We are a society that thinks in polar opposites. Man or woman. Black or white. Good or bad. Maybe I am more this way than most. As the product of a fundamentalist upbringing, I was taught about good and evil, us and them, Heaven and Hell, God and the Devil, and everything seemed so simple. But now I’m officially grown up, at 50, I find it glaringly obvious that the world doesn’t consist of polar opposites. We aren’t either a man or a woman. We might be male or female, although that’s not the case for intersex folks, and many people with bits of chromosomes that muddle the issue, and as for gender – well that’s a whole confuddling mess of cultural norms which many just don’t get. Even happiness isn’t that clear cut. Why do we have to be either happy or unhappy. For me, I can be 80% happy most of the time but there’ll be a small element of irritation or worry about some aspect of my life and that doesn’t make me unhappy – just a bit of a mixture.
So why do people still insist on saying that they are ‘trying to be healthy’ or comment on others being ‘so unhealthy’? People aren’t either healthy or unhealthy. What is meant by the word ‘health’ anyway? It is NOT used by most people to signify an absence of sickness. We all get colds and coughs but can still be considered by those around us to be healthy. Some people have chronic illnesses like rheumatoid arthritis or even Stage 4 cancer but are deemed to be ‘healthy’ and people raise their eyebrows in confusion as to how they became so sick. ‘She/he was always so healthy’ and I find this quite pernicious as though the person somehow failed and nobody knows how. I was asked by a good friend if I would be really pissed off to get cancer. Well, the answer to that is definitely yes! But not for the reason that she asked. She was alluding to the fact that I’m a vegan runner and therefore shouldn’t expect to become seriously ill. But people do! I’d be pissed off because it’s a vile illness, not because I didn’t deserve it. Nobody deserves it.
So ‘healthy’ is not used in our society to signify an absence of illness. If this were the case, we would not discuss our plus-size friends and acquaintances in terms of them being so ‘unhealthy’. Are they sick? Probably not. So why are they ‘unhealthy’? Oh, the risk of heart disease? Well, in that case, we are using ‘unhealthy’ to allude to risk. But lots of risk is genetic. My Nan and my Dad had heart disease so therefore I am at risk. But nobody calls me unhealthy. A friend in Leicester had a double masectomy because women in her family were 90% likely to get a hereditary and aggressive form of the disease. Did this risk make us think of her as unhealthy? It did not. There is a massive risk of heart disease from being sedentary. But 39% of British adults are failing to meet the recommended quota of weekly exercise, but we don’t know who they all are and have no way of knowing who they are, and I’m pretty sure that if we see them eating a salad every day and they are thin, we’ll think of them as ‘healthy’.
If health isn’t used to signify the absence of illness, then, for the purpose of this blog post I will assume that it refers to a long, good quality of life. The chances of having such a blessing is determined by so many things that we couldn’t possibly know who was healthy or not without a PhD in long term health and its causes and many many case studies from different social groups and countries. For example, the biggest indicator of good quality of life in old age is socio-economic status. Yes, money. Why? I suppose having enough of it results in less stress and better quality fruit and vegetables, more information and opportunity regarding exercise and social opportunities as well as the gift of time – time that can be used in the pursuit of meaningful hobbies and interests. Another indicator of good quality of life in old age is social contact: laughter, friendship and the knowledge that there are people who have your back, always. People in happy loving marriages have better health outcomes. I can’t reference all this because it’s not an academic essay but it’s easy enough to fact check on google!
What are the indicators of poor health, early death etc? Being poor, being unloved, being part of a stigmatized group such as a gender minority. These are the things that make a difference and our focus should be on making a world of greater equality and acceptance. A world where a bearded person who wants to be called Annabelle is just fine. A world where a hairy person wearing a lace dress is just fine. Just another person in the street or, even better, the room. A world where people can be addressed using the pronouns that they choose, and where they can express their identity and be with the person they love, without fear of violence, ridicule or death. We are so far from this in the world as it is that it beggars belief. People are still being killed for being a minority and that’s not just in some far-flung, desert country that, deep down, we think of as barbaric and backwards. It’s here in the UK.
The real reason for this rant is the way that people seeing me lately, perhaps after a long time, comment on my appearance and, in particular, my weight loss. I started losing weight last year and put it down to marathon training although I had trained before without getting quite so thin. Comments have ranged from how much better I look, to whether I’ve forgotten to eat, to how ‘healthy’ I am. I’m not healthy. I’ve lost weight because my thyroid went berserk and my body is flooded with thyroid hormones which, untreated, are literally toxic. My skin has broken out in spots, I am exhausted from the carbimazole and I still need a betablocker at bedtime to stop my heart from attempting to escape my body. But I look healthy, apparently. Which leads me to the conclusion that ‘healthy’ means ‘thin’.
To be thin, in this culture, signifies obedience. We were trained up, us 50 year olds, to look after our figures, to battle the bulge, to not pinch an inch. We had Slimfast and the cornflake diet, now 80/20 and intermittent fasting. We still have Slimming World and Weightwatchers, and a hundred ways of losing weight that just stubbornly clings to our thighs, tummies and ‘problem areas’. Our bodies are a battleground of ‘good’ and ‘evil’ and in order to be ‘good’ we must appear to be ‘healthy’. This means either losing weight, being thin or talking about losing weight. We must denigrate ourselves in order to fit into the ‘well-behaved’ group or women who, heaven forbid, must never eat cake with unrestrained pleasure or let their tummies flop out with happy abandon.
I’m tired of it. Now I’m on the right dose of medicine I am gaining weight again and hallelujah for that because it means health! Real health! I am a naturally curvy woman with thighs that touch and a rounded tummy, sturdy arms and quite a big bum. I want to be healthy again and that includes eating cake with friends, spending time with family, laughing, loving, moving with freedom and joy and trying to make the world a genuinely healthier place for every body of all colours, genders, sexuality, size, shape and socio-economic status.
‘We’re gona have a little house and a couple of acres an’ a cow and some pigs and live off the fatta the land’, says George to Lennie in the classic American tragedy ‘Of Mice and Men’, a novel that I taught for fifteen years and know pretty much off my heart, along with all the themes, motifs, figures of speech and structural features. Now I also know the dream of land and why it’s so important as I walk the mile to my new allotment, with my spade at my side and a snack and drink in my rucksack.
This morning I could have written a journal for my counselling course, done some housework, gone to the gym or tidied up a bit before my daughter and her boyfriend arrive for a visit. But the lure of the allotment won out and once again I wondered up to the grassy, brambly, overgrown rectangular plot, 8 X 10.5 metres, that I can now call mine. It’s actually the council’s, but never mind that. My mum had an allotment for twenty odd years and I remember thinking it so tedious when I went to see it. She gave the kids little sections to cultivate in whichever way they chose. Abi had a flower garden, Kirstin had vegetables, Billy had a mix, and they all had sunflowers. They all enjoyed it but I used to drop them off and collect them with complete bewilderment at what the fuss was about.
I’m not sure what’s changed but gardening has grown on me over the years. I like to be physical and strong and enjoy working hard, and renovating the Victorian house that we bought has reinforced the sense of satisfaction when a tough job is completed. Hiring a concrete breaker and removing most of a kitchen floor (my stepson did some, too) was an absolute joy. Making concrete crumble into piles of rubble that could be removed to reveal the original brick floor which was then transformed again into modern polished concrete for a modern family kitchen made me feel productive in an act of creative transformation. I also liked the aching shoulders and the happy tiredness because I knew that part of me was going into the house in the form of my labour and my energy.
I think the allotment taps into this same energetic drive as I’ve spent three sessions now digging over grass and pulling out huge weeds and stinging nettles. I’ve piled up wood, netting and beer bottles left by the last allotmenter and sat in between efforts with my water bottle, admiring the evidence of my efforts. This morning, I munched on some chocolate covered almonds and realised that I’d got stronger as I managed to dig for an hour and fifty minutes instead of getting exhausted after an hour. There’s now a wholesome looking strip of soft, brown, crumbly soil with none of the irritating builders’ rubble found in gardens. It’s inviting, healthy and full of enormous, helpful worms, along with an extremely friendly robin who has visited on each occasion hoping to grab one.
The other allotmenters are friendly so far. My mum recalls when she started and all the others were sexist old men who told her that the last woman ‘didn’t last long’ and ‘didn’t do much’. She went on to win the ‘best kept allotment’ award for two years running so screw them! There are lots of women at the Barnby Road allotments and it’s good to see that times have changed. I do not have my mum’s green fingers but I do understand now what she loved about her plot. It’s peaceful, in the way that there is literally no sound except the fork crunching into the soil, the wind howling through the trees, a loose bit of somebody’s fence tapping away in the distance and your own hard breathing as you work up a sweat that’s more productive than any weight lifting in the gym.
I hope to get the plot cleared myself. Alan with the rotivator could do it for me for a charge of £30 but I’ve got stuck in now and I’d like to put myself into the work as I put myself into the wallpaper stripping, floor digging and wall-painting in the house. I want that allotment to have my energy in the soil and the produce that we grow. I’ve learned about green manure, plastic sheeting and where to get seeds at a discount and I’m good to go. Tim will be the shed man and the designer of an aesthetically pleasing outcome and Mum will be the consulting expert.
In order to raise sponsorship money for my sixteen year old son’s school trip to Peru with Camps International, we decided to attempt the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge. Our initial idea, to complete the National Three Peaks attempt, was a logistical headache for a full-time teacher and single mum with limited date options, no time to organise a group effort, and a summer house move. The Yorkshire option takes less time, is straightforward in terms of driving and accommodation and is allegedly manageable for anyone with a decent level of fitness. I duly looked up the official challenge website, ordered a pack of information and maps, booked a date, told Billy to keep it free and got round to thinking about planning the finer details a few days before going.
(First: don’t leave planning until the last minute)
Planning the trip so late in the day was risky but luckily I managed to find accommodation at The Station Inn for £12.50 per person per night. The Inn is only eight miles away from the start at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and is a friendly, traditional country pub with hearty food and a bunkhouse for walkers or bed and breakfast in the inn. We wanted to spend as little as possible as the trip was a fundraiser. It was a last minute panic, though, as several places were fully booked and I had underestimated the enormous popularity of the Yorkshire Dales as late as October. The day before leaving, we hurriedly checked the map, thinking it would be easy to map out the suggested route. The pack from the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge website includes three Ordnance Survey maps, one for each peak and surrounding areas, as well as a little plastic card per peak. The cards are helpful as little pocket-sized reminders but aren’t detailed enough for use as standalone directions. No doubt the maps are accurate and up to date but we have no experience of reading them and the symbols and lines left me befuddled. However, we weren’t too concerned as some friends had assured us that the paths are really easy to find and that the route is well signed.
(Second: Don’t believe people who say the route is obvious)
If you don’t know how to map read with a compass, learn. Or take somebody who knows how. Just don’t try starting in the half-darkness at 6.50am in October, armed with a map that you can’t read very well and no idea which direction to take. We arrived at Horton-in-Ribblesdale at 6am in the pitch black and waited in the car until it was light enough to start. The night before, in the pub, we’d chatted to the group at the next table, who had paid for a guide and were starting at 6.30am. With no idea how long we’d take to walk round, we got up at 5 next morning, grabbed a roll and a cereal bar each, glugged some water and left for the Horton car park, which took about 20 minutes. A guy who had arrived even earlier, and was parked near us, was walking about with his head torch on (oh yes, taking a head torch would have helped at this point) and, when we met at the ticket machine, I discovered that he was the other group’s paid guide, had driven up from his home in the Peak District, and was just waiting for his clients.
(Third: Research the hours of daylight in advance)
It would have made more sense for us to check the time of sunrise and sleep a bit longer at the inn, as we ended up dozing with our seats tipped back until we began to see the light seeping through the trees and decided to make a start. We knew, from various websites, that walkers can officially check in at the Pen-y-ghent café, which is next to the village car park, in order to receive an official time, but figured that the café would be closed at that time in the morning, so we made a note of the time and left. Later, we discovered from other walkers that we could have signed a slip of paper with our names and start times and put it through the door, doing the same on our return.
We left before the other group arrived, full of confidence that there would be a clear sign, hopefully with ‘Yorkshire Three Peaks’ written in large letters for all to see. Our little card told us to start at Horton train station and take the footpath to Brackenbottom and then on up to Pen-y-ghent. There was no sign for Brackenbottom anywhere and no sign of a footpath. It was so cold that thinking was difficult and so foggy that seeing further than a few metres was impossible. We felt ill-equipped and scared of going the wrong way and wasting time, so decided to wait for the group and see where they went. When they saw us loitering with our teeth chattering it was obvious that we had no idea what we were doing and we accompanied them over the railway crossing, onto a footpath, and into the surrounding fields in the swirling mist. I confessed to the oldest man in the party that we were struggling to make sense of our map and offered to pay something towards the cost of their guide if we continued to tag along with them. He was very gracious about it and said not to worry, the guide had already been paid, but agreed that I would buy them all a drink later in the pub and maybe give the guide a tip. All very good, but clearly we shouldn’t have been so blasé about finding the way.
Filled with determination and anticipation, we strode along for a few miles. After around an hour, we started to climb. Periodically, I was checking the OS map for Pen-y-ghent, trying to figure out where to go if we ended up going ahead or falling behind. It made absolutely no sense. We didn’t appear to be heading towards Pen-y-ghent, according to my reckoning, but I trusted their guide and we stayed with them until we reached the craggy ascent. The pleasant, wide field path became paved, narrow, slippy and steep, winding its way around the mountainside. Billy and I walked ahead and resolutely ploughed on until we reached a plateau near the top. As I headed around the last sharp bend, Billy was standing on the ridge with the sun almost breaking through the white, opaque mist and the ethereal light lent a mystical quality to the scene. We stopped and played around with our phones, taking pictures for a while, both entranced.
Approaching a looming, stone-built monument, we figured we must be at or near the summit, and managed, with freezing fingers, to hook out our first rolls and cereal bars from our rucksacks, painstakingly and clumsily unwrapping them and rewarding our efforts with some high-energy snacks. We did get the food right! We had made up five rolls and five bagels, filled with peanut butter, wrapped them in cling film and packed them into plastic bags the day before. We had also packed about ten cereal bars and ten bananas, as well as six or seven 330ml bottles of water each. Towards the end, a couple more water bottles would have been welcome, but what we took felt ok. Replenished, we looked at the direction card and the map again and found it of no help whatsoever. There didn’t appear to be any path apart from the one on which we had ascended, yet according to the OS map, there should be another that would begin our long haul to Whernside via the Ribblehead viaduct. We wandered the ridge for a while, found nothing, got a little concerned about falling over the edge, circled back to the monument, heard voices and reunited with the other group. When one of them asked if we had a compass, and we replied in the negative, he looked pityingly at us and I admitted that we evidently didn’t have a brain between us. This didn’t appear to impress him. We followed them back down the way we had come, which completely baffled me, forking off to the left and down a very steep, slippery and treacherous route all the way down to flatter ground, where we took a paved, well-maintained path through very boggy land for an hour or so, eventually reaching a road. Assuming that we’d want to go ahead again, the guide pointed towards a distant zigzagging trail up the side of a ridge and said that this was the way up to Whernside.
‘Whernside?’ I queried. According to my route, that should have been a ten mile hike, and we must have only done a couple. I was still utterly confused and asked the guide to show me our current location on the map. He looked at it and pointed out that it was the map of Pen-y-ghent.
‘Yes’, I replied.
‘We’ve just done Ingleborough. Your route is taking you anti-clockwise. I’m taking them clockwise’, he informed me.
It took a few seconds for this stunning piece of information to sink in. It was slightly weird to realise that we had climbed a different mountain to the one we thought we had climbed, but at least the map now made sense. Not wishing to go on about it, as our ineptitude was becoming a glaringly apparent embarrassment, Billy and I walked steadily ahead all the way to the top of Whernside, determined to manage independently now we knew which direction we were going in. The climb up this way was tough. Really steep and intense and near the top my asthma kicked in and I wheezed like a steam train for about three minutes, wishing I’d brought my inhaler.
(Fourth: don’t tell yourself you won’t need your meds)
After feeling faint and almost vomiting, I thankfully recovered my breathing and carried on. Following the ridge up to the peak was less challenging – a nice, steady climb – and the midday sun infused the shades of auburn, brown and green with a vibrant, iridescent quality. The undulating moors swept away epically towards the surrounding horizon where distant peaks formed a dramatic frame for this massive panorama. It was warm now and we walked comfortably, stopping briefly at the peak and chatting to a seventy year old lady who had been climbing these dales since she was a lass and looked as solid and indestructible as any of them.
Billy wasn’t keen on stopping for too long. He isn’t competitive, he reminded me, along with his opinion that I was the one who would be gutted to fail the twelve hour time limit. The path down to the Ribblehead Viaduct and beyond, to the foothills of Pen-y-ghent, was easy to follow, clearly signed and for me the most enjoyable section of our walk. The viaduct was impressive at 3pm, its geometric shapes in sharp relief against the pure, blue sky and its light grey stonework stark in the afternoon light. Billy was intrigued by caterpillars, stopping a couple of times to watch hairy specimens inching across the path, and later finding a newly emerged butterfly with dark, folded wings that opened into a burst of kaleidoscope patterns. Otherwise, he found this part tedious as it really was a trek and, at sixteen, he is built for short bursts of energy and challenge, not ten mile hikes on flat ground.
We were caught up just before the viaduct by a young walker, flying along at a speed just short of a run. We walked together for a while, which picked our pace up considerably. After telling us about his and his wife’s adoption plans and having a deep, philosophical discussion of the type that can only happen between strangers on trains, walks or holidays, he pointed us in the direction of the best route towards Pen-y-ghent (which wasn’t even on our OS map) and headed back to his car. He was training to run the entire three peaks route next summer and was just cooling down when we met him. Crazy but brilliant; I have to admire the fitness and training commitment of anyone who can do that.
(Fourth: don’t forget to chat to other walkers)
Our day was enriched by our brief encounters with others. We asked some for directions, with helpful outcomes, and were asked for tips by others, which was generally pretty pointless for them, but were consistently met with friendliness, humour and genuine kindness. There is something about the scenery and the exercise that brings out the best in people (or walkers are just great people). The path to Pen-y-ghent was a bit confusing. We evidently followed the Pennine Way for a bit too long, observing the many surprising similarities between the Yorkshire Dales and Tolkien’s middle earth, then sort of doubled back on ourselves in the end, only a couple of miles from Horton-in-Ribblesdale. It was mildly tempting to give up. By this time, our legs were leaden, our shoulders ached from our rucksacks and we had little left to give. But a fleeting glimpse of a little red squirrel daintily skimming a garden gate and streaking up into the trees made us smile again.
We braced ourselves for the final push, ate another roll, banana and cereal bar each and took a left turn that took us, flagging now, over two or three little hills and then steadily and relentlessly up and around the shoulder of the mountain, higher and higher along the ridge and finally straight up a shale path to the peak. That final two or three hundred metres was the killer for both of us. Billy found it demoralising to walk at my pace so ploughed straight up and waited for almost half an hour at the top. I had to stop a couple of times for extra layers. My hands had swollen to a ridiculous size and looked and felt weird. The sun was cooling, the wind chill was biting, I had a runny nose and chapped lips and an inner voice that persisted in querying my judgment in undertaking this enterprise.
(Fifth: don’t leave your gloves in the cupboard)
No need to dwell on that one. Just take some. As I grimly shuffled up this last steep climb, I experienced the kind of jelly legs and heavy exhaustion only previously felt during the last leg of the London Marathon. Granted, I’m not as fit as I was, but can still run ten miles with relative ease and this was crazy hard. At the top, I was emotional with relief and enormous pride. Billy was equally knackered but summoned up his last ounce of strength and managed to climb up onto the tor to pose for a photo. He took a picture of me in return that went straight into the recycle bin. I looked slumped and haggard and beyond the effort of expressing any emotion. Within minutes, the original group arrived. Clearly, we had taken a longer route than was necessary, given that we had been at least an hour ahead of them all the way from Whernside. Three of their seven had dropped out with injury or exhaustion and the remaining four looked exactly how we felt. Billy and I started our descent, waving goodbye, only to see the guide pointing in the opposite direction and shouting through the wind that his way was quicker.
(Ref the second point about route planning skills)
We descended to Horton-in-Ribbesdale with the sun treating us by anointing our surroundings and ourselves with a fantastical tangerine-tinted transcendence. Inspired by the imminent finish, we were renewed with a sense of wonder, so I took some photographs and sent them to my boyfriend, while Billy informed me that I’d done this too many times already and exhorted me to hurry up because the group were catching us up and that couldn’t happen because it would be stupid (along with a reminder of my competitive streak and his own disinterest in our time). So we shuffled faster with strange, distorted movements, comparing notes about sore toes, tight calves, dodgy kneecaps and shortened hip flexors, all the way back to the picturesque country lane that meandered back to the little car park where we started. We offered the guide a tip but he opted for a beer in the nearby pub instead. Once in there, warmed and refreshed, in a perfectly fitting finale to our epic day, he congratulated us both on our mother-son team effort and tactfully suggested that we meet up with him in the Peaks for a course that he teaches in navigation skills.