This is a long post about walking a long way. I hope to explain why I needed to walk, how I managed to walk, and, in the end, what I learned.
It is a long post not because I lacked the time to write a short one, but because walking is an endurance event. It is also a long post because the thing I learned from walking a long way on my own was very important to me.
Why I Needed To Walk
I left school and went to University in 1982. I spent 4 years there. Then I joined a large accountancy firm, and spent 3 years intensively studying, then 9 years watching the selection date for partnership move 2 years into the future every year I spent there. I spent months, and eventually years abroad – UAE, Madrid, Macedonia, Monaco and others.
I started a family, which was wonderful and terrifying at the same time.
Entrepreneurialism beckoned, not least because the highly paid psychoanalyst and career guidance expert was visibly shocked that my personality profiles did not match a “typical accountant” in the slightest. “You should be an entrepreneur”, she said. “Odd that”, I replied, “as I have formed 3 new business groups inside the company in the last three years.”
4 years making computer games, a year or two consulting, time in India, time in the movie businesses, 3 years at Moviestorm, and then 3 years helping people earn money in a turnaround at Unitum Group.
Is this a CV? No. It is a 23 year diary of why I lost track of myself, quite literally.
I needed to find myself again, and for that I ended up walking.
Then I went walking
Not small walks. We all do those. No, silly long walks. Really very silly.
It all started with the Southern 50. This is a challenge for Scouts and Scout Leaders, of which I am one. The leaders at the Anomalous Explorer Unit felt that walking 50 kilometres sounded like fun. No, really, we did think like that.
And it was fun. Lots of fun.
And I found myself doing it again and again. 3 Southern 50s. Each time reaching a little further. Some years it hurt, other years it was just very, very cold. 35 miles at -15C average temperatures is quite a challenge.
And we kept walking. We hiked 50 miles along the Greensand Ridge to raise money to send a young volunteer to Africa. At the end of that I was crying, staggering sideways and hallucinating a candy striped sky and floating cows.
And we kept on walking, and walking and walking.
I started dragging the family up mountains
And I started going overseas to drag them up mountains
Then, after a while, I started jogging along across hills and mountains, doing events like the RAB Mountain Marathon
This might sound a little like the diary of an addict. I’ve heard it described as “middle class self-harm” on more than one occasion.
When the walking was not enough, I tried my hand at the Three Peaks Challenge. Ben Nevis, Sca Fell, Snowdon in 24 hours. 26 miles, 20,000ft of elevation change. Wonderful.
And still I was missing the point. Each one of those was a team event, and everyone was precious and wonderful and a matter of great personal pride. True. Yet not once, in any of them was I really alone.
I had learned to walk long distances. Learned to keep going. To eat on the move. To fit boots so there were no blisters. To pack everything I need into a tiny little backpack. I had carbon fibre kit, ultralight clothes and was ready to step up to the challenge of walking alone.
There is a terror in setting out solo. You become, literally and absolutely alone. You are deliberately setting out to face the world, and the people in it, without a companion. Unsupported. No back up. No checkpoints, no score.
In June 2013, I finally braved it. A month of planning, some new kit, and a pile of maps. I sorted out a kit list of Inov8 Ultralight boots, Black Diamond carbon walking poles, Osprey backpack, RAB Aeon tops, trousers and Neutrino jackets, lovely socks, and all the snacks I might need for a week in about 18lbs of weight.
What I did not realise I was missing at first was a sense of self.
The Ridgeway, 101 miles
The Ridgeway is only 87 or so miles long. Sadly the pubs and restaurants are not on the path, so there are the inevitable diversions to walk to and from them. That takes it to around 100 miles.
And one day in July 2013, I set off to walk it, alone
I actually lacked the courage to do it all alone, and had my wife walk the first 10 miles, from Ivinghoe Beacon with me. Watching her run back towards the car was gut-wrenching.
20 miles or so a day.
I kept a diary, and a photo diary on Flickr.
Tuesday 2nd July 9am Ivinghoe Beacon
Injury – blister on toe of left foot, sore knee, slightly sore toenails
Tuesday 2nd July Chinnor,
Injury – blisters now huge, toenails falling off, blisters extending under ball of left foot, blisters on both heels, pain in left calf. Started to take paracetamol.
Pretty lonely and miserable
Wednesday 3rd July The Perch & Pike, The Street, South Stoke, R8 0JS www.perchandpike.co.uk 01491 872415
Injury – had to lance and dress blisters, remove most of a toenail, tape up heels, and taking regular doses of ibuprofen. Hip, buttock and leg pain almost all of the time.
Oddly cheerful. Not sure why.
Thursday 4th July Star Inn, Watery Lane, Sparsholt, http://www.thestarsparsholt.co.uk/ tel: 01235751873 ref 348 876
Injury – blisters now blood filled, and toenails bleeding. One toenail lost. Knee, ankle and hip pain meeting lower back pain. Regular large doses of ibuprofen. Walking with walking poles. Limping.
Practically happy – smiling all the time.
Friday 5th July Avebury Lodge, High St, Avebury, SN8 1RF www.aveburylodge.co.uk tel: 01672 539023
Beautiful room, delightful hosts, beautiful bed, but could only sleep by taking codeine as the pain in my legs and feet was so intense. Slept like the dead.
Damn near ecstatic. Filled with a deep sense of wonder, contentment and connectedness.
Saturday 6th July Return via cab to Swindon Railway station
Arrow Cabs 01672 515 567
Train via Paddington > Tube > Train from Kings X to Flitwick
Injury – all of them, mostly bleeding through my socks.
The injures came as a surprise. I’d trained over much longer distances. Why was I getting blisters and losing toe nails on 25 miles a day when I knew I could walk 35 miles non-stop without injury? I never really got to the bottom of that. It was probably a combination of my boots changing shape in the long damp days, a slowly developing limp (caused by a slipped disk that I would later have spinal surgery to correct), the slight additional weight I was carrying, and the rougher, rockier track surfaces.
Is what I did special? No, thousands upon thousands of people have done this for thousands of years. It was a normal, everyday, human experience.
It is just one that 99% of the Western World has forgotten.
Not all nice
There were issues with route finding, even though I pride myself as a map reader, I made some notes and passed them back to the organisers:
Golf Course at SU 801010 (Saunderton Tunnel to Lodge Hill) is unsigned walking East to West through the Golf Course, which has many possible routes, and the trail – if found – appears to go through private gardens until it is finally signed again on the next road junction
Goring SU 595 808 is unsigned walking East to West having crossed the river on the main bridge there are signs for a footpath that leads up through the church, but this is not the Ridgeway (which follows the road). There is no actual signage until you get to 588 815
Ogbourne St George SU 214 744 is marked as a byway down to the town (which is the only real source of supplies on that whole section, so an important place to get in and out of), but the trail there is just a tiny over grown rut that is almost impossible to walk on. Do you think it would help if there was a recommended route into and out of OStG from each direction?
In several places you might want to check the distances you put on signs. I think you will find that they show significantly different distances whether you are walking E->W or W->E, especially along the Swans Way
There were some really horrible bits, bits that I hope are changed in future so no one else has to endure them. I put them like this on the route feedback form:
- That last 6km – Hackpen Hill to Overton Hill – is F**KING HORRIBLE. I can’t put into words how awful it was, and how much it detracted from the previous sections. I don’t know how to put across how outraged I felt at having walking over 90 miles to come across a rock-hard First World War trench system that I had to stumble down for nearly 8 full klicks: falling, twisting ankles, aggravating blisters and growing crosser and crosser. Please ban all vehicles from the soft sections of trail. Yes – even farm traffic – they own 1000’s of acres and can just as easily drive on their own headlands as on a 7,000 year old National Trail. In the alternative, end the trail at Barbury Castle, and have optional walking routes to Avebury or West Overton.
- SOMEONE IS GOING TO BE KILLED along the road section between SU 232 814 (Carpark at King Edwards Place) and the trail at 218 804 (Liddington Hill). There is no verge to walk on (it is rutted and uncut, as well as overgrown) and the road has long blind bends where walkers come against traffic doing 80mph in both directions. I narrowly avoided two very serious accidents and was cast into nettles in an “emergency dive” to avoid a coach and lorry who – coming in opposite directions – left no room for me! Crossing the B4192 is also a lethal hazard. That whole section needs a major rethink, using alternative trails or buying rights of way from PGL or other land owners.
- Please reinstate the water tap that has been cut off at SU 505 823 (Compton Down) – it’s the only hope for water on that whole stretch, and there is so much money up there in horses that surely they can water a few walkers?
- Where possible, if sections that are currently surfaced in 1” to 2” grade limestone roadbed material could be covered in ½” or smaller gravel, that would make them far, far, more walk-able. The larger grade material is /just perfect/ to grinding ankles and feet into pulpy agony.
Moments of Wonder
There were moments of wonder, as I put on the completion form:
“Peace. Views. The rhythm of walking. The people I met. The Deli at Wallingford, the owner at the Pike & Perch, the chef at the Star, the people in the pub at Avebury (Red Lion). The flora. The deer that walked with me. The birdsong.”
“The accommodation, food, beer and wine were all superb. Really outright amazing quality pubs and restaurants. Every single one is totally recommended. Every inn keeper and shop owner was a blessing.”
And, finally, I summed it up to the official web site as follows:
“Before I started walking, I had no idea what I would experience, other than blisters. I got those. I also had the most wonderful four days. Life changing. I hope it remains available and accessible to others and they can experience this for another 7,000 years.”
And still all of that does not come near to explaining why I enjoyed this so much.
I was alone.
Without exception, farm vehicles (I saw only one), cyclists (many) and horse riders (many) were exceptionally polite and friendly. Yes, there were people in pubs, people on the path, and people at the shops.
What had changed was me. Not them, me. I was carrying myself along. Self-propelled. Alone and content inside myself. The rise in my sense of self, my sense of completeness, and sense of happiness ran in the opposite direction to the litany of injury, pain and route troubles.
How on earth was I becoming happier, when everything was becoming harder, more painful and just tougher?
It took a while to work out. Sometime around day three, when I was near crying in pain as I set out that morning and limped uphill from Sparsholt towards Uffington White Horse, something changed. It wasn’t the beauty of that morning (the mist hung in layers and I walked up through them, catching glimpses of island hill tops floating in a sea of mist), nor the exhaustion (as I had eaten and slept well). Yet something had changed in the way I viewed myself.
I was content because the only thing I needed to do was decide to walk.
No longer a passenger in an education system. No longer a stranger composing a CV by remote control. No longer a component in a family. All of those things were true, and important, yes, but something had changed.
I was alone. I alone decided that my left foot and right foot would move. I could pay attention to the jagged bleeding toe, or not. The decision to turn right or left was mine. I could phone for a taxi if I wished. I could walk, or stop.
And so I chose to walk. And walk. And walk.
This is the important lesson I learned from long distance walking: only I chose.
I commend that lesson to you, and urge you to walk, alone, a long – long- way. No matter where you end up, I’m pretty sure you are going to find yourself.
I did, and that feeling is still with me – 9 months later.