When my daughter Laura had just turned two years old, we decided we’d walk the Offa’s Dyke Path – the national trail that runs along the ancient English-Welsh border.
From the start, on the banks of the River Severn near Chepstow, we agreed we’d be realistic about our ambition. Accordingly, each year, we’ve done just two or three short segments of the 177 mile long Path. At first she would tire easily and we’d have to carry her, but lately the problem has not been her energy – she literally skips up some steep slopes – but her willingness. With the squeamishness of most seven year olds, she has developed an aversion to cross country routes due to the presence of animal poo. So we’re developed some handy diversionary strategies to keep her marching on.
Our first tactic was to let her play with my mobile phone. As it was loaded with the Mamma Mia soundtrack, Laura positively danced past the sheep that day. On her sixth birthday, this was replaced with a pink iPod shuffle, featuring all her favourite songs and stories, and providing the important benefit of earphones. (The sheep had a whip-round.)
Second, we now always load our pockets with snacks, preferably the kind that can be made to last a long time. As Laura’s diabetic, I always have a packet of LoveHearts to hand in case of hypos. Not only are these handy for instant inflight refuelling, they also provide entertainment as we read and discuss the slogan printed on each one. These have moved with the times since I was a child, now saying things like “Text Me” and most recently (and bizarrely) “Me Julie”.
Thirdly, we allow a couple of lightweight toys to stow away in our rucksacks. These are useful for impromptu games along the way. This week, the sight of Ken helping Barbie courteously over stiles provided excellent entertainment for us all.
Community singing is a great standby, especially songs that can be adapted to suit our walks. “The Wheels on the Bus” easily accomodates “sheep on the bus”, “cows on the bus” and so on, though I wouldn’t like to be a passenger on that particular double-decker. “One Man Went to Mow” proved popular during our Easter walks, with the dog-mad Laura enthusiastically providing the “Woof-woofs” for up to 27 men going to mow before the game started to pall (and Mummy to run out of puff). I’m keeping “10 Green Bottles” up my sleeve.
But best of all is my latest ploy: to read books as we walk along. “Multi-tasking at its finest,” as a friend described it when I told her about our Easter trip.
For some reason, Roald Dahl has become a natural companion on Offa’s Dyke. Maybe it’s his Welsh upbringing coming into play. “The Fantastic Mr Fox” saw us out of Hay-on-Wye and will be forever associated in my mind with the sublime views from Hergest Ridge. (Though I did manage to finish it in time to catch Mike Oldfield’s glorious eponymous album on my own iPod before we descended.) “The Giraffe, The Pelly and Me” took us up the steep rise out of Kington, and “Danny the Champion of the World” saw us down the other side.
I think I may have discovered a whole new pastime here. I’m keen to find further books that will take us on appropriate walks. Some are blindingly obvious: “Three Men in a Boat” along the Thames towpath, “Cider with Rosie” for the Cotswold Way. But contrasts would be fun too: the alpine story of “Heidi” in Holland, “Born Free” on a city break. There’ll be a packet of LoveHearts for the sender of the best suggestion.