Sometimes, we all need a reminder of the beauty and indeed the importance of taking time when walking – me included! This story epitomises this without a doubt…
Last week, with a mission to find a new A3 sketchbook and a long list of errands, I wandered into Abergavenny. It’s a lovely walk of around a mile and a half from the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal, affectionately known locally as the Mon and Brec. The route includes some steep inclines. This gives a great cardio workout and is not short of stunning surroundings – hills, wide views, river bank, and architecture.
A change of direction
With all missions accomplished, looking positively Bohemian with a full rucksack and two new sketchbooks tucked under my arm, I made my way home. I chose to take a slightly longer path. Instead of cutting off a corner from town, by walking the footpath that diagonally intersects Castle Meadows, I headed straight ahead from the Linda Vista Gardens towards the River Usk. It was an impulsive decision that I hadn’t previously considered but the extra time it took me to walk down to the water’s edge cradled much value in every step.
The cows and a few young heifers were quietly going about their business of chewing and leaning heavily into one another. The trees glowed in the mid-afternoon sunshine. So close to town and yet only a small handful of people were making the most of this special space in nature. A dog walker, carrying a plastic ball-lobber, ready loaded with ball, dripping with slimy froth; a young couple with a tiny tot, tucked into a baby rucksack of epic proportions; a man with a collar-length, blonde wavy mop of hair that lightly bounced behind him as he shaped out his determined stride across the diagonal path.
Better than I could have imagined
Although now in the early days of September, it was closer to a summer’s day than most of our August summer’s days had been. I already felt privileged to share the beauty and almost-solitude, in this picturesque wildlife haven on the town periphery.
The day had turned out to be far more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. On leaving the boat, I had wrapped up with a super-duper waterproof smock due to the heavier downpours experienced earlier in the day. By now, with the sun in full radiance, I was quickly overheating. The smock then had been relegated to being tied around my waist, doing nothing more than keeping my bum warm.
The increasing sound of the water, rushing between the piers of Llanfoist Bridge made the perfect backing to the continual melodic chirrups of the robin, blackbird, and blue tits, along with the recognisable low, throaty call of the wood pigeon. With the River Usk to my left and the busy stream of traffic ahead, making its way over the old bridge, I made another impromptu detour. Dropping down a slope that slipped closer to the bank of the river I found myself tucked away – almost alone with the sounds that were now amplified and concentrated around me.
Observing and photographing
Above the water’s edge, the inn and the new homes on the opposite bank sat blankly out of character with the surroundings. Over the trees, rose the imposing bulk of Blorenge Mountain – or The Blorenge. Disputable, but at 559 metres above sea level, it’s not quite a mountain in official terms.
With my large sketchbooks secured precariously between my knees, I composed a few photos here and there, of blue-sky clouds, of bridge, of bank, of mountain-not-mountain. It was only a few minutes, but it was enough to give me the aesthetic fix my creative mind craved. It also afforded me a little longer in the outdoors, to soak up everything my senses could absorb. Simply put, it was delightful. How easily I could have slipped past this to the road and over the bridge. The beauty of taking time prevails.
Yet another change of plan
The main road, the bridge, and a well-worn footpath lay ahead through the long grass and back to the primary Castle Meadows pathway. Up the slope to my right, I spotted a lady sat on a bench, watching me. She was certainly in her seventies – perhaps older. She gave a little wave and her lips turned into a sweet, gappy smile, as I made the final impulsive decision of the day to take a different path. I found myself drawn towards this lady dressed in a chunky purple cardigan and coral-red trousers. I returned the smile and immediately felt the warmth of her personality and her love for social interaction.
“Are you an artist?” she enquired as I drew closer.
“Yes, I suppose I am”, I replied, returning the smile.
“Will you be painting what you just photographed?”
Momentarily, I considered this question. “Not just yet – but maybe one day.” What a good idea, I thought to myself. Just not enough time with all the other exciting plans I had tucked into my little book of ‘to-dos’. I’ll add it to the bank of creative resources. “I have a children’s storybook to illustrate first”. The lady exclaimed an elongated “oooooh” and looked impressed.
After a few of the usual pleasantries about the beautiful view, the glorious weather and the unimaginable cuteness of her little dog, we found ourselves in a deeper conversation. The lady gifted me with snapshots of her life, in particular as a farmer’s wife. Her husband passed away when she was just thirty-six years old, leaving her with a daughter and a farm to run. She could have sold the farm of course. But in her wisdom and care, she realised that if she sold now, as easy as this would make life, if her daughter ever wanted a farm when she was older, she would probably never afford it. So the farm was kept and the lady managed it herself.
“Are you still on the farm?” I asked.
“No dear, not anymore”, she said looking wistful. “My daughter has it now, though she doesn’t live there. I couldn’t cope as I grew older, so I moved into a bungalow next to the hospital”. There was a pause, “I cried every day”, she added. “Because all of a sudden, I had neighbours”. My eyebrows raised in concern and I waited for her to continue. “My daughter arrived one day and pointed out that I always grumpy. I knew then that I had to do something, so I contacted the hospital and asked if I could volunteer to give patients a wash, things like that”.
Everyone needs a ball of fluff
Our attention turned back to the little ball of fluff that sat timidly underneath the bench. A pair of deep brown eyes peered out at me between the curly locks of twitching fur and the straggles of grass, missed by the council strimmer. “She’s so good with people”. The lady looked out towards The Blorenge. “And children. I don’t know what I’d do without her. She even joins me when I go to the toilet… she’s my shadow”.
The little white bundle full of canine wavy perm was indeed a faithful companion, and hardly left the woman’s side. Only once did she venture into a patch of grass adjacent to the bench, to check the pee-mail and stretch her legs. The lady watched my gaze as I took pleasure in indulging her dog in some ear tickles and chin rubs. “My shadow” she repeated. I nodded. The connection was palpable.
Time to say farewell
After a good twenty minutes, our conversation came to a close and with an online meeting to return home for, I bade the lady farewell.
“My name is Zoe, by the way” I added just as I was leaving.
“I’m Elisabeth” she replied. “I hope I see you again”.
I walked towards the kissing gate, up the steps out of the meadows and onto the pavement that leads over Llanfoist Bridge. Crossing the river, seemed like crossing over into another world. In that moment, I stopped and looked back to the lady on the bench and her little shadow. Without a second thought, my hand raised and I waved energetically to her from the other side of the Usk.
Elisabeth’s hand raised in mutual appreciation. Even from the fair distance I now stood from her, I was certain I saw those lips upturn, into a sweet, gappy smile.
Had I not followed my instinct and allowed myself these moments, neither the lady nor myself would have experienced the uplift of our meeting and subsequent conversation. Therein lies the beauty of taking the time when walking.
*Please note – the name of the lady has been changed.