HIKING AND GRIEF: A PERSONAL JOURNEY

From reading posts on the Long Distance Hiker website and Facebook group, it’s clear that trekking across the countryside holds many advantages for our wellbeing. The mind clears, the heart calms, the soul uplifts and the body benefits: the effects are both re-energising and empowering. So, when life smacks you in the face, it’s time to get those boots on and head out the door.

Sometimes, though, it’s not as simple as that. Sometimes, things happen that just don’t give us a chance to rely on our regular coping mechanisms. In such cases, it’s how we adjust to circumstances that matters. And walking can certainly play a part in that.

DAD

Our Dad passed away peacefully in early August after a few months of declining health. During the final few weeks, my siblings and I took turns in caring for him day and night. Everything else in life became very secondary. Then, when he passed away, having to deal with grief, sort the funeral and clear his home affected us emotionally in ways that we couldn’t have known before.

Up until this time, I’d always found that an afternoon spent in the local woods or walking along the Thames was enough to reset my mind, so that I’d come back a functioning adult. But time felt so compacted and also stretched in this period that walking and nature weren’t helping me process matters.

Then in early September, on one of the rare occasions I felt like reading, I came across a chapter in ’52 Ways To Walk’ by Annabel Streets that explained walking briskly each day during times of high tension is a great way to counter stress. The walk needs to be for at least twelve minutes as this allows the chemicals in the body to have the necessary effect.

Understanding this gave me a renewed purpose in my walks: suddenly what had been a routine walk with muddled thoughts through my town, now became a near-meditative experience that helped build resolve. Reading that simple and effective information formed the crucial moment in which I dealt with my grief in a more gentle way.

Soon, my body and mind were craving a return to the countryside, and, more specifically, to trek along bodies of water.

THE RIVER OF LIFE

Whilst I researched how to cope with grief, I came across the River Of Life. This analogy suggests that as we flow along in life certain events will throw us completely off course, e.g. death, unemployment and homelessness. The important thing is that we somehow keep moving, even if it feels like we’ve hit rapids, rocks or are heading for a waterfall. A person may feel endangered and in jeopardy, but movement is the key to survival.

I found this quote on www.sidebysideuae.com which I found quite consoling:

“We can all take wisdom from the river – it personifies that moving while challenged is at the core of what wisdom really is – No matter what obstacle comes my way, be it mental, be it physical, I’m going to direct my flow in the direction I want it to go.”

Again, something that I’d read had influenced me, and it was time to footslog along the River Thames again.

IN THE FLOW

Over the following two weeks, I completed a solo hike along the Thames and walked half of the Blackwater Valley Path with a mate. I often recited the above quote to myself to totally immerse myself on these river walks. I’m not totally sure how or why this approach to dealing with my grief worked, but being in nature and a change of mindset left me feeling I could begin to cope better.

WALKIE TORQUAY

Hiking provides substance and purpose. Putting one foot in front of the other has so much holistic value. These thoughts were the deeper wisdom that I’d gained, and it was only natural to expand upon them. In addition, by actually taking the River Of Life analogy and putting it into practice on hikes, I recognised that I was nurturing myself as a person.

With this clarity, I decided the best thing I could do to further my understanding was to pummel my legs into oblivion by heading to the coast for a few days. After looking at a few options, I found an inexpensive and highly-rated B&B in Torquay. When travel day came, I zipped out my front door quicker than a cheetah with its backside on fire.

My dad was a funny, uncomplicated Irishman who lived life by his own rules and didn’t worry about the future. These traits were how I’d conduct myself on this break: have a laugh, keep it straightforward, and plan nothing in advance. So, on the first evening in my hotel room, I wrote down the names of the four places I’d visit – Torquay, Brixham, Paignton and Dawlish – on four separate bits of paper and put them into a sock. Then, I swung the sock above my head for a few seconds, put my hand in and my first destination was revealed.

DAY 1: DAWLISH

After alighting at the train station, I marched along the stream at the heart of the town centre. I followed it’s course for a couple of miles before reaching a Norman church that marked my turnaround point. From there, I headed towards the terracotta cliffs. I pondered if the sharp climbs would exhaust my legs for the days ahead, but looking out to the gentle sea on this blue sky day was enough to resuscitate my pins.

The highlight of this day, though, wasn’t anything to do with hiking or nature: sitting on the beach, being still and munching on a homity pie overloaded my senses!

DAY 2: BRIXHAM

I didn’t venture along clifftops or a beach on this day, but instead walked along the bustling harbour and an impossibly long pier. By the end of my time here, it astounded me that I’d knocked up nearly ten miles from wondering around this harbour town.

DAY 3: PAIGNTON

Walking up and down the cliff sides of the South West Coastal Path, I checked in on how I was doing: calmer than I’d been in the last few weeks. I just allowed my mind to flow unhindered to where it needed to be. With Dad’s presence as resounding as the wave breaks against the rocks below, I realised that grief is a very personal journey, and very much as uproarious or serene as the sea itself. This comprehension was an answer I’d been looking for without knowing it. Accepting this further wisdom was key to me coping.

DAY 4: TORQUAY

The sea views calmed and mesmerised me. I understood that bodies of water played a central role to me dealing with my grief – and hiking underpinned that. Furthermore, I grasped that the importance of being by the sea, a river or a stream was that by observing the flow of water, on a deeper level I was keeping myself in the flow of life. This was another sprinkle of wisdom that I cherished in my heart.

Another ten-miler through the town’s hilly streets and along the beach left me more battered than the cod in a seafront chippy. A gentle Irish voice sang in my head: “Go to the pub, son. Go to the pub.” After a couple of pints, I’d recuperated and noticed the enduring lightening of my mood carrying on from the previous days.

And with this, I toasted my dad in the full knowledge that I’d found a way to cope with my grief.

NEXT UP

My family and I travel to Ireland in December to lay our Dad’s ashes next to his mum’s grave. You’ll be home to rest, Dad. Every time I hike near water, I know you’ll always be close.

To anybody reading this, I heartily recommend a good long river or coastal walk the next time difficult situations arise. Hiking and spending time in nature truly have the ability to help us overcome adversity and the challenges of life, and help us to build fortitude.

Wet weather wildcamping. My first sleep in the wilderness

Back in July 2022, my four friends (Aaron, Robin, Pete and Robert) and I visited the Old Man Of Coniston for our annual mountain trip. This was to be the smallest mountain we’d trek – we’d hiked the highest points in the UK and Ireland with a few others thrown in to this point – but we weren’t going to underestimate this ascent in any way. Plus, this trip had the added bonus of us wildcamping for the first time.In order to prepare for our adventure, we’d taken advice from experienced wildcampers and watched a number of YouTube videos. My friends’ shelters included a tent and bivvy sacks. I decided on a poncho tarp latched to a hiking pole secured by tent pegs and bungee cord for my shelter; I felt that this would be lightweight and adequate enough. I practiced building my shelter a few times in my back garden, so by the time we hit Cumbria I was reasonably confident I’d be okay.

Test Camp

As there was a small gang of us making the journey, it was easy for us to spread our collective load between us. What’s App group chats saw us comparing weights of camping stoves and torches to gain a good understanding of the lightest items to carry. This meant that we had room to take a few little extras for the big sleep outside: the idea to waking up to sizzling bacon on a mountainside was appealing!

FIRST STOP: THE PUB!

So, come the big day, we piled our rucksacks into the car, having made sure we’d done one final itinerary check beforehand. We left our base camp at a mobile home park in Millom around midday as the lure of the mountains called to us once again. And after a hefty, long Sunday lunch at The Ship Inn just outside of Coniston, the hike began at 3pm.

We started along a B-road before beginning to climb up through farm fields. Aaron was our navigator for the day with his trusted compass skills, and before long he’d led us to the main path that’d take us to the mountain peak. If it had been down to me to set our direction, I think I’d have taken us to Carlisle!

Hike! Hike! Hike!

I liked this trek a lot: for the most part, the valley rose up alongside the path, so there were hardly any steep drops that would send my head in a spin. You see, I have a fear of heights, and I never know how I’m going to be on a mountain until I get there; on Scafell Pike in 2016, for instance, I’d turned up full of beans, only for my head to give out halfway up as I feared for my life looking down on the valley below. So, to be leading from the front and engaging in banter most of the way up the Old Man was a joy to me.

Taking It All In

FROM PEAK TO SLEEP

One of our pre-hike worries had been the weight of our packs slowing us down. Yet, we reached the peak of the mountain with only a few minor mumbles and strap adjustments. The weather had also been favourable despite the threat of rain. Mind you, the pints that had been downed in the pub prior to the footslog were beginning to take their toll on a few members of our group at this point.

The map was spread out as we hunted out our sleep spot : Blind Tarn. This leg of the journey involved descending the Old Man on its other side, bounding across boggy fields and a rushing river before taking on more boggy fields and a final ascent to our destination.

After becoming lost a few times, we’d made it. By now, it was 9pm, and energy levels were sapping. I whipped off my boots and socks, and enjoyed the cool waters of the tarn soothing my aching feet. Taking in the scenery and the isolation, we all cooed in unison as to the rugged beauty of the location.

Then, it was time to build the shelter once more. We ate quickly and soon bedded down, too zapped of energy to talk much.

Blind Tarn

BLOWN AWAY

Blind Tarn is framed by steep rock faces on three sides, so we thought we had adequate enough protection from the elements As rain crept in at 1am, we were stirred from our slumbers. By 1.30am, I was having to hastily reconstruct my build amid a howling gale. The bungee cord had twanged off in a random direction causing the hiking pole to collapse. With the help of my friends, we were able to secure my tarp with more tent pegs and rocks by all four corners before it got blown away like an unwanted rag.

Storm A-Coming!

I slid between the tarp and the ground sheet, and huddled under my sleeping bag. By 3am, and unable to sleep, I heard Robin’s teeth chattering; he declared that he’d had enough. I called it time too as, by now, water had flooded my sleeping bag via the gap in the poncho tarp for the hood. Reluctantly, and feeling extremely gutted and soaked, Robin and I packed hastily, and headed back to the car.

Still, at least we got to see a sunrise before reaching the warmth of the car. Aaron, Pete and Robert joined us a few hours later having battled the night out, and returned my missing bungee cord to me!

Not At My Best At 4am

FOR THE FUTURE

In her book Extreme Sleeps, Phoebe Smith shows how a bad first experience wildcamping should never put you off. In fact, the author is so adept at wildcamping by the end of the book that it’s almost a way of live for her.

On the way back to the car that morning, Robin and I were reflective in this vain rather than dismissive of future wildcamping adventures. We want to stick at it to gain more experience of immersing ourselves in nature in this way.

And we know one way to make our next sleep in the wilderness much better: TO USE A BLINKING TENT!!!!

Dyspraxia, hiking and me

NORTHUMBERLAND ROCKS

After I visited Northumberland last autumn, I decided to visit the county again to visit Marshall Meadows, the most northerly point of the county and England. So, I booked and paid for a B&B in Berwick-upon-Tweed for this May. Then, after reading posts in the UK Long Distance Hiker Facebook group, I became inspired to research trekking the Northumberland Coastal Path (NCP).

Northumberland won my heart over after my first visit with its rugged beauty in Hadrian’s Wall Country. So, as I poured over the maps and guides to plan my NCP route in the weeks before my return, I could sense the anticipation rising steadily within me. I’d be reliant on public transport for this trip as I don’t drive, so I made a habit of checking bus times meticulously and often. As time went by, I felt confident that my planning had put me in good stead.

May soon came. After spending a couple of days exploring Newcastle and Tyneside, including a ‘warm-up’ walk around Whitley Bay in which I completely lost all sense of direction, I found myself in Berwick primed and ready for action.

On the first day, I did a short but brisk hike up to Marshall Meadows to achieve my aim of reaching this furthest point of England. I loved that coastal walk, even if the path was perilously close to the edge in parts. The highlight was seeing dolphins leaping in front of a pleasure boat. The whole experience left me buzzing for what lay ahead.

Marshall Meadows at the border with Scotland

Straight after I completed the trek to Marshall Meadows, I spread out my map of the NCP on my bed at the B&B, and checked the route I was going to undertake from Creswell to Warkworth. Satisfied, I then packed my bag before going over the bus timetable again. It was only then that I stared aghast at the information before me as if a werewolf had jumped out of the wardrobe. I scanned the times again and again, but all the scanning in the universe wasn’t going to recover the obvious mistake I’d made.

Best Laid Plans….

Whatever way I looked at it, the bus times didn’t match up to the proposed start or finish times of my hikes. Also, for some end points there wasn’t actually a bus stop there! I spent the next hour or so trying to reshape the walks, and consulting my guides. Maybe there was a way around this, but I couldn’t see it. But I knew the reason why it’d occurred.

HIKING AND MY LEARNING DISABILITY

Dyspraxia is a learning disability that has impacted me since childhood, although I was diagnosed at the age of thirty. It means that I have difficulty in areas such as organisation, coordination and retaining information. For instance, I couldn’t tie up my shoe laces until I was 15 years old. There’s definitely a gap between the knowledge I need to learn new skills and the practical application of it. And sometimes I miss the completely obvious.

All of this can be very frustrating. In the past, there would’ve been times when I’d have wanted to bury myself under my duvet. But hiking in the great outdoors is a hobby that has given me, as it has so many people, a release from the challenges I face in life. Since I took country walking up in 2016, I’ve learnt to adapt around issues that are caused by my dyspraxia. An example of this would be an innate ability to lose my way on hikes, but I’ve learnt to have faith in myself through sheer determination and continually putting myself out there in the countryside. It doesn’t make the regular issue of getting lost disappear; it just makes it easier to deal with.

THE POWER TO ADAPT AND BE CREATIVE

Hiking hasn’t only given me the gift of having more belief in myself to overcome challenges and deal with situations (caused by dyspraxia or otherwise); it has helped me become more creative to achieve solutions. I’m not sure if this is to do with the empowering effect that spending time in nature offers, or if the new skills sets I’ve learnt from this hobby have caused me to think in different ways. What I am aware of, though, is that if my brain does become befuddled, then peace of mind is just a hill or river or forest away as I work to reach my trail goals – even if the goalposts move occasionally, like they did with the NCP.

So, after that dive-under-the-duvet feeling subsided, I took myself off to the pub – the place where all important decisions must be made – and I began to re-plan my holiday with extra vim and brandy. I studied Google Maps, bus times and my two guide books twice that night, and twice again the following morning before committing to my new plans.

NEW WALKS, NEW PURPOSE

With Cresswell to Warkworth off the itinerary, I head over the border to the village of St Abbs in Scotland for Day 3 of my rebranded Great Northern Tour. Okay, this was on the Berwickshire Coastal Path and not the NCP. But after explaining my predicament to a couple in the pub the night before, they explained that a day in St Abbs would inspire me for the rest of my stay.

And they weren’t wrong!

After jumping off the bus in the village – and returning to the bus stop a couple of times to make sure I had the correct time of departure – I headed to the visitor’s centre to see if they had any maps of local walks. I was handed a map of the Lighthouse Loop, and was told by an informative lady that the cliffs were the second highest in Britain. She also explained that St Abbs had been used as the setting for New Asgard in one of the Thor or Avengers Assemble films. Those two facts were enough to convince me that this was the route I’d be taking.

When setting out on any new walk, the fear rises in me that I’ll become lost again. But the map was accurately detailed, and my confidence boosted with every step. It was a welcome way to put my recent errors behind me. I was greeted by several friendly faces along this walk, so I felt confident if I needed to ask for directions.

Although this was a testing hike along steep clifftops on a very rainy day, I was rewarded with endless views out to sea and of remote sandy beaches that I wish I’d had the time to explore. St Abbs Head itself was a very picturesque viewpoint and, despite the rain, I did sit there for a bit to basque in it all and eat cake.

After heading past the lighthouse, I began the inland return leg back to St Abbs village through a spectacular hilly valley where sheep grazed lazily. In places the ground was spongy, so I had to slow my steps to prevent me bouncing down an incline. Soon, I footslogged it along a lake surrounded by woodland before one final ascent back along the cliffs to the village.

Exhilaration engulfed me as I walked through the village – via the bus stop to check my departure time again – and down to the picturesque harbour. Here, I enjoyed a fresh crab sandwich, which the cafe owner told me is a local delicacy. It was a real treat after such an inspiring walk, and it made up for not seeing any Norse gods!

Regrettably and reluctantly, I made my way back to wait for the bus. I noticed signs for the Berwickshire Coastal Path, and told myself that this is definitely an area for future exploration – just so long as I can get my travel arrangements right next time!

New Asgard, Here I Come
St Abbs

LOCAL KNOWLEDGE GOES A LONG WAY

After I returned from St Abbs, the landlady at my B&B asked me how the day had been. I explained my travel hiccups and my revised plans. She suggested that I should take a walk from Berwick over the bridge to Tweedmouth along to Cocklawburn beach for day four. She also advised that as the NCP is sixty-four miles long, I should focus on walking that number of miles or more with my new schedule. That way I’d psychologically benefit from knowing I could at least cover that distance in the same number of days.

The chat with my landlady convinced me that maybe I wouldn’t be so reliant on the bus after all as there were an abundance local walks around Berwick.

I stepped out early the next morning through the warren-like streets of Berwick, over the bridge and hugged the river tight as I marched along to Spittal beach. Here, I stopped for a drink, but the can of coke I’d bought had become so shaken up in my bag that it exploded all over my trousers! Thankfully, it was a sunny day, so I changed into my shorts in the public loo before cracking on.

After clearing Spittal beach with its army of dogs and their owners out in full force, I climbed upward past a row of houses and along the NCP proper for the first time. To my right trains roared past along the track in front of endless farm fields; to my left, the silvery grey North Sea rolled like a giant sheet of tin foil in a gentle wind. Here and there, when I looked down the cliffs, I espied alluring deserted beaches that made me want to escape the rat race.

It occurred to me then that I’d be alone for a time. However, just as I hoped this would remain, a herd of cyclists began the people stampede that remained a feature for the rest of the walk. Still, I amused every so often by saying ‘They went that way’ and pointing in the other direction when different groups of joggers with numbered vests running a race past by!

I liked this path because it was wide, set back from the cliff edge and not as steep as St Abbs. And as I passed a large isolated house perched perilously close to the land’s edge, it was here I realised I’d been in a state of flow on this walk for sometime: I’d been unaware of life’s issues – moreover, unaffected by my learning disability – and blissfully engaged with all that nature had to offer. This was the feeling that I’d hope to gain on doing a long distance hike, and knowing that it was possible made stepping out of my comfort zone so worthwhile.

I moved on then, and spent time treapsing barefoot along Cocklawburn beach. I loved the sensation of the cool sand beneath my feet along this beautiful, seemingly sparsely visited stretch of coast. After washing my feet with a bottle of water, I did the return journey back to Berwick, deciding to go full throttle as much as possible to see the most northerly lighthouse in the country. It was a straight route there and back and involved no buses, so there was no danger of my oft tangled mind going into overdrive and causing a mini mental meltdown.

Cocklawburn Beach
House On The Edge
The Last Lighthouse In England

Sunday Morning Call

I felt that I bounced back well after my initial planning fiasco. The last few days had been simultaneously physically demanding and mentally rewarding. Hitting my flow zone made me realise that long distance hiking was something that was in my bones. Despite this, though, I always experienced the fear of getting lost, even at my most relaxed. However, if I was truly going to push beyond my perception of dyspraxia defining me, I knew there was only one solution: to walk more.

So, on my final day I decided to stay around Berwick – partly because I didn’t trust bus travel on Sundays with a reduced timetable – and headed inland along the River Tweed. The powder blue sky, gentle breeze and calm waters set the scene for near-perfect conditions for the walk.

Berwick is famous for its three bridges – pedestrian, vehicle and train – and the iconic trio dominated the views of this hike.I exited by the pedestrian bridge onto the coastal path. Although I welcome any kind of incline to test my legs, I was glad this walk started flat. To my left, the wooded slopes of Coronation Park called, but I wanted to see as much of the River as possible. I passed a dilapidated boat structure that had been made out of old logs and branches, perhaps some kind of plaything. I wanted to be a kid again and play on it and stomp my feet in the muddy banks. But on this last day, I focused on eating up the miles.

After a few kilometres, the path finally rose upwards into woodland. I realised here that having dyspraxia gifted me the experience of discovering new places like this. Thinking this helped me understand that I should see any issues arising from it as challenges that could be overcome. Hiking provides me with the creativity and answers to develop the resilience and perservere in enjoying the outdoors. Sure, it was a shame that I hadn’t experienced the NCP more; however, Northumberland is a jewel of a county, and I know I’ll have many more adventures here.

Revelations clarified, I ambled through the woods and back on the river path, past isolated riverside cottages and up to a farm that marked my turnaround point. I returned to Berwick, and marched to my favourite end point for any hike: the pub!

The Muddy Banks Of The Tweed
Clear Head Space
The Berwick Railway Bridge

LESSONS LEARNT

Whilst dyspraxia has a limiting effect on me, hiking has a way of empowering me to create positive solutions. This, in turn, helps me to accept my limitations and work with them. When I think like this I can truly stretch myself and move into a state of flow. As such, hiking has given me a refreshed understanding of how I understand dyspraxia and myself. I think that this also contributes to me having a renewed purpose in life.

If I’m travelling from A to Z, I might have to travel through B, C and D and the rest of the alphabet to where I need to be. It might take a while longer, and involve a lot of replanning. It might mean that I do a multi-day hike in different locations rather than a complete national trail from time to time. But none of this is bad if it helps me to discover new places in a county like Northumberland.