When I first heard about what Ursula Martin had done I found it hard to believe. Over a period of seventeen months she set out to walk 3,300 miles around Wales â€“ in the end she walked 3,700 â€“ including all the recognized long distance paths and other, river-long walks, she devised herself. Now sheâ€™s written a book about the experience, One woman walks Wales (Honno, 2018).
Ursulaâ€™s just one of several women whoâ€™ve recently made marathon journeys through Wales on foot. Hannah Engelkamp walked the Wales Coast Path and Offaâ€™s Dyke in the company of a donkey called Chico. Earlier, in 2012, Arry Beresford-Webb became the first woman to run the course of the same two paths, in 41 days.
Ursulaâ€™s walks began with illness. In 2011 she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. An operation followed in February 2012 to remove the diseased ovary. The cancer hadnâ€™t spread, it seemed, but the experience left a deep impression, and Ursula set her mind on her astonishing plan. Her walk had two practical aims â€“ to raise money for the charity Target Ovarian Cancer, and to help make women aware of the dangers and symptoms of the disease, so that those affected by it have the best chance of early treatment.
But these aims hardly called for such an extreme ambition. Itâ€™s only gradually, and in a piecemeal way, that we gain some understanding, in the course of the book, about what might be the deeper motives for Ursulaâ€™s walk.
She starts by leaving behind her job and her home to walk from the source of the river Severn to its mouth, and then to Bristol to attend a hospital appointment. Immediately weâ€™re there with her on the bare slopes of Pumlumon, struggling with too much baggage, too little food, soggy boots, the cold of outdoor, tentless nights and above all the discomfort and pain of long-distance walking. This is a visceral book: she (and we) never lose awareness of how the body, and especially the feet and joints, rebel against the incessant strain and generate their many protests. Weâ€™re told too about all the stratagems Ursula uses in response, some physical, like straps, massage and rest, others mental â€“ especially an iron determination, never quenched, to carry on walking come what may.
Pain is maybe the commonest theme of the book. Hereâ€™s a typical, vivid description, from early on in the journey:
I was tired. Really, the groans were just a symptom of the effort Iâ€™d made to date: 395 miles covered in six weeks. The beginning stages of the walk brought the pain of blood swelling in my feet to cushion against the unexpected pounding, leading to a sharpened ache at the new internal pressure, feet feeling like clumsy stones at the end of every day, cells brutalized by the repeated thump and press.
Later, Ursula sums up the experience, and the prospect:
â€¦ half way through the effort, the grime, the sleepless nights trying to curl my body around the unyielding ground. There was the same again to come. All the high hills rising in front of me, all the muddy patches, all the gleefully saturated bog, all the pain: foot pain, back pain, neck pain, ankle pain. All the evenings spent hobbling, barely able to put feet to the ground.
She has particular foot trouble with a condition called plantar fasciitis. But the pain has to be endured. Ursula vows to
â€¦ accept pain as normal, accept throbbing feet, clicking knees, a heavy rucksack, the discomfort of sleeping outside, of turning an ankle in an uneven field â€¦
Sheâ€™s also aware, though, of the need for â€˜self-careâ€™ â€“ to look after her body, her safety (especially at night) and her mental equilibrium, so that she can cope with the hundreds of miles that lie ahead. And when that prospect seemed impossible she develops a way of forgetting the grand target and concentrating on the next steps: â€˜just go for a walkâ€™ is her brotherâ€™s advice.
Wild camping isnâ€™t the only way to spend the night. As word spreads about her gigantic walk and its fundraising, Ursula meets more and more well-wishers, especially women, who offer her shelter for the night, and much else, particularly encouragement and conversation. A few have suffered the same cancer as her, and others have experienced recent loss or trouble. And yet she confesses â€“ this is a brutally honest book â€“ that she often prefers to flee from people into her own company. Her preferred walking is in the deserted uplands of the Cambrian Mountains and north Wales, where a whole long day can go by without meeting anyone. You sense her favourite path was the north-south Cambrian Way, across the â€˜roofâ€™ of Wales, taking in the major mountains, like her favourite, Cadair Idris, and for the most part avoiding tarmac.
The walking, and the writing, are personal, intense, self-absorbed. Sometimes Ursulaâ€™s well aware of the price to be paid. Birds all around her â€˜had been singing the whole time and I wasnâ€™t listening â€¦ There was a whole world there for me to savour, and I was shutting the blinds and disappearing into my imaginationâ€™. And itâ€™s true that you wouldnâ€™t turn to this book if you wanted an insight into the geography, history or archaeology of the Wales her paths pass through: I found myself feeling annoyance at her failure to notice some of the wonders on the way (Llyn y Fan Fach is dismissed as â€˜dingyâ€™). But thatâ€™s because, above all, this is really an internal odyssey. Ursulaâ€™s aim is not seeing the sights, but seeing within herself, at a time of recovery from crisis â€“ or even a continuing crisis is her life.
So why is she walking? She never really tells us, and sometimes itâ€™s as if she doesnâ€™t know:
Cancer stopped my life as it was but didnâ€™t give me another one to continue with. I had to make one up and I chose to walk. If I couldnâ€™t walk I had no idea what to do next.
Cancer has left another imprint: the realization that life is short:
It made me aware of the blunt ending of death, its indifference to circumstances. Iâ€™m aware that my precious life would end at any moment and I need to make use of it because Iâ€™ll never get it back â€¦ Every month must be movement towards achievement, there was no time to let focus slide.
But maybe there are several other motives. One is to escape â€“ from her former life and its ties, and from her former, pre-cancer self. The way she chose to walk â€“ at extraordinary length, in inhospitable places, in solitude â€“ suggests a need to withdraw, like the early Christians who fled to live in the deserts of Egypt. Like them Ursula is an ascetic: her budgets are meagre (Â£150 a week maximum) and she survives through extreme economy and the kindness of strangers. Pain and discomfort, you feel, arenâ€™t just an unfortunate by-product of her exertions. She embraces them, almost seeks them out, as if to test her ability to withstand and overcome them, after the pain of her cancer and the treatment of it. Self-challenge is built into her psyche. And finally, walking is a therapy: â€˜Walking is healing for me â€¦ creating calmness within myself, building an appreciation of my qualitiesâ€™.
All this paints a picture of a grim fanatic. And Ursula admits that towards the end the days all merge into one, and that sheâ€™s become a â€˜walking machineâ€™, satisfied with her â€˜simple, mechanical lifeâ€™. All the walking has changed her:
I was part wild, my humanity dropped away over a year of outdoor living, careless of showers, and scents and shopping, forgetful of where to sit, of dirt on my clothes, of a dayâ€™s timings and schedules. Uncaring of appropriate behaviour, of anything but walking.
But sheâ€™s far from being a pedestrian automaton. Again and again she doubts her own abilities and her resolve. She knows that solo walking is a â€˜supportâ€™ but also a â€˜cageâ€™. She admits to misjudging people, like the youths she meets at Neath Abbey who seem so threatening but end by wishing her well. We find her in tears frequently, as when she comes across a dead baby calf, â€˜in a puddle of blood and mucusâ€™. One of the most moving parts of the book is when she interrupts her journey on hearing the news that her brother has suffered serious injuries after a car accident. She forgets her own mission and immediately goes to Derbyshire to be with him until the worst danger is over. Ursulaâ€™s not a humorous writer, but she can be wryly self-aware, imagining a supporter thinking of her as â€˜plodding on like Don Quixote, endlessly in search of 3000 milesâ€™.
â€˜The journey had overtaken everything in my life, there was nothing elseâ€™, she tells us towards the end. We, her readers, should be grateful for that, and that she was able to write about her remarkable experience with such style and sensitivity.