Trail Diary: Travelling to Travel

23/04/18

One aspect of hiking I find strange, despite doing it myself, is travelling to travel. Allow me to explain. I’ve flown to America on thru-hiking adventures three times, once for The Pacific Crest Trail, another for the Appalachian Trail, and the last time for the Continental Divide Trail.


Untitled-1 (25).jpgIt’s struck me that many of us journey to these far-flung destinations to taste a different experience in new surroundings. And yet some of the best walking in the world is in the UK. We know this because people travel from other countries to try our trails. Ironic isn’t it? I go to the States to hike and pass 747’s over the Atlantic full of walkers destined for the Coast to Coast Trail!


Before anyone points out that the South Downs, Cotswold Way, or our other trails can never compare to the Sierra Nevada, let me discuss that (fair) point as well. We consider some countries to be the epicentre for walking; I need only mention India, Nepal, America, or Canada. And it’s true, can anything beat The Himalayan Trail? Indeed, can reaching the summit of Ben Nevis be up there with checking out the view on Mount Whitney?


Yes, it can. The UK compares to anywhere in the world, even the Himalayas. Being English, I’m a little biased but the outdoor experience is not about altitude, how long the ascent was, whether you passed 6000 metres, or how far from the UK you travelled. It’s about how we feel when we’re there.


I’d argue that, at times, I’d rather be having a cuppa on Botley Hill on the North Downs, than checking out the view from Mt Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail terminus.


Great Britain is embedded with thousands of miles of paths. From the South West Coast Path to the Cape Wrath Trail, each with its own, unique identity. We know they’re special places because others travel here from all over to experience them. I feel honoured to live in a country with so many trails on offer, and despite my foreign forays, I love exploring my homeland.


Untitled-1 (26).jpgMy Dad first suggested I try walking when I hit 16 years old. I roped in a friend, Andrew, after dismissing some poor objections, such as missing his favourite TV programme and being away from his girlfriend for that length of time. Besides, all my other mates were not interested, on holiday or listening to Spandau Ballet.


Dad dropped us at South Harting one evening. Our tent was so flimsy it would have fallen down in a mild breeze. My sleeping bag took up most of my pack, leaving just enough room for Mum’s saucepan, a Victorian gas stove, several cans of baked beans, numerous Mars bars, a couple of T-shirts and a plastic jacket. As long as it didn’t rain or get windy, we’d be fine.


Four days in, and halfway, on Kithurst Hill above Storrington, it did both. We had pitched on open ground right on top of the Downs and the expedition was going well up to that point. I noticed some alarming black clouds and a slight breeze just before I zipped up the tent but had full faith in our little shelter. I woke an hour later with Andrew screaming and a rain-lashed canvas slapping me in the face.


Every few seconds lightning lit up the scene as he wrapped himself around one tentpole, with petrified eyes, looking like a cat stuck up a lamp post.


Thunder crashed for two hours as we battled to keep our shelter upright, terrified of lightning strikes. Between electric flashes, I expected to see a pile of charcoal briquettes instead of Andrew. Then the water started to trickle in. After thirty minutes we were paddling around, very cold, and petrified.


Untitled-1 (27).jpgIt was daylight when the madness subsided. We struggled out of the tent, sopping wet, tired and thankful to be alive. Catching the train back home, both of us fell silent as we gave camping out some serious reconsideration.


Despite my adventures abroad, on world-renowned trails, the memories aren’t solely reserved there. They’re shared by adventures in the UK too. The Cape Wrath Trail, South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Ridgeway, West Highland Way and thousands of miles exploring elsewhere occupy a special place in my heart.


I’ll be sharing some of those experiences, and much more with you through Contours Holidays.