Giving up my job feels like a big deal. It feels right and ready and proper but it also feels like something that should be marked, celebrated, acknowledged. They don't seem to do cheesy Hallmark cards. Congratulations on turning your back on your successful career. Another door opens, complete with soft focus sunrise. I decided quite a bit ago that I would mark it by doing something which I could not have done over the last thirty years when children and work made their due claims on my time. I am going to walk the Offa's Dyke long distance path.
We live about twenty minutes walk away from the path, twelve miles or so from its Northern end. Ever since we got here the sense that it is just up there, running away south and north down the ridge along the length of Wales, has called out to me. My brother lives about ten minutes away from the path too, right down at the southern end in Chepstow. I love the idea that you could just get up there and start walking and find yourself at the other end of the country.
So at the end of May a friend and I are going to walk it. There has never been a time when I could absent myself from my normal life to do something like this (and it is worth pointing out that even now it does require Ian to be prepared to feed cats and chickens and take care of the house which he has said he will do and someone else to look after my grandson for a couple of Mondays, I am not totally dispensable). I am not totally unfit but I am not extremely fit either and my normal life does not ask me to walk for ten miles or so every day for two or three weeks. I am sure that to your fell running, marathon completing, three peaks challenge types the 177 miles of walking is a mere bagatelle, but to me it is faintly daunting. It needs planning and preparation. I am both sure I can do it and slightly scared. I go onto websites dedicated to walking the path and find hyper competitive men boasting about doing the walk in five days and I think that they will just have to budge over and let us middle aged women in. We will be walking quite slowly and we don't mind stepping to the side of the path as they come powering through but sometimes they will just have to fume silently while we huff and puff up the steep narrow bits. Tough. It's my world too.
So today I had a bit of a panic about the imminence of the walk and my total unpreparedness. I rushed through a morning of work, suddenly made frantic as people realise I am really going and if they want me to finish things there is not much time. Then a speedy drive to Denbigh and a whizz round the supermarket (I know, not small scale, not good, but at least not Tescos) and this afternoon I set off up the hill.
It is odd to walk alone when you are not used to it. There is no distraction in the form of conversation. For a moment it feels strange and lonely and then slowly you settle to it. The trees are still bare but catkins hang from the hazels. The sun is pale and the sky is clear and blue above the ridge. Tiny lambs have appeared in the fields, impossibly small and wobbly on their feet. Even so small they really do run and leap and gambol like a children's picture book, a tangle of legs and tails and bounce. Abruptly as I climb there are no lambs, just heavily pregnant ewes heaving themselves to their feet at my approach. It doesn't take much, just a few metres higher up the hill, but here they are not ready. It is too windy, too high, a couple of weeks further behind on the march towards spring.
Over the high hill the path snakes downwards through woods and fields towards the distant village. The wind blows in my face but there is warmth in the sun. I see no one for an hour or so and then an old farmer moving slowly away across the fields, tweed jacket, cap, two sheepdogs at his heels. A hand painted sign is nailed crookedly to a tree at the side of the path: "Stray dogs on this land will be shot". This is old country: no Barbours, no Shaker kitchens, no shiny 4 by 4s. It is beautiful up here but a hard life. I pass a farmhouse falling back into the earth, slate roof long since taken or blown away, stone walls collapsing, grass growing round the hearth.
Further down there are places which have not been deserted and the path skirts a field up close against a farm which is occupied and cared for. Again there are lambs and ewes. Over the wall in the sunshine a pair of twin lambs are so new their coats are wet and plastered smooth to their sides. They are so close and so small I could almost reach over and put them in my pocket. One stands wobbling against its mother, trying to push for milk. The other, newer one is lying on the grass, still bloody, the mother licking at it. Beside them the afterbirth lies darkly red against the new green of the grass. I am always astonished, every year, by how beautiful lambs are. Sheep are not beautiful, but lambs are fantastically, unfeasibly perfectly beautiful, almost too sweet to be true and yet not a marketing construct, not an overblown illustration, not a piece of foolish sentimentality. This is just what they look like, as perfect and as fleeting as a swallow or a butterfly.
It takes me two and a half hours to walk over the hill, down to the village that I have only previously visited by road, and back up the hill and home again. In places it is steep and hard, I grow warm and out of breath but recover accpetably enough when the path eases again.
I arrive home heartened. One walk is just a start, but maybe I can do it if I practise enough, a rite of passage.