Caught by the River

Lines Made By Walking

Jude Rogers | 24th September 2010

By Jude Rogers
20. Summer Lines

So much has happened this summer. So much that the season is now teetering into autumn, like a drunk on one leg, trying out its last hot-headed shouts as the sun keeps on blazing, reminding us it is still here, that it will be going soon, and how quiet things will be without him to distract us.

As the sun hits now, at the end of September, I try to pick apart the last six weeks. The greatest holiday ever in the unlikeliest wonderland. Upturning our lives into boxes, leaving the flat, buying the house, moving out, growing older. And then new things arriving, like the little job that has uprooted me from the desk and the laptop, taking me to the classroom and the lecture hall, to young minds that I hope to fill with Good Things. And in the middle of this, I have started walking again. Heel to toe, heel to toe, two legs working together. Every step ticking me off, telling me that I need to remember where those heavy things have been, and the journeys, this summer, that made everything vivid.

a. We went away not by foot at the start, but by car. Four rented wheels taking us to Derbyshire, then Lancaster, then the Lake District. The rainclouds always threatening, but for us, holding off. After our week in Majorca last year in flash floods and thunderstorms, driving on cliff edges as the land dropped beneath us, only months after we’d stitched things back together, we felt the wheel turning.

And we walked. Five miles around Coniston Water – dark ripples, black and white sheep, green oily grass, golden mushrooms exploding through stout, stiff blades. The sun bold, but not brazen, the air light, our limbs fuzzy. Then in the town the hills rippling, like heavy arms of old men, hugging the little buildings, keeping them warm.

b. Then to the pig’s ear of Anglesey, sitting on top of my home country’s chunky, happy head. We walked to Lover’s Island near Newborough Warren, not because of sentimentality, but because of the beaches, jagged rocks, the soft sands at low tides,and the seals. We saw tall, celtic crosses, tried the waves, then let them come up at us, up to the shoulders and over the head. Then the walk back, the cool drops drying on brown skin, the shocking glow that you get when you realise that you have swam off North Wales, and survived.

Then the walks to old places, the little corners of the memory. The length of Llandudno Pier, the old stalls, the peeling paint, the old pub at its tip, playing Emmerdale to the barmaid, to the ghosts of heavy ashtrays. The riverfront at Conwy, so short now, and Britain’s smallest house, the door that comes up to my chin, that I could fit into twenty-four years ago. Knowing that with every step, this nostalgia will only darken and spread, like ink on a white sheet, a blood clot turned black.

c. After the North, through the mountains to Borth, the seaside town I remember from old trips with Uncle Gwyn and Aunty Agnes. This time, falling in love with its idiosyncrasies, its mysteries – the church long locked up, the metal rusting, the bunting hanging sallow. The fading rooves of the car showrooms, the High Street’s own Pyramids. Our walks along the shingle, early evening, just before our nights in the pub, watching orange light lick the top of the Irish Sea. Our long hike along the coast, up and down, passing the same weathered friends, our calves getting stronger, our slow tans bedding in.

And our little stroll with Uncle Gwyn, the shortest walk but the sweetest, the slow climb of an 87-year-old man still determined to see a beautiful view, the one he used to enjoy with his wife, and his young children, taking it in, letting it settle, taking a breath, taking it home.

d. And then back to my home. Not the new one but the old one, the tiny patch of land that makes up the Gower, the place that I was so keen to leave, that I thought I knew well. Realising how funny it is when another pair of eyes make you look again, turning familiar furrows into alien lines. We went to Rhossili, headed east, and found a beach I had never heard of, Fall Bay, a path full of wild rabbits and a scramble down to the wet. To Three Cliffs, the long path I had forgotten past the pretty woods, the cows feeding their babies, the castle raising its eyebrows.

I felt frightened about how much I couldn’t remember, how many details had been rubbed out, how many gaps kept appearing. And then I would realise the positive things: how I had a greater sense of adventure now than I had ever had in my life; how the years had brought the sort of desire I never knew when I was young; how my eyes were so open now, the panorama so wide.

e. And then we went to Whiteford Sands, To North Gower, which for many, is where the magic never happens – no beaches, no inlets, no staggering rocks, only the lumpy, boggy marshes, the low land, the dirty river. Seeing its north-western point from the rubble of King Arthur’s Head, getting the car, then walking out from Llanmadoc into the unknown, through the dips and the troughs of the dunes, the high lifts, the low sags. Walking through butterflies of every colour, forlorn sheep, the thick trees, following paths that swerved and cut, that ran out and left us stranded. But knowing to walk on, and walk on, and then we would reach its leafy tip, the very point where the sea travels into the Loughor Estuary, towards the village that bore me, the river undoing me.

When we reached it, Dan stretched out his hand, and pulled me down. The tide was out, and here we were. Here was the most beautiful beach I have ever seen, only miles from where I’m from, in a place I never thought it could be. We sat and looked at the lighthouse, crumbling into the brine, before walking back through wild horses, taking our time to leave.

One stopped and waited for us. As long as our lives stroll on, I will never forget him.