30 May Halfway
Passed the halfway point yesterday. Right at the top of one of what the trail guides call ‘switchbacks’ – a succession of stupendously steep climbs. Much has improved these last two days: the rain stopped and the sun has made tentative appearances from behind high clouds and persistent haze; the standard of accommodation has Improved; hosts have been good-natured and generous.
The landscape is all rolling hills and valleys. A landscape to marvel at for an hour or two from the passenger seat in a car moving gently along the small B-roads that connect tiny hamlets and scattered farms. At walking pace it’s a landscape that expands to fill three days, to linger in the field of vision, to encase and embrace you. It feels immense. It brims with life – new growth on trees, shrubs and hedgerows; soundscape of lambs, calves, their watchful mothers bleating or lowing. And birdsong from dawn to dusk.
The views are joyful, historic. Patchwork of fields and hedges that must have looked just like this on a summers’s day two or three hundred years ago. Old oaks share habitat with young. Hawthorn in full blossom criss-crosses hillsides in every direction. Buttercups fill fields to overflowing with brilliant yellow flowers. Puff-ball dandelions stand ready to scatter their seeds. Along narrow lanes, cow parsley waves its tall lace-capped blooms lightly as we pass. We’ve picked up Offa’s Dyke again, having strayed away from it for 50 miles. It snaked along beside us or we trekked on top of it for much of the way yesterday. Hollows below it shelter stunning displays of bluebells. Deep blue-mauve.
All this is soft on the eye, hard on the lungs and muscles. The trail has been tough. Really tough. Monday’s cumulative ascent was 2000 feet; yesterday’s was 3000. Like climbing to the top of the Cuillin Ridge or Scafell but going twice the distance. Steep thigh-burning climbs and plunging knee-jarring descents. Once upon a time in my youth I hated the uphills and liked the downs; these days there’s not much in it. Except that these days, now that it’s all so much more challenging, the sense of achieving something is much more intense. Pacing myself for the climbs I count out 200 steps then take a break to catch my breath and let the muscles relax for a moment. That’s early in the day. By mid to late afternoon, my bursts are down to 75 paces on the really steep slopes with generous pauses to slow and deepen the breathing again. Don’t look up – the top comes more quickly. Look down and relish your progress.