It had been over an hour since I’d seen another living soul besides the deck-hands on the approaching P&Os, skylarks, Exmoor ponies, and the dashing pilot of a low flying spitfire, but suddenly there was a stranger close by, walking menacingly towards me. I glanced down, planning my first move: If necessary, I’d attempt a swift kick to the goolies, maybe an eye-gouge. Could I swing my rucksack at him like a gladiator net and make a run for it? Every sinew in my body snapped alert and I hoped that this might make me appear bigger, stronger and more muscular, my face wearing an expression of ‘Don’t f**k with me, Sunshine’. He was close now; I lowered my gaze to the rabbit-nibbled sward, beneath which he surely planned to bury my mutilated corpse. As we passed within touching distance he said a shy hello, I offered a brief unambiguous smile, and then he was gone, most probably lurking in a hawthorn, just out of sight, eagerly anticipating his imminent frenzied attack as he watched my irresistibly alluring figure from behind.
In moments of weakness this sort of ludicrous scenario can play out in my head as I stride out on solo countryside expeditions.
The blogs, books and insta-feeds of travel writers and all round gung-ho, get-up-and-go kinda outdoorsy types such as Alastair Humphries have really inspired me to up my ‘micro adventure’ quotient. But I’m wondering if the likes of Mr. Humphries have ever imagined for one minute that a passing fellow hiker might be concealing a bloodied machete beneath their cagoule. I checked the index of his book Micro Adventures and was disappointed with the apparent omission of a chapter on self-defence. I was hoping for “What to do when a bowie knife stabs through your tent at midnight” or “How to disarm an axe-weilding psycho”
The truth is, the poor man who crosses my path on the cliffs is more likely to have been freaked out by the brooding heffer emitting intimidating vibes who interrupted his innocent stroll, than to be a threat to me. So just what is it that makes me conjure such fantastical feelings of angst when I am out in the wilds?
As I contemplate a fresh new year of map-marking and route planning, it’s time to unpack and examine this issue more closely, and maybe, hopefully, talk some sense into myself.
It has to be said that the primary cause for my over-catastrophising stems from my mother. It would be an understatement to say that, over the years, she has grown fretful. The sight of a suspicious stranger brings to my mind echoes of her tremulous voice, a perpetual internal dialogue warning of grave danger and imminent death. Thoughts of murderers, rapists, rip tides, perverts, landslides, volcano eruptions and rock falls, but mostly murderers and perverts, occupy her every waking moment if she knows I am alone outdoors somewhere. This makes me turning forty-seven all the more miraculous given that I have hitherto escaped all these pitfalls. As a child, free as I was back then to disappear fearlessly into the wilds for whole days at a time, I occupied myself with the digging of woodland dens in the mud, carving bows and arrows with a penknife, wading barefoot in abandoned paper mills or re-kindling other people’s unattended bonfires. My mother will tell you that when I got older, blessed as I am with the innate ability to spark up conversations with strangers, (stranglers?) I positively flirted with dangers of the rapist kind, often meeting ‘nice men’ on the train.
In truth, this talent is a mixed blessing as it also means that every crazy within a ten mile radius is magnetically drawn to me; birds of a feather perhaps? If there is a weirdo in the vicinity, you can bet they will make a beeline for me. The first time I became aware of it I was 10 years old, leaning over the edge of the millpond catching sticklebacks. A sense of someone breathing heavily right behind me. I swung round to find myself face to grinning face with Running Keith, a 6’6″ local teenager notorious for his mad eyes wiry form, super-human strength, and so-called because when he wasn’t frightening little girls, he ran everywhere, like Forest Gump, but scary. My blood ran cold, I politely removed myself sideways from the riverbank and shot home feeling instinctively that I had escaped something, but what, I wasn’t sure. *
Another time walking through a busy Canterbury street with my Dad, I was punched in the face by an escaped mental patient. Wrong place, wrong time? No, just normal for E-J.
In 1996, on an idyllic country lane close to where my parents still live, a mother and her two little girls were brutally attacked by a hammer-wielding lunatic. This, and countless other horror stories about dangerous strangers, such as the infamous ‘Mr. Kipper’, who, ten years earlier had supposedly done away with Suzie Lamplugh, are eternally seared onto my mother’s subconscious, so that last summer when I was planning a solo walking pilgrimage to a magnificent Maiden Oak tree in a remote corner of a Kentish country estate, she worked herself up into an apoplectic lather of angst. Maybe my flippant jokes on the prospect of knocking on the door of the creepy farmhouse to ask permission to see the tree, only to disturb a shotgun-wielding hermit in nothing but dirty underpants, didn’t help the situation. At the time I thought I was being terribly funny, but her resultant jitters were contagious, and I later persuaded even myself that it might not be such a good idea after all. Visiting The Nonington Oak remains un-crossed-out on my To Do list, but this year I am more determined than ever to overcome all this nonsense.
While I love hiking with friends, (especially ones who make me laugh) and it is definitely great therapy to walk and talk, I particularly enjoy the solitude of a solo expedition. One that requires the self-reliance of navigation, cooking and sleeping under the stars, appeals to my Inner Girl Guide, except that, thanks to her mummy, this one has become a total wuss about all the bogeymen hiding in the bushes. I sometimes wish I were a Boy Scout.
Two years ago I was walking along a road not far from home in the Yorkshire Wolds, when a car pulled up alongside me, the lone male driver then sped away. Screeching to a halt at the next crossroads, he turned back to pass me slowly two more times. You could say the experience put the wind up me. I wonder how many men have had a similar walking experience? Then, last year I did a few long training walks before my Macmillan Mighty Hike, and found myself a long way from civilization. Once, in the depths of Houghton Woods (in reality only 2.5km from Market Weighton) I thought how odd, suspicious even, my lone figure must look in such a place. Thankfully I had Badger the Dog with me as an alibi, but once deep into the undergrowth, the infuriating little twat decided to abandon me, and I spent twice as long in the looming shadow of old rhododendrons than I was comfortable with. Vivid scenes from all the scariest films I’ve ever watched played through my mind on a loop as I staggered off the path whistling for him. Eventually I had to give myself a mental face slap before panic turned into actual screaming. Eventually he sauntered alongside me, looking pleased with himself.
So, what was I actually afraid of? No longer am I an irresistable little girl or a ravishing young woman. Surely, no self-respecting ripper would bother with me as I am now. Too bulky, for a start.
A good friend of mine who, unlike me, is very sensible and non-hysterical, took to the Cumbrian hills alone last year, and was enjoying the unbroken peace of her hike until she met a man on the path. He commented on how unusual it is to see a woman walking alone. An innocent enough observation but one that made her feel suddenly and unaccountably exposed and vulnerable. It doesn’t seem fair that the male of the species are free to wander at will humming ‘Val-deree, Val-deraah’ without a care in the world. While us girls scamper from clearing to clearing checking for danger and poised for a struggle.
Seeking some hard facts for reassurance, I Googled women’s safety hiking, and found myself checking out the statistics on the Femicide Census Report, (yes, it’s a thing) published in December 2018. It revealed that 76% of women killed by men already knew their assailant. However, I strongly recommend that, if you are a woman of a nervous disposition (Mother) you should avoid reading the rest of the grizzly report, which might make you barricade yourself in the bathroom for the rest of your life.
This New Year’s Eve, while Hubby’s not what you’d call a super fan of Hogmanay, and Arthur was out at a teenage party, Rose and I decided to welcome in the next decade beside the sea. We set off into thick fog at 2230hrs on 31 December with a basket of sparklers, bubbly, party poppers, lanterns, biscuits, blankets and a wireless speaker-cum-disco-ball. Little did I know then, that in conversation with our mother that same night, my sister would accidentally let the cat out of the bag about this flight of fancy. When we arrived at Fraisthorpe, the sky had cleared to reveal a twinkling Milky Way above our heads, the air was still, and the distant fireworks of Bridlington Bay were spectacular. It was truly one of the best New Year’s Eve’s ever!
But for my poor Mama, however…not so much. Now in possession of the certain knowledge that her precious daughter and grand-daughter were probably hypothermic somewhere in the dark, perilously close to the murderous swelling waters of the frozen North Sea not to mention a town densely populated by dangerous paedophiles, she spent the early hours of 2020 breathing into a paper bag and trying to resist calling 999. For that, I am truly sorry. But with this in mind, I am now more determined than ever that my daughter shall grow up feeling strong and capable, and to have the courage to take on adventures unhindered by apocalyptic whispers of impending doom. I will banish all thoughts of Claudia Lawrence, Madeline Mccann and Lord Lucan, and actively encourage her to go forth boldly, (after charging her iphone and packing mace).
Yesterday I walked seven miles through a remote corner of The Howardian Hills with an old friend, not another person in sight for miles. I’ve known her since we were twelve years old and she’s not only been the source of most of my biggest laughs, but also a levelling voice of reason, a pragmatic Enobarbus to my romantic Anthony (we studied Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra together at A Level) She obligingly dispelled any last remaining concerns I had of imminent hiking peril by pointing out that it would take a very special kind of determined psycho to hide for days in the bushes of a damp Yorkshire hillside on the off-chance that a walker might totter past inviting disembowellment. She also quoted the aforementioned statistic of being more likely to be murdered by your postman than a stranger in the wilds. So that’s a comfort….
As it turns out, there’s actually a good deal of writing and discussion about this subject, and having looked at a few websites (see below), I am much more in control of my ‘weak and feeble woman’ anxieties. There is no longer a requirement to wear brass knuckledusters while hiking. Gore-tex clad retired RS teachers with a heart condition can safely go about their travels without fear of encountering the ‘Don’t F**k With Me Heffer’ and I’m bringing the one-woman tent and a camping stove back out of storage.
Next item on the agenda: Lone Wild Swimming.
ONLY JOKING MOTHER! Rachael has promised to accompany me and haul me out before I drown.
*As far as I know, Running Keith is still running around Dover, he has become a local celebrity, and can be found on You-tube. So you see, he was in fact the one that got away…