7 June 2019

A walk without Max

Walking further out of town on the road where I work, you climb a hill to some woods. You can avoid the main road and find more interesting ways to get there, but my walk without Max today only really started after the climb. Limited lunch time meant we used to drive up each day, until my guilt at unnecessary driving pushed us to alternative routes, and this walk was consigned to our past together.

An unprepossessing start, parking in a muddy narrow layby, and tiptoeing nervously along a short stretch of fast rural road with no pavement, leads to a wide track. Straight as an arrow, it runs at right-angles to the road, into the forest. At the junction is a gloriously overgrown cottage, with improbable bamboo hedge.

I’ve never liked forests much. The trees obscure the land and the sun, and one’s horizon is shortened. Pragmatism won the day, though, as tree cover has its benefits in the English climate. Max was black and tan, so as well as protection from inevitable rain, some shade was also welcome on our summer walks.

While the wide track marches on into the distance, various openings in the stone wall to the right grant access into the forest itself. One can pick out any number of routes, but the functionally redundant parallel course to the track always suited us best.

Where this almost-path rejoins the main track, a wider forest path slopes down to the right. Taking various measures to avoid incursions of water, one passes what I can only imagine are four redwoods. What these giants are doing among this otherwise commonplace English plantation is a mystery, and a beguiling one.

The path narrows as it skirts the private grounds of the large house at the heart of the woods, and then slopes further downhill. This path seems ancient – a wide holloway, again very straight, ending at a tiny stream.

I paused here, as here is compensation for the lack of view so far. Through a fence is open countryside, of the most beautiful rolling English kind. Max and I would always pause here, I to smile as my heart was lifted by the view, he impatiently. I never found out what horizon was revealed, and this view remains to this day precious to me, as a shared memory with him, silent and content. Today it’s just me.

Across the stream, the path flattens out, as it gently curves round to the left. This is more traditional forest pathwork, not the ageless sunken path we just descended. But to the right, a fork slopes sharply down.

We must have walked on past this fork hundreds of times, but one day, taking a break from over-cheerful enthusiasm from a software trainer, we turned right. The gradient rapidly increasing, the path became narrower and narrower, steeper and rougher, descending a conifer-root stairway, and nearly meriting the sit-and-slide approach.

As a younger man with a young mongrel, evidently largely collie, I scampered down this path. For years after, I couldn’t find it again. But three years ago, Max and I being older and more nervous, the ground slippery with falling rain, and with my nine-month-old son strapped to my chest, the precipitous nature of this descent was all too apparent.

I wasn’t going to turn back, though. Max and I had not been here for maybe ten years, and I wanted him to see it again. Sentimental thoughts of sharing it with my son, and even of this being a boys’ trip out, made me slither down.

My wife and I do everything together, with our family. These weekday lunchtime walks with Max were my time without her, without talk. Max and I would cover the ground, and see where our journey took us. I wonder if one day I’ll take my daughter here. She’d love it, but life gets in the way, and there is a little part of me that wants to keep this walk to myself. Me and Max. Today it’s just me.

The worst of the sheer path negotiated, this break from IT training yielded the most amazing surprise. An unexpected river, with yellow sandstone cliffs, and a sandbank shore in the bend. This felt like our own discovery. Today was only the third time I’ve ever been there, and it still takes my breath away. I jumped onto an island stone to be surrounded by the flow, and saw a tiny fish dart away.

Water makes me think of my dad. He was in love with the sea, but moderated his passion to rivers and canals in order to devise family holidays my mum would not flat-out refuse to join out of terror. Today would have been his 89th birthday. I had planned to go down to the abbey to sit for a moment in my perplexed atheism and remember his faith and love of church music. This felt more like common ground.

Back up—climbing easier than descending—I rejoined the long left-hand bend of the main path. Each of the three times I’ve done this walk, this long section has tested my mettle. I’ve no map (ironically). I don’t want a map. The first time, I wanted to see where paths took me, and each subsequent time, each separated by years, I long to see whether something in my sense of direction keeps me right.

Though devoid of landscape, nature entertains me today: a squirrel, a robin, and hundreds of thousands of wood ants and their anthills half my height are the distraction I need to settle my nerves.

Eventually, my faith is paid off. The continued gentle curve to the left felt like the right direction, and rather splendidly here we are, at the far end of that first arrow-straight track. Intriguingly it’s a crossroads. I’m not sure I can ever foresee an occasion when I’ll have the time to go straight on or turn right. Left it is.

I’ve been worrying about my age and health a little recently, for the first time. Being closer to fifty than forty, coupled with an increased rate of consumption of my personal vices (fat, salt, chocolate, and alcohol) has led to a feeling of slowing down. I’ve become aware in the last couple of weeks that I now make a noise when bending over, straightening up, or standing up out of a chair. I think I’m safe finally to identify as middle-aged.

For years and years, I defined male middle age as “that quality which compels a man to describe the death of former pets to younger women and girls”. This walk without Max confirms it.

To combat my lack of condition, I pick up the pace. I’ve always run up and down stairs, and had also become upset to realize that I’d unthinkingly stopped. So, the pace is upped when I can, and while the drink will remain, perhaps I can stave off the inevitable.

A little way along this unwavering mile, the manmade glory of this walk rears up to the left. A magnificence of Scots baronial has crossed the border. How can a house need so many chimneys, and so tall? And who doesn’t love a turret? Presumably this is the house whose owner planted the redwoods on the far side of the grounds.

Pound back to the main road. Turn right down the hill. While Max and I would by now be in the car, both drivers and walkers are now granted the most magnificent view of this Northumberland market town. No castle, but an abbey and old gaol offset the white-elephant empty hospital and inevitable vast supermarket.

Nothing else remains. Nearly back at work, the far side of the road offers the steep muddy footpath which starts what became Max’s and my later walk together. Its close forest perspectives are occasionally interrupted by beautiful views of pasture, and intriguing cliffs and ponds possibly bear witness to historic quarrying.

This walk with Max was what told me he was dying. He was slowing down, and I wanted him to be able to walk on the flat. I also wanted him perhaps to revisit a walk of his youth, in the days when he and I got to know one another. We got out of the car, and he stood still. He stood still.

The vet told us he was in a great deal of pain. He was gone by the end of the week.

We have Tixall and Kinver now. But somehow I don’t want to take them on this walk. On this map without a map. My walk without Max.