Happy Valley? Happy Valley? Happy Valley my ****

Hello – Happy Bank Holiday Weekend.

It’s a new school term and as usual I have started it full of vim and vigour, so I actually did walk every morning this week before school. This has prompted me to share my ‘adventures’ during a walking course last year.

You see, the thing is, I’m not naturally a ‘joiner’ and was often shoved into rooms with other little girls by Mother accompanied by the hissed instructions to ‘be nice, make friends, smile’. Many years later I was to make the same mistake with MC. I decided she wanted to learn ballet (she’s currently training to be a weapons engineer)

Having purchased enough ‘balletania’ to rival Saddlers Wells MC was ‘shoved into a room of little girls and told to make friends’. This is where she and I differ. At the end of whatever torture I was forced to endure (party, Irish dancing class, elocution festival) I would emerge, give Mother a watery smile and say I had a lovely time. MC marched purposefully from the room and calmly announced that she wasn’t going back. In answer to my rather strangled ‘Why?’ (I was thinking of the many many pounds spend on tights, and bags, and skirts……) ‘Because there is no-one there who I want to hold hands with’ – and that was that.

Paradoxically, I’m wild fond of a ‘club and society’ – I was in loads of them at school. I even like their notice boards, they are often found in the older parts of schools with peeling gold lettering – all very non threatening. I was in the Chess Club, the Public Speaking Society (I know – but you aren’t really you when you are public speaking), the Recorder group, the Choir…… What these all have in common is a shared interest which the members can talk about, even better, in the Chess club it was preferable not to talk at all. I’m also very fond of a course – especially if there’s a certificate (serial overachiever). Last year it was the Ottoman Empire, next week I start Ancient Greek.

All this brought me to the point last year when a colleague asked would I be interested in taking a hillwalking leadership course.

This is not as strange as it sounds. I have been involved in the Duke of Edinburgh Award since it began in our school. I even did an abseil from the dome of the local arena to fundraise while I was pregnant with YC. I may not have mentioned this on the risk assessment. I also find walking wonderful therapy when I’m feeling black doggish.

What could possibly go wrong? The fact that I was 13 years olderthan the last time I did a walking qualification, my bod was a playground rather than a temple (Rustler burgers and Pino Grigio rather than anything more risqué ) and I had spent the previous three years eating sausage rolls genuinely didn’t strike me as an issue.

One Friday evening after a long week at work I headed to a Fieldwork Centre in the heart of the Mourne Mountains. I was armed with everything on the kit list (and my knitting). On arrival we were herded into a classroom and required to perform an icebreaker (I should have left at that point) We filled in a slew of forms, most of which could be translated as ‘if you die, it wasn’t our fault’. There was also a medical disclosure form which I completed without much thought.

There were two leaders, one was a large avuncular chap, bordering on geggy – the other was a small, wiry angry little creature (actually quite sexy). |He gave off an ex-special forces vibe and as a result was an Angry Former Soldier (AFS)

The compass, still attached to my pocket as a reminder of my limitations

AFS was teaching navigation. I’ve been a Geography teacher for over twenty years, so do actually know about this stuff. But this guy was something else. He would leap on a bench (demonstrating his pleasing lower body strength [just saying]) point at you and yell, ‘ you are walking for 10k, climbing a total of 50m in windy conditions – how long will it take??????’ ‘I don’t bloody know!!!!!!! – you’re shouting’ He also had something of an obsession about pointing. For 44 years I believed that the index finger of either of my hands was sufficiently pointy – apparently not. He suggested that a ‘thick fingered point’ could lead to a navigation inaccuracy and certain death. I now point at maps, with almost evangelical enthusiasm using the corner or my compass, which is secured to the pocket of my coat (do you know how many people die because their compass falls out of their pocket? – me neither).

We eventually got to bed with a detailed list of instructions – reveille was to be very early. I arrived at the rendezvous point the next morning ready to head to the hills. AFS checked our rucksacks and scrutinised our packing. After this ritual humiliation was complete he did a quick ‘have all the asthmatics got their inhaler’ check, then in a confidential fashion summoned me from the room.

‘I need to talk to you about your medical form’ ‘Oh?’ ‘ There’s one of the drugs we need to explore (explore!!). At the time I was taking anti depressants (and still am). At that point, I was also taking a drug for extreme anxiety (it happened to be an anti-psychotic – but I don’t suffer from psychosis). Fair play AFS, its always better to check. However, even after I had calmly explained my illness and the need for each of the drugs he required more convincing, even questioning if it would be suitable for me to be undertaking this type of course. I was getting to the point of offering to ring my GP for a ‘sanity’ reference. As you can imagine this conversation and the subsequent ‘wary looks’ from the other participants did wonders for my self esteem and wellbeing.

Eventually I was permitted to board the mini bus and driven to a remote car park. It was grim – we walked for hours in the pissing rain. AFS clearly did not subscribe to the mantra that the group moves at the pace of the slowest member (me). Each time I reached a meeting point wheezing like a bulldog, he would immediately head off again at a brisk pace. Bastard! Allegedly we reached the top of Carn Mountain. I couldn’t tell you I was too busy crying with exhaustion and frustration and trying not to die.

Just at the point where I was considering using my credit card to order a helicopter AFS announced we were on our way back. He explained there were two options. A – was shorter but steeper (how could we be on the way back and still going up hill??) B – though slightly longer was flatter and took us through Happy Valley. There are some advantages in spending your days wrangling teenage boys – at the utterance of the word ‘flat’ I took charge of the map and headed purposefully towards Happy Valley – no one else got a say.

If your image of Happy Valley is like mine, sun baked Kenyan Plains, totally unacceptable racism and a young Charles Dance in an evening frock – this Happy Valley is not like that. It was wet, marshy, and long. The only mischief I was indulging in was enduring the chafing caused by my rain and sweat soaked pants – not fun!

After what felt like an interminable walk we reached a fence. In my mind it has been built up like the WALL in Game of Thrones (Charles Dance is rather yummy in that too – even though he must be about 105). In reality (because I have been back since) it is a rather small, innocent, really quite an inoffensive fence. The problem was I couldn’t organise my legs to climb over it. I simply stood bewildered trying to work out what configuration of limbs could get me over. When this became evident to the group – all of whom had simply hopped over – they took pity on me.

If you have ever seen the film ‘The Mission’, imagine that bit near the beginning where the indigenous tribe hoof the Jesuit over the waterfall tied to a cross – just before Jeremy Irons arrives. I simply lay back Christlike and they crowd surfed me over the fence. Scundering.

After a very disturbed night’s sleep we got back into the minibus. We were due to go to the Eastern Mournes this time – someone had observed the previous day that they were flatter. In my dark night of the soul I had translated this to flat (because obviously a mountain leader course would take place on the flat, duhhhhhh). We were divided into two group. I found myself, not unexpectedly, in the group that would be given the fatter pencils and ‘filling in the blanks’ books if we had been at school. We gathered round, led today by Geggy Uncle, and consulted our maps. Even a person with the most rudimentary understanding of cartography could see this route was not flat.

I was done. There was no way I could complete this walk, I had neither the physical nor mental capacity.

I approached Geggy Uncle and explained this. He laughed – he actually laughed. He may have also made some ‘take a chill pill’ type remark. I restated my point – while still laughing he said ‘ we can get you off the hill in 15 minutes’

Through clenched teeth and tears I suggested we save 15 minutes and get me off the mountain now. After a brief standoff I decided to play them at their own game. If they were so concerned about my mental health medication – lets lean into that. I adopted my best ‘Here’s Johnny’ pose and growled that I needed to leave – a minibus was hastily fetched. I am not at all proud of this action. I spend my life campaigning for better understanding of mental health issues and the right of depressed people to recover and not be judged. But on that particular day I really couldn’t see another way to get off that fecking hill. You will note from the photo above that the Field Centre is all boarded up – shortly after my ignominious departure, it closed. Probably better if I don’t comment on that.

Even after this horrible experience I still go walking, in fact I’m heading p the hill with JY as soon as I finish this blog. But I know where my skills lie, and spending time winding yarn for a shawl with a mesmerised dog is much more my cup of tea. I think I’ll focus on stuff like that.

Next week I’m trying something completely different……ohhhhhhh

She has a fine seat on a horse

Hello again, I hope you had a good week. All good here. I had a particularly great day yesterday, spending time with friends.


During the day I was in The Dock honesty box café with Belfast Stitch and Bitch ( and we did a lot of both). Later I headed out to dinner with my BE friends as one of our number is heading off to Australia for a month. BE is a church group supporting people who are divorced, separated or widowed. For many years Mother and I took the piss and referred to it as ‘divorced, beheaded, died’ but actually it is wonderful ( yep, i’m churchy – who would have thought !). We do not, as EC suggests, sit round crying and talk about our ex husbands. There were lots of tears last night, but they were tears of laughter and at 3am when I was delivering weary travellers home, our ex’s were the last things on our mind.

So, I am broadcasting today very tired but mercifully clear headed (I was driving). So, the horse…..

As part of my ‘trying not to die’ campaign last summer I did a lot of walking with the girls. On one trip MC and I went to some camping pods in the Glens of Antrim to hike and have a horse picnic (seated on, not made from). There was a slightly tricky moment when they led out a spritely Follyfoot style mount for me and then, having noted my girth, reconsidered and called for ‘Flo’ who had a generous hint of Clydesdale.

It’s a great idea, someone quad bikes your picnic to the top of the hill, you ride up, eat, chill and ride back down. So far so good. I am a reasonably competent horsewoman, although as I am abbreviated in stature I do resemble your wee dame Thelwell. MC can actually ride very well. Our picnic came to an end and as we still had some time left the ‘horse lady’ suggested we do some paddock work. This was the moment when I SHOULD have said, ‘i’m grand, you and MC work away.’

It all started out quite smoothly, we moved around the paddock at a sedate rising trot. Unfortunately, i’m not gifted at horse whispering and while I thought my knees were saying ‘fine girl you are Flo, keep trotting away’ my equine pal heard ‘let’s canter’. I promptly lost a stirrup and in my increasing agitation thought it would be an idea to take one hand off the reins to try to fix it, listing me dangerously to starboard.

Now what follows is my honest recollection, MC disputes the timeline (falsely alleging I pissed myself causing the fall). Picture the scene, it has been a lovely but long afternoon ‘in the saddle’, followed by a rising trot and then an out of control canter….. As I began my gentle descent from an upright position I lost my other stirrup and everything suddenly felt, slick. Yep, I was experiencing a moment of not even slight bladder weakness. It was the perfect storm, fast moving horse, no stirrups and lubrication. Apparently it was the most middle class fall in history. MC observing from the other end of the ring, heard my plaintive cries of ‘excuse me, excuse me’ and noted me moving towards the rails hanging upside down around Flo’s neck. Gravity eventually won and I hit the ground with a thud.

I was terrified, I had a worrying pain in my lower back and that awful cold feeling in my gusset. Horse lady ran to my side and did all sort of spinal checks, meanwhile MC had to ride across the paddock to corral a slightly disgruntled Flo who was ‘pure scundered’ and probably chafing.

When Horse Lady suggested that I get up, I was a touch reluctant, and I repeatedly growled, ‘just give me a minute.’ Eventually I managed to get to my feet and the relief of not being paralysed was obscured by the indignity of having furry trousers where the sawdust had stuck to my damp pants!

After completing the fastest accident report in history I drove gingerly back to the campsite and straight to the shower. Sometime in the middle of the night – I was not asleep, despite a generous dose of painkillers, I heard the dangerous word ‘Muuuuummmmmy’. Yes? ‘Just a thought, did it never occur to you to say “stop” or ” woah” to the horse – I don’t think Flo spoke Radio 4?’

The only residual damage was a very sore back which could only be soothed by a hot water bottle….……….