In May 2016 I was lucky enough to be invited to Buckingham Palace (along with quite a few other people) to a celebration of 60 years of the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme. During the afternoon celebrations I was fortunate enough to meet Prince Edward and he asked whether I was doing a Diamond Challenge this year. I felt slightly awkward because I thought I ought to do one but hadn’t really thought about what I would like to do and so said “yes” when asked. He then asked what I was going to do and I said “Walk to the coast” which was met with a chortle because he didn’t know how far it was to the coast from my house and he possibly presumed that I live by the sea. In fact I need a challenge that is going to push me, and also in my mind it needs to be a challenge considerably beyond the Gold level expedition in length.
Fast forward several DofE meetings when the Diamond Anniversary Challenge is mentioned and I know that I have until the end of 2016 to complete the challenge.
I have obtained the magic “pass” ticket from my family this Christmas time and need to start my walk tonight, I wanted to complete it after my school term finished but before the main Christmas celebrations started, however, that wasn’t possible. The weather is poor (thick fog) I don’t actually know whether my body will cope with the length of the walk or whether I will get very lost en route. Actually I reckon that I could easily walk to the coast from my house so am adding a few rules to make it more challenging these are-:
- To do the walk at night
- To walk as much as possible off road
- Not to take a map (or use my smartphone for navigational aid)
- To complete the walk completely unsupported
To appease my family (and Facebook friends) I have arranged that I will check in with them at various stages of the night and I have an android phone so the “find my friends” app won’t work!
I set off some time just after 6:30pm. The visibility is poor and I can only see a few metres ahead. I know the route out of my village to the footpath which can take me over the A3 and heading South into the Mole Valley. There is something slightly strange about heading out passing people putting out the bins as I walk towards Prince’s Covert’s woods. The last street light of Covert’s Road seeming quite symbolic to me as I head into the foggy darkness.
At about 9pm I pass near to Leatherhead and through the Mole Valley. I drop down in height to cross the River Mole and climb up the hill on the North Downs Way past Denbeigh’s Vineyard. Magically I start seeing the stars and I have climbed through the fog to a clear sky, in fact it is bright enough up here to turn my head torch off and try to navigate by the Pole Star… however now I am heading East along the North Downs way and so find it easier with my trusty compass!
The North Downs way takes me to Newlands Corner and I am there just after mid night. This is good because in my head I know that a substantial part of the walk is done. I celebrate by eating a pork pie and announcing my arrival on Facebook. I am genuinely pleased with myself because I know that having arrived here in good form- no blisters or aches or pains- I know that I will probably be able to get to the coast. The next milestone is to get to Cranleigh.
Warning. I don’t actually know where I am going! This section from the North Downs to the Downs Link at Bramley is one that I am unsure about. I don’t have a map but do know that there are sign posts for the Downs Link and provided I head South I am going to be heading in the direction of the coast!
I pick up a narrow lane and try to turn off it as soon as possible, I follow a bridleway sign which spits me out on another path and as if I am being guided by some other force I look up and miraculously see a sign for the Downs Link- I have found it- a little woop woop! and smile crosses me. I am also in good shape for reaching half way.
I enjoy the start of the Downs link path for many reasons. I have never walked it before and I pass through the disused station at Bramley and head south to Cranleigh. The town (actually according to the sign post outside it is the largest village in England) is still quiet and it is about 4am. I stop in the car park I have used in previous DofE expeditions and have a little stretch. It’s fair to say that now I am quite tired, not hugely but I can definitely feel it in my legs and feet.
I keep heading south and it seems very dark. The previous section from Bramley to Cranleigh was the first time I didn’t hear any human machinery on my journey- I have had the steady hum of cars/ trains or planes all the way to here but now it’s quiet, very quiet.
I start taking the journey in sections, counting each half hour stint and celebrating with another gel juice or energy bar.
At 5am I have had enough. I am tired and the floor is moving up and down I need to stop. I curl up on the floor and wrap myself in my tin foil blanket and shut my eyes. At this stage I could easily quit. It hurts.
Something wakes me up half an hour later and as if on auto-pilot I get up, slap myself around the face and tell myself to stop faffing around. I get going… I might not make it and I know that if I don’t get up I will want to call a cab and knock it on the head…. this is a low point.
Something inside of me keeps on pushing on and despite a 15 minute stop under a bridge where I rest from the fog (oh yes the fog has returned) and it is still dark. When will it get light??????
Amazingly I pass through various old stations on the Downs Link and get to Christ’s Hospital School. A brief section on a road around the school grounds and I see a very uplifting sight of a mile marker saying that the South Downs (and almost my finishing point) is only 15 miles… Now I am going to make it. I celebrate with a packet of Haribo and brief text conversation with my daughter who is about to head off to work for the day.
At this stage I am aching all over. My back is sore from my ruck sack. I haven’t slept properly for a long time (I don’t really count curling up on the floor in the foetal position as a proper sleep).
By 11 am I am wishing that I had brought some coffee in my ruck sack with me. I have chatted to an elderly couple who have two golden retriever dogs who politely inform me that there’s a cafe just around the corner. I hadn’t planned on going to a cafe because I am not sure whether I will be able to leave it once I have enjoyed the warmth (I think I may be slightly hypothermic at this stage too) however I take this knowledge about the coffee as a sign that I must visit it.
The rich smell of an Americano Coffee and sugary taste of home made flap jack go to my head and I nearly pass out. The poor lady in the shop asks me whether I am ok… actually I am not but for some strange reason say “I’m fine” gulp my coffee down and take the flap jack in a bag- I fear I might be sick at this stage as my arms start shaking. I need to get going.
By now it is a case of one foot in front of the other. I know I am going to get there but it is painful and I am not going to get there before mid day (the original planned arrival time). I have updated my family about my lack of progress.
Maybe it was because of the injection of coffee or whatever but I manage to cover the next couple of miles and see another sign for Shoreham and it is under 10 miles now. I start converting this into mental ParkRun laps of Bushy park, or sections of my local ParkRun.
I am complacent about reading sign posts and seem to take a wrong turn, I end on a path which leads me to another path and I do a complete circle around a village. Tired and emotional at this stage I almost cry with pain. I have added a section to my walk that I didn’t need to do. There is a bit of path from Bramber to Shoreham which seems to say Shoreham is 3 miles… one sign after another. 3 miles, that’s a park run to go. But I pass one signpost and then 20 minutes later yet another 3 miles to go sign… it’s not fair… wahhhhhhhh!
I follow the River Ardur, on the right hand side is the imposing stature of Lancing College Chapel and on the left is the noise and roar of cars on the A283. I am placing one foot in front of another. Each pace takes so much effort. The pain every time I place my foot down is quite considerable.
By this stage I am willing Shoreham beach to come closer. I can see that the sun is starting to become lower in the sky and I want to get there before it is dark. I have been up for over 30 hours and feeling very irrational.
Finally I get to Shoreham and need to find the sea. You would think that this is easy but a glance of a map of the town shows that it has a huge harbour and I want to actually find the sea, not an estuary! Fortunately there is a pedestrian bridge and I can finally see the Sea. It is there in front of me. A few minutes later- the final painful steps and I am walking over the cobbled beach and down to the sea. I dip my hands into the water and taste the salt. Made it. Phew.
I arrived just after 2:30pm nearly 19 hours since I started my walk. There was a strong sense of elation combined with an emotional outpouring. I phone home with the good news and hobble back to the town centre.
Fortunately I find another cafe which is open and buy the remaining cakes and a coke. I explain my walk to the lady serving me and she is suitably impressed. She gives me the directions to the train station and I head back home on the train.
I am greeted at the train station by my lovely wife who has driven the 0.3 miles to collect me! I am very stiff and can hardly move at all. I hobble into my house just after 6pm nearly 24 hours since I started my walk to the coast.
On reflection these are the things that I have enjoyed about this adventure-:
- I didn’t know whether I could actually achieve it- there was a lot of unknowns with this trip (including the distance)
- It was a very low carbon impact expedition- walking from my house and using public transport to return home afterwards
- I completed the round trip in under 24 hours
- I had planned many parts of it in my head and it was basically down to me, I didn’t need to rely on anyone else
- It was unique and a bit mad- I don’t know anyone else who has walked through the night at the end of December from Claygate to the coast!
Now to recover and plan the next adventure. And the vital stats- this walk was 101 Km in length completed in just over 19 hours