I can't remember how long it took before the first message came, I'd have to go back and look again and I'm not ready to delve into those memories yet. I'm keeping this trip rolled up like a tangled ball of wool in my mind and only when I come to write it all down will I separate out these glowing strands into a distinct string of story. No, the first message was soon but I don't remember how soon but it was a surprise - someone, a complete stranger, more than a friend of a friend but someone who my journey had reached over the myraid connections and sharings of the internet had reached out in return and invited me into their home. "Hi, when you get to _______, you can come and stay with me". The list grew and grew, I started to make a map, a star for each person, for each place I could stay. It meant more than just a bed, it meant a shower, the washing of my clothes, a safe place to close my eyes. I wouldn't say I was an untrusting person but it just never occurred to me that so many people would open their homes to me.
I've done plenty of camping on this journey, showering in leisure centres, washing my socks in bathroom sinks, but it's never been more than a week without a bed, mostly about three nights.
Pembrokeshire in particular was brilliant; a combination of three people who hosted me for more than one night, plus another five who had me for one night meant that I didn't camp for the entire county. Just strangers, with a variety of ways of finding me, who'd decided to help me out.
The last four days -
I left Lorna and Gez in Laugharne, saying goodbye to their cute children, all eager eyes and playthings and headed out towards Carmarthen, all my contacts had finished and I was going to wild camp that night, first time in ages. Lorna offered to take my bag ahead to a pub in Llangain and I eagerly agreed, welcoming any chance to walk without the usual 14 kilos on my back. Steady trudge all day in the hot sunshine, up and over Lord's Park, with a view across the tidal estuary back to Laugharne and Pendine and ahead to Cefn Sidan and Gower. Eventually I reached the pub at 5pm, not too tired after fifteen miles but ready to search for a place to sleep. The barman hauled my bag out from behind the bar and said "There was a man in at lunchtime, said you could stay at his campsite?" I looked and there was a piece of paper sticking out of my donation tin with a letter, inviting me to stay and a map. "You gonna go there or what." said the barman "I don't know where you were thinking of camping up otherwise" "Yeah, I'll go there" I said, "that'll do", not thinking how strange it might seem for me to be so relaxed about potential sleeping places. I followed the map through the back village roads and found Ian and Angela at the end of it, running a campsite and offering free nights to anyone walking for charity. Ian talked a lot, I'll be honest, but they showed me where to pitch up on the lovely flat, short grass, invited me in for dinner and even opened a couple of bottles of Prosecco in my honour. A lovely, lovely couple, just doing their thing very well in a quiet village of Carmarthenshire. I drank the Prosecco, felt tipsy and headed off to bed as the sun was setting. Next morning, up to say goodbye, left them a card and off. I was definitely going to wild camp that night, somewhere near Ferryside. First, up to Carmarthen where I sat mindlessly in a cafe for a couple of hours (a neccessary part of my journey) and received a message. It was from Helen, the person who'd offered me a place to stay in Llanelli - "I've got friends in Kidwelly who can have you to stay, they'll come and pick you up from Ferryside. Peter and Frances, here's their phone numbers" Peter was very efficient, texting me the car details and an identifying photograph. I just had to get to Ferryside by 6; it was a bit of a struggle and I made it by 7 instead - getting lost in a derelict farm, no sign posts to show me the way out. Eventually Ferryside came into view, just a mile across the water from Llansteffan but a two day walk for me, up to Carmarthen and back again. There she was, as described, Frances, come to pick me up. "So how do you know Helen?" Frances asked. I had to admit that I didn't, not at all. She was just a name on a Facebook message and an offer of help. I was a stranger to her and therefore to Frances, just putting my trust in what was coming forward. Frances and Peter were very nice, sharing stories of their Christian faith but I was tired, so tired. I'd been walking for two weeks straight and I needed a day off. I planned to have one on the Gower, just find a place to put my tent and lie quietly for a day, letting my feet rest. They were starting to throb painfully again, as they did for most of last year, the tendons strained beyond stretching and starting to pull at their connection to my heel bone. I needed to stop, rest, give them a chance to heal. I went to bed early after doing some stretching.
The next day I had to walk to Llanelli - 19 miles. It was more than I can usually manage with a rucksack but I plugged away, through fields and hillsides at first, over to Kidwelly but then came a tough stretch. The path took me for three miles alongside Pembrey airfield, heading towards a section of forestry and then a two mile beach walk before I could turn inland and find a cycle path. The gritty road seemed to last for hours, every time I came to a corner I'd think, this is it, now I'll see the beach ahead, but no, there would always be another section of road, stretching away into the distance. Finally I came to the beach but that was even worse, a long straight piece of sand, kite buggies rattling along it but not another person to be seen. I was looking for a cafe which would mark the place to turn inland. Far away in the distance were some dark posts sticking out of the sand. I walked, finding a place on the sand where my feet didn't sink into it and sap valuable energy. The dark objects came closer, it was the skeleton of a huge fishing boat, left there to rot. Far far away in the distance there was a line of rocks, built to break the force of the waves. I trudged towards it. When I reached the rocks, far far away in the distance there was a van parked on the sands, people were milling around it, small sticks flying kites. I trudged towards it. When I reached the van, far far away in the distance there were some flags, the RNLI stand. That was where the cafe was. I trudged towards it, raising a grudging hand when the kite buggies waved at me. I reached the cafe and collapsed on a bench. Today was not pleasant. Boots off, lie back, cup of tea, check the internet. Oh damm, rain on Sunday, the day I was hoping to camp on Gower. Oh that would mean a truly unpleasant day off, trying to relax in a wet tent. Perhaps I could ask Helen if I could have a day off in her house; it's not something I like to do though, what if she's not comfortable with it, I don't like to ask for more than people are willing to give and would hate to make her feel embarrassed. She's going away for the night though, it would be really nice. Argh, I'll have to at least ask.
But first, more walking. I found the beginning of the cycle path and trudged on, resorting to music to help me move my feet. Getting lost in the rhythym of my friends mixes helped me with the final five miles. I wasn't going to make it to Llanelli, my feet were too painful for that but I could at least get to Pwll - a respectable 17 miles.
Helen and her friend Penny came out to pick me up; I was tired, as usual, not able to do much in the way of conversation but just about able to hold my end up. I went to Penny's house for a shower (Helen's out of order) and Helen's for tea. She regaled me with travelling tales and I felt a funny, relaxed spirit within her. "Could I stay here tomorrow night, while you go off to St David's?" "Of course! Make the house your own! Here's a key, I'll be back on Sunday afternoon". I cannot describe the bliss of a space of ones own when those spaces are in short supply. What's even better, Helen's house comes with a hammock, in which I have spent most of the day. I've stretched, I've washed my clothes, I've had a good session with the tennis ball (my favourite bit of kit, you roll around on it to give something like deep tissue massage) and most of all I have slept.
I am restored - not fully, for that will come at the end - but enough to keep injury at bay and allow me to walk a little further. The more relaxed my muscles the better they can do their work and keep the strain of my movements away from my tendons. It's been a lovely, unexpected, unplanned day off - all thanks to help from strangers.