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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.