I would miss my bed. The thought kept me awake. I could come back any time I wanted, but it didn’t seem to matter in my imagination: one night out was as monumental as a month of nights. I’d arranged to contact Ed on my return, whenever that would be, wanting someone to know that I’d got back alright: all the bonds I should have relied upon Jason for, but had given up on. My sacrifices didn’t measure up to Elly’s, though. She didn’t come back to her bed, she didn’t leave a witness, or not one who was privy to specifics, and she’d had the burden of breaking the trail, emotionally. I couldn’t, in truth, follow in her footsteps. I couldn’t even emulate her sleeping arrangements, which seemed to comprise a hammock and tarp. On the one hand my plan seemed to me to be ridiculously tame, and yet on the other it felt audacious. Was this any way for me to behave? – middle aged, middle class. But shame wasn’t a strong enough deterrent. Then it was morning and time to leave. It was mild. I hurriedly found alternative clothes.
It was embarrassing to walk through the village like this, a backpacker, and I thought about taking the car up to the side of the hill and leaving from there. The school run was still underway, and the road outside the shop was teeming with cars that I had to stop for, and sometimes interact with, before I could get past. After that I decided to just walk the road away from Brown Clee and have done with it: just get out as fast as possible. Elly couldn’t have done it this way, she’d have been seen. Someone would’ve said they’d seen her go.
My Diary was important from the start. I didn’t always write much (couldn’t always), but the Log was what connected the pieces of my life together.
It was frustrating me from the start. Walking is so slow, and I couldn’t get out of the area for hours. Bits of it, off road, were new, but then came out onto roads only a few miles from home. Whilst the map makes things look easy it can’t tell you about dogs you need to avoid and stiles that you can’t use. It felt wrong to walk into farmyards, and I was overwhelmed a few times by a feeling that I was trespassing. This was it; the judgement written into me that stopped me from moving outwards and made Elly’s INCH plan so hard to follow.
The map was permanently held in my left hand so I could keep reassuring myself that the routes were legal. At each farm I braced myself, and sometimes I brazened through but other times I slunk like an outlaw. There were the immaculate farms with sturdy machinery and shiny fences, and other more dilapidated ones that would stop me just as definitively; ones whose gates were held together with string and barbed wire and whose dogs rushed at me sounding angry alarms. Sometimes the footpath signs would still be present, often not upright though, and would point into rubbish-filled pits. It didn’t take long to get the feeling that I was unwelcome. I became paranoid with all this, and yet, sometimes I would unexpectedly be met with a raised hand and a friendly word rather than a turned back or a scowl.
The unnatural line of Eastwards travel took me up and over and down again in a succession of valleys. Eventually I got to the Severn. It made me wistful, and I meandered along with it in the sunshine. It was soon noisy though, as I passed through a duck farm. I don’t think I’ve ever seen another duck farm. Then, as I’ve found since, it got to be frustrating to walk along the river. I wanted to cross, but the bridge was out of sight and the path was still taking sweeping curves. It was so hot for September and I seemed to have an unending thirst. I’d been eating apples and berries until now, but there were no more.
I realised that I was getting to the point of no return. I would have to sleep out. Perhaps Elly had been in two minds, ambivalent, and thought to herself that she could return at any point. She hadn’t done, so this was a good sign. She’d managed.
Getting to a pub became my obsession (I wanted more than water to drink), but one after the other they were closed. The one that wasn’t didn’t attract me much. It had benches outside though. The sunshine buffered my feeling of vulnerability a little, but still I had one eye on the time and my mind on the bivi. I felt too light, insecure, without my pack, and cold too in spite of the sun on my back.
A man glared at me. He headed to his car and sat in it. I was being watched, or had to assume that I was. So I sat back down on the bench to wait for him to leave. I didn’t want to stare at his car in case this would provoke something, but I did want to get a good enough look that I would know it if he drove after me or tried to ambush me. After ten minutes he left, and after another five I did too, watching all the time for a loitering car and looking for escape routes.
It reminded me how, as a youngster, I’d walked at night with eyes and ears always alert to footsteps and alleyways as I made my way home; always ready to run. Perhaps it had been different for Elly, growing up in the country. Maybe she felt less preyed-upon. A semi-circle to the right, off the main road, then right again, put me back onto a small, twisting road, and soon onto the footpath away from the traffic, through the fields. It pleased me that I felt secure again.
It was getting towards dusk though.
A turn off the road took me down a bridleway. The way became narrower and nettles encroached from each side. The mud underfoot thickened and the withies began to close out the light. I was in ‘No Man’s green’. That instinct of the hunted or pursued took over me. I headed deep into the thicket, away from the path, crunching myself over to avoid the branches, but aware of making a lot of noise. There were brambles stretched across every gap, which I had to cut away, but eventually I had a bed of soft leaf litter.
I didn’t want to remove everything from my rucksack, but the crushed contents couldn’t be separated and had to be eased out in one supercompressed lump that scattered itself explosively onto the ground. Looking at the mess made me feel messy myself – incompetent. My satisfaction with the site was also short-lived; insects started to move in. A few midges had had a go already, but now the whine of Mosquitos began to grow. My efforts to cover up just made me hotter and airless, and the mozzies keener. So I’d chosen a swamp then to feel safe in!
“That’s it!” I finally decided. I had to get out of that devilish pit. And I was quick about it. As I stood the Mosquitos stopped. The key, then, was to keep moving until I was well out of there. It seemed darker as I looked down at my stuff, trying to pack it back in, the thicket cutting out the moonshine visible through the gaps. My torch didn’t help much, only picking out some of the surroundings, and only abstractly. The path degenerated more and more into sloppy mud, even at the edges. As it broadened, letting in more moonlight, I came across the shell of an old stone building.
It made me nervous to find a potential habitation, despite its footings being swamped in mud and the mosquitos making it impossible to use. It held my attention, though, when I noticed some sunglasses perched on its wall. They were Elly’s, I knew it instantly: red, wrap-around, bendy, sport frames, with light plastic lenses. One arm had the rubber insert missing, and I remembered her complaining that it made them slide off her face and annoy her. I could see the gap, like the eye of a needle, even from here. As I stood facing the wall, I looked around me for other signs of her, and argued with myself over the significance of the glasses. They must have been placed up there on the wall, so the chances were that Elly put them there. It’s possible, though, that someone else found them and put them on the wall. I couldn’t think. Now that I was still, the insects were homing in, confusing my head with their buzzing. I needed to get out, and I wasn’t going to leave the glasses there, so I pushed through the quagmire to retrieve them and, as swiftly as I could with my ankles sunk in mud, I turned my back on ‘No Man’s Green’.
At the first gap in the thicket I headed out from the trees. There was a slope upwards and suddenly the moon flooded the way with light, and I could feel a warm dry breeze. I wanted more and continued upwards.
I didn’t trust myself anymore, but eventually I selected a place on the hedge-line and settled for the night. It felt luxurious, and I stretched my arms out from the bivi bag to accept the breeze and the magic light of the harvest moon.
Holding the glasses in one hand I thought about Elly. Had she done the same thing? was her experience like mine? I didn’t want to ask any more questions than this because if she didn’t feel the same I had no connection and no way to help her. And yet I couldn’t avoid the possibility that she had dropped her glasses in haste to escape the copse. Should I return to it in the morning and look around? Perhaps the glasses were auspicious, perhaps a sign that I was on track. They were a tangible connection. And yet, they were lost or abandoned, unhappy states for people and for things. I wanted those signs that I’d been given by the fox, the telltale disturbances of the ground that signified vigour, movement, life. I felt very much alive resting in that field, and it occurred to me that it was Elly who had got me there. Perhaps I could trust in her careful preparations and her spirit to survive, and overcome in myself the gloom and torment provoked by that disgusting copse.
When I woke and felt around me everything was wet; all the stuff I’d left lying on the ground was sodden. Dew. I hadn’t even given it a thought in that dry breeze the previous night. I wrung my socks out and put them on. Then I felt my face. It was lumpy and burning from the mosquito bites. But I probably shouldn’t have got out my mirror. I had puffy eyes, a swollen nose merging with a blotchy band of redness down to my mouth and several raised and reddened spots over the rest of my face. I wished I could be nonchalant about it.
After watching the sunrise I decided to phone home and leave myself a message. I spoke about the miserable night that ended well, pleased with myself for my initiative after the first disastrous choice. I wavered over mentioning Elly’s glasses, and after a pause where I tried to articulate something, decided not to.
That day I found apples and ate with greed. It was thirst that was driving my appetite, I knew that much. I’d hardly touched my water. It was a day of large houses, horses and gardens, and a continued questioning in my mind over the footpath routes through them. I was warming to my solitude, though. And there were entertainments as well: ducks moving like puddles of mercury next to paddocks of alpacas. Then I got stuck in woodland, going round and round the circular walks, first following pictures of wasps, then beetles, but never finding signs for the Staffordshire Way. Then there were golf courses, but I was feeling more confident now that ‘private’ signs weren’t always right. The footpaths let you through, but sometimes you have to work hard to use them.
A garden gate suddenly opened in my way and a large middle-aged man, maybe retired, stepped out into my path. He grumbled something and turned his back, shutting the gate again behind him. Shutting out my influence, I thought. I don’t think he even saw my face with its hints of disease and disorder. It was as though he knew I’d look like this anyhow. It made me laugh to think that maybe Elly had also walked this way and that he might feel that the bloody women were on the move. Elly had blazed the trail.
There was a girl, about Elly’s age. She unclipped the electric fence to let her spaniels through, and walked towards the house. Her house. I’d crawled underneath that fence, intimidated by the mansion house and the thoroughbred horses either side. How was the footpath to be taken?
Crossing a wooden bridge I spotted the bright green, smooth plastic backing of an iPhone. At first I thought it was Elly’s, but I realised that was only because of finding the glasses. It must have been the other girl’s. After debating whether to leave it on the post where she would find it, I decided to return up the field with it. It was vain of me. I was making a point about myself and about the electric fence, and probably about Elly too.
Another hot day was coming to an end and I wanted a pub again. I wanted it more than I feared it: feared it because now I looked more conspicuous and maybe more alone, and I was in a town. I was clumsy with a pole under my arm and drinks in each hand, and felt vulnerable when I was followed outside. When he got on his phone, though, I could see that his surroundings meant nothing to him. I relaxed.
Then I walked on, over the motorway bridge and into fields. Dry stalks crunched under my feet. I was happy to be secluded again.
I chose a patch of grass under an oak tree on the boundary between this field and the next. The sun was still warm. Content, I lay down. Then I heard the sound of someone walking my way. A man greeted me, a backpacker, older than myself but very cheery: no threat. We chatted, he more than me because I found that I didn’t know how to talk about what I was doing. The darkness let me face him head-on as he spoke, unconcerned about the state of my face. I felt pleased with myself to have chosen just the spot that he wanted. He noted the bivi bag, “doing it the hard way” in his view. I didn’t want to admit to the real reason why a tent wouldn’t appeal to me.
The conversation was quite easy at first, focused upon how far each of us had travelled, how far we had yet to go, and how many days we’d been out, but I was wary that the longer we spoke the more detail would be required to keep a meaningful dialogue going. I didn’t want to explain my real aims and reasons, but he seemed happy when I said that I was planning to walk to Knoydart. My Knoydart goal seemed similar enough to his walk, a few years’ back, from land’s end to John O’Groats, so my motives weren’t too much of an issue. He started to volunteer useful information about walking in Scotland, especially the lack of worn paths and designated routes on account of the right to roam, and he raised the idea that I could change my route to take in Edinburgh then cross to the West coast from there. It was quite attractive since Glasgow loomed large in my anxieties about heading West at the border. I soon relaxed in his company, noticing that he was the sort of person who was happy to talk about himself without raising too many questions about me. Maybe this was a consequence of travelling alone, or maybe it resulted from him being used to being the topic of fascination for other people. I learned that he’d walked many thousands of miles over the last decade, after he’d become too injured to cycle much; in fact he knew the precise distance in total, which he told me and I instantly forgot. When he left my bivi spot to search for another site I wondered how far away he’d gone, or whether he’d pitched his tent nearby. I thought about my reticence. I couldn’t really say that I was looking for Elly, and yet in a sense I was. It was less of the order of tracking than of laying myself open to her experiences. But how could I be so mild, so indefinite, about my wish to find her, to see her again? After all, that instinct had been so dominant that I’d even settled for conjuring impressions of her from the past to stand in for what was hidden from me as she grew up. Now it was beginning to look like folly. What belonged to me, in my house, in the village, was losing its point for me out here.
I was feeling good. But perhaps this was a honeymoon period, romanced by the fields and the trees and the sunshine, that would recede to the ordinary and cease to compete with the complicated existence that had held me fast at home. I let my senses bring my surroundings to bear and was soon asleep.
The next day we walked together, faster than I should have been going with the weight of the pack.
“I’ve not backpacked in Scotland before.” I admitted, implying that I’d done more here than the forty or so miles that I’d now achieved. “When you walked from Edinburgh to Fort William what was that like?”
“Well, as I mentioned the main issue is not having the footpaths to rely on. I spent a lot of time on the roads in fact.”
“Oh, that must have been tedious” I hazarded. He didn’t reply, but after a few minutes said that actually that was one of those times when he met a female backpacker. Unusual, just like this. She’d talked about survival situations and he remembered how interested she’d been in his tales of animal trapping as a lad. He’d remembered things he hadn’t thought of for years, like how if you mark up the eggs of a moorhen and keep taking the oldest egg she’ll keep laying because she wants a full brood before she sits. Like a chicken, he added, for my benefit.
“It’s illegal now of course. Not that I’d want to anyhow. I’m more fascinated with birdwatching these days.”
It was obvious to me that this was Elly he’d met.
“Was she quite young?”
“Yes, she was. That’s another reason that I remember her. She wasn’t that interested in talking till I mentioned her slingshot. I remember that I said how it was quite technical compared with one I’d used as a kid. I asked her for a try of it, and managed to get a grouse. She picked it up and bagged it for dinner. Now that really did surprise me.”
Was this the time to tell all? But why? I decided to stay quiet, just asking “was she headed for Fort William too?”
“I think so. We didn’t walk together for long because she didn’t want the roads. Hard core, as they say”. It sounded like Elly’s kind of term rather than his.
I stopped listening, sinking into relief and equally into worry, wondering just how wild Scotland was compared to this. Much much wilder. We were travelling along the Shropshire Union Canal. Canals make me worry; they seem clandestine. But this one felt sleepy and warm that day, and nothing moved on it. It occurred to me that I’d dropped my map to my side, and wasn’t even holding it the right way up, when he pointed across me to the route off. It wasn’t exactly that I’d, even subconsciously, intended to allow him to do all the work and have the power, it was more some kind of primitive sense that in company I was safe. This was yet another difference from Elly. She was always in control, always aware of her surroundings. It rattled me to have fallen for it. I tried to combat the distraction but realised that actually, if I listened to another person, let alone spoke up myself, my attention to anything else just fell away, even if I wasn’t really listening anyway.
The rest of that morning I felt disturbed as we walked through field after field of migrant workers and past buses they crowded around on the road. I saw these people as trafficked, exploited, illegal aliens – as simultaneously vulnerable and threatening. The sombre atmosphere was a factor. We were watched as we trudged through. Was there embarrassment on both sides, or just mine? They might not have been here when Elly passed through, if it hadn’t been picking season. It was a consoling thought.
Penkridge was a shock: a high street bisected by a big road that I couldn’t cross except by a walk to the traffic lights. I didn’t want the detour. My feet were hot and getting sore. Then, after Cannock Chase there was more canal walking that afternoon, long and very public, and I struggled to keep going. That night saw my first illicit sleep, in a garden. Not a private residence but some kind of school building. It had a peculiar smell, and a view of trains going past. Another portion of pemmican, and whisky to help it down. I chewed the beef for a very long time, too tired to swallow.
The stiles seemed to be getting higher, and I struggled to get over them. Footpaths were also hidden, with signs destroyed. My attitude was strengthening, though, as though I had some rights to be there. This was new.
I reached Derbyshire and was thrilled; it was a childlike joy. Chuffed. Then my spirits fell as the lovely meadow was first a shooting range, then a sheep farm. No place to stop. I had to get on the ridge to find a fallow field. So exhausted by then that seeing dog walkers in the field didn’t put me off. The sore spot on my heal had blistered. And so far yet to go!
A pretty day, and short! It had to be since my foot needed rest. I left the Staffordshire Way and picked up the Limestone way, where upright stones instead of wooden stiles gave me another thrill. I was going North! I stopped at the foot of Dovedale and climbed to the ridge, where moss and dried grass gave me a good mattress. It made me feel good to shape my site for a change, and sensible to have rejected the area that I’d been able to see belonged to a fox. I talked to the fox, somewhere down the hill, as I made my own little den above. It was warm all night, and wet, and I worried about lightening, but none came. Just as I was starting to feel confident in this plan of mine, I was unnerved. I tried to remember what to do in lightening.
My night of stomach cramps and dreams of death ended in a soaked morning. The snatches of sleep saw dreams of Elly abandoned, but as a baby, and me accused. When I got going I just couldn’t warm up. Chest pains came and I thought I might die there, in Dovedale. Why was nobody about? I was scared one moment, and oblivious the next, slipping in and out of my mind. Instincts to survive got me to a camp site, the only occupant, and the safety of the empty field revived me. I was no match for Elly. This time the pub wouldn’t just be for drinks. I’d eat
I felt rapturous. I joined the Pennine Bridleway along the Tissington Trail (disused railway) and felt like a packhorse as cyclists sped by. My relaxation over food had set in, and I bought cake from the booth on one of the old stations. My ethic was diverging from Elly’s now, and I wondered what to make of that. On the other hand it was a release to do it my own way. She was young and she had her standards to reach, but I’d yet to fully find my own standard. I spent a lot of time looking at the map and calculating distances and times, even though the route was absolutely obvious. There were signs and facilities everywhere. Again I stopped early to set up my bivi. I wondered whether I should really be walking till there was no light left, but I couldn’t bring myself to forgo decent sites, worrying that there mightn’t be any more.
Days 9 and 10
There was a VERY cold wind until I descended to Chee Dale, with huge limestone cliffs either side, and a steep RSPB path down – dodgier than I’d counted on. Then I pulled out of the valley to Wormhill. It unnerved me to see quarry signs everywhere warning of death. After the exposed tops of Wormhill I opted for a low route through Monks Dale, Peters Dale and Hay Dale (Limestone Way): extraordinary scenery that cheered me. Then for the climb up to the tops above Castleton, where there were lots of people, groups and families. I noticed myself again and worried about how different I looked. But I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of strong sunshine and wind for drying my sleeping bag, so strung it out whilst I ate sauerkraut and pemmican and watched the passers-by watching me.
I feared Castleton, as I’d feared the other towns. Would I be lured off my walk? Would I suddenly feel the effort in it, and it be too much to make? But I was an outsider now. It didn’t attract me at all. I continued towards Edale.
Only halfway there I started to cramp, and by the time I got to Edale I wanted to vomit, so I took to the campsite. A thought came to me there, in the campsite at Edale, that you might be back at home, and I might never make it back there. It wasn’t till next morning that I realised that the home that you’d had there had gone. Jase had left and now so had I.
Two days of dysentery followed, and I wondered if I’d have been better off on a hillside somewhere rather than trying to make it to the toilets. Should I stop now? I called Ed and regretted it as soon as I got a ringtone. I turned the phone off. I wanted that to be enough to settle things for me, but instead it made me less sure of myself. Looking at my Pennine Way maps they were very different from the ones I’d been using, which made me worried. The first leg was over Kinder Scout. It wouldn’t have bothered Elly, but for me it was untested: to go up a mountain on my own. Even without my heavy pack it would’ve seemed ambitious.
I wasn’t relieved to finally make my decision, even though I reinforced it with reasons like the turn in the weather. In the Northern Pennines they were due snow on the tops, but probably not this far South. It would mean at some point, though, that I’d be stopped, so best to do it now where I could get buses and trains home. Once I’d decided, I turned the phone back on and left myself another message on my answerphone at home.
Getting home was a blur. The clarity I’d had on the move, walking North, had left me. Once at home the first thing that I noticed was how cold I felt. I just couldn’t get warm, although the weather was mild for the time of year. In fact, it had that kind of unsettled warmth that signals something dramatic: storms were on the way. It was only the weather forecast that made me concede to myself that coming home might in the end have been the best thing.
Not only cold, I also felt hungry and thirsty in a way that hadn’t troubled me at all when I was walking. I wondered whether the physical exertion was somehow beneficial for me, suppressing my appetite, or whether I’d been living on borrowed energy, fuelled by adrenaline and the momentum of the plan. Maybe this surge of energy was the kind of thing you got in starvation: the fasting of the ascetic, or abstinence of the anorexic. I could see how it could almost become religious. Thinking about this, I realised that my most urgent goal was to continue. It made me nervous, thinking how easy it would be to resist leaving it once my routines were re-established. Would it be just as difficult to strike out as it was the first time? And then there was the file, and Ed, and what about Jason? What would happen when I started to invest myself in all this again?
After dwelling on these worries, I couldn’t help being guarded when Ed showed interest in my walk. Then, when I tried to convey even small parts of it they all fell flat. It was going to have to be a private experience, since I couldn’t speak about it to my own satisfaction. I was glad that he asked, though, because it helped me to hold onto the vitality of having been, what? – a pilgrim comes closest.
“Are you going to complete the journey?” he asked, which initially raised my hackles. I would have preferred to celebrate the modest few weeks out so far.
“At the moment I’m thinking about what I got from it this time. Y’know you could think, if you didn’t know better, that walking through field after field for hours at a time would be boring, but I don’t think I’ve had such an intense experience like it. And it was only because I had to rely on myself alone: it focuses everything and makes you concentrate. And yet, on the other hand, I’ve never been so relaxed.”
“And yet, it’s hard to continue, to get out there again,” he extrapolated.
“Yes.” It was an inward-looking assent and our conversation stopped until I suddenly inhaled to speak. “It’s like being at home and being out there are so antithetical that as soon as I accept one the other becomes too alienating, too frightening. They can’t be held in my mind together – at the same time. I couldn’t have done it when Elly was young. There was only one possible side to things then.”
“Maybe that was true for her too.”
Suddenly I remembered that I’d found Elly’s glasses. It was a disturbing find at the time, especially given the inhuman location, but had become obsolete as an artefact once I knew that her journey had taken her much, much further afield, into Scotland in fact.
“Maybe. I’ve not thought about that” I answered, not really thinking about it now.
I decided not to tell Ed about the glasses, and not even share the outrageous coincidence of meeting someone who’d met Elly on his walk. It was my suspicion, that’s what it was, that the same kind of thing that occurred with my walking companion would in an analogous sense happen again: I’d share the story, try to find its directions with Ed’s help, and then lose my control over the process. I’d relinquish my personal map for Ed’s. Maybe I would tell him him, when I was ready. With that thought I managed to put it from my mind. I shifted the focus onto Ed.
“How have you been? Did you go and do the field work that you mentioned?”
“I didn’t actually. I’ve been writing up the field work I did last year. The university wanted it published sooner. That is, sooner than they’d agreed when they gave me the time allocation for it. They’re pushing for the REF: the department needs the research funding.”
“Oh, that’s a bind. Where was the field work?”
“Place called Diabaig. Wester Ross. East of Skye”.
“Scotland!” I was incredulous. Elly went to Knoydart, also within jumping distance of Skye. She’d said nothing about Diabaig in her notebook, but was she making for Ed.?
“Did Elly know you were there? When she left? Did she know you would be there when she was making her plans?”
“She did know I was going to Scotland for my research, and I suppose it was a fair guess that I’d be in the North West given what I’d discussed with her…about it’s importance. I hadn’t arranged a rendezvous with her if that’s your fear.”
“She might not have been privy to your itinerary, yet you knew hers, didn’t you?”
“I knew she was walking to Knoydart, but actually not why so.”
“Is it possible, d’you think, that she was following you?”
“I think it’s more likely that she found a suitable destination for herself from associations – partly from listening to me and partly her own research. I’d not have been surprised had she chosen an ice cap given our conversations on Antarctica” he paused to sip some coffee, then added ponderously “but the choice would have been of a place for herself, not to be a tourist of my places”.
“Yes well I can see that”, and I felt that I couldn’t now ask the crass question that still hung of whether they’d in fact, even if not by design, met with each other there. He surely would have disclosed that to me…surely!
I felt quite beaten up when I returned home. Even three days’ later I’d still not unpacked my rucksack. In truth I didn’t really want to since it implied putting my walk away, so I just took out the damp things to get them dry and left the remainder in a tidy pile in the corner of the dining room, trying to ensure that they didn’t get mixed up with my ordinary things. After first dumping the kit there in that sacred heap I’d taken my wonderful coat, still hanging on the kitchen door, and wrapped myself up, tying it across the waist, and I’d been for the most part wearing it ever since, getting on for three days.