Our lives changed one evening without warning. We were tired and travel-stained in a small pub at the bottom of Robin Hood’s Bay on Yorkshire’s bleak east coast. We’d just walked 350km in two weeks and as a couple with no prior hiking experience, felt both exhilarated and exhausted. Even so, an idea seeded that evening that was completely unexpected and has gone on to define our lives.
A year after that first walk, we set off from John O’Groats at the northern tip of Scotland for a longer adventure. We were nervous. I was turning 58 and had no idea if a typical suburban couple like us could manage such an extreme quest. However, a medical friend had told me our bodies are capable of so much more than we use them for, and so it proved. Over the next 139 days we carried our backpacks across 2,801km to Land’s End at England’s south western edge.
The challenge stretched us to our very limits, including to the point where my wife Debby broke down, declaring the walk over three weeks from the end. Summer snow in the Pennines, the routine onslaught of wind and rain, a near-death experience on a mountain edge in thick fog, and pulled muscles trudging through seemingly endless bogs, all heightened our awareness of nature’s elemental power. In contrast, our spirits were constantly uplifted by beauty beyond measure. Ever-changing landscapes and skies offered an infinite palette of colours and we were in thrall to all manner of life, from soaring birds to tiny creatures that scurried between trees adorned with dew-encrusted spiders’ webs. In the end we dug deep, reset and managed to finish.
The Pennine Way along England’s spine was a particularly arduous track and at its end I’d had my own emotional breakdown. One morning for no obvious reason, I simply sat on the side of the bed and sobbed. It was as if the bogs we’d trudged through had welled up through my body. Only later did I realise I was confronting the pain I had inflicted on my teenage sons by falling in love with Debby within weeks of the funeral of my first wife, their mother.
Once we reached home I became aware the walk may have ended, but my journey had not. Deep marks remained well beyond any hawthorn puncture wounds and bramble gashes. A second unplanned adventure had been triggered, one to learn what it truly means to be human. What my body had intuitively understood in the countryside, my head had to come to terms with. Eventually I learned the joy I’d found away from city life was the result of my body becoming reacquainted with the complex web in which all life is connected.
My breakdown had been a critical moment. As the controlling, coping business mind had fractured, the blinkers I’d worn through life had fallen away. A different world was staring me in the face, one far richer and more textured than any displayed in glossy consumer lifestyle magazines. I came to understand that maintaining healthy relationships is the essence of life and that means helping all life flourish. We create life’s meaning through storytelling and so I took five years to write Joining Loose Ends to encourage others to discover the opportunity that awaits beyond their doorstep.
As the prevalent materialistic lifestyles feel increasingly empty and unsatisfying, so an instinctive desire to experience our relationship with nature’s abundance is dawning. Pilgrimage walks are becoming popular and whether it’s the Camino de Santiago or local woodland tracks, more people are now following their yearning to connect to life beyond suburbia. We sense the life-changing potential of moving through the landscape on foot and it’s an urge that cannot be denied.