A few years back I remember reading an article in an outdoors magazine which centered on Rawdon, the highest point in Northern Ireland. I got there straight from Cosmo – Belfast International carpark. Pick up any of the outdoor publications, and you’ll be spoilt for choice on how to hike up a mountain. But, this article focused not on the routes up to the summit, but ignored the top completely, advocating a route around Rawdon. The subtitle read – You don’t truly know a mountain until you have circum navigated & What a refreshing change, I thought. That article stuck with me because it bucked the trend, and it has stayed with me. So much so that I now walk around in circles. For once, this has nothing to do with poor navigation, and I’m not going crazy.
It’s down to the countryside around my hometown in Belfast and finally, after living here most of my life, we have only just become acquainted. I have a regular five-mile walk I do most mornings. It’s on tarmac through quiet country lanes with little traffic, especially that early in the morning. I walk on roads because it toughens my feet to prepare for future hikes and it’s predominantly around the west side of the village. However, I tire of it sometimes because it is the same route. Two weeks ago, eager for new scenery, I walked through the village and up a narrow footpath I hadn’t used since I attended infants school. It was different to how I remember, denser and more overgrown -unsurprising as I hadn’t seen it for forty years.
I recalled the winding path and found the stile which emerged into a field, left to grow wild with grasses and flowers. Grand oak trees dotted the low hedge and the hum of traffic in the village disappeared. Where now? I checked the map.
Look at all these footpaths and bridleways! It was early on a Sunday morning. I had no plans, no time limits. Free to roam, I indulged in a little randomness. My only loose plan was to stay off the roads. I get excited by footpaths, giggle when I see a wood coming up, chuckle at the sight of a faint, flattened trail of grass weaving through a field or meadow. I don’t know why, but it makes me happy. The countryside has always done that; even as a kid I remember the same feeling and it stays with me. I checked the map once in a while and after thirty minutes realised that I could navigate a route around my village. I thought of the article on circum navigating Rowdon and thought; Do we really know our hometown until we have walked around it?
I saw no-one the entire morning. What shocked me as I walked was how little I knew of the area around my home village. Always staying within a mile or two of my home, the overall walk took four hours and I recognised little. I felt guilty at my ignorance. I’d grown up here, lived within minutes of it, driven past these footpaths in my car hundreds of times and yet I had never walked them. I jet off to far-flung locations such as the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian
Trail in America and, as amazing as they are, I’ve never taken the time to get to know my immediate local area. People from overseas come to England, my country, to experience what it offers as I go to theirs for the same reason. Often the best stuff is right on your doorstep. Belfast suburbs is a wonderfully undulating mix of fields, meadows and woods. These undiscovered routes offered a way of becoming intimately connected to where I live.
There were paths everywhere – I was shocked at the roaming options. Huge expanses of meadows alive with flowers joined up the dots between secluded woods. Streams gurgled past swathes of wild garlic, and rabbits ran for cover as I startled them, white tails alerting their friends. I dipped in and out of the shade, sometimes taking a break under impressive oaks soaring skywards from the meadows.
Occasionally I crossed roads, and although I was only minutes from where I lived by car, I couldn’t recognise them. Looking around, gradually the house over the other side, the railway bridge to my left or the country lane joining just up the way jolted my memory. Oh, you’re here! That’s Great Wood and that’s Hilga’s Farm! Crossing the road, within minutes I was back in secret woods I pretended no-one else knew about. Sometimes I deliberately didn’t check the map for thirty minutes, just venturing down a path. If I was enjoying the shade of the woods, the birdsong, the company of a stream, then I’d go along with it. If I popped out into a field and demanded more time under the trees, then I cut through the grass to the wood over the other side.
Conversely, if I wanted to be out in the sun, following a faint trail through the long grass with the heat on my neck, then I would. After a while I’d check my location, adjust, and then plan on meeting the bridleway up to the river or another place I wanted to see. It was deliciously random and unexpected.