“Walking saved my life”

Jackie Humphries explains how she came through dark times to find light and solace in her weekly escape to the great outdoors

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My husband and I were living and working in Sydney, Australia, in 1989 when he was diagnosed with a malignant astrocytoma: a brain tumour. Phil was only 30 years old; we had been married for two years. He underwent surgery and radiotherapy, and when he was well enough to travel, we returned to England.
Although we tried to return to something of a normal life, it wasn’t easy. Our daughter Clare was born 12 weeks prematurely, weighing just 2½lb. She remained in the hospital special care baby unit for 10 weeks and finally left two weeks before her due date. Life was difficult caring for a sick husband and a sick baby, but being a trained nurse I gave up work to care for them both.
Twenty months after his diagnosis, and four days before Clare’s first birthday, Phil died peacefully at home, surrounded by his family.
A few years later, I began a relationship with a kind and caring man who had helped me through my grief. We married and had two lovely boys together, but unfortunately both were diagnosed with specific learning difficulties – semantic/pragmatic disorder. This meant that neither of them could communicate properly; they could neither use nor understand language.
The following years were given to caring for the three children and their individual special needs. Clare required regular hospital checkups and the boys needed special education and weekly speech therapy.

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Walking back to happiness
When life deals you a difficult hand, it is important to find a way of keeping yourself fit and healthy, and of keeping your mind clear and alert. While in the depths of my grief, I was unable to do this, and drank far too much gin – more than was good for me. With three children all having additional needs, I knew drinking wasn’t going to help anyone. I needed to find something that would help me to cope.
As I had someone coming in to help me with the children during the week, I decided to use the time to go for a walk. Walking in the nearby countryside gave me time to clear my head, to think, cry, to find peace and solitude. I always went home feeling stronger, more positive and with more energy and enthusiasm to carry on.
In time, I began walking with a friend. We talked and helped each other with our worries and problems. Another couple of friends joined us; we walked together every week and, before we knew it, we had our own walking group. We all had issues to work through, with kids and marriage and careers; we walked and talked and returned home healthier and happier.

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A fresh challenge
Walking together had become such an important part of our lives we decided to take on a challenge. We signed up to join a trek on the Great Wall of China in aid of Breakthrough Breast Cancer. We were to walk 100 miles in six days, camping along the way. It was a wonderful experience. We returned home with so much energy and positivity that we knew we could continue coping with our lives and difficulties.
The following year we went to Peru to hike the Inca Trail and raised money for the charity Whizz Kidz. Over the years, our walking group grew in numbers and we continued to trek both in this country and abroad.
In 2006, I moved with my family to south Devon, many miles from my close-knit group of friends and walking buddies. I immediately looked for a walking group and found Walking for Health, a national scheme that encourages people of all ages and abilities to enjoy the benefits of walking. I agreed to become a volunteer walk leader and, after completing the training, was soon leading weekly walks for different groups, from those aged in their 70s to 90s wanting a short stroll around town, to those in their 50s and 60s and happy to walk five miles across country.
As I made friends in the area, I formed my own informal walking group on a Friday. The group has now been going for four years and continues to be a great success. Every Friday, a group of around 10 to 14 women, a collection of dogs and an occasional husband can be seen hiking across coast and country. The walks are generally between eight and 12 miles. We take a picnic lunch and always stop in a pub or café somewhere along the way. This group, like my original walking group, is popular because it offers support and friendship, as well as the stunning scenery, fresh air and exercise.
Walking has been a lifesaver for me.
It has helped me to cope with all the adversities that have been thrown my way. I have walked out the door feeling a complete emotional wreck and returned four hours later stronger and more determined. One of my closest friends is grieving the loss of her lovely 47-year-old husband. Every day is a challenge for her, but together we walk, talk, cry and then face another day.
I know walking has many wonderful benefits and I want to encourage more people to enjoy walking in the stunningly beautiful area of south Devon, so I have started my own walking holiday company, Walk this Way. I enjoy thinking up walking holidays to suit individuals, finding routes that encompass both coast and country and allow everyone to really discover the area.
Meanwhile, the years of hard work and commitment to our lovely children have finally paid off, as they are now all healthy and happy young adults. Two of them are at university and the youngest is at college.
I believe that no matter what life throws at you, it is possible to cope and find beauty in the world. Somehow, walking in the great outdoors seems to have the power to restore faith in an often troubled world.