The rucksack was light, containing an ultra-lite one man (one woman) tent, a sleeping bag, few toiletries and a single change of clothes. As usual, it was not me that had made this decision. I’d had depression for a good nine months, so decisions were pretty much beyond me. But here I was, setting off from Luton on foot and wondering if I could really make it to Kings Lynn in five days.
It was the Universe that had decided this for me. Guided me into it, pushed me, shoved me and just wouldn’t let me be until I looked at the map and noted the name of the town that I would try to walk to. I knew that it wasn’t my decision because it wasn’t even a sensible time of year to plan a camping trip. It was early spring and the chance of frost was high.
No, it wasn’t my decision, but the walk and the thought of the challenge felt good and the exertion of walking up the hill brought relief from the physical sensations that come with depression. I thought about those feelings, how relentless they had been and how long they had lasted. My therapist’s voice echoed in my head, “they are only feelings and everyone has them”. I’d questioned that when she said it because there are feelings and then there are feelings; not everyone falls into the deep, dark pit of depression because of them.
The sun was shining as I headed over the hill. Luton sits at one end of the Chilterns, chalky downs stretching from Bedfordshire, across four counties, to the other end in Oxfordshire. This part of the Chilterns has crisscrossed paths, famously trodden by John Bunyan, but likely much older than that. Walking them made me feel connected to the earth and to the ancient ones.
Seems risky for a lone woman to take off on her own for a five-day walk. Not something I would have done when I was younger, having had the crime of being alone in a dark alley drummed into my female consciousness. My heart raced as I checked into the first campsite. It wasn’t so much that I was afraid because the only other people there were men, it was more that I was afraid of the judgement that my harsh inner voice pointed out “what will they think, crazy menopausal woman. Red face sticking out like a sore thumb?”.
Despite the anxiety, I pitched my tent and prepared for bed. Essential night-time attire included eyeshade, earplugs and a woolly hat that I pulled down over my nose which had been feeling decidedly cold. Outside, the men were fishing and drinking but I was soon oblivious, trussed up as I was in my three-season sleeping bag, plugs inserted firmly in my ears to seal out their chat. It was early when I awoke, relieved that my fellow campers were still sleeping as I packed up and headed off again.
The second day’s walking was different. For one, my feet were blistering and walking was not quite so enjoyable. Despite this, I relaxed into the walk, delighting in turning to see how far I had come. I had reached Cambridgeshire and the flat county stretched in front and behind. The day was bright and clear and I kept Sharpenhoe Clappers in my vision as a progress marker.
Mind clearing as I walked, making room for thoughts to come and go, and eventually to work their way to wherever they needed to go. Some turned into poems, something that had been happening since I had started therapy in October. As the thoughts worked their way out, the crucial ones stopped to form a verse, perfectly expressing and processing the deep-rooted trauma within.
As I set up camp the second night, I had to face facts. Determination and poetic musing had kept me going that day but I was not going to be able to walk much more, given the blistered state of my feet. With regret, I made the decision that the next leg would have to be by train. I put this plan into action with a one-way ticket to Littleport.
The plan paid off and my feet recovered sufficiently to walk again on day four. I had a choice, I could walk half a mile to the village (and half a mile back) to buy breakfast or I could head straight off, finding a shop on the way. I opted for the latter to avoid the extra mile. Being a townie, I had not anticipated just how rural Cambridgeshire would be. I had to walk for thirteen miles before I found somewhere to buy food. Lesson learned – it is always worth going the extra mile!
The final day took me to Norfolk and to Downham Market where I got another train to Kings Lynn. Once there I just sat in cafes. It didn’t matter which, as long as they had a charging point for my mobile phone. I sat in cafes and wrote. Wrote my thoughts. Wrote poems about my thoughts. Cried, thought some more and wrote poems about that too. The poems were sad, some funny, some incredibly insightful. I revelled in the time I had to indulge myself and the inner space I had created during my five-day walk.
I had one day left before catching the train home and decided to make the most of it with a seaside trip. Feeling nourished by my healing time, I climbed the stairs of the double-decker bus, excitedly claiming the front window seat.
The journey lasted an hour and in this mundane and humble setting, the Universe’s plan finally came to fruition. It came in the form of an old woman who sat in the seat opposite me. At first, I was annoyed, since I had been enjoying my own company too much. She started to talk and it was clear that she had mild dementia. Pleasant enough, she chatted away, with incoherent ramblings. Even before we set off, I realised that she had already told me at least three times that her mum had died when she was two. She repeated this refrain for the whole of the journey, each time countering it with “Oh no, it wasn’t that bad,” or “You just get on with it, don’t you?” Each repeated like the refrain of a stuck record that belied her protestations that all was okay.
As she spoke, it struck me that the guilt I had been feeling about disrupting my family system, and the guilt that I felt by not being “over it” yet were entirely misplaced. My mum had not died when I was two but she had left my childhood home (left me) when I was eight. I identified with the old woman. I too know what it is to be un-mothered, unloved. And now I knew that it wasn’t that I was defective, I just hadn’t properly processed my trauma because I didn’t want to rock the boat or be seen as someone who couldn’t cope.
And so the chance meeting with the old woman on the bus that day changed me, and the reason I think the Universe had a hand in it is that everything fell so very neatly into place, in a way that poetry or therapy or years of recovery had not. It may not have been exactly this day but it was certainly very soon afterwards. The fog began to clear and my year-long depression lifted.