It was 1:30 am. I said goodbye to my new friends for the evening and dragged myself, more than half cut, up to the summit of Sidmouth’s Peak Hill. With no obvious campsite nearby, I ignored the ‘No Camping’ sign and searched for a flat piece of ground on which to hurl myself and potentially my tent. The folk festival throbbed below me, ricocheting off the hills sending me into a confused spin. I could see the whole town at the foot of the hill, lights twinkling and gradually going out. In the darkness, the hill looked wild. Of course the council didn’t want me to camp here, in the most idyllic spot in town, away from houses, cars and the footfall of festival goers.
My search for flat ground was fruitless, and the six or so pints of ale I’d consumed with Wayne and Ian (two local chaps, keen to welcome me to their town) had left me feeling a tad rakish. In front of me was a sturdy bench on a level plinth of concrete. I had never aspired to sleep on a park bench, in fact as most people do, I had avoided such things in life thus far. However, my legs were tired and I couldn’t face walking any further out of town, so I unrolled my mattress, positioned my rucksack for a pillow and lay down. It was fine. I fell asleep almost instantly but was shortly woken by the sound of voices. In a state of reduced cognitive function, I froze. I could hear three men and faintly see the glowing red ends of cigarettes dancing towards me like fireflies with malintent. Shit. I knew the bench was too good to be left vacant on a fine starry evening such as this. I kept still, hoping the men would pass. They did pass, but I did not go back to sleep. As I lay there, imagining every sound and every light was an angry mob of thugs coming to reclaim their hill top vista and give me a good kicking, I thought, how the fuck did I end up here?
Several months ago, I decided to walk from London to Cornwall, as a sort of rite of passage I suppose. My brother and I had talked about doing it for years and now seemed a good time. In preparation for the walk I did a lot of research. By research of course, I mean I bought just about every book on; adventure, wild camping, tramping, foraging… trekking in the polar regions (well, you never know). I probably read 10% of the research material I gathered, and to be honest that’s plenty. The most useful books I read were stories that inspired me and made me want to go and make stories of my own. I wanted to have my own big adventure, a journey of self discovery, challenge myself, test myself against the rigours of life on the road and all the other clichés.
It wasn’t until the week before I left that I really started to make a plan and plot my route through the south. I stared at maps, looking for patches of green that might provide a suitable camp. I earmarked rivers and footpaths that I could follow. I looked for monuments and places of historic or scientific interest to set as way points. I measured distances with my eyes, somewhat inaccurately, and boldly wrote down how many days each section would take me. My estimations were ambitous in places and conservative in others. There’s almost no way of knowing how long a walk will take you until you are walking. It might rain. The hills might be, or simply seem to be in a state of severe fatigue, mountains. Your feet might fail you and fall to pieces. It would take me the entire journey just to find my rhythm.
Well, the day that I announced I would walk to Cornwall was long gone, and it was time to face the music. I was well prepared. Unlike Charlie Carroll, who shunned creature comforts to experience the hardships of tramping in its truest form, I carried them all on my back. I took; my phone, solar panels, back up power banks, more solar panels, more back up power banks. As much as I wanted a challenge, I didn’t want to be out of touch with my wife. I carried a tent, so that I’d have shelter if it rained. I carried; food, water, spare trainers, waterproofs, walking poles, a first aid kit, hundreds of painkillers, whisky. As you can probably imagine, all this kit made for quite a burden, but I would need it all in the times to come.
I would be alone for most of the trip, but to ease me in, my wife and brother joined me on the first day into the Surrey Hills. Hayley and I ate a good breakfast, checked and double checked our packs then waited for Charlie to arrive. When he appeared, he had nothing with him but a hangover and a pork pie. I handed him a backpack, sleeping bag and water and we were off. That is how we came to be sitting on a bench, looking out from the very top of Caterham at the next few days’ walking through forests, hills, sand and chalk. It was a fine day, full of fine spirits and a wanderlust about to be well sated.
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