In the late summertime of 2017 I ended up being mesmerized by the sculpture A Line Made By Strolling. It was developed in 1967 by Bristol artist Richard Long, who strolled thoroughly backwards and forwards through a grassy field, drawing a footpath with his feet. This short lived track of trampled turf was the reverse of a path. It led no place and was produced by one guy.
Yet, it was a record of a journey, with unlimited possibilities of discovery within an ephemeral line. Pinning this photo to the wall, I started to plan a journey of my own that would route a path through Britain’s landscapes. Many long-distance routes traverse the land, ranging from coast to coast and ending at the sea. Digging an old map of Britain out of the attic, I drew a different line, one without a destination, linking various paths until they formed a loop of practically 5,000 miles around the edges of the island.
6 weeks later on I rounded a corner and collapsed on to a muddy brink. It was a wintry October afternoon: day one. Months lay ahead of me.
I take pleasure in casual jogs and had a number of marathons under my belt, but with legs tired and feet aching, I wondered if my body would ever stop aching. Absolutely nothing had prepared me for the weight of my tent and knapsack. Had I taken on too much?
In Aesop’s Myth, I am the tortoise. I run slowly, with my home on my back, giving me time to value the landscape
4 years and 2,800 miles later on, I’m still running. My job as a tour leader for Active England has actually enabled me time off out of season, though running over winter season brings its own difficulties. There have been many moments of panic and pain, tiredness and aggravation. There were days when I couldn’t see my hands through the fog. Days of rain and stomping through snow.
There were days when I ranged from cows, climbed hills and moved down the opposite. I stopped briefly for a year and after that, out of lockdown, resumed my wanderings. In Aesop’s myth, I am the tortoise. I run gradually, with my house on my back, which offers me time to take in the landscapes I move through, listen to the birdsong, appreciate the freedom of being outdoors– and stop at every castle, coffee shop and pub.
Stage 1: 2017-18, 1,300 miles along the south coast– 3 months
In October 2017 I ventured out from Bristol harbour along the River Avon and hugged the shore until I satisfied the South West Coast Path at Minehead. This 630-mile trail loops around Devon and Cornwall’s headlands and crags, previous Land’s End and Lizard Point and finishes on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.
With no official course to follow from there, I pushed on, running through the New Forest and hopping on to the South Downs, which rolled back to the coast at Brighton. Riding the milky cliffs of Kent, I traced the edges of this county, along the Thames, past suburbs and sewage plants, dipping a toe into London’s eastern commuter belt at Gravesend, before retreating to Suffolk’s swollen riverbanks and shingle beaches. My final couple of weeks took me through the twisting salt marshes and mudflats of the Norfolk Broads up until I reached King’s Lynn in early February 2018.
Every day was peppered with small and unexpected encounters … that leave me smiling even now
Averaging about 18 miles a day, I took a day of rest weekly, remaining in a hostel or Airbnb to clean, stretch, write and check out. After 2 months of running and camping I reserved a train ticket to delight in a Christmas of home conveniences, friends and family. It was a shock to find that my journey home would take less than 2 hours.
In 2017 Covid was not a word in typical usage by non-scientists. I could shake hands with strangers, and wander towards remote hills, through counties and nations. One particularly cold and breezy night in early December I jogged along the Jurassic coast simply as the sun was setting, heading towards a sheltered outdoor camping spot I had actually picked out on my map.
Exhausted and stopping to catch my breath as the sun was setting, I began chatting to a lady strolling her pets. Maybe seeing my exhaustion and failure to beat the approaching dark, she welcomed me to stay and within the hour I was showered, sitting next to a roaring fire, cuddling two canines, drinking a gin and tonic and talking as if we were old buddies. Every day was peppered with small and unanticipated encounters like this that leave me smiling even now.
By late February I had actually reached Norfolk and the “beast from the east” was sweeping an icy windstorm across England. I was forced to pause. Welcomed inside by a couple of walking lovers, I sat tight for two days before triggering on a 30-mile day, my head torch shining a cone of yellow through the snow. The sun slowly increased to light up snow on sand, with tufts of icy dune grass sticking up. Simply after dawn a silent figure curved towards me, folding white wings against the cream sky. The barn owl that flew together with me became my peaceful buddy prior to pulling back into the range minutes later. I have still not experienced a more magnificent moment.
Stage 2: 2018, 900 miles along Welsh Coast– 2 1/2 months
The following November, I went back to Bristol, crossed the River Severn and ran north along the Wales Coast Path– all the way to Liverpool. I had entered a various land, wilder and more remote than the south, with a background of snow-capped mountains. The built-up industrial coast that surrounds Cardiff, Swansea, and the steel mills of Port Talbot stuck with me for a couple of days until I left the towers of smoke and stepped on to the Gower peninsula, with Rhossili Bay at its head. Reaching the top of a hill that neglects its sweeping golden sands, and damaged by the wind, I might see dark clouds gathering inland and charging towards me. Wild ponies walked along narrow paths, and I followed their stable ploddingup high twisting courses.
Days passed with me seeing just dog walkers in the distance and I could camp with ease, tucked into the corner of a field. Wild camping is a controversial problem and I always make certain I pitch far from popular paths, showing up close to dark, departing early in the morning, and leaving no trace. Periodically I evaluated it wrong.
Your world resets and the days zip so rapidly you can barely believe you have actually been moving for months at a time
One late-December afternoon I completed earlier than normal and pitched my tent in the corner of a grassy field slightly inland from the Pembrokeshire coast. As the sun started to set, I was snug inside my sleeping bag when I heard thunder approaching. Glancing out from my tent I looked first to the sky prior to a movement captured my eye and I saw a herd of cows charge into the same field, my field, hooves thumping as they made headway. Panic-struck, I rushed out of my camping tent, zipping it shut and ripping out its pegs. With everything still inside I threw the camping tent over a nearby gate and tossed myself headfirst after it. After a number of minutes of staring at the contented cows through the metal gate, I retreated to a far corner of my new field, to start my evening again– muddy, bruised and relieved. I had learned my lesson and would never once again set up camp too early in the day.
In a world of continuous interruptions, media and sound, there is a liberty to multi-week journeys. Your world resets and the days zip so quickly you can barely believe you’ve been moving for months. That is until it rains. When it rains in Wales, it puts, and whatever slows down. It drowns the land, turning courses into rivers, seeping first into your shoes, then under your hood and lastly into your soul. Eventually, the sun emerges to bathe the land, and as tears mixed with rain began to dry on my cheeks, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.
Stage 3: 2020, 600 miles across the north of England– 5 weeks
With Covid-related travel constraints quickly raised last September, it was time to remove my path shoes, dust off my tent and head north to finish my English loop. Starting where I ‘d left off in Liverpool, I faced the Lake District prior to crossing on Alfred Wainwrights’ coast-to-coast path from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay and journeying south to end up once again in King’s Lynn.
The Lakes were a weird mixture of crowds and seclusion and I crisscrossed popular crossways as I looked for less-worn paths. One brilliant early morning in late September, I set out from the village of Boot, jogging up a deserted valley with the goal of climbing Scafell from a less-well-known angle. I followed the familiar green rushed line on my map, though no course showed up in the land and at points I waded up to my knees through marshy river yards. It led me to rush on hands and feet up next to a waterfall where I picked up a treat, perched on a rock and on top of the world.
Examining three valleys I couldn’t see a bachelor. I considered nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s words, that “courses are the routines of a landscape … courses need walking”. Without routine use they will fade and disappear, to be lost and discovered once again. As I climbed up greater and into a thick band of fog, the temperature level dropped alongside my self-confidence in the green line. Was I on track, creating a new course or following one that was ancient, but bit used? There was absolutely nothing to do however continue and trust my map. I was possibly 200-300 metres from the top of Scafell prior to I finally saw individuals. A little stunned to have actually stumbled upon many after a solitary morning, I signed up with a train of 60 or 70 walkers for the last of the climb, enjoying the murmurings of nearby discussions, prior to slipping away down another quiet and barely visible track, vanishing with it down a high stony slope and retreating once again into my ideas.
Lessons from a Terrific British exploration
I hope to return to the tracks soon: I have 2,000-odd miles still to walk around Scotland, on the most separated and tough surface. When the storms broke my tent by snapping its poles, as taken place throughout Storm Fionn in January 2018, I was quite irritated. Not irritated enough for it to get in the way of sleep, however. Sure that absolutely nothing too crucial had actually blown across the field, I stubbornly covered my crumpled camping tent around me and drifted off. It would take a week to get my tent fixed and in the meantime a few good friends of buddies connected and provided me a camping tent to borrow, a sofa to sleep on and an opportunity to remain in a community-owned intense blue transformed bus that was parked in the chalk hills of the South Down national forest. Prior to the day was out, I was sitting round a campfire talking to new buddies, something I would have missed had my camping tent been in one piece.
What to pack for a running-and-camping exploration
Somehow, every early morning I fit all my set into a 32L OMM Knapsack (Traditional) with some lightweight drybags inside. A great deal of my kit was designed to be light-weight, including my sleeping bag– that made for a couple of cold nights and improvised hot-water bottles. I never ever weighed my knapsack, judging it rather by just how much I felt I could easily carry. It was most likely around 10kg-12kg at its heaviest, with complete water pouches and food for the day.
The items I would not be without:
Tea: I am a nicer human once I have actually had a hot, milky cup of tea, so initially on my list was a Pocket Rocket stove, along with teabags and powdered milk. Lots of water pouches are likewise essential to keep hydrated: I took ones that might fold up when not in use.
Grippy trail shoes: I enjoy my Saucony Peregrine trainers.
Light-weight everything for camping: camping tent, roll mat, sleeping bag, camping tent pegs.
Headtorch: essential for pitching a camping tent at night and working on roads at dawn or dusk– the more effective the much better.
Phone: for corresponding, calling ahead to camping areas, playing podcasts and audiobooks, maintaining sanity– and taking images! Requires a waterproof/damage-proof case. Don’t forget a battery pack, leads and a plug.
Jar of peanut butter, to be eaten with a spoon– the world’s greatest on-the-go snack.
iPad Air: a light-weight high-end for checking out books and seeing films. Great for pretending the tent that is swaying wildly and somehow wet on the within, is actually a tight little personal movie theater.
Little notepads, small watercolour set, pens and pencils. I take pleasure in writing and doodling, sticking together random scraps of leaflets with little scissors, glue stick and a number of crayons.
A small wash kit with travel wash that doubles up as shampoo and clothing wash, toothbrush and paste, small deodorant, tiny folding brush/mirror, suncream, earplugs.
A small first aid package.
When it comes to clothing, layers are crucial: base layers, down/synthetic pack-down padded jackets, a raincoat, gloves, hat and as many layers as you can use during the night.
The only item I didn’t utilize was my penknife, though it is possible I have been doing outdoor camping wrong all this time!