‘It’s glaring at me!’ she says.
‘No it isn’t,’ I say.
‘It’s going to run at me! I can tell! It’s going to run at me!’
I have known Emma for fifteen years, and I had absolutely no idea she had a cow phobia. Now is a bad time to find out. We have rounded a corner to discover a scattering of peaceful cattle dawdling across the path, seemingly oblivious to our presence.
‘Okay,’ I say, ‘We’re going to walk past them.’ The pressure on my hand increases. ‘It’s perfectly alright. There are no calves and no bulls. Just nice lady cows having their lunch.’
At that moment, one of that cows mounts another, and they begin humping enthusiastically. I reflect that perhaps my cow-sexing skills are not what they could be.
‘Oh god,’ says Emma. ‘Now they’re shagging!’
‘That’s a good thing, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘It surely means they’re distracted…’
‘No! It means they’ll be furious that we’re disturbing them!’
‘Looking at them, Em, I don’t get the impression that privacy is much of a concern.’
We sidle past the entirely disinterested cows, and Emma eventually releases my hand when we reach the gate. This is the woman who knew me well enough to ring up and say, ‘I’ll take Bert for a day a week,’ when I was in the depths of postnatal depression and was desperate for some hours to recover my sense of self. She didn’t ask first; she just knew. I realise it’s not the same, but I feel like I should have known, in turn, about the cows thing.
‘Is it all barnyard animals,’ I say, ‘or just the cows?’
‘Just the cows,’ she says. ‘Well, chickens are just wrong. And I wouldn’t want to be in a field with a horse.’
‘You have farm-o-phobia, then.’
‘No,’ says Emma. ‘I have no problem with sheep.’
‘Not even menacing sheep?’
‘Nope. I reckon I could jump them if they ran at me.’
‘Depends on the size of the sheep.’
‘I’d just vary my jump. I could hurdle the small ones.’
I can’t tell you how much I needed this walk. I am properly back at work for the first time in about 10 years, after a lot of time spent being freelance, contract, self-employed or whatever else you might call my patchwork of a career. I have an office, a salary, a tax code and a set of performance objectives. I love it, and I’m exhausted by the sheer number of thoughts in my head. I’ve been craving the feeling of my feet on the path, the opening up of a great expanse of water at my right-hand side.
This month, I have left Bert at home with H. Time is tight, and the drive is a big ask for a three year old. I want to get some miles under my belt without worrying about meeting his needs. This, of course, makes me feel just as bleakly guilty as every other thing I do, but I suppose I’ve just learned to see that as a background to all things. Go to work: grinding guilt at my absence. Stay at home: grinding guilt at my own impatience. I may as well enjoy myself while I’m feeling guilty anyway.
We take a steep climb out of Ilfracombe, accidentally mixing in with what looks like the walking club of a local separatist sect, if the preponderance of chin-strap beards is anything to go by. The men march in front, yelling, ‘Short, fast steps!’ at the women who puff on behind.
‘Oh for fuck’s sake,’ I whisper to Emma. ‘Why ruin a place of outstanding beauty by fucking shouting?’
‘He’s right, though,’ says Emma. ‘That’s just how you’re supposed to do hills.’
It pains me to admit that my hill-climbing was vastly improved by a shouty cult-leader, but this is unfortunately the case. Soon, I am mincing up every slope in tiny, energy-efficient steps that make me wonder whether last month’s battle with Girt Down was a simple matter of poor technique.
We make excellent progress. It is yet again clear that I have a total inability to spot contour lines on a map, but we have all come to expect this by now, and I am beginning to feel that it’s better for the steep bits to come as a nice surprise, rather than to dread them. Eventually, we reach Morte Point, where we fall in step with a man and his wife.
‘Have you come to see the seals?’ he says.
‘We’d love to spot them if we can,’ I say.
‘I’ll show you the right place when we get there.’
True to his word, he calls over to us when we’re nearly at the tip of the headland, and has us squinting down at the rocks below. ‘There,’ he says, pointing at a rock. I can see nothing. Emma attaches the zoom lens of her camera, and uses it to scan the shoreline. We climb down the slope a little, and then…
Three seals. One enormous black bull, and two slighter ones with golden, spotted pelts. They dive and roll in the shallows, pull themselves onto rocks to sunbathe, and, and one point, appear to kiss. We are entranced. The woman tells me about seeing penguins in New Zealand, and I find myself reminiscing about watching the Northern Lights in Tromso. We scrabble around for a shared language of wonder, of awe, of contact with the wild, and then we exchange email addresses and head off along the path.
The ground turns sandy at Woolacombe, and the path becomes flatter. We break for the evening at Croyde, and retire to our apartment for a takeaway curry and a hot bath each. Tomorrow’s walk is another 13 miles on the flat, following the estuary up to Barnstaple. ‘Early start,’ I suggest, ‘and if we push on, we’ll be done by lunchtime.’
Well, don’t mess with two women who have realised that they can get home in time to see their children if only they walk fast enough. We march along Croyde Sands, and then stride along a particularly boring track that takes us to the mouth of the estuary. Here, we pause to admire the way the path splits the marsh from the river, but by now, Emma has started analysing our speed using her Runkeeper app, and so we become fairly obsessed with doing 10-minute kilometres.
When we reach the 13 mile mark, we are still far from Barnstaple, but we no longer care. We are hungry, our knees are hurting, I am whining, Emma is urging me on (and pointing out that my best chance of a bacon sandwich is in the actual town, rather than by a river); we see curlews on the river bank and don’t even pause. We stagger into Barnstaple, clock that we’ve walked 16 miles, slump into the car, and begin to drive home.
A weekend in the wild is one thing, but catching bedtime is an entirely different kind of wonder. We only crave measured doses of freedom these days.