past him, dipping down towards the sea.
At that point, there’s a slope so steep and rocky that my thighs sing with pain, and by the time I reach Porlock Marsh, I am dreaming of a cup of tea and a hot shower. It’s six o’clock, and the water is full of wild flowers. I wish I could convey the scent to you, somehow: sharp, green and floral, like a florist’s early in the morning. By the time I meet H and Bert in the garden of Miller’s hotel, that is all I can talk about: the marsh, its smell, the yellow and purple gorse on Exmoor, the sea, the clouds, the wind.
Bert unearths a broken spade from the sandpit, and soon I am my irritable self again. Don’t eat the sand. Don’t throw things. Do you want a time out?
Nine miles covered today. Twelve planned tomorrow. It can’t come soon enough.