A few weeks have passed since I headed home from Scotland and the 2013 TGO Challenge is very much behind me now. Trip reports have appeared on a wide variety of blogs, routes and gear have been discussed, amusing anecdotes (and a few rather less amusing ones) retold. It’s very much time to look for the next adventure.
It was a strange finish to the walk for me this year. After leaving Tarfside, walking alone again, I started to feel that I simply wanted to get to the coast. Many walkers will tell you that the eastern part of the crossing is unsatisfying, but I think that I was especially unfortunate with my choice of route this time, a slog through rather industrial farmland and strangely forbidding hamlets. Even so, there are always bright moments: at one point I realised that a car was drawing alongside me, a shabby hatchback seemingly driven by the sort of man who is either living an homage to Deliverance or on the lookout to score some cheap Buckfast… my heart sank. And then he spoke, and instead of the mockery and jeering I expected he turned out to be cheerful and enthusiastic about my walk (once I’d explained why I couldn’t accept his kind offer of a lift) and I quite clearly shouldn’t judge people as I did, which is one of the inevitable outcomes of living in Manchester. Considerably buoyed as he waved and drove on, I continued towards Lunan Bay.
My planned route to the coast didn’t survive for long. Enjoying a spot of lunch between the White and Brown Caterthuns, a couple of Iron Age hill forts which turned out to have excellent mobile ‘phone reception (very forward thinking people, the Iron Agers), I decided to press on a bit since the weather was glorious. I’d heard that there was a campsite at Brechin, which turned out to be one of those strange towns where the modern world has rendered past glories into liabilities; the place was full of churches, most of them up for sale. The site turned out to be right next to the road and not especially tent friendly, then I discovered that the chap running it was out and would “probably be back soon.” I sat and looked over the map, considering my options… then I picked up the rucksack and started walking, slipping into that rather dangerous “sod it, I’ll just keep going” attitude. And keep going I did, right on to the coast, arriving at Red Castle in the evening, well ahead of my planned schedule.
This was a little ridiculous, since I wasn’t supposed to reach the coast until Thursday and I was actually there two days early. Red Castle itself, home largely to rabbits and seagulls, struck me as a fair place to pitch my tent for the night, so I decided to head down to the beach and cook a meal, waiting until later to set up camp so as not to be in the way for anyone trying to enjoy an evening stroll in the area. Dinner on the beach was quite delightful, with the section I was on being separated by a channel from the main part where people were dog walking and flying kites. I happened to spot a birdwatching hide, which I discovered was unlocked, so I sat in there for a while when the wind picked up. Naturally I didn’t set up my mattress on the benches and spend the night there, though. Naturally.
A few miles in the morning took me to Montrose, where I met a number of the early arrivals and those people who had sadly had to drop out for various reasons. Quite a few seemed to have finished earlier than they planned as I had. It was rather nice to meet people as they rolled into town over the next couple of days, spoilt only by a bout of suspected food poisoning from a chicken salad I unwisely ordered at the hotel, the effects of which stayed with me for over a week and kept me off work for days. As a result I was in an unusual frame of mind at the end of the Challenge.
I spent a lot of time, both when walking to the coast and as I sat around feeling grim and sorry for myself, thinking about the Challenge and how it had worked for me this time around. This was my third and I had certainly learned quite a bit since the first one, but I had to admit that I had done a poor job of planning the route, cobbling it together hurriedly during a period of blackest winter depression when I was seriously regretting having even applied for the walk. Importantly, I had reached the point at which I knew a great many Challengers so the social side of things was wonderful, bumping into people I’d encountered on a hillside a couple of years earlier. This is a major reason why the Challenge has such a hold on people, I suspect, as there’s no reason why you can’t just go walking across Scotland at any time but meeting fellow Challengers makes it something special. That may be one reason why the last couple of days left me feeling a little hollow and directionless, as I left everyone behind and pressed on.
In previous years I have started the Challenge with great intentions of really getting back into walking, something I’ve done much less of since moving to Manchester, then by the time I’ve reached the coast I’ve pretty much been ready to pack away the gear and never venture out again; indeed, the last time I did any serious backpacking before the 2013 Challenge was the 2011 Challenge… Coming home this time I realised that my goals had shifted a little. I’ve been out walking since I came back and have plans to get out more often, mostly relatively local walks reachable by public transport but Manchester does at least sit on the edge of some fine walking country. I realised that I very much want to look at some of the other major trails around the country, routes I’ve neglected in recent years, ambitions I’ve put aside. Smaller trips, long weekends or perhaps a week taking in some different routes closer to home. At this point I have absolutely no idea whether I’ll apply for the 2015 Challenge (every other year is the best I can aim for, as it eats up my holiday allowance rather badly), yet I do know that I want to get back to frequent walking and that I’ve let things slip away in recent years. I went walking with friends last week, a ten mile loop to help them train for an upcoming charity walk, and as we stood outside a shop in Littleborough at the end, eating ice creams in the sunshine, a simple walk in the British countryside seemed like the grandest thing in the world.
I have a problem.
Winter is a time of year I’ve always enjoyed, with its crisp air and wonderful silence. Hiking around the Peak District during the winter was always a particularly fine experience; in Manchester the benefit is chiefly a reduced number of yobs hanging around to hurl abuse and missiles at passing cyclists. Winter, however, is seemingly less keen on me.
Friends and family have commented on dramatic changes in my mood and level of anxiety during the winter, although this was only voiced following something of a breakdown after I moved to Manchester and had to be referred from work to a doctor: apparently I had acquired a pet, a very heavy and constant companion, a black dog. More accurately, as described by Dr. Johnson and Churchill among others, the Black Dog, depression. Ironic, really, as I’m rather more of a cat person.
Today things have improved greatly from the really low times, when the sight of a soap bubble bursting had me in a flood of tears and despair and nothing had any reason, worth or purpose. I no longer take medication and I have become considerably more adept at spotting the warning signs as a depressive front circles and moves in. I still get depressed, however, and I do mean depressed rather than just feeling a bit sad and low. That’s normal; and I’d probably be concerned if I was unshakably, bouncily happy every moment of every day. Depression is not simply feeling down, it’s accompanied by wildly inappropriate and extreme moods, an unshakeable certainty that there is no point doing anything at all (I mean really, with the inevitable heat death of the universe ahead of us why would anyone get started on a thick novel?) and other thoroughly miserable and unreasonable elements. It isn’t fun for me, it certainly isn’t fun for those around me, and the blasted thing is far, far harder to avoid in winter. Christmas is ill-timed in this respect, another blow as I love Christmas.
The Lovely Emma, a remarkable source of strength through difficult times, bought me a ukulele for Christmas. I’d fancied getting one for years, but since I had never got anywhere with halfhearted attempts to learn piano, horn, guitar and harmonica over the years I never bought one, expecting it to exist primarily as ornamentation for the inside of the wardrobe. So far, it has been a very different story.
Quite what makes this diminutive guitar-like instrument so different is hard to pinpoint. It only has four strings, which is a boon for sausage-fingered slowcoaches such as myself, is conveniently small and portable and, for a beginner’s model at least, quite cheap. That fails to cover it, though. There’s something ridiculously cheerful about the thing. The bright sound helps, as does the visual absurdity in a world more used to the relative size of guitars. Perhaps it’s the association with George Formby (here not playing a banjolele for once), Tiny Tim (shopping bag and all) or even Kermit the Frog (note the dazzlingly deft finger-work). Maybe it’s because of Elvis. No no, the other one.
Anyway, whatever the reason I’ve been strumming along every day since I got it and, miraculously, making a degree of progress. Being able to run through a recognisable tune and even to sing along, in my tuneless cement-mixer fashion, is really rather uplifting. Playing the uke is only part of it, however. Getting to grips with the instrument has also rekindled a general love of music dampened during the depressive days and that has led me to explore new tunes and performers. I’ve long been aware that there are bands other than XTC, of course, but Swindon’s finest usually swim to the top when I’m fishing for something to listen to. The ukulele has taken me beyond a cursory familiarity with music hall songs to the discovery that many of them are hugely fun to play and sing; many are also absolutely filthy, which is a cheerful bonus. I’ve found my way to musicians I’d not heard of before, such as Manitoba Hal Brolund, and some I’d encountered in passing but shamefully paid little attention to at the time. In particular, I found The Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra.
They weren’t the first ukulele orchestra, nor the first playing popular and seemingly inappropriate tunes on the uke (The Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain certainly beat them to it on both counts and there may have been others). They aren’t necessarily the most technically dazzling and they are not, yet, the best known. Listening to the various songs they’ve put out on a series of reassuringly cheap EPs though, there’s a fantastic sense of fun running through so many of them. The Wellies play brilliantly well and manage to convey something missing from some other performers, the sense that they are not only involving the audience but also waving an instrument at them and saying, “Come on, you can do this too!” and if that’s not enough there’s also that bloke from Flight of the Conchords and The Muppets.
Since downloading the first EP they’ve brightened my days enormously.
February is here now and snow is just beginning to hit the window as I type. It’s still dark and bleak, still very cold, still winter. The Black Dog is still around, but he’s outside at the moment, not here in the warm, nowhere near my ukulele. He seems not to like it when I reach for the Wellies.