THE ANNIVERSARY WALK
The alarm goes off, it looks dark out there, I kick the covers off from my temporary nest, insomnia dictates the start point and the alarm calls the end, the bit in the middle normally only exists due to exhaustion, four to five hours sleep a day is a result, of the need, no the honour, of caring for my sweetheart both in hospital and at home. Anyway, today is an important day for many reasons and I need to scratch and stretch and great the day with the abrupt opening of the curtains.
Well that’s a disappointment!, my bleary eyes observed a wet foggy day, even when I put my glasses on it didn’t look better, oh well, I only have this day to do what I need to do and I must not fail, for today would have been our 39th wedding anniversary and is the first anniversary since we have been parted.
The usual pre-amble of deciding what to pack, wear and eat and countless emptying and re-filling of the rucksack had already taken place with two additions. A Vodaphone Curve tracker and my Garmin Vovoactive4 GPS watch. Both will be put through their paces today. These bits of kit allow me to be tracked in live time from afar. Mission Control will be checking my progress, not that I’m infirm or reckless, far from it, more to do with a promise my wife made me make to her about walking about in dangerous off grid places. She knew that I can read maps and use a compass, pack survival stuff and know first aid, which is all good, but, she knew that it would mean that I would go off like Forest Gump, especially as she wouldn’t be here to reign me in. Trust me, grief does make you do things to escape the sadness, disbelief, denial and so on, so walking off into the mountains would be right up my street, or hill. Making me promise not to do that was what she needed to hear, you see, when I promise, I will ever break it and she knew that. So I have to walk with people or on popular paths and these two bits of kit allow me to have a degree of freedom while being monitored by my two sons from their respective “Mission Controls” in different parts of the country.
I wanted to set off about 07:00 but at 08:30 it was still a pea souper! Well it’s got to be done so I load up my car, set my trackers off so that the mission controls can locate me and off I went. Hang on, I haven’t told where have I? Well I’m driving 170 miles each way to Derbyshire, to Dovedale to be exact.
Derbyshire was another place we loved; it was the preferred way of travel when we go and see our son in Manchester, not the most direct, but definitely the most picturesque. It was the last place we had a family holiday and Dovedale was the place we had our last anniversary; the last was sadly in hospital.
There were many obstacles to overcome on that day, the journey for one, I still hate travelling on my own, we always went everywhere together. Stopping at Dovedale was going to be hard, but I needed to do this to mark our anniversary and to honour my sweetheart. I have also been planning to complete another journey there as well, to mark the day with positivity.
The three hour journey was uneventful I’m pleased to say and the weather broke into a glorious sunny day by the time I had reached Ashbourne. I needed to stop there to buy some flowers, another milestone, as this was our base when we visited the area. Well flowers bought and off again to Dovedale, just 15 mins away. On the way there I passed the cottage in Ilam we stayed at as a family, our last holiday, my mask fell and so did the tears, so I just had to stop. I thought I had got control of all this stuff, but it would seem I’m not as tough as I thought.
Composure re-gained I drove into the National Trust car park, a place we had parked at so many times. The sun was out and so was everyone else. Our whole lives have been a series of coincidences and they continue to happen, just to give you an example, the first film I took my best mates sister to see back in the 70’s where the first kiss took place. The film was full of things that actually have happened or we have agreed to do in the future, but that was some 46 years ago so we couldn’t have predicted the outcome that far away. Incidentally, we went as mates and came back as boy and girlfriend, and today will turn out to be no different. We got married on the 18th September; it was a miserable day until the sun came out at 4pm when we got married. Today the 18th started off miserable but the sun is out now. Let’s hope the day continues to favour me.
I muscled past the crowds of inappropriately dressed people and started my journey along the path past the Izaak Walton Gauging station with the crowd, socially distant of course, well I was anyway, I could hear people talking about my kit, in particular the single red rose that I had poking out my rucksack, but I’m past all that, I’m one of those odd blokes that is happy to show how much I love my wife and how much I miss her. I pass a bridge on my right; this is a point where I have to make a decision on which way to go. Over the bridge would mean that I avoided the famous stepping stones, but going over the stones was an important part of the journey, my wife and I have hopped across these so many times and even carried our dog across them as he has too scared to cross preferring me to provide safe passage.
So the iconic stepping stones was the way to go, unfortunately so was everyone else. In my other older stories I refer to a “walking radius”. This is a term that I use to describe the clobber that people wear and the distance from the car that they walk. I look around me and can predict almost exactly where people will come to a stop. By the looks of the designer outfits and heels on show, I already know that at least 50% will stop at the stepping stones and when I reach there, sure enough, a group of bewildered people were lurking about as they were expecting the waters to part or a boat at least! However the other 50% were queuing to walk across. I queued with them thinking I should have gone over the bridge, but I’m here now. I struck up a conversation with a ranger who was picking up rubbish. Astonishingly, he had picked up 3 bags already! And he just accepted that that people don’t care, the carry it all down there to a beauty spot and then spoil it for others. Careful Mike! Turning into a keyboard warrior again!
I eventually crossed the stones and paused as a matter of respect on the last but one stone. It was her some years ago that my wife and I had witnessed an elderly lady, supported by her family, was scattering her husband’s ashes into the river. We were approaching them and realised what was going on and decided to hold back a way to allow her to carry out their wishes. We also halted the traffic behind us to afford them the time. This time, the whole event had a completely different meaning and feelings were far closer to home this time round, so sincere respect was given as I was treading on sacred ground.
Turning left after the stones, following the river upstream, I pass I style, well a slit between stones which always caused perplexed expressions to be displayed on my wife’s face. Basically she was short and curvy and the stones were taller that her little legs, so each time we visited this place, a degree of manhandling was required that you could only get away with after nearly 50 yrs. Sometimes I would just leave her stuck in the middle as the disapproving look on her face coupled with the hands on her hips was always I sight to see, and alas just a memory, but still one I and lucky to have. The river is crystal clear and full of rich flowing green grass like plants with gravel patches contrasting against the green reeds. Fallen trees bridge the river in places providing perches for dippers. The more open spots often have herons and the occasional duck as was to be today.
Most of the crowd stopped at this point leaving only the determined appropriately dressed adventurers to go fourth, myself included. Not only was this day significant, but the distance, as I had been adjusting my walking to allow for the 1000 miles to be completed on this day and at this place. I had checked my remaining distance at the start of the walk; 5.7miles was what I needed to do, so off I trotted. The path is good and well maintained with several gates separating fields. The path rises away from the river and stone cliffs peek through the trees like a little grand canyon, it’s so peaceful and allows you to reflect whilst being bathed by the sun above. About half way along the walk the ground climbs and a number of steps need to climbed to reach the viewpoint at the top. At the top is a rocky outcrop which most people wait to ascend. Opposite this is a simple wooden bench. But this wasn’t my destination.
There as many steps going down the other side, some of which are slippery, so be careful. The river pops in and out of view but is a constant rumbling companion, unlike my trackers which have given up on me due to the valley and lack of any signal of any kind. I thought this would be the case, but I wanted to try them out. After a short while you reach some of the many caves peering out through the bushes and trees, well-trodden paths disappear into the undergrowth where many a child imagining themselves as Indiana Jones had ventured to seek out untold treasures within the hidden caves. In front of you are some boardwalks that sit between the river on your left and the rising rock to your right. You are in a proper valley know and as I look up and gaze in the near cloudless blue sky I recount the many times we have walked these boardwalks from summer days to snow covered winter days, romantically walking hand in hand not for safety sake, just because we just liked holding hands. A little further on is a bridge that spans the river with a cave at the end and a path to Ilam, the place we had out cottage. The cave has been explored on many occasions and today; a young family was doing the same, history repeating itself.
Today it was for others to explore as I needed to keep an eye on the mileage and reach my destination. The path rises again and then sharply descends to the main caves which suddenly appear on your right. Large open mouthed holes looking like they are shouting out at you, a perfect selfie spot and a chance to explore or just simply stop for a snack. Some years ago, on a tree by these caves I placed one of our metal hearts, “MICA 9” and after a little searching, I found it. I also found that someone had nailed two dog tags under my heart and at the foot of the tree, some ashes were scattered. A final resting place of a faithful friend no doubt on his favourite walk. I removed my single red rose and a little note and placed it at the foot of a nearby tree, not wishing to draw attention to the sacred place. I said a few words in my head and took a photo and waited in silence for a little while before setting off again.
Looking at my watch, I could see that I still had some miles to go, so I decided to carry on to the end of the valley at Milldale. This part of the walk had only been done buy us, so seemed fitting to do this in our footsteps. The river still keeps me company as does the blue skies above. A lone white duck follows me for a while, somewhat symbolic almost a spiritual sign as this has happened before at another place we loved to visit. The scenery varies from grassy meadows to rocky pillars of stone, a rare plushness of nature being fed by pure spring fed river water with a clear blue ceiling above. The only blot is the well-made path and the human traffic scurrying about like ants in a line.
Milldale pokes its head up in the distance blocking the throat of the valley, enhancing the charm of this beautiful national park with its old stone buildings and river frontage. As I walk the path I notice tiny bees collecting pollen from little trumpet shaped lilac coloured flowers, I pause to marvel at their commitment and the tireless endeavours to satisfy the hive, I also spied a caterpillar making its way across the path. I picked it up to help it across but no sooner had I rescued it literally charged up my arm. Well I placed safely on the other side and chuckled at the thought that I might have put back form where it started, oh well, at least it wasn’t trodden on by me.
I entered Milldale by the “Viators Bridge” apparently it’s a traveller? I made my way to a little house that served food, my wife and I scoffed ice creams from there the last time we were here but as I drew nearer, it became apparent that about 20 other people had the same idea. Oh well, let’s find a place by the river and eat the lunch I made instead. I sat by the river and broke out my roll and some bread pudding that I made the day before. I sat in silence somewhat saddened that I would never sit here again with her and how much we took these things for granted. Oh I wished I had the knowledge I have now. How much do I want to share my drink and bread pudding with her and take more pictures of her sitting kicking her legs whilst raising her face to the sun. I watched couples and families enjoying their food and the river and thought why did it end this way, 20 years short. Stifled tears fell but were disguised by pretending to rub my eyes. Had I done too much buy trying to take steps that are too big for me, well probably, sometimes you have to sink before you can swim, but I’ve come too far now and she knows I’m not about to quit now.
I packed up my rucksack and made a swift retreat back. The walk back was a delight for the eyes, so much I had missed but at least I could see it this time, the only thing spoiling it was not having her little hand in mine. I made my back to the cave and passed my rose and sat at a cave entrance. A few people stopped to read my note and gave a gestured sigh, one couple grabbed each other’s arms as if they were suddenly grateful for being together, as sad as that was, it was lovely to see them appreciate each other. I tipped my hat and looked at my watch to see how many miles I had to do, not many so off I go again retracing my steps up to the view point.
As I reached the top of the slippery steps, I glanced at my watch, I don’t believe this, I looked at the bench and looked again. I had done 5.74 miles at the bench, I needed 5.7 miles to complete the 1000 miles, the time was approaching the time we got married 39yrs ago on a sunny September afternoon and what’s more, many years ago we carved our initials on the bench I am now standing in front of. Read into this what you will, but don’t judge me when I say it was meant to be and more than a coincidence.
I waited for a while for the bench to become free and made my way over slightly overwhelmed by the enormity of the chances of all this happening. I asked a lady if she could take a picture of me on the bench which she did and then she asked me why, I started to tell her and within 5 minutes I had half a dozen people standing in front of me and several more sitting about but watching me. So humbling and wonderful, it’s almost as though I was sharing my story to pass it on.
I thanked the assembled audience and made my way back down towards the stepping stones passing the squeeze between the stones. I queued to cross again sparing a thought as I trod on the second stepping stone. On the other side I met the warden again, “still picking up the rubbish” I said and to my surprise he said “second lot” beggars belief doesn’t it. I made my way back against the flow of designer clad beauties some of which were carrying well pampered trophy dogs, well who am I to judge, everyone deserves to be happy in whatever way it comes.
When I got back to the car I bought a double scoop ice cream, one scoop of my favourite and one of my wife’s, seemed to be the right thing to do.
This is the last bit but ties in another part that the group has helped me with. It was getting late in the afternoon and I was trying to make my mind up about going to Bakewell, another favourite place, especially on market days. Well in for and emotional penny in for an emotional pound hey! I drive cross country and arrived at 17:07, the car park signage barked at me with a “GATES LOCKED AT 18:00 PROMPT” so I just put an hour on as there was only one thing I wanted to do, to find our padlock on the lovelock bridge.
The bridge was literally at the end of the carpark and I knew roughly where we placed it 7 years since. I scoured the padlocks as we had done so many times, but just accepted that they had been removed and been replaced by others. My son had put a padlock on there some years later and I had found that before, so I looked for that instead. Well I found that fairly easily, it’s by a purple padlock; purple was my wife’s favourite colour. I noted the number of bays it was from the end of the bridge and sent him a picture. I also attached a new padlock with MICA engraved on it net to his, not the same as when we put ours but it was better than nothing. I stood with my back against his padlock and watched the ducks perching on the small weir in front of me. For some reason I decided to look on the other side of the bridge, it was 17:45, and after a few minutes I found our original padlock dated 2014 and MICA on it. I was so pleased I shouted “I’ve found our padlock” and again the tears fell, this was significant in so many ways than a simple padlock can show, it was something we had done together and I was there with her again. A group of young girls and a couple of fellas were close and one of the girls came over and put her arm round me to see if I was ok, it felt nice to have a cuddle. I said that I found our padlock on our anniversary and that I had lost my wife so this was very important. Within seconds the guys were manhandling the padlocks apart so I could get to ours. They held them so I could get a picture after which I thanked them for the kindness and help, one of the girls came up and rubbed my arm almost to say it will be ok. The time was 17:55 so I was meant to find it then otherwise I would have to given up or get locked in. The strange thing is that our padlock is directly opposite that of my sons that was placed about 4 years after ours, he could have placed it anywhere and didn’t know where ours was. In a strange way we are all together on love lock bridge Bakewell.
I returned to Ashbourne and decided to get some food at the Stepping Stones restaurant, the Last place we had an anniversary meal, again another first step, asking for a table for one in a place we had been coming to for years as a couple, a family and with our extended family. I sat at the table observing so many couples, I was alone and lonely, just a menu and a phone to keep me company. Again the simple things of holding a hand across the table, asking what each other fancied, looking forward to the Travelodge next door, our temporary home for many a weekends visit. To break this solemn reflection I decided to upload my mileage on the 1000 mile App, the congratulatory mail came back requesting the delivery address etc which I duly completed. I ate my meal and stuffed a sticky toffee pudding, finished my “fat Coke” and then drove the 170miles home feeling pretty good all things considering; I had laid a flower in memory of our day, competed my 1000th mile and found our padlock. When I got home my hat and badge had arrived so all in all, a positive outcome to a sad emotional day, but I’m still alone and lonely and missing her dearly.