Following a heart stent insertion and a chance meeting with an old friend I hadn’t seen for years – we were each at our GP surgery picking up heart medicines – we decided “walking for old men” would be our thing for 2017. The medical evidence is clear; exercise is better medicine than our prescribed pills; we just needed the commitment. Sufficient exercise is more effective in reducing the risk of heart disease than taking blood pressure and cholesterol medicines; it reduces the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes by up to 60% and there are major benefits in improved mental health. Fitness is key and Muir Grey, a medic who knows a lot about the ageing process, identifies a need to get fitter as we get older allowing us to keep do the things that are important to us; like visiting the toilet by ourselves. Sadly 25% of the population of Belfast fail to walk more than 500 meters a day.
Following a few breathless climbs of Cavehill where we met the wonderful “over the hill girls” a group equally keen on the health benefits of exercise, we tackled a 19 mile walk from home at the base of Cavehill across Divis and Black mountains via Springfield and home via Cavehill top where the United Irishmen swore their oaths a long time ago. It was the coldest, wettest, darkest February day for years but we battled on through the flooded streams of the sinister and one-time murder-land around Ligoniel. Off road, still no bridges. There was an air of black despair around the many road-side memorials to viscous, brutal killings. The terrain was as hard as it was depressing but it brought recognition that we could walk distance and we felt the benefits so we kept momentum and planned to expand our boundaries.
In June, the Ulster Way from Ballynure over Shaneshill and across the east Antrim escarpment to Glenarm required a different level of endurance. We ventured accidentally off path early on and got lost in a Middle-Earth World that is Ballyboley Forest only to return one hour later to the road a mere hundred yards from where we entered that thick, murky and mucky darkness. Yet it was a warm clear day and we were soon rewarded with spectacular views of Ailsa Craig and the Scottish coastline and, eventually, the east coast of Rathlin Island. Solitary white marker-posts were our only guides across this boggy lonely and beautiful landscape. We saw few humans but plenty of sheep. At a junction, our way was blocked by a hundred sheep penned into a crush and being marked by a farmer and his son in bright “Day-glo” orange. He took exception to our dog; dogs are prohibited on the Ulster Way. We feigned ignorance in spite of myriad signs and tried a charm offensive. It worked, he mellowed and we fell into comfortable conversation committing to hold our dog on a tight leash. We complimented the dry-stone granite-block walls perfectly maintained and he proudly told us they were here for generations, he and his son would maintain them and so would his future generations. He told us the Way was walked mostly by Germans and Chinese but few locals.
When, in the course of our chat, the farmer asked where we came from – and meaning our starting point that morning – my friend, perhaps seduced by the developing warmth of our encounter and the ecstasy of not having to retrace our footsteps for breaking the no-dog rule, broke the most cardinal of rules, a rule Germans or Chinese walkers would never need to worry about. He forgot where he was. He had spent over 35 years living in Belfast and it was from there we had started today’s walk, so why he said it I don’t really know but he said it. He told the farmer and his son he “came from Derry”. We were immediately and harshly rebuked telling us “there’ll be none of that kind of language up here!” Suitably admonished and with little else to say we gingerly moved on. The Troubles, our troubles, are difficult to walk away from. The memorials, even in the remotest of places, are our constant reminders and I guess we have peace of a kind because we all know our place; mostly. You can take the boy out of the bog but it’s more difficult to take the Bogside out of the boy.