Blog from the Borders

Sometimes, The Old-Fashioned Ways Are Best

If you see a bloke standing on a hill somewhere in the Welsh Borders, scribbling away in a notebook, then it’s probably me! (Do say hello!)

A couple of days ago, I was out wandering the hills doing a route for Country Walking magazine. (It’s okay, as far as Lockdown regulations were concerned, not only was I working, but I was staying local too, for the route was one I could begin from my front door.)

The ridge path on Hope Bowdler Hill

And as I packed up my camera bag and added my water bottle and a couple of snack bars to keep me going, I also grabbed my trusty A6 Moleskine notebook. For it’s this I use to record my routes whenever I’m out walking. (Note, I have several of these – I’m currently on book five.)

My collection of walking route description notebooks

You see, when it comes to recording my routes, I’m a little old-fashioned. There are some outdoor writers who dictate their directions into their smartphones and then play back the audio when they get back to their desk.

And I tried this once. Once. It was on a route where I had to cross a stile, then a field, then cross another stile and another field, and another stile, and another field and … yet get the point. (When it comes to writing up these walks, it’s much easy to summarise them afterwards with follow the path as it crosses a further five stiles and fields.) 

But while I’m out walking, I always record directional points as I encounter them. Which was fine until I encountered a blockage. Someone had (illegally) placed some barbed wire across a footpath preventing any further access. This forced me to retrace my steps to the previous path junction and come up with an alternative direction. 

Which way now?

If you’re dictating the route description, it’s difficult to retrace your steps on a piece of audio. Especially when the last half an hour of walking has comprised little else other than cross stile and field, cross stile and field…

The other downside to using a smartphone, or a dictaphone, is that you’re reliant on some battery power. And while I always charge my phone before I go out in case of any emergency, you don’t want your device packing up half way round because you’ve inadvertently left an app running in the background, which has drained the battery. (There’s also the risk that when you get back to your desk and sit down to play your recording, you then discover that, for some reason, it has been scrambled and you can’t make out a word you’ve dictated.)

I know of some writers who dictate their directions into their smartphone using an app that transcribes their words into text. Again, I’ve tried this. Once. It’s okay if the transcription software understands what you’re saying. The last time I dictated, “Ignore the path forking right” the transcription software opted for “Ignore the path (word rhymes with truckingright.” Which is funny if you spot it when it happens, but can be confusing if you leave it until the following day to tidy up your route description!

And for these transcription services to work properly, you often need a 4G signal, which is often lacking in the Welsh Borders when the wind is blowing in the wrong direction.

Which leaves good, old-fashioned pen and paper. It works best for me. If ever I have to retrace my steps, I can see clearly on the paper the words detailing the section of route I’m abandoning and can cross them out. No rewinding, stopping and playing trying to find the right spot in the audio recording. And no worrying about the transcription software producing what it thought it heard, rather than what I actually said.

Of course, the downside to recording these routes with pen and paper is that your notepad can get a bit soggy in torrential rain, or if you accidentally drop it into a cowpat the size of Shrewsbury. But even then, paper has the ability to dry out, if you treat it carefully.

Good luck with deciphering my scrawl 🤣

The only real downside to this method is that I have terrible handwriting… frequently made worse when trying to write in gale force winds, or when my hands are so cold I have no control over their movement.

So, as I said, if you out on the hills and you pass someone writing in a notebook, it could be me recording the latest navigational milestone for a walking route. Do say hello. Just be prepared to wait for me to finish my sentence, though, because I wouldn’t want to forget anything!

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