Usually, after a long day’s walk, a lot of things hurt.
In 2019, I was overweight. (Still am – mainly my fault). I’d gained weight after learning to drive, but mostly after losing a kidney, when I could barely walk due to various surgeries. To top that, I’d developed something called ‘plantar fasciitis’, simultaneously in both feet, which had lasted for 13 months. Felt like having a marble in both of your shoes. Even worse, when barefoot.
Due to the missing kidney, I can’t take anti-inflammatory pills. My feet had only just recovered, thanks to Madi Dodd at Heron Therapy, some NHS silicon heel cups & treatment, plus me enduring the social stigma of wearing ‘Crocs’ shoes in all weathers. For a year. In Cumbria.
In the month before I set off, I became hyper-alert about hurting my feet, or jeopardising my walk. I’d still told less than a handful of people my plans. I was pretty convinced I’d fail. Pretty certain my feet (or weight) would be to blame. And now my lousy big toe REALLY hurt.
My parents sacrificed everything for me and my brothers. Where they lived, what they did, and what they could have. They’d always ensured we had proper Clarks shoes (with ALL the width fittings). They were really expensive and were the only thing my least-favourite grandma used to talk about when we’d dress up to visit her on Sundays. Grandma Daisy’s shoes were mainly filled with bunions.
But my toe really worried me. I went back to see Madi. She set up a tug of war exercise between my big, ‘Clarks’ toe and her upper body, whilst we talked about the youth climate strikes. My toe somehow managed to pull Madi two steps forward. “You’ve nothing to worry about there” she said. That was enough for me to hear. My friend John had told me it was entirely normal to become a hypochondriac before a long walk. Aware of all the bits of you, that creak, crumble or groan. The illnesses no-one tells you about, until you reach our age.
That morning as I woke up in Ennerdale, I realised nothing seemed to hurt. Breakfast at The Cloggers was superb. I went to collect a pub sandwich, I’d ordered the night before (we were due some rain, so I finally had space for a sandwich in my backpack, provided I wore my overtrousers). At the hotel I saw a pile of huge suitcases. Coast to Coast walkers using the Sherpa van luggage service. I’ve absolutely no idea what they’d packed.
Before I continue with day 2, it’s probably a good time to rewind and think about why I was here.
So, here goes…
Years ago I bought a very old Lonely Planet book in a charity shop. “Walks in Britain”. I was working with a woman called Debbie who’d once mountain-biked off-road from John O’ Groats to Lands End. And walked coast to coast with her teenage family for FUN. She’d got me thinking.
At work, we qualify for a sabbatical break after ten years’ service. People often go and chase dazzling ideas in Romanian meadows; see Costa Rican birds; or study Canadian bears. But I’ve always been much more interested in knowing ‘what’s just over there’. I’d taught abroad after university. My fellow trainees aimed for Peru, Japan, and Indonesia. But I couldn’t see the attraction. ‘What’s next door like?’ I thought. So I chose to go to Poland, just after communism had imploded.
And so, 20 years later, when my sabbatical came around, I thought about next door in northern England. And the Coast to Coast which I knew nothing about.
Almost all my ideas where inspired by others. When I told John, he’d simply said ‘Do it. And when you do, do it for charity’. I work for a charity. But I didn’t want my walk to revolve around meetings, reports, emails and messages. It took months for me to work this puzzle out…
Somewhere in the background, I’d arranged some training for my friend Kate Jackson. The trainer was a last-minute replacement from the John Muir Trust, called Rob Bushby. Kate came back from Ullswater, as a Lost Words evangelist. That’s Rob for you.
Just before Christmas, Paul Scully at Kendal Mountain Literature Festival had donated copies of The Lost Words to dozens of schools that attended their events. Some people at work seemed very excited about this book and considered working it into a community project they were developing.
I borrowed the book and brought it home, reading it late one night. The size of the book made me smile. I photographed it and sent a lame joke to the writer Robert Macfarlane. I’d avoided social media for years (especially Twitter), but had been playing around with it back then. To my surprise Robert replied and made me laugh, improving and extending my joke. His reply planted the seed of an idea I wasn’t at all aware of.
In January 2019, a young poet, writer and colleague called Rosabel Fowkes had amazed me by wild swimming daily in Windermere in our sub-zero January, fundraising for mental health. Seeing her blissful, post-swim smile one morning, and the huge amount she eventually, quietly raised, was the point where the seed I was still unaware of, had started to germinate.
I took my ideas to David, my boss. I’d need a month to prepare and walk 200 miles I thought. I could give wildlife talks in the evening and shake a sock at strangers like Simon Armitage had once done. “That’s a lot of work” said David “arranging posters and venues and kit. And research!”.
As usual, he was spot on. He really is an excellent boss. Days later, I realised there was a better way. Ready-made audiences – school assemblies! One of my favourite duties at work. Kryptonite to some, but absolute nectar to me.
A month(!) passed before I realised what I’d talk about. From that autumnal seed idea, spring shoots emerged, above ground. The Lost Words! I’d talk about The Lost Words. Why hadn’t I thought of this in the first place?
I’d recently read, and then seen some of the work of science writer, Amy-Jane Beer at the People’s Walk for Wildlife in late 2018. Since then one of the many things she’d achieved was to provide The Lost Words to schools in Yorkshire. Amy’s another inspiring woman who provided me with my ideas and possibilities, without ever realising.
At some point, I wrote to Jackie Morris about my walk. Jackie had first dreamt of The Lost Words for reasons you’ll best read or hear about elsewhere. (I’d start with her blog if I were you). Whatever she succinctly said, I’ve now misplaced, but I’ve chosen to remember it as (forgive me, if I’m romanticising here) “you marvellous man. I’m going to paint you an otter.”
What a BRILLIANT thing to say to someone you’d never met. What a BEAUTIFUL thing to be able to do. Although, I wasn’t sure what I’d do with an otter. Or how I’d keep it dry on the walk. I wasn’t sure what to say. At that point the idea had fully bloomed. Maybe Jackie’s got green-fingers as well.
I’d walk 200 miles stopping off daily at the schools to talk to all the children, and fundraising to buy The Lost Words for every school in Cumbria. I’d need a lot of money. There were at least 200 schools to go. With just weeks left, I bought a map and started secretly planning. I’d still told less than a dozen people. Who the hell would sponsor me? How does that even work these days?
Here’s where the serious worrying starts.
Will anyone care? Will anyone know? Will anyone donate? The answer to all of these was always the same: it doesn’t actually matter…just enjoy your walk. That’s why you’re going in the first place. The rest is all gravy as ‘the kids’ used to say. But seriously…had I thought this through?
I was going in 3 weeks. Michelle, a fundraising whiz at Cumbria Wildlife Trust advised me about online fundraising websites. First, I’d need a short film…oh. ok. How do you make one of them, then?
Each May, Lakeland’s bluebells reach peak perfection for just a couple of days in their season. My wife, Bea came along, with my bare idea of reading one of Robert Macfarlane’s spell-poems deep in the very best of Cumbria’s bluebell woods.
Some people had made the mistake of saying they liked my voice, so I asked Bea to “film the flowers and that” whilst I read ‘Bluebell‘ aloud, straddling a fallen tree like a wannabe folk singer. When I finished, Bea was very quiet. Looked me in the eye and said “Never, ever, do that again!”…
What? “You want people to give you money? Are you mad? You’ve made me feel so sad! I want to go home. That poem! Never do that again” she muttered. (Later I found out she likes the newt spell-poem best. Sets a very different mood).
Luckily, I’d had a plan B ready, I’d prepared in case of bad weather, not in case I’d just depressed the heck out of my poor wife. Cain, a moth-mad cameraman from the north-east had volunteered to come and help in a couple of days. It’d be tight, but…
Cain and I went to the bluebell woods. I’d decided on a script and even practised a bit. As we prepared to set off, swifts screamed by us outside a Victorian cornershop in Kendal. Our first of the year! A great omen, surely? With Cain’s know-how, calm and patience and my three changes of t-shirt it all seemed to work out well. One day, his vital fundraising video might appear here* (*once, I’ve learned how to do this stuff properly).
I’d volunteered to lead a group for Kendal’s Walking Festival, before I set off. Usually a grown-up affair. At the very last moment, I grabbed The Lost Words as well as a first aid kit. The book was too big for my backpack, and fell out of the straps all day. As we began our walk, my group heard a mighty wren singing over the noise of the A-road dual carriageway below. We saw dandelions, rustyback ferns, ivy and bramble. All Lost Words.
At the start of our limestone miles along the scar I showed them the book and mumbled unconvincingly about it. Yet the group became so energised, sharing their views on this seemingly new urgent matter with their friends! And continued to speak about it for the next 5 miles. This was the day I personally became convinced The Lost Words was really something rather special.
At the top of the scar, I remembered I’d missed out the usual Health & Safety briefing. I opened the book on Adder, and simply said “This is Adder. Adder lives here, leave adders be.” We’d seen lizards basking on the stony summit. The group split into the usual fast and slow halves. As I waited with the front group, we wondered where the backmarkers had got to. “We saw an adder!” they all called out as they rejoined us. “It crossed our path, sliding into the violets and ferns!”. Perhaps we’d summoned an adder with our spell-book. (I’ve still never seen an adder in Cumbria. But they’re here)…
It seemed to have all come together. I decided to ‘go public’ by telling the handful of people I knew. And launching the fundraising webpage once Cain’s film was done.
And that’s quite enough of all that I think. But now you know. THAT’S why I was in Ennerdale. Here’s day 2…
I’d invited Cain to join me on a leg of my walk. He’d offered to come to Ennerdale mainly as he’d never been. I’d just needed to call in at the school of tiny country dancers first, then would meet him at Ennerdale Water’s edge. The older half of the school were away in Liverpool with the Head. Some of the tiny infants knew of The Lost Words. Told me Jackie Morris herself had visited their little school! I suddenly felt a bit tired. Decided to take a different tack…
I listened to them tell me about wildlife and their country dancing. They were going to a big competition soon. “I saw you practising yesterday!” I said, remembering I’d not had time to stretch my legs. “Let’s have a wake-up shake-up!” I heard myself say, whilst simultaneously thinking “what?!”…“ We always need to do our exercises before we climb mountains!”. Oh heck.
What followed was totally unplanned (imagine Peter Kay crossed with Joe Wicks). Thank goodness teachers always join in. But, what to say? I’ve never exercised. At its giddiest point I chose “Look! Miss has got her knees up around her ears!” The teaching staff and trainee started to giggle, mainly at my unwittingly inappropriate comments but perhaps also my clearly unrehearsed moves.
As I headed down to the lake, now with bendy knees and happy feet, I caught up with Cain. I don’t think I stopped giggling for the next few hours. (Even when things almost took a really bad turn later, up near Wainwright’s final resting place). Cain had brought his camera and friend James. I think they caught the utter joy of the outdoors brilliantly in the film they made for me and this funding appeal.
I realise that this ‘chapter’ feels to be all about me. But I just wanted it to be all about how I got here. Why any of this happened at all. I hope you don’t mind. I promise “normal service will resume” in the next chapter. Just the walking, the wildlife, the wonder. I promise I’ll try.
I also realise I only seemed to mention the people I met on day 1. Not the hares I saw, the hedgerows or anything else. But that’s partly as on that first day, there’s quite a few folk about. You walk through a town, farms and a village, a fair bit of tarmac.
I’d missed out the very first stranger I met though. A Dutchman with a huge backpack who came down to the beach just after I’d arrived. I’d wished him well and said “see you in Ennerdale!”. The fact that he had no map and was going to walk up the sea cliffs (in that gale) made we wonder how he’d do.
I hadn’t seen him since.