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0170NP

On this day two years ago I was wed. Jónsmessunott – Midsummer’s night – the day the seals are said to remove their skins to reveal their true human form, the cows are said to speak, and the dew becomes imbued with protective powers. On a mossy headland overlooking a long fjord in Iceland, encircled by friends and family, I made my vows to a man I love dearly and who I planned to spend my life with. We danced late into the bright Arctic night and through to the other side of day.

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Living through Icelandic summers where the dark never comes, it can be respite to have a little lull in the brightness, and I remember being grateful for it becoming overcast, so that I could light candles in the dim.

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I thought our lives together would be a long and happy one, as you would when you marry someone with whom you have already shared four happy years. But Life had other plans, and it has taken me a long time to hear it, understand it and accept it. Into the endless light of that union crept a darkness that slowly threatened to devour everything we had built. My husband suffered a severe bout of depression, which turned out to be a cycle that had been repeating itself for many years. For an affliction that is so commonplace in the Arctic, it is also a taboo. It is driven deep, not talked about, masked. He had masked it well from himself as much as anybody else. I tried to light candles in the darkness. We tried and we tried to keep it from swallowing us but it ran deep.

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On this Solstice a year ago I was standing alone on a pebbly beach on the Northern tip of Iceland watching the sun sink and kiss the horizon, before immediately lifting its head again. We had spent the winter in England, living on a canal boat escaping the darkness of the Icelandic sky to alleviate the darkness inside us. I was watched by a curious gull, who flew past me this way and that, this way and that again, his belly and wings uplit by the kissing sun.

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I was astounded by the electric halo around each and every lupine bud and felt I had walked into a dream sequence. I wondered why no one else was there witnessing this wonder. My love was on a night shift managing the harbour. Before our marriage he had worked as part of fishing crew where sometimes he was out at sea for weeks at a time. In this job, he had to be at the harbour whenever a catch was landed. It always seemed that I would see a lot of him or not much at all. Much like the sun, in the place where we lived – a small fishing village just below the Arctic circle – an equal balance of presence and absence seemed a futile desire. I looked at how red my trusty boots glowed in that golden light, and knew that in a few days’ time they would take me on a long and important journey.

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I won a competition to be Penguin Books’ Summer Wayfarer. I made that journey back to and within my home country of England and of course it transformed me. Travelling on foot for two months, carrying everything I needed on my back, I rekindled a relationship with a former self that was not defined as Carer, though she was caring. I shed layers of exhaustion and feelings of betrayal. I had a transfusion of light and kindness. It made me realise how much this land is my home, where I make sense.

The journey made me whole again, enough for one last push. But it emerged my husband’s darkness was his to gestate and I finally realised that I cannot be his midwife. We eventually found the strength to part ways because we love each other, and wish to let the light back in to each other’s lives. Now, in this moment, I can feel a fragile healing setting in, but I have been grieving long and wide and deep. Writing has helped me move through, but I have not felt to write here. What is there to say when everything you know has fallen away?

EarthLines Issue 9 cover

On this Solstice, a beautiful magazine has landed on my doorstep in which I tell this tale of my relationship with landscape, self and others. Earthlines is a delight of a publication, in its content and its covers, and I urge you to get a copy. I am touched to have been asked to write a piece, and the challenge of doing so was the beginning of a cathartic process. It is a raw journey to write when going through dark times, but it is also the time when the truth muse lingers long enough to be honoured.

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This Solstice I headed north to Scotland to share fireside, story, laughter and silence with beautiful people Dougie and Em Strang and their wonderful daughters and Jack Richardson, who I met on my Wayfaring journey. To have the anniversary of a union, now broken, marked by the generosity of the sun, and by the sadness of loss is a fragile path to tread, but I could not have done it in better company. For these heart friends in amongst the landscape I am deeply grateful.

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And to my husband, thank you for these six rich years shared that spanned many lifetimes and  have made me who I am now.

Orri : tree

37. Across Country

The final post of A Journey On Foot

31st August 2013

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In my last few days of wayfaring, I have been straddling the borders: of England and Wales, of ending and beginning, of immersion in the landscape and transit through it.

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Just before the end of my journey, and the train journey home on which I am currently hurtling through England, I was fortunate enough to make the transition of speed up a gear with the help of a Fell Pony called Robbie, who hailed from Cumbria where my journey began, and his keeper Erica, who kindly offered to take me around part of the new Blakeney Greenway in the Forest of Dean as her back stepper.

This fulfilled a long-held dream since the first time I visited the area some years back, and noticed a little wooden sign with a horse and carriage on it, in the forest. Some research led me to a wonderfully helpful lady called Lesley, who collected me in her sports car worthy of Toad of Toad Hall, and dropped me off in the forest to explore this network of routes that Erica and a group of determined forest dwellers have spent years establishing.

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Sarah back stepping

I did get a little lost on my first day on foot, and when back stepping (standing at the back of the carriage to give balance) I asked Erica how she got to know all of the paths in the forest so well. “By getting lost”, she said. She was most often on horseback, and if she thought she was lost, she loosened the reins and let the horse use its homing instinct.

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When most people step onto a train, their journey is just beginning. For me, the opposite is true. That moment at Cheltenham Spa station marked my journey’s end. The final step of my slow and steady plod that has become the rhythm of my days has taken me onto a Cross Country train bound for Home, thanks to their sponsoring my faster journeys on this Wayfaring Summer.

I am an unwieldy traveller with my walking stick and varied baggage. There is no overhead compartment that is the right shape for my mixed emotions. I make my way to First Class, as the staff have been generous to let me in on previous journeys. A First Class passenger looks me up and down. A bit of feral has crept into his ordered life. It makes him uncomfortable, and he asks the train manager to ask me to leave. This is the first unkindness I have experienced in two months, and it touches me deeply.

As I travel across country, the deep yellow corn fields flash past the window, punctuated by fern banks, red brick buildings, and distant church spires. It feels like a summary; the attention deficit version of a long and detailed story my feet have been writing.

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I have just spied Birmingham. It seems unfathomably large. My concept of size has been measured in oaks for too long to take this in, so I let it slide past outside the window. In the thick of it now. Brightly coloured cargo containers, which have travelled many more miles than I ever will. Small ancient brick houses dwarfed by glass and steel. Into the dark underbelly of Birmingham New Street Station. Bing bong….a list of destinations, options, sandwiches. I sit tight, knowing only that I am going home.

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A range of human emotions can happen on a train journey, and yet trains have an unspoken code of anonymity. I sit close to strangers and hear their conversations, whether I want to or not. If only they could hear what is going through my mind. Their spectres are framed by the window as I attempt to take in the landscape.

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I am travelling in a straighter line than my senses know how to process. To me it seems like a  series of missed turns and missed opportunities. One direction – forwards. A field full of black cows – like paper cuts on a green ground. I reach for my camera, but the scene has gone. I must get used to this. I am not going There; I am going Home. Talking to the train manager, whose terrain this route is, I discover that even on this kind of journey, one can learn to sense the landscape. He says he can tell where he is by the way that the carriage sways, even from a windowless compartment.

Going Home. But where is Home now? Where do you call Home when you have been making so many places home, one step at a time. When each night, you have broken bread with a particular piece of this earth? When there are so many pieces of me hanging on branches, floating on feathers and settled on the beds of peaty rivers and beside the hearths of friends old and new? How will it be to return to a place as a different person? Will it feel old and stuck, or heart-warmingly familiar?

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This one and only time, the journey is not the destination. The journey is a vessel of uncertainties that can only be resolved upon arriving. Is there any other form of transport so full of whispered questions, love, sadness, and anticipation? I wonder if Cross Country trains know just how much they transport across country, the emotional weight they carry? Whether they do or not, I am grateful to them for carrying mine this summer.

And I am grateful beyond words to all my travel companions – you readers of this blog. For all your comments and words of support. For all your twitterings that joined the birdsong in the morning. For allowing your hearts and eyes to see and feel the REAL and wonderful world that is still out there, if we just give it the space and time to breathe, and our utmost attention.

My journeying will not end. It could not. It is in the core of me. These words shall remain here for you to chew over slowly, for the next few months at least. Meanwhile, my life, my journeying and my tales shall continue – albeit less frequently – on my personal blog: www.journeysinbetween.wordpress.com and my twitterings: @journeysinbtwn. There shall soon also be a gem of a podcast on the Penguin website – a lovely conversation between Robert Macfarlane and I recorded in a den in the woods at Wandleberry, where his own journey on foot began. Look out for it in my twitterings.

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As if to remind me that this will never end, a wonderful word play sits next to me on the last leg of my train journey, fascinated by my unusual luggage. We talk at length about journeying, and then she introduces herself. Hazel Macfarlane. Hazel, like my walking stick. Macfarlane, like the man who made the words that started the journey in the first place.

Until our ways meet again, fare well Wayfarers all!

Post 36 of A Journey On Foot

31st August 2013

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As the wheels of time roll on, we all turn the matter that we gather into the matter that we are. So it is wise to gather well.

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What have I learned from all this? What will I take away? To be frank, I have not learned much I did not already know. But when it comes to the nature of ourselves, and of others, nor do any of us. We just chip away at the disbelief until the underneath is exposed long enough to remember what we always thought was true.

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A journey – Life being the greatest of them all – takes you through cycles of daybreak to day’s end. It takes you through landscapes, through textures, through processes. Kindness is offered. We learn much about our natures through how we receive it. We meet people, and they stay in our hearts and minds bound up with the landscape and the resonance of their story. Problems are encountered, and how we deal with them determines how many more cycles it will take for us to learn that lesson.

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There is a pulsing silken thread that weaves and wefts the fragments of our lives together. With it all we build a house for ourselves. One that is ever changing – with new material being brought in, and that which no longer serves us well, being cast out. It is strong, variegated, fragile, and beautiful as a wasps’ nest.

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On this journey I have had many teachers. Too many to name them all, and some impossible to name. But a few that are burning brightly from my adventures of late:

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From the landlady of The Northmore Arms in Dartmoor, I learned to accept kindness when it is offered. I had gone off onto Dartmoor intending to bivvi, almost desperate to sleep outside as so much hospitality had been offered which often meant I was indoors or in a tent. I had gone there to write my blog, and left in the dark & drizzle, having been offered her spare room. A little way down the road, I realised that to accept is as much a part of kindness as to give, so I turned on my heel. She cooked me some supper.

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From Fergus ‘the Forager’ Drennan, I learned how joyful someone’s character can be when they spend their lives outside, learning from and eating of what nature has to offer. I learned to make paper out of mushrooms and to not be afraid to try.

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Ronnie Aaronson, a natural beekeeper, reaffirmed my instinct to trust what comes into your path, by offering me her mill-house as a base in Devon without knowing me. Such a place of transformation as a mill is a fitting abode for a wise woman who talks to her bees and plays the flute to her willows, which are transformed into wood chip to warm her in the winter. And a fitting place for me to come back to as I turned several cycles up in Dartmoor.

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Meeting Rima Staines, I was reminded that the best stories are true, and that healing can come if we are patient and trust that it will.

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As I watched a slug, making my way up a hill to the place overlooking the Wye Valley where I would spend my final night, I truly appreciated what it is to cross terrain fully, with senses opened wide.

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I have had the good fortune to have two full months, two moon cycles, dedicated to listening to the spoked voice over and over and over again. I finally came to understand the engraving in my wedding ring: TRAUST (Icelandic ~ trust/solidity). Trust, full trust, will give rise to an indomitable solidity of spirit, even while material existence seems anything but.

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If there is one thing I ask of you, dear readers, it is to give yourselves the space to wander. It is not as hard as it seems. Once you are doing it you will wonder why you do not do it more often. Do not have a plan. It will be alright. It will be much more than alright. Life is no more linear than the branches of a tree. It is so much more interesting than that. It will be magical.

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35. Wood & Wabe

Post 35 of A Journey On Foot

29th August 2013

My Stick

I am nearing the end of my journey on foot. My walking stick began its journey at Sprint Mill in Cumbria as a length of seasoned hazel awaiting transformation into a tool handle. But I found it there, standing in the corner, and its fate took a different course. It was not only my trusty travel companion; it became my journey. It has gathered marks, etchings, miniature paintings, letter carving, embroidery and my very own bragazzi – the smoothing of miles walked and my skin, sweat and oils making day long contact with the wood.

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This past few days have been full of friends, family and children. I finally managed to leave Devon – not a little reluctantly – but the destination was kind. I was to record a conversation between myself and Robert MacFarlane over in Cambridgeshire. We both felt it the most natural thing to go for a walk. So we did, with his babe in arms; stopping to record a short podcast in a den built by children, and for Robert to carve his own mark in my walking stick.

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While in the area, I took the opportunity to pay a visit to my friends Greg and Ayako who my husband and I last visited a year ago, en route back from Zanzibar. That time, we had with us a large carved wooden lintel given to us as a wedding gift by our friend and master wood carver, Fundi Humudi, who some years ago we helped to transform his sawdusty workshop into a space that enabled his work to shine. It was more than we could carry, so they had kept it for us all this time.

Now, however, they are about to move house, and asked if I could take it. A carved wooden lintel is not your average wayfarer kit, although those who know me will know that it is exactly the kind of thing I’d pick up along the way. Not knowing precisely how it would work out, I left into the fen drizzle with this unlikely package, sure that it would at least make a good story.

My next stop was to visit family, in the rolling flinty Chiltern Hills. My aunt and uncle were exhibiting their wares at a craft fare, and their daughter Holly and her man had decided I needed feeding up. So I indulged in two baths and three big meals in a twenty four hour period!

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Holly and I took a walk together, with the dog, as we have done intermittently throughout our lives. If there is any one path I have walked repeatedly over many years, through my own and nature’s seasons, it is this one. I have childhood memories of picking sloes for gin, and there they were again, full in their blue blooming.

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And on to Stonor craft fair, near Henley, where some Wayfarer magic was wrought. I finally met swill basket maker Owen Jones, who lives and works in the Lake District. I had been told about him by several different people when I was walking up there, but never got the chance to meet him. Here he was in a field in the south of England, at the same craft fair at which my aunt and uncle were exhibiting.

He remembered my cousin Holly playing at his stall as a child, and I think I remember it too. We shared words and mint tea made with his Kelly Kettle, fed by oak shavings from his basket making. And he agreed to take my wooden lintel back to Cumbria! If I’d had all my gear with me I might have squeezed in his van too, but more woody adventures awaited in the Forest of Dean.

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My aunty, a general creative genius and embroiderer, bedecked my walking stick with the gold threaded “bottom rung” of her Tree of Life, that she had created to go on a technicolored dreamcoat.

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My uncle – a letter carver – drew a bit of a crowd (not least my own family) as he carved my walking stick, starting only with a W but looking for something a little more…

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And finally he came upon it: WABE from Lewis Caroll’s Jabberwocky. For my journey, which has a long way before, and a long way behind.

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Twas bryllyg, and ye slythy toves
Did gyre and gymble in ye wabe:
All mimsy were ye borogoves;
And ye mome raths outgrabe.

Post 34 of A Journey On Foot

27th August 2013

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Source: Blakeney Greenway, Forest of Dean

33. Brewing Umber

Post 33 of A Journey On Foot

25th August 2013

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I feel as if a new colour has been made. With her earthy autumnal reds and my mossy greens, mixed with the liquid light of this Dartmoor summer, cooked for some days over a wood stove and dusted with Perseids, we now clutch in the creased life tracks of our palms a translucent backlit umber – much like the colour of the bracing peaty river in which we bathed before parting ways.

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The greatest miracle of this journey began more than two weeks ago. It was the longest, deepest and widest path I have trodden, and yet few footsteps were taken. It has shaped my paths since, and will ring throughout my lifetime. The pattering footsteps of two people meant to meet, yet dancing through and past each other, have echoed for many many years in an empty chamber in our hearts, waiting for the day when we could sit in it together and drink a never ending cup of tea.

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Artist Rima Staines and I share a part of our paths that was full of extremes. We were once, in different chapters if our lives, with the same man. That is now an old story for both of us. My relationship with him was full of a darkness and a light that was never allowed to be reconciled. For those of us who feel intensely the tides and trembles of existence, it is a rare joy to meet another who knows it. And, in the alchemy of Rima and I meeting, a new and different colour was made. Like a dark rain cloud meeting the sun, a rainbow emerges from the union.

She invited me for tea as The Wayfarer. Upon reading my blog more closely, pennies started dropping from the ceiling and threads stitched themselves through the patches lying around the room. She realised who I was. A woman from her past, not yet met. She invited me for tea again, as me. The teapot is still not empty, and the tea is not cold. We have only just begun.

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I camped in the overflow of an arboretum along the track from her cottage. First one night, then two, then three. We walked. We talked more. We danced. And we laughed. My, how we laughed! By the time I left, the grass under my tent had started to yellow.

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I ventured out onto the moor for more adventures and experienced the warm Devon welcomings. But Rima and her lovely man were going to a festival I know to tell a Lithuanian folk tale, and sell Rima’s just-beyond-this-worldly paintings. They wanted the story recording and there happened to be a Sarah shaped hole in the back of their van. So what was I to do?

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Pin myself between Arctic bell tents, boxes full of Rima’s wonderful paintings, accordions, and LOTS of food of course! All of a sudden, we shared Hampshire mists and cider and fireside song and workshops on making paper from mushrooms. Another county, yes, but more precisely, another world. One where I would wake to find a stag mask hanging in the trees next to my lantern.

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Brewed Umber. A shadow that has been processed and warmed to form a golden unstoppable flow. That is the colour we have made. That is the colour of our friendship. And that is what she carved and painted into my walking stick. Me, the wayfarer, carrying my burden, supported infinitely by a walking stick inside a walking stick, tracing a blood-earthline through a double treed forest into our friendship. The path to the other half of the story is this way.

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Post 32 of A Journey On Foot

23rd August 2013

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As I walked down the lanes, through the wooded bridleways along the streams and up the tracks, towards the open expanse of Dartmoor, I passed ancient hamlets of cob and thatch.

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As I rounded the bend, I smelled it first – the freshly laid scent of dried water reed. A roof in mid rethatch. As I took pictures I noticed the thatcher in his Landrover, stirring from a lunchtime nap. Soon enough Malcolm and I were up on the roof.

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He had learned the art from his brother, and when he began thatching in the 1960s, the wheat straw was grown locally and he made the hazel spars by hand in the evening. Nowadays the thatch used is water reed from Turkey and the spars are made in Poland. Here he explains how that came to pass.

I have recently been reading Roger Deakin’s ‘Wildwood’, in which he explained that the old timber framed houses in Suffolk like his own, all had proportions that were directly determined by the sizes of the trees around them. I resonated with this idea of the home being a direct extension of the landscape it resides in, but had never considered it may also affect the pitch of the roof.

I find it so fascinating to talk to people who really know their craft. And when it is a craft that depends on natural materials, they know so much about the changing landscape by extension. There is a beauty in the repetitive nature of a task well done. It reminded me something the French potter said at Potfest: “The matter in your hands connects with the matter in you”.

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