This week I wanted to take on The Malvern Hills. To walk the range from south to north is something I have wanted to do since signing up for the trek. It is not a huge walk in terms of miles – just under 10 – but it is full of ascents and descents and there are very few stretches of flat, so I knew it would be good training. My Mum and Dad live about 40 minutes from the hills and I have often looked at them, recently and in the distant past, and thought that I would like to walk their length. They’re what I think of as a proper set of hills, 1394 ft at the highest point, making the Worcestershire Beacon officially a mountain, with a clear ridge which makes it simple and satisfying to walk the entire length. They make a dramatic scene, rising suddenly out of the horizon and stretching for what looks like (and incidently, feels like) a lot longer than 10 miles.
The morning was beautiful. A hazily sunny, warm, early spring day. The first thought, as is often the case when I wake up… what shall I wear? Until this point, I haven’t actually walked on any warm days. Even though it was sunny and there was no suggestion of rain or even cloud, I somehow imagined that the high points of the hills would definitely be windy and that I would probably need my coat and woolly hat. I was wrong, and this was the first lesson of the day. A t-shirt was fine. I was really hot and the breeze that appeared at points was very welcome. I hadn’t really contemplated the fact that the day of the trek may be sunny, even hot. I have always imagined that it would be raining or cold. This is still an aspect of the trek which makes me feel slightly anxious as I want to be prepared but know that I cannot balance the kitchen sink on my head. I have started making a list of essentials which are all necessary, but are weather dependant. At the moment it goes like this:
Woolly hat (incase cold)
Peaked cap (incase hot)
Waterproof jacket (if raining)
Warm jacket (if not raining but cold)
Waterproof trousers (if raining)
Tracksuit bottoms (if not raining but cold)
3/4 length leggings (if hot)
Hoodie, long sleeved top, t-shirt, vest (to layer, or not, as appropriate)
Prescription sunglasses (if sunny, for use in the afternoon / early evening or when contact lenses become irritating)
Contact lenses (for use in the day)
Non-prescription sunglasses (if sunny, for use with contact lenses)
Normal glasses (for night time, and / or if no sunglasses are needed and contact lenses are irritating)
Gloves (for night time, and if cold during the day)
Neck buff (for night time, and if cold during the day)
In fact, the only item of kit which will remain the same regardless of weather are my socks (tube walking socks over a pair of normal socks to prevent blisters) and my shoes. Marilyn Monroe once said, “Give a woman the right pair of shoes, and she can conquer the world”. I imagine that she was probably thinking of a beautiful pair of Balenciaga pumps or some Dior heels. In my case, of course, this is totally true of my walking boots.
So, after this flurry of worry about attire, I settled into the walk. Alongside were my Dad and my husband (A.K.A. The Lovely Joe, which is his official title). It began with a steep ascent. I had been suffering mildly for the past week or so (hence the lack of blog last week) with an annoying cough and cold and I could really feel it on my chest in this first climb, and throughout the walk at points. I felt tight in my chest and wheezy and I was definitely puffing and huffing more than normal, which was frustrating. The crescendo at the beginning of Act 1 was getting to the top of the Herefordshire Beacon, which stands at 1109 ft. This was approximately half way and we stopped soon after to eat our lunch with a satisfying sense that we were making good progress. I was terribly proud of The Lovely Joe for managing to walk past a pub with a great looking beer garden containing happy faces drinking pints of local ale in the sunshine, and not pestering me endlessly to stop. I know this took a lot of sacrifice and I feel it was one of his many contributions to supporting me with Mind 3000s.
The second half of the walk included studying a group of para-gliders who were floating off the side of the hill; parachutes of an array of different colours, creating an image resembling butterflies hovering round and round on the thermals, creeping higher into the blue sky, silence all around. It was quite mesmerising and helped distract me from the puffing and huffing for a bit. I also confirmed my fears on the second half of the walk that descending is far more painful than ascending. Ascending is challenging and anything but easy, but it doesn’t actually hurt. Descending is very hard on the knees, particularly my Creaky Knee, and it was really quite painful, both while walking and in the two days after. This is a significant worry for me so – second lesson of the day – I must concentrate on really strengthening my thigh muscles as much as possible in the next 5 weeks (5 weeks?! 5 WEEKS?! Arrrgggghhhhh……!)
We reached the Worcestershire Beacon by, when presented with a fork in the path, choosing to climb the steeper routes rather than traversing the sides of the hills. Challenging, but satisfying. We stopped at the top for some fluid and fuel and a short rest. In these moments I made a catastrophic, schoolboy error. I allowed myself to think that the walk had finished. We had reached the highest point and had probably completed 7 or 8 miles; psychologically it felt that we were done. There was probably not much more than a mile or two to the carpark, but it was a tough slog. This short distance involved 2 significant and unexpected climbs which presented an interesting psychological battle. Physically they would have been no steeper than previous ascents on the walk but, as I had mentally past the finish line, presented myself with the medal and had had the winner’s photograph taken, I found them very tough. Third lesson of the day – never allow yourself to ‘finish’ until you are back at the car.
Another interesting psychological aspect of the walk were the memories which it evoked. My Granny lived in Malvern when my brother and I were little and we spent many happy holidays together, repeatedly scrambling up hillsides only to roll down them again; exploring the bracken and fern and discovering what we thought must have been new species of bugs; gazing through our bedroom window at night, half way up the hills, onto the twinkling lights below and the large, looming, black hills above. Memories of innocence, simplicity, childhood peace. This was a time before life became complicated and painful for Ian, when he was still my big brother and had not regressed into the role of dependent which was, sadly for us both, the way our relationship was for many years in adulthood. I still recall even at this young age, however, that I sensed that somehow I needed to look out for Ian; that he was not as robust as other people and that life was better and less worrying for me when he was happy. Although as a child there were no screaming signs of depression, I have recently conceded and admitted that I had this uneasy insight from a young age.
The Malverns were also the place of grown up memories. There was the time about 6 months before Ian died when we went and stayed in a B&B with my son, who was not quite 2, and went to visit my Granny, who was 96 at the time. It was the last time Granny was well enough for me to take her out (she is now 100 and is still going strong). Ian and I took her for lunch at a Marks and Spencers café. This involved quite a faff with wheelchairs / pushchairs / disabled parking etc and there is a wonderful photo of us multitasking to try and make things simpler (see photo below). Granny trusted Ian and his opinion implicitly. Whenever I suggested anything – despite me being a nurse and having worked in care for 10 years at the time – she would say, “Ask Ian, he will know best”.
And then of course there is the final memory. The last time I saw Ian was at a family get together for what would have been my Grandfather’s 100th birthday. Granny wanted to celebrate this occasion so we all congregated in Malvern – sons, daughters-in-law, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Again, this was 2011 and Granny was well enough to be wheeled part way up one of the hills for a picnic. It was lovely to see her watching 3 generations of her offspring together. Ian took a leading role as uncle in entertaining the children who were aged between just over 1 and nearly 3. Again, there exist some very precious photographs of these very precious memories. Of course at the time I had no idea that would be the last time I would see Ian alive. How I miss him; grandson, son, brother and uncle. How I wish he hadn’t had this awful illness which killed him too young. How I wish he was here.
Until next week,
PS – a thank you to the lady who walked past us while we had our lunch, noticed our Mind t-shirts and offered us words of encouragement, as well as a suggestion for a good read related to mental health – “The Mirror World of Melody Black”, by Gavin Extence. I have decided that this will be my project from the library to begin upon after the trek is over and I don’t need to feel guilty about reading instead of exercising.