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The First Step - Walking Wales

It’s the morning the 12th of June 2006, and I’m sitting on a train. An English voice with a thick Indian accent trickles through overhead speakers announcing “there are cheeseburgers, bacon roll, cheese and mushroom roll, and the beer available at the canteen.” The rhythmic sound of wheels rumbling over metal track is a constant, and the summer scenery flies past the window in a bright, pastel haze.
My travelling companion is sitting opposite me, she cracks open a can of Pepsi. Steam emanates, like the first departing puff of an old steam train, but with added flavourings and colour. The sky is blue outside. A few small clouds. We pass field after peaceful field as we progress through English countryside. A dead tree. A dead sheep. Contrastingly beautiful crop fields sprinkled with the lively jerking movements of crows wings.

We change stations at Birmingham almost missing our train. This time the carriage is smaller, obviously not such a high speed vehicle, but nicely air-conditioned. The comfort of our current mode of transport will seem luxurious in comparison to the gruelling but rewarding adventure ahead of us. After much hesitation we have taken the first step to to walk the entirety of the archaeological site of the old Welsh/English border, all 168 miles (270 Km) of it.

It was not simply a border but a grand mound and ditch, or Dyke as it is technically known, built by Offa, otherwise known as King Mercia, 1200 years ago. The Dyke doesn’t cover the entirety of the walk, and there are two places where other defences (the River Wye and the older Wat’s Dyke) served as adequate defences. We have with us two heavy rucksacks containing all the usual basic amenities, our mobiles, should we need them, and a rather ancient pocket sized book which we will use as a guide to the path. The Dyke snakes its way though some of the most impressive English and Welsh countryside, offering breathtaking views and muscle aching climbs.

As I’m shuttled through the unfamiliar scenery I think about why I’m undertaking such a task. Neither of us really know, but hope to find out, and wonder how different things will be by the end of the walk; what places we will have seen, what our bodies and minds will have been through, and what stories will unfold. A tremor of anticipation runs through my body.

We arrive in Prestatyn, a small town at the very North of Wales that backs on to the choppy Irish sea. We look around the typical sea-side holiday resort, admire the late afternoon sun across the waves, and set off towards the hills, opening the book on its first page. As we approach the top I feel the weight of the rucksack already. My legs are throbbing as we look over the seaside town, and as we turn to descend the hill we say goodbye to the refreshing air of the sea.

The next two days are hard going. We brave the green mountains of Denbigh, the biggest being Moel Arthur and Moel Famau. The sheep are in abundance in this part of the country, living alongside the coarse wind-swept heather of the mountains, and the swarms of birds that for a brief moment break up the blue intensity of the summer blue.

The evening of the third day in the wilderness it rains and we end up pitching up in the corner of a field, in the drizzling dark. The sound of a tractor rumbles towards the hedge near where we’re pitched, stops, a light shines around frantically, clipping the top of our tent. We lie very still and quiet for a long time until the light dies and the rumbling slowly descends into the darkness again. Eventually we fall asleep. The next morning brings sunshine and cold baked beans. The tent is quickly dismantled and we set off hastily.

On the morning of the fifth day we meet two American couples in quick succession. They have small bags and are obviously staying at Bed and Breakfasts. This seems to fill us with backpacking pride. We stop at a small pub to refill our bottles and in the evening we reach our rugged, hilltop destination. That night the sunset is astounding, and as we set our tent atop the mountain the wind refreshes our aching muscles, and blends with the monotonous drone of the woolly natives.

We wake to a sunny morn, and the tent is still flapping in the Welsh wind. During the first day of our second week we manage to climb several daunting mountains, and already I can feel the toll of the weather on my face. As we hobble into the toilets of a little known campsite cum fishing lakes cum Dutch pancake house that we stumbled upon, we look like Bob Dylan and the Queen Mother on a bad day. The soreness in our legs and shoulders is quite extraordinary. No comfort in knowing that the author of the book we’re guided by has warned us of “12 miles of misery” in the stretch of the walk we will head out on tomorrow.

The calm serenity on the site is a blessing in comparison to hurricane hill last night, and as I sit down to finish the book I’m reading I’m blessed with the most beautiful sunset, sitting just above the rolling hills and lakes of north Wales. We still have many miles to go and pain has become just another piece of luggage we carry on our backs. My feet feel like they’ve been cut up and sown back together with barbed wire. The sensation of pain, aching and cleanliness from the campsite’s shower makes for a strange opiate, and I feel uplifted and wish for more of the same. As I finish ‘The Favourite Game’, by Leonard Cohen, I drift into quiet sleep, a breeze gently kissing my face, and fondling tenderly with my neck.

The next day we conquer the 12 miles, and thanks to a lovely couple in a village we passed through, we have food to eat. Mainly peanut butter, banana and tuck biscuits with grapes. Food never tasted so good at this point. We sit in a glorious pine forest, the cracks of a summer afternoon flickering through the trees and brushing us with sporadic patches of warmth. The Dyke runs through the forest, and we walk alongside it now. Not the formidable wall of King Offa’s time, but now just a simple mound covered with moss and tree trunks.

The next few days are some of the hottest days on record, and we both nearly pass out. Giving up comes into our mind, but we give each other the support needed, and take each day literally step by step. The walking is hard, but some things have gotten easier, like walking up steep terrain and I feel like the outdoor life is beginning to accept us. I don’t want to return to the stuffy confines of a brick walled house, especially not one in the city, it seems so restless in comparison.

Towards the end of the walk we see some of the most spectacular scenery as we climb the Black Mountains. A thunderstorm booms around us one night, and we wake to wash in an idyllic running brook. We share a field with a herd of curious cows, copious encounters with sheep, and even come across a llama. It seems there are also many strange places buried away in the Welsh hills: rehab centres, old deserted farms, and fairly isolated and eccentric villages. One night we camp in the garden of a friendly village pub, the locals astounded to see anyone breach their insular community.

As we braved the final stretch of the walk we passed through a few towns and villages. It seems that everyone stopped to look at the strange, muddy people carrying hand carved walking sticks and huge rucksacks. To us the people seems strange too. Their clothes seemed ridiculously clean, put on for some strange ritual parade, washed so that others wouldn’t think they were dirty; that they might somehow reflect the interior qualities of those people.

I now realise why we set out on this journey. In the time it’s taken to walk the border of two countries I’ve established a better relationship with myself. Being out in the elements, and understanding them can help to understand ourselves, which is essentially the first step to understanding anything else. It seems to me the trouble with most people’s attitudes, and thusly the complexities of the post-modern world is one of pride. It’s not the first step that’s necessarily hard to take, but the realisation that we haven’t yet taken that first step, and that really, we’ve tried to run before we can even stand up, that is creating a world of seemingly irreversible chaos. It’s simple. As we “develop” and “progress”, nature is pushed aside. With many major patriarchal religions ultimately pursuing the idea that we’re separate from, and superior to nature, we distance ourselves, cutting our umbilical chords when still in the womb.

Out in the countryside people pass each other rarely, greeting each other and often stopping to chat and exchange stories with complete strangers. In the city all of this is lost because there are people everywhere. I can’t help but feel like something human is sacrificed for the concrete of our walls. Being able to share our experiences with others is something that can enrich our lives so powerfully. The skill of being able to understand others, and develop our powers of empathy gets lost when communication is purely functional.

The human race has a lot to resolve, so many problems we’ve got ourselves into, and sometimes it feels that we’re overlooking the importance of just feeling closer to one another physically, mentally and spiritually. If we can stop and realise the importance of sharing our experiences with each other and maybe spend time out in the elements, we might be able to start to take that first step towards a more human future.

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