Today I have a desperate need to be alone. I’m an introvert and the last couple of weeks have been enjoyable but challenging. We have climbed Pendle Hill, attended a family funeral, walked 50 miles or so of Cornish coastline, returned a son to college, and celebrated a daughter’s 18th birthday. In addition, I’ve issued hundreds of books in one of my busiest-ever weeks at work.
Home life has been dominated by seemingly endless piles of laundry as people come and go. We are now on the final push of hands-on parenting, as our younger child prepares for A Levels and hopefully university admission in the autumn, a path our son has already trodden with fulfilment and success. It’s a time to be thankful, and proud of both of them, but also to reflect on how very different life will shortly be. This hit me very powerfully yesterday, a day that began with taking my son to the bus station and ended with Becky’s birthday meal at a flamboyant Teppanyaki restaurant. Tom and I discussed music on our drive into town and I realised how much I’d miss him. He’s matured into a truly worthwhile person – they both have. One thing I never envisaged when they were tiny was a world where we’d use Spotify to keep in touch.
Our few days in Cornwall were our tenth trip down to the South West of England in the last four years as we proceed along the immense (but also immensely rewarding) SW Peninsula Coast Path – all 630 miles of it. Our next trip will take us to the halfway point, somewhere between Coverack and Helford. Every time we go it feels more like home, and once J retires we hope to relocate down there. Each journey takes us further westward and is a slightly bigger commitment – our return from Truro on Monday took over six hours. Sometimes the trains are so crowded with people and luggage that you can’t even buy a cup of coffee without getting off at a station and back on further up – and then you’re stuck away from your home space until the next stop. The inability of British railway companies to invest in adequate rolling stock on their busiest holiday routes is a source of never-ending bafflement to me. Nevertheless, we have stuck to our original commitment to use public transport throughout.
The first day was the hardest of the latest trip – because of the funeral, three days walking were telescoped into one exhausting 14 mile trek including around 3,000 feet of ascent. We arrived in the tiny village of Gorran Haven around eight o’clock and if the kind Lancashire couple at our B&B hadn’t taken pity on us we’d have been reduced to dining on cereal bars in our room, since the local chip shop was changing his cooking oil and the nearest pub, for some unspecified reason, didn’t feel like serving meals. (The next evening, in a settlement of a similar size, we had to wait hours to eat because the local inn was packed). Such things are fairly typical of rural Cornwall, even in the Easter holiday week. There is always an element of unpredictability, but at least we only got soaked on one occasion. Mostly the weather was a great deal better than forecast, and the mornings, dominated by the unforgettable contrast of bright golden broom against deep cobalt sky, were some of the most glorious walking we’d ever experienced.
Coast path walking is deeply addictive. It has always been my personal definition of perfect happiness. It can be very physically demanding, involving constant ascent and descent on rough ground, exposure to terrible weather, exhaustion and occasional hunger – not to mention the desperation of arriving, spent, in a remote hamlet and wandering for ages before you locate your bed for the night. And all this is doing it the easy way, with luggage transfers and hotel accommodation. Many people camp and backpack, which takes a degree of fortitude I feel a bit too elderly to contemplate. Nevertheless, I never seem to suffer from depression or anxiety when I’m out doing it. I have developed coping strategies for everything from blisters to irritable bowel syndrome miles from a loo. In fact, my ability to cope with the exigencies of the path never ceases to amaze me.
By contrast, at home I’ve spent an adult life suffering from chronic depression and anxiety, sometimes severe enough to render me completely helpless. I am presently struggling to get off Fluoxetine after 20 years. It’s strange, because I’m not actually unhappy. On the contrary, I have an enviable life and I’m deeply thankful for it. Marriage, kids, job, house, garden, are all as I’d want them to be. (Health is another matter and the cat drives me mental, but you can’t have everything).
So it would seem that my mental distress is environmental, which raises the interesting question of whether it would recur if I actually lived in a rural community near the sea. I’m under no illusions – you can’t survive happily in such places without a pretty high degree of interaction with your neighbours. Walking, and sunlight, is known to be therapeutic, and the nearest I can come to an answer is that I think it’s the multiplicity of conflicting demands on my energy that I find so wearing at home. I can reach the point where even a well-meant, friendly e-mail seems like too much of an intrusion at times. But whatever I experience in Cornwall, I wish I could bottle it. As Lionel Bart wrote:
Who will buy this wonderful morning?
Such a sky you never did see!
Who will tie it up with a ribbon, and put it in a box for me?
So I could see it at my leisure,
Whenever things go wrong,
And I would keep it as a treasure,
To last my whole life long….