I'd structured in a day walking between J7 and J6 today; but that's hardly any distance at all. Perhaps when I was planning this walk I thought I'd need to be gentle on myself towards the end of the journey. Actually, it would have been gentler to get myself back to Liverpool one day sooner. I'm ready for that now, a place of my own to rest in, though the walking will go on till the end of the month.
But like virtually every other day on this long, enjoyable journey, today felt like a gift too. Because of the gorgeous unseasonal weather. Because of the chance to discover parts of the Mersey Forest I'd never seen before (including a bit of Widnes, a town I've often bypassed, never embraced), and in particular an opportunity to rediscover an old haunt from way back in my past: Pex Hill.
The walk from Rainhill to Pex Hill was perfect today. Dropping down across gently rolling farmland, around the motorway junction by a generous set of walkways and cycle routes, down past a long-abandoned sewage works which is beginning to look megalithic (a set of large wide sunken circles with single pillars in the centre, all deep with moss) and winding through rich old woodland to the base of Pex Hill.
This small hill is a remarkable place. On the one hand it is busy with all sorts of users: walkers around its reservoirs and picnicers enjoying viewpoints across the Mersey basin, kids on bikes, astronomers visiting the hilltop Leighton Observatory and rock climbers there to scale the variously challenging walls of the sandstone quarry which is dug deep into the heart of the hill. Alternatively, Pex Hill can feel deeply still, timeless even, particularly to those standing on the rugged ground of the quarry floor in a maze of pathways beneath its mature trees and imposing high red walls.
More often than not though, people up to various things share this complex and fascinating space. While I was there this morning a solo climber was scaling The Lady Jane Wall, two men wearing fluorescent jackets were talking and pointing at things by the footpath entrance, four dogwalkers clustered in conversation, three lads were enjoying jostling their mountain bikes over the rugged surfaces of the quarry floor and - this being half-term - a grandmother and grandfather were trying to distract their very lively grandson from doing what he had found amusing: shouting loudly and listening to his shrill voice echoing around the angry red walls.
I went climbing here a few times about 25 years ago. I was never a great climber and I recall being most comfortable on the sidewards routes, practicing fingerholds with only a four feet drop below me whilst other friends attempted routes like one called The Rack which according to one climbing website is 'HVS 5a: Reachy climbing between spaced holds. Harder for the short (but not that hard). Very soft touch for E1. Be careful not to fluff the top out (very sandy)!' It shows how long it is since I climbed as most of that description makes no sense to me at all today.
In other ways nothing has changed. We used to climb on summer evenings sharing the quarry with groups of youths who were rattling their two-stroke trial motorbikes up and down the lumpy floor. Today, I stopped to think that it's actually been like this all the way on this journey. My motorway-following route through public spaces has seldom offered silence and stillness to me, the natural retreatant. Every little quiet lane seems to have contained a lorry driver stopping for a sandwich; every canal bank a series of fishermen (who must equally be aware of the number of distracting walkers who pass them by). That's without mentioning the astonishing noise and provocation of the major roads which have always been a near presence. Or the fuss and bustle of many shopping centres.
I'm one for silence, when I can get it, but I've chosen to live my life mostly in public these past weeks. I've found that sharing your space with others - it's good, if you let it be. Pex Hill illustrates this well. Or when it's not good, then negotiating and reassessing shared space (like helping gran and granddad find that shrieky little boy something else to do): that can be enriching too.