Sunset, Achmelvich

Reflections on Walking the Coast of Britain – A Pseudo Interview

Since finishing my Coast17 walks a couple of weeks ago, I have so enjoyed catching up with family and friends. And I’ve been blown over by the enthusiasm with which everyone has responded to what I’ve done.

Far be it for me to imagine how it might be when there is extensive media coverage for something like this. But I did. Even in my own circles I have answered the same questions many times already, sometimes in different ways as I reflect and remember and come to terms with being home.

So I thought it would be a neat (if slightly self-indulgent) idea to put these thoughts into a pseudo interview. It’s fun because I can characterise the questions and mashup all the real conversations I’ve had with my family and friends; you might even guess who.

Hey [Ken]. F*** you look a bit, kind of, rugged!

That’s like the greeting I got from Carolyn after our Pyrenees HRP walk a few years ago. She said I looked like Ben Gunn. Yes, my hair is a bit long, what there is of it …

Have you lost weight?

Yeah but not as much as on that Pyrenees trek. I feel pretty fit.

How do you feel about what you’ve achieved?

I’m very satisfied. When you set out towards a huge, nine month goal and it falls apart in the first three weeks, it would be too easy to feel unsuccessful. OK, so I didn’t complete the full round of Britain in one journey, but I am very satisfied with what I achieved.

In fact I’d go so far as to say that I have redefined in my own mind what achievement means.

How so?

If we measure attainment only against original goals and plans (which might have been impossible or insane anyway), or against the achievements of others, then we set ourselves up to fail, or at least to feel a failure. Plans are just a good start, and sometimes the more insane they are, the more they draw us beyond what we thought was possible.

I tried to do the hardest walk in Britain in the hardest possible way. I remember saying before the start that I could have chosen to spend many years walking the coast in stages – as others are doing with great credit. But that never seemed big enough for me; I knew that after a couple of years of that I’d get bored and need a new challenge.

So for me, it is not about being successful in achieving the goal. It’s about having a big, hairy, audacious but attainable goal – the more insane the better – and then using its power to achieve more than we would otherwise do.

I couldn’t have walked a fraction of what you have

You might surprise yourself.

You seem to have dealt well with the injury thing?

I did my grieving for the original plan in the immediate aftermath of stopping at Plymouth. A day or so before then, there is no doubt that I was very upset.

But I realised very quickly that there was no point beating myself up about it, for that would have been so destructive. Shin splints is a common injury, even among pro athletes.

Instead I reasoned that I had set the time aside for this venture this year, so I accepted it and moved on, resolving to make absolutely the best of it that I could. Acceptance is such a positive state of mind – and that includes acknowledging and accepting negative emotions.

How far did you walk?

It amounted to 2990 km (1857 miles) with 44700m of ascent. Plus we threw in a Scottish road trip. That’s only a third of what I had planned, but when I break it down there are so many achievements in there. For example, nobody else I know has walked from Shoreham to Plymouth in three weeks (if they would want to). And three times I surpassed the most consecutive days I had ever spent backpacking with full kit without a rest day – which previously was twelve in the Pyrenees.

New Shoes

Coast17 Stage 7 West and North Wales
Day 54 – New walking shoes, Porthmadog. The previous ones had covered over 1200 miles (including training). The gore-tex had been compromised and they no longer felt stable. I walked into Millets in Porthmadog and straight into a shiny new pair, exactly the same model of North Face Hedgehogs.

How many pairs of shoes did you get through?

Two pairs of North Face Hedgehogs; roughly 1000 miles for each pair. They were good, but not as waterproof as I would have expected. I don’t know if that’s a good return or not as I am light on my feet. Maybe I should ask North Face.

And the shin splints was OK in the end? Did it return?

Well, I stopped with a recurrence after Gower. And it came back again with a vengeance on the road to Pwllheli; but then, knowing it a bit by now, I made some adjustments to the way I was walking and resting. I pushed on through it around Lleyn, but I did have to stop at Caernarfon.

On the final stage I had no problems at all, save for aching heels towards the end. If my shins did twinge a little, I slowed down and shortened my stride – walked mindfully – for a while. I learned to manage it better, especially on the long, flat sections of hard ground on roads and promenades. I definitely walked at my best all through the year on the hardest cliff walks, though.

Sunrise over Mwnt

Coast17 Stage 7 West and North Wales
Day 49 – Sunrise over Mwnt

What were the best bits?

Taking the areas first, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Trail was by far and away the best walking. The path is beautifully maintained but remains wild, even through the industry of places like Milford Haven. It was also spring; the cliffs were profuse with wild flowers. And it was the first of the stages I completed without the dreaded shin splints!

Northumberland and its expansive miles of golden sand beaches has to come a close second.

There were individual walks too. I think four are right up there competing for the award: the Lulworth Ranges walk in Dorset; west Gower from Oxwich to Rhossili; around St. David’s Head and Strumble Head to Fishguard; and my home ground from Eastbourne to Seaford by Beachy Head and Seven Sisters.

There must have been some memorable moments?

Too many to list really; most involving meeting people, or fighting the weather, or spotting wildlife. Funnily enough there were relatively few idyllic, sitting outside the tent watching the sunset moments. I was usually knackered and sleeping by eight pm.

Was there one moment?

Watching the sunset with Carolyn at Achmelvich in northern Scotland in late June was sublime. As was walking towards Mwnt in Ceredigion at dawn in early July. Both were what I would refer to as ‘peak experiences’, where nothing else either matters or enters your mind; the moment itself is enough.

Shane on Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth

Shane on Constitution Hill, Aberystwyth

It was always great meeting people too, especially friends. But I was incredibly inspired to meet Shane Davis on Constitution Hill above Aberystwyth. You have to read his story. It was the one time when I did feel a bit of a wimp for pulling out with a minor injury.

One particular moment of hilarity was when a woman screamed “No, stop it” after her dog on seeing it chase and try to fornicate with another dog in Cliftonville (near Margate). Nothing terribly unusual there, except that the victim of this sex pest was being towed along by an elderly man in a mobility scooter with full plastic cockpit, who could do nothing to stop the attack.

What were the worst moments? Was there a time when you were feeling really down?

Leaving Plymouth aside, there is often a combination of factors that leads to feeling down. Sometimes in the wilderness it is amplified by hunger, but that wasn’t a problem here.

Drenched on Yr Eifl

Drenched on Yr Eifl

There were a couple of days when the weather beat me up. I recall sprinting over the hill from Little Haven to Broad Haven in the heaviest rain and gales to make sure the other walkers in the pub at lunchtime didn’t nick the last Guest House rooms. And I walked over Yr Eifl in North Wales in proper bad mountain weather. But those experiences are kind of fun on reflection.

There was a day in Cumbria, where I had decided to train hop the estuaries (like using ferries), when I felt adrift and purposeless. A day or so later, rounding Sellafield in the rain was hardly one for the smile book.

The most depressing day of all, however – and therefore highly memorable – was my walk from South Shields through Sunderland to Crimdon in County Durham. It was a combination of poor weather (again), a depressed and austerity-bitten landscape of abandoned pubs, litter, reminders of once-thriving collieries, neglected footpaths along otherwise scenic cliffs and denes. And finally, on a closed and rough campsite, watched by a couple of incredulous stable girls, my waiting the moment for the rain and wind to abate so I could pitch the tent. It is always OK when you’re inside the tent and dry, but getting to that point can be pretty uncomfortable.

You wouldn’t get me anywhere near a tent!

Is that a question?

No, it’s a fundamental reaction.

That’s what those stable girls said. People have said that to me for decades. Even some of my formerly rough-tough mountain mates are now a bit wuss and don’t do tents anymore; they take the B&B option.

But you did that too. And you bought a camper van!

I admit that sometimes it’s essential for the sanity to get indoors – I love Airbnb, by the way. And yes, the camper is a great thing. There’s no doubt it made a trip like this immeasurably easier.

So that section of the Northeast was the worst place too?

No. It was depressed in parts of the Northeast, but interesting. I would return anytime for the social and industrial history, and for the friendliness of the people.

The worst places by a country mile, for me, were the tacky seaside towns of Lincolnshire: Skegness in particular, and one or two others that seem to exist solely for ice cream and candy floss, moneysucker amusement arcades, pink plastic and chips. There are no other towns anywhere that are so one-dimensional. I was pleased to be on my bike there so I could be in and out quickly.

Even more chips than a ravenous trekker can consume!

Allonby, Cumbria – Even more chips than a ravenous trekker can consume!

Had enough of fish and chips then?

I love chips! But not when a whole town smells of chips, like Cleethorpes did! I had sausage and chips for lunch in Allonby, where the sausage was a foot long and the chips would have fed three. That was a waste, even for a ravenous hiker. I had fish and chips in Seahouses at a place endorsed by the Hairy Bikers (there were half a dozen fish and chips places); it wasn’t great. I was even offered chips with breakfast at Flamborough Head, and with a baguette on Humberside. Chips with everything; no thanks.

The whole town smelled of chips? Seriously?

Yeah. And Workington smelled of cheese (not good cheese), and Blackpool smelled of sugar (sucks in cheeks). Smell is a reptilian sense, you know; it gets right to the core of your being. It was different when smelling beer in Southwold

Sounds like you’re off on another rant 😉

Who me? Rant? Do I ever? Don’t even get me started on the marine plastics, and the lack of public loos or free water, and bad signing, and the ridiculous concept of the England Coast Path! There’s enough there for a series.

People and dogs on the sands, Bridlington

Coast17 Stage 9 Northeast
Day 84 – People and dogs on the sands, Bridlington. Even people’s connections with others are via their dogs.

Let’s call it philosophical observations on life then. You always have plenty of those you can (ahem!) talk endlessly about …

Hmm! Well, Mark Twain said that “travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness …”, but I would say that it also reinforces stereotypes. The North/South divide is real enough – austerity has definitely hit parts of the North very hard, and many people in the Southeast definitely look at you (or through you) as if you’re some alien if you dare to smile and say hello.

And people are more connected with their dogs than with other people.

Has this walk changed you, do you think?

There has never been an expedition where I’ve not learned a lot about myself.

I mentioned acceptance; that’s huge. Because when we accept where we are, it is easy to move on and make progress. It’s part of the mindfulness I practice – yes buzz-thing of the decade, I know, but it really does work.

I had never before walked or travelled solo for longer than a few days. I am comfortable with my own thoughts, but this was an experiment in the extreme, and I learned that I have an emotional threshold of three to four weeks before I crave permanent company, if only for a week’s respite. Casual encounters on the trail are wonderful, but they don’t replace company.

And when I did meet up with Carolyn, it really did reinforce how special our life-relationships are.

However, I did also discover what many solo travellers have before me; that making casual acquaintance is much easier when you travel solo. Conversations over coffee or on the trail are commonplace and deeper for being on your own; I felt that I was wholly successful in my aim of meeting people properly, and there were so many of those wonderful moments.

So I feel that I have become more gregarious and resourceful, which is counter-intuitive when I spent so much time alone.

Do you have any regrets?

None. There are few things I might do differently if I were to do it again. But you can’t go forward with regrets in the closet.

I did make one expedient choice, which was to cycle the flatlands of East Anglia, and I realise that by taking those shortcuts I didn’t give Essex the attention it deserves. It’s not a regret, though, because I am simply resolved to go back and explore.

Are you happy with the Charity effort?

With Helen on the Barmouth lifeboat

With Helen on the Barmouth lifeboat

Yes I am. We’re already at over £1 per kilometre, which is satisfying. And I think that there is scope to increase that substantially when the lecture programme starts.

I’ve had such brilliant support from Leigh-Beth and her team at Parkinson’s UK and warm welcomes at the RNLI lifeboat stations. I made this walk for me first and foremost, but there’s no doubt in my mind that having the fundraising was an additional incentive and that it provided interest and connection for many people.

What’s next then, Ken?

You know not to ask that. But since you have, it’s firstly sorting and cataloguing and processing 5000+ images for my talks and books and all that. And then it’s whatever Carolyn wants to do really. I’ve been self-indulgent enough for a while. There will be some micro-adventures probably. But it’s too early to say.

When is the first lecture?

Wednesday 31st January in Steyning; tickets available very soon.

Thanks for all the fish (and chips) Ha!

Don’t mention it …

… Ken
3rd November

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