I woke at 8:30am, sunlight streaming through the train window and my escaped sleeping mat rolling around on the floor of the empty compartment. Shropshire moved by in a blur through the train window, a vintage slide projection carouseling penchants of rural, chocolate box England in quick succession: an abundance of country pubs, new lambs teetering on inexperienced limbs under the watchful eyes of ewes.
I was on the 7:15am train from Manchester to Abergavenny, a small market town on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, where I would be met at the station by Will from Outdoors Magic. I’d spend the next couple of days camping and hiking in the Black Mountains, testing gear for the #Outdoor100 review and getting to know a small group of outdoor adventurers from around the UK.
Having never been invited to something like this before, I wasn’t too sure what to expect. Our itinerary detailed a hike and a night camping beneath the ruins of Llanthony Priory. To make the most of the weekend, I’d also allowed for a full day on the Sunday to explore the local area before returning home to Leeds.
I hadn’t met any of the group before, though I’d followed many of their adventures on social media. The familiar feelings of anxiety and apprehension sat heavy in my chest as I rattled towards the National Park. Searching for a resurgence of the same optimistic tenacity with which I’d accepted Will’s invitation, I soothed myself with half-felt assurances: ‘’you’ve got this’’, ‘’what’s the worst that could happen?’’, ‘’they might even like you…’’.
Managing social anxiety
It’s taken me a while to accept that I’m not just shy. What I’m dealing with is not introversion. I’m not just a little bit quiet or a little bit timid. I’ve had social anxiety for as long as I can remember. I didn’t always know it was anxiety, but the constant humming of fear and nervousness around others has wrestled me for control since childhood, lowering my self-esteem and darkening my perspective on myself and my opportunities.
It’s hard for me to imagine a time when I didn’t feel afraid in a social setting or the sharp shock of adrenaline when asked to a social event. My anxiety sits with me always, and I don’t doubt it will continue to sit with me for a while to come, but it’s a battle I’m determined to win. And sometimes winning looks a lot like stubbornly denying the instinct to flee, and forging ahead into the uncomfortable, or in this case, typing ‘’Yes, that sounds great!’’, pressing ‘send’ as though ‘send’ might bite and booking a train ticket south.
As the train creaked into Abergavenny station, I gathered my pack and my nerves, hoping that this self-styled immersion therapy would pay. Stepping off the train into the spring sunshine, I scanned the platform, quickly finding someone I recognised to be Alex as he wrestled with his hiking backpack by the ticket gates. I introduced myself, startling him with an overeager ‘Alex?’ and the launch of an outstretched hand. We negotiated the platform together and spilled out of the station into the carpark, where Will and his colleague Giles greeted us.
I stuffed my bags into the car between crates of beer and camping equipment and we set off for the priory, chatting about the weekend ahead and Alex’s latest book release. My nerves dulled as we settled into the journey. I relaxed into an uncharacteristically assured confidence, gazing out at the Welsh countryside as we drove into the national park and daring to hope that today would be a brave one.
Llanthony Priory sits in the deep ‘V’ of a steep glacial valley in the county of Monmounthshire. As we bumped along a one track road leading to the campsite, the great stone ruins came slowly into view, along with the small huddle of people I’d be spending the next 24 hours with. I pulled my gear from the car and introduced myself, immediately forgetting everybodies names as we assembled around Will and Giles and the pieces of kit we’d be testing over the weekend.
A couple of pieces of gear immediately took my eye. A pair of trail running shoes in my size seemed a serendipitous offer, having just started an 18 week ultra-marathon training plan. Perhaps better suited to steep alpine running than the rolling hills of the Brecon hills, the Dynafit Feline Up Pro are an ultra-lightweight shoe designed for technical trail running. A comfortable, light fit, sturdy sole and impressive Vibram grip make them ideal trail shoes for rough terrain, steep gradients, mud and rock – ideal for long runs in the Lakeland fells.
Keeping to the trail running theme, I reached for the North Face Chimera backpack. With a bitter taste still in my mouth from an unfortunate encounter with my previous trail running vest, (it fell apart mid race) I was interested to see if the studier Chimera would provide a comfortable replacement. Eyeing the brooding clouds gathering behind Will as he talked us through the plan for the day, I also grabbed the Columbia Ex Reign rain jacket and a classic Women’s Patagonia hoodie for an extra layer. Setting off towards the hills with a spring in my step – the kind only new shoes can occasion – I was excited to give my chosen items a spin in the Welsh hills.
The landscape stretched in front of us, a mass of forested peaks and glades, rising to vast open moorland with the odd stone farmhouse or bothy nestled in its creases. Traces of Welsh history are still very much present in the valley, with leaning stone cottages and churches dotting the landscape. An hour or so of steady hiking along hilly paths bought us to a plateau where we broke for lunch, each stealing mouthfuls of sandwiches between gaps in our conversations. I watched as people snapped photographs of the moody skies and the beautiful white wild horses grazing on the hillside, making a pact with myself to return to South Wales as soon as the opportunity came about and cursing myself for not having packed my camera.
As we continued through the undulating valleys and sprawling marshlands, the skies grew darker and the first drops of rain began to fall. The collective rustle of 12 waterproof jackets being wrestled from packs chorused and excited chatter as to the merits and fallbacks of each commenced. Snug (and smug) in my Ex Reign waterproof, I huddled with the group, my hood pulled up around my face, beaming through the downpour. In the grey haze, I took some pictures and marvelled at how truly good it felt to be outdoors, shivering at the waterside, the dam curving into the distance adorned with a colourful cast of waterproofs and hiking packs. Against the rolling landscape, any fears and trepidations I may have had just hours previously seemed the smallest of concerns. I felt humbled by the might of nature and my mind fell silent as the rain blew on a wild wind across the water. I saw in that moment the importance of letting myself feel painfully exposed, in choosing vulnerability and seeking discomfort. I, a soggy, waterproof clad figure on a dam in South Wales, was forging courageously into the unknown, drawn by an act of stubborn trust to boldly do the things I had thought impossible. I had my anxiety by the horns, and I was winning.
Almost as quickly as it had arrived, the rain stopped and we covered the final stretch of our hike in brilliant sunshine, meandering through moorland gorse and along scree paths until we reached the road. The sun was low in the sky as we strode along the lane, firing the valley with a deep umber as it made its final descent below the mountain ridge. Buoyed by an act of goodwill (see Gareth’s vlog for a dramatic lamb rescue!), we chatted excitedly as we rounded the bend and into camp, where we were greeted by the familiar clink of beer bottles and the hiss of camp stoves being lit for dinner. The light was fading now, the air shifting to lower pressure and growing colder by the minute. Gazing up at the moon, a perfect ‘child’s drawing’ crescent, stark white against the fading red of the sky, I took pause to reflect on the days adventures, happy, as I always feel at the promise of food and a long sleep. I hugged my arms to my chest to warm myself and, listening to the Alyn explain the wonders of the milky way in impressive detail, joined the group of strangers I had come to call friends.
A huge thank you to Outdoors Magic for inviting me on such a brilliant trip. I feel very lucky to have explored the beautiful Brecon Beacons with a great bunch of inspiring people. Please do check everybody out using the links below and keep your eyes peeled for the #Outdoor100.
Outdoors Magic: https://outdoorsmagic.com/
All photos courtesy of @cj_photo