Day 13: Ambleside

I can take a while to leave my tent at the best of times, and today I had no incentive to get a move on. I had a set end point for the day in Ambleside, at the northern end of Windermere, which was only 12 km away. So what on earth was I going to do all day? I ate my porridge slowly.

I wouldn’t get another day like the one before. The sky was cast in shades of dull white and a damp chilliness had settled. Eventually I decided there wasn’t much to be said for sitting around, so I packed up my things and made my way past a small mere, over a knott, and down to the outskirts of Windermere town. I brushed round the edge of this to join the short and popular footpath up Orrest Head. At 238m, this is a small fell, but with a decent claim to fame. It was on this summit, looking west towards the same fells that I had admired at sunset the night before, that Alfred Wainwright found his lifelong passion for the Lake District.

It must be a rare and special thing to know and recall the exact moment of your life’s great upheaval, the tectonic shift that leads you to becoming the person you were meant to be. I would guess that most people find their path incrementally, which is no less valuable but does not quite have the same romance. Mountains have a wonder-inducing effect on many to some extent, but it seems that Wainwright got one of the largest doses of this sensation ever (I remember driving into the Ogwen valley when I was 19 and getting a thrill of wonder at the sight of Tryfan – it blew my preconceptions of the UK out of the water that there could be such a real mountain here). It is difficult to think of a closer association between name and place than his with the Lake District.

Over the course of his life he walked all over these mountains, back and forth, again and again and again, never tiring of them. He spent 13 years working on his seven-volume pictorial guide, a labour of love that has earned him immortality. The fells he wrote about are now known collectively as the Wainwrights, and reaching the summits of all of them is one of the main targets for UK peak-baggers. I challenge you to watch this short clip of him talking about Haystacks, his favourite fell, and not feel your soul moved. He set the bar for pursuing a passion.

In fairness, the view from Orrest head is a good one. The path up there zig-zags through leafy woods until you pop out onto the top and can see over the treetops to rolling pastures, then to Windermere winding away into the distance towards the high fells, which disappear into the clouds. I took some time to admire it before carrying on. The quickest way to Ambleside would have been straight along the road by the lake, but I took a wider curve round, keeping my height up the hillsides. I went past farms and cottages with enviable lake views, and lots of rills skipping down the hillside.

The view from Orrest Head

It was only mid-afternoon when I came down to the Ambleside jetties at the northern end of Windermere. My contact in Ambleside was my friend Hugo. After graduating as an engineer, he worked for Rolls Royce for a few years before deciding to give that up and go and build paths in the Lakes, as a National Trust ranger. When he isn’t doing that he is taking beautiful landscape photos and taking part in what I consider to be insane fell races. I hadn’t seen him for a while; the last time had been at a house party, when I was resting on a sofa, nearly done for the night, and he had been wearing plastic rave glasses and performing an intense dance for my entertainment. The time before that had been when he had visited my bedside in hospital.


They operated on my back the day after I came in. My surgeon was relatively young and had a reassuring confidence that put me at ease. If anything, it made me not realise how serious the surgery was. I was in there for eight hours as they cut me open and drilled screws into the crushed vertebra, and the one above and below it, then fused them all together with rods. Having never tried drugs, I was sort of hoping that the anaesthesia would be an interesting new experience, but sadly I had no dreams and felt lucid as soon as I woke up, though mum claimed I was flirting with the nurses. She had stayed the previous night in a chair by my bedside. The operation had actually taken a few hours longer than they had told her. That wait must have been one the worst things she had ever been through.

Spot the damaged one

I quickly learned that your back is involved in just about every movement you can make. Every time I wanted to adjust myself on the bed or lean to grab something, I had to grit my teeth and make an effort to force through the pain. They had given me a button that instantly delivered me a dose of morphine and told me to press it every once in a while. I interpreted this to mean every couple of hours. I was later told that most people press it every five minutes. This might have explained why everything was so painful.

The repair job

I was lucky to have lots of friends come to visit me. Several times I had more in my room than were meant to be allowed. I think it got to a point where whenever the staff saw a group of students coming into the hospital, they instantly knew where to point them. My housemates, and Duncan in particular (from Day 8), were there the most. He baked me a cake, but then read on the hospital’s website that you weren’t meant to bring food in, so he sent me a picture of it and ate it himself.

I missed out

After the surgery, they encouraged me to try to use a frame to walk to the bathroom. That really hurt. I felt a grinding in my right ankle. Some more scans and they realised that was broken too, with chips of bone scattered in the joint. After a few days, they operated on my left foot. More carpentry, more metal. I think my foot surgeon wasn’t quite as neat as my back surgeon. The scar on my foot is ugly and ropey, compared to the dead straight line down the middle of my back. My fourth toe sticks out strangely now too. They decided to leave my right ankle and hope that the bone would be absorbed into the body. I wonder now how things might have been better if they had operated. This is one of the frustrating things about the healing process – you only get one chance at it and you will never know if the best decisions were made.


I read my book for an hour or so on a bench looking across the lake. I then went for a wander, first round the remains of a Roman fort by the waterside, then around the town centre. I drifted into an outdoor shop, which is standard practice for every hiker and climber I know. In a town like Ambleside, if you have time on your hands, you can visit several outdoor shops and look at the same products again and again, in slightly different arrangements.

Eventually Hugo messaged me to say he was home, and I headed over there. He was actually living as a lodger with a landlady called Sally, who was very welcoming. The front of the house was filled with the kind of clutter that implies a busy mind and a host of interesting ongoing projects. We had wine and pasta, and sat round the table for some time as they told me all sorts of stories about the area. I went to bed warm and fuzzy.

Day 12: You’re Gonna Carry That Weight

I woke early, cold. I tried to wrap myself more tightly in my blanket and banish any creeping touches of chilly air. Eventually I gave up, got up, and went outside. It was a beautiful day – clear and crisp, with the unmistakable snap of true Autumn. Tina and Adrian helped me get all my things together and were shocked by how heavy my pack was once it was full. My shoulders didn’t give it a particularly warm welcome, but that was what I had signed up for – the fact that I had had any days at all where I didn’t have to carry it had been an unexpected bonus. There would be no more easy rides; I would carry it from there to the foot of Ben Nevis. With repeated heartfelt thank-yous, I said goodbye to Tina, Adrian, and Piper, and started off on my own again.

I rejoined the Lancaster Canal towpath. If anything, it was even more peaceful than the previous afternoon, as it wended northwest away from the motorway. I cannot stress enough how different the feel of the conditions was compared to every previous day of the walk. It was as if the old used air we had been languishing under had all been taken away and replaced with a brand new batch that had just been chilled to perfection in the freezer. It was a mountain stream compared to the Thames. It was feeling the water trickle out of your ear twenty minutes after getting out of the bath. Everything took on a freshness and a sharpness. They sky was clear, ice-blue, and you knew for sure that it would stay that way all day.

I merrily followed the towpath for about five kilometres. I passed a tree full of elves that walked the uncanny line between cute and creepy. I then turned off onto a narrow road running alongside the River Kent. The river flowed fast and white here over drops at the bottom of a shadowy rock gorge. It was narrow enough for the broadleaved trees on either bank to stretch out almost to touch their counterparts. I crossed a bridge onto Nannypie Lane, which led me under the A591, then came off that into the grounds of Sizergh Castle. Here plenty of people were out for a wander. The land was becoming hillier. After climbing up the hillside away from the castle, I sat and had a snack looking out south and west over the incongruously flat Lyth Valley. Its system of drainage ditches shone in the sun like a net of silver.

Was this really built for function, or pure aesthetic?

I briefly lost my way in Honeybee Wood, then carried on through increasingly complex contours. I tend to enjoy walking through places where the countours form a mish-mash of little rings and random shapes; it makes the ground more interesting. It’s all about hiding and revealing, about how the hillocks lure you onwards to see what is on the other side. The best views are always the ones where nature contrives some way of making them sudden and surprising. Approaching a mountain across an unobstructed plain will never make you gasp in the way that the turn of a corner or an abrupt drop-off can. Possibly best of all is when you walk most of the way up a mountain in blank white fog and cloud, only for a window to open for a minute and reveal an unexpectedly magnificent picture to you, and you see that the cloud isn’t a static blanket at all but a swirling torrent of wind and mist. Then it closes again, but now you know what is out there, and you will tell people afterwards about the one incredible view you saw, and it will be all the more precious for its fleetingness.

Sitting under an oak, looking back towards the Lyth Valley

I filled up my water bottle in a pub in Underbarrow. Down the valley, and up the other side, I came to a saddle between two hilltops, where a friendly-looking oak invited me to rest. I had time on my hands. I sat barefoot in its branches and played my whistle, looking back down towards the valley and the estuary. I ate my lunch with my back to its trunk, and read my book, “Fool’s Quest” (appropriately enough) by Robin Hobb. I was having a lovely day wandering through the Lakeland foothills.

An exotic grazing destination
Path-guarding cat, about to challenge me to a game of riddles

That was more or less the story of the rest of the day. I followed paths through hills used for pasture, but these were more interesting and picturesque than most of the pastureland I had passed through. There were drystone walls, hummocks, rocks protruding from the ground, little meres, twisted old trees, and glimpses of fells. To call these “hills” may create a misleading image of a series of neatly separated, smooth, round lumps. This is a problem I have always had when reading – my slightly underwhelming imagination struggles to conjure up a landscape that isn’t a series of recognisable shapes; pyramidal mountains, dome-shaped hills, dead-flat plains, etc. Then when I visit these places, I realise I couldn’t possibly adequately describe them in a way that really gives any sense of them at all. I was staying above 120m while constantly going up a little and down a little, bending round one way and then another. From above, the ground may have looked like the surface of the sea, with ever smaller ripples overlaid on the larger waves that were the hills. The grass was tussocky, green where it was cropped close to the ground but paling where it grew longer and mixed with patches of brown bracken that lined either side of the path. I had music in my head, and I sang sea shanties to myself as I marched – something I’ve picked up over the past couple of years and spread among my friend groups so that now at a certain point in a party we will inevitably begin some rousing and not entirely tuneful chants about sailors drowning.

This tree knows something
Sunset on Grandsire

I reached a hill called Grandsire, not far from Windermere, and decided it would be a good spot to make camp. From the hilltop, I could look west over the lake to the central fells sharply silhouetted against a line of sunset orange sky. As I was up there, a man came up on a jog, and I asked him if he knew what peaks they were. He reeled them off very impressively. Cold stars drew forth from the clear sky, and I wrapped myself up in more layers. I had walked from Snowdonia to the Lake District. That was pretty good going. I was very happy to be exactly where I was.

That’s where I’m going
Goodnight, sheep


They took me in for a CT scan. Back out in my little curtained-off bed, I was still feeling chirpy about the whole thing, until the nurse came. He told me the results, in a voice that was far, far too heavy on the trying-to-break-bad-news-gently tone. They didn’t know the full extent of the damage, but I had broken my back. I decided it was time to ring my parents. My dad picked up.

“Hi dad. I fell while rock climbing and – I’ve broken my back.” I hadn’t expected to start crying, but saying those words myself made it suddenly so horribly real.

“Oh. That’s not good.” This got a laugh out of me. He had hit the nail right on the head. He said he would tell mum and they would be there as soon as possible. I couldn’t imagine what mum’s reaction would be; she worries a lot in general and has never been keen on me climbing or doing anything remotely risky. This was her worst nightmare, potentially even worse for her than it was for me.

Ash was sitting by my bedside and pointed out that we should tell our housemates what had happened. I volunteered to do it, and sent a message to our group chat saying “Ash and I are in hospital because I have broken my back.” I thought this summed things up, but apparently this wasn’t enough information. It sent them into a kind of confused frenzy where they weren’t sure if it was a joke or not, until Ash called to give a proper explanation.

I found it interesting that, while I was very well cared for, at no point did anybody wipe the grass and dried blood off my head

A steady flow of doctors came in to talk to me. They said that upon seeing my scans, the CT team couldn’t believe I didn’t have nerve damage; I had shards of bone poking into my spinal column. They kept touching my feet, asking if I could feel it, and getting me to wiggle my toes.

Possibly the most unpleasant aspect of that evening was that I went into retention – try as I might, I couldn’t pass urine. People often say they are bursting, but this was an agonising new level. For hours it just got worse and worse. Finally, they took me to a private room, sorted everything out for me to stay there, and dosed me up on painkillers. A nurse asked if there was anything else I needed. I begged her to put a catheter in me, which is something I absolutely never expected to do. She insisted on ultrasounding me first, which involved repeatedly pressing a device onto my painfully swollen bladder, to confirm that it was indeed full, though it felt like just an extra bit of torture. The catheter was a blessed relief.

So began the first night of the rest of my painful, uncertain life as a broken man, at the age of twenty-two.*

*Note that, when I write about my injury and recovery, I am trying to convey an image of my mindset at the time, free from hindsight. I worry that this sometimes makes me seem overly dramatic, given the knowledge that eventually I would be ok, while a lot of people who suffer similar accidents aren’t so lucky, but the feelings I went through were based on not having that knowledge of how things would turn out. When I write from my past perspective, I am aiming for accuracy to how I felt then, rather than how things turned out or how I see them now. Above all, I don’t want to give the impression that I think my situation was anything like as tough as those of people who have suffered spinal cord injury.

Day 11: Still Water

I clambered over a fence and furtively skidded down a wet bank. It was a shortcut. I stomped my way through a few brambles and emerged onto the Lune Valley Ramble, a footpath following the course of the picturesque River Lune, after which Lancaster, and by extension Lancashire, are named. I was grateful to be borrowing the Kings’ heavy duty umbrella, as the rain had come back in force. I followed the path east until it took me across a bridge over a bend in the river. I then turned up the hillside to the north.

The Lune Valley Ramble

My original plan had been to take a bit of a detour to spend a night in my girlfriends’ parents’ cottage in Kirkby Lonsdale. I had thought that by this point a bed would be a welcome relief, but that was before Tina and Adrian came along with their campervan. I had been sleeping comfortably for three nights in a row. Better than that, in fact – I had fulfilled my childhood dream of sleeping in the cosy-looking bulge above the front seats (it was everything I had hoped for). As such, I was feeling good, so there was no need to go out of my way; I could make a beeline for the Lakes.

One thing that excited me before starting this walk was that I would find out what exists in the corners and backwaters of the country that I would not otherwise visit. By this point I knew that the answer is, overwhelmingly, sheep and cattle. Pick a point on a map of this island away from the major towns, that you’ve never visited. You’ve just found some sheep. Zoom in on an aerial photo, look up the area; I bet I’m right.

Interrupting an inter-cow dispute over whether it’s going to rain

On an unrelated note, I was walking through fields, mainly of cattle and sheep. “Alright, lads,” I nodded to them as I passed. Frequently I found myself unintentionally herding them. Buzzards soared and mewed overhead, but they wouldn’t be getting a meal out of me yet. I had left the plain behind and was up and down small hills. Through Over Kellet, then New England caravan park – that didn’t seem right, we were in old England.

North of Priest Hutton, swallows were hawking for insects over a field of particularly timid cows. The journey they were about to undertake put mine to shame. Swallows embody many of the things I love about birds. They are beautiful, with their clean-cut feathers of glossy navy blue, red bibs, and white bellies, their tail streamers and the graceful curve of their wings, and their darting, dancing, agile flight. They are birds you can sit and enjoy watching purely for the poetry of their motion. They are bold migrators and heralds of Spring; the yearly journeys to sub-Saharan Africa and back, from a creature the size of my hand, are always cause for wonder. And they have charmingly misguided old beliefs associated with them – people used to explain their yearly disappearance by saying they slept the winter away underwater, reported by Gilbert White in the legendary Birds of Selborne as a strange “northern opinion”. Swallows are excellent birds.

After Burton-in-Kendal, I passed under the roaring M6 and joined the Lancaster Canal towpath. The rain had subsided to a light spattering but down to the west I could see a farm that was extensively flooded. My eyes were drawn beyond that, though, to the distant fells that were inching closer. I doubt they had noticed me coming for them. We would meet soon enough.

Literally every item in the list on the left would make a great pet name for your significant other, as in: “How was your day, my novelty cake?” “Not bad at all, my heaviest onion.”

Canals are magnificently flat. I put my foot down (repeatedly) and motored along. This section of the Lancaster Canal is defunct and closed to navigation. Sections began to be closed from 1939; it always seems incongruous to me to imagine mundane acts of civil admin occurring during a world war. I would have been tempted to put it off until a less stressful moment.

You could no longer use the canal even if you were willing to risk the wrath of the canal police (I don’t know how canals work), because it has been carved up and culverted by the M6, which I’m sure says something meaningful about progress and the pace of modern life (although lamenting the pace of modern life has been going on for longer than the modern world has existed). I passed the Holme coke ovens, relics of a time when dirty industrial processes took place in structures that look like pretty little hobbit holes. Those were the days.

Click to enlarge and learn
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair

Despite the proximity to the rumble of traffic, those last few kilometres were peaceful. Leaves hung green and gold in the low afternoon sun. Moorhens and swans meandered among the tangled water weeds. I startled a kingfisher and sent it peeping down the canal ahead, then ran into it again and again as it retreated, refusing to bite the bullet and fly back past me. Several stone bridges arched over the water. I passed a few families and dog walkers.

My last night with Tina and Adrian was spent at Crooklands. The days of not carrying my big bag had allowed my body to heal, and I no longer felt so ragged. I was fitter, ready and eager to reach the Lake District. What was more, by changing my course, I had put myself ahead of my planned daily legs. If anything, I was going to arrive early. I planned to climb the second of the three peaks in the company of a friend who lives in Ambleside, and my girlfriend, who was coming up for the weekend. That essentially meant I would have to take it easy for a while. I didn’t want a rest day – I wouldn’t know what to do with myself – but a couple of half-distance days would be very welcome.

Day 10: Plod

Adrian volunteered to join me for at least some of the day’s walk. We were starting the day more or less level with the southern tip of the Forest of Bowland, a western outcrop of the Pennine Hills consisting of rolling fells, peat moorland, and not much forest. The “forest” in the name is used in the old-fashioned sense of a royal hunting ground. When I had been in the planning stage, I had thought I might like to take a route that would lead me into the hills and let me see the views. Now the idea of diverting from the lowlands for fun was laughable. I tutted at my naïve former self.

We first passed through the town of Garstang. Adrian stopped for a brief chat with a police officer we passed, himself being a retired police inspector. We then picked up the Wyre Way, a footpath roughly following the course of the River Wyre, that rises in the Forest and flows west out of it before running south for several miles. The river then turns west again to meet the Irish Sea at Fleetwood, but we followed it upstream along the edge of the hills. We passed more dog walkers than I had seen in several days, out to enjoy the mild, overcast weather that was a huge improvement on what we had been putting up with. Alongside the path, the long grass was flattened as if someone had been at it with a giant, damp comb. The river must have burst its banks; where we were walking had probably been underwater the day before.

We were also closely tracking the line of the M6, crossing over it three times in one six-kilometre stretch. I must have passed through this area just about every other time I had ever been north, mostly when whizzing up to the Lake District on a Friday evening for a weekend of hiking. Well, that was where I was going this time too, only it would take me another couple of days to get there. I don’t think it is said enough that cars are unbelievably fast.

Lush green land around the Wyre

I would recommend the Wyre Way for a pleasant country walk, if you are in the area. It took us alongside paddocks, through leafy little woods and small villages, and past fishing lakes. We arrived in Dolphinholme, the village where the river curves south at the mouth of the valley that brings it out of the fells. We turned on to a steep path from Lower Dolphinholme, down on the riverside, to Upper Dolphinholme, and stopped for a chat with a lady tending to her front garden. Whenever we spoke to anyone that day, Adrian was quick to tell them what I was up to, thereby acting as a herald/hype man. We told her we were aiming for Halton, and she gave us advice on which way to go; she said her son used to walk back from Halton after a night of drinking, which is impressive, given that we were still over 15 km away. She advised us to go some way up the valley to find a path that arced across the shoulder of Hare Appletree Fell. This sounded suspiciously like unnecessary height gain, so I was sceptical, but she assured us it was the best way. She gave me a donation, we thanked her, and went back to continue along the Wyre Way.

We crossed sloping fields on the south side of the valley, descended into some woods, crossed a footbridge, and began climbing up the other side. Adrian had originally said he would go as far as Dolphinholme, but seemed to have made up his mind to see the day through; he later admitted his pride wouldn’t let him stop. When he was about the age I had my accident, he suffered a horrendous injury of his own. When seeing a car backwards at night, he stepped blindly into a cattle grid, snapping his shin in two. I can’t imagine it without wincing. The injury wasn’t set properly, and ever since, he has had a slightly crooked leg, less than ideal for a full day’s walking.

We stood aside to let a flock of sheep pass us as we climbed up to the point where the hill turned from green fields to brown grouse moors. From our high point we could see all the way to the coast, to the mouth of the Wyre, to Blackpool tower, and, most excitingly, to the distant, cloudy fells of Cumbria. This milestone made the ascent worth it. Adrian told me grim police stories of murder and deceit as we made our way down through hillside farms.

The road down from the hills to Quernmore, with the fells of Cumbria dimly visible on the right

We got to within three kilometres of the campsite as the crow flies, but there was no permissible direct way to get there; the only road would take us in an annoyingly wide loop, easily doubling the distance. There was, however, a decent-sized wood with tracks through it, seeming to form part of a private estate. I was hesitant to propose this, Adrian being an upstanding former enforcer of the law, but then he proposed it, so we went for it. We nonchalantly cut across a field and climbed over a couple of drystone walls, picking our moment between the passing of cars to slip into the shelter of the trees. We carefully avoided the tracks that looked like they led towards buildings. I made up my mind that I would let Adrian do the talking if we were confronted. We lost the track and had to bash through the undergrowth for a while before coming out to a pleasant woodland pond. We almost let our guard down and walked out to a farmyard with people in it, before veering back into cover. A couple more fields, woods, and barbed-wire fence-hops, and we were strolling down to the campsite just as the rain picked up.

“You’ve broken me,” Adrian sighed. He said that if he told his doctor that his leg was hurting after ten hours of walking, his doctor would tell him not to walk for ten hours. Tina reprimanded him for overdoing it. They kindly offered to host me for one more night after this one, but the next day I would be back to walking on my own.

Day 9: Pressing on through Preston

“Do you know the casualty?” I was briefly stumped by this.

“Um…yes.” That was the correct answer, but I could see that some clarification was needed. “It’s me.”

“Ok, I’m going to stay on the phone with you until the ambulance gets there. You just wait and tell me when you hear the siren.”

The Avon Gorge lies just on the edge of Bristol. There is a busy road running along the bottom of it, just a short way from where I was lying (this is why Ben and I couldn’t hear each other while climbing). They should have been able to get to me pretty quickly. The responder kept me talking with questions. Another pair of climbers had spotted me lying there, but they needed to get to the top of the cliff before they could get down to help me. Ben hadn’t seen anything and had no idea what had happened. After a while I saw him clambering down into sight, but I told him to anchor himself into the rock and wait.

After about a quarter of an hour, I heard a siren approach… and I heard it pass and fade into the distance again. “They’ve gone too far,” I told the responder. “They just passed me.”

The other climber reached me first, and began asking first aid questions. Ash reached me on his bike before the ambulance finally turned up. “Sorry, someone flagged us down further along,” one of the paramedics explained. I never found out why that was. Who flags down an ambulance where there’s no emergency?

They cut me out of my clothes, examined me, and carefully loaded me onto a stretcher. One of them asked me what to do with my stuff. “Just give it to my friend,” I grunted – with the adrenaline wearing off I was feeling more of the pain now.

“Which one’s your friend?”

“The one who looks like a twat.” He looked around at the other people.

“Oh yes, I see him.” He walked straight over to Ash and handed the things over. This was one of my favourite exchanges ever. Ash had helped Ben down by now and was standing coiling the ropes. He tried for a little joke: “Lucky he didn’t lose these, otherwise he would have been in real trouble.”

The paramedic gave him a serious look and said: “Your friend has a big lump on his back.” I didn’t hear that. I was still fairly chirpy; I had never broken a bone before and half assumed that this was all just taking precautions and I would turn out to be fine.

They gave me a mask, saying “This is just gas and air, like the NOS you might have had at a party.” Classic Bristol.

“Sorry, I’m not cool enough to have done that,” I replied. I breathed deeply, but I didn’t like the light-headed effect it caused, so I breathed shallowly instead, which probably wasn’t the right thing to do. The ambulance rushed me to hospital, and Ashley followed on his bicycle.


Ash was pretty sceptical about the idea of bringing an umbrella for the day’s walking. Proper hikers, he seemed to think, did not use umbrellas. I had only started using one myself that year, while doing fieldwork in the Bornean rainforest. The small, cheap umbrella that I had bought in a town in Sabah had somehow survived the thorny undergrowth and tropical downpours, far beyond what I had expected of it, and had proven its value again in the first week of the walk. I pointed out to Ash that my mountaineering instructor in the Alps used an umbrella too, and he grudgingly relented. We were in for another wet day.

Very soon we were in the built-up area around Preston. We had come inland to cross the River Ribble, the only major river that flows west out of the Yorkshire Dales. After that, it was just a question of finding the most efficient way of going directly north for three days, until I reached Cumbria. We probably weren’t passing through Preston on one of its best days. Preston is the only place in the UK that still holds a guild celebration, which sounds like it might be the most interesting day to be there, but we had missed the last one by seven years. As such, we didn’t find much to inspire us.

I tried to find a quick, creative route that cut along footpaths and quiet streets, but this only led to us bashing through muddy undergrowth by a small stream, walking into two cul-de-sacs, and possibly trespassing through someone’s garden. We stopped at a pub for a break.

Eventually the buildings grew more scattered and, after passing under the M55, we were back into the countryside. A footpath took us through the middle of a couple of fields that were nothing but sucking, ankle-deep mud. After this things brightened up, however, and before we knew it, we were on a pleasant country stroll with the usual trimmings – hedgerows, cattle, little streams and farm houses. I tried to film a short video log update, which is something I occasionally had a go at over the walk. I rarely actually posted them because I found watching myself back insufferable. Ashley’s mocking did not help this.

Muddy muddy muddy

Tina and Adrian called us to say that a lot of the area ahead was flooded, and they had had to drive to a different campsite to the one we had originally planned. We altered course, and more and more frequently had to dodge round large puddles and soaked earth, which then turned into entire sections of path that were submerged. Our route-finding involved some clambering, balancing, and fence-hopping, until eventually we were checkmated. Caught on a track between two walls in an abandoned farmstead, with no way round and twenty metres of water between us and the road, we gave up and sprinted through it. Miraculously, my boots kept the worst of it out, but Ash’s did not.

Tina, Adrian, and Piper walked out a meet us a couple of miles from the campsite. They led us along a track lit by the late afternoon sky above and its mirror image below. I had made my peace with the water. Tina said she could dry my things by putting them in the campervan’s shower cubicle, turning on its heater and ventilator and “making a hotbox”. Ash burst out laughing.

Piper causing ripples in the sky

In the campervan, I peeled off my socks and peered at my feet. Tina asked if I was suffering from blisters.

“I don’t think I tend to get blisters. I think I’m all right.”

Tina took a look. “Alasdair, those are huge blisters.”

“Oh, well maybe I’ll just ignore them. They aren’t too bad.” This is my questionable pro-tip for blisters: just deny you even have them and they will lose their power.

Ash left after dinner, taking a pile of stuff that I had overpacked with him, including a pointless spare blanket and four pairs of gloves. My thinking had been that I was packing for the Scottish Highlands in late October, with no way of knowing what the conditions would be like, but in fact, given that I had people joining me at various points, there was no need to carry it the whole way. Learning as you go is a part of long-distance hiking. Next time I do something like this, I will have a heap of new knowledge to bring to bear in the planning stage, and the whole thing will be slick and not at all haphazard. A man can dream.

: ) : )

Day 8: Apples, Pals, and Puddles

Ash brought good news. His parents had said they would meet us that night and we could all stay in their campervan. What was more, I could leave my kit in Ash’s car and they would drive via the campsite to pick it up. It was going to be a fun day of dull walking with good friends.

Rhodri told us in the morning that his booty call was “confirmed” (presumably it had only been pencilled in before), so he said goodbye to us in the morning, and the three of us set off. My friends deserve a bit of introduction. I had met them both at university, through the expeditions society, and I had been living with both of them when I had my fall. Duncan is a biologist, like me; he is highly intelligent, had been president of our university’s expeditions society, and had come equipped for a sodden day’s walking with just a pair of battered and holed trainers, which tells you most of what you need to know.

I failed to take any pictures, so this is a still from a video to illustrate Duncan

Ashley has been slowly coming out of what can only be considered a regrettable teenage grunge phase since I have known him, and hasn’t quite made it all the way yet. I have always made fun of his excess of piercings; the irony was not lost on me that, following my operations, I now have more metal lodged in me than he has ever had. We had first bonded by quoting The Simpsons and Family Guy to each other – little did I know at the time that that was more or less all he did. He took keenly to climbing and is ok at it. Together the three of us have been on trips to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, the French Alps, and the Scottish Highlands, as well as lots of weekend hiking and climbing around England and Wales.

And that thing is Ashley

Our route took us northeast, initially along lanes and then striking along the margins of waterlogged cropfields criss-crossed with ditches. It was all so open. We passed by a point on the map marked as one metre below sea level. Whether there wasn’t any interesting scenery or I just didn’t notice it because I was too absorbed in whatever nonsense we were chatting, I couldn’t say for sure (although to be honest, I reckon there wasn’t). I was just happy to have their company. It was great of them to volunteer to join for one of the least interesting sections. I was also relishing in not having my backpack rubbing away at my shoulders and hips for once.

Since there’s not much happening here, we might as well go back that cliff, nearly three years before.


I had been on a rope, but since Ben and I couldn’t see or hear each other, we were communicating by pulling on it. He hadn’t registered my pulls to say I was starting to climb, and was still taking the rope in by hand instead of putting it through his belay device. I didn’t know this, and thought I was completely safe, taking a casual approach to the climbing. I was about twelve metres up the slanted edge of the buttress. I don’t know how the fall started; I’ve had a few conflicting memories. I do clearly remember expecting the rope to go tight, and the rope not doing that, and turning to see the ground below me, and my legs trying to keep up with the increasing speed of the fall in three big, heavy steps before I tumbled, and the series of distinct thoughts that punched into my head: “I’m falling. Damn. This is what it’s like. This is It. This could be It.” It was spelt with a capital I. It was death.

I had tumbled, but I landed on my feet. There was an almighty shock – a rushing sensation that felt like violently voiding my bowels, and a flicker of thought reminded me that that happens to dead people, so as I fell to my back, I thought that would be It. My vision blurred, and I expected that it would cloud over to darkness. There had been no time for any contemplations or memories, only the awareness of what was happening to me, and the panic. After a couple of seconds, though, it became clear nothing was happening, so I screamed and writhed for a while. When I had calmed down enough to think, I did a first aid check on myself. My hand came away from my forehead sticky with blood (I was wearing a helmet). My trousers were ripped and bloody. My feet were painful but also tingling strangely. My whole body quivered with adrenaline. I checked my pocket and found my phone undamaged. I had better tell someone before calling the ambulance. I called Ashley King.


It was harvest season, and several of the farm houses we passed had tables set up on the roadside with honesty boxes, and great piles of apples for sale, along with chicken and even duck eggs. After passing a few of these we could no longer resist and got an apple each. We couldn’t guess what variety they were, but they were crisp and sweet. Duncan declared his the most delicious apple he had ever eaten. Mine was very nice. Ash said his was fine. One of the small joys of going to a new area is scanning the map to find place names that make me giggle. Today’s area treated us to Mere Meanygate, Odd House, Wholesome Farm, and Much Hoole.

The night’s deluge had left its mark – everywhere the ground was sodden. At one point we went the wrong way around a ploughed field, and had to make our way across uneven clumps of clinging mud to get back on track. When the sun appeared, we had lunch next to a field that was still flooded, and watched the reflected clouds drift across its mirrored surface. Despite the water, I was still committed to avoiding roads wherever possible. This led to us walking into a garden centre where a path started on the map, and scouring around for it before someone came to ask what we were doing. We said we were trying to find the path. “There’s never been a path here,” he said. I persisted, showing him the green dotted line on my phone. He peered at it, then looked around him, measuring it up. “That’s where that is.” He pointed to a ditch that ran a short way before meeting a fence. He was right, there was nothing else. I remember being told in school that Ordnance Survey maps were the best, but they had sustained a blemish on their perfection here.

When we arrived at the campsite, we found that a puddle covered half of it, so we were incredibly glad to be able to stay in the campervan. I said hello again to Tina and Piper, and to Ashley’s dad, Adrian. Tina cooked us dinner while Adrian took Duncan to the station – he said he had really enjoyed the day, despite the lack of scenery and his dicing with trench foot.

I was into the easiest part of the walk now – the unhurried stroll up through Lancashire, supported by Tina and Adrian. They had offered to drive on each day to a campsite and give me somewhere warm and dry to sleep, until at least Tuesday (this post documents a Saturday). On this day, it turns out I had been too busy chatting to take any pictures, so instead, here is a map of my route for the section covered so far. Circles are where I spent the night – green for a good night (one where I had a bed, essentially), orange for an ok night, and red for a night where I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I’ve also produced my distances walked so far. They don’t look particularly impressive – I really was quite unfit at the start of this. I had to pick up my pace later on, but we’ll get to that.

DayDistance (km)

Day 7: Coasting

Everything was grey; the sky, the city, and the water trickling from the former to the latter. Rhodri and I sighed and splashed out into it. There’s almost nothing interesting to say about the hour and a half we spent worming our way out of Liverpool, through industrial outskirts increasingly built for cars over pedestrians. The sprawl blended seamlessly into the dock town of Bootle, which reminded me of the Bootle-Bumtrinket, the naturalist Gerald Durrell’s boat, as chronicled in My Family and Other Animals, his account of his idyllic and hilarious childhood roaming the island of Corfu. If you haven’t encountered it, you should stop reading this immediately and get a copy instead. It contains more charm than I could ever hope to capture, and far, far more charm than a wet day in Bootle.

At last we rounded the end of the docks and reached the beach, and the slate sea stretching away to Ireland. My eye was caught by a dark figure in the surf, stoically letting the breakers crash over him, then further along, another. More appeared as I looked more carefully, some on the beach, some almost entirely submerged. They were the iron figures of Antony Gormley’s Another Place installation, of which there are a hundred dotted along Crosby Beach. Each of them gazes out to the horizon. They seemed wistful. I identified with them hard. I was also wet, stiff, and aspiring to something far away. Rhodri and I took a break. I remember discussing why there weren’t more underwater vampire films.

Crosby Beach, with an iron figure in the surf

This was the start of the Sefton Coastal Path, which we could follow north for the best part of a day, before cutting inland to aim for a way over the River Ribble. I was glad to be walking by the sea. I’m familiar with its call and hope to answer it one day. I’ve learned from the past few years of politics that I can’t reliably speak for the British as a people, and that our values are more divided than I had imagined, but I do think that the sea forms part of our national psyche, always there at the outside, in our heads as it is in our maps. You’re never more than seventy miles from it in Great Britain. It’s the edge of home and the start of the wide, wide world.

The path scattered through dunes before braiding together again at Hightown. There then came a section that followed a cycle route between a train track and a high hedge. It ran almost straight for a couple of kilometres, but curved just enough that we couldn’t see the end of it. It had a strange effect on us, closing us into a nightmarish endlessness. It felt like we were walking on it for ages. We hated it. We came to a bench halfway along and sat down. It was dedicated to a local rambler. We blessed him for providing this respite; clearly he understood the needs of walkers. This was another hard-surface-heavy day, and Rhodri said his feet were already hurting. Mine were too, obviously, though I was starting to accept that as a fact of life. Rhodri is a hell of a walker, by the way, with his skinny legs carrying him tirelessly for days. When we escaped the nightmare-path and reached the edge of Formby, the rain began bucketing down, so we made for the nearest pub, peeled off our outer layers, and ordered a great deal of food. We decided that we’d made good time and could afford to wait until things brightened up, so we ended up staying there for at least a couple of hours. I’m not sure that Rhodri didn’t fall asleep for a bit.

Bless him

Out of Formby, and back onto the path, through a nature reserve, and the sun came out. Two more friends, Ashley and Duncan, were driving up to join us for the next day’s walking, so we sorted out a campsite where we could meet that night. It was time to shear off inland, which involved some dull town trudging through Ainsdale and Birkdale. As the sun began to sink, we came out into the wide, flat fields of South Lancashire.

Flat land always feels a bit odd to me. I was by no means born to the mountains, but I grew up in Sussex, where tracks and country roads twist up and down little hills and through woods, and you can’t see what’s round the next bend, but you can sometimes see the ridge of the South Downs on the horizon. To me, a flat land held no mystery; it’s all there, its emptiness plain to see. Perhaps that feeling was a bit unfair, though, because some charms soon became apparent. Distant honking resolved into great skeins of geese flying in from the north, and you could really see the sky. Golden sun lit up scurrying masses of cloud propelled by a cool, strong breeze. Leaving the road, we nipped over a drainage ditch and cut through the fields to reach our campsite on a farm.

Big Sky Country

The lady there was delightful. When I told her what I was doing, she insisted that we didn’t have to pay. I insisted that we should pay something, so we settled on half price. When we gave her the money, she popped it straight into my donation pot, completely outplaying me with her generosity. Rhodri and I set up our tents and crashed, though not before I spotted a barn owl flap silently over the campsite. Some time later, Ashley and Duncan arrived, in the dark, with the wind up and the rain lashing down. Rhodri and I poked our heads narrowly out of our tents to say hi, but felt that they had their tent-putting-up under control. “By the way, Al,” Rhodri said, “I may have to leave you tomorrow because I may have got a booty call.” Life is full of wonder.

The night was restless. The wind roared through the trees that bent and shook violently over my tent, and the rain came down heavy over Lancashire.

Day 6: You’ll Never Walk Alone

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.


Piper in a cornfield

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.

Hamilton Square

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.

Replica of Resurgam

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.

Day 5: The March of Industry

I woke early in anticipation of a long day, though it was with regret that I left my comfy bed. Paul continued to be an incredibly generous and gracious host, cooking me a solid breakfast to fuel my day. I couldn’t thank him enough as I said goodbye, particularly as, on top of everything else, he slipped a donation into my pot as I was leaving. My first misty couple of miles took me directly uphill into the Clwydian range. This line of hills runs north-south through northeast Wales, its western edge rising neatly and abruptly from the wide valley floor.

I reached my highest point of the day at the saddle below the pleasingly round summit of Moel Arthur. From there I would be descending all the way to sea level. I turned to look back at the hills of Denbighshire. This place felt old. An obvious crossing point through the hills, it had the footsteps of thousands of years folded into its contours. A place where the bedrock of history thrusts up through the topsoil, only lightly eroded by the passage of time and development. A ring of earthworks surrounds Moel Arthur’s summit, the remnants of an ancient hillfort where generation after generation of Bronze and Iron Age people took shelter from monsters and marauders.

Misty Moel Arthur
I love a bit of free education. Click to enlarge the image and then your knowledge

I crossed the line of the Offa’s Dyke Path, running all the way from the Severn Estuary to Liverpool Bay, roughly following the England-Wales border for most of the way but veering off here to go up and over the hilltops. Offa was a mighty king of Mercia in that tantalising period of history between the departure of the Romans and the Norman invasion. In school it is more or less covered by: “The Romans went home… mumble mumble… Angles and Saxons invaded… *cough*… Viking raids… Let’s talk about the Battle of Hastings.” It must have been fascinating though, a period lasting hundreds of years when England was carved up between the rival kingdoms of Mercia, Wessex, Northumbria, and East Anglia, and the whole of Britain was dotted with countless petty kingdoms the size of a modern-day county or smaller. It was a time that would be familiar to fans of Game of Thrones, with kings and dynasties competing to be on top, and sometimes coming together to fight foreign adversaries. While to our modern eyes these events may have looked like minor regional squabbles, the world is much bigger when you are limited to the speed of a man walking or riding, as I was finding out. My walking was helping me feel a connection to the past.

I crossed over the saddle and into my last Welsh County, Flintshire. According to Paul, people from Denbighshire would tease those east of the hills for being not really Welsh, and then again, people from Conwy might say the same about those in Denbighshire. Maybe those petty kingdoms aren’t as deeply buried in the past as we might think.

A tree-shaded track took me gradually down between fields until I reached a country lane. I passed a bored-looking young man in a high-vis jacket sitting on an incongruous chair. A little further on I stood aside to let a car pass. The driver surprised me by rolling down his window and saying “They’re waiting for you up ahead.” Sorry? “They’re waiting for you, just round the corner.” I don’t think they are. “They are, they are!” he nodded, as he drove off. Perhaps I was getting a bit lonely, because part of me hoped they were waiting for me, whoever they were.

After a few hundred yards I found them. A group of boys, aged fourteen or so, resting on their rucksacks on the bank of the lane, clearly a DofE group. I asked them how long they had been walking and how far they had to go. They were on day two of a three or four-day walk, as far as I can remember. I let them chatter away a bit, savouring the anticipation that I was about to blow their minds.

“I’m walking to Scotland.” If it seems repetitive that this is what I said to everyone I met, then you are correct, it was, but it did give me joy. The shock was instant. Some of them didn’t believe me. How long was it going to take? “The whole thing will take about a month,” I said nonchalantly. “Bloody hell.” They fired questions at me, talking over each other so I could barely keep up. I soon decided that I had had my fun impressing the teenagers. I said good luck and walked on. Practically everyone my age I know has a DofE story. I hoped I would feature in theirs.

The sections of footpath that I had tried to link up became more scarce as I wormed into a more densely populated area, so I had to spend more and more time on the roadside. From a sunny hilltop lane I got my first glimpses of the built-up area I was heading into. I passed through the town of Northop and joined a busier road. This seemed to vindicate my decision to avoid roads wherever possible. I was constantly having to stop and press myself into a hedge to let cars rush past. My feet were taking a pounding on the tarmac too. This was my longest day yet, the first time I broke 30 km, and it did seem to go on and on.

Hawarden Bridge over the River Dee, Connah’s Quay

With relief, I reached the outskirts of Connah’s Quay, where the pavements meant I was no longer in danger of being clipped by a driver. This town slopes gently down to the mouth of the River Dee, to an area littered with heavy industry. In one day I had walked through thousands of years, from the Bronze Age into the Age of Steel. Across Hawarden Bridge, a classic piece of Victorian civil engineering, I came to the Deeside Industrial Estate, site of a steelworks, power plant, and the UK’s largest solar park. The sky welcomed me to my new surroundings by greying over and spitting on me. An acrid tang hung in the air.

Two rays of sunshine remained to me, The first was that I really had left the Welsh hills behind now, and would face nothing more than the odd gentle rise for several days. The second was that my friend and former housemate Ashley had family in the Wirral with whom I could stay that night. I stopped to give my crying feet a break and rang Tina, Ashley’s mum. She said she would start walking to meet me.

I followed a cycle route which emerged onto a boardwalk alongside the estuary, which my OS map had ominously plastered with the words “DANGER AREA”. There was one last spiteful burst of heavy rain before I met up with Tina and Piper the collie. We chatted about her family as we made our way to her mother’s house. Helen welcomed me in and they both made me as comfortable as possible. Here’s your room, now you just make a pile of clothes you want me to wash, then go and have a nice bath. Do you want to hang your tent out to dry? We’ll have dinner in an hour or so…

I relaxed into the bath. I had made it through Wales and into England, and would have an easy day tomorrow crossing the Wirral. I was being well looked after, once again on the receiving end of warm generosity. By the time I was in the mountains again I would be fitter, and ready. Maybe the hardest part was done…

Day 4: The Man in the Pub

I lay in my tent waiting for a break in the rain. When it came, it was with little enthusiasm that I packed up my things. I went downhill, soon leaving the forest behind me and coming out into fields. I would still be following the Hiraethog trail, for which I now had little affection, for most of the day. After a couple of kilometres, it let me down again by leading me into a thicket of gorse. I tried to grit my teeth against the prickling and force my way through, but gave up when I could see no end of it, and had to grit my teeth again and force my way back out.

I came down a farm track instead, and bumped into a farmer on a quadbike. I couldn’t guess what people would assume I was up to when they came across me like that, but I knew I must look a bit odd. My most consistent worry throughout the challenge was that I would at some point be confronted by an angry landowner. For that reason, I was quick to get my explanation out. Fortunately, if small talk is a game of poker, saying you are walking to Scotland for charity, when you are currently standing in Wales, is like revealing a straight flush. Eyes widen. Dispositions soften. Jolly accusations of madness hover about lips. This farmer gave me directions to get down to the village in the valley, where I could rejoin the trail. He was chuckling to himself as I left. I like to imagine him at the pub, saying “you’ll never guess what I came across today…” Maybe I would ghost through villages across the whole country, disturbing nothing but leaving a ripple of conversations in my wake.

I needed to refill my water bottle, and saw that there was a pub marked on the map in the village of Cyffylliog. However, it is a fairly reliable rule that the pubs you find marked along your route are not open when you need them. The greater your need, the less hope there is (to be fair, it was only late morning at this point). Instead I went along the street trying discreetly to peer into windows to find a house where someone was home. I found one, and knocked on the door to trouble the man for some water. He gave me not only water, but a donation too, which was very nice.

This is what it looks like when a smile doesn’t reach my eyes

The next few miles did not have a lot to say for themselves. I went north, up the other side of the valley and over hills covered in sheep pasture. Drizzle clouds drifted over. I took the wrong path for a while, causing me to waste precious energy skewing off in the wrong direction then correcting myself. Eventually I sat down for a snack under a hawthorn tree, and noticed my right leg felt funny. I had put on knee braces for my ascent and descent of Snowdon and, finding that they not only gave me support, but also kept my knees nice and warm, I had worn them all day every day since. Now my right leg had gone numb, so I took them off and tried to massage some feeling back. I didn’t succeed in this, but the leg still worked fine. I would just keep an eye on it. As it turned out, that numbness lasted well over a week.

The Hiraethog Trail ended in Llanrhaedr. There was a pub marked on the map there, and against my better judgement, I kept myself going with the hope that I could reward myself with some good hot food. What a fool I was. Of course it was closed. I decided to take fate into my own hands and use the power of the internet to find a pub that would give me my heart’s desire. I found one a few villages further on that would open at 5, which meant I had plenty of time to waste.

A footpath followed the bank of the River Clywedog as it meandered through fields. As I reached the riverside, the sun came out from the clouds, and I found some blackberries, so I sat down, took off my damp boots and socks and laid them out to dry for a while. I closed my eyes and let the sun warm my face. I had come down out of the hills into the Vale of Clwyd. Unlike the steep-sided river valleys I had been up and down, this had a flood plain a mile or more broad to cross before the land sloped up again to the undulating eastern horizon of the Clwydian range, where I hoped to camp. Going on foot gives you a much greater awareness of the features of the landscape than you ever get from a car, and helps you to appreciate how our structures are overlaid onto them, but still dictated by them. I had followed the line of a valley out of the mountains of Snowdonia, in the same way that the roads followed the line of weakness into them and the rivers flowed out. The main road, the A5, then skirted southeast round the hills which I had gone up and over, meeting the A roads that ran north along the wide vale that I was now sitting in. I had seen the density of inhabitants rise and fall with height, the towns in the valley floor being several times larger than those little villages up in the hills. These things are obvious, of course, but in our perceived mastery over nature, I know I sometimes take them for granted.

It was optimistic to hope that this would achieve much, but just look at that flat land

When I carried on, I rejoiced in the flatness of the path. I knew that once I was over the Clwydian hills, the going should generally be much easier for most of the way north to the Lake District. After about an hour, I reached the pub, just after four o’clock. I dumped my bag, settled into an outdoor chair, and read my book. At some point I checked my phone more carefully, and saw that the kitchen wouldn’t open until six. Never mind, I was here now, I knew what I wanted (chips, lots of them), and was quite prepared to wait. Just after five, I went in, ordered a pint, and went out to sit for another hour. By six, a handful of locals had filtered in and were chatting with the landlord. I was quite worried that I smelled, so I tried not to get too close as I shuffled up to the bar in a dishevelled fashion and asked if the kitchen had opened. The landlord said no, it was just him today. My crest fell and hope died in my eyes, and he must have seen it and taken pity. “What was it you were after? I might be able to do something.”

“I just really want some chips. I’ve been walking for four days.” He said he could do that, and everything was better.

The man next to me asked me about my walk, and we got talking. He asked what places I had come through, and it turned out I was completely incapable of pronouncing any of them. He bought me a drink and shared his food, telling me to eat up, it sounded like I needed it. He asked where I was thinking about camping, and when I said over in the hills, he said, if I liked, he had a shed I could stay in. Now, in the moment, when you get an offer like that as a lone traveller, you have to make an assessment about risk and safety, and my initial thought was to stick to my original plan. In hindsight, the thought of even hesitating about it makes me feel quite uncharitable because, as it turned out, this man was one of the kindest people I have ever met. His name was Paul.

This is what it looks like when a smile does reach my eyes

He said it was a cosy shed, not like a tool shed or anything. He had recently had a French guy staying in it for several months. Maybe that persuaded me. I accepted, and before we left he paid for my chips as well. My bag went into the back of his car and he gave me directions to his house down the road (the nature of my challenge meant I couldn’t accept a lift). When I arrived, he introduced me to his family and showed me the shed that he had prepared for me. More of a detached spare room, its warm lights beckoned me in to find a big, soft sofa-bed, a desk, and a gentle murmur of Welsh voices coming from the little radio. Paul showed me where I could shower, checked several times if there was anything he could get me, and let me settle in. I had an excellent night’s sleep, brought about by cleanness, comfort, and, above all, kindness.