Now Bramshill, for those of you who don’t know, is an immense plantation or more aptly “wilderness” in Hampshire that is being managed and replanted under the Forestry Enterprise. It includes numerous ponds and small lakes that attract wildlife and is crisscrossed with paths used by dog-walkers and riders although, often, you can walk for miles without seeing a soul. There is something else that is quite specific to Bramshill, out of all the places that I walk locally – and that is that it can feel quite eerie (I note that the website hampshire.walkandcycle.co.uk backs me up on this, describing the atmosphere as “unsettling” and “like something out of 1960s Cold War thriller”. As such, I’ve only walked there intermittently over the years, even though it’s a convenient 10 minutes away from home but, lately, spurred on by a run of bright sunshine that has painted the landscape there in much more affable colours, helped along by a profusion of wild flowers springing up and attracting hoards of butterflies along the pathways (it is so much more bleak there in the darker months!) and the need to thoroughly exercise my adolescent Rhodesian Ridgeback, I’ve been going there rather more often and extending my knowledge of how the various walking routes interlink. And thoroughly enjoying the place, I have to add!
Which is what I was doing on Saturday when I decided to stride out in a new direction along one of the broader bridleways and then, unenamoured with its straightness lined by pine trees, took a small path off to the left marked with a rare footpath sign. This took me under the cover of deciduous trees with sun-dappled carpet of green below but yet, clearly, was a footpath because there was a distinct pause in the knee-high foliage along which you could walk. As we continued, the knee-high foliage became waist or even neck height and ever more invasive of our path and, whilst tree cover largely disappeared, the terrain became more scrub-like, with ever more clumps of thorny broom and a profusion of thistles in its mix so that my bare legs began to suffer and even Rudi was having to make running leaps to prevent his undercarriage from taking the brunt. In fact, even with his abundent adolescent-doggy enthusiasm for all things, he began to stop – regularly – in his tracks and look back at me as if to say “are you sure we’re going the right way, do we really want to be doing this…?” but given I had long-ago lost track of the direction we had come from, I saw no option but to continue down the “path” we were on. In fact, I began to wonder if I had lost my footpath entirely when, no, we crossed an intersection with another narrow path and yes, ours continued, with yet another small footpath sign attached to an overgrown post.
Now, even when I walk along the broader, more obvious stretches of bridlepath shared with riders at Bramshill, I find I have to keep a close mental record of the direction I’m heading in so that I can attempt something of a circle back to the car, watching the position of the sun and any other landmarks (a row of pylons cross the plantation at one side) and tuning into an innate sense of direction that is within us all if we look for it. I also keep a back record of all the various twists and turns that I have already made in case I need to retrace my steps.
Was I able to keep a close track of where I was heading on Saturday, on my little footpath? As I’ve implied already, there was no chance! I became aware that although I was attempting to stick to this one “straight” path, it was full of subtle twists and turns. The terrain was so dense that it all began to look the same and often so narrow that the only place you could focus your eyes was the patch of sky above. At one point I spied the never-so-welcome sight of pylon tips across the trees to my right and felt happily reassured that I knew roughly where I was heading, but then the path veered sharply away again until the pylons were out of sight and as we were surrounded by thick scrub, I had no choice but to follow it!
To add to the sense of drama, and with all the predictability of a well-paced suspense novel, the bright sunshine that had, so far, managed to lend a sense of optimism to this whole experience suddenly disappeared behind a layer of cloud, the sky turned ominously dark and a few great-big rain drops dolloped onto the thin cotton of my shirt (fortunately, this sudden rain shower didn’t develop any further as I was dressed for the scorching day that it had been when we set off). That few moments of sudden darkness was the low-point of the walk as it entirely changed the way I felt about what was happening – a malevolence crept in to the landscape and I began to feel I didn’t like it at all – but as the sun broke out once more, so did my optimism and I took the rest of the walk in my stride.
Yet throughout all of this, of course, I did begin to wonder if I wasn’t about to get horribly lost and my sense of where I was, of landmarks around me, of direction I was walking in became as acute as it could possibly be in the circumstance; there may not be much to guide me but whatever there was, I became determined I wasn’t going to miss and my vision became sharp and strangely heightened, like walking in a vivid dream with spot-lights on everything around me. Certainly, I was no longer daydreaming or lost in thought, as I have a tendency to be on my walks. And yes, there was a frisson of mild-anxiety I’ll admit but I certainly wasn’t going to let fear enter into the equation (and yet I knew, with absolute certainty, that a year ago, maybe two, I would have been consumed by panic in the same circumstances – so something had evidently changed in me and I welcomed the realisation with a very deep sense of satisfaction). In fact at one level, I even began to enjoy what was going on – after all, what was the worst thing that could happen? I would be delayed getting home by, maybe, an hour (I tried to phone home to warn the family; no reply – they were busy in the garden). My phone battery began to look very low since, of course, it was the one day that I’d forgotten to charge it, and the Ordinance Survey app on my phone couldn’t make a connection. But hey, this was fun, an adventure, Rudi was getting a great walk, this was the life, I felt fit and envigourated, how great to still be able to get lost in countryside just a couple of miles from where you live as if you were in the wilds of Canada, how lucky am I… The scrub all around me had an exotic quality to its colourful collection of seed heads and its tangled profusion so that I was able to enjoy what I was taking in every bit as much as I was concentrating on the route, stopping to take photographs as I went. Overal, I felt calm and confident that I would get back to the car…soon (ish) and in the meantime I might as well enjoy the view.
OK, by the time I reached what was the first proper bridlepath that we’d seen in a very long time, I was ready to admit I’d almost had enough, I was hot, thirsty, beginning to tire and just wanted to get home for lunch. Rudi had clearly had enough too, going on the several victory laps he ran in circles around me to celebrate! We headed left along this much broader path, which I believed would take us to the edge of the woods and when this decision was vindicated by our first sighting of the wire fence belonging to a house (hurrah, civilization!) which, at first, I took to indicate that I knew where we were (this must be next to the riding school so I estimated about 40 minutes back to the car…) I could have cheered. But hang on, out of the gate into the lane…no riding school here. I realised I’d never seen this lane before in my life, I’d no idea where I was….and at that point I felt I’d well and truly had enough as I anticipated, maybe, up to an hour following the road alongside the woods eastward back to more familiar territory and then try to find the car from there.
And then I saw the glint of sun on a car bonnet (yes, the full heat of the sun was right back on us by now) and thought “great – people nearby – I can ask them for directions!” It was only as we were within a dozen yards of the vehicle that I realised with an internal skip of joy that it was mine – we had somehow done a full circle (a slightly larger one than intended) and approached my car from the direction of a lane I had never continued down before, having always parked in this spot and walked straight into the woods to the side.
And so, the moral of the story if there is one: life is full of tangles, often you will feel lost, weary, directionless, obstacles may even seem impassable at times but keep heart as you will find your way back to where you want to be eventually, even if you approach it from an entirely different direction to the one you anticipated! And hopefully, no certainly, as long as you approach it with an open mind rather than preconceived fears, you will have enjoyed a life-enriching adventure along the way as well as much that you would have missed if you had turned back or not moved at all. You will learn that if you go with the flow of the path and don’t resist what seems like huge obstacles along the way, they are far less daunting than they first appear. Oh and another point, what a transformatory effect a bit of sunshine can have upon the potentially malevolent landscape of your journey, when times get hard or you feel a little lost, so whatever sunshine you can bring into your life – love laughter and enjoyment – be sure it will make all the difference to how you regard the journey of life!
The key is not to let fear take over as fear only spoils the journey and endangers you along the way. Once fear has kicked in its close cousin panic is never very far behind and once that takes over, your thoughts become muddled, your decision-making capacity compromised. You may decide that going backwards is the only way and realise too late that that just keeps you where you were; at best you remain safe but unfulfilled as you never move forwards. You can even become rooted to the spot, too paralysed to put a foot forwards or backwards and so you remain in the tangled undergrowth, kept their by your own fear.
So yes, experiences that set the heart racing from time to time can be good for you, even enjoyable, if you try to make the most of them – a touch of adrenalin can be like a pinch of chilli in life, it can spice things up and give you a rush of endorphins afterwards. And to be honest, if everything was always plain sailing, we would never appreciate the times when things do go smoothly and there is a thrill to be gained from knowing you kept a cool head and got through something that presented a challenge. Thinking yourself calmly out of a situation brings its own reward, a deep and lasting satisfaction when things come right and knowing that you “made it”. I smiled and chuckled to myself all the way home after that walk, not least because I came upon my car by chance, like it was meant to be – a vindication of the belief that everything works out in the end if you believe it will. And the walk itself had been an adventure, a conundrum; I will certainly remember it.
Of course, I appreciate that getting lost – temporarily – on a dog walk isn’t anywhere near the most fearful thing that could ever happen, far from it and there are times in life that horrible, unthinkable things do occur and fear enters in (I can’t help but think of the awful, tragic events in Norway last week as I say this…) But, what I am trying to convey is, let’s not go there unless we have to, why live the whole of live pinging from one fear situation to the next; so many of us are prone to this tendency to over-react to things that happen or to live in constant fear of the worst. A lot of the time, the everyday fears occur in relation to us taking steps that would enhance our lives and yet, because they are new or outside of our comfort zone, we balk at taking them.
Fear is like a carping old misery sat in the corner of the room, a sort of opinionated old relative with a very sour spin on life, someone who is always putting us down, telling us we can’t or shouldn’t do this or that, filling us with self-doubt and an expectation of failure, ridicule and a dozen other undesirable outcomes (but always the worst-case scenarios) which then stop us in our tracks – for FEAR of these things happening as predicted by the old misery in the corner (or, actually, in our head). Similarly, those who would have us live in fear of getting on a plane or travelling on the underground, or of walking a dark street at night, are fear-tyrants every bit as much as that voice in our own head, trying to stop us from having the freedom to do what we want to do with our lives. I have spoken to people who think I am mad for walking my dog alone in the woods and yet (quite apart from the fact he is a 40 kilo lion-hunter) I refuse to have my freedom to do something that is so very important to my quality of life compromised by fear.
In fact, fear should be the last resort and a place which, if you let yourself go there, you have to be prepared to accept you may not return from for some time as the effects can be lasting and colour your reactions to everything else that is going on around you. I remember hearing somewhere that a person who experiences just 5 minutes fear takes a full 6 hours to recover! Within that 6 hours you could have overreacted to a dozen other things, all with their own recovery time and so things quickly spiral out of control like a plane going into a nose-dive. Fear has a way of seeping into the very core and fibre of your being, affecting you at every level, mental and physical (see my post Over the emotion limit). You can easily see how too many fearful moments have a cumulative effect and then muddy your judgement in the meantime. Better not to go there in the first place – learn to recognise the signs and fend them off!
As the old adage goes “There is nothing to fear but fear itself” because fear stops you from doing all sorts of things including those that, by rights, would define who you are as an individual. For years, fear prevented me from expressing myself fully or publicly, through art or through words…for fear someone, somewhere might not like what I “said”. Throwing off that fear has been the most momentously liberating thing I ever did and it would indeed have been better to have directed my fear at that very thing that was really holding me under siege – preventing me from expressing myself and realising my true potential – yes, FEAR itself. With that gone, there is nothing else left to hold you under lock and key and it’s possible, just possible, that challenges become exhilarating but at the very least, with a clear mind, you can take them on with all your sharpest faculties at your disposal.
My dog said it all with his joyous victory laps as we came out of the scrub onto the main path. When we reached the car, he looked as surprised as I did to find it there and bounded eagerly into the boot without the need for any of the usual negotiation, every bit as glad as I was to be back on familiar territory. Yet the next time we walked at Bramshill, just a day or so later, he didn’t hesitate or cast me a reproachful look as if to say “oh no, here again, but what if we get lost…?” The most intelligent of our animal counterparts don’t generally live under a cloud of fear based on past experience or projection of what “may happen” in the future (well, not unless they are seriously and repetitiously abused by humans), they are “up for” whatever experience life throws at them, each and every time it happens and they enjoy the whole of the adventure along the way. And so there ends my account of a memorable walk that has become a metaphor for life itself and yet another reason to be so grateful for the excuse to go out on these daily adventures of mine with my four-legged companion who helps to teach me some quite brilliant life-lessons along the way.