Sunday, 1 December 2002

Pembrokeshire Coast Path : Part 3

Go to Part 1
"I arise today through a mighty strength
the strong name of the Trinity
through belief in the threeness
through the confession of the oneness
of the creator of creation.”
This prayer from the Hymn of St Patrick has given me courage on many mornings when I’ve felt a bit overwhelmed by particular challenges ahead of me.  I have decided to make it my morning prayer each day that I am able to walk.  Trinity Sunday is approaching and I find myself at this magical interface between Sea, Land and Sky where so much lives and moves and has its being.  I love the smell of the sea, I love the flight and cry of the sea birds, the feel of the wind, sun, rain, the soft grass and hard rocks beneath my feet, the delicate colours and shapes of the cliff top flowers.  Ramsey Island looks majestic and in the Sound the currents are racing and roaring through ‘The Bitches’.
I also adopt a through-the-day prayer:
“Be thou my vision O Lord of my heart
Naught be all else to me save that thou art
Thou my best thought in the day and the night
Both waking and sleeping, Thy presence my light.”
A vision of beauty and strength, and so easy to believe in, being where I find myself now.
My feet are now dully painful and I am walking fast.  It’s time to make a decision: do I take an easy day today by stopping at St David’s, giving myself time to look around and time to recover?  I defer the decision because I now reach the spot where “the Age of the Saints” begins to leave its evidence.  St Non was the mother of St David and he was born nearby during a great storm in AD 462.  The present Chapel of St Non was built in 1934 near the site of the original one, which in turn was near a holy well.  This well was renowned for its healing properties, especially for eye diseases.  The little chapel, built in the Celtic style, is cool and peaceful.  I light a candle and say prayers musing on the fact that the God I meet in here is the same God of the cliffs, the winds and the seas.  Later, I decide that I prefer that little building to St David’s Cathedral which is nice but full of tourists and tour parties.  In the Cathedral I don’t seem to find that ‘heart’ that I did with my little candle in St Non’s – but it’s a lovely building nonetheless and the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace are even grander!  I shop and picnic in a little park.  In the chemists I discover some ‘miracle’ blister plasters, which is just as well as the little devils are worse than ever after my rest.  I continue on to the delightful port of Solva and a delicious cream tea.  Suddenly I think to myself, “I could have spent two weeks just doing this – lazing in the sun and feeding my face – why am I not normal?”  But even the idea of the (relatively) easy day has gone out the window as I feel myself driven onwards.  I wash my feet in the sink in the cafĂ© toilet and apply the plasters – no difference at all – what did I expect? I suppose there are miracles and then there are MIRACLES. 
Now the path becomes really cruel: up and down and up and down.  I am doing my exaggerated limp again but it’s still agony and putting a strain on my right thigh.  I confide in an elderly couple coming the other way.  “I swear by Vaseline,” said the man, “rub some Vaseline on them by all means.”  The wind is really blowing up now.  Eventually I flop down on the campsite behind the storm beach at Newgale.  I hobble to the shop to see if they sell alternative footwear.  I’m beginning to dream about a pair of sandals.  I make some supper and a wonderful woman from a neighbouring caravan brings me a cup of tea in a 50’s cup.
Facing up to my feelings: I am still enjoying the scenery and the variety of the weather and the challenge.  Its ironic: in a sense blisters are so superficial and trivial – the rest of me is slightly fatigued but fine really, considering the distance and terrain covered – and yet they are so awful and insidious.  I desperately want to complete this walk and I’m annoyed.  I’ve met other walkers and they haven’t had blisters.  If only my other boots had been all right.  The pain is always there and makes everything difficult but at the same time I’m not beaten and my spirits are constantly being raised.  Today I have eaten: beans & sausage, orange, banana, the rest of the hobnobs, a loaf of bread with ham, yoghurt, apple, cream tea, tomato soup, spaghetti & coronation chicken.
I had gone to bed at 10 pm but now wake at 1 am because my blisters are fighting back in angry mood.  In the dark I search my pack for penknife and disinfectant swabs.  Piercing them and releasing the pressure eases the pain slightly.  I’m going to have to pack it in.  No doubt I could carry on in the morning but I’ll only pay for it in increasing measure at night and this is no fun.  In neighbouring tents there are five fresh and fit looking men, who are doing a small part of the walk over three days.  In the morning I tell them that I’m going to take it easy.  (“Shall I give up?  Take a day or two off to recover and not worry if I don’t have time to finish?  I might as well enjoy myself!”)  I clean and treat my feet with all bar one of the ‘miracle’ plasters, then sit around and quickly get bored.  “This is not a good place for a day off.”  I buy some Vaseline and cover the friction points of my feet and then try my boots on laced very loose now.  “Not too bad – I’ll go for it, a little way at least.”  I set off from Newgale along the beach.  There are the Scousers again, very friendly, but then it’s their last day so they can afford to feel elated.  One of them has blisters too.  At the end of the beach I scramble up to regain the cliff top path.  It’s cloudy and cool but pleasant.  Amazingly my feet seem to have found a new lease of life. 
At Norton Haven I pass my neighbours of last night – all five of them chatting up an attractive blonde woman – like bees round a honey pot.  They look surprised to see me and I fancy the blonde casts me a wistful look as I stride past.  (I hope they tell her of my earlier pain and I imagine her secret admiration of a real man!).  I stride boldly to the top of the headland where all of a sudden a new blister bursts.  I just can’t believe it.  I really could cry like a baby.  However, I use my last futile ‘miracle’ patch and continue to Broad Haven.  Here I walk straight into a surf shop and lash out £50 on a pair of ‘Reef’ hi-performance sandals, not counting the cost.  Immediately I find another new lease of life and relish walking with the fresh air blowing on my toes.  My boots are heavy and I feel it in the increased weight of my pack but that means nothing to me – I can cope with everything as long as the little demons down at ground level stay asleep.  I picnic at Little Haven – one time coal port, now picturesque holiday village – then on through a change in scenery: the path along the cliff top is wooded, the ground is level and follows the contour, the undergrowth has recently been cut.  Everything seems suddenly to be in my favour.  As I had descended into Broad Haven I had prayed for the ‘exorcism’ of my blisters.  Was all this an answer?
It’s a good push on to St Brides along a lovely coastline.  By the time I get there and visit the little church my feet are complaining again somewhat.  I push myself on a bit further, pausing to watch the gannets give a fine display of diving and fishing skills over Musslewick bay, before eventually stopping to camp at East Hook Farm.  I feel very proud of myself but still wonder how much longer I can go on.

Inside Story

“Do you believe in Father Christmas?”  I thought I had settled that one long ago – but now I’m not so sure!
Christmas has been a long time coming in our house.  Or, looking at it another way, I’m not sure Christmas ever really finished last time.  ‘The Snowman’ was weaving his magic amongst us every day for the first half of the year.  In the height of summer ‘Wow – that’s what I call Christmas’ took over – ever smiling presenters Carl and Katie (aided by Bump and Super Ted) reeling off a string of Christmas Favourites – first thing every morning.  The Christmas Tree has been out of sight but never really out of mind, and we eventually gave in to repeated requests and got it out a couple of weeks ago.  Strangely, that prompted a dramatic loss of festive interest (sudden arrival giving the lie to expectation, I suppose) but things are picking up again now.  Imogen is waiting for it to snow so that she too can go ‘walking in the air’ and she is always on the look out for Santa.
Not that she has to look too far.  She has her very own Santa outfit and, even when she’s not wearing it, the correct answer to ‘What’s Father Christmas doing?’ is to state exactly what Imogen is doing at that moment, “Eating his breakfast” or “Sitting on his potty”!
It’s not that a child of nearly 3 does not have some grasp on reality, but it’s fair to say that imagination and ‘reality’ have, as yet, no clearly defined boundary.  FC is a great character and part of a wonderful story and I suppose he offers a role that anyone can ‘inhabit’, if they wish.
I’ve even quite enjoyed accompanying Imogen and Jemima into Santa’s grotto – you could actually see the half-made toys on his workbench – but there was something I found disconcerting and eventually I worked out what it was.  It was the attempt to go beyond an understated enactment of the story.  The attempt to impress on the children that this particular ‘Santa’ was watching them, that their presents were in his keeping and if they were good he would visit the house and deliver them to the waiting stockings.  I don’t know if I can get my feeling across, but there was an attempt to literalise the story, which threatened to undercut its real nature as a story.  The only (eventual) outcome is for the beauty of the myth and such truth as it possesses to sink in the cold grey waters of hard and disappointing fact.
For me this raises questions about the other Christmas Story – what we often call the ‘true meaning’ of Christmas.  Is that one (just) for the children?  Within it, where does the boundary between imagination and ‘reality’ lie and in what sense is the relationship between the two an important one?  Are they correct who would strenuously assert it all as historical fact or is that just to deny many people the power of the story, which, as inspiring story, can perhaps change the facts of our lives?
Then again there’s the third Christmas Story – the story in the ads.  It says “Spend your money like this, buy into this image and your home will be full of all the happiness and harmony that you could wish for.”
I said that Santa is part of a wonderful story – it is rather a simplistic one though – be good and be rewarded, be naughty and you won’t.  The ‘real’ Christmas story has far more in it, enough to make us question and ponder for a lifetime.
Facts are important, sometimes they are vital.  But I don’t think the human spirit is sustained by fact.  What we need is poetry, imagination and good role models – no, that sounds too mundane – we need to have our imaginations fired up with a vision of the shape our lives could take, if we are to live fully in response to the grace of God.