West Highland Way: 1/4

There were times when the parents of my friends forbade them to play with me when I was five. The same happened when I turned seven. And when I was basking in my official teenage years. All these parents shared a common fear – the fear of me taking their children to the forest. That fear was not based on a random flight of imagination, however. I did take everyone to the forest with me. I made them spend nights there. And build houses and rafts with me. Sometimes, we all fell into the bog water together or forgot which bridges were fake and slipped into the peaty rivers. There was no reason for those mothers to be worried. We were always having fun.

So, I was very glad when one of my best friends, K., nodded along to my plan to walk the 96-mile long West Highland Way early this October. (Even when her parents had known me for a long time already.)

We decided not to carry a tent (I don’t own a lightweight one, yet) and to sleep in hostels, hotels, bunk houses and camping pods. My 35L backpack got a tear next to one of its zippers already on a train to Glasgow. Otherwise, nothing else broke or needed mending during our journey. Except for K’s toe. It also did not break but did cause noticeable foot-related harm after having been introduced to a rock through an intense encounter.

My backpack held the following:

– a sleeping bag

– 3 pairs of socks + underwear

– 3 tops

– light trousers for sleeping

– an extra fleece

– blister plasters + a tiny first aid kit + a tiny personal hygiene kit

– a travel towel

– a thermos and a bit of instant coffee

– a map, a compass

– a walking diary, a pen and a mascara (yes)

Loch Lomond in sunshine.
Loch Lomond in sunshine.

DAY 1, Milngavie to Drymen: 22.5 km

Day 1 started brilliantly: in the foggy Glasgow where we missed our planned train to Milngavie. All good, though, since those trains are very regular. Milngavie also welcomed us shrouded in the fog and gave me enough time to go and buy some gaffer tape from Poundstrecher. We were ready to get going.

Most of the day took us on a very straightforward course. Both emotionally and path-wise. This was a cute part of the way that has also been the quickest to slip from my memory. (No disrespect to the road.) We walked on wide paths with houses or bigger roads nearly always in sight. However, this did turn out to be the only day when we actually deviated from our path. For a little while, we trotted along the John Muir way instead and ended up walking on a high and narrow bridge across a wide river as an award. One should never underestimate the Way of the Civilized. The Way of the Civilized can make you lose focus.

The bridge through air.
The bridge through air.

Searching for the hotel in the falling daylight without an access to the map – not exactly knowing where you sleep for the night – is the feeling I can’t get enough of. This is how I remember Drymen – a place with all the options open. (The sign of true freedom, ha-ha!) We had been promised a bed in a hotel lobby, that was all we knew. Yet, at the end of the evening, the lovely Frances from the Kip in the Kirk actually put us in a real room. What more could one ask for?! Well, home-made scones, perhaps. But she had those covered as well. All we had to do then, was to enjoy our warm showers and admire our sun-burnt shoulders from the day. (Yes.)

Day 1 of the way was a sweet day. It also came with a honesty box for ice cream on the road, an edible metaphor for the hungry.

The way of the day one.
The way of day one.

DAY 2, Drymen to Rowardennan: 22.5 km

One of my favourite things about travelling is starting walking in the morning when having received directions from someone else. This is how our morning started, and as a firm believer in travelling omens, I took it to be a good day at that very second. I also know that I wouldn’t actually mind just walking, walking, walking towards the hedge at the end of the world (I mean, the road), only to figure out whether that direction had been correct a little later. The freedom to step into the morning fog is indeed even sweeter than the fudge bars left for the sugar-deprived travellers.

Day 2 turned into another day of scorching sun. (I guess no one would believe that we had travelled to Scotland if there weren’t for the pictures.) After having walked through all our morning mists we set our course towards Conic Hill, under which we met an English French horn player now working in Germany. He was the first official walker we met on the road. We never learnt his name, as was the case with literally all the people we met and talked to. We only learnt where they had walked from and what were their plans for the coming day. (Sometimes, life is just poetic.) He was one of those people, though. You know, the munro baggers. He didn’t even have to mention it, he had that glint in his eyes. One can tell. (He was meeting his daughter somewhere down the road, so he was going to the meeting point across the munros. Of course.)

Just for the record, I’d like to point out that sitting on top of the Conic Hill in October has been the least windy hill top experience of my entire life. And also one of the sunniest. This has left me with a conspiracy suspicion about Scotland actually being a sunny place and the local councils spreading stories of the opposite to keep the eager masses out. You know, those people who are only willing to walk in the sunshine. People very different from us, of course.

Day two of the way.
Day two of the way. K getting  familiar with the loch.

The second half of the day was spent walking parallel to the shore of Loch Lomond. And we did it while walking in the sun, making friends with the birds, gasping at the lake. K did take off her boots and tested the water. She had her swimming clothes on her and she was not afraid to use them! But since our next stopping point (=accommodation) was quite a while away, she decided against walking into the fresh waters of the Great Britain’s largest inland water body.

I don’t have any memories of the dinner we ate in Rowardennan. Maybe we survived on the mist.

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DAY 3, Rowardennan to Inverarnan: 22 km

I remember the morning as a state of awe at the completely placid Loch Lomond. The scenery looked like something out of mythological Japan, with the old pier posts standing sentinel in the water and the mists consolingly crawling around the crooked pines. I also remember this day as the first one of the West Highland Way when I really started tapping into the joy of our walk. A lot of this day’s path was bordered with walking pole piercings and mountain bike lines in the mud, remnants of the all travellers who already had passed by. All those patterns were definitely filled with joy as well. The path was also getting slightly steeper and more interesting as it sloped between large oak trees and slightly smaller boulders. As I’m saying – all the reason to feel more joyful.

The path of day three.
The way of day three.
The way of day three.

Today also brought me face to face with Truth: long-distance walking is the most sensible way to spend one’s time. I’ll be taking this to the Academy of Sciences one day. Here’s just the shortest explanation as to why:

– you are surrounded by some of the best scenery in the world

– you are in the fresh air

– you are in the best of company (either just you or your well-chosen companions from the same or different species)

– you have to eat at least 3500 kcal a day

– all the people you meet are deeply happy, as you chance upon them when they are doing the thing they love the most (you can recognise the faces who do not want to be in theatres and cinemas, oh yes, you can)

– your mind is forced to rest while your body is applauding you at every step

It is a mystery why everyone has not already abandoned everything. I shall enquire into this as well before turning to the Academy.

Day three of the way.
Day three of the way.

And after having moved pass the magnificent oak trees bending their branches into lake water, and having passed Rob Roy’s cave (meeting your teenage heroes in real life is always a strange moment out of some forgotten cross-media narrative), we walked on a lentil soup coloured road until reaching our chambers for the night at Beinglas Farm. And if that doesn’t win a bad description award, I don’t know what will. (Just for the record, we slept in a camping pod.)

Notes taken: you know you are trekking when:

– the moment when you take out a clean pair of socks for the next day makes you squeal

– you don’t want the 5p change because you would have to carry it

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Day three of the way.

DAY 4, Inverarnan to Tyndrum: 19.5 km

The first half of our fourth day’s walk had me transfixed on the milky fog hiding and disclosing a large group of fir tree tops on the horizon. What we saw was a form of dancing glue, magically moving through that very air we were about to step into. On day 4, we finally came to some mountains that reminded me of their relatives in Snowdonia. I had not known I had walked with that wish in my mind, but apparently so. (It is a worrisome thing, discovering that you had secrets from yourself.) The much-blessed sun actually shone on top of one of the mountains in that very exact manner it had dome on top of another mountain in Wales. That made me realise that 14.02.2015 has been one of the happiest days of my life so far. And that I’m still living in this year.

The old military road, day four of the way.
The old military road, day four of the way.

Keeping to the tradition, it did not rain. We walked a lot on the old military road that meandered through and under ancient-looking fir trees. During these kilometres, we finally understood that we were getting away from the civilization.

It was Sunday. K’s toe was not feeling very well but the ibuprofen gel did help. We thought about the 30 km day ahead of us in the coming week (Tuesday!) and got slightly worried about the possibility of rain (I said rain, right? I actually meant what the forecast said: severe downpours and a hail storm). In the evening, we managed to control ourselves in the biggest (and almost only) shop in Tyndum and not buy a magazine (I’m talking about me), and met the French horn player again, and then spent most of our time looking at people trying on their rainproofs. We had rainproofs as well, new ones, even. And we also wanted to see how they kept out the elements. What we didn’t have were rainproof boots. But we had sprayed ours with all the possible sprays. So, we had given our best.

On our way to the camping cabins we took a path that was fringed by the yellowest birch trees on this side of the Scottish border. Every step on the path felt like walking in the first dream of my childhood. This is how our fourth day slowly turned itself into a friendly beast from story books: it brought the first mountains into our sight and showed us paths into many parallel narratives within our time.

At some point at the very end of our road, we saw movement through the trees to our left. And there they were, a group of people, most of them old gentlefolk, sitting in the low river, panning for cold.

Day four of the way.
Day four of the way.

Places are like magic. In all the places you go to, you don’t find anything more than just the things you have taken there yourself.

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Writing up WHW as we speak

Today has been exciting and satisfying in one very specific manner: I’ve finally had the time to go through all the photos I took on the West Highland Way and published a selection on the gallery page as well.

A full account of our West Highland journey will follow within a couple of days. These things are strange to write. You start on a new journey, always discovering new things about the place when putting your steps down in writing. As if writing itself was a form of walking and vice versa.

Walking on the pawprint pavements of Istanbul

Everything is dripping. The baklava stands, the flower troughs, the chocolate fountains, the broken water tubes sticking out in the middle of billboards on the crumbling house walls. And when it is not dripping, it is shredded to strips. The floss halva, the cheese, the colourful shawl fringes. When nature can overwhelm you by making you inspect the insides of your mind, a city can do the same by making you inspect theirs.

From the dandy-approved city strolling to those innocent trips to the countryside or the careful wading through unknown rivers, wandering around in completely new places fills me with freedom so unreal and strong that I can cut its potency into invisible garments covering my skin for the rest of the season back home.

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It would be easy to give your heart to Istanbul. Rest assured, it would be gone forever. Not all in one go, but piece by piece like the white cheese getting nibbled away by the dusty tom cats waiting under the chairs of guileless tourists. Or, that same heart would get sucked into street art, into the electric blue dervishes painted on back doors or the palm trees stencilled on alley walls on late evenings when the temperature is falling to a mere 34 C. In each case, you wouldn’t be able to ask for your heart back by just taking a long, reverse-stepped walk. No one would hear your calls.

Istanbul is loud. But since it is also exuberantly colourful, the loudness can go unnoticed for days. All our senses enhance each other, but they also hide sensations from us when the situation asks for it. And Istanbul is light. Even when the sunrise is still hours away, you can spot the clothes hanging from differently coloured lines above the narrow streets or notice paw fur variations on those kittens that are now crawling out from their hiding dens in hundreds. Speaking of paws no other city I’ve walked in has had that many cat and dog pawprints (especially those!) pressed into the concrete. When the streets get rained upon or hosed down in the morning, the pavements become adorned with tiny pawprint lakes. (Pavement Pawprint Lakes will be the name of my indie band. It’s either that or the Defenceless Thistle.)

It reminded me of the upside-down seashells neatly laid out near the waterline on the Rockaway Beach some summers ago, all filled up to the brim with water from the sky. My notes from that day describe a row of frail bowls placed on the ground waiting for the children of sirens to stray. No such thoughts pop up in here. Although you can’t think of Istanbul without the water, its layers of streets and stairs and rooftops do not let the Bosphorus take too much control over the place. The everyday mythologies are balanced between the water and the land.

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But yes, Istanbul is a city of sounds. From the one-stop funicular merrily pulling its squeaking weight up towards Taksim Square to the jingles shouted out by the water sellers on the pavements and on the bridges, the sounds get interwoven into a thick carpet of exotic notes wrapping the city into its folds. The understanding of this sound level’s actual strength hits you with a delay, either in the middle of the night when you can’t hear the fan in your room for all the outside ambience or upon leaving the city on a ferry, under a dozen white clouds trapped in the azure sky. It is interesting to note how clouds mean different things in different places. For example, the morning clouds of Istanbul would prophesy a longer rain in Lapland, a short shower in London and apparently nothing on the shores of the Golden Horn. An idea to return to.

In cities like this, life gets everywhere. The surfaces get drenched in stories. And you feel safe from the invisible in here. Although forests and metropolises are ravishingly similar on their deeper structural levels, the notion of safety sticks out as one of the differences.

You can feel “at home” in a forest but it’s a fact that you can never be completely safe from the invisible there. The forests are home to the invisible. They are the guardians with limitless memories, always waiting for you to enter and prove yourself worthy of your luck. This is why it is easier (and wiser) to wander without route-planning in cities. In here, all you need is time and perhaps some flair for decadence. When wandering away from civilisations in the same manner, you need the wanderlust gods, luck, stamina and calm knowledge all to accompany you on your way. This is a beautiful and encouraging thought, however. As long as you trust luck to show up you are never too far from the source of an adventure.

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Other similarities and differences between city and nature walking that come to mind:

– The older a city, the more it resembles a wood. In places like these, you can be sure that there exist hundreds of shortcuts and desire lines, serving your every directional need. In both places, you can find your way around by just following the clues in the sound- or landscape.

– Cities approach you from the outside-in: they make you ponder all the things you haven’t done. Nature works from the inside-out: it makes you think of things you want to do. Almost the same concept, but inhabited by an opposite emotional range.

– In cities, you are able to make more intimate connections to objects and paths than in nature. It is easier to “make things yours”. In wilderness, everything is connected to so many things out of your reach that the concept of intimacy feels man-made and foreign. When crossing a moorland (or any other natural terrain), its invisible code of behaviour seems to say: everything you must love, you can love. Also – don’t drip. Walking in nature makes you more tolerant of all life’s possibilities; it is easier to accept not being in control.

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Cities as public spaces have more to do with control and order. And when that order is made up of the remains of one of the greatest empires, your every thought easily collapses into poetry each time you take a turn after having climbed a hundred stairs. It seems that Istanbul is full of invisible guideposts that sneakily make you change your direction. Some of them direct you to East London, for example. You end up in (what look life) leftist bars with the cheapest raki in town, sitting under ironical pink neon signs saying “Deleuze this Deleuze that”, in Turkish. The irony is so clean that is is beautiful. No haughty embellishments needed. Other guideposts lead you to slums in the falling daylight. They direct you to ghettos that stand five minutes away from the tourist-filled restaurants and freshly painted houses. In here, the entire width of life is compressed into a street-wide stretch, a full readiness to grow decaying into a speckle at a great speed, reaching its destination long before departing. On these pavements, mothers wipe their children’s bottoms with dirty plastic bags soon picked up and carried away by an odd homeless dog. You know that the will to live is everywhere, burbling, unchanged and unbreakable, but in the midst of powdered life (and to a stranger’s eye), it looks stillborn. “Everything we can’t bear in this world, some day we find in one person, and love it all at once,” writes Djuna Barnes in Nightwood. That same idea could be perfectly adopted to cities.

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What about the things out of nature, however? I exaggerate, yes, but there aren’t almost  any tree shadows to be found in the centre of Istanbul. (Although people do tell stories about the greenness of the city.) It took me a while to get to the root of that specific “my neckline feels strangely exposed” feeling. During my six days of wandering, I managed to walk next to trees on three occasions only (in the park near the Topkapi Palace, at the entry to the Botanic Gardens (actually, those were the gardens) and near the Sultanahmet Mosque). Maybe it was because of September but there was also hardly any bird song in the air. However, you could hear dogs barking a lot, especially after dark. It has been said (by Flann O’Brien) that “when a dog barks late at night and then retires again to bed, he punctuates and gives majesty to the serial enigma of the dark, laying it more evenly and heavily upon the fabric of the mind.” These are the childhood sounds of the night, cleaning out the souks of your soul with great care.

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Entering and leaving grand cities fills you with very particular sense of power. (As opposed to the deep woods that can sometimes meet or leave you at “This seemed like a good idea at the time.”) It is a borderline moment, and thus, filled with more strength than a regular passage in space. I guess you just tap into their endless reservoirs of chance and chaos. Of course, changes in the weather always help along. And outside of Istanbul, thunder sounds like someone dragging a massive suitcase over a cobbled sky.

I left the city and its pavement pawprints in order to say goodbye to the season and scatter my summer into the salt water. On my way out of this majestic town, I saw mountain bridges being built. The gigantic concrete walls reaching high above the ocean of trees and not supporting anything above their heads filled the space around them with thick, dormant strength. The sight was intensely time-sensitive: you could feel the place exhaling readiness for the things to come. The time stood ripe and heavy on the road. Encouraging, once more, but encouraging in a way a hunting dogs smiles in their sleep. With a mote of uncanniness hovering above their head.

Time plays a great part everywhere in Istanbul. The basements of the houses naturally hide things that would be glamorously exhibited at museums in other parts of the world. In turn, a certain museum in this town only holds completely made-up objects, making the narrative time from its partner novel softly clash and play with the official time of the streets.

In Beyoğlu (the district that National Geographic calls the Soho in the Heart of Istanbul), you can actually enter an antique shop where the salesman still writes with a quill and keeps one of the ancient console games of the world in the corner of his shop. I tried taking a picture of that piece, but the once a Grand Bazaar salesman told me off for taking out my phone. “Put that away. It disrupts the time in here.”

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At the end, the gate to summer wilderness was waiting for us at the shores of the Black Sea. The heartbeat of the distant metropolis did not carry so far. It did not reach the waves nor the most relaxing forms of silences I have ever heard. And as it often happens when you can see something for what it really is only after having travelled the distance, I suddenly understood what the heart of Istanbul was all about. At least for me.

It was exquisite, sweet and deliciously presented. It was a baklava stand.

Unwell Wight walking

Last month I spent a week on the Isle of Wight. This means I have now rambled between its coastal and non-coastal villages both in dream-defying sunshine and in that awkward drizzle which never reached the promised rage of a storm.

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On our second day on the island, a group of us set out to walk from the Needles in Alum Bay to a oh-it’s-not-that-far-away town on the southern coast. Out of the entirety of our planned walk, we managed to get through a one-third and no one can really tell, why.

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As for me, I was feeling the worst I had ever felt without being subjected to proper corporeal suffering. All I remember is the loaded tiredness mixed with a headache backed by heavily blocked ears. I had never walked in a such a state before and am hoping that the next opportunity stays hidden in the unlikely corners of the future.

Walking when unwell is a shapeless, blunt pain. You can direct your mind away from painful swells or specific sore spots on your body for quite long distances, but when that feeling is not focused or concentrated (on a shoulder or on an ankle, for example), you slowly acquire the gait of a person who is dragging a crocheted parachute across a field of thistles. This type of walking is a literal and poetic pain, both at once, and comes with extra factors that render it especially nerve-numbing and gruesome.

1) You never see where you’re going.

Playing the connecting game with the dots, trees and shapes on the horizon is one of the most pleasurable games you can play when walking. When feeling ill, all you are left with are the edges of your shoes. You are not counting your steps but are aggressively trying to avoid noticing the vastness behind the distance. Or the distance behind the vastness. In both cases, your horizon ends with your next step.

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2) Every new sight becomes greeted with a sigh.

Especially a high one. Of course, general functionality becomes an effort of its own when you are feeling poorly. Noticing beauty becomes an effort. A curious texture that definitely needs your quick touch becomes an effort. A 50 meter ascent on a sunny cliff side becomes an effort of a grander scale. Suddenly, an innocent beach cliff is turned into a winter approach of the Karakorum. Without noticing, you swap speaking for sighing and patiently trod along in hope of someone demanding a break.

3) You focus an intense amount of time on breathing.

At least I do. Forcing my breathing into a set of slowly rolling waves helps to lift some of that vague fatigue. However, when you do it too intensely and on too hot a day, it tends to create an ill-advised side effect. So you must focus even more.

4) Side-stepping into possible futures.

To escape your current efforts, you automatically imagine yourself somewhere else, crossing an unfamiliar terrain under very different circumstances. This is what I found to help me the most – being mentally transported into a training or preparation mode for something more difficult to come. I guess imagining your current journey being a small part of some bigger physical challenge gives you some mysterious and near-ridiculous strength. The step not to reach is imagining your current journey being one of your future journeys from the past.

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5) Not only your ears but also your mind becomes blocked.

The prospect of getting lost doesn’t fill you with any romantic notions. You don’t want to step off the path (fair enough, you can barely keep an eye on it) or get fully carried away by the Awe of the Bizarre. That feeling of sparkly freedom which usually accompanies reaching utterly unplanned places seems to be gone forever. Actually, quite a lot of general willpower gets directly overtaken by those small mundane operations you must perform. You might just stop and go back indoors. In fact, it’s a fact of life that walking without feeling an ounce of romance is actually not considered walking at all.

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6) Something other starts hurting, just because.

That is a rule of some sort. I just need to find a name for it.

7) Realisations about your surroundings reach you later. Much later.

Nothing sudden can penetrate your shield of dullness and you also can’t derive any pleasure from your non-linear thinking pattern. Things that are obvious to others remain out of sight for you. You miss the cliffs formed of differently coloured minerals, the cooing of the wood pigeons, the sight of land slide a couple of meters from your cliff path. Later in the evening, you curiously turn to your camera to see whether you captured anything from your day at all. And then realise what another enticing one it has been.

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Switching between realities on the South West Coast Path

After a late afternoon surfing session, I decided to walk to Holywell. Sneakily, I was planning on walking to Newquay, but having checked the map and knowing the distance to be around 20 K (on the coastal path, so all the ups and downs added), I was not certain whether I’d make it there before the sunset.

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Think I found the beach bar. July 2015.

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It was strangely sad to leave Perranporth. Today, my body already knew more things than yesterday and getting up on the board did not register as a ridiculous concept any more. Everyone was still in the water when I started walking up the hills and just… Yes.

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Next time I leave the city for surfing it will be for a longer period.

blogisse1.3blogisse1.4But the hilly walking next to the ocean leaves one no space for sadness. After all, after every corner, a new beach. A long, stretchy, not your typical English pebble. Every day, a new beach. This how this week has been.

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Somehow, I managed to make it to Holywell without even noticing. Amongst houses, I lost the path. That is typical, it seems. I can spot it or take imaginary short-cuts on the natural terrain but as soon as there’s a house around, I become confused. It should be the other way around, really.

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A bit of hilly heathland later, I was soon back on the South West Coast Path. And quite soon also reached the Crantock Beach. Somehow, I had managed to walk roughly 9 miles in around 2 hours (and a bit more). I don’t remember running it. I definitely do not remember any running. What I do remember is seeing a completely new natural phenomenon – a coastal meadow (very very close to the ocean) with low-growing greenery that all looked like Mediterranean ferns. God as a child, practising different terrains, this is what it looked like. I also saw a rabbit on the sand. In my northern country, the only place for rabbits is… everywhere away from the coast. But yes, technically, I saw a beach bunny.

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And then someone turned the switch. Another time started ticking, another mindset settled in. I’m not kidding. Something funny happened in that neighbourhood. First of all, I doubted myself for the first time. Walked a bit up the hill, walked down to the beach soon afterwards, looked around for a possible ferry – there was a river there, separating me from my access to Newquay -, learning the ferry had finished for the day, tied my sneakers to my backpack and waded around the river a little, but seeing it becoming deeper, came back to the beach. Talked to some people.

One of the people I ended up talking with was not probably a real man. He was working together with another human, so I did not imagine him – not a real man in that sense. Just in a sense that he was not a man all together. Some other species, but I don’t know what. He was about my height, slightly shorter, and had hair of yellow-grey-greenish. But even better – he had the most otherworldly eyes I had ever seen. Mostly bright turquoise and just around the iris – a rainbow of darker blues, greens and greys. A water spirit? Definitely too big for a water spirit. A mermaid turned surfer? He did look awkwardly out of place on the land, though. Hmm. But, yes. Upon hearing my wish on wanting to reach Newquay he told me to wait an hour for the tide to go out, so the river would move away and reveal a bridge that I could cross if I were lucky enough. I would have to wait at least an hour for the tide, though. The other option was to walk through the Crantock village, turn left and just walk to Newquay, basically around the river. He also offered me a ride if I waited 20 minutes.

I could not wait. Not 20 minutes and definitely not an hour. I thanked him and started walking on the bigger road. Soon, I became surrounded by lush trees quite uncommon to the beach areas. And that’s when another switch was pulled. Church bells started ringing out of nowhere. Happy bells, bells for people waking up from the dead or angels brought to earth. I then saw the church tower and a white, wolf-looking animal galloping around the tomb stones in the church garden. I would just like to say that I’m not making this up. This all happened only a minute after I had found a small gate, barely up to my knees and covered with ivy, with a lady’s face carved into its wooden surface.

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I walked out of the church garden, nearly seeing a trapped woman walking around this same place, but once again, not trapped in a bad, helpless way. It’s as if everyone had chosen to fall under a spell in here. And the village itself! The pub – definitely made-up. The fences and the garden gates – more than definitely made-up! Public pathways leading into arched passage ways of the unknown – khm!

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I finally walked up to a mountain (managed to ignore my instincts twice and do a bit of to-and-froing), until I jumped over a low fence and started walking straight across a hilly field, down towards the river where it was supposed to reach its ending.

I still can’t tell how, but suddenly, I was back on the path again. And Newquay was just 2 miles away. (People on the road had told me it was an hour’s walk!) I now knew I had made it before the dark. And I walked towards the bottom of the valley – only to see that I was actually very far from the river’s end. However, where the river should have been, was just sand. The tide had gone out. And for the second time within one hour, I untied my sneakers and started walking barefoot. Straight towards the other shore, across the river bed. And there it was, the bridge that stayed under water, surrounded by sleeping boats and the golden hour. A lonely surfer carried his board across the bridge and I tried hard not to slip on the algae when our paths crossed. There was still a bit of water under the bridge, the deepest part of the river.

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The magic realm came to a sudden yet unnoticed end on the opposite shore. Everything was done now, everything was safe. It was just the walk back to my abode for the night. Quite nostalgic, for some reason. I think Cornwall had started crawling under my skin a bit.

PS. On my way back to the hostel, I visited another cemetery. Once again I saw proof of health and safety regulations just really keeping the population levels artificially high. There was a sign on the cemetery gate advising to pay attention whilst walking – due to the ground being uneven. I….just…well… nothing.

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When things go differently than expected in Cornwall

I was not 3 hours early at the needed place today, as I had first thought.
I was actually 45 minutes late and at a very wrong place.
That meant no surfing for me on this Tuesday but at least I know where (not) to go on the following days.

Perranporth Beach. Cornwall, July 2015.

I almost don’t have any explanation for this, except that I think my brain shuts down when surrounded by a high intensity of horror. Which, in itself, can be considered as some sort of a defence reflex and a very bad survival one. Luckily, it kicks in ever so seldom and my levels for extreme can probably be stretched every now and then. Well, at least the bus ticket for a half an hour ride is £2.- in here, so all sorts of exploring is encouraged.

Anything to say in my defence?

I got off at the right stop and that’s when it happened, really: I found myself in a trailer house town. A trailer house town. And not one that has been born out of difficult social situations. A town that had been quite newly built. It is hard to explain how the place felt and how it looked: ET on a bad acid trip having put together a suburb he kind of remembered, but not having houses at hand, so having used caravans with legs instead.

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It was a town of sour hope and dejected dreams. Full of hetero families with 3+ children walking from Spar (yes, a selection of high street shops had been transported to the middle of this town) to the Pit of Forlornness, disguised as a pub. The Pit of Forlornness had a large blackboard behind the counter explaining how many pennies one would save buying a bottle of Merlot instead of 3 large glasses of the same wine. It explained away every wine they sold. From another building across the street, one of Elvis’s songs in major key could be heard.

The flip-flopping fathers of this place were wearing T-shirts by surfing brands yet looked like people who had touched the water around the same time they had last had sex. Which was not very recently at all. There were screaming children at an eerie mini golf ground, a small plane flying a beer banner across everyone dipping their fries into suspicious mayo and McDonald’s being called a restaurant on the road sign. The town also had a suburb. The suburb, however, was not made of trailer houses but only trailers. At least the sun was shining above the suburb and the weather was getting less hazy and more focused on its sunny ways.

The Labyrinth of a town had signs up for a surfing school. Not everywhere, but every now and then, so you could follow them and finally find the beach. (Something I’ve never had trouble doing before.) I was following all the signs very carefully (you really don’t want to get lost on the avenues of Doom Illustrated) and finally found my way down to the beach, only to be told there was no booking on my name. It was almost cruel. The waves where all there. The drizzling was stopping. The families with eight screaming toddlers were leaving.

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They sent me back up, to their office in the Labyrinth of Despair. Having spent 20 minutes finding it, they directed me to the town’s Reception. Waiting 15 minutes in the reception, a young boy pointed out that my booking was with another surf school all together. So, hey, this was all my doing, then. But I hadn’t even thought about blaming anyone, I was too focused on not touching anything in case it might suck me in. But yes, the mistake was purely mine. Even if the school had a logo in the same shape and colour, and a name 88% similar to the other only school that had all the advertising up. There were no flags up for my school, so I could not go and find it. Even my mobile reception was lost amongst the Horizons (a popular house name) of these streets. The kind but slightly alarmed people at the Reception finally showed me a map of their town. I thanked them and I thanked the wind my school did not fit on their map nor was part of this Establishment of Endings.

I called my school, so I’m going tomorrow. All is good, the weather is getting better and warmer. The real feel is above 15C now. I have returned from the Nether Side of Nightmares, and am now back in Newquay where half of the population walks the streets carrying their big surfing boards. You know what they say: big surfing boards…. But the other half looks like aggressive sea hippies, so they make up for that. Aggressive sea hippie is just another word for a pirate, just making that clear.

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*

I checked into charity shops for possible reading material. The options available were Your Talking Cat, In the Minds of Murderers, Pocket Guide to Australia and How to develop Your Sixth Sense. I can’t say I need any of those very specifically right now. Except for one, maybe.

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Newquay is actually not that bad. It is probably even one of the most pleasant-feeling seaside towns in England I’ve ever been to. The corny fudge packaging is still everywhere as is the traditional piňa colada flavoured sugar candy, but there’s also a lot of actual happiness that is nearly tangible. It could be because Newquay is not trying to be something. That’s where its charm might spring from – the place is not exerting itself too much. Everyone already knows that the surf is good in here and that the pasties fill you up real nice. There is no need to prove anything to anyone and that makes the locals relaxed. Maybe all the flip-flop people are on to something, after all.

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I do have my own reading with me. I’ll walk around this tiny ocean town and find a place to read it. Things can only go up.

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Following the River Lea through a secret hole in the hedge

When I left for the Lea Valley Walk I had no idea I would not be doing all its 4 stages in one go. Everything was pointing towards a successful walk: the weather was going to be glorious and breezy, the trains were running and my walking boots had been trained to be my loyal friends for 6 months. Fine, my starting point in the Leagrave Marsh being next to a spot called Rotten Corner should have maybe given me a hint of something going amiss. And perhaps, my path sharing a bit of its course with the oldest road in England (Icknield Way, predating Roman times, that old) should have served as a possible reminder that not everything is achievable in one, fresh attempt. But all this is just my Finno-Ugric reasoning, full of deep belief in linguistic superstitions. (Well, I also saw paw prints of light in a tunnel of arched trees disco-ing away under the shivering leaves, so my Finno-Ugric mind translated that into a good sign. The suburbs of Luton are surprisingly lush.)

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Leagrave, Bedfordshire. July 2015.
Leagrave, Bedfordshire. July 2015.

Twice I thought I had strayed, and twice I was proven wrong. During those times I either reached the needed path within couple of moments or found myself in places where Julius Caesar had walked, George Bernard Shaw had lived and elephants had accidentally damaged rustically heartwarming bridges — only to find myself back on the path again. The village of Wheathamstead was there like a comforting stranger, offering a place to take my boots off, and encouraging me not to take a direct (!) road to my next destination (Lemsford).

Wheathamstead to Lemsford, Hertfordshire. July 2015.
Wheathamstead to Lemsford, Hertfordshire. July 2015.
Wheathamstead to Lemsford, Hertfordshire. July 2015.
Wheathamstead to Lemsford, Hertfordshire. July 2015.

The third time I decided to follow the voice of reason instead of my gut feeling – this is how great trekkers seem to keep themselves from harm, I thought. I even had help on the way: when prancing merrily across a hilly slope in Hertfordshire and reaching a road I had not fully planned on taking (the Ayot Greenway), a very old man stepped out from the hedge and pointed me towards the needed direction (still Lemsford). I know now that it is not only fables and fairytales where wise old men appear out of thin air to offer you their guidance. This is just what happens when you step out of your door with nothing but your walking boots and a bit of money for ale.

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It was the Ayot Greenway that broke my stride, however. That was the path where my right boot actively decided to show my right ankle what it’s made of. (The boot, not the ankle.) Limping along, the only thought that kept me going were the meters ticked off from those last miles I was walking. Keeping straight to the path (this is where my gut feeling started screaming), I later found myself at the full end of it – and with still 6 miles to go to reach Hatfield. Six miles is mountain-loads when you can’t walk all that well any more. And it comes with the added psychological quirk: when you have prepped yourself up for those last 4 miles, and are already whispering to your knees that there’s only a little to go – then to find yourself in the beginning of yet another journey becomes a wicked mental barrier to limp over. I did mention the ankle, right?

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Honestly? The last couple of hours of Stage 1 were strenuous. Weirdly, I never thought of giving up, though. No one gives up when they are having fun, even if that fun is painful. It helped that this bit of the walk was also chequered with many benevolent encounters: I ended up a little lost and a little stuck in the middle of a massive bean field, shouting greetings and questions towards the nearby houses and being soon pointed to a secret hole in the hedge (!). From there I was then advised to carefully cross a golf course which’s gatekeeper – the casting agency for Harry Potter had clearly overlooked this guy – directed me to yet another hole in another hedge. From where, walping (yes) towards the Hatfield train station, a man with a stuffed falcon and an alive pointer dog confirmed my choice of direction. This is what makes a glorious day out without even reaching proper wilderness (I probably walked as much as Roman legionaries walked in one day) – the people with stuffed falcons wishing you good luck on your way.

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At the very end, I almost did not have time to be with myself any more. Reaching a place to sit down became an all-encompassing need. Even the train station became difficult to find, as did the platform. You know you must be tired if you can’t even find your way to the platform from the station. My journey of rational and gut feeling choices came to an end 11 hours after its beginning, and was followed by Stage 3 of the walk after one day of ankle healing. No chants, just ibuprofen.

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Lea Valley Walk, Stage 1 / 17.07.2015 / ~ 40 km.

Lea Valley Walk, Stage 3 / 19.07.2015 / 23 km.

Tottenham Marshes, Haringey, London. July 2015.
Tottenham Marshes, Haringey, London. July 2015.

HIKING SCOTLAND AND THE WORLD. DIARY & TIPS.