out here hope remains (on england, coast-to-coast)


i did a lot of preparation for the 84-mile (it turned out to be 97 all-in) trek across england along hadrian’s wall national trail. one of them was to make a playlist, which i titled ‘england, coast-to-coast’. in fact, i never listened to it once during the whole nine-day excursion. but the songs looking back offer some oddly spiritual foresight. maybe i would learn something from them after i was done. here are some of the songs, and stories, from the journey.

day one

feel the weight of letting go
feel more lightness than you’ve ever known
you can’t see when light’s so strong
you can’t see when light is gone
(ride, ‘twisterella’)

rain. i am about five miles from my starting point: bowness-on-solway, the west coast of england. the weather is surprisingly tempestuous; water is blowing in off the choppy irish sea, and it’s hard to say if it’s rain or oceanwater. probably both. the road is flat and empty and feels endless and i am walking on pavement that, at the wrong time of day in the wrong season, would be flooded over by the firth’s tide. it nearly is now.

first one sock begins to dampen. right down the leg, straight in through my waterproofs. some minutes – or hours – later, i feel the first slosh. water has breached my boots. i am officially english-wet. my internal screams of agony – why are you here. just turn back. what are you doing. walking across a country? you are incapable of this. you are going to have blisters on day one. give up now. you don’t have to. – almost best me.

walking across a landmass is, above all, a meditation. it is a self-coaching session. a test in the mettle of your mind. over the next nine days, these self-flaggellatory comments will transform into zen mantras – a study in how to carry out mind over matter. but for now, a shivery pub lunch of vegetable soup and hot whisky, then steeling myself back into a sodden jacket and onwards, because if i give up on the first day, i will never forgive myself.

i don’t, and i am never gladder than to reach ‘cosmopolitan’ carlisle and be greeted by adele, a chatty former finance manager turned guesthouse owner who overshares about her marital problems. she hugs me in all my wet things and doesn’t fuss about muddy boots on her floor and, after drying out and having a beer and a meal, i think, i can do this. i am doing this. bring on tomorrow, into the wilds.


day two

over the turnstile, out of the traffic
there’s ways of living, it’s the way i’m living

i want a range life
if i could settle down, then i would settle down
(pavement, ‘range life’)

evening light and it seems like it will never darken over walton, or this bunkhouse garden. there are the northern lasts of the pennines. it’s clearing to sun and blue sky and the closer hills are green with ridges lined by dark trees. you can differentiate the pennine fells because they are purple and tan and grey. i am reminded of connemara.

day two is a walk out of civilisation, over the M6 motorway on foot – an arresting moment on a pedestrian bridge – and the first glimpses of the wildness of hadrian’s wall that is yet to come: green fields, the beginnings of the vallum (a trench the romans dug alongside the wall, which becomes my closest friend on this journey), the faraway buzzing of light aircraft from carlisle airport at about midday.

nighttime: a deserted bunkhouse with a needy, pushy cat and some sheep outside my window for company. i set an alarm for stargazing but, at this latitude, it’s past midnight before the sky gets truly inky and i snooze right through it, my body racked with the surprise of two full days on foot.

day three

have you ever wandered lonely through the woods
and everything feels just as it should
you’re part of life
you’re part of something good
if you’ve ever wandered lonely through the woods
(brandi carlile, ‘have you ever’)

the walk into gilsland, over the river irthing, curving south under limestone crags and lined by cool, early summer grass on its east bank. this is surely the best section of the walk: a path so close to the wall you could (but shouldn’t) brush it, fingering every fissure and chink as you go along.

at one in the morning, i descend a darkened stairwell, head still hazy from much beer and wine shared over dinner with a canadian couple and english brothers, all boomers, walking west opposite of me. the steep, narrow guesthouse stairs creak; have i woken them all? maybe not. i turn the latchkey to the giant front door and step out into the chill of the garden. a million tiny pinpricks of light through blackness form a dome over this magic place. i’m still in cumbria, but northumberland is on the other side of the road.

day four

i wanna walk and not run
i wanna skip and not fall
i wanna look at the horizon
and not see a building standing tall
i wanna be the only one for miles and miles
(dixie chicks, ‘cowboy take me away’)

crags, the start of them in greenhead. i am so worried about ascending the first one at walltown that i use the men’s room in the quarry picnic site and, upon realising my error (hmm, i think those are urinals.), simply shrug at a group of german walkers warming themselves with coffees at covered tables just adjacent to the loos. ‘been walking too long,’ and they chuckle knowingly. they must be on day five, headed the other way.

i have fallen in love with northumberland. it is a 1.5km walk from today’s guesthouse, which is perched along the wall’s edge on a bare bluff, to the only other building within view in any direction: the milecastle inn. the sun sets to the west, casting yellow, then orange and now the deepest of pink rays through my pint glass, nearly empty of a locally brewed best bitter. a late-running cyclist flies by in a hurry, probably on his way to once brewed for a more lively night’s stay, and as the sun reaches the horizon it’s time to stroll back to my bed. feet aren’t even tired, they are being good to me.

by the time i reach the b&b, pink is fading to purple and rich azure. i stop on a small stone bridge below the house and spend an uncountable number of minutes listening to the trickle of haltwhistle burn carving a ribbon out from under cawfields crag to the east. i will climb it, and many others, tomorrow.

day 5

i’m walking in your shoes
for just a mile or two

my heels are raw and torn
but i will dig them in for you
…i’m running out of faith, i’m tired of saving face, and where the hell is grace
(jonatha brooke, ‘walking’)

up, it goes straight up. you grab the first rock handhold and employ a tired knee to lift the left boot up onto a ledge. steady, and wonder why you overpacked. why do you need so much water. was that second protein bar a necessity? maybe not, if it means you might fall bass-ackwards off the back of a craggy face. it’s only the first of these today, there are at least 20 more ‘ups and downs’ to come. in places they are steep hikes, in places they are vertical climbs. take it easy, i say outloud to myself and the rocks. go slow, and go easy. you have all the time in the world. don’t fall. just go slow. one step, one rock, one climb at a time.

i tell the universe thank you for holding off the rain today. right now. and beg it to continue. i can’t do this if it’s slippery, i chide myself. i could have. but this first face is a watershed moment at the halfway point across england, on this journey’s most difficult place. i am not even to sycamore gap, that perfectly placed tree where kevin costner and morgan freeman jauntily scared away the sheriff of nottingham’s henchmen in robin hood: prince of thieves, and i’ve promised my friend joe i will send him a selfie from there. up, down, up again. stones, some of them slippery some steep, i am afraid of heights and why am i doing this again? have to get to housesteads and then i can rest. a huge ruin of a roman fort, a hastily scoffed tuna sandwich, nip into the portaloo and then i have to be on again, for i’m only halfway through today’s 26k trek and there are still crags to come, and rain. yes, rain.

sewingshields, one of two toppermosts on the whole walk. for me, the second and last one. there is a waymarker here, and the sudden realisation that i’ve climbed all the crags there are to climb, and that the tough work is done, brings a flood of tears. these turn to tears for a dear one lost, and three more kilometres have passed before my face is dried by the wind. just a measly 10 more kilometres to my bed, i think.

the path flattens out onto the treeless northumberland wilds. i am avoiding a group of walkers ahead and slow a bit. legs tire, feet begin to ache. there is nowhere to sit down, for leagues in any direction. the vallum carries on in a straight crevice, mile after mile. the elation of finishing the crags wanes more quickly than i’d expected. it’s here the positive voices surface to keep me going. encouraging words from friends, texts from family members, simple mantras from soul mates:

you got this kween!
you can do it, i got your back my girl.
i’m really proud of you sweetheart.
keep on walking!

i put this last one on repeat and meditate. kilometres pass. feet throb more and i think i can’t. i can. keep on walking! i begin saying it out loud, shouting it out into the nothingness, shouting it with cheer and a jaunty lift of the arms. a smile, it helps. up another hill. then, reaching brocolitia forti expend a few precious extra steps to enter the temple of mithras – now reduced to a collection of low stone ruins – and leave a few new pound coins. just in case.

days six, seven and eight

keep me guessing with these blessings in disguise
and i’ll walk with grace my feet and faith my eyes
(caedmon’s call, ‘faith my eyes’)

by day six, i can do anything. walking has become as natural as breathing, as it should be for any human being. we are born to walk. we are given legs and we learn to use them before we can even communicate with other humans. we are born to walk. by day six, i am in my most natural state. strides are long. feet are in fine condition (a credit to my scarpa boots, and a careful routine of washing, moisturising and application of body glide and preventative compeed each morning). legs feel strong, soul feels stronger. i hope this walk never ends.

day six, i stay at the wonderful robin hood inn, a must for all walkers of the wall. it is the last point at which you feel you are walking the wall. from here, it is a simple two-day descent into urban newcastle, watching wilderness turn to farmland, and farmland to village, village to suburban riverside, industrial suburbia, and suddenly, you are counting six bridges crossing the river tyne and there are no more crags, just the pubs and mobile phone shops and hurried novocastrian pedestrians marching up dean street. where am i?

day nine

there’s forty acres, and redemption to be found
just along down the way
there is a place where no plow blade has turned the ground
and you will turn it over
cause out here hope remains
and all these rocks they are crying too
and this old land is crying out for you
(caedmon’s call, ’40 acres’)

i pack light. shed a small tear, then stuff my boots into the bottom of my large rucksack, which will be stowed in the hostel until the day’s walk is done. in a moment of planning madness, i’d arranged to catch a train back to london the same evening that my walk finished.

feet feel weird in trainers but slowly adjust to pavements as i stray out of central newcastle early and into the eastern suburbs. pound shops give way to endless blocks of modern red brick houses, then dual carriageways banked by greenery, and then a glimpse of water and some bobbing boats. i duck through a council estate and past an actual coronation street, then down to the shields ferry. this seven-minute boat ride will be the only form of non-foot transport i take on the whole 97-mile trek, and so close to the finish!

out of the boat, my heart is starting to race. i have to walk down south shields’ high street first, past mcdonalds and more pound shops and pubs with midday punters drinking tall, bubbling pints of lager. i can’t go fast enough, but i’m worried about the end.

then there’s the sea. i want to finish on a proper sand beach. pound, pound, pound…my heart is matching my footsteps for the first time since bowness. i stop at a bench and wrench off trainers in haste, tossing them into the daypack in favour of sandals, and finally, here is sandhaven beach. i can’t get up the dune fast enough and the tears are stinging at my eyes making me lose my way. toss the bag down, toss the sandals off.

the north sea water is freezing in may and feels blissful on my tired feet. i stay for awhile, because the sun is high. savouring the last few minutes of solitude, and the view out into the nothing of shimmering waters.

when i get on the newcastle metro, and then the virgin train to london, life will not feel real. probably ever again.

ivinghoe beacon


the top of ivinghoe beacon. all of england is in view, it feels like. a chill wind bristles from the south somewhere. maybe it passed cornwall or the north downs before causing a wave of horripilation under my pink-shell jacket.

i climbed a chalky escarpment. boot in front of boot, carefully. then, a directional stone offers some idea of which way is which.

north: a lone hawthorne steady against the gusts. beyond – miles of patchworked farmland. a man nearby tells his companion that the faraway spire, so small from here, is the church in their village.

south: a country road, here and there streaked with red and blue cyclists, winds into a copse of trees and away.

east and west: hills, forever.

a windswept jack russell and a westie waggle at a group of daytrippers playing tricks with the wind. if you lean into it, it will hold you up, a dad tells his child. maybe no one is thinking how iron age man came, too, for these views. not to admire them, but use them to keep hold of these lands.

overhead, a 737 – maybe wizz air by the juice-purple stripes on its tail fin – lowers into luton. i pull out a tesco ham and cheese and imagine the time of hill forts. life was short, uncomplicated and dirty. full of stars on frigid nights, and kinds of chafing we cannot imagine now.

if you lean into the wind, it will hold you up.

south downs way

the saturday gone, i embarked on my first solo stroll across the english countryside. previous jaunts have always involved a companion, which is of course a wondrous way to enjoy the british landscape. but mental preparation is surely as important as muscle-building when doing something like walking across an entire country, and so solo excursions were happily added to my repertoire.


the south downs. what a wonderful name for this chain of low chalk hills that lumber some 260 miles across southern england. this country has a marvellous system of well-signposted paths that cross it in just about every direction. i was to walk a very small portion of the 100-mile south downs way that day. a short 40-minute train southward from home dropped me off in lewes (which is pronounced like lewis) – better known for its bonfire night extravaganza where effigies of famous and infamous politicians (and other things) are set aflame in a blazing procession.

the trail first weaves through the village, a pretty town full of red brick houses and pubs. but winds quickly out after crossing the A27 on a high bridge that vibrates in the wind. here, i found myself atop a glorious hillock heading in the direction of a giant escarpment, with only lazy cows for company.


as part of my experiment in mental fortitude, i left my headphones in the side pocket of my daypack. it was quiet. a bird swooped overhead and a low breeze whistled through a rotten fencepost. the soles of my boots crunched on hard mud covered over in a layer of ice from last night’s freeze. a sleetish mist hung in the low dips of the hills; i was above it.

the path drops here down into the hamlet of kingston, where all of the homes have names like deeping and roseway. old orchard. highdown. a small pasture contains a miniature horse with a giant, untamed forelock wearing a tiny winter rug. and the escarpment looms.


the path splits and you veer left, scampering up a jagged car-wide track to the top of the escarpment, where you join the south downs way. and then you are above everything, on a bare ridge, with views of white chalk cliffs to the north and undulating green to the south. forecasted clouds began to burn off, a warming winter sun appeared in front of me and soon i had stripped off all but the thinnest of layers.

i met a few other walkers – a couple with a half-wet retriever, a pair of men in big leather boots, middle aged trail runners, a solo woman heading the opposite way with whom i exchanged a knowing glance whilst munching on a segment of orange.


but for the most part, i was mercifully alone for a lot of the day. a stop for lunch at the abergavenny arms in the village of rodmell yielded a seat on a picnic table in the sun and a pint of local ale to accompany my tesco meal deal.

the afternoon was largely more of the same, but an excursion through a mudded out farmyard proffered the most important walkers’ lesson of the day. sidestepping one pool of brown sludge, i stepped onto what i thought was firm ground and landed ankle deep with both feet splashing in a cesspool of shitey bogwater. my scarpa boots were champs and feet stayed dry as dust, but lesson for this desert rat learned: always test the mud’s depth before stepping into it.


fifteen kilometres and change later, the walk climbs down and up again through the village of telscombe (home to the unassumingly beautiful, 13th century saint laurence church), before reaching a final high just north of saltdean. crossing a field disturbingly full of beady-eyed sheep, i was so distracted by not incurring their wrath that i was astounded when i realised that the ethereal shimmer off to my left was, in fact, the english channel.


i walked until i couldn’t walk anymore: all the way down to the shore, marching in giant, awkward strides through deep mounds of loose pebbles on saltdean beach and letting a thin rush of seafoam stream under my boots where the water met the land. it was a curious moment, reaching the ocean and having nowhere further to go. a reminder that every journey must have its end, and that, too, can be beautiful.

a year of walking

i am not quite sure when the urge to walk at great length became a strong force in my life. i have not always been a walker. i am horse rider. a hiker. i like the mountains. i like to float around in the water without doing much swimming. i love being transported places by bus or especially train. i find flying tolerable and running a slog. i have spent some time cycling (mostly in china, where it isn’t so much cycling as sitting aboard a bicycle and peddling for dear life). and, somewhere in the last decade, i became a walker.

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it is perhaps down to a housemate of mine some years ago in dublin, ireland, who recounted her adventures walking a portion of the camino de santiago in spain for implanting this notion into my head. just going for a walk and not stopping. everyday, waking early, putting on dusty boots, and planting one foot in front of the other, resolutely, until arriving at another bed at another sunset.

or maybe it is down to my dad. i blame him, and thank him, for passing his nomad soul onto me. he has always been a traveller and a wanderer. sometimes through his telescope into the outer reaches of the galaxy, but also in a bread van full of surfboards, or thumb out waiting for a ride down the pacific coast highway, clandestine rides aboard midnight freight trains through the american west, and best of all, a coast-to-coast horse ride from california to virginia in 1974.

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when i was a kid, my grandfather (my mother’s father) often told stories of how he walked from his hometown of groveton, texas, to the next biggest town, lufkin as a young man in the early 1930s – a 30-mile(ish) walk. i have no idea what the details or truths about that story are, but i suppose the notion sank in. pilgrimages seem to run in my family, on both sides.

whatever the reason, the urge has strengthened as years passed. afternoons spent flaneuring around prague, or short saturdays walking the southeast london green chain seem only to have intensified this primal need to get the world underfoot. many evenings these days, after the very short stroll from work to london bridge, where i get the train home, the urge to just keep going overtakes me. i could go to the white cliffs of dover if i skipped the 17.37 service to west croydon.

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in the next few months, i will (fingers crossed, if all goes to plan, etc etc) receive permanent UK residence. i have decided to mark this milestone by walking across england by myself. it feels romantic and fitting and, frankly, completely terrifying. the somewhat bleak scenery around northumberland has always appealed to me, and the 84-mile trek along hadrian’s wall through that part of the world seemed the obvious choice from the start. mileage to be upped from wallsend to a finish at south shields, so that i might complete the coast-to-coast journey in homage to john egenes, my dad and hero.

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so i’ve started walking more in preparation. what were occasional 5k morning walks in to work are becoming regular. the odd weekend stroll around southeast london is in the process of becoming a weekly ten or 15k across the english countryside.

getting around on your feet feels natural. by yourself, your mind goes through stages of clear-out. first, fretting about the previous and next week’s worldly woes. then, contemplating the things that are really irking you, and next ruminating on things from bygone parts of your life, and finally thinking of nothing at all beyond the way the hills curve this way and that, or the slant of the sunlight off a large oak tree to the east, or how to manoeuvre through downward-sloping mud without completely biting it.

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it is when the mind reaches these last reaches that you are truly walking. everything prior is a build-up, just as your body warms and muscles loosen, so the mind clears itself of worries, stresses, interests and obsessions. this act then becomes a kind of zen meditation as the world expands and contracts at the same time and you, quite literally, stop thinking.

walking with a close friend or loved one is both a similar and different proposition. conversation undulates with the rolling of mounds. now you are laughing at something that happened in work. next silently scraping mud off boots with sticks collected under a giant tree. then a sudden deep-dive into why this relationship or that ended, or what might happen next with a long-lost love. a poignant memory arrives of some moment you had forgotten, and you relay it in the quiet confidence of the countryside while boots stamp gentle outlines into damp soil. more silence, a hawk overhead, echoing of footsteps off the side of a deserted barn. a moment to stop and figure out how and where we just got lost. and more silence.

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walking is not my favourite activity. i would rather be on a horse, the gentle forward-and-back of withers carrying me onwards. a pat on dusty neck signalling the pricking of ears and an enlivened stride. a chat, and a connection, with a fellow earthbound being, which simultaneously understands and does not give a shit about you. a cheeky canter across an unspoilt pasture that leaves you both a little breathless.

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but there are things to think about when you’re riding. is that flapping hay bale cover going to spook him? does his left hind feel off? shit, he just lost a shoe! here’s a patch of groundhog holes we need to avoid. argh, don’t let him put his head down for that loco weed. lean forward for an ascent up the mesa.

when you are walking, you cannot escape yourself: the long march of history, the cluttered back rooms of your own mind, or the moment when everything stops and you are totally and completely free, responsible only for one foot in front of the other.