Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Coasting Along On My Birthday

I spent my seventy-second birthday doing one of the things I love best, which is walking on the SouthWest Peninsula Coast Path. This, as you may know, is the longest long-distance trail in England, stretching 631 miles around the south-west peninsula, from Minehead (Somerset) in the north, right around Devon and Cornwall to Poole (Dorset) on the south coast.

It passes along clifftops, down into valleys, along beaches, up hills, around harbours, through villages, over fields, between walls, around river estuaries, in and out of woods, over bridges and stiles, through gates, past waterfalls … and every inch of it is interesting. Mind you, I have only walked a fraction of it to date, though I do hope to have covered the entire path before I die.

One of the things about walking the path that I love the most – especially in some of the wilder stretches – is being out on my own, miles from anywhere, with just the sea and the breeze and the birds for company. I can talk to myself out loud, sing if I feel like it, and stop and rest when I am tired.

Another thing I love about it is being surrounded by beauty in all directions. So much beauty, at times, that I almost explode with sheer joy at being there. There is something totally wonderful about being able to see things that can only be seen by those who are prepared to walk for miles along the path. It feels like being one of only a handful of privileged people at a special, private banquet.

And something else I love about walking the path is the discovery of unexpected treasures. Funny-shaped houses for example, built for some ancient purpose long forgotten. Like this one:

And this one, which was once a mill of some kind.

Or a tunnel, suddenly appearing in the middle of a wood.

Or a holy well. I’ve visited a number of holy wells over the years – in fact there is one just down the road from where we live. But the more visited they are, the more they seem sapped of whatever energy it was that first made them sacred places. As though the hundreds of people who visit them all take away something but leave nothing in return, until the vitality of the place is somehow drained.

But this one is different. It is hidden deep in a wood and very few people pass that way. Legend has it that Jesus came with Joseph of Arimathea to visit England and when they came by here on their way to Glastonbury they stopped to drink at this well. It’s a lovely legend and though I am not a Christian, standing next to the well I could almost believe it to be true. In fact there is such a lovely feeling there, it brought tears to my eyes.

All that – and the sunshine, the purple heather, the smell of the sea … there is no better way I could possibly have found to celebrate my birthday. It is the second time I have spent my birthday on the Coast Path and I think it is what I shall do every year from now on – at least as long as I can still place one foot in front of the other.