Completing the Red Line

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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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

DSCF6284aacross 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.

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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The Beginning of the End

Stage 241, 30th November: Newhaven to Worthing

Over forty-one weeks I had tried to think barely more than one step ahead of myself. Yes, I had planned things thoroughly from well before I started and yes, I had to consider back-up and support sometimes months ahead. However, my walking mindset had been firmly fixed on no more than two or three days ahead and only now again affording myself the luxury of considering maybe a week ahead. Now I was thinking beyond a week and thinking of what I had to do when I got home. The end had begun.

Today was my first and only day without a support driver and was also all a bit of a blur. It started with a taxi ride from Worthing back to my start point at Newhaven and the expensive fare was lightened when the driver generously returned his tip as a donation. I had an hour or two of peaceful cliff top walking before social interaction picked up somewhat. Firstly, I met up with Murray, an MS sufferer, who had followed my blog since he came across it in an SIA publication back in June. He joined me on the under-cliff path into Brighton where a small group were loitering at the end of the pier waving in my direction. Ray and Suze, who I had last seen in the wilds of West Scotland, turned up with his family and friends including Paul and his wife who knocked me into a double take, “you what?” of delight as he announced a huge pledge for my efforts. I was genuinely humbled by his generosity and enthusiasm and I couldn’t refuse the opportunity of a sit down lunch courtesy of Ray.

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Paul, Ray, Suze and party kept me a little longer than planned, but it was time I surely owed them and a few miles in the dark along Worthing seafront were a price worth paying.  Remarkably, a late November seafront in Brighton was still busy. The self-styled London-by-the-Sea was certainly bustling as crowds milled about the promenade, some even stopping for an alfresco sit down and a drink. I did however note that most were sensibly wearing a winter woolly and supping a hot cuppa.

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By Hove, Murray too had left me but within minutes a tall John strode into view and insisted I had, what I suspected would be, my last ice cream from Martello’s. I’d last seen John back in Lancashire with his underarm girlfriend, Cardboard Karen. He had kindly stepped in at very short notice to drive Snickers for a few days this week and with James due to arrive on Thursday the duo had collectively saved my skin when the last hurdle looked as if it had become Becher’s Brook.

John left me to enjoy the less picturesque parts of Portslade and Shoreham before I made my way into Worthing for my last meeting of the day with another cousin Gareth. I apologised for my late arrival but he seemed nonplussed and took me straight down to his sailing club for a couple of pints and a quick lasagne. Today? A bit of a blur? Yes – but with no complaints whatsoever.

Stage 242, 1st December: Worthing to Aldwick Bay nr Bognor

It was back to normality as John joined me to take Snickers’ keys from my hands. I set off down the promenade and hugged the shingle beach tops all the way to Littlehampton. A brief beach walk at Climping was the first for a while and was only spoilt by the rumble of more huge tipper trucks moving shingle for sea defences, this time from East to West. A couple of days ago back in Seaford they were moving shingle from West to East. I did wonder whether there were dozens of trucks all along the South coast moving shingle in opposite directions just for the hell of it or whether they were actually swapping it somewhere in the middle, just for fun.

Middleton-on-Sea tried to block access to the seafront with a row of pretentious mansions proclaiming private beach ownership and exclusivity. Not below the high water line it isn’t and I enjoyed skipping over the groynes and not having to divert inland for the sake of more of the ‘English Private’ disease.

I was soon in Felpham and it anonymously merged into Bognor as neither town thrilled me with anything other than an enormous and all dominating holiday park. To me the central South coast towns had all been very pleasant, but none had knocked me sideways with anything really special. If it wasn’t for Beachy Head and The Seven Sisters, this whole strip along the English coast would have just been “rather nice”if more than a little overrated. However, I suppose it should be noted that I did just pass through in Winter. DSCF6165

 

I ended the day waiting for John at the gates of the rather “exclusive” Aldwick Bay Estate. As I stood there, a little dishevelled from a long day, residents drove by in their 4x4s and BMWs or walked by wearing Hunter wellies with their well-groomed hounds in tow. Without exception, all looked at me with mistrust and suspicion in their eyes. Clearly they feared that I was about to steal their car, rob their Rolex from their wrist and burgle their palatial pile. The estate was, to my eyes, vile. It was everything I dislike about Southeast England all neatly tied up in a square mile or two of greed, arrogance and vulgar displays of wealth. I’m sure there were lovely people living there, certainly Jill was very friendly and generous to my cause, but I was glad to get back to normality and park Snickers up on the driveway of John’s friends house for an evening of grand company and use of a decent shower.

Stage 243, 2nd December: Aldwick Bay nr Bognor to West Wittering

I didn’t give the Aldwick Bay Estate a chance to redeem itself by walking through it. Instead I headed straight back to the shingle beach to wade through a sea of pebbles along the shore toward Pagham and an inland muddy trudge around the marshes of Pagham Harbour. Drizzle accompanied me for a while, but as the rain died away a North wind picked up and my nose volunteered a few dew drops to warn me of a rapidly falling temperature. By the time I was back alongside the sea, today had become decidedly chilly.

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It wasn’t long before I turned another notable corner at Selsey Bill and came across a rather significant sight. I could see the Isle of Wight again. I’d not seen her since February. I sat out of the wind in the shelter of the sea-wall and ate my lunch looking across the water and watching a ferry coming out of Portsmouth. It was beginning to really dawn on me that the end was nigh and that I was going to complete the whole thing. Emotions were mixed. I couldn’t say what those emotions were as I don’t think I knew myself, but they were all over the place. It was only my freezing numb hands which kicked me into action by digging into my rucksack for a thick pair of gloves and I needed to get moving again to stay warm.

Another inland diversion flew by and it felt as if I was back at the coast in East Wittering within minutes and not the ninety or so it had taken me. Thoughts, whatever they were, had eaten time and the light was fading as I met John sat in West Wittering car park with the engine running and the heaters full on.