Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Doing the impossible thing

Doing impossible things- like recovering from a computer virus, climbing mountains in Scotland during a hurricane, slaying the Jabberwocky and falling in love are all part of the glorious nonsense of life; or so I keep telling myself.

For the first few days of our hiking tour in the Scottish highlands we were treated to the delightful debris of Hurricane Katia, she was past her worst by the time we started out, but according to the news her winds were still at Hurricane strength as she trailed her tail across Ireland and the United Kingdom.

After three months of sunshine and two weeks of fairly mild weather in England I admit to standing miserably at the summit of Ben A'an on the first day. The climb itself was no problem, but once the momentum of moving uphill ceased I struggled to enjoy having gained the summit because I was positively freezing to death. While we ate a hasty lunch, and peered out at the misty 'views' the catch-phrase that would stay with us for the next few days was formed- 'Just imagine what this must look like when it is clear', we said to each other again and again.

There was plenty of mud going up and down, powerful wind gusts to greet us at the top and power outages on the ground. And yet after a pub meal, a whisky, and a warm nights sleep we picked up our damp shoes and our not so fresh socks and did it all over again; and again and again.

There are things that help with achieving impossible tasks:

Tip 1. Knowing very little about the challenges ahead of you helps, not knowing the weather report is essential, I took to scowling at people who tried to tell me about wind speeds and rain predictions.

Tip 2. Reminding yourself that it is no use sitting in a puddle half way down a mountain when you could be sitting in the pub is a very good motivator.

Tip 3. As long as you start in ignorance of the conditions ahead it is quite possible to finish the challenge despite all indicators that what you are doing is positively bonkers.

Tip 4. If you are being laughed at by your B&B hosts as you head out the door for a days local walking slam the door in their faces and run outside into the rain, the fierce wind will give your door slamming great theatrical impact. 

Tip 5. Sticking your fingers in your ears and singing la la la also helps with all sorts of impossibly tricky situations.

Luckily my physical stamina now that I am in a cooler climate is actually quite good- so on the second (very rainy) day despite having a cold, permanently running nose, no hanky, no waterproof pants, sodden boots and a rather damp raincoat the steep assent did not tax me that much. In fact I found myself happily munching my sandwich as I climbed, still managing upward momentum and breathing! Although some of my more lightweight companions found themselves almost blown off the rock I was able to hold my ground.

We could not reach the actual summit on our second day- due to the aforementioned hurricane- but a brave few made it up the steep rocky steps and managed to gain the saddle - where we were treated to more views that would have been great if only we could see them.

The return journey that day- with swollen rivers to cross, paths that were no longer paths but streams, water oozing out of my boots and every bit of me sodden through was a long slog; especially once we got back to sea level and made our way around the swollen Loch which spewed salty debris and tricked me into believing I was closer to home than I really was.

Tip 5. Giggling hysterically helps- preferably with a fellow walker.

Tip 6. Waterproof pants are ugly but they are your friend. In my under prepared walking kit I got drenched through for the first two days until a kind soul lent me her spare waterproof pants.

And then somehow not just the hurricane, but two whole weeks had passed and the impossible was ticked off our to do list. We had walked up to the mist cloaked summit of Ben Nevis, hopped across bogs to the windy Rau Reidh Lighthouse, clambered up to glacial lakes, dipped our toes in the ocean, warmed our bellies with Cullen Skink, clambered up many hills, seen more rainbows than we could tolerate, walked through the never ending beauty of the Isle of Skye, seen lush fairytale green hills sitting high in the clouds and smiled all the way.
at the misty summit of Ben Nevis

sun on the way back home- down Ben Nevis

Tip 7. Remember the why:
For me the why is the fact that seeing what is over the next horizon can make my heart sing; and once the idea of  that unknown horizon is in your head you cant not put your boots on and head out there- even if it is into the driving rain. After all, some days the sun does come out, the mist does clear and there it is that view you have been searching for. And it is glorious.

Big love to Walkabout Scotland and all my fellow impossible adventurers who know what it is to climb a mountain in a hurricane and live to tell the tale.

Friday, 9 September 2011

A Bombardment of Stories

Unlike many places I have visited on this trip  England was sketched on my unconscious well before I arrived. It's true to say that my mind map is little confused; having been built from the myriad of stories, authors, characters and poems that I have fed my imagination on over the years, it contains the Hundred Acre Wood, Midsomer, Mansfield Park, Court Green, Hogwarts, Camelot... 

It is a strange experience to arrive in a place for the first and discover so much that is familiar yet wholly new at the same time.

Just catching the bus from the airport into London I was bombarded with reminders that this is the home (to mention a few) of Midsomer Murders, Harry Potter, Ted Hughes, Peter Pan, Jane Austen, Prince William and Bridget Jones.

It would be possible to shape a whole trip to England around your favourite fictions, you could visit all the places used while filming Midsomer Murders, or all sights of significance to Jane Austen and get quite a good taste of the country as a whole. And while I have not had such an orderly approach to my visit I have sought out some of these familiar places; familiar yet never seen off the page or the television.

I visited Sylvia Plaths last home with a friend on a rainy afternoon, and stood before the lavender three story trying to imagine what it must have been like for the poet to live out the last months of her life in this house during one of Londons coldest winters ever.

This sight is marked by a round blue plaque; others like the balcony at Buckingham Palace need no such notices to remind visitors of the stories connected to the place. The Palace swarms with tourists eager to glimpse the site of those newly wedded embraces, and I swarmed happily with them.

Other stories are evoked just wandering about city streets and country lanes.Walking my friends dog in the countryside surrounding a quaint little village in Devon I was in storybook land. I was not sure if I was going to stumble across a dead body or Mr Darcy, but I was sure there was something picturesque, dramatic, gruesome and romantic out  there waiting for me.  And even though in the end I did not fall down the rabbit hole to adventure and nothing more dramatic occured than the dog running off for two minutes other peoples stories were alive to me as I walked.

In Devon I was tempted to make the pilgrimage to Court Green, another one time home of Sylvia Plath and her husband Ted Hughes, but when it came to the choice between this literary landmark and a coastal walk I could not resist the coast.

Seaside walk was the right choice, blue sky and sunshine accompanied us as we walked along cliff edges, over miles of rocky beach, passing seaside cafes, lonely cottages and other dog walkers. At long last we made it to our lunch destination where the half pint and fish and chips were much appreciated.

The weather report had predicted sunshine until 4pm and then showers, and our return journey saw the blue sky replaced by grey. Although the wind on the cliff tops was ferocious the ribbons of grey kept their distance until we were on the last leg of our homeward journey.

Giving my rain coat a workout  unfortunately coincided with finding ourselves without a path and in the middle of a patch of blackberries and brambles. With a darkening sky, thickening rain we were not keen to backtrack, and though clearly off our path we headed into the thorns hoping to rediscover the path, or the village or the car.

Half concerned and half amused at having lost our path we made progress as best we could and after a few scratches on the two legged walkers and the dog getting his tail getting caught up by blackberries multiple times we made it out of the brambles and into another field path. This thankfully led to a small scramble over a barb wire fence and then back onto our actual path.  We were home (not quite dry) but on the right track to a cup of tea in a blustery seaside town and then a beer at home where dinner was nearly cooked. 

Along with beach walks and visits to fondly held fictional friends there have been a few real friends to catch up with as well. Unlike Elizabeth Bennet my real life friends do not eternally walk up country lanes arm in arm with Mr Darcy. There has been  a change or five as the years have gone by- a wedding, a bereavement, a break up,  growing up, new jobs and old jobs; the general surprising wonderment and banality of life rolling on to be caught up with over a drink or two, a meal and a walk in the park.

My England has been gradually re-mapped to include the underground rail network, Gordens Wine Bar, cliff top paths, the V&A, the Thames, warmish ale and Primrose Hill alongside Hogwarts. All these stories bombarding my brain have gradually led me back to thinking about another story: my own and my uncertainty over what that is.

Sure gadding about from place to place gives you the chance to collect plenty of material but lately it feels as though my larger plot is still elusive.

The Lost Boy
The anything is possible non plot-plot line is a little daunting at times, but I continue to remind myself that searching out whatever my story is- is all part of the adventure, and that Peter Pan may have been a lost boy, but he had an awful lot of fun along the way.