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Shanks’ Pony: Travels on my feet.


14 Minute Read

Some of my earliest memories, growing up as a child in inner-city London, involve walking. Walking everywhere. I recall trotting alongside my mum, her pushing my sister in a pushchair whilst I clung onto the side handle as we marched, always purposefully, along city streets, through parks, over bridges, past shops and offices and through the ‘back doubles’ (one of my mum’s favourite phrases) from the council estate where we lived to just about everywhere we needed to go. We walked mostly out of necessity, walking is free and when you don’t have much money, it becomes an obvious way to cut costs.

We also walked because my mum, Geordie lass that she was (and still is) was used to walking to get from A to B – whether that was the six-mile round trek in all weathers to get to and from her local school or the I-don’t-know-how-many-miles round trip to get my sister and me to nursery before she set off to one of her many part-time jobs. When the young me got tired of walking, I was invited to step onto the footplate of the pushchair and hang onto the crossbar as mum then transported two youngsters across town.

We moved to the south coast of England when I was eleven and the walking continued as, at that time, we didn’t have a car and, well, old habits die hard. When I started work as a student nurse in the local hospital, I used to get up before 6am in order to walk to work to start an early shift at 7am. When I had children of my own I would walk everywhere because getting a pushchair on and off the bus was too much of a pain

Our family prospered and as we became a little more affluent and I was able to have my own car the day to day walking turned into going out somewhere for the deliberate purpose of walking: beach, forest, hillside or field – just being outside propelling myself under my own steam, often with kids and picnics in tow.

As an adult, I gave a name to that which I just knew to be true as a child – walking is what we are built to do. It is as necessary to our wellbeing as fresh air and human touch. When we walk we connect, with our own rhythms and ourselves and with the environment through which we pass. When we walk we breathe the way we’re meant to breathe. We also see the day change in front of us and we are part of that.

I started doing longer distance walks almost by accident when a girlfriend asked me if I’d like to go on a walking holiday in the French Pyrenees – an offer I couldn’t refuse. From that point onwards I’ve been hooked and now a trip without a walking element just feels like a wasted opportunity to really get to know somewhere and to gain a sense of place.

I’ve enjoyed walking with groups and alone but the best of times have been walking with my best friend. In 2018 we completed the 500 plus miles of the Camino Frances, carrying all of our own kit. What an absolute privilege and joy that was.

Earlier that year we had set out on the Great Stones Walk (from Swindon to Salisbury) and, partway we were halted by the snow that accompanied the Beast From the East.

What follows is an account of that walk and the more recent finale.

The Great Stones Walk from Swindon to Salisbury

February, 2018. Perhaps not the best month to undertake a long-distance walk (just under 55 miles) but Catriona and I have scuba dived in the cold dark waters of the Solent, run miles and miles in sub-zero temperatures, body boarded in the icy alpine white waters of the Isere and completed a marathon on a very warm day. Suffice to say that we are women of a certain age and temperament and it takes a lot to put us off when we have decided to do something. The something on this occasion being the Great Stones long-distance route, which runs north to south through the Wiltshire countryside, linking England’s great prehistoric sites of Avebury and Stonehenge.

Our mini-adventure started modestly, alighting from the train in Swindon and transferring to a local bus, which would deposit us near the distinctly non-neolithic roundabout where our first night’s pub accommodation was located. The cold weather, icy wind and snow were already making itself felt across the country to the north of us and a weather warning had been issued for the part of the world that we now planned to hike across for the next 5 days. Perfect.

Overnight accommodation in a pub near a roundabout always seems like a great idea when you book it – it’s cheap and there is beer readily available. When you actually arrive, especially in inclement weather, it’s more often than not a bit of a letdown. It’s noisy due to the traffic, it’s rarely a gastronomic delight, the rooms are usually a bit sad and not in the least bit luxurious and they never offer packed lunches for the following day. So it’s cheap plus beer that scores the only points out of five if you were doing a review on Tripadvisor.

However, beer and a meal of deep-fried stuff ensured a good night’s sleep and the breakfast the following morning provided enough bread to fashion a couple of marmalade sandwiches and biscuits for a packed lunch and coffee to fill up my flask (an essential bit of kit that goes on every single walk). We set off in a light sleet, wearing multiple layers of thermals and waterproofs, and headed for the start of the route: Coate Water Country Park.

This is a surprisingly lovely part of Swindon where there is a lake, constructed in the 1820s to provide water for the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal and is now a haven for wildlife as well as an open-air swimming area during the warmer months. From here our route took us across the M4, via the Iron Age fort of Barbury Castle and the steep slope of Barbury hill onto the Ridgeway National Trail for several miles before looping off to take in Avebury and its remarkable stone circle.

The Ridgeway is often described as Britain’s oldest road and it is now a national trail, extending from Wiltshire, along the chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs, including footpaths and parts of the ancient Ickneild Way from Streatly, through the Chiltern Hills to Ivinghoe Beacon in Buckinghamshire. As we marched along the deep ridges of frozen solid mud I thought about the 5000 years of footfall that this route has seen, the ancient people’s whose footsteps we were shadowing and how cold they all must have been without a down jacket and alpine grade waterproofs!

Our arrival in Avebury bought us into the village through the fields that were just beginning to grey out in the failing light of the late afternoon, we were both taken aback by the sudden appearance of the great stones, bleak and beautiful with their dusting of snow. Almost the entire village of Avebury is encircled by the stones and the effect is enchanting. I am so glad that we experienced this in mid-winter when the absence of tourists made us feel like the first people to have set eyes upon this prehistoric monument.

Avebury also left me with a warm fuzzy feeling because we stayed in a fantastic B and B where we were treated to tea and cake on arrival, had sherry and chocolate in our room, plus access to a very large bathtub and, as well as a substantial breakfast, we were supplied with a great packed lunch.

Day Two of our walk saw us heading towards East Chisenbury via Overton Hill and Casterley Camp. It was bitterly cold and windy with regular blasts of fine, icy snow. Our eagerly anticipated packed lunch was taken in the porchway of All Saints Chruch at Alton Priors where we discovered that Branston pickle does indeed freeze in a cheese sandwich and that ice crystal in your drinking water bottle can give the illusion of having a cheeky gin and tonic! A short ‘praise the Lord for the flask of coffee’ ensued and we continued on our way, getting blown up the hill towards the edge of Salisbury plain where we spent what seemed like a very long time trekking alongside the huge MOD ‘Danger – Keep Out’ fence, with our heads down to avoid being ice blasted by the now driving snow and listening to the occasional muffled boom of artillery being fired somewhere in the distance. As the snowdrifts started to deepen and the countryside turned white and silent (now that the day’s tank shelling practice had ceased) we descended along strangely quiet country lanes, empty – apart from a few abandoned cars that had fallen foul of the snowy roads, to arrive at the Red Lion pub, and its unbelievably gorgeous accommodation at Troutbeck, in East Chisenbury.

To say that I was overjoyed when I discovered that the restaurant at the Red Lion is run by an epic chef whose menu is superb would be a gross understatement. To add that I was deliriously happy when we discovered that we would be snowed in for the next two nights (drifting snow, high winds and a red weather warning from the Met office should not be ignored!) would be a very accurate description of my state of mind that evening.

We spent the following day messing around up on a small hill just outside of the village. This involved an Olympic standard toboggan run using a survival bag and drinking real gin and tonic from our water flasks. Our husbands had been instructed to stay away for another night (for their own safety of course) before coming to rescue us in a Landrover.

February 2020. February again. This time we had storm Dennis to contend with! Trina’s husband dropped us off early on Sunday morning in East Chisenbury. It was raining steadily with no sign of letting up so ponchos were donned over waterproofs, gaiters and thermal layers and we set off for the relatively short (9 miles) walk to Amesbury which is about 3 miles from Stonehenge. It was actually very pleasant to be walking along English country lanes with high banks and hedges giving shelter from the storm winds.

I could see this day unfolding in an uncomplicated way. Then we rounded a bend to find the road ahead flooded with at least a metre deep water and just very narrow grass banks, backed by blackthorn bushes, on both sides. We hopped onto the right-hand bank and started to gingerly pick our way along. At the halfway point the bank narrowed even further and the choice lay between getting soaked or getting impaled. But I spotted a five-bar fence on our right a couple of feet ahead. We could climb over the fence, into the farmyard and clamber over a large pile of soil to walk along the edge of the farmer’s field parallel to the road until we found another exit, beyond the flood back onto the road. Plan thus agreed, we scrabbled along the diminishing bank, launched ourselves onto the fence and clambered over.

Success. Or maybe not. I placed my walking pole onto the earth pile only to watch it sink into several feet of soft and sodden manure. Great. Now we had cow poo Armageddon on one side and blackthorn, hawthorn and a helpful barbed wire fence on the other. We opted for sharp things. Picking our way along a two-inch furrow that seemed to be relatively clear of smelly stuff we were focused on getting to the grass about 20 yards ahead when the wind picked up and we spent the next jolly half hour wrestling our ponchos out of the thorny grip of the hedges. When we finally made it to the muddy but clean (kind of) haven of the grassy field the heavens opened and the rain sluiced down. We were very glad of this hosing as it washed all the cow pats off!!! I can’t imagine the reception we would have got, had we turned up at our accommodation later that day in our original state.

When we did get to the Stonehenge Inn (mediocre carvery pub, bleak rooms, no breakfast included – give it a miss) we decided to have a late lunch – (at the aforementioned mediocre carvery) and then hunker down to binge watch tv before an early night. As the springs were actually visible through my mattress I slept on top of the duvet, in my clean clothes ready for the next day, using a bath towel as a blanket!

All in all, it was an excellent walk. We enjoyed, as ever, lots of mini-adventures and lots of laughs. Our friendship has been cemented by many shared experiences but our walks together have enabled a depth of sisterly camaraderie that I don’t think would arise from any other activity.

SUGGESTIONS FOR ADVANTAGES OF AGE FUTURE WALKS

Walk one – a day trip to the South Downs (walking distance approx 8 miles)

This is an ‘out an back’ walk (to avoid crossing the bust A3M) and is one of my favourite local walks, it takes in Butser Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park and the lovely village of Buriton.

The walk starts in Buriton and follows the Hangers Way to Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP), which sits at the foot of Butser hill. The climb up Butser is rewarded with great views onto the Solent, across the South Downs and Meon Valley and, if the visibility is good, across to the Isle of Wight.

The walk back can take in the visitor centre at QECP where the homemade cakes are always tempting and can finish off at the Five Bells pub in Buriton where you can reward your efforts with real ale and good food.

Getting there:

Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Petersfield (approx 1 hour).

Bus from Petersfield station to Buriton. (approx 20 mins).

Walking options: Those who don’t fancy hiking up Butser hill (and back down again) can stay around the visitor centre at QECP – this will make their walk approx 5 miles.

Walk 2 – an overnighter (or two) on the Jurassic Coast.

You cannot beat the Dorset coastline for some spectacular sea views and this circular walk,(approx 6 miles) out of Swanage where there is YHA accommodation takes in the Swanage Coastal Park, the Priest’s way and the Dancing Ledge. Midpoint is the village of Worth Matravers where the Square and Compass pub, which dates back to 1752, provides great food, drink and, very often, live music.

Getting there: Train from London Waterloo (South Western) to Wareham (approx 2h 20)

Bus from Wareham to Swanage (approx 40 mins)

Options:

a) Arrive in Swanage after midday on day one, settle into accommodation, short local walk, evening in pub with live music. Main walk to start around 10.00am on day 2, lunch in Worth Matravers, back to Swanage around 5pm to allow time to get the bus back to Wareham station.

b) As above but stay an extra night in Swanage to allow extended time at the Square and Compass and then an early evening walk back to Swanage. Additional walk from Swanage on Day 2 to Corfe Castle via the Purbeck Ridgeway (approx 8 miles) returning to Swanage on the Swanage Steam railway and then taking the bus to Wareham station.

Walk 3 – A weekend on the Isle of Wight.

The Isle of Wight is literally crisscrossed with hundreds of walking paths, each one affording a mixture of sea views and beautiful countryside.

I’ve chosen three walks, all starting in Ventnor, which I think to capture the uniqueness of the Island. Ventnor is a great place to be based for the weekend with a variety of accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets.

Friday Afternoon – A coastal walk from Ventnor to Shanklin .

This lovely 3-mile leg stretcher starts on the Sea wall linking Bonchurch to Ventnor, gives a short detour to see the old Church at Bonchurch, before following the coast path through the Landslip, Rylstone Gardens and the Appley steps and on into Shanklin where its possible to visit the beautiful chine before catching the bus back to Ventnor.

Saturday – a walk with everything! Ventnor to Brading via St. Boniface Down.

This walk of just over 10 miles provides stunning views from the top of the Downs (ST. Boniface and Brading) as well as deep woodland and charming villages. It’s a great walk to get a real sense of the Island and the Waxworks at Brading is the ultimate in UK Kitsch! Bus back to Ventnor.

Sunday morning – Easy walk along the seafront and then the Botanical Gardens.

A relaxing Sunday morning, just enough walking to blow away cobwebs and enjoy Ventnor’s Victorian heritage before heading for home.

Getting there: Train from London Waterloo to Portsmouth Harbour (approx 1hr 50). Ferry from Portsmouth Harbour to Ryde (approx 25 mins). Either train/bus to Ventnor (train from Ryde to Shanklin then bus to Ventnor, approx 1 hour) or Bus direct from Ryde (approx 1 hour).

Notes from a Gentleman Walking into Retirement


1 Minute Read

Pilgrimage – originally a journey to the shrine of a saint or holy person, undertaken alone or in the company (think the Canterbury Tales) to give thanks, worship, ask them for something or just taking the time to work things out at a turning point in life. Some hardship is usually involved – travelling on foot for example – and the separation from everyday life is an important element. The journey itself – or the spirit in which it is undertaken – is as meaningful as arrival at the destination.

The origins of the pilgrimage to Santiago of Compostella was to visit the tomb of St James, one of the 12 apostles, who is said to have journeyed to Spain to preach the gospel. In the last 30 years, this has become a very popular pilgrimage largely due to the Council of Europe in 1987 declaring it as the first European cultural route. Consequently certain parts of the route – particularly the Camino Frances in Spain – have become the pedestrian equivalent of a pilgrim motorway.

July 2016. A hilltop basilica filled with light, a sacred spot in fecund Burgundy. My first thoughts of retirement – letting go of one (long) stage of my life and a starting point for the next. I decide I will walk to Santiago de Compostela. My wife objects to me calling this a ‘pilgrimage’. Catholic by upbringing but certainly not by inclination. It’s just a long walk, she insists.

Only two fixtures in an otherwise gossamer plan. The start point: Vezelay. The start date: 21 June 2017. My 61st birthday. The summer solstice, when a pathway of light runs down the centre of the nave of the basilica (those clever medieval builders). But how long will I take? And how far will I walk? Do I go it alone or invite others to join me along the way? Does anyone believe I will really do this? Do I?

First step. Negotiate terms. We agree I’ll take one month, with a plan to meet and walk together somewhere towards the end of that period. Next step. Plot the route, my route, on an old road map of France. I underline in red, the towns I will pass through. I pin the map on my wall so I can see it, remind myself that it’s real. I order my pilgrims’ guide book. I get my credential, my pilgrim passport. A few steps further. My retirement date slips from the end of April to the end of May. But I will hold to my schedule.

20 June 2017. I’m packed and ready to go. A sense of dislocation, unreality, before leaving home. A send-off dinner in the garden with my family. I imagine they think I may never return. A broken night and an early start the next morning. New walking shoes and unfamiliar weight of the rucksack on my back. I decide to leave my carved stick at home, not sure if I can get it through security. I’ll find another along the way.

At Vezelay station, I have my first encounter with another pilgrim. We share a taxi into town. The taxi driver complains about the heatwave. It’s 36 degrees, not good for walking. I’m lodging at the Centre de la Madeleine, my first pilgrim hostel. This is all very new to me. I’m bewildered, and very hot. As I register with the hostelier, I accept the offer of a pilgrim blessing the next morning in the basilica. Casually.

I sleep badly and wake before dawn. Just in time I get to the basilica. Two other pilgrims are there for the blessing. Mark, a tall bearded American who appears to have fallen out of the sky. And Helios, a young man wearing a flat cap and a beatific smile who has walked all the way from Aachen. I am transported by the ritual, the transcendent ancient chants. The blessing is heartfelt and heartening. I leave with a copy of Luke’s Gospel and tears streaming down my face. My journey has begun.

The first day of walking is tough. I’m not prepared for the heat. By mid-afternoon, I collapse under a tree outside a cemetery where there is a water tap. My head is pounding and I have another 5 km before I reach my lodgings. I have no energy or will to move. But I have found myself a stick, a piece of coppiced hazel. It’s pleasingly crooked and I start to carve some marks on it. Eventually, I summon the energy to get up and stagger on. I arrive at my lodgings, exhausted and slightly delirious.

On my third day, I walk 31 km in sultry weather and mostly on tarmac. Too soon to be so ambitious. I lodge with Claude and Bernard on the outskirts of Nevers. Claude sends me to the pharmacy to have a couple of ticks removed from my leg, hopefully averting Lyme’s disease. Next day on my way into town to visit the cathedral, a Moroccan shopkeeper looks at my piece of hazel. ‘This is the stick Moses used to part the Red Sea.’ Later, I find myself in a side chapel called ‘La Chapelle du Passage de la Mer Rouge’. How do these things work, I wonder?

I cross the bridge over the Loire. It feels significant, a passage pilgrims have made through the ages. The weather gets cooler. I am heading into rural France. I start to notice things. Place names that make me laugh. The daily yellow post vans. Carefully tended vegetable patches. Barking dogs in every back yard – why so many? Romanesque churches, elegant and almost Protestant in their simplicity. The depressing frequency of derelict and abandoned houses in the villages. And the speed of traffic – why is everyone in such a rush?

Gradually I’m finding my own rhythm and I feel well in my body, like a sturdy little pony. But my legs and feet are aching. I get my first blisters and chafing in my arse. I start to develop a small love affair with French pharmacies. After my first week of walking, I take a day off and stay in Chateaumeillant, once a Gaulish settlement and Mediolanum, now just a provincial town with a small museum. My lodging is a mobile home in the vegetable garden. I think I could grow roots, stay a while.

I have a sense of slipping out of time and entering into an altered state. My thinking mind is on vacation. Not much in the way of concentrated or systematic thought. Half thoughts, thoughts for nought, wisps that pass against the backdrop of mind. Background noise, low static. Sometimes it gets in the way and I miss a turning, distracted, abstracted. Remembrances and fantasies. Ear-worms – tunes that are stuck in my head. As I walk I hum, sing out loud the bits of songs I can remember.

I’m alive to sights, sounds, and smells. The Wind in the hedgerows. Birdsong. Cloud patterns. Sunlight on fields. Fresh cut hay. Old green lanes, Roman roads, forgotten byways, hollow ways, scooped out tunneled tracks through the woods. Each day starts on an up, those first few steps. Twirling my stick, heading off down the road. For the first time in years, I feel free, in a sort of ecstasy. The joy of not knowing what comes next, where I will sleep at night. An adventure.

The road, walking, becomes my meditation. I feel connected to land, nature, spirit. A force that flows through everything. My intuition feels much sharper. In churches, I pray, clumsily because I can’t find the right words, silently and out loud. Where the acoustics please me, I sing or whistle my own music. I understand these are sacred spaces. And so are the hedgerows. Which gods do you worship?

The Vezelay route is a solitary one. For the first two weeks, I meet no other pilgrims along the way. I’m happy in my own company. But solitude can feel like loneliness when I’m the only one sleeping in a hostel. One night I lodge with Paul, an elderly widower, in the damp, musty wing of his large house. After falling asleep, I wake up to torchlight and muffled sounds downstairs. I lie there for ages, frozen in fear, before dozing off again. Come morning – I realise that what I heard in the night was Paul laying out my breakfast. I feel foolish and a little ashamed.

Being alone for long periods, I get lost in myself. Imagination becomes more potent than reality. What might it be like to go feral, live in the wild? Naked, unaccommodated, instinctual. Walking through great silent woods, I expect any moment to stumble upon a writhing, orgiastic mass of bodies. Pan and Lilith hold sway here. Feverishly I make up lurid stories and scribble down notes in my journal. Is this how the devil tempted Christ in the wilderness? Is this how Mara tempted Siddhartha, the soon to Buddha? Am I also being tested?

I take another day off walking. A combination of blisters and the heat of the road has made my feet swell up painfully. I rest, v get a massage, leave offerings at a menhir. I meet Sylviane and Albane, grandmother and granddaughter walking together. It warms my heart to be with them. I start crossing paths with other pilgrims. Bernd, who has walking poles and a purposeful stride. Vanessa, who has lost her God. Patrick, who has written a sequel to Lord of the Rings. Bärbel, who wheels her tent behind her on a trolley. Mostly we don’t walk together, only meeting in the evenings. We are nodes on a line, pearls strung out on a long necklace.

Heading slowly south the landscape has been changing all the while. At walking pace, it’s subtle, details you wouldn’t notice flashing by in a car. Walnut gives way to chestnut, chestnut to fig. Cows become fewer, maize and sunflowers more prevalent. In the Dordogne, the countryside is still green. But the ground underfoot is harder, drier, rockier. I hear crickets for the first time. There is fruit in the hedgerows though not yet ripe. This is still deep country but there are more foreign registered cars and holiday homes.

I now feel as if I could walk forever. Come rain or shine, blisters or no. But soon, all too soon, my journey is coming to an end. I’ve lost a few kilos and I feel fitter than I have for ages. I’ve got a magnificent farmer’s tan. I feel a fresh sense of purpose and identity. The plan to meet my wife and walk some of the ways with my daughter for the final few days is abandoned. Relief for all of us as the logistics are tricky, and the late insertion into such a personal journey even more so.

18 July. I arrive in Perigueux, my stopping point for now. A large town, busy with tourists. I feel the tug back into everyday time. A new sense of dislocation. Fear about reintegrating, settling down again. I’m going to miss so much of this.  My companions who are continuing their journey to Santiago. The welcome relief of the pilgrim hostel at the end of the day. Conversations with strangers along the way. The friendliness and respect for those who make this journey.  The simplicity of just walking, eating, sleeping.

The joy that has fuelled me along the way stays with me. This journey will continue. Ultreya!

My Beloved River


10 Minute Read

I could feel my heart beginning to swell as I approached the brow of the hill, and I freewheeled down, until there she was before me – my beloved river: My place of sanctuary and delight. At that moment, my tears started falling.

I had discovered her by accident, one beautiful summer’s day, when friends invited me to a small music festival along her banks. Her dancing waters, wild hedgerows, swooping birds and bobbing barges all framed by an open sky, cast a spell over me. A hidden jewel in a grubby city. It was love at first sight. I walked along in wonder – my breath and then my feet gradually slowing down – as if merging into flow with her own gentle rhythm, and a feeling of coming home enveloped me.

Within days, I was back again, this time cycling for miles and miles along her towpath, until I had left the noise and chaos of London far behind me.

And so my love affair began. Each day, upon waking, my eyes would turn to examine the light peeping around my blackout blind, and if it was the right kind of brightness – I came to know the quality of light intimately – I would be straight out of bed, on my bike and wending my way towards my lovely Lea.

I would come to know every curve of her sinuous length, her unique sounds, her subtle and intoxicating scent, her changing beauty throughout the seasons.

In the beginning, I would occasionally invite another to join me, to delight in sharing this newly discovered beauty with them, but I soon realised that most people did not see what I saw. They tended to bring the city with them, so after a few failed attempts, I kept her to myself.

It became a reclusive period for me. I encountered few people on these journeys, for which I was grateful, as my tears could then surface unimpeded by self-consciousness. I must have been a strange sight in those days, this weeping woman of the waters.

I was in a period of intense overwhelm. The advent of menopause had brought with it a deluge of tears, which begged for release, and over time, these journeys morphed into grief rituals that felt both cleansing and healing as the river received my tears again and again.

I would cycle for hours on end, my feet barely touching the ground, often until darkness fell, when I would reluctantly go home in a state close to euphoria. A friend who was into martial arts told me the euphoria was due to all the chi I had taken in.

My acupuncturist told me that menopause is a time of too much fire energy (yang) and that I was naturally seeking out its opposite through the element of water (yin), which is receptive and balances the fire so it doesn’t consume us. This all made sense, but I chose not to think too much about the whys and wherefores then.

All I knew was I never wanted to return to my house at the end of the day. Being under a roof felt very oppressive at that point, like a heavy lid that could not contain the overwhelm inside me. I have always wanted to live in a place with a roof garden, and on the days I could not get to my beloved river, I would sit at my upstairs window for hours, watching the changing colour and light of the evening sky above the rooftops opposite, like a series of Rothko paintings, until the last band of light surrendered to night. I at least had this.

But the river was where it was at. Something deep within me craved to be in continual flow and the river echoed this back to me. My tears were part of this flow and so I wept as I cycled.

There was something about the rhythm of cycling, the continuous turning of the wheels, no beginning and no ending, that was very much in alignment with the flow of the river itself, and also in alignment with some deep need within myself, too. I often heard myself softly whispering: “Going… going … going.”

I was learning to open to the river within me, allowing my feelings to flow unhindered by thought. There was a sense of comfort in this inner place of aching sadness, this place of acknowledgement, this place of truth.

Emotional honesty was everything, and I made a conscious decision early on, to not question these tears, but to simply allow them to flow. Swedenborg says that rivers are the spiritual representation of Truth, and in Russian the word for water means ‘liberator’; both felt true for me. It was definitely a time of truth and letting go.

So I never asked myself why I was weeping. Thoughts were like red lights that would stop the natural and spontaneous flow of feeling so I learnt how to jump the lights. These journeys became meditations.

I have always had a huge propensity for tears. According to my mother, I cried non-stop as a baby and the few photographs of me from that period show a glum-looking child wearing a permanent frown. Like so many of the Dr. Spock generation, I never had a place where my tears were fully received, not as child, nor later as an adult.

My mother was unhappy, tired, depressed and angry for much of the time, when I was growing up, and there wasn’t space for extra tears in our house. The allocation had been used up and, as a child, I knew better than to trigger more in her.

You are a survivor,” my mother would say emphatically throughout my life. ‘I don’t worry about you.”

So I cried alone in a tiny closet in the bedroom I shared with my younger sister, and even now, I can recall the comforting embrace of its walls as I crouched in the dark and wept and raged.

The life partners I chose were all walking wounded themselves, revealing my tendency to seek out hearts that had been closed by pain and fear. I fell into the role of rescuer perfectly.

At the river, all the losses of a lifetime seemed to be presenting themselves for feeling and healing.

So I cycled, feeling deep into this well of sorrow, the most tender of spots. I was a human version of the weeping willow, finding sustenance at the water’s edge.

The river became a mirror for my soul, a loving embrace in times of emotional emergency, my place of sanctuary – asking no more from me than that I come unarmed and unquestioning, to seek solace in her watery gaze.

I came to feel that deep connection with nature that leads us to connection with our own nature. Mother Nature, my own nature, my relationship to my own mother, then a learning to be my own mother through this watery journey of aloneness and allowing my own tears to be felt and released.

I began to wonder whether the extreme fear of death that plagued me as a child, stemmed not simply from a fear of annihilation, but also from fear of aloneness, of abandonment, of being forgotten. Nature herself was helping me to make friends with this sense of aloneness

 All your feelings are welcome here,” she whispered gently to me. I was not alone after all.

I became increasingly aware of a universal sadness that permeates all of life, that is part and parcel of the human condition, and there was a growing awareness of the unexpressed tears of others – all those ‘others’ who, just like me, were also feeling overwhelmed, scared and vulnerable, and a sense of ‘we’re all in this together’ arose, which provided great solace. To be alone did not mean to be lonely.

Away from the river, I began volunteering in a sanctuary for suicidal people. The river had been teaching me how to be quiet and to really hear my own cry, and so I started to learn how to be with the river in others. The river was everywhere. In all of us.

During this time, I was listening to a lot of melancholy music and sacred chants on my little iPod shuffle which went everywhere with me, and sometimes I sang or chanted quietly as I cycled. Native American and devotional chants, mainly.

I began singing simple chants to the cows I passed in the fields, and when I discovered a dairy farm close to the river, I began singing to the newly-born calves which were separated into tiny pens. My heart hurt for these animals, these mothers and babies torn apart. I felt I was singing to their sadness, saying: “I understand and I am sorry”. They would gather in front of me and respond with their mournful eyes. We were in it together.

Later on, when I discovered stables along the route, I would stand with the horses and hum gently to them. In those moments, I was simply resting in the collective sadness of this broken world.

It probably sounds as if those times were just about tears of sadness, but many of my tears, especially later on, were tears of joy at all the beauty I discovered around me. So much beauty everywhere! Rivers full of blue sky one moment, turning into molten streams of golden green the next. Joy and sadness were becoming close friends.

I found a hill where I would often stop and sky-gaze. Nobody could see me there so I felt very free, and I would spend hours lying in the soft grass, watching the clouds drifting through the blue, listening to the sound of the bees being seduced by the blossoms in the hedgerow. Life in all its fullness. I felt such joy in those moments, and then I cried from the sheer beauty of it all, as I realised there is a bittersweet joy that can only be experienced through embracing impermanence, and I found it here, in this sublime display of transient beauty.

As I look back now, some eight years later, I see clearly that a transformation was taking place, almost a rebirth. A new path was forming. My old life as creator of beautiful ‘things’ no longer attracted me in the same way, and my creativity was taking on a more inner form. I was moving away from ‘things’, and towards ‘feelings’.

My lifelong enquiry around death and dying was growing. I began volunteering with the terminally ill and I discovered Death Cafes. When I first heard about the new role ‘death doula’ which involved accompanying the dying, I knew immediately that I wanted to be part of this new death movement. I am now a trained ‘end of life doula’ who hosts a Death Cafe. I have left my old life behind, like a worn out skin.

I can still be found at the river most weeks, but no longer every other day. Over these years, my glorious obsession has expanded to embrace lakes, and I now find myself being increasingly drawn to the wide open spaces of estuaries, places it is impossible to see where the land ends and the sea and sky begin. No beginning and no end. Everything connected in a shimmering mirage of oneness. Life merging back into itself, boundless and ever changing, reaching into this great mystery we call life.

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