Never mind what else has ever been going on around me, Dad has always encouraged me to do my own thing. ‘Just plough your own furrow’, he tells me still. I think about these words whenever I’m embarking on something new, battling to make progress against the chokehold of worldly expectations, or even trying to find my way home after whichever wrong turn has got me lost this time.
Knowing how difficult I find it to navigate the building, when I expressed my intention to pop to the visitors’ loo during a recent visit to a relative in residential care Jim warned me:
‘Take your breadcrumbs with you.’
I laughed. It’s not just outside that I get lost: I find buildings very confusing. If I’m lucky enough to find where I’m going, I’m often stymied when I turn around to get back to where I’ve started. I don’t recognise layouts or landmarks. Taking the care home as an example, I’m unlikely to register whether the door I’ve passed in that first long corridor is open or closed, despite this being something that I know might help me recognise my way back.
Wherever I’m going, I try to remember to look behind me at intervals to clock a picture of what the route back will look like, but the pixels of that image in my brain inevitably scramble and mix themselves up with the ones that represent the route I’m taking there. So, rather than helping me along, my clever technique to view my return journey in advance usually serves only to scupper my outbound one.
The breadcrumbs are a nice analogy, although I’m not sure that leaving an edible trail behind me is entirely practical, and certainly not in a care home, where cleanliness and hygiene are prioritised. And remember: the crumbs didn’t help Hansel and Gretel.
Yet retracing your steps by following a trail that you’ve left isn’t always a bad idea. Hansel and Gretel had managed to find their way home from a previous outing to the forest by a trail of pebbles; it’s just a shame that the birds had polished off the crumbs the time that it really mattered.
Footprints, of course, leave a literal trail of steps behind us to retrace. We might leave our marks in mud or snow, in wet sand or dry. But there’s no longevity there. If the terrain is soft enough for my boots to leave marks, then other boots – or animal hooves – will do so just as easily right on top of them. Rain can soften a sharp edge to a smudge in a moment. Snow can melt, or be covered in more of the same. Impressions in dry desert sand will blow away in just a single breath of the scirocco, and my own footprints on Brighstone beach on the gorgeous but grey Isle of Wight last weekend lasted for only as long as it took for the next wave to come in and out.
(Side note: yes, even I can find my way along a beach and back. Outbound: sea on one side. Return journey: sea on the other. But I know you know what I mean.)
So, what about leaving a physical trail behind? A trail of paper, perhaps? With its alternative name of ‘hare and hounds’ the paperchase was all the rage in post-Victorian Britain.
But like that fairytale breadcrumb trail, the paperchase in E Nesbit’s ‘The Railway Children’ has its own fair share of peril to captivate young readers.
Bobbie, Peter and Phyllis had been looking forward to watching a paperchase due to take place along the railway line.
They jumped when a voice just behind them panted, “Let me pass, please.” It was the hare—a big-boned, loose-limbed boy, with dark hair lying flat on a very damp forehead. The bag of torn paper under his arm was fastened across one shoulder by a strap. The children stood back. The hare ran along the line, and the workmen leaned on their picks to watch him. He ran on steadily and disappeared into the mouth of the tunnel.
And now, following the track of the hare by the little white blots of scattered paper, came the hounds. There were thirty of them, and they all came down the steep, ladder-like steps by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens. Bobbie and Phyllis and Peter counted them as they passed. The foremost ones hesitated a moment at the foot of the ladder, then their eyes caught the gleam of scattered whiteness along the line and they turned towards the tunnel, and, by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens, disappeared in the dark mouth of it. The last one, in a red jersey, seemed to be extinguished by the darkness like a candle that is blown out.
A little later:
“Look out. Here he comes!”
They all leaned over the sun-warmed brick wall in time to see the hare, going very slowly, come out from the shadow of the tunnel.
“There, now,” said Peter, “what did I tell you? Now for the hounds!”
Very soon came the hounds—by ones and twos and threes and sixes and sevens—and they also were going slowly and seemed very tired. Two or three who lagged far behind came out long after the others……
“That's not the last,” said Peter, “there's the one in the red jersey to come yet. Let's see the last of them come out.”
But though they waited and waited and waited, the boy in the red jersey did not appear.
Taken from ‘The Railway Children’ by E Nesbit.
Plot spoiler: all was well, and the strewn paper was not the reason for the boy’s belated emergence from the tunnel.
Can hare and hounds be a one-player game? As a solo walker could I be the hare on the way out and the hounds on the way back? And if I leave a trail of paper behind me on an out-and-back walk, would it even stick around for long enough for me to follow it home and collect the pieces as I go? The wind might blow it away, or what if a gang of community-minded litter pickers were to happen to be following me? I’d be lost in a flash!
And most of all, deliberately dropping pieces of paper into the landscape just wouldn’t feel right.
Reader, I’ll just remind you what I’m up against with my attempts to find my way. When I’m out in the wilds I get into all sorts of tangles. Often lulled into a false sense of security by following a straight path for long enough to render me geographically fearless, moments of gung-ho I-can-do-this confidence can easily lead me astray.
Take this GPS evidence of one of my navigation disasters last year. I hesitate to even use the ‘Record Activity’ function on the OS Maps app any more:
You can read my sorry tale of creating this navigation spaghetti here:
My routes are clearly scrambled: my brain is a tangled ball of thread. But as I wrote to my friend Terry last week, ancient mythology’s idea of a navigation tool, Ariadne’s thread, is no help. I mean, giving your Greek hero a ball of string to unravel on his way in to the labyrinth might be a fine approach towards ensuring that he later makes it out again and into your Hellenic arms, but the thread itself is problematic.
Right now I can’t put my hands on a ball of string to keep in my rucksack, although I guess I have got some yarn to take with me if I want to. Yet as an accident-prone navigational knitter I would surely tie myself in knots hopping over stiles, and what would happen when an out-and-back route becomes a circular one thanks to my profound inability to stick to the plan I’d set out with?
Well, the landscape would pretty soon be wrapped in a choking necktie of yarn.
There are so many ways – many more than just the four I’ve explored in this post – that I could use to help me retrace my steps on an out-and-back walk, even if that walk is just a trip down the corridor to the visitors’ loo in my relative’s care home.
But there are certainly pitfalls to the four I’ve explored here:
As Hansel and Gretel would testify, breadcrumbs are simply too good a lunch for the birds.
Footprints in mud, snow and sand don’t last long.
Scraps of paper are at risk of being blown away or cleared up by members of the community more responsible for the environment than the litterbug in size-nine boots sprinkling confetti behind her.
I can’t think of many tools more impractical than a ball of thread to take on a walk, unless I encounter the kind of emergency that would require me to darn one of my hiking socks while I’m still out on the trail.
And wouldn’t it be so much nicer if I could just steer myself? Reader, I need to learn to find my own way. Plough my own furrow, just as Dad has always told me to do.
There’s clearly just one thing for it. If one day you come across a six-foot solo walker striding out along the South Downs Way towing a tiny plough behind her, do give her a wave.
I promise to wave back before I turn to follow my furrow home. Thanks, Dad.
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The Railway Children is a children's book by Edith Nesbit, originally serialised in The London Magazine during 1905 and published in book form in the same year.
(Taken from Wikipedia.)
You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve just added the words ‘darning needle’ to my rucksack kit list. #beprepared
I did laugh!
(PS: I've been known to take pics on my phone to navigate the way back...)
Loved this Rebecca! And a wonderful image of you and a furrow for our imagination at the end to surprise and delight! The sound of the sea in your clip is mesmerising; that is a perfect addition to the essay. I had an inadvertent sound clip of the sea in one of my Instagram posts a couple of weeks ago, when I was capturing some sea birds racing up and down the waterline. But it was the sound of the sea that captured everyone’s delight. Looking forward to seeing if we can walk successfully to a destination and back together soon!