The beach stretches out before me.
I’m here to see a sign – but the view grabs my attention. It says:
Mike. Forget the sign. Forget all that stuff for a moment. Looooook.
Every time, that view gets to me – especially in summer (above), but even now, in winter, with a gunmetal sea and a roaring sky and rain spattering down and whipping under your hood.
I’ve walked to that horizon and I’ve slept on that beach (in the rain) – but its power over me is undiminished. A voice inside me, joyful and deluded and completely off its head, yells, I COULD WALK THAT, STARTING NOW. ALL OF THAT. NO REALLY. JUST GIVE ME A SHOT AT THIS.
I have a book at home that’s really not helping.
It’s one of a huge number of titles printed by Reader’s Digest that you’ll only find in charity shops or in strange corners of eBay. They all share similar characteristics: incredibly well-made, beautifully illustrated, admirably well-written, usually part of a collection, and if you’re British or American, your parents own at least one of them.
(If you don’t believe me, ask them.)
This book is all about walking round the coast of Britain.
Well, not really. Nobody would be daft enough to do that!
(Oh. Right. Well, never mind.)
Every page is maybe a day’s walk – around 20 to 25 miles of coastline.
Here’s the stretch of coast I’m on right now, with Hornsea smack in the middle of the picture.
This book is a guide to the adventure of a lifetime. I’d sell my soul to do this – except, I don’t need to, there’s nobody stopping me, no gatekeepers demanding a toll. If I got my affairs in order and found a way to pay my bills, run my business while I walked, and get my girlfriend interested in joining me for at least some of it, I could just – go.
It’d take me about a year to get round the English coast, around 4,500 miles – so doing the whole of the UK, which is around 20,000 miles, would take me a bit more than 4 years. Or, I could skip the islands and cut it down to 12,000 miles, if that didn’t feel like cheating. Or I could cheat – following the general direction of the coastline but cutting out all the crinkly bits, which would shave thousands of miles off. It’s a tricky thing to get your head round.
Anyway, 20,000 miles is four years of solid walking – or, perhaps more practically, eight years of walking 6 months per year. If I started today, I’d be 53 when it ended.
And I could start anywhere. I could start at John O’Groats, which I’ve passed through many times on the way to Orkney, where I worked as an archaeologist.
I could start at Land’s End, at the other end of the UK.
I could start in Hornsea, my childhood home – but that would mean I’d be finishing in Hornsea, and that’s not a destination that would bolster me with hope for 20,000 miles.
(No offence, Hornsea. We just…need to see different people for a while.)
Right now this is what I call a 75% idea. I don’t just have half a mind (50%) to do it. I’m more resolved than that. But it’s still not a true, really-in-the-world thing. It’ll require work to piece together – and a lot of training. The mind is willing but the flesh is oh god, can’t we just go home and watch Netflix?
So, for now, I turn my gaze away from that enticing coastline, and look at the sign.
This is what I’d see if it was a sunny day. (In fact, it’s such a wet, foul afternoon that I’m afraid to take my camera out, so I’m borrowing someone else’s photo from Flickr.)
The sign marks the official start of the Trans Pennine Trail, opened in 2001, a walking route that crosses the width of England and connects the North Sea with the Irish Sea. This exact spot is where it begins (or ends). For the last 15 years it has nagged at me:
Mike. Forget the coastline. Forget the writing thing. Forget all that stuff for a moment. Look at the sign.
And at long last, I’m paying attention to it.
Tomorrow, I head southwest – diagonally down East Yorkshire and into the city of Hull, through Hull, along the river, and to the Humber Bridge, where I’ve identified a few likely spots for a spot of overnight bivvy bagging.
It’s a 25-mile route, and that’s got me deeply worried. My personal record for a day’s walking is half that distance – and that was back in 1995, when I was 20 years younger. I’m poorly trained, my knees aren’t so great these days, and I’ll be carrying a fully-laden backpack.
I can think of many, many reasons why this won’t work.
My feet will be ruined before I’m even halfway. I’ll turn into an unhappy, snivelling, pathetic shell of a man, filled with self-pity, and I’ll sit and eat all my sandwiches and BelVita breakfast biscuits in one go and then feel too heavy to continue, at which point I’ll find a bus-stop and go home. My camping stove will explode, taking me with it. My rucksack straps will break, and I won’t be able to repair them. My legs will cramp. Or maybe I’ll rationalise my way out of it like any sensible person would: I’m an adult! This is foolish! What’s the point? Grow up! Conform! Be responsible! Mid-life crisis!
However, nobody likes a whiner, including myself, so I think I’ll just set off first thing in the morning and see what happens.
Sometimes the stories and voices inside your head are an utter waste of your time. Sometimes you just have to shut everything and everyone up, and just find out for yourself.
I guess that’s what I’ll be doing tomorrow, then.