Simone Stanbrook-Byrne on her passion for walking

One of the many miles of Somerset footpaths, traversed for Somerset Life

One of the many miles of Somerset footpaths, traversed for Somerset Life - Credit: sub

During the national lockdown, while she was unable to access the wider countryside, SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE looked back at some of her favourite past walks.

Way to go beneath a blue sky

Way to go beneath a blue sky - Credit: sub

The small child was howling her way home from a family amble. Her legs ached, her feet were sore and no one would carry her. Grandfather, mother, assorted aunts and uncles, all were deaf to the wailing banshee. It would have occurred to none of them, not least the banshee, that this small bundle of ambulant fury would grow up to lead a life mapped out by thousands of miles of footpaths.

Fast forward 15 years and I’m packing for a holiday with the new boyfriend: jeans, borrowed boots, inadequate rucksacks. We were woefully ill-prepared to make an attempt on part of the Pennine Way, but that was our goal. My curling tongs took up the space that should have been occupied by waterproof trousers, but this was the era of 1980s perms and I was a dippy teenager with teenage priorities. We did, at least, concede to decent maps and a compass.

It was a notable holiday; lasting friendships were forged. Betty was one such: a farmer’s wife running a B&B in the Yorkshire Dales, her hospitality was unstinting. Now in her late 80s, we are still in touch and when I visited her last year she reminded me that my youthful self was far from being the worst-prepared walker to pass through her care: one of her guests walked the entire Pennine Way guided solely by the map printed on a tea towel.

As the week progressed my rucksack grew lighter, my boyfriend’s commensurately heavier. A long-distance runner, he was vastly fitter than I, and on the last day, bringing up the rear as usual, my legs gave way, my rucksack flew up and hit me on the back of the head and the fury resurfaced.

“I am NEVER going on holiday with you again!” I yelled at his receding back.

Four years later I married him.

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At home in the West Country the years passed, along with mile upon mile of footpaths. With a ‘proper’ job in publishing and as a writer, it was a natural progression to combine this with walking, and eventually walking became a substantial part of the job.

It has not been incident free. I have to confess that I’m a bit of a chicken when it comes to cattle – and not without cause. During the curling-tong era I was averagely nonchalant about cows, occasionally helping out on a friend’s dairy farm, but since then irate mothers have abandoned their calves to pursue me across fields, bulls have blocked my way and my confidence has dissolved into the wind. In the terror of the moment there’s no point quoting the law at pursuants, or, indeed, reassuring them that I don’t eat them. It falls on hairy, deaf ears.

One foggy day, following a footpath with a friend, we heard a threatening bellow. Suddenly a mature and beringed dairy bull and his herd loomed out of the murk. My legs went weak. We told one another not to run, a very difficult thing to not do when a snorting bull is less than six feet away. The bull paced alongside us; death was tapping on my rucksack. The relief when we reached the gate was beyond immense. Throwing ourselves over it, I then looked at the map. Wrong gate. The correct one was a short 20 metres away across the corner of the field; it felt like 20 miles.

I will be forever grateful to my walking companion who gallantly climbed back into the field and led the bull away from me, allowing me to sprint across to the correct gate. Finally, both alive and on the safe side of the right gate, I wept. It was this incident that led a waggish reader to suggest we give our walks ‘trample ratings’.

Fog is often a feature of unsettling incidents and it was with the bull-charmer that we were once again lost in the fog – lost, not from the route, but from one another. Checking out two possible path options, we had decided to separate. He only realised the problem when he called my mobile phone and heard it ringing in the rucksack on his own back. I had the dog and the map; he had both phones and a compass. It took us three hours to find one another. After that we both carried whistles.

Away from fog, and walking a sun-baked Exmoor with three friends, we inevitably ended up in a tea garden. Silly things always happen with these particular friends and we were all a bit tipsy with sunshine. One of our group, a linguist, started regaling us with tales of language blunders and we all joined in, discussing our “wurst” experiences. It was before the days of selfies and, as we endeavoured to grab a photo of ourselves and the groaning table, the delightful smiling couple on the next table offered, in crisp German accents, to

help us out. We were mortified. And it was made far worse when we all went in to pay at the same time, only to find the Dam Busters theme playing in the tea shop.

There have been messy moments, one involving a tree trunk across an Exmoor stream. That way went the footpath, and so that way, too, must we go.

Not known for sure-footedness, I decided to convince myself that it was an ordinary plank bridge, swiftly crossing the sloping trunk to the other side. My usually capable husband followed behind but halfway across decided to put a touching faith in the rope ‘banister’ that ran along the trunk. As he listed to the left, so did the rope, and I watched in wonder (and some glee) as he slowly and gracefully descended into the water.

And there have been thoroughly bizarre moments, an encounter with a naked cyclist being fairly high on the freaky list. I still have no idea why the man I met on a remote country lane was wearing nothing but a grin and a crash helmet.

If he’s reading this, he could enlighten me.....

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