I was all set, you see. I was ready to go. This month, I would cover 30 miles (I’m easily fit enough to do 2 days of 15 miles now, surely), and this would bring me to two, neat brinks: the brink of 100 miles, and the brink of the Cornish border. I was beginning to wonder – quietly, to myself – whether I might actually finish the whole thing a lot earlier than I planned.
Ha! The pride-fall interface is alive and well. What happened? The weather happened.
I had been watching it all week. It was going to rain, there was no doubt about it. But I thought perhaps I might attempt to pull off the there’s no such thing as bad weather; just bad clothing thing for once in my life. I had merino thermals; I had a micro-fleece. I had (courtesy of my mother) a jacket so waterproof that I could probably sail in it. I had repaired my beloved ASBOs with yellow Sugru, and was rather proud of my handiwork.
On Saturday morning, it all began to feel very different. For one thing, we had learned that our hotel’s definition of a ‘suite’ was a normal-sized room with a camp-bed in it, and, coupled with an unfathomable baby-listening system, this meant that we had little choice but to get into bed at the same time as Bert on Friday night (H, inevitably in the camp-bed). On Saturday morning, I read the grim news of the Paris attacks over breakfast, laced on my boots, and trudged out into the grey, squally drizzle, still digesting the appalling events of the night before.
I already knew that today’s walk wouldn’t be the most exciting one on my itinerary – I was essentially walking up the other side of the estuary that I’d walked down the last time – but it’s hard to describe just how boring it is to walk 15 miles into oncoming rain. You can see absolutely nothing, because your head is angled relentlessly down. Your glasses steam up, but there’s no point in wiping them. Your neck begins to ache. Progress is slow.
I kept trying to feel wonder – at the fluting call of curlews, and the flock of goldfinch that flitted up the path in front of me – but it all just dissipated into the grey. I berated myself for failing to feel gratitude at the privilege of making time to be here, at being alive, but there are few tastes more bitter than enforced gratitude. By the time I trudge into Bideford at about lunchtime, I am conscious that my feet are squelching in my badly-repaired boots, and a gust of wind nearly blows me into the road as I cross the bridge. I walk into the nearest pub, and hear a woman gasp, ‘Oh my god, look at her!’ and I offer her a weak smile. I order a pint of shandy and a plate of nachos and fully intend to give up.
But after forty minutes, I can’t think of anything else to do but to press on. I text H to ask him to meet me in Appledore. The rain has stopped, and there might be sea in prospect if I can keep going. Now, though, the path turns muddy, and for all my pleasure in seeing the back of the endless concrete cycle path around the estuary, I am slipping and sliding with every tenth step. The ground is sodden. I am sodden. More than this, my thoughts have turned dark, churning the same worries over and over in my mind, an endless cycle that becomes more paranoid with every rehearsal. I try to reason with myself (You’re worrying about something that hasn’t happened yet!), and then to mock my inner voice (This again? Don’t you have anything better to think about?) but every time, the sense of doom seeps back in. It’s funny: I’ve been nearly desperate for these hours on my own, but now they’re here, I’m unable to cope with them.
I decide not to walk the next day. The rain and wind have been joined by a thick layer of fog, and my boots are still wet from yesterday. But really, I’m grateful to have all that as an excuse. I can say, It’s not safe, but actually my knees ache and I just don’t have the heart.