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Sunday, 6 May 2012

Putting on the stile?

I'm currently preparing for my annual Walking Weekend with "the Lads".  That sentence is incorrect on two counts.  Firstly, my 'preparations' consist of the occasional 3 mile walk, when I remember and can be bothered to get my boots out from the bottom of the wardrobe, where they slumber from one year to the next.  Secondly, the epithet "the Lads" was barely accurate 20 + years ago, when we started this tradition and is considerably less so now.  My wife says that we bear more resemblance to "Last of the Summer Wine" with each passing year.  You will have to take a look at the photograph and draw your own conclusions.

"The Lads" - Barmouth, 2012:  from l to r:  Peter, Richard, Philip and Kevin (see Forty Years On)

I suppose the people who would be most surprised that I now willingly go for a walk in the country (albeit, only once a year and with a good deal of pub visiting thrown in) would be my cousins from Holbrook, Brenda, Kathryn and Frances.
Once a year I was sent to stay with my mum's eldest sister, Auntie Mabel, on the basis that it would "do me good to get some fresh country air into my lungs".  I had mixed feelings about this.  As a child, I was definitely a 'townie' at heart, never happier than when I was plodding the mean streets of my bit of Burton.  Countryside, for me, began and ended with the Anglesey Road recreation grounds.  Anything else was too foreign to contemplate.  My cousins, on the other hand, had always led an idyllic country existence in the tiny (as it was then) village of Holbrook.  We could not have been more worlds apart if we had come from different continents. 

In fact, to me, the trip from Burton to Holbrook might as well have constituted inter-continental travel.  It seemed to take ages in the days before dual-carriageways, particularly if we were travelling in my Uncle Jim's Ford Prefect, when we would have to set off back "before it gets dark" because (as we later found out) my Uncle Jim's night vision was not all it should have been.

When I was in Holbrook, I felt as if I had been cut off from the known world.  Nowadays, I actually pass Holbrook to get to Loscoe for a weekly night out with Pete (one of "the Lads").

Holbrook was ok as long as I didn't have to engage with all of that countryside, of which they seemed to have an obscene amount.  My absolute bête noir was 'going for a walk with your cousins'.  This wasn't so much because they really didn't want me dragging along behind them (although they didn't, and I could understand why) but primarily because this would involve muck, strenuous physical exercise and, worst of all, stiles.  I have said before that I don't really do heights.  I can stand any amount of width but height, as a dimension, is in my opinion overrated. 

It seemed to me that stiles were just another form of torture specifically designed by those in the country to make my life a misery.  Wasn't it bad enough to have to trudge over uneven ground, through mud and goodness knows what else, and with large animals of uncertain temperament staring at you, without being required to climb rickety wooden structures every 100 yards or so just, apparently, for the sheer fun of it?
I would love to be able to say that my opinion has changed over the years, but with regard to stiles, it hasn't.  Every Walking Weekend will see, at some point, everyone else waiting patiently in one field whist I perch precariously on top of some stile, legs locked in fear and desperately trying to work out how I'm going to get back down again.

I understand that Dartmoor is considering getting rid of stiles to facilitate access to the countryside.  Now there's a potential venue for our next walk!