Midlife mappers

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Three school friends rekindle their sense of adventure, seeking freedom beyond work, family and menopause, on foot through the West Midlands

This story is the next in our Trails series. We invited people to apply to assemble a group of friends and walk a multi-day trail of Slow Ways. They could submit the story of their adventure in whatever form they liked.

As we walked out one wet spring morning…

A few months ago, three dear friends applied to take part in an eco-adventure reviewing Slow Ways routes from Birmingham to Aberystwyth in a grand city-to-sea modern-day pilgrimage from England to the edge of Wales. As three bold women, navigating the throes of menopause, we sought freedom beyond work, child-rearing, and family commitments.

It’s not the first time we have embarked on an eco-adventure. As seventeen-year-old sixth-form friends, our group peddled around Greece on our first parent-free holiday abroad; we were powered by a contradictory thirst for independence and connection. This Slow Ways challenge felt like a fitting opportunity to rekindle our sense of adventure sparked so many years ago.

Stourbridge to Church Stretton, the first five Slow Ways on the way to Aberystwyth

An immersive long trip had huge appeal, but as middle women with responsibility for family, parents and work, the walk was feasible over a series of weekends. Our first trek was from Stourbridge to Church Stretton, with train stations at each end.

Meet me at the station, don’t be late

Stourbridge to Kinver

We’d arranged to meet at Stourbridge Junction, skipping the verified route from Birmingham. The plan was clear – meet at the station, don’t be late! One of our team took the 5am train from London, another travelled from Bristol. The nearest, scheduled for a Telford train, skipped the rail replacement delay and drove. Despite unexpected challenges we met on time – the weekend had finally come.

A daybreak start and end-of-term pressures took their toll. For some of the team it felt rough, trekking out of Stourbridge in the rain. Somehow we remained unscathed – we had missed the ‘Bull in Field’ warning signs and soaked up a deluge of rain as we tramped through woods, beside roads, brimming rivers, and canals towards Kinver.

Despite the weather this was one of the easiest routes, made up of five miles of accessible parks, roads, paths, and some field footpaths. Equipped with the route meticulously highlighted on a full set of OS maps, and blessed with exemplary planning, cooperation and direction, it seemed there was no stopping us.

Soaked to the bone, at Kinver we bundled into a quaint tearoom, bedecked with yellow Easter garlands for tea and cake, welcomed by friendly locals who marvelled at our wet-weather wear and resolve.

Our heritage-loving hearts skipped a beat when we realised our route virtually passed the Rock Houses at Kinver Edge. Carved into a cliff of rich red sandstone, with tin and brick roof and chimney trims, these historic dwellings managed by the National Trust were residential homes until the 1950s. We skimmed our way through the lower rock houses and skipped the hillfort and the café, anxious not to lose precious daylight.

Into the flooded realm

Kinver to Highley

The afternoon route was a liquid blur of red and green. Rusty rivulets of water bled through bright grass sward, all a glitter, in a rush of choral cascade. Paths were streams. Our leather boots, like pilgrim’s coracles, bore bone-dry feet through red rivers of flood.

We met obstacles both metaphorical and physical: developers’ fences, broken bridges, and bounds of weariness. But we found new ways, unexpectedly passing a familiar visitor centre at Severn Valley Country Park to cross the Miners’ Bridge close to dusk. The river-edge path was subsumed by eddies from the swollen river. As we carefully picked a route to lodgings at the Ship Inn, all we could think of was a hearty supper and rest.

After flood, mud

Highley to Cleobury North

We rose early, crossing Severn Valley Railway for a steep climb to the local shop at Highley. Brekkie was on the hoof, through a street of miners’ brick-red cottages, joining a footpath framed by a corridor of trees.

If yesterday was flood, then today was mud, slippery enough to glide and thick enough to tug boots. Our planned morning nine-mile stretch took the best part of the day.

We met protective ewes with tiny lambs, galloping horses, collies and terriers jumping, suckling calves, warm-hearted farmers, and a pair of tweed-clad gunmen shooting crows. They informed us that legally they must make themselves known and escort us through the field’s public footpath.

We skated and plunged our way into an acre of ankle-deep mud and vaulted barbed wire to tear prized waterproofs, to finally arrive at the post office in the hamlet of Cleobury North. It was already 2pm. We’d walked for over six hours.

Get in, ladies, quick!

Cleobury North to Munslow

We were too far into the afternoon to make it on foot to digs in Munslow before dark. Ahead was an eight-mile walk up over the National Landscapes of Clee Hill. In the walled garden of the post office we regrouped, drank hot chocolate, used the washroom facilities, and reached out to local taxi firms.

We weighed up hitchhiking versus trekking two miles to the pub. It was Good Friday – taxis were either booked or on leave – but one offered to collect us in two hours from the pub. We set off on the verge-free A-road, ducking into a field for safety to pop out through a hedge further along and cross the busy road.

Within a minute a car drew up, fast. The driver leaned out; “Get in, ladies, quick!” It was our taxi guy. We’d been spotted punching through the undergrowth. We sped to Ludlow for collection later. What relief, as we tumbled into the busy market town, wet, sweaty, and with a suspicion of Eau d’Farmyard fragrance.

“Get in, ladies, quick!” It was our taxi guy. We’d been spotted punching through the undergrowth

Within the hour our cab returned, whisking us to deluxe static caravan accommodation in Munslow. We were carefully met by an adorable, but intact, Doberman and our lovely hosts.

We settled on the sofa, supping hot tea and biscuits, mournfully looking back towards the missed segment of our walk. Suddenly Clee Hill was framed by a huge double rainbow bowed towards the equestrian paddock of our lodgings. It felt like a moment of magical confirmation for the timely redirection, despite missing a favoured section of the weekend walk. Lament subsided with more great pub grub, this time at the Swan Inn.

Sunny-side-up

Munslow to Church Stretton

Early to bed, early to rise – soon we were tramping through milky-hued, dew-laden grass. Fuelled by sunny-side-up eggs in baps and hot cross buns, we trekked into our first clear day; through the old village, behind the main road, past the church, and across an earthen over-trodden path that stretched into the distance. Up and up we clambered, climbing a long steep slippery rock stream, into a woodland where we finally met some other walkers.

Our final day brought crisp clear views; panoramic soft blue hills set behind a wooded decline at Wenlock Edge. A startled young deer cracked its way through the undergrowth. Somewhere along the route, the path dropped into an old farm with a basin of cropped pasture flanked by mountains. Beyond it a pond, fringed by stems of flag iris and trunks of mature willow, and then on into more woodlands.

We tore at the road, anxious not to miss our pre-booked afternoon trains. The spectacular scenery was a delight. As we bore down towards Church Stretton, even roadside dogs wore lovely smiles. At each turn, the landscape seemed to grow prettier. Attractive hillside dwellings clad the varying descent, growing brighter and denser towards the heart of town.

By 12.30pm we were ensconced amongst a throng of tourism in the courtyard of a walled cafe, for local oatcakes (also known as pancakes), toasties, and tea. We reflected on our chance encounters; we’d been bestowed such warmth by the people of the West Midlands, Staffordshire, and Shropshire. Following lunch, we were homeward-bound, in time for Easter Sunday celebrations. During the return ride, via WhatsApp chat, we shared anticipation for family time and Easter chocolate – surely we’d earned it.

The next segment of our adventure lies between railway connections at Church Stretton and Newtown. Look out for our Mid Wales story.

Story: Beth Môrafon, multidisciplinary artist and visitor experience consultant at VisitMôr

Navigation: Corinna Faith, film director

Team overview: Hannah, SEN primary school assistant head

Photographs: All