A man called Tim is currently camping next to a slightly bemused Chico, in a field full of flowers and sunshine, high above Aberystwyth. This morning there were some vigorous rainstorms and he was lying in his tent reading Celtic prayers, and noticed how many of them mention shelter. “It’s easy to disregard how important shelter is when you’re sitting at home, but if you don’t have any…” he said.
Tim is a vicar from Abingdon who called me up before Christmas to ask me about walking with donkeys. He had a fledgling dream and, as is the way with dreams sometimes, now it’s all happening. And tomorrow, no less!
There’s been a lot of prep going on. Tim has visited many times, walked with Chico, had a lesson from Tamlin, read his Donkey Sanctuary handbook, learned how to pick up hooves, fasten the packsaddle and erect the electric corral. I have polished and waxed and washed and mended and replaced the great stack of donkey kit, marvelling at the benefit of hindsight. The second time is much easier.
The evening before the last departure I was still trying to make a ukulele cover out of a waterproof trouser leg, grind peppercorns into a travel pot and solder a portable solar panel. And soak the bags in wash-in waterproofer in the bath, post a cheerful blog, take library books back, decant washing-up liquid, buy insurance and leave mum’s spare room shipshape. This time I’m having a glass of wine and an early night.
That’s partly because… I’m not exactly going. Last year I was like the brand new mother with a brand new unpredictable baby; this year I am the mother of a toddler on the first day of nursery. I’m handing Chico over, and all I can do is pray that we’ve done enough preparation between us, that Chico won’t give Tim too hard a time, and that Tim will get enough soaring highs to counter the tantrums and drudgery.
The saint of hares
It’s an exciting mission too. Tim’s destination is the shrine at Pennant Melangell, the church of the patron saint of hares and the protector of wildlife. The story goes that a soldier was chasing a hare, which ran under the habit of the nun, Melangell. The soldier demanded she evict it but she refused. As far as I know she wasn’t even subsequently martyred horribly like most saints. There isn’t an established pilgrimage route to the shrine, so I suggested they walk from where Chico is. It made sense to me.
What I didn’t take into account is that almost the whole way between here and the shrine, 80 or so miles, is high, treeless and exposed. We snuck out and back into Aberystwyth along the coast last year, of course, but almost all of the rest of the town’s backcountry is high moorland, in every direction. Tim bought the maps and planned the route. It’s wild.
It will be very different to the coast walk, I think. I’m going to walk with them for the first two days, and we’ll be walking steadily up, from the sea to about 500m – a second rolling sea of bald red tussocks in all directions, and not an ice-cream shop for scores of miles at a time.
The Welsh desert
I went to see George Monbiot talk in Aberystwyth last week, about rewilding – the idea being that nature finds a way. Rather than looking to conservation methods that seek to put landscapes back the way they were a short time ago, rewilding advocates leaving nature to its own devices (after an initial boost with some planting and reintroduction of native species), but then avoiding the desire to manage the outcome. Monbiot laments the ‘sheepwrecked’ state of the Welsh uplands, nibbled to the quick by sheep, and then kept that way even in areas with little grazing, by farming subsidies that stipulate farmers must keep the land bare.
One way that a little help would be necessary is in replacing some shelter. As in Tim’s Celtic prayers, shelter is important for everything. Creatures that get eaten can find hiding places, creatures that prey can find ambushing spots, all of them can find more regular conditions, more plants can take hold in nooks and amongst roots. Diversity leads to strength. At the moment, says George, the uplands are a wet desert.
And so, we’re heading for the wet desert. Tim has chosen night spots that will offer windbreaks but the days will be spent high. They’ll be walking along drover’s roads – on the coast we never came across more than a mile of bridleway in one stretch, but up here they run for miles. Days. And they charge along on a bearing that is all about getting somewhere – across the mountain and down to shelter: market, home, pubs. There’s none of the ambulatory dithering of the leisure routes we followed by the sea.
A high walk with a higher purpose
It’s going to be a real pilgrimage. It’ll be a chance for Tim to learn about Chico’s confounding ways and find all of the optimism and cheer he’ll have to dig deep for if Chico baulks at the many fords. For me it will be a nervous time of sitting on my hands at home, with Flo, as my Chico goes for an adventure without me. On the way to a shrine to wildlife, it’ll be a time to think about the human role in the shape of the landscape.
Tim is going to be sent off tomorrow morning from Llanbadarn church, with a farewell prayer from the lychgate, and then two weeks later – all being well and the fords being shallow – will have a day in retreat at the shrine.
And then… Rhys and I will pick Chico up, and walk him back to Aberystwyth along the same route. Chico will know the way, and hopefully where to find the shelter. And the ice-cream.