Friday, 1 November 2002

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part 2

I cook my pasta in stream water, not having much left in my bottle, and eat it with sardines in tomato sauce – slightly more interesting than last night’s meal but that’s not saying much.  I edge closer to the fire as the embers start to cool.  After a bit of a dismal start it had been a great day.   Now I have only the fire, the sea and the seals for company.  The waves are rolling in and I watch a lobster-pot buoy which keeps riding in on successive waves but is always pulled up short by its rope, making it look like a surfer ‘without enough bottle’.  I eventually go to sleep feeling very self-satisfied at my self-sufficiency and self-congratulating that where some would be easily scared, I was sleeping out on this desolate headland – without any fear.
That was at 10 pm.  At 10.30 I am awake again.  Why?  I’m dog-tired, but something has woken me!  What?  What was that noise?  Silence.  There it is again - indefinable and therefore sinister.  In a tent you feel vulnerable.  Every noise is magnified.  You can’t see and you have no protection.  “It was nothing” I tell myself.  But I’m not convinced ….  There had been ravens on the path just before I stopped.  Some birds sing sweetly and lighten your spirit.  Ravens give a rasping croak!  Dark and sinister, they live in the tower of London where people have been locked up and beheaded in the shadows.  Earlier, in Fishguard, I had read about countless ships wrecked on these very shores.  I remembered the ghost of Sandwood Bay in Scotland – a restless spirit from another such wreck ……  When my brother and I had camped out in the same tent in our garden as children, similar thoughts had sent us immediately running to the house and diving under familiar covers.  Now no such option presents itself.  “Some are easily scared but not me”!  I repeat my night prayer, “I will lie down and sleep in peace for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety”, and try to pull the presence of God around me like a cloak …
I wake again at 2 am to hear the amplified pounding of the high tide waves only 6 feet below and 30 ft away from my tent.  Then at 4.30 I am relieved by first light and get up at 6.15, reviving the fire and cooking my porridge.  In a crevice nearby, the stream forms a perfect natural shower, but it’s rather cold and I decide I can put that off a bit longer.  I break camp at 7.40.  It has been a good campsite despite the irrational fears.  As I walk away I look down on the site from a different angle and see the mouth of a cave 20 yards from where I’d slept.
The weather is dry but dull and rather chilly.  The sea is getting ‘bigger’.  Strumble Head proves to be very rough walking and my blisters start to introduce themselves again, modestly at first but nevertheless in that sinister way they have which promises an unpleasant future.  My Dad always used to quote from somewhere “Little leopards become big leopards and big leopards kill”!  I stop to admire the lighthouse with its little access footbridge down below me, then I press on hoping to reach a second breakfast at the Pwllderi Youth Hostel.  This has a spectacular and exposed location, high up over a little bay and looking south-west along an imposing rampart of cliffs.  Unfortunately it’s shut.  No bacon, eggs, sausage, beans and no chance to stock up on provisions.  I’m down on my reserves and soon have to consume my ‘fruit & nut’ and last two Twix bars.  I pass two women who are spending 8 days walking the north section from Marloe.  I feel a bit disheartened and start running out of energy again, but make it, emptily and painfully, to Trefin and order Soup & Roll, whole dressed crab salad with chips.  I eat every scrap and then all the butter and sauces before stocking up at the shop and eating further a packet of yoghurt nuts and raisins and a third of a packet of chocolate hobnobs.
Now the attention turns fully from stomach to feet.  Agony!  As I set off, I seem to be walking in boots that are full of broken glass.  Should I give up now?  At least take a day off?  I put these questions aside and press on, but only to find myself overtaken by an elderly woman and man with a dicky leg.  I try to admire the scenery, which is lovely, and take an interest in the little ports like Porth-gain with its relics of a short lived industrial past and Aber Eiddy with its quarry ruins.  Nevertheless the pain gets worse and suddenly I get an excruciating tearing sensation on my heel.  I find that by walking with an exaggerated limp I get on okay, however, the man with the dicky leg, on returning the other way, gives me a look as though I’m trying to be funny.  Finally, I get my boots off and survey the desolation that was once a pair of feet – right heel split and at least one blister on each left toe.  I sit for a while and think.  Then I tape up my heel, loosen my boot laces and press on.  I start to pass the remains of Iron Age forts and feel as though I’m picking up a bit. 
I arrive at St David’s head at 7 pm.  Despite the pain I must have covered 20 miles in the day.  I nearly decide to walk on to the campsite, which is a mile further, but as soon as I step through the ancient earthwork beyond which is the very end of the peninsular, I’m transported out of time to become the Iron Age chieftain secure in his fort!  I pitch my tent in the stone-circle of one of the ancient dwellings.  I dig with a stone to make a fireplace then collect heather twigs and wild pony droppings for fuel.  Barefoot and un ‘packed’ now, I feel free and invigorated.  Lacking much water, I have to use the pasta water to make my tea and then use the tea bag to wash the pots and grass to dry them, but I feel very satisfied and a banana baked (in its skin) amongst the glowing dung is a real treat.
It’s been overcast all day.  One of those days when you find it hard to imagine there ever really was a blue sky and a sun.  But as I lie back and wonder whether, after three days, I should now change my socks, I notice a line across the sky just above the western horizon.  When I look again there is a thin band of blue.  Then suddenly the clouds are racing across the sky and the late evening sun, appearing all at once, seems to pour liquid gold down the hillside and across the headland and the sea.  I am reminded that “God has poured his love into our hearts by his Holy Spirit” and I clamber up onto the rocks to see from every angle the view across to Ramsey island and the surrounding flotilla of islets, sitting peaceful among the hammering waves.
I get up at 6 am on Thursday.  The morning is fresh, the sea is calm and the promise is of a glorious day.  There was another strange noise in the night but it is identified now as a breaking tent peg loop – no Iron Age visitations after all.  I breakfast in a sunny nook, watching a gannet diving for its own meal, then I break camp and set off at 7.50 am.  I pass the wild ponies.  They seem to eye me cautiously.  Perhaps they caught a whiff of my fire and identified the fuel.  I pass quickly on to Whitesands, feet tender but manageable.  Yesterday I felt in danger of hypothermia, now it is sunstroke that I have to guard against.    Walking alongside Ramsey Sound and revelling in the beauty of weather and scenery, I catch up with four Scousers and strike up a conversation with their rearguard.  The one at the front: “Watch out he’s from the Social, I knew they’d catch up with us.” “Hey! Don’t tell him where I live”.  Immediately I’m transported back to the non-stop humour of the year I spent in West Everton.

Out of the comfort zone

The lady in the tea shop said how cute Imogen looked asleep on my knee “she must be exhausted poor thing, but isn’t it sweet to see them so peaceful.” (punctuated with one or two cooing noises).
Imogen wasn’t asleep.  She had only put her head down seconds before her admirer appeared from the kitchen.  From my angle I could see that her eyes weren’t even shut.  I knew that at any moment she might pop up again and resume her demand for crisps.  But for some reason I hadn’t the heart to shatter the woman’s illusion.
I suppose it was because she was so caught up in it.  She had sold herself a particular heart warming vision and why should I relieve her of it?  I even began to feel anticipatory guilt lest Imogen should do it for me.
Is it just that I am not a ‘straight talking Yorkshireman’ or have we all been in similar situations – far less trivial ones perhaps?  It’s not necessarily that we tell any lies but just that full honesty becomes somehow inconvenient or uncomfortable or maybe just avoidable.
I think that this is one of the key problems with the Church.  We claim to talk about ‘Truth’ but where does Honesty fit into the scheme of things?  People are required to be nice to each other and to avoid conflict, not to ‘upset the apple-cart’, but where does that get us?  Ironically, in a lot of churches the only thing that is said with real response-provoking passion is the phrase “I usually sit in this pew?”  And there we sit with the eternal platitudes slipping over us!
It is a trap that all clergy are drawn towards – becoming publicly bland and ineffectual – and who could blame us – see what happens to those who speak honestly of their views when those views transgress too far from what is acceptable.
Of course, an organisation which wants to maintain its position and stability at all costs has to treat creative spirits in this way.  But it must be clear by now that all the church can maintain this way is its gradual decline into irrelevance – if that hasn’t happened already.
So next time someone says to me “God answered my prayer” I’ll say, “What does is mean to say that when he didn’t answer the prayers of the parent whose child has died after suffering who knows what horrors?” 
Or will I?          We’ll see.