Tuesday, 1 October 2002

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part I

I know I’ve mentioned my walk in Pembrokeshire more than once, and it was a few years ago now, but I recently unearthed my diary of the walk and, magazine material being as hard to come by as it is, I thought why not serialise it for the faithful readers!
“I’m going to walk the Pembrokeshire Coast Path”.  That’s what I had decided and that’s what I had been telling people who asked where my next holiday was going to be.  South Wales sounded a bit anti-climactic after Ecuador and Madagascar but I fancied a different kind of challenge and this one was 186 miles of official route and an overall ascent the equivalent of Everest, carrying a tent, cooking equipment and as little clothing and food as possible on my back.  To walk the coast path was my aim.  Perhaps to state, so confidently, that I would was a little presumptuous.
I set off from Poppit Sands car park at 3 pm on the first of June (1998), walking the route from north to south.  The first leg was 14 miles over a most strenuous part of the path.  I had trained well in the previous weeks, doing progressively longer distances with a heavier pack, but, my favourite boots had more or less collapsed on me the previous Monday and I am wearing a rather heavy and inflexible pair that I haven’t put on for two years.  Also, despite all the walking I have done in the previous 5 years, it was over 10 years since I had done significant walking on a number of consecutive days.  Nevertheless, I am in buoyant mood as I stride out between the banks of bluebells and foxgloves on a bright and sunny day.  Stonechats “chat” beside the path and in the distance a pair of buzzards soar on the thermals that rise above the interface where the sea meets the cliffs with their dramatic folds and fissures of rock.
I stop at a farm to fill my water bottle.  I sense the farmer is keen for me to stay the night there on his camping field (£1 a night).  He says it is 6 hours walk to the next campsite, but I have only just started and I know I can do it quicker than that.  However, I didn’t reckon on his dog adding to the argument in a rather more direct manner.  Having not noticed it steal up behind me, the agonising pain of his fangs in the back of my calf makes me shout out in surprise and pain.  Luckily he didn’t break the skin, but the cynical smile on the animals face as he backs away from me makes me hope it isn’t an omen of things to come!
That is soon forgotten as I push on and drink in the heady views – the purity of the sea air and the intense and tranquil blue of the ocean; the mass of wild flowers that I’d heard such rave reviews of – I wasn’t going to be disappointed.  I only pass one other walker until I get within strollers’ reach of Newport.  I walk along the sands and ford the river, my bare feet appreciating the soothing coolness of water and soft mud but then complaining about the sharp stones that have to be crossed to reach the boat club jetty.  I find a pleasant campsite – the only campsite – but with a good congregation of midges – cook my spaghetti and tuna, take a short stroll and go to bed.  I feel fit and eager to get going again the next morning.  My training has obviously paid off and I feel I could eat this walk for breakfast!  I relish the fact that my home for the next ten days would be my little tent and this rugged path together with the sea, the cliffs and the soaring skies.  I pray that this would also be a pilgrimage for me.  
I awake at 4.30 am to the patter of rain.  I enjoy the rain when I am snug in my down sleeping bag in my ‘storm master’ tent, but the rain gets harder and so does sleep.  By 7.30 am, when my superfluous watch alarm goes off, it is pouring down.  I ‘lie-in’ till 8.15 thinking “is this dismal watery world going to be my home for the next 9 days?”   Cancelling my plan of cooking porridge, I make for the campsite shop to purchase toast and tea.  A woman of 45 ish is there who is walking solo from south to north.  She has got there in 9 days.
The rain always eases just after you’ve packed all your gear away.  I set off at 9.40 feeling comfortable in my swimming shorts and waterproof jacket.  The long wet grass soon soaked boots and socks and I have the first intimations of blisters on the outsides of my little toes.  Oh dear!  Despite this and the weather there is plenty of interest: the ruined Celtic chapel of St Brynach; Dinas “island” with the seabird colony on Needle Rock; and some fellow walkers.  Three men of pensionable age hoping to do the route in 14 days using Bed & Breakfasts.  “It’s getting to me” one of them confides.  I share the news of my nascent blisters to show solidarity and try to cheer him.  “It’s not blisters for me” he says, “it’s my back!”  I look at his pack and his stooping posture and I fear there’s not much I can say.  Admiring his courage, I hope things get better for him and not worse.  The path continues down and up and down again.  Two pieces of toast isn’t really a breakfast, I discover, and start to top up on chocolate bars and bananas.  I stop briefly to watch a fisherman checking his lobster pots and to watch intrepid canoeists out on the growing swell.  A two-person canoe had capsized.  They would have been in real trouble but under the guidance of their instructor the four single canoes form a raft over which the canoe can be lifted and emptied and refloated and from which the displaced persons can re-embark to try once more.
Lower Fishguard was the setting for the film version of Dylan Thomas’ “Under Milk Wood”.  A chapel is being converted into a very des. res.  But I’m now seriously “out of petrol” so at the Sea View Hotel I tuck into a full English Breakfast.  I’m well and truly tired now, but mercifully the blisters that threatened seem to have quietened down again.  In the afternoon I see the lobster fisherman again.  He’s wearing bright orange leggings in an open boat with a pulley suspended over the side.  As he performs the well-worn routines of pulling in his pots, emptying them, sorting the catch, re-baiting and then casting them off as he motors away, he reminds me of the fisherman of Sua in Ecuador.  There they didn’t have outboards but worked long nets from dug out canoes and all the family came to the beach to unload and sort the catch by the light of oil lamps, however, the spirit of the two seems to be the same.
Now I am going back to basics.  At the tiny remote bay of Porthsych near Strumble Head I stamp just enough level ground out of the undergrowth and pitch my tent.  I then uphold some well worn family traditions: scouring the small pebble storm beach I collect the necessary wood to construct myself a bench and find a foam-filled fibreglass block to make a table; with more drift wood and dry bramble shoots I light a fire (it took more than one match but I had no fire lighters).  Then, careful not to dry my boots too close to the fire, I settle down to sing to the seals!  Four or five are already congregating just off the beach and are bobbing on the waves, full of curiosity.  My Dad always said that they come closer when you sing to them.  I guess that depends …!

Funny at the Time

Have you ever had that sinking feeling, whilst telling a story to a group of people who are totally unmoved?  You can well remember how your sides were splitting as were those of whoever was with you at the time.  But now the light of day seems horribly cold and you realise that you just ‘had to be there’ and no amount of explaining can really get people into the spirit.  Your story dies a death and you rather wish that you could too.
On the other hand we sometimes find ourselves in completely the opposite scenario – tears running down the face as an experience is re-lived along with friends.  Then as the laughter dies away someone will acknowledge the grimmer reality that “of course it wasn’t funny at the time!”
Over recent months I have preached a number of sermons on the theme ‘What is the Bible?’  Two points in particular are very important to remember.
First, is that each of the writings that make up the Bible was written at a particular time (remembering that the Bible is not really a single book but a library of books).  This has many implications for us and means, in particular, that entering into the spirit of the Bible’s message involves more than just reading it at face value.  We have to try and understand something of the situation at the time it was written, what the influences were and what the author was trying to convey – not always easy.
Secondly, as we read the scriptures more intelligently, we find within them the process of their own transformation.  Some parts of the Bible are funny, though since we tend to read it with our ‘serious hat on’ we may miss this.  Other parts of the Bible seem nonsensical or even offensive (divine instruction to destroy whole nations including women, children and animals for instance). Supremely, Jesus says “You have heard that it was said ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ But I say to you … turn the other cheek.”  Even that doesn’t give a final answer for every situation, but it shows the tradition behind the scriptures reflecting on itself and seeking transformation, to increasingly witness to the fullness of God’s life for every generation.
As we read the Bible in this way, I think we find it a much more fascinating and relevant book.  We also find that we have both the freedom and the responsibility to bring the transforming power of its message to bear on every part of life.