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The woman who walked Wales

LYNNE WALSH introduces us to Ursula Martin, who, on being diagnosed with ovarian cancer at 32, decided to set off on a 3,700-mile trek, around her beloved Wales

THE list of things that conspire to make me an incipient Grumpy Old Woman grows longer, especially around March 8.

The insistence on “celebrating,” for one. We don’t have equal pay! Cause for complaint, rather than celebration, I think.

And another thing, people who “battle” illness, especially cancer. They’re always brave, they’re always fighters, they “overcome” or they “lose the fight.” 

In my limited experience, anticipating a cancer diagnosis can render us fearful, self-pitying and cowardly. 

As a journalist, I blame the media, mainly, for shoe-horning real people’s experiences into formulaic little packages. 

Boots off for breakfast by the Usk reservoir
Boots off for breakfast by the Usk reservoir

Oh, and here’s another thing I can’t bear — people who go off on fundraising crusades. They’re swimming the Channel, they’re up Kilimanjaro every five minutes, they’re in flipflops up Snowdon, elbowing walkers aside. They want a lovely adventure and they crave our praise and admiration. It’s all for charity, so we must kow-tow to this, even if we believe that governments should fund health services and that charity is not the way to end injustice.

And then I encountered Ursula Martin. Here is a self-confessed “ordinary woman.” I’ve come to doubt that.

At 32, she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Part of her response was to curl up at home, crying. Part was to set off on a trek around her beloved Wales of 3,700 miles.

She says of that start in March 2014: “I was a plump, unpractised woman in a raincoat and woollen hat.”

Martin planned to do the trip in seven months. It took 18. She slept wild a lot of the time — in a ruined cottage, a club doorway, a pub garden, fields of wheat, a golf course, a slate tower, a polytunnel, black plastic pipes, a barn. 

She was sometimes in danger, often in pain. She walked on through appalling winter weather with a tarpaulin and a bivvy bag. Her feet blistered and bled. At one stage, she said: “I’m more worried about my feet than my ovary.” She was still recovering from surgery on an ovarian tumour and had hospital appointments to keep.

Martin spent 538 days on her trek. That included 197 days of rain (yes, yes — it’s Wales). She fell over 10 times and was followed by cows 37 times.

I know this because she kept journals and blogged between the gruelling walking, trying to find places to spend the night and relying on the kindness of strangers who took her in, fed her, gave her donations and let her take soul-soothing hot baths in their homes.

From her diligent writing, often done while dog-tired and in pain, there is a book. One Woman Walks Wales — an understated title if ever there were one — is an odyssey. It’s full of charm and wit, honesty and even mood swings. 

It describes the natural world, with its glorious sunrises and its cowpats. It’s a love story too between the writer and the countryside of Wales. 

It is not prosaic — see her description of her foot pain. “As [it] returned, I wanted to weep in anticipation of the future. This is how torture works, I realised. People don’t break under the duress of the suffering but in fear of the many more painful days to come.”

The starting point of this incredible challenge was not her diagnosis, though that was the catalyst. Martin was born in Swansea and the family moved to England when she was a baby. 

She returned as a 19-year-old, having given up on A-levels to do a voluntary job for charity. 

Since then, she’s done many jobs — baker, farm worker, TEFL teacher, festival crew, care worker. Each of these, along with her love of travel and sheer stamina, has built up the skills she needed, as a woman alone on her journey.

I asked how she coped, meeting strangers every day, often taking up their offers of a spare bed or simply getting along with those who approached her, drawn by the flags on her walking poles and by the very fact of her solitude in the cities and landscapes of wild Wales.

Ursula constructed a tarp shelter on Sarn Helen
Ursula constructed a tarp shelter on Sarn Helen

“Meeting strangers — well, you have to be responsive to whatever is thrown at you. I’ve worked in social care. I’ve opened the doors at a homeless hostel, having to decide, faced by half a dozen people standing there, if they can come in. You have to deal with whatever they present.”

The great trek saw many moments that were beyond discomfort. Martin’s descriptions of being cold and wet, tired and hungry, juxtaposed with the luxury of hot tea and biscuits, with a cosy bed and the use of a stranger’s washing machine. These are easily digested anecdotes in her light and lively style. They are also allusions to the age in which we live, hardship versus comfort.

Reading the book, I was reminded of Bill Bryson’s work. He’d seemed to drift into a small town, sit in the corner of a pub and scribble notes. These later became hilarious tales, often with a sweet but moral undertow.

Martin encountered an elderly woman. “We chatted a bit and she offered to buy me lunch in memory of her son who had died from cancer long before but hadn’t been forgotten.”  

There has been fundraising along the odyssey, nearly £12,000 so far for Target Ovarian Cancer and Penny Brohn Cancer Care. That continues with £1 from every copy of her printed book going to the former. 

Now “cancer-free,” that tiny phrase to encapsulate huge emotion, she says of the other, psychological journey: “When I had my diagnosis, and then the surgery, I spent a period of months, crying, nourishing myself, before I started the journey. In responses to extreme illness, we can’t pretend it’s not difficult — that’s false. You have to allow yourself to break before you can start to heal.”

Now, with a book-signing schedule under way and ahead, this ordinary woman, who has accomplished the extraordinary, is off again, starting a trek in Ukraine this summer.

“I love the newness of travelling. I find it very stimulating. It’s like when you see a painting for the first time — it’s so fresh. I love the intensity of the new.”

Why Ukraine?

“I like the look of the Crimea and the Carpathian Mountains and the rawness of eastern Europe. There’s a hard edge to life there.”
For now, Martin is busy baking bread in Llanidloes, a town which has taken her to its heart. She has just been asked to be a godmother to a friend’s baby.

“I love this town; I feel a part of it. Wales is a special place. I know there are idealised versions of it, but I live here and it is special to me.”

One Woman Walks Wales is published by Honno, whose name translates from the Welsh as “that one [feminine] who is elsewhere.” It is an independent co-operative press run by women. 

Publisher Caroline Oakley says: “Ursula is an inspiration to women everywhere. You can do it, as she says. ‘Just keep taking small steps and don’t stop whatever your aim’.”

This Grumpy Old Woman is convinced. I’ll be joining Martin on one leg of that trip across Europe. Join her, support her. She’s not ordinary. She is phenomenal. 

March 2018 is Ovarian Cancer Month. For more information visit www.targetovarian.cancer.org.uk

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