Walking away, walking back again
Sometimes leaving brings us closer together
It starts with me walking away from my family for a few hours. It finishes with us walking together on a journey that – hopefully – lasts much longer.
Any parent of a pre-school child will tell you the same thing. The word ‘solo’ is deleted, auto-corrected out of existence. Unaccompanied travel might, on a good day, get you inside the bathroom, door locked, for up to 120 seconds before that stomping of tiny feet sets up the beat and a powerful wail ululates across the hallway. Rhythm & blues interpreted by a toddler.
The lost tribe of the parents of young children, overly reproduced, find that the idea of throwing a few essentials in a backpack and hitting the road is mere fantasy. And it stays like that. By the time I have the freedom to get away from everything, my daughter will have reached the age where she believes bar-hopping around Berlin or hiking the Camino de Santiago is her prerogative and shouldn’t be interrupted by crusty old fogeys like her parents. Off she’ll fly, with dad’s blessing (and money), leaving me and her mum at home to hope for a few (carefully edited) updates along the way.
The end of 2020, and the hope of better things to come, doesn’t change this. If I want a holiday, it has to come with the family. If I want a solo trip, it will only be for work. That’s fun: a couple of weeks at a sports tournament, dividing my time between arena, hotel and a friendly, convenient bar or two. But’s it’s not exactly solo and it’s as much work as travel.
To feed the wanderlust, I have to think differently. My daughter attends nursery. For two full days each week, I have my own time. After dropping her at the gate, my only unmissable commitment – much of my work is flexible, at least during the day – is to be back to collect her at the end of the day. Free time, limited but cherished, gives me a chance to explore.
I walk. Disused railway lines converted into long-distance walking routes. Coastal paths, alternating clifftop views with strolls along the sand, plus detours into the wooded denes that stud the County Durham coastline. Stretches of the long walks of the North – the Weardale and Teesdale Ways, the Pennine Way, following the route of Hadrian’s Wall. Itinerary is too grand a word, a vague idea is as good as it gets.
In 2020, with outdoor exercise one of the few things that has been permitted almost throughout the year, this has been a fantastic release. Walking forces anyone to slow down, to view the world at a different tempo. The soundtrack changes subtly: birdsong, animals rustling in the undergrowth, the swish of a breeze through the leaves or the rattle of dried seed pods on a blustery afternoon. Even the supposed constants – crashing waves, rippling rivers or the hum of traffic on a distant road – all have their hidden variations.
It’s not luxury tourism, but it’s not exactly extreme travel either; even the most remote moorland paths in the North Pennines rarely take you more than five miles from a freshly brewed cappuccino. Everest can wait; I’ll stroll to Edmundbyers instead. No tropical beach, but a stretch of wild North Sea coast, with only a distant dog walker for hardy company.
Along the way, I visit places I read about but rarely, if ever saw. I revisit locations from my past and remind myself of possible day trips that could work with my daughter. That’s how we found Beaurepaire and introduced her to the concept of archaeology. It’s how we found Hawthorn Hives and created beach art together. Scarecrows decorate a village: policemen, cowboys, sheriffs and pilloried politicos ... and a bright pink indestructible camera as my daughter takes her first photos.
That’s how a solo journey becomes a shared voyage. A new look at an old world. A signpost to a pathway that might take a lifetime to follow, but where the route is always more valuable than the supposed destination.