Tina and I had planned our route together the night before, using local knowledge to supersede my blind guesswork. With clean clothes, a dry tent, and a packed lunch of sandwiches, I thanked Helen, Tina’s mother, and Tina and I set off with Piper to wend our way diagonally across the peninsula to Birkenhead, at the mouth of the Mersey.
My storytelling so far in this blog has been rigidly chronological. I do feel that that is the most faithful way to tell it, the closest to recreating my experience. I was profoundly aware at all times of being a point on a line. Every step could only happen on the foundation of the countless thousands of others that brought me there, and not one could be skipped. Really, though, this blog has jumped straight into the last chapter of a bigger story, one that started when I was twenty-two, or maybe even nineteen, in the way that stories always flow into more stories. So maybe we should leave Tina, Piper, and me wending our way through the cornfields, pastures, and little villages of the Wirral, and zoom out and back in time, to lay a bit of groundwork.
At nineteen, I went to the University of Bristol to study zoology, joined the University of Bristol Expeditions Society (UBES, pronounced ‘yoobs’, while I was there at least), and fell in love with mountains. Over the following three years I gained a wealth of new skills, knowledge, experience, and confidence. In my final year, I helped run the society as Expeditions Officer, organising trips, leading hikes, and teaching people to climb – I felt like a wise old veteran. I graduated in 2016 and had a whirlwind summer of adventures. I was trained in Alpine mountaineering in France, explored Norway by foot and hitch-hiking, co-wrote and performed a sketch comedy show at the Edinburgh Fringe (not mountain-related but another kind of adventure), and led a hiking mini-expedition to the mountains of Slovenia.
After that, I was back living in Bristol with mountaineering friends, not sure what to do with my life but knowing I had to make it exciting. A Monday afternoon in October found me standing at the foot of the Avon Gorge, thinking of all the adventures I was free to have and reminding myself that I just had to seize them. With rope in hand, I was belaying a guy from UBES, Ben, who had asked that I climb with him to see that he could safely lead a trad route. I took him to an easy climb up the edge of a buttress, which I had done several times and felt supremely confident on. Fatally confident, perhaps. A few minutes later, I began climbing up after Ben. Another few minutes and a communication error later, I was lying shattered and bloody back on the ground, helmet cracked, trousers ripped, rope heaped uselessly beside me. In a single moment, I lost so much, and everything changed for me. The paths of opportunity that had earlier been swirling around me crumbled, all of them. All there was now was a dark tunnel I was sealed into. No way back, and no knowing when it would let me out. That was where this story began. I will return to that time in future posts.
It was a pleasant day in the Wirral. We drifted through villages: Windle Hill, Raby, Thornton Hough, Storeton. I wasn’t aware at the time, but our route must have roughly straddled the ancient boundary of the Danelaw, reflected in the mixture of Norse and Anglo-Saxon place names; Raby actually comes from the Old Norse for “boundary village” . Tina gave me a more recent potted history. Much of Thornton Hough was built as a model village by Victorian industrialist Lord Leverhulme, along with the nearby Port Sunlight, to accommodate the workers of his soap factory and to allow them access to a pleasant bit of countryside. It seemed like a lovely village, so good on him. A little bit of Wikipedia digging tells me that for his supply line, he set up a private kingdom in the Belgian Congo, based on forced labour. Ah. This program apparently resulted in more deaths than the holocaust. He is remembered as a philanthropist. This is exactly the sort of reason that, as a British citizen, whenever I travel just about anywhere in the world, I have a nagging urge to constantly apologise. Maybe we should all just have “Sorry” printed on our passports.
In Birkenhead we took a stroll around Hamilton Square, designed by Scottish architect Gillespie Graham in the first half of the nineteenth century, then Tina took me to a café. Piper was panting after his long walk. We sat outside at an aluminium table as the sky greyed over, listening to three teenage girls at the next table cackling racial slurs at someone over a video call. “So, how do you like Birkenhead?” Tina asked wryly. I said Hamilton Square was nice. She called that a diplomatic answer.
As it began to rain, Tina and Piper went to the station to catch a train back down the peninsula, and I made for the dock. Just next to the ferry jetty was a big, black, brustalist contraption; a replica of an early submarine. It could have been lifted from one of da Vinci’s sketchbooks or it could be the getaway vehicle of a steampunk villain. It was called Resurgam, Latin for “I shall rise again”. Her first voyage was intended to take her as far as Portsmouth, but she sank before leaving Liverpool Bay. Plans to make her rise again have not been successful.
The ticket salesman allowed me the concession price, since I was doing something for charity, and then I was on the ferry across the Mersey. This would be my first time in Liverpool, and I appreciated the ferry taking the time to go up and down the waterfront a bit, giving some local history. There was even some stuff not about the Beatles. My favourite thing was the liver birds. They started out as the bird on the official seal of Liverpool in 1229. It seems it was either not meant to represent any particular kind of bird, or was so wonky that nobody could agree what it was meant to be. Though the most famous representation is on the Liverpool football club logo, the city’s most prominent pair stand on the Liver Building, looking like something between eagles and cormorants. Apparently the female gazes out to sea, watching for the seamen to return safely home, and the male looks inland, to make sure the pubs are open. Welcome to Liverpool.
My experience got off to a good start when, having just stepped off the ferry, a bloke came up to me to give me a donation and wish me the best, just on the basis of having spotted my pot. I checked my directions and found I was still an hour’s walk away from my destination for the night, my friend Rhodri’s house. I struck out north, but soon the devil was on my back (my rucksack was bad enough already), whispering in my ear. Those buses that kept passing me looked awfully tempting. At the planning stage, each city is just a point you pass through, not really counting towards the total distance. It didn’t feel fair to be using all this effort to get nowhere, essentially. Where was I? Liverpool. Where would I be after an hour’s walking? Liverpool, but more tired. So why not use public transport? I managed to resist, very much like Jesus. I would definitely have turned stones to bread if I could, though.
Rhodri joined the expeditions society at the same time as me; in fact he was one of the first people I met at university. He quickly went mad for the mountains, in a fairly literal sense. He would go on weekend trips instead of doing coursework, and would have to stay up working after getting back from the Lake District at 1am on a Monday morning to meet his deadlines. He was afraid of heights, so he took up climbing. He loved dunking naked into icy lakes, and did other exploits that probably should not be published. He now works in nuclear waste disposal. He gave up climbing after my accident.
The plan was for him to join me for the next couple of days of walking. When I arrived he proposed a new plan. “Al, how about this: we sack off walking tomorrow and spend the day getting bevved instead, then walk the day after?” This didn’t quite fit with my schedule, though it did raise the question of whether I was going to allow myself any rest days, bevved or otherwise. I hadn’t set myself a strict target, but I thought I would just keep going for as long as I was able. As a compromise, we spent the evening eating pizza and crisps, drinking, and watching films. It was a strange and wonderful thing to be doing something so mundanely fun in the middle of my challenge; an incongruous evening of normalcy. The teetotal Lord Leverhulme would not have approved, but then I don’t approve of racial oppression, so we probably wouldn’t have got along famously anyway.