On my 13th birthday, my sister gave me a pale pink card with a cat playing a harp. There was a halo above its head and the words “My sister, the angel.” I smiled and opened the card to read the message inside: “Always harping on about something”.
I laughed because it was true: I was a talkative child. In fact, later that day, a different sister gave me the very same card. Two decades on, I’m still a talker. I thrive on sparring, debating, gossiping and teasing. I solve problems by talking them through, be it the convoluted plot of a movie or a thorny personal issue. This works perfectly well when I have people to talk to. Under lockdown, however, I’ve only had my partner, Peter.
In 2018, we moved from London to Yorkshire for better access to nature and lost our social circles. As a result, we not only lived, worked and travelled together, we mostly socialised together, too. Under the first UK lockdown, our already close proximity began to feel stifling. While talking to Peter, I could see his attention drift, sometimes to his phone, sometimes merely to the window, drawn by the flash of a coat or the distant bleed of music. I was, it seemed, the least interesting thing in the room.
For the first time in our 10 years together, we needed to be alone. I tried to manufacture this by going on walks on my own, but a short stroll in the local park wasn’t doing the job. I was keen to venture into the Dales but reluctant to go solo. I’ve hiked all over the world (Patagonia in Argentina, the Dolomites in Italy, the Semien mountains in Ethiopia), but always in a pair or group. The spectre of “stranger danger” means I’m not entirely comfortable alone in remote spaces. I considered my options and hit upon an idea: the semi-solo hike.
Could Peter and I do a circular hike but walk in different directions? I could walk clockwise and he anti-clockwise before reuniting at the starting spot. This would give us the space and peace of a solo hike while minimising risk. I would never be far from Peter, I would always have phone reception and, if necessary, he could track me through GPS. It felt like a promising compromise, so I pitched the idea to him. He thought it was thoroughly silly, but agreed to give it a try.
We started with a four-mile loop from Reeth, a village in a natural amphitheatre of classic Dales views: patchworks of green valleys with seams of dry-stone walls, fellside fields pocked with barns, and meadows of grazing sheep. At the trailhead, Peter and I parted ways, laughing at the absurdity. At first, I was keenly aware of our proximity, which somewhat dampened the appeal. Walking alone is meant to offer freedom, seclusion and anonymity, but here I was with my boyfriend near me. As I gained ground, however, I found myself very much alone.
The first thing that struck me was that I could set my own pace. Peter is a keen outdoorsman (he’s climbed four of the seven summits) and I often struggle to keep up with him, catching my breath only when he stops to take a photo. On the flanks of Harkerside Moor, I decided to take my time.
I sat on a moss-capped rock and let myself exhale. That moment, with its dozen subtleties – the weak sun through cloud, the breeze gusting across makeshift pools, pleating the water’s surface – felt extraordinary to me. I was born and raised in London and had never imagined leaving until I met an outdoorsman. Now, my former life as a city girl felt unduly frenzied. In remembering what I had gained, I felt the tension leave me. There, in the chilly air, I no longer needed to talk.
Under the threat of rain, I stood and continued the loop. I didn’t see Peter en route but reunited back where we started, both of us sheepish but pleased. The semi-solo hike gave us a shared experience with added room to breathe.
Soon after the lockdown, we tried a more ambitious hike: Ingleborough, which, at 723 metres, is the second-highest mountain in the Dales and one of the Yorkshire Three Peaks. I had hiked to the top with Peter before and knew I could do it alone. Meanwhile, he would take a more challenging route and we’d descend together.
I set off up the steep slope, negotiating swathes of limestone paving and several cavernous potholes. Unlike the Reeth loop, this time I encountered several other hikers. I attracted curious looks – a woman of colour hiking alone in the English countryside is sadly still a novelty – but I never felt unwelcome. Invariably, we exchanged a friendly hello or customary grumble about the weather.
At the peak of Ingleborough, I found miles of dramatic views stretching as far as the Lakeland Fells and Morecambe Bay on the coast. I walked to the northern edge of the plateau for a view of the Ribblehead viaduct on the Settle-Carlisle railway line. There, I found Peter waiting. He smiled in a lopsided, half-embarrassed way, clearly won over by the semi-solo hike.
In the months since, we have hiked to Malham Cove and Buckden Pike and plan to try Whernside next. The semi-solo hike is admittedly silly in theory, but for me it has been a lifeline. It has given me the gift of time alone and, in a year of constant proximity, the joy of reuniting.