once upon a time
Do you know the one about the Gobhaun Saor? He was an Irish peddler who, embarking on a long journey on foot, asked his son to shorten the road. The son knew, of course, that the best way to shorten any road is to tell a story as you walk.
My dad used to start many a childhood walk with this framing story, and then launch into his own made-up tale which, miraculously, always drew to a close just as the car/beach/café came into view. My mum used to round off even the silliest of tales with a made-up ‘moral’, which tended to be a nonsensical platitude which always had us in fits of giggles as we queued for our well-deserved ice-creams. I inherited both my parents’ love of the spoken word and a hearty walk, and these days I love finding walks which have stories attached; myths of landscape, history and folklore which enrich the journey and activate the soul, as well as the sole!
Here are four of my favourite walking tales, with my own ‘morals’, some more serious than others:
1) Black Shuck, Norfolk
I grew up in Norfolk, and the legend of the giant hound that haunts the clifftops there has long been in my blood. Black Shuck has apparently been sighted numerous times since the 12th Century and has been the inspiration for a number of ‘hell hound’ stories, and more recently, a brand of local artisanal gin!
The phrase ‘black dog’ is often used as a metaphor for depression, and I think the two are related; like Black Shuck, depression can follow your around, sink its teeth into you, and be quite terrifying. But treat it right, learn to listen and understand what it has to teach you, and the hound is, after all, just a dog. As Kate Tempest says in her poem ‘Hold Your Own’:
Know the wolves that hunt you,
In time, they will be the dogs that bring your slippers.
Love them right and you will feel them kiss you when they come to bite.
I suffered from depression in my teenage years and being dragged out for a hearty walk by my well-meaning family was a common occurrence. I guess I managed to tame my ‘Black Shuck’ and now there’s nothing I love more than a good stomp along the stunning Norfolk Coastal Path, which runs from Hunstanton to Great Yarmouth. The sand dunes at Holkham, seal colony at Blakeney Point and cliffs of Weybourne are breath-taking, with loads of accommodation options including a YHA at Wells and brilliant backpackers’ hostel at Burnham Deepdale.
The ipse wilderness journey ‘Navigating Transitions’ follows 35 miles of this coastal path and takes place each spring and autumn; check out the itinerary here.
2) Beddgelert, Snowdonia
Speaking of dogs, brace yourself, this is a sad one. Llewelyn had a faithful dog called Gelert, who guarded Llewelyn’s infant son since his wife had died in childbirth. One day, Llewelyn came home to find the baby’s cot empty, and the dog cowering, blood dripping from his mouth. Coming to an awful conclusion, Llewelyn took Gelert outside and shot him. The sound of the gunshot was echoed by a baby’s cry and, running back inside, Llewelyn found his son unharmed, and in the next room, the ferocious wolf which Gelert had slain. Full of remorse, Llewelyn buried Gelert, and his grave is situated just south of the village.
With a campsite nearby, the beautiful Llyn Dinas lake for wild swimming, and the Snowdon access paths less than 5 miles away, this is a wonderful location for a weekend hike/swim/camp. If you can hold back the tears, that is!
Know your dogs from your wolves! Or rather, look before you leap (good advice for that wild swim too).
3) Devil’s Dyke, East Sussex
Devil’s Dyke is one of the iron age hill forts which are scattered along the South Downs Way, the 100-mile footpath from Winchester to Eastbourne. There’s a viewpoint and pub at Devil’s Dyke and buses run up there daily from Brighton.
Legend has it that the dyke (meaning ditch) was dug by the Devil in a plot to drown all the churches between the sea and the South Downs. An old woman caught the Devil at it and lit a candle, which made her cockerel crow and the Devil, thinking daylight was coming, ran away.
I love this simple story for its metaphorical message which can be summed up in the saying, ‘It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’. Light is our war with darkness, and these hill forts mark the beacons that would have been lit along the ridge in times of defence. One light would trigger the next and could be seen as far away as the North Downs in Kent. By shining our light brightly, we encourage others to shine.
There are campsites and hostels all along the South Downs Way. My favourite stretch is a 4-day route from Amberley to Eastbourne, camping at Steyning, Housedean and Alfriston campsites, with a swim at Birling Gap on the last day, and fish and chips on the pier at Eastbourne to finish. There is an ipse wilderness trip called ‘Up on the Downs’ which follows this route, using the rolling landscape as a metaphor for our emotions. You can find out more here.
Shine your light brightly. As Marianne Williamson says, “as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same”.
4) Eyam, Peak District
In 1665 the bubonic plague arrived in the village of Eyam, via a delivery of linen from London. Seeing that the plague would soon ravish the whole area, the vicar led the decision to close the village’s boundaries, sacrificing most of the population to the plague, but saving thousands in the wider community.
To enable trade with the neighbouring village, whilst still quarantining themselves, the villagers made use of the boundary stone between Eyam and Stoney Middleton. Traders would leave parcels of food at the stone, and shopkeepers from Eyam left money soaking in vinegar in holes drilled into the stone, thus preventing the spread of infection.
The ‘Peak Pilgrimage’ is a glorious 3-day walk from Ilam to Eyam, via the Dove and Derwent valleys, with lots of opportunities for wild swimming and three (possibly haunted) youth hostels along the route at Ilam, Hartington and Eyam. ‘I Am She’ is an ipse wilderness women’s therapeutic pilgrimage along this route taking place in the summer. Find out more here.
Treat your neighbour as you would want to be treated. And wash your linens regularly!
As an ex-English literature teacher, I have always loved stories, and enjoyed un-earthing the metaphors, morals and messages behind them. Of course ‘Lord of the Flies’ is not just a story about boys on an island. ‘The Tempest’ isn’t really about an island at all. And don’t get me started on what ‘Lost’ is really about!
For a few years I joined a storytelling club, and wrote stories for oral delivery, mainly for my own pleasure. But I found most satisfaction in telling my real life story in a psychotherapy group to which I belonged in 2012. In this space we were encouraged to ‘tell our story’ without ‘going into story-telling’, the distinction being one of connection. Could we speak about an ancient pain in a way which was immediate, current and engaged, rather than using stock phrases, reciting the myth and rolling on auto-pilot? There was an awful-sounding but actually really helpful rule that those listening could raise their hands when they were getting bored! This was nearly always an indicator that the speaker had gone into shutdown mode and was repeating an old refrain rather than really communicating with the rest of the group. The effect was that sitting in these monthly circles was the most entertaining, vibrant, painful and glorious experience. Each month we were witness to twelve people’s real-life stories and as many of us remarked, it was better than watching TV!
One of the first networking contacts I made since starting ipse wilderness was Dave Perrins of ‘Share your Story’. He runs this as a Brighton based social enterprise comprising monthly events with speakers who share their full story, the ups and downs, and a year-long support group consisting of monthly meetings and workshops called ‘Live a Good Story’. When I chatted to Dave we discovered we both have an interest in the ways people tell their stories, and the therapeutic benefit of speaking your truth and listening to others.
Since I believe that story-telling is ideally suited to walking, and that a long walk is in itself therapeutic, it seemed entirely natural to me to combine the two and make telling one’s true story the therapeutic subject of a long walk. Sure, we could walk in Norfolk or Snowdonia and share myths about the landscape, or chat idly about the weather. But how much more powerful to walk and share our real-life stories too! And even better to link the landscape to the topic; to talk about our boundaries at a county boundary; to share our struggles with depression over the peaks and troughs of long-distance path; to explore our feelings about change as we limn an undulating coastline.
‘Sharing Stories’ is an ipse wilderness journey along the Canterbury Pilgrim’s Way, in which we use ‘The Canterbury Tales’ as starting points for telling our stories. As with Chaucer’s work, the tellers are more important than the tales, and this journey is a practice in deep connection, honesty and courage, all spiced up with the raucous tales of that surprisingly modern-seeming work. My favourite part of ‘The Canterbury Tales’ is the rule that each tale should ‘quite’ the one which went before. This seems to mean ‘beat’, but also ‘respond’ so that, along with the passages of altercation and discussion between tales, the whole work is very much a process; a journey of both speaking and listening. And, as with the Gobhaun Saor, there is a framing device which wraps it all together.
Speaking of which, I think I can see the sea! Who’s for an ice-cream?
Go out and enjoy walking! Just don’t forget the words of the Gobhaun Saor and always be sure to shorten the road, whether that’s sharing a piece of folklore, a historical titbit, or the truth of your own story.