The Hard Way

By Susannah Walker

An absorbing nature memoir that uncovers the lives of women walking away from home.

I have several rules about what makes a proper walk. Firstly it should go from one place to another. I don’t like ending up where I started; it feels much better to find myself somewhere different to where I began. What’s the point of travelling otherwise? Although sometimes - like today - the ragged state of public transport in this country means that I have no choice.

I’d also rather walk a new way if I can. I want to be somewhere I do not know, to see different views and vistas, encounter an unfamiliar atmosphere and different thoughts.

But the single thing I want most is to be following an old road. Modern footpaths are so often disappointing; thin, un-kept, marginal in every sense of the word. I hate being squeezed between hedgerows and crop, scrabbling up a tussock hill skidding on each lump, pushing my way between long grass and overhanging brambles, each one coating me with the damp of last night’s rain. These tracks are not welcoming, instead I have to assert my right to be present against every branch I pass.

In comparison, if I call up an old road in my head, I see a wide track with grass growing down the middle, hedged each side with oak and hawthorn, the way unfurling ahead of me without question or obstacle. Because they so often follow the ridgeline, these paths ride the hill like a sailing ship on the waves. Either side, the fields spread out for miles. Up here I am monarch of the road; their unerring sense of direction tell me that I am in the right place and can keep going forever.

All of which is why I am heading for the Ridgeway. I’ve walked some of its length before, from Tring across the Thames all the way to Overton on the hills above the Avebury stone circle. There it gave up on me, but now I know it goes further, south and west all the way to the coast. And this is where I am going to walk today, following its trail along the high ground above the Vale of Pewsey.

The road brings me in through the valley, which is hedged and productive, the space in which modern life takes place. The railway, the canal and the road now all run through this easy passage, but rising up on each side is the chalk, sleek and green and impersonal.

The Ridgeway lives on these slopes, a place so remote and unvisited by either modern roads or tourists that I have no choice but to make a circular walk. It’s not ideal, but there is no other way and I have a car and a plan and footpath and no excuse not to get on with it.

I’ve chosen my day by the weather, and the sky is blue with thin scribbles of high cloud, the sun already warm on my back. Even so, the walk does not start well. I park up in a small hamlet. It’s spring and the hawthorn and cow parsley are edging each track in white, as clear as a spray paint outline, so the way up is clear. All I need to do is head two fields over and I will be on the right path. Except this is not as straightforward as it should be. Ahead on the road, a man sits in a parked white van, checking his phone. I wait for a few minutes and then he stays longer and my instincts - my fear - starts to kick in. I don’t want to demonstrate to him that I am here, on my own, and setting out into an empty landscape.

Like every woman, I’ve been making these calculations ever since I started leaving the house on my own. What I’ve only recently discovered is that there’s a word for them: safety work. This is a satisfyingly unplacatory phrase. Because safety work doesn’t just describe these workarounds - the keys in the hand, the pretend phone call on a dark path, the not going out in the first place - which women do all the time. It also contains the fact that the small number of attacks on women don’t mean that spaces are safe, it just means that women put in a lot of effort to avoid potential danger. The phrase notices that this consumes energy and headspace which saps women’s joy and imagination and ability to appreciate the world around us; that it’s women who take responsibility for avoiding violence while men are asked nothing at all.

I like safety work, it answers back. It’s only one step away from the idea that the best way to make women’s lives safer would be for men to stay at home. But of course they don’t do that, and this means that I have a problem to solve right now.

The map tells me I can cut across on a footpath and take the next road up. This is fine for the first few hundred metres, until the next stile brings me up against a field of cows. I am scared of cows, all of them, but the warnings are most of all about the dangers of mothers with young calves, and this field is full of them, their flanks dark like polished wood, each adult with its child, watching me. The path cuts straight through and I don’t want to risk it, so I walk down the edge of the fence, thinking I might be able to cross at the other end of the field. But the barbed wire is too tight and new to duck under and I can’t get over at the corner either, although I rip a hole in my trouser leg by trying. Even this is enough for the cows to decide that I am a problem, and all the way back they run alongside me, mobbing and lowing right by the fence, proving me right. So I go back the way I came and the man has gone and finally I can take the path up to the Ridgeway and start heading where I want to go. What I don’t realise as yet, is that the morning has barely begun but I have already faced up to the two causes of my fear, the two biggest enemies of my walking. With the benefit of hindsight, the man and the cows are portents of what I would come to understand about women and the countryside and how it is domestication which confines us at home. But all of this was contained in the journey to come.

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