If you’ve read the “About” section, you’ll see that I’ve promised posts about walking, food, nature, friendship and mental health. Well this post will cover them ALL! Yes, really. So read on…
My walking partner Caralyn lives several hours drive away in Crewe so training for London to Brighton is usually done alone. However, each month we’ve met for a weekend of walking. A couple of weeks ago we did our toughest session yet: The Sandstone Trail on Saturday and Crewe to Chester on Sunday: a total of 60 miles. I’d never heard of the Sandstone Trail before, but if you’re from Cheshire you might know that it’s a 34 mile walk (“One of the finest and most popular in North West England”) following the Mid Cheshire Ridge, passing through the Cheshire Plain and encompassing farmland, woods, heath and towpaths. The guidebook recommends that you do it over 3 days although it concedes that *seasoned walkers* might be able to do it in a day. We decided we were probably seasoned walkers, so we gave it a go.
We set off from the Bear’s Paw pub in Frodsham at 7 a.m. , equipped with the guidebook and with the knowledge that helpful yellow signs would mark the route. The Trail began with a short, steep climb and before we knew it, we were marching along sandstone cliffs with fantastic views towards a distant Liverpool. After a while, we descended into Delamere Forest, home – I am told – to Gary Barlow, though he was nowhere to be seen. I loved the forest: avenues of conifers and pools of murky water, all veiled in the morning mist. On we tramped, up hills, through stony fields, alongside race-horse training grounds and over canals. We reached Beeston Castle and then there was a lot of climbing up steeply wooded hills: we began to flag. It was cold with a stiff wind and I wished I’d brought gloves and a hat. We left the trail for a quick tea and cake break in Higher Burwardsley (I didn’t like the caramel slice much but the cup of tea was superb). On and on we plodded: more hills, more steps, more tree roots to avoid, more aches. I’d have found the panoramic views even more impressive if I’d been less cold and tired.
Eventually, in the mid afternoon, we began to descend. We’d reached the sixth section out of seven and we were allowing ourselves to feel a little smug. Yes! We were *seasoned walkers*! We were going to do the whole trail in a day! Down we went, into gently rolling farmland. Some sort of very expensive wedding reception was going on in one of the farms and we found ourselves walking alongside a couple dressed to the nines (we, in contrast, looked like a pair of sweaty scarecrows). At this point, I began to have a little premonition of what was to come, as the path took us next to a barn. Something very large and very angry was in the barn. Whatever it was flung itself repeatedly against the barn door as we passed. The barn didn’t look particularly sturdy and the metal door boomed and shook each time the thing inside hurled itself against it. We started walking a bit faster.
This might be a good time to explain that I have a long-standing fear of cattle, especially bulls. I grew up in a village with a bull farm and was told as a small child that several people had been gored to death there. Consequently I developed a phobia of bulls. Now, you might argue that a fear of bulls is rational and healthy and thus can’t be a phobia as a phobia is an irrational fear. However, at the age of 8, I actually believed the bulls would escape from the farm, run through the village, burst into my house and climb up the stairs to get me. I think that’s pretty irrational. As an adult, I’ve rarely had to face cattle but those who know me might recall that I’ve had a number of “unhelpful” experiences with elephants in the Kruger park which can only have strengthened my fear of large animals. But I digress. Back to the story…
We scuttled past the barn and continued for another half an hour until we reached an impasse. The footpath led through a small field containing a herd of huge, long-horned cattle. When I say “long-horned”, I mean very long, menacing, pointy horns. The path was blocked by a calf and two cows, with a bull loitering nearby. Even Caralyn was reluctant to enter, and she is a lot more rational than I am when it comes to large animals. We looked around for alternative routes but none was to be found. I was rooted to the spot in primal fear so Caralyn bravely did what all good behaviour therapists should do in these circumstances: demonstrate that the feared task is possible. Into the field she went, stepping gingerly between the animals, freezing when the calf got jittery and the cows began to look a bit agitated. She finally reached the far side and then retraced her steps, all the while looking very frail compared with the enormous tonnage of beef on all sides. Now I had to do it too. We linked arms and cautiously shuffled between the cows and the bull (which was unfortunately lumbering slowly towards us). It probably didn’t help that Caralyn was wearing a bright orange fleece. She kept telling me to look at the ground and so I did. Somehow we got to the other side without me bursting into tears or being charged by bulls or cows. I have not felt so relieved for a very long time.
I wish I could tell you that it was all easy after that. It wasn’t. The helpful yellow signs became less helpful and we got lost. There was no way we were going back through the cows and so for about 45 minutes we were trespassers on a farm whose fields all seemed to be bordered by gate-less fences and deep ditches. We finally managed to escape by rolling under an electric fence. By this point we had climbed over 50-odd stiles and our legs were giving way. Eventually, one long stretch of canal later, we arrived in Whitchurch, Shropshire, where the Trail’s end was marked by a rather pathetic knee-high sandstone arch.
Once back home, we had a delicious supper of stew with crusty French bread (I was blissfully unaware of the impending coeliac diagnosis) and a large glass of red wine. Then, we slept soundly, ready for an early start the next morning. Maybe I’ll tell you about that in my next post.