Stage 247, 6th December: Warsash to Southampton
I don’t think anything had really registered with me the previous evening. Though clearly something must have gone on in my head, because for the very first time on this trip I struggled to get to sleep. One trivial worry was high on my list of things swirling about my brain purely because I had become obsessed with keeping to schedule. I knew I had one more ferry to catch and that despite a phone call yesterday to check it would be running, it was out of my control and I wanted to make sure that I finished on time as close to midday as possible. I knew Kate was arranging a small gathering and that press might be in attendance, so I knew I couldn’t let anyone down.
As to why I had become obsessed with keeping to schedule was now clear. When I set out back in February I really wasn’t convinced that my knees would hold out beyond two weeks. Two old knee operations and plenty of grumbles over the years had given me good reason to doubt my physical capability. I also suspected that man-flu or worse would strike at least once, so I had also quietly built-in two weeks of fat into my plan with the true aim of getting home before Christmas. I barely believed that I would stay bang on my original schedule throughout and end the walk on the day I had planned over a year ago. Yes my knees had grumbled occasionally, yes I had one minor cold and one nasty bout of gastroenteritis. I’d tried my best to stay disciplined and make sure I ended each week on target, if only to be in the right place for my support crew changeover and be exactly where they hoped they would be when they had pledged their week driving Snickers for me.
With all this careful planning, discipline and strict routine of walking Sunday through to Friday week after week, I somehow completely forgot that walking on a Saturday meant that I needed to set my alarm. I overslept.
With barely twenty minutes to complete my usual morning routine, I didn’t have time to dwell on things to come over my last mug of tea and bowl of Oatibix. I didn’t have time to enjoy my last departure or consider my last 9.5 miles into Southampton. I just locked the van, dumped two bags of rubbish in the campsite bins and took a call from BBC Radio Leicester all in one vaguely coordinated rush.
Once the radio interview was over I relaxed a bit and strode towards the ferry due to carry me across the River Hamble. I needn’t have worried. As I arrived at a frost covered jetty a small bright pink boat began chugging its way over from the opposite bank. As it pulled in, the ferryman told me that he had seen me as a vague black shadow through the bright low winter sun and was expecting me. He knew it was my last ferry and that it was important to me. I asked him how much I owed and the response was “no charge”. Generosity from strangers had been a feature of this walk and to have it reaffirmed on my last day was a truly grand reminder. I had repeatedly saw and benefitted from small acts of generosity and the majority had been from individuals and small organisations. Bigger organisations mostly, though not always, had hidden behind dubious small-minded rules and policies. Only heartfelt and secretive acts of some of their independently minded staff had occasionally bypassed their official doorman, known more politely as a Corporate Social Responsibility Manager. I wasn’t a celebrity and I didn’t have huge press coverage, so any payback or mutual back scratching was beyond my ability. I had rather cynically calculated that my corporate value on this walk was nil.
My route took me on around Hamble alongside the mirror calm river, adorned with a priceless collection of yachts and boats all berthed and hunkered down for the winter. I stepped carefully along a few muddy woodland paths trying not to dirty my trousers too much for my arrival back in Mayflower Park.
I was soon on the banks of Southampton Water with the oil refinery at Fawley hogging the view across the far bank on my left as a large oil terminal haunted me on my right. As the ghosts passed by, the path opened out to tarmac and the usual array of dog-walkers and the normal daily life of Netley approached. To acknowledge my return to normality I made a quick stop for a cheese and bacon turnover and a lottery ticket. I paused for a minute to enjoy my unusual snack by the ruins of Netley Abbey before making my way up Weston Shore and turn up the River Itchen for my last bridge.
I paused briefly at the bridge to make sure I had everything in place and that I wasn’t sporting any unsightly nasal dew-drop or cheese and bacon chin stripe. For my last mile I walked with a few carefully chosen songs playing on my iPod. They drowned out all background city noise and immediately transported me back to a few of the favourite places I had passed through over the last nine and a half months.
I turned the corner into Mayflower Park and caught sight of my daughters before they saw me. They were waiting a few hundred yards shy of my official finish and as I packed away my iPod I couldn’t hide the huge lump in my throat or the welling up going on in my tear ducts. A pause for a huge hug from both girls gave me a chance to compose myself before a BBC cameraman nudged in to introduce himself and track along with us for the last few yards.
A welcome party had gathered around Snickers parked at the far end of the car park bedecked with a large congratulatory banner across her bonnet making her look, rather inappropriately, as if she was sporting a Miss World sash. I thought that the big balloon tied to her wing mirror was probably holding it in place and that, along with a few welcoming shouts, made me smile as a crowd of fifty odd friends and family cheered and clapped me
across a red tape held by Graham (SIA) and Rik (MSNTC) for a tight and welcome hug from a waiting Kate. I was 28 seconds late. A glass of bubbly was pushed into my hand as I made my way through everyone for a hug, a kiss, a more manly handshake or two and a round of thanks. I tried not to miss anyone and convinced myself that I had, it wasn’t intentional as I’m sure I wasn’t entirely compos mentis, but I really wanted to thank everyone for their support.
Confusion and numbness were paramount and after a quick local television interview and another live feed radio interview we all made our way anticlockwise around Britain for a few hundred yards to the warmth of a Thai restaurant to enjoy a small feast and a cracking coast walk congratulatory cake.
I was truly chuffed that so many turned out to see me in and I tried my very best to give my unreserved thanks all round, but whatever I said just felt too small for what had been a huge group effort to help one slightly selfish man achieve a dream. Yes, it would have been lovely to have everyone there who had supported me, but it would also have been far too much to expect everyone to come, as I have always been very aware that real lives have real commitments and that the last year of my life has hidden me from both. By way of this blog I hope that my thanks reach each and every one of my supporters.
I promised publicly that I had no intention of ever repeating the feat, but I also promised that if anyone who helped me had a dream that required some support to achieve, I would happily return the favour. The journey back to Leicestershire was at the wheel of Snickers. She drove perfectly and cruised us home easily in fifth gear at over 60 mph with barely a rattle or roll. I think she had been well and truly run-in and had begrudgingly grown to like us as much as many of her drivers had grown to like her – well, that’s what they said. At least one dog remembered me when I got home. I’m sure the big fella will forgive me in a few days after a long muddy walk or two around a few Leicestershire fields.