Sunday is still considered to be a special day of the week. In many societies across the world, it is the day set aside for religious observance. For many people, God might still be found at its centre and they acknowledge this fact by attending their local church or chapel. For others, the passion that holds them in its thrall is sport or shopping, and the place of worship is the football field or the shopping mall, those secular cathedrals of consumerism. In both examples, there is ritual, a shared purpose and an end devoutly to be wished for, and with them the often expressed hope of being fulfilled and gratified.
I regularly devote part of my Sundays to walking. Not that I’m just a Sunday walker, you understand, but work has the annoying habit of intervening between heaven and earth. The walks are now more often rambles than hikes. Time and youthfulness have passed and the fatuous ambition of clocking up the miles for their own sake has been replaced with a more thoughtful approach. Less is much more. Less time spent worrying whether or not I would reach the next checkpoint I had set myself at the scheduled time, more time taken to stand and stare; less time spent regretting that I had chosen this route rather than that route, more time taken to explore, enjoy and make those serendipitous discoveries that can make a walk especially memorable.
To say that quality had been substituted for quantity is, in a way, misleading. The landscape in which I was walking was, without doubt, of a superior quality; of its kind – and indeed in some instances, absolutely – it was, and is, the fi nest in the world. What had changed was the quality of the experience or, more pertinently, my perception of it, and the distance covered had become a secondary, much less important, consideration. Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t in any way wish to deny my hiking past; it isn’t something of which I’m ashamed.
I still enjoy a long walk. Setting off early in the morning and tramping across the moors or up and down the hills or taking on that testing section of coast path. There’s the relishing of the challenge of the climb to the summit, the achievement of standing on the top with the reward of the view and the sweet recompense of the descent; and at journey’s end, there’s the prospect of a refreshing pint of real ale and some tasty, wholesome, unpretentious food in some charming and unspoilt hostelry.
Not only is Great Britain blessed with a variety of landscapes – here in the Southwest we have woodlands, moorlands and coastline to inspire us to get out and enjoy the countryside – we are also blessed with a variety of weather, which mostly, respects the seasonal boundaries. However, I would digress briefly to relate a memorable occasion when I was walking in the Black Mountains during which I experienced the fickle nature of the British weather. For fickle nature, perhaps, I should substitute
The day began with much promise. Hopes rose with the sun and remained undiminished throughout most of the glorious day. The climb to the summit of the last of the three peaks that were the objectives of that day’s walk had been attained. I was admiring the magnificent view when, in what seemed like an instant, the sky darkened under a layer ink-black cloud full of menace. The echoes of thunder claps reverberated malevolently down the valley. By way of complementing what our ancient ancestors might have interpreted as an apocalyptic portent, I was peppered by pea-sized hailstones in a final, and what I thought undeserved, outburst of divine petulance on what had started out as an innocuous summer day in the middle of August. As quickly and unexpectedly as the storm had appeared, it was gone. The sun reappeared and deliverance from extinction was, thankfully, on this occasion, gratefully received. Strange but, I assure you, true!
Walking in fine weather is a pleasant experience and the one to be preferred. But, perverse as it might appear, there can be, if you seek to fit yourself into the right frame of mind and waterproof clothing, something enjoyable about walking in the rain; perhaps not the wind-assisted kind (although this, too, is an invigorating experience not to be missed – now and again) but a steady fall of rain, which in the spring or the autumn can become quite companionable.A couple of Sundays ago, I was inclined to take a walk along the coastal footpath. I parked my car in Breakwater Road in Bude and walked towards the sea-lock. I tend, for no particular reason beyond that of habit, to head off in the direction of Compass Point and thence to Widemouth Bay and back along the canal tow-path. Thinking about it, perhaps the reason for habitually taking this route is the thought of enjoying a cream tea at Helebridge. This Sunday, however, I crossed the lock-gates and traversed the tide-washed sands of Summerleaze and Crooklets beaches. In the south-facing nook of Crooklets Beach, that morning’s flood tide had left a load of seaweed at the foot of the cliff, and the sun was drawing out its salty, tangy smell. There were a few people walking the Maer Cliff section of the path. Looking back towards the start of my walk from the top of the climb out of Northcott Mouth, the sea was a pool of molten platinum stretching away to the horizon and Pentire Point, and Bude had drawn down on its head a cap grey cloud.
At Sandymouth, a lonely car had been deserted in the car park without regard, it seemed, to spatial awareness. The person that it would not have been unreasonable to have assumed to have been its owner was, in his bubble of total absorption, on the land’s edge pointing a tripod-mounted camera at the sea below the cliffs. Encountering only two other people on the path to Duckpool, there was plenty of time in which to let the mind calm itself with undisturbed quiet reflection about how fortunate I was to be rambling in such a beautiful landscape and enjoying the particular rhythm of this particular walk.
Every route has its own signature rhythm. This rhythm is mainly determined by the topography of the landscape, but your mood brings an understated influence to bear on it, and the subtle changes your mood can engender keeps even a familiar walk fresh. Your mood, too, can be suddenly changed by a peculiar circumstance or unexpected encounter.
At the top of the descent to Duckpool, there was below me the prospect of an eerily empty car park, an unusual condition even during the closed season for visitors. I can recall only a handful of times reaching Duckpool and not finding a vehicle of some description in the car park. This Sunday was one of those rare exceptions. I felt absurdly, undeservingly, privileged. I spent a few minutes on the shingle in conscious, silent thankfulness until the sound of an approaching car’s engine signalled that it was time for me to leave, regretting both that my solitude had been trespassed upon and that I could be so selfish as to regard the intrusion as a personal affront.
Returning to Bude along the bridle path from Stowe Barton, the sinking sun tinted the gap between the layer of slate-grey cloud and the undulations of the distance moorland skyline tangerine. From time to time as I walked along the track, this colour momentarily flushed the oval puddles that blemished its surface until, the angle of incidence changed, the reflection was succeeded by the overwhelming tarnish of the distant, rain-burdened clouds. There was a great temptation to step in the puddles and deny the atmosphere its sense of self-satisfaction; I did not need to be reminded that the sky possessed more than enough greyness; but then a look at the vast sea of greyness produced the inescapable thought that the commission of the petulant act would result in nothing more than a futile gesture, and a small-minded one at that; and so I refrained from presenting to any unwitting observer the undignified spectacle of a grown man splashing in puddles.