Part 7: On Our Way.
It was freezing. Hellishly freezing. What have I got myself in for? I woke at 7 wearing vastly more clothes than I had fallen asleep in. Dave was making green tea and looked rosy and alert. After a few sips I too was rosy. It was the first day of the walk, and we were almost on our way.
“A little bread and Snickers, and we’ll be on our way!” said Dave, stretching in the morning sun. It looked to be a good one. The clouds were high and ruffled, like silk sheets, and the sun was in the east, hardly peeking over the mountains and hills which we were soon to cross.
It was a tad ironic that our first stint towards the east was to be spent heading northwest. This was to reach St. Bees Head, the most westerly point of North West England. Before that, we were obliged by tradition to soak our boots in the sea. Before that, however, something had come to my attention which needed attention. After that, we'll be on our way, I told myself.
A rare sequence of logic had occurred in my head during the cold night. My passport, which was now at the Belorussian embassy, was going to be sent to Dave’s house while we were away. It dawned on me that it might need to be signed for, and then it dawned on me that Dave’s girlfriend was not going to be in the house. This could be a problem.
“It’ll be fine,” Dave said. It was the reassurance of someone whose life wasn’t going to be affected whether it turned out fine or not.
“How?” I retorted.
“A neighbour could sign for it, or you pick it up from the depot or something.”
I bit off a nail. “If it goes back to the depot, I won’t be able to get it before I have to go to France.” My schedule was tight: return from the North on Saturday, leave on a giant trip to Beijing on train on Sunday. “I’m going to phone my mum, and then we’ll be on our way.”
It was 10:30 before we were on our way. I won’t bore you with the arduous and contradictory obstacles which conspired to thwart my humble attempts to secure my passport, save for the simple fact that it was torturous and Homeric in its scope. And it wasn’t over: I’d have to find times (and phone signal) to phone my parents, the Belorussian embassy and, now, my aunt, during the week.
By the time I’d made some kind of vague arrangement, I was too fed up to do the stupid boots-in-the-sea nonsense. I found Dave reading by the beach and joined him. “Fuck it,” I said, “let’s go.”
The beginning of the walk is marked by a plaque. We were going to take a photo next to this plaque when an extended family chortled up to it and began taking a range of photos, as one would at a wedding. The two of us stood patiently for a moment, with me and my newly heightened stress levels radiating a conspicuous aura of impatience, and then we left. I shook my head in appalled disgust at these wretched foes and their dimwittery. Photos!
We left and marched up the hill. The walk was immediately taxing, the incline and heavy bags putting strain on our hitherto untested shoulders. The extended family, who we’d by now named the Fellowship, were right behind us, chuckling and whooping. They overtook us when I phoned my parents again to talk more about passports, and we overtook them when they stopped to drink water. Every time we passed we engaged in a quintessentially British bit of theatre, remarking on the weather and the challenges ahead. This peaked when we reached a river, cut deep into the high rock which we had to descend to cross. There was a bridge at the bottom and a kissing gate. A naive walker such as myself didn’t know the term ‘kissing gate’; for those as ignorant as me, it’s a gate on a spring which pushes against a fence which has to be pushed open and squeezed past before you let the gate fling back against the fence. It’s like an airlock for the countryside, stopping animals roam freely. On the other side of the gate and the river, Dave stopped to apply sun cream.
“They’re coming,” I warned him under my breath. But it was too late.
“Here we are again!” laughed the approaching woman, currently spearheading the Fellowship. With three generations, ranging from about 55 to twelve, they were surprisingly spritely. Embarrassingly so.
“Waiting for us at the kissing gate!” another woman chuckled.
“We’ll have to stop meeting like this!” said a man, presumably some kind of uncle, who’d begun to enjoy the euphemistic shenanigans.
“We couldn’t resist,” I said.
They stopped this time to exchange backgrounds. We explained that we were from London (which isn’t strictly true but makes the conversation simpler) and this is our first big walk. They were more local than us, from Coventry, and one in their ranks had done it before. This time, they planned only to walk half way. They all had two walking sticks each, which looked professional but seemed, to us, superfluous. As for the kids, it was their first time doing a long-distance walk, and although they shrieked with delight and a zest for adventure, I pitied them.
“See you next time!” Dave yelled as they strolled up the valley, before lamenting to me in a quieter tone, “We’ll never be rid of them.” Wanting to escape the Fellowship was no trifling matter: our grand visions of the untamed country, the rugged path trodden down by a couple of silent, hardy wanderers, was not aided by the happy-go-luckiness of an extended family high on fresh air and good spirits. It was far too nice.
The next time we passed them we did it at such speed that I was tempted to make race car sounds as we overtook. We’d gotten our act together, with water and sun cream and snacks all in reaching distance. Bag straps were all tightened and our march was seriously on; it was our Nazgul to the Fellowship on the next hill. This time, we’d decided, we’d leave them for dust.
We achieved this, and spent another two hours hugging the cracked clifftop walking north. The rock was red and aged, freckled with clumps of grass. We considered the few sheltered spots hidden in the sloping grassland, weighing them up for potential camping spots, practicing for the coming evenings. Across the Irish Sea was the Isle of Man and the peaks of southern Scotland, and besides us was St. Bees Lighthouse, which has been guiding the local ships in some form since 1718. The one we were passing was built in 1822 after the previous had met its fate in the embers of a fire which killed the lighthouse keeper’s wife and their five children. An image of the Fellowship huddled in the corner under a blanket of smoke flashed across my mind – I couldn’t help it. On that note, we banked eastwards and said goodbye to the coast. Finally, we agreed, we were on our way.