Big Little Walks

Sometimes there are curves in the path that you can’t see round.

This past Friday I was in Ireland, in Donegal Town. I took the biggest little walk I’ve taken in a while, when as a pallbearer I helped to carry my wife’s dear Aunt Nora out of the house to the waiting hearse, then into the church for the service, and finally up the hill in the cemetery to the grave.

My plan had been that on Sunday June 30, I would start my Big Walk from Toronto to Niagara-on-the-Lake but that’s now been postponed. We won’t get home till mid-week and that doesn’t leave me enough time to do the walk I’d planned before I need to be back at work. I guess that will now wait till the autumn.

But more important than those plans was the walk I took on Friday. It was a lovely day, warm and sunny, and the town turned out as we passed walking slowly behind the hearse. I’m glad we came, and that I was able to help on that short little walk.

Over the years, and especially the past few visits, when we were leaving Donegal Nora would always part with the words “I’ll not say goodbye, only farewell”. There’s an Irish saying that’s apt – may the road rise up to meet you. Farewell Nora.

Little Walks – The Abbey, Donegal

My wife’s family are from the town of Donegal in the north-west of Ireland. Back in 1991 we took our first trip together to visit family there, and I was introduced to the town and what has become one of my favourite little walks – the Abbey.

Her aunt and uncle lived then, and still do, on Castle Street. It’s a lovely little street, with the River Eske running in front of the house with a low wall to sit on and watch the trout play in the current. On that first visit, the waft of peat smoke and coal fires on a misty evening formed a permanent memory that’s recalled each time I’m there.

The centre of the town is just behind Castle Street, and the heart of the town is The Diamond, a market space surrounded by shops.

It’s a bustling little town on a summer Saturday, with tour buses, farmers on tractors, and families out shopping. Leading out of The Diamond, there is a street running down towards the harbour, and past that on a little tip of land is the Abbey.

Today it’s a ruin, with tumbled stones and partial walls from the medieval Franciscan priory and church to explore, and mixed through the old church grounds are more recent graves because today it’s a cemetery that’s still in use. Many of the town’s old family names can be found here, with the history of lives long-lived along with the little tragedies of young lives lost. Even though it’s close to town, it’s usually quiet and if there’s a bit of sun or a bit of misty rain, it’s quite charming and deeply moving.

On our first visit, I was indulging an enthusiastic photography bug – I would leap from the car at every thatched cottage or picturesque sheep peering through a hedge. When we got to Donegal town and we’d wandered around a bit, I heard the stories about the Abbey and I knew that I had to visit to explore and photograph the ruins and headstones. I must have spent a couple of hours there on that first trip, self-absorbed and utterly content, shooting rolls and rolls of film.

Since that first visit, we’ve returned to Ireland many times and each time we go I try to carve out an hour or so for my favourite little walk – up Castle Street, past the restored Castle and through The Diamond to the harbour and on to the Abbey for a wander through the headstones to see who’s passed on since my last visit. It’s become a ritual for me, recalling the memories of that first trip when I fell in love with the country and the town.

Each time I take that that walk I end by returning to Castle Street and a cup of tea in the kitchen. The warmth of Aunt Nora and Uncle Liam, their charm and sly humour, the chat round the kitchen table with the cousins and neighbours, and the gossip and questions about what I’d seen this time – it’s a gentle domesticity and a throwback to quieter times that we don’t get here in the Big Smoke of Hogtown.

That little walk takes me back in time, and then returns me gently to the present. I can’t imagine visiting Donegal without repeating my stroll, and wouldn’t want to try. Familiar places renew memories and reward the soul, like well-loved friends. Each visit plants new memories, and recalls past charms too. Little walks do that – they reward the comfortable and the familiar, like holding hands with your partner when the fit of each finger is as practiced as breathing, and just like holding hands they bring a warm rush of blood when those fingers squeeze even after decades together.

Little Walks – Glendon Forest

In the early 1980’s, I attended York University’s Glendon College. It was then, and still is, a small arts college attached to the larger university, maintaining a physically separate and culturally distinct campus. It is set in the former grounds of the Wood estate on the edge of the West Don River valley at Bayview and Lawrence.

I took an Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature with a minor in Canadian History, so my courses brought a heavy load of essays to write. I’ve always been a night owl, and as I moved through my degree I gradually organized my course schedule to take mostly afternoon classes. That let me work on papers late into the night, in fact often through the night – I would often go to bed at 6 or 7 a.m.

Come April, I’d be working on papers till the wee hours and the sun would be up by the time I pushed away the typewriter (pre-PC days!). I would be keyed up and jumpy from drinking coffee all night, so I developed the habit of taking a walk to unwind and relax before grabbing some sleep. I’d step out into a quiet, peaceful campus as the sun was coming up. Because I didn’t want to run into anyone, I would walk down into the valley and along the Don.

There was a path behind my residence that led the way down and I’d follow it, taking care to make as little noise as possible so that I could hear the birds. At that time of the morning, traffic noises were a faint distraction and it was often still, so you could hear the chirps and calls as birds awoke, and when you got closer to the river you could hear the lap and splash of the water.

In the valley, the Proctor Field House and athletic fields are bounded on the north side by the river. At that time there were walking paths on both banks, and I’d pick one or the other and follow the river downstream. Often there would be ducks or geese, and once I saw a muskrat. Squirrels skittered and racoons made their way to their nests after a night of garbage gathering. There were a couple of bridges that crossed the river, one at the west end of the campus and one at the east, so I could wander along one bank and cross to come back along the other.

It wasn’t a long walk, perhaps a km or 2, and I could be back to my room in about a half hour, relaxed and able to sleep. I rarely met another soul. Today there is just one path along the south side of the river, and the area is known as Glendon Forest. The path links to Sunnybrook Park, so there are more walkers and joggers about, and everyone seems to be walking their dog these days. But back then it felt like my own private wood, a place to think and to unwind, to escape the city and mentally return to the woods and fields that had surrounded my home outside Leamington, in South-West Ontario.

After I graduated, I rarely went back to the College and even when I did it was just for a social event in the pub. And then in 2016, 30 years after leaving, I developed some health issues that forced me to deal with the fact that I was out of shape and in dire need of exercise. I resolved to start walking, and my first destination was the Glendon Forest to walk that path along the river.

On an autumn day, the river level was low but the sun was bright in a crisp early November way. There were golden leaves falling and spiralling into the water to surf and ride the waves, and again not a soul about. As I walked, I remembered those dawn rambles and wondered why I had ever stopped walking.

It was the boost I needed – I’ve been walking ever since. I get back to the Glendon Forest at least once a season, each with its own character to savour. The walk always refreshes, and always reminds me that little walks lead to life’s long journeys.