Half Centennial

Today I have a significant birthday. Significant in what way? The clue’s in the title.

My mother, who is sadly no longer with us, was a keen writer (with a vivid imagination and a wacky sense of humour, all traits she passed on generously to her children), and she kept a diary so I have a written account of that momentous day in 1966. No, not the one England football fans are still banging on about (because, let’s face it, it’s never going to happen again)…

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…which goes glaringly unacknowledged by my football loathing mum (goodness only knows where my love of football comes from), I mean a momentous day from a more personal point of view which took place a few weeks later.

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It seems that was rather more significant from Mum’s point of view than England winning the World Cup. (Well, it would be, wouldn’t it, duh!) So fifty years ago this very day, I entered the world (just in time for lunch, of course), and in honour of the occasion I’ve been looking over the past decade and making a list of ten reasons – for me, anyway – why turning fifty is better than turning forty.

Another legacy from my mum is always to look for positives.

Ten years ago, I’d never:

  • Written, published or edited a book
  • Run my own business
  • Driven a car
  • Visited the Southern Hemisphere
  • Ridden a wakeboard
  • Driven a fork lift truck
  • Watched my little League Two football club run out at Old Trafford (couldn’t get the day off work last time Cambridge United played Manchester United in a midweek match – ooh, how I love being self-employed!)
  • Heard my sister sing in Kings College Chapel (which was an amazing experience, despite the fact I felt like a bit of a chav in my crop trousers and sparlky shoes ‘by Debenhams’ next to the toffs in their Savile Row suits and cashmere coats, and the fact that one of said toffs nicked my programme!)
  • Walked overnight from London to Brighton, which was arguably the most amazing experience of my life
  • Run a blog. Okay, those who are familiar with the sporadic nature of my bog posting might say I still don’t run a blog, but ten years ago I didn’t even know what a blog was!

As if those weren’t enough reasons for me to grab the champagne and party like it’s 1999 (which, of course, it’s not, otherwise I’d be a fresh-faced 33-year-old), I’m entering my sixth decade (yikes!) with exciting times ahead. My editing business is booming, I’m on the verge of re-releasing a vastly improved Dory’s Avengers (which is available for pre-order on Kindle – can’t resist a bit of marketing, even on my birthday)…

…and the status of novel number two has been elevated from ‘on the back-burner’ to ‘work in progress on the rare occasion I find time to write’.

Bring on the next ten years; I can’t wait to find out what they hold.

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London to Brighton Challenge-Stage Four

Part four of my London to Brighton challenge blog, now moved in its entirety from my old website.

The penultimate stretch of the L2B challenge was the shortest of the whole walk; a mere 7.3km hop to Plumpton’s College. Short though this stretch was Joanne and I were anxious to get it over and done with. The sooner we arrived at Plumpton’s, the sooner we could embark on the final 12.5km over the towering South Downs!

Shortly after leaving the breakfast stop, Joanne and I encountered a woman hobbling along at a snail’s pace, her walking poles tucked neatly under her arms. When we asked why she didn’t actually use the poles, she claimed she found it easier to carry them and limp. Seriously?

‘Bullshit!’ retorted Joanne as soon as we were out of earshot, and we burst out laughing.

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Destination Plumpton!

The walk to Plumpton’s was fairly nondescript, but it was easy going on paved roads, and for the first time we arrived at a rest stop ahead of schedule. The final mile or so was over fields with stiles aplenty, which immediately put us in mind of Bronagh. Tiredness was making us more than a little silly; we decided that there would be a colossal, six foot high stile right on the finish line, and we staggered about the path roaring with laughter at the idea.

Yes, we really were that silly! I could have sworn I saw a little lizard cross the path, but on closer inspection all I could see was a twig lying on the ground. Joanne couldn’t make out why I was starting at it so intently.

‘It’s a stick,’ she said.

‘It’s a creature,’ I insisted, nudging ‘the lizard’ with my foot to prove my point.

It didn’t move.

It was a stick. Hilarious!

As we approached Plumpton’s College we encountered plenty of people out for a day in the sunshine, and they all had a smile and a few words of encouragement for us. I wonder if they knew just how welcome their kind words sounded to two exhausted walkers.

We got to Plumpton’s about the same time as two of the friendly hot food stop group, and one was the flip flop wearer! Big respect to her! The hobbling woman had also arrived, to our amazement. Either she power hobbled or got a lift most of the way; somehow I suspect the latter!

There was no reason to linger at Plumpton’s any longer than it took to perform the holy trinity of checking blisters, refilling water bottles and texting friends. I refer to the Plumpton’s stop by name and not by the food on offer for the simple reason there was no food on offer. Tasks performed, we were up and on our way; and there, right in front of us, were the dreaded South Downs.

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The South Downs, NOT 1000 metres high!

The walk over the South Downs was so much easier than I’d been anticipating ever since I set off from Richmond the previous morning. The ascent was a little arduous, but no where near as arduous as a 1000 metre climb would have been! (See London to Brighton Challenge-Stage Three.)

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Beginning the ascent of the South Downs

We were impressed to spot the man who’d been bandaging his knee earlier in the day, still in pain but still going. Joanne aptly named him Mr Determination. As we’d departed from Plumpton’s one of the L2B staff had told us we’d be able to see Brighton once we got to the top of the Downs, so we pressed on, eager for our first sight of journey’s end….

He lied! All we could see on reaching the top of the Downs was the top of the Downs, stretching away into the distance. More walking, just at a higher level now, and a lot windier than ground level.

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At the top of the Downs was…the top of the Downs!

Joanne and I decided we’d take the Downs at our own pace, but promised we’d meet up again once we reached Brighton racecourse. We’d come this far together, we were determined to cross the finish line together.

The path went on, going downhill for a while which my knees hated, then up again. I’m normally quite self critical, but as I passed strugglers half my age I allowed myself an uncharacteristic moment of pride. Up and up I went, determined to reached the highest point of this particular stretch before I had a much needed water break. The path rounded a corner and continued to rise, finally reaching a plateau. Easing my rucksack off my sore shoulders with a sigh of relief, I had a welcome mouthful of water then glanced to my right and saw one of the most wonderful sights of my life.

There, on the horizon, was journey’s end. Brighton. Tears welled up, and I felt like screaming with joy. I felt like running back down the hill to tell the strugglers what lay just around the corner, but a timely twinge from my knees put paid to that idea! Joanne came power walking up the hill, having got her second wind; or was it her third, fourth or fifth? We’d hit the wall and ploughed straight on through it so many times by then! I flapped my hands in the general direction of Brighton and managed a tearful ‘Look!’ as Joanne approached.

‘That’s the sea, that is,’ she commented before carrying on with her power walk, determined to actually get to Brighton rather than admiring it from afar.

For a while Joanne went on ahead while I concentrated on my phone, updating facebook and replying to a multitude of texts. My friends back home were gathering in my local pub to cheer me on in their own unique way, and they were eager for progress updates. As I dawdled along a couple of horse riders stopped for a chat, gaping in disbelief when I told them I’d walked all night.

‘Really, I have!’ I assured them. ‘There were loads of us.’

‘Have you fallen out with everyone then?’ they teased, looking up and down the deserted bridle path. They walked their horses alongside me for a while, asking questions about the L2B challenge and making me laugh with their ready wit. Pointing out a hill in the distance, they told me all I had to do was cross it then I’d be finished.

‘Alternatively, there’s a really nice pub just around the corner,’ they added with a wink, before wishing me luck and riding on.

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Crossing the final hill.

There was indeed a nice pub just around the corner. How I would have loved an ice cold cider at that moment, but once I’d got the taste I’d probably have stayed in the pub all night, 6km from the end of a 100km walk I’d never finish! I caught up with Joanne shortly before the 95km marker. Her feet were suffering on the bumpy, stony path, but she was still upbeat and determined. As we climbed the final hill of the L2B challenge every passer by smiled and congratulated us, while car drivers tooted their horns. I’ve never experienced such support before, and it felt amazing. The tears hadn’t been far away since I first saw Brighton from the Downs, and I was becoming rather overwhelmed by the time we actually walked into the town. Texts of encouragement continued to flood in from friends, the sun was still shining, and, after more than thirty hours of walking, I still felt good. The only slight dampener was that there was no word from my partner Andy, who was driving down to meet me at the finish line. I learned later that he had decided to drive through London and was stuck in traffic. Joanne asked if I wanted to hang back a bit and give him a chance to arrive, but I decided against it. Not only did I want to achieve a vaguely respectable time, I was longing to take my boots and rucksack off as soon as possible.

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Nearly there

As we entered Brighton racecourse we passed the last marker of our journey. 99km completed, one to go. Just over half a mile, and we could see the end of the L2B challenge. Joanne received a text from friends saying they could see her from the finish line, and she could no longer hold the tears back. Of course that set me off, and for a while we gave in to the huge wave of emotion that hit us as we neared the end of our mammoth journey. My friends, who’d been celebrating my achievement in the pub all afternoon, rang as we walked the final half mile, intending to regale me with a rousing chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, but that had to wait until I’d finished. I didn’t want to cross the finish line on the phone, or in tears for that matter,  so calls and emotions would just have to wait.

A day and a half of walking, sixty-two miles covered, blistered feet, raw shoulders, aching limbs and every emotion from despair to elation culminated in one moment shortly after 6.30pm on Sunday 26 May 2013. Joanne and I joined hands; and, raising them above our heads in triumph, we crossed the finish line of the London to Brighton challenge.

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My certificate

London to Brighton Challenge-Stage One

I am currently transporting posts over from my website in order to keep everything together, beginning with a favourite of mine: a four part blog about my wonderful L2B adventure in May. Here’s part one.

Saturday 25 May 2013, 5.15 in the morning. The sun was up, and for once so was I; up, dressed and ready to face the challenge of the day: a mammoth walk from London to Brighton. That’s right, London to Brighton. A 100km (62miles in old money) overnight walk. Was I insane? Perhaps. Nervous? A little. Excited? Very much so. Bring it on!

Having persuaded my partner Andy that he would like nothing more than to get out of bed and drive me to Cambridge railway station, my great journey began. The train ride to Richmond was uneventful; I’d done my homework concerning potential delays, and I arrived at the London to Brighton challenge (L2B) start line in Old Deer Park with over half an hour to spare. Time for a little look round.

The start line, which was described on the L2B website as ‘A lively and sociable place’,  was possibly the part of the whole challenge I liked the least. The noise was relentless; kids running round screaming, over excited participants running round screaming (before a 100km walk? Seriously?), people with loudhailers being very hearty, rousing cries of ‘Where are we going? BRIGHTON!’ every quarter of an hour. Hmmph! Where did I put my iPod?

Earphones in, I cast my critical eye around again and noticed to my amusement that Mr Motivator was strutting his stuff in front of the next group of starters. I didn’t realise Mr Motivator was still around, so he had to be worth a facebook post. Within seconds, my sister Sue had replied to my post.

‘I didn’t realise he was still around!’

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Mr Motivator, motivating

My start time was scheduled for ten o’clock, and I became increasingly jittery as the hour approached. The excessive heartiness of the start line suddenly seemed comforting when I thought about the long hours of walking ahead of me, and Mr Motivator actually turned out to be very funny. Note to self: stop being such a grumpy old woman!

Right from the start I walked with a lady from Galway called Bronagh, who had also entered the challenge on her own. It was great to have some company when I considered the huge distance we had to cover, and I clicked with Bronagh straight away. We agreed to walk at a nice, slow pace to begin with, and ambled along the beautiful banks of the Thames, chatting like old friends and snapping away with our cameras. There was plenty to photograph too; bridges, trees, locks, boats, curious looking birds for Bronagh to identify when she got home.

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A nice photo of a lock, with some fellow L2B participants disappearing into the distance

Passers by wanted to know what our walk was all about, and we were only too happy to stop and tell them. We noticed a number of people in identical T-shirts walking in the opposite direction to us, and before long we were exchanging pleasantries with them. They told us that they were on a 22 mile pub walk.

‘A  22 mile pub crawl?’ I asked, impressed.

The pub walkers patiently explained that no, it wasn’t a pub crawl, it was a charity walk organised by their local pub, although they did concede that it may involve a pub or two as they approached the end.

In retrospect, Bronagh and I took things a little too easy. By the time we’d left Old Deer Park the rest of our group had disappeared into the distance. Even a pair of blokes in silly animal onesies left us way behind, and it wasn’t long before we were passed by 10.15 starters, 10.30 starters, and even 10.45 starters.

‘When do we start to worry about being left behind?’ I asked Bronagh.

‘Ach, there’ll be plenty behind us yet,’ she replied in her soothing Irish accent. ‘The start times go on until midday.’

Happy that we didn’t have to panic, we continued our stroll, leaving the river after a few miles to walk through residential areas towards the first rest stop in Surbiton, 12km (7.5miles) into the walk. Feeling a little peckish I toyed with the idea of eating some of my sandwiches en route, until the path took us past a smelly sewage works and my appetite vanished in an instant! We arrived at the first rest stop shortly before one o’clock, still pretty fresh faced and keen, where I conscientiously noted our arrival and departure times on my route card. It’s with a wry smile that I look at the card now; later on in the walk the notes become increasingly smudged, degenerate into approximations, and finally fizzle out altogether!

The walk to the next rest stop was fairly unremarkable as it took Bronagh and me through a warren of suburban streets. They were very pleasant streets, where one considerate person had fixed a note to their car inviting walkers to use their facilities if needed, but it certainly wasn’t the most exciting stretch of the route. Away in the distance we could see some hills, and I wondered out loud whether they were the South Downs. That’s what’s called ‘Wishful thinking’ I believe!

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The ‘burbs, with my ‘wishful thinking’ hills away in the distance.

The curiously named Nonsuch Park offered very welcome respite from the streets; it was as though we were all of a sudden in open countryside. Nonsuch luck! The fields and woodland of Nonsuch park opened out onto more suburban streets.  I’d always been aware that suburban London sprawls out for miles and miles, but it’s only having walked through it that I realise just how much it sprawls.

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On the approach to rest stop two, a couple trimming their hedge commented to us that we must be among the last to come past their house.

‘Not us!’ we told them, still convinced that the start times had gone on until midday. ‘There’ll be loads to come yet.’

At the Oaks Park rest stop, with a quarter of the walk behind us, Bronagh and I decided to relax for a while before setting off for stage two. It felt so good to pamper our feet and ease our rucksacks off our backs, although it did feel odd to walk around without the rucksack by then. We were so used to compensating for the weight on our backs that we were staggering around like drunks with it gone! While we sat in our own little world, chatting, texting, tweeting, facebook posting and eating, we gradually became aware that the L2B staff were busy dismantling the rest stop. That  seemed a little odd, given that there were so many late starters still to come.

Or were there?

‘Umm, are we the last to arrive?’ I asked one of the helpers as the penny finally began to drop.

‘Oh no,’ she assured me with a friendly smile. Phew! ‘There are maybe one or two more behind you.’ Not phew! Panic!

So much for not getting left behind. 10.45 had been the last of the start times and we were very much at the back of the pack. Bags hastily packed, shoes and socks back on, then we were off.

‘Brighton this way,’ said the sign at the exit.

‘Yes, along with pretty much all the other L2B walkers!’ we added as we scuttled past.

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The Most Amazing Time of Day

I recently discovered this website: http://www.sarahselecky.com/ offering daily writing prompts. My first prompt? Describe a memorable sunrise without using the words ‘sun’ or ‘sky’. The fact that I penned the following in response to this writing prompt is my rather tenuous excuse for sharing it on here!

 

At the end of May 2013 I took part in a non stop charity walk from London to Brighton, and as a result found myself passing the hours of darkness out in the Southern English countryside. May nights are short in Northern Europe, but this one was long enough for me to question my sanity more than once. I was accompanied by two friends; but, like me, they were cold, tired and quiet, so the night walk was a lonely experience. Curtains closed and lights went off in houses we passed as sensible folk bedded down for the night, which only served to enhance the feeling of isolation. While most of England slept, we walked on through the night. Heads down, not talking, not thinking, resolutely ignoring sudden noises from unseen nocturnal creatures, we carried on putting one foot in front of the other as the hours passed.

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Almost imperceptibly things began to change. Heralded by a cockerel crowing, the significance of which took a while to sink into my numb brain, the first glimmer of light appeared. Shadows were no longer dense, trees ceased to be huge silhouettes and became trees once more, colours reappeared. Early morning mist rose from the meadows all around us, and wispy pink clouds stretched out across the many shades of blue above. Nature didn’t wake up with a yawn and set its alarm clock to snooze for ten minutes. The birds were on the case in an instant, each adding a jubilant song London to Brighton Walk May 2013 076to the dawn chorus. Flowers opened their petals, anticipating what was to come, and a group of deer ran across our path, over a misty field and into the woodland beyond. My friends and I gazed all around us, mouths open in wonder as we witnessed one of the most amazing moments of our lives.

Then, without further ado, we were bathed in glorious light. Day had sent the solitude of night packing. The birds celebrated. The flowers celebrated. We celebrated. All the sensible folk tucked up in their beds slept on, oblivious to the fact that three friends were walking to Brighton, surrounded by a show far more spectacular than any the West End has to offer.

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