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Playtime with backpacks - part 1

Both of us were feeling like we needed an escape. Work has been too much recently and the desire to drop it all and walk has been almost too strong to ignore. Teaching in the UK system is gruelling, no matter how committed you are to it. I'll be honest, only a strong will and a firm eye on the future have kept me in it: an inflexible system, mindless rules and ill-fitting expectations have conspired to bring the black dog prowling again. I know enough now to know this is unacceptable and it is no fault of mine, which helps, but it doesn't solve the problem of how to handle it until I don't have to any more. I do have a comprehensive toolkit of strategies for coping. These are long-term practices that get me through short-term challenge when I need to. One of them is walking. There is something very balancing about walking in nature that quietens the mind and reconnects you to your surroundings - a tonic for depression which can best be described (for me, at least) as getting stuck in an endless thinking loop that disconnects you from the reality around you and replaces it with the one inside you. I feel disembodied in that state and walking helps to reembody me.

As the challenges of work have increased so my walking ambitions have ramped up and become ever more focused on 'escape'. And so, this Easter we decided to pack up and walk. It was under the guise of training for our West Highland Way hike in the summer for our honeymoon but really I think we would have gone anyway, having the extra motivator merely worked to focus us.

Bags were packed and repacked, I wondered at how so little gear can feel so heavy on your back. Mickey's pack, contents shown in the picture, weighed 14 kg with mine weighing in at 12 kg. But still the call of being out in the open and under our own steam was strong. Our route, planned carefully weeks ago would take us out into open countryside along the network of national footpaths detailed on OS maps (I can highly recommend the OS app for anyone who enjoys exploring by foot - invaluable!), so we carried all the food we'd need for the two days and water enough for one. Finally the morning came and it was time to haul the packs on and start walking, excitement and anticipations levels putting a spring in our step.

We locked up the house and that was it, we were away!

Our first destination was Skipton over the fields, a well walked path for us so one that needed no navigation. Once underway and after the expected initial adjustments a few hundred metres down the road to the packs we felt comfortable and set a good pace. Walking through Skipton on a Saturday morning we had a few cheerful hellos from passers-by – possibly resulting from our rather large grins and obvious happiness to be out and about. Certainly we caused amusement in at least one of them as I spotted an inflatable unicorn in the window of a shop and Mickey had to usher me on, telling me “we can’t carry it”. Alas, my protestations that it would serve as a comfortable resting spot fell on deaf ears and we carried on after the lady passing who was chuckling to herself.

Through Skipton and heading out on a now unfamiliar road we began an unexpectedly steep climb. It just went up and up as far as the eye could see and every with step it seemed to get steeper. Talking stopped and breathing in earnest began. We rested where the road ended – a good opportunity for a picture and then continued up the hill by track.

Heading into the woodland something shifted inside and the climb immediately became less arduous (though no less steep!). Perhaps the trees reminded us why we were here and what was in store. Walking through the concrete jungle is not the same as walking through nature it seems.

Several forks in the path saw us checking the map and then finally the sun through the trees heralded the end of the hill. With glorious gorse in full bloom lining our path and ushering us through we were all at once out in the open with a marvellous view of Skipton below us. Whilst the hill had felt steep it hadn't felt like we'd climbed as high as we had. I can't help feeling now looking back that this is a bit of a metaphor for life: although we might be acutely aware of the toils and struggles, I think few of us take time to really notice how far we've come as a result of them. I would say this is a message worth remembering but I know I'll forget it again, which is why walking - or any effortful challenge with a tangible distance moved for that matter - is so important for my mind.

We were now on the Dales High Way, which I think follows the old Roman road from Skippers to Addingham. In any case, it certainly was straight, though far from dull. We saw the occasional dog walker, some interested in connecting and some not.

Just over 7 km in we found a memorial bench in a lovely spot and decided it was time for a snack.

Whilst we hadn't been noticing the pack weight particularly, it was a tonic to get them off our backs briefly. We checked the map, took some water and munched on trail mix, enjoying the shelter from the biting wind that had been cutting at us since emerging onto the tops.

As we put the packs back on and stood we became aware of two horses and riders that had halted a little way up the track ahead behind the wall. Mickey went and opened the gate for them but they stayed where they were. After a moment and a brief exchange of words it became clear the horses were refusing to go on. We must have freaked them by suddenly appearing from behind the wall, although this insight didn't occur to me until after the two massive and nervous beasts had disappeared. The riders encouraged us to walk past but with every step the horses grew more restless and one tried to bolt two or three times. By now they were probably aware of the fear radiating from me as I realised how close to the moving hind legs we were going to have to pass. Luckily the riders were experienced and led them safely past us, one of them less than impressed by her horse who she said was 17 years old and just being silly. With them safely past us we relaxed and got under way again.

The road evened out into a gravel farm track now with not much on either side, probably the least interesting part of the walk but filled with anticipation of what would come next. We crossed the road to Draughton a couple of kilometres further down the road and continued through fields up an unerringly straight track. Passing through a gate we stopped to adjust the map which we'd walked off - seemingly picking the windiest spot to do so! I battled with it for a while as another walker caught up with us giving a friendly "are you lost?" Ordinarily a reasonable question for us, I appreciated the implicit offer but told him, whilst trying to keep the wind-whipped map off my face that we'd walked off the map and I was switching it over. We stood a while chatting about where we'd come from and where we were heading. He was a local of 16 years from the nearby village of Addingham, originally moved from Northern Ireland. He told us of trips with his daughter to the Outer Hebrides when we mentioned the West Highland Way and warned (as many have!) of the midges in summer up there. We passed the time of day for a while and then headed off, with him hanging back to politely let us walk alone whilst I realised I'd not succeeded in switching the map at all and had put it back into the case the same way as I'd taken it out. Not wanting to stop and faff while he was letting us advance we had a wry laugh at British niceties.

The gravel turned into a freshly tarmacked single track road serving a few farms before we hung a left to leave the Dales High Way and get onto a poorly marked network of footpaths that would eventually meet up with the Dales Way Path to take us up to the Priory ruins at Bolton Abbey.

Part 2 to follow

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