the first journey
It’s early on a May morning and I am sitting on a National Express coach staring out the window as the blue dawn fades into daylight. There’s the promise of a fine day and I’m off for a whole day’s walking, time to myself in one of my favourite places in all of England. This should be a perfect trip but there’s just one problem. I’m scared.
I really shouldn’t be. The coach is taking me the Marlborough Downs, a landscape I have known and walked on for years, I used to live among its chalk hills and ancient monuments and its landscape as familiar to me as my own hand. If there is one place I should feel safe it is here.
So what’s scaring me? There’s been one big change in my life since I last walked these downland paths. I’ve become a mother. This, it seems, is the problem.
the long walks
The good news is that I didn’t turn back. I arrived in Pewsey at the end of seventeen miles ecstatic that I had made it to the end and also relieved that I could still walk as far as I always had done. And I wanted to go on.
So for the rest of that summer I set myself a challenge, to follow two of the oldest roads in England, the Ridgeway and the Harrow Way from the Wiltshire chalk right down to where they meet near the sea in Devon. I was trying to walk myself out of the fear, back to being the person I had been before who set out unafraid.
Sometimes this worked, and I walked along the high ridge roads for mile after mile without a single thought clouding my mind. On other trips I came up against white vans skulking in deserted laybys, making me change my route out of caution, or fields of cows and their calves, eyeing me up, daring me to make a wrong move. On those days other people’s voices echoed round my head. “Why do you walk alone?” “Aren’t you scared?” The implication was that any sensible person would be.
women support women
What kept me going was the support of other women. And this came from two very different places. One was the women writers and walkers who I discovered along the path; people like Ella Noyes, an Edwardian feminist who journeyed with her sister into untravelled parts of Italy and wrote books about this, and also the Wiltshire plains she loved, or Monica Hutchings who also wrote about saving the English landscape from development after the war and thought nothing of cycling from Wiltshire to Brighton at the weekend to visit her parents, even when this meant crossing the Sussex Downs in the dark.
The other, however, was more modern – and that was the Adventure Queens. I joined the Facebook group before I had even plucked up courage to set out again, and the support I found there was one of the reasons I managed to get on the coach in the first place that May morning. This wasn’t direct, I wasn’t asking for answers or support. But the Adventure Queens accepted everyone, whether they were cycling across Mongolia or just trying to walk up a hill in Wales with a child in tow. More importantly than that, they knew what it was to be afraid, even just about overnighting in a tent at the end of the garden, and unlike any male nature writers I read they talked about both fear and getting over it. Because of that, I didn’t feel stupid and so that allowed me to set off.
Three years on from that first journey, I’ve written a book about my walks on those old roads and the excellent women travellers, artists and writers I discovered on the way. It’s also about overcoming my fears and why women find it so difficult to walk away from home, along with many other things like the history of roads, sheep fairs, Thomas Hardy and a surprising amount of gunfire (which is what happens when you walk past army training areas).
With all of that, there wasn’t room to mention the Adventure Queens in the end, but that’s one of the reasons I wanted to write this blog, to say thank you for the support. Because it really did get me back out walking.
The Hard Way is being published by Unbound, who combine conventional publishing with a crowdfunding model. Supporters pledge to buy early copies of the book (and get their name in it!) and once enough people have pledged for the project, it goes into bookshops. Unbound have offered a special discount code for Adventure Queens who want to support the book, QUEENS10, valid until midnight on Sunday April 30th on orders under £100 and you can find the book on their website here.
This blog post was written by author Susannah Walker.