03 March 2022 by Anita Sethi
Interview by Kerry Harden - Published in Walk, Spring 2022 issue.
Anita walking at Malham Cove
On a train from Liverpool to Newcastle, I was thinking about the reading I was due to give later on at an anthology launch. Then my thoughts were suddenly interrupted by loud music coming from a fellow passenger’s phone.
‘Excuse me, please could you turn your music down?’ I asked him. He looked up at me and what followed can only be described as an explosion of racist abuse. ‘Get back to where you come from,’ he told me. ‘Do you even have a British passport?’ As other passengers stayed quiet, the man’s rant continued. Enough, I thought. I pressed record on my phone so that I had evidence of his vile words and made my way to the front of the train. I explained the situation to a member of staff, who followed me back to my seat and discreetly took statements from other passengers. At the next station, the British Transport Police boarded the train and the man was taken away in handcuffs.
In the weeks following this attack, I was haunted by those words: ‘Get back to where you come from.’ I was born and grew up in Old Trafford, near to Manchester’ United’s football ground. It was a multicultural place but I had experienced racism growing up. As an adult, I’d hoped those days were behind me but just a year earlier, in 2018, I’d met Prince Charles at the Commonwealth People’s Forum and, when I told him I was from Manchester, he remarked: ‘Well, you don’t look like it!’ And here I was again, with a stranger questioning my right to call this country my home. I’d suffered from anxiety and depression all my life and these encounters only served to exacerbate those feelings.
Then I found myself looking at a map of the Pennines. Taking in the hills and rivers, I realised that I longed to walk among them. I spotted a place called Hope at the start of the Pennine Way. That seemed like the perfect place to begin my journey. While I’d always loved nature, I’d never embarked on a long walk like this before. This journey would be my response to that man’s hateful words.
In July 2019, I set off from the Hope Valley and journeyed up along the Pennine Way, heading north through the Yorkshire Dales. Within the first mile, it became clear that I hadn’t properly prepared. I was shattered. Worse, I didn’t have proper walking shoes. But, as I continued, I found that my stamina gradually increased. I bought some walking shoes and learned to wear my rucksack in the correct position.
The most challenging part of Anita’s 270-mile walk was climbing up the 400 steps to Malham Cove, pictured, but it was so worth it, she says
The most gruelling part of the journey was climbing up the 400 slippery steps to Malham Cove in the pouring rain and fierce wind. It was worth it. Another memorable moment was reaching the summit of Pen-y-Ghent. At first, I was stuck in a cloud. Thankfully, I waited and the clouds began to clear, revealing the world in all its glory and colour. It felt symbolic: if you feel stuck in the clouds in your life and can’t see beyond a certain point, just wait and the clouds will clear.
As my physical wellbeing improved with every step, so did my mental wellbeing. Walking in nature is good for mental health because it engages all of our senses. It focuses the mind on the external world, the running water, the sound of the birds, the incredible scenery. It made me see that I was part of something bigger than my own worries. It showed me that there is a life beyond trauma.
As I explored the landscape, I felt more at home in myself but also in this country. I’ve always had a strong sense of ‘northernness’ but I found the walk cemented it. ‘How dare that man tell me I don’t belong in the north?’ I thought. I’d set off with the intention of walking alone, but my walk became quite peopled along the way. My companions ranged in ages from 12 to 90. It gave me the chance to see the world from other perspectives as we walked and talked. I completed my walk on 31 October 2019 having walked 435km/270 miles. Back home, I felt filled with confidence to tell my story. Ultimately, my message is that, whatever our differences, we are all human, we all need oxygen created by trees, we all belong here.
I Belong Here: A Journey along the Backbone of Britain (Bloomsbury Wildlife (£16.99).
Magazine of the Ramblers