Sunday, 25 March 2012

Walking from A to Z

I'm a long-distance trail walker. I liked nature, especially birds, since my age was in single figures, and started doing long walks as a student, but only attempted my first recognised long-distance trail, the Pennine Way, at the age of 33 - and failed because I tried to do too much too quickly (not realising that what was manageable over two days was not manageable over a week or more) and wasn't ruthless enough about weight on my back. I learnt, went back, completed the Pennine Way and was hooked.

I haven't done any trails outside the U.K. (perhaps because in a foreign country, there so much else I'd want to explore) but within the UK I've done most of the big ones including the South-west coastal Footpath (630 miles)in one go (that isn't in one day - just starting at one end and finishing at the other 35 days later). Last year I completed the West Highland Way for the second time and whereas last time I went on to climb Ben Nevis the next day, this time at Fort William I transferred on to the Great Glen Way and so did both - a very slow way of travelling from Glasgow to Inverness.

So what are the attractions?

There's a sense of achievement. Yes, you can set your own challenges, but there is something special about succeeding in a tough task someone else has set. It's a great way of seeing much spectacular scenery and finding some interesting small towns, villages, pubs, ruins and so on. The sensation of finishing the day's walking thoroughly tired but finally able to relax, to flop down on a bed and sleep for an hour, then to go for a pint and a meal, to reflect on the day's travel and plan the next, is fantastic. Some people cheat and use "sherpa" services. I'm not actually decrying that, but for me it's a too easy way out of one of the key challenges, balancing your real need for certain items (maps, torch, raingear, spare clothes, water bottle, insect repellent and so on) against the imperative of reducing the weight carried in every way possible and never giving way to the "that's just a tiny additional weight" mindset. A Dutch senior business manager I met on the Coast to Coast footpath put it brilliantly: "It is good to know that all you really need in life you can carry on your back."

Beyond that, we can recapture something of the sense of being a nomad - of having no home but a journey.

There are minuses, of course - the periods of several rainy days running, the frustrating realisation you've taken the wrong track, the times (I've come to realise for me they come once on each journey quite early on) when I think, "I don't have to do this. Why AM I doing this?". I don't accept the view of some serious walkers that long-distance trail walking is a kind of distortion. Nearly all the trail walkers I've met are either, like me, people who also do plenty of walks of their own devising and love to explore the hills, sometimes using the experience of doing a trail to inform them of where they could explore - or they're newcomers who may become hooked on serious walking and then joint the first group. The exception, I suppose, is the large organised groups, but they're few. I walk alone, that is without an undertaking to accompany someone, but often find myself walking and talking with other people from many countries and of all ages.

I'll return to this subject in a while and give a few tips. If you're interested, please comment and I'll reply.

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