It’s autumn in Rutland. The leaves are turning psychedelic and Helen Walsmley-Johnson’s turning into her father.
Autumn is arriving to a great sense of relief in this country cottage. Mainly because it means that all the bitey insects are beginning to die or hibernate.
Regular readers will be aware that this summer’s activities have been a bit restricted following an explosion in the local horsefly population – the notoriously vicious Rutland cleg – and although I slathered myself in every deterrent known to womankind (and a few that aren’t) the little bastards still got me. They even bit through denim. In the end it was easier and less painful just to avoid putting myself out there as bait, which was frustrating but useful in a way because it began with a burst of furious writing activity and ended with my second book deal (hurrah!).
On the morning of my birthday I decided it was safe, pulled on my walking boots, picked up the walking stick made by my late Aged Pa and headed out. It was half a mile or so before my hips and knees settled down into a gait less ‘ancient hobbit’ and more like my usual moves, but I suppose that’s what you get for spending a couple of months sat on your arse, hunched over a laptop, surrounded by discarded sweet wrappers and empty gin bottles.
I never like coming back the way I’ve just walked so I have three preferred circular routes of differing lengths. Depending on deadlines and horseflies, I can generally fit one of these into the working day and all summer I’ve been promising myself a good long hike – by far the best cure for cabin fever, writers’ block and frequent towering rages over the State of Everything. ‘Towering rages’ seem to come with being 61 – I don’t know why.
“The hardest part of this walk comes at the end, when I’ve turned homeward and can see my cottage roof huddled against the hillside. There are still two sheep fields, a ploughed field and a killer hill between me, a cup of coffee and a slice of cake.”
Walking during the week I seldom meet anything not furred or feathered and that suits me very well, but Sod’s Law meant a noisy group emerged from a gate some way behind me. Conversation while you’re walking can be a very pleasant thing but if I can hear you quarter of a mile away then you need to pipe down a bit. And I bet the young roe deer that skipped across in front of me was long gone by the time they came past. Silly people. I bet they grumble that they never see a thing when they’re out walking. When I think things like this I wonder if I’m turning into my dad.
This first part of the walk is a long steady haul to the top of a hill where three bridleways intersect and often walkers doing the ‘Leicestershire Round’ take a left here and sensibly head back down to the nearest village with a pub. The noisy group (thank heaven) did exactly that while I carried peacefully on, down a cinder track taking me past Launde Park Wood – just on the point of flaming into psychedelic autumn colour.
With the spare beauty of winter around the corner these sun-warmed and gilded, mist-smudged days are utterly beguiling to walk through, although just as we have ‘flying ant day’, there is also ‘ballooning spider day’ – an arachnophobe’s nightmare. The first clue is a delicate tickle on your cheek, like a stray hair, and then you notice a fleeting gleam of gossamer and see that the air is full of trailing glistening threads, each bearing a tiny spiderling adventurer, voyaging into the unknown to begin a new life.
“It was half a mile or so before my hips and knees settled down into a gait less ‘ancient hobbit’ and more like my usual moves, but I suppose that’s what you get for spending a couple of months sat on your arse, hunched over a laptop, surrounded by discarded sweet wrappers and empty gin bottles.”
At a narrow plank bridge, hard to spot unless you know it’s there, I ducked through the hedge and emerged beside a pair of medieval fishponds. These most likely belonged to Launde Abbey, which is a good starting point for walks, or a good refuelling post. On this October day the ponds are fringed with reed mace and berries, the banks dotted with clumps of shaggy inkcap. I spent a good ten minutes leaning on my stick, watching a family of swans preen and wash, the air so still I could hear the Geiger click of preening bills riffling through feathers, the splash and ‘whump’ of wings on water.
The hardest part of this walk comes at the end, when I’ve turned homeward and can see my cottage roof huddled against the hillside. It’s better not to look because it seems an awfully long way off – there are still two sheep fields, a ploughed field and a killer hill between me, a cup of coffee and a slice of cake. The slip and squeak of my boots on wet grass startles the ewes, their backs bearing raddle marks – evidence of the attentions of the tup and a promise of next spring’s lambs. After a summer of lush grazing they look pretty solid but that doesn’t stop them scampering off on dainty hooves when they see me slogging along the well-worn track.
By the time I’d staggered up the hill (dotted with artesian wells to trap the unwary), said hello to the ponies and stopped for a few minutes to locate a red kite in a distant oak my legs felt as though I was wading through treacle. I don’t think anyone saw me hobbling down the lane on the final stretch but perhaps a bit of hobbling is allowed after that lot, especially now I’m getting on a bit. And this birthday I’ve realised that actually I’m very happy to be getting on a bit – it kind of takes the pressure off. Although I think I’d be even happier if I could train the Cat to put the kettle on when he hears my key in the door.
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Helen Walmsley-Johnson is a journalist and author who writes as the Invisible Woman. She has a weekly style column for older women which she writes for the Guardian. Her first book, The Invisible Woman: Taking on the Vintage Years, is out now. @TheVintageYear