Take it in your stride - Ruth Livingstone walks the coast
When you reach a certain age, you realise you’re never going to run that marathon, or swim the Channel, and you start looking for gentler challenges. I was 54 years old when I decided to take up long-distance walking.
But where should I start? And, more importantly, where should I go?
I’d heard of popular long-distance trails such as the Pennine Way, but was nervous of my ability to climb steep slopes, and decided the coast was a good place for a novice like me. The seashore was flat and I imagined myself strolling across sandy beaches, stopping at cosy cafés, and enjoying the occasional ice cream.
On 17 April, 2010, I set off for the nearest section of shoreline to my home – King’s Lynn. It was the day when all the aircraft over northern Europe were grounded due to the eruption of an Icelandic volcano, and the weather was perfect. Not a cloud, nor vapour trail, in the sky.
On that first day I learned some hard lessons. Coastal walking, in fact, only sometimes involves sandy beaches. You are more likely to find yourself wading through marshes, stumbling across shingle, or navigating up and down cliffs. I had totally underestimated the physical demands – particularly when you start from the position of a couch potato – and I ended the day exhausted, with aching muscles and huge blisters.
You might have thought I would have given up. But I didn’t. Because, along with all the aches and pains, I discovered walking is wonderful. The world looks different at three miles per hour (or, in my case 2.5mph). You see and hear things you would normally miss entirely: an adder in the long grass, a stoat carrying a baby rabbit, a woodpecker tapping, a lark singing, the crumpled pattern of rocks in a cliff face, the hugeness of the sky, the wildness of the sea, the incredible fragility and toughness of this land of ours, and your own insignificant place within it all.
I started walking on my own because nobody else would come with me (my family thought I was suffering from menopausal madness). Now I walk alone because I prefer to. You acquire a certain inner stillness. Walking – the monotonous placing of
one foot after another – becomes an act of meditation. It’s a time for silence, contemplation and self-awareness.
Since that faltering start I’ve never looked back. Continuing in a clockwise direction around the coast, I’ve completed over 2,500 miles, including the stunning South West Coast Path (as tough as anything the Pennine Way can throw at you – something I’m glad I didn’t know at the beginning). I reckon I’m nearly halfway around and have no idea when I’ll finish, but there’s no hurry.
The highlight, so far, has been Wales, particularly the section from The Gower northwards, including the staggering island of Anglesey. Currently I’m heading for Cumbria and then… and then there’s the challenge of Scotland to come.
I walk the coast in a continuous line, starting each new expedition where I left off the last, and so I’ve had to learn to take the rough with the smooth. I’ve learned to enjoy walking through industrial estates and run-down seaside towns, just as I’ve enjoyed windswept landscapes of desolating emptiness. There is always something new to see, and I use my camera to record the weird and ugly, as well as the scenic and beautiful.
If you are interested in following my progress, or – better still – following in my footsteps, please visit my blog (coastalwalker.co.uk) where I document each day of my walk.
Living on the edge - Phoebe Smith Camped solo at the extreme points of mainland Britain
About 10 years ago I left uni wide-eyed and desperate to see the world. I went travelling for two years and experienced some once-in-a-lifetime encounters. But then I came home. I had no money left and I felt that there was nothing exciting to do in the UK.
Then I started walking. Short walks became expedition-like forays until I was on my own, wild-camping (away from campsites, toilets and shower blocks) around the UK, seeking out wilderness wherever I could find it. Eventually I set myself my Extreme Sleeps Challenge, to camp at the far points of mainland Britain.
I was an instant addict. I soon sought out quirky and unusual places to lay my head – from mountain summits, to the wreckage of an old World War II bomber. It’s an adventure with no end, and one I can fit in around my full-time job. The best thing is that other than the price of transport, it costs me nothing.
Once you’ve planned your first wild sleep, pack your bag and keep it either by your front door or in the boot of your car. I call this my ‘go bag’. That way, when you get the weather window, you have no excuse. You’re ready to go.
Image: Phoebe Smith
Family camping challenge - Jen and Sim Benson spent a year under canvas with their two young children
The idea of a year under canvas combined our desire to take on a properly testing challenge and explore Britain’s wild and beautiful places with the need for our adventures to be possible as a family.
On occasions in the past we’d found ourselves wondering whether a challenge is possible with small children. We’ve proved, with a bit of creativity and chocolate, that many, surprisingly, are.
We’ve conquered mountains, camped wild, climbed trees, jumped into lakes, swum in rivers, foraged our suppers and been on multi-day walks with our kids as company. We wanted to immerse ourselves in this way of life for a while, stripping away the parts that aren’t real, and focusing in on the process of living, moment to moment.
Image: Jen & Sim Benson
Go up in the world - Nick Weston lived in a treehouse
I’ve always been interested in adventure, but I wanted to do something quite close to home. With the recession hitting London, I decided I wanted to get out. I was doing freelance work, and there was hardly any around. I started looking at ways in which I could simplify my life and do a lot of things for myself rather than having to pay for electricity, rent, food and so on. The idea of going off, living in a wood and being self-sufficient was appealing. I was quite a feral kid, so I grew up doing a lot of that anyway.
I left London and moved into the woods. I lived under a tarpaulin while scrounging for wood from barns, garages and skips – whatever I could find. It took about six weeks to build the treehouse, which cost about £300.
The idea of the project was to do six months from April until the end of October, and hunt and fish and forage for my food.
It was quite taxing, the build and all the rest of it, while also digging a vegetable patch. But I fell into a routine. I knew where my resources were, how to go and get fish and mushrooms. The vegetable patch became chock-full of things. That was a real high point, because I was settled in and knew where everything was.
I can see why hunter-gatherers lived in groups, because you could delegate and do different things. But one person having to do everything made it very busy. Wood was always the main thing, for fire. And getting water and food. That’s it. That’s all you have to worry about. It kind of cuts your life right back.
I’d be lying if I said that some nights I didn’t go to bed hungry, but that was part and parcel of it – slowing down and adjusting to a new set of rules. Not rules, exactly; just a new lifestyle.
Nick Weston now runs a 'hunter-gatherer' school, teaching others how to cook wild food. He is also the author of The Tree House Diaries
On your bike! Ed Peppitt cycled to 200 lighthouses
My inspiration came aged 10, one summer holiday at my grandmother’s house on Romney Marsh. Each night in my attic bedroom, the beam from the lighthouse at Dungeness lit the wall above my bed. So sparked an interest in lighthouses, and the idea that one day I would cycle the coast and see them all.
Like most people, I discovered that life gets in the way. The plan remained a pipedream for nearly 30 years. And when diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2011, I thought that I had missed my chance. I lost my sight for a while, and my legs became numb and unresponsive.
But following a year of stable health, I decided to give it a shot. I wasn’t fit, and I hadn’t cycled for more than a decade, but it felt that this was my last chance.
It took 13 weeks to reach more than 200 lighthouses, with 3,500 miles in the saddle, as well as a dozen boat trips to get to the offshore lights. It also needed a patient family at home!
It feels unfair to pick out highlights. But I loved the woodlands and wetlands of the Red Squirrel Trail on the Isle of Wight. The narrow Cornish lanes, bursting with colour from the flowers and grasses that grow on their banks. The dramatic backdrop of Snowdonia, skirting Cadair Idris, on the tough stretch between Aberystwyth and Barmouth. The fascinating Waggonways network, once used to haul coal from the mines to ships on the River Tyne.
I shared my coastal route with deer and foxes, and the boat trips with seals, basking sharks, puffins, guilletmots, and shags. But my lasting memories will be of the old friends I met up with, and the new friends I made along the way.
It is great that my ambition has been achieved. But now I can feel the Scottish and Irish lighthouses calling me...
Animal magic - Hannah Engelkamp trekked around Wales - with a donkey
I had already had the idea of walking around Wales because the Wales Coast Path had only been open for a couple of months, and I was ripe for adventure. I thought that I would do the 1,000-mile walk and it would take three months or something and it’d just be a nice thing to do. Then I saw this film with a caravan of nomads heading out into the Sahara with horses and camels – and I thought, “Of course, I’ll be taking a donkey with me around Wales. That’s perfectly obvious.”
I’d never actually walked far carrying all my stuff, so I was a bit daunted about that. I figured taking a donkey would sort that one out, so I’d be able to take luxury items, like my ukulele.
In those early days when I was dreaming about it, I thought it’d be a calm, Zen-like walking meditation and that I’d take watercolours and books, you know, all these things that I thought I would do and learn.
It didn’t work out anything like the romantic vision I had from the beginning. It actually ended up being mostly about scooping up poo and setting up the donkey’s corral and checking his hooves. It didn’t give me the kind of time and space that I was expecting.
I’m not good at solitude, and the donkey did provide companionship. It also [turned out to be] the way to get quickly into other people’s stories. We’d dispense with what I was up to and then I would get the opportunity to ask them about themselves. It was a very quick way to get the inside track on people and places.
The donkey had a moment-by-moment appreciation of the world. For him it was just about feeling like having a roll, then, “I’m having a roll” – or feeling like having a bit of this plant and having a bit of that plant.
Even as I was trying to do that – not thinking about yesterday or tomorrow – I was constantly giving myself little promises of something nice to eat if l get to the next hill, wondering what I was going to have for supper, or looking forward to setting up the tent. Everything was about marking my progress, even as I thought I was living in the moment.
I often found myself saying, “Oh, it’s easy, you can do something like this.” But, actually, it is quite hard. It was the most fantastic six months of my life, but it wasn’t a breeze. Maybe it comes down to the fact that something can be simple without necessarily being easy.
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