Friday, 1 November 2013

The Lincolnshire Quartet: The Coast

It's been dark for hours and I'm still walking. Somehow it seems a shame to stop. An inner voice - the runner in me - cagoules me onwards. 'Don't stop,' it says, 'Just keep going. Push on through.' And I'm tempted. Very tempted.

It's a gorgeous October evening - such a far cry from the rain and gales of days ago. The night is still, The Wash glowing under a huge moon that casts my shadow in front of me and pales the blackness around me into a comforting shade of grey.

I take a look at my watch by the beam of my headtorch - just before 11 - and start making mental calculations. At a steady 3 miles an hour, how much farther will I be by tomorrow evening if I forfeit the 5 or 6 hours of sleep I'd planned on tonight?

My mind's almost made up, until a realisation hits me. Sure, I could keep going. Granted, that would see me to the Bridge more quickly. But would I be gaining anything from this course of action? I remind myself of the reason I'm making this journey - what it's all about - and everything becomes clear again.

And it's with this realisation that I stop walking. I take off my pack, rest it on the ground and turn off my headtorch. I close my eyes and listen to the nocturnal conversations of the birds out on the marsh. I let this place absorb into me, recalling as I do, a phrase I've read somewhere sometime:

 'The more we immerse ourselves in the wild, the closer we come to home.'

Then, I open my eyes again and spin slowly, arms outstretched, palms upwards, smiling crazily in a pose taken from any one of a hundred thousand corny, 'inspirational' Facebook memes. But it doesn't matter. It just seems the right thing to do.

Just here. Right here. Is beautiful.

Twenty minutes later, I've pitched my tent at this very spot and I'm sitting in its unzipped porch, looking at what's in front of me. The moon leaves a golden slither on the surface of the dark water. Green and red lights - the eyes of  protective marsh-dwelling beasts? - blink randomly, guiding any approaching fishermen into the deep-water channel at the mouth of the Nene. And, aside from that, nothing.

After a busy and often stressful summer, nothing is perfect. I sit and stare, and before long I'm part of that nothing. I'm nothing too.

Then, I take a sip of the hot drink I've been holding all this time. Coffee never tasted so good.

The inspiration for The Lincolnshire Quartet had come from a desire not only to explore the physical splendours of my home county, but to explore also the act of movement itself.

The first journey - The Side-to-Side - had been created in a medium I felt most familiar with. Over 12 hours I'd run from the most westerly point of Lincolnshire to its most easterly edge. I'd done so at a pace - a slow running pace of between 10 and 12 minute miles - that I'd employed on all of my footpath runs in 2012's Sixth Statement. It was a pace synonomous with my notion of 'Empty Miling' - a rate of travel that was brisk enough to be sustainable over distances of up to 100 miles or so, albeit at the top end of this range with a fair deal of external support.

The next journey - The Coast - I'd resolved, would be very different. Over approximately 130 miles, my trip would be entirely self-supported. I'd carry the majority of what I needed on my back, only using shops along the route for occasional, but necessary, top-ups of food or water. Whilst I'd done this on the previous journey, the extra distance would necessitate the carrying of overnight shelter - my trusty 15 year-old Terra Nova Solar - a sleeping bag and a small Jetboil stove for use in brewing up and making a daily hot meal. Accordingly, the pace would be slower. In fact, for this trip, I would - difficult to say it, for most runners - walk the entire way.

As a younger man - a dedicated runner - I'd abhorred the prospect of walking. In 1995, when I ran from John O'Groats to Land's End over the course of a school's summer holiday, I took pride in the fact that I never walked a single step. To have done so, back then in the mind-set I possessed at the time, would have only constituted failure.

As I've matured, however, my attitudes have become less elitist. I chose the name 'Saleby Jogging Centre' as a rebuttal to the runners who look down on 'joggers' with distain. I wanted to reclaim the word 'jogging' as a positive expression, not a label to be ashamed of. I wanted people who ran slowly to be just as pleased with their achievements as those that run fast.

Then, in 2010, I discovered the Bob Graham scene - a scene populated by incredible endurance athletes who regarded walking as an integral and necessary part of what they do - an activity equally as worthy as running. With this, my whole attitude changed. I came to regard what I do as simply 'travelling by foot' - forward progress in which speed was determined by terrain, time constraints, or simply just the desire to do something different.

Ironically, in a year when I've done more road running ('proper running'?) than I have in many years, I've become increasingly obsessed with the US 'thru-hiking' scene. Wikipedia defines 'thru-hiking' as 'hiking a long-distance trail from end-to-end.' Commonly associated with The Appalachian Trail, the term now encompasses all long-distance trails. Whilst not overly impressed with the Americanism of the phrase, it sounds a whole lot more sexy than 'rambling' or 'hill-walking', our nearest UK equivalents.

It's been a vintage year for thru-hiking, with the most outstanding achievement being that of 32 year-old Heather Anderson. She hiked the 2663 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail between the US's borders with Mexico and Canada. She did so in traditional thru-hiker style, carrying all her gear in a backpack, resupplying her food via personally sent mail drops at post offices and purchases from shops on and near the trail, and receiving no planned assistance. To walk this distance is incredible in itself, but irunfar gives her achievement some context:

Somehow, Heather managed to squeeze all of that into 60 days, 17 hours, 12 minutes. On the day she finished, her time was the fastest-ever for the PCT. Faster than all self-supported thru-hikers before her. Faster than the supported/crewed hikers, too. Faster than any woman. Faster than every man.
Her record now has a qualification. The day after Heather finished, Josh Garrett finished his own PCT thru-hike in 59 days, 8 hours, 14 minutes. That’s 33 hours or so faster than Heather. But his hike was supported, meaning he had crew stationed occasionally along the trail for resupplying his food and other needs, and meaning he didn’t have to leave the trail to do so himself.

Heather travelled an average of just under 44 miles per day. She said she ran infrequently, instead opting for a sustainable three-mile-per-hour hiking pace. “My pace wasn’t fast. It’s just that I kept going, and going, and going. I would hike with other thru-hikers sometimes, for some miles, a part of a day. The difference between them and I was that they didn’t want to get up at 5 a.m. to do it all over again.” Some quick math as Heather talks, and I realize she was on her feet for more than 14.5 hours a day. Every day for a bit more than 60.5 days. Over and around some gnarly mountain and desert terrain. Through heat, storms, and whatever other weather Mother Nature tossed around. While providing for her own food, water, shelter, and recovery.

Right, well. Heather’s daily numbers make her record seem even more intangible, no? I’ve been on dozens of backpacking and fastpacking trips. I’ve run 100-mile races and 150-mile stage races. I’ve had lots of 17, 18, 20-hour days on mountains around the world. I still can’t process Heather’s day in, day out endeavours. To quote Vizzini from The Princess Bride, that’s inconceivable!

Inspired by Anderson's feat - along with Rory Bosio's UTMB victory, the ultra-distance performance of the year in my book (both by women - what does that tell us?) - I resolved to firm up plans for my own thru-hike, albeit on a totally insignificant level compared to hers, but enough to give me a flavour of what life on the trail was like.

I'd walk the entirety of the Lincolnshire Coast, starting from King's Lynn, a few miles outside the county border in North Norfolk, and finish at the Humber Bridge in North Lincolnshire. Departing after work on a Thursday evening, I'd aim to cover 15 miles before wild-camping on the sea-bank north of Sutton Bridge. On the Friday, I'd cover the 45 miles to Wainfleet Sea Lane, on the Saturday the 40 miles between Wainfleet and Cleethorpes, followed by a shorter final day through the heavily-industrial Grimsby, Immingham and Killingholme, to finish at the Bridge. I'd make the trip by myself. I'd be reliant on just myself. A step into the unknown, a jump outside of my comfort zone, I was confident it would be a journey to remember.

I wake naturally just before 5, having slept surprisingly well. Unzipping the front of my tent and pinning it back to let the world inside, the waning moon gives me enough pale light to brew up a coffee without resorting to the artificial glow of my headtorch. I lay by Buffalo jacket on the bank outside and sit on it for a good few minutes, nursing my cuppa and eating a Scotch egg and a handful of cashews.

I'd been a little nervous about the wild-camping part of the trip. Whenever I'd mentioned it to a handful of friends, I'd been inevitably greeted with a 'you're doing what?', a 'won't you be scared?' or a 'you never know who's going to be around at that time of night.' Now, sitting here after a sound night's kip, I realise it's not scary at all. It's simple and inspiring. It's something everyone should try, but hardly anyone will. The Outdoors is portrayed by the 21st Century as frightening and dangerous. You're only really safe in your house, in your office, in your car - in your little box that keeps out everything that is 'out there'. Go outside in the dark, sleep in a tent in the middle-of-nowhere, and, surely, you'll be lucky to return. For 'out there' is full of wierdos. Wierdos who'll attack you, kill you, rape you, break you and leave you in a ditch to be discovered by a dog-walker days later.

I drain the last dregs of coffee as I look over the marsh. Not many wierdos in the middle-of-nowhere out here, I think. Well, maybe just the one.

Four hours later, the daylight of dawn has been fuzzied by thick fog. I like it. Without the perspective of distance still to travel, my imagination wanders. With vision down to 20 yards, the sea-bank takes on a rare beauty that seems mythical and magical.

Soon I'm on the banks of the Welland, heading for Fosdyke Bridge. I look across the river and can just make out the far bank. To reach that bank - merely a hundred yards away - will take at least another hour of walking. Briefly, I'm discouraged. The area between King's Lynn and Boston is dissected by a series of impressive rivers - the Great Ouse, the Nene, the Welland and the Haven. To cross each requires a lengthy hike inland, and then an equally lengthy hike back out to the sea-bank. Effectively doubling the distance between King's Lynn and Boston, these river diversions are necessary but soul-destroying, making any decent progress north-wards hard work. For a while, a disheartened mood descends upon me. As I reach Fossdyke Bridge, however, the fog lifts, and so do my spirits. A ten minute sit down in the boat yard, a drink of water and a pork pie sees me right for the next section to Boston.

Walking past Kirton Marsh, my mind turns to my chance encounter with Death many years ago on an evening run along this section of the bank. Meeting The Balaklava Man had almost traumatised me at the time, but in the months that followed, the tale had become my story-telling masterpiece. After telling the story to a group of Year 6 students at home-time whilst on supply, word had spread around the school I taught at, and in the end I'd told it to countless groups and classes as an end-of-day treat, each time embroiling the truth a little further and making the terrifying tale a little more so. I'd decided to stop after a concerned parent had informed me that her daughter had begun having trouble sleeping, waking in the night from nightmares about a strange man, dressed in black and wearing a balaklava. I smile as I recall those old days - even when your life was shit, there were always some good things to remember - and I'm just a little disappointed that my nemesis doesn't make another appearance today.

I'm knackered by the time I reach Boston. The pack is heavy and my feet are hurting far more than I think they should. I buy a couple of litres of water and a pasty from a Spar shop and eat my lunch whilst sitting on the wall overlooking the Haven and the docks. I think of the years I lived just a stone's throw away from this place - of the life I had and the life I have now. I ring Tam and let her know how I'm getting on. When she says, 'Love you!' at the end of our chat, I reply back the same way.

I know the next stretch well. During my years in the area, the sea-bank was my playground. I've run from Boston to Skegness many, many times, including a number of times as part of the Seabank Marathon. Today, however, it's different. As darkness encroaches at around 6.30, I've still many miles to walk. Unlike last night, when the night-time miles were a revelation - a delight - now, I'm done for. My pack seems impossibly heavy, and the sharp pains from my right little toe and left heel indicate growing blisters that I never get when running. Landmarks I pass are familiar, but my brain can't help but process them in running time. 'Another 20 minutes and I'll be there,' taunts my running self. 'More like an hour,' replies my walking reality.

I'm relieved when I finally reach my destination - Wainfleet Sea Lane. Here, the path deviates from the coastline, moves inland for quarter of a mile to cross a drainage channel, and heads back out to the coast. It's 9.30. I've had it. I find a sheltered spot a couple of hundred yards from a small sea-bank pumping station and pitch my tent a few metres away from the channel of water that I'll cross first thing in the morning at the start of tomorrow's leg. Tiredness has gripped me. I make a quick brew, sort out my gear, and I'm asleep for 10.

I'm awoken with a start sometime later. An engine of some sort. The sound of fast-flowing water. I lay there for a bit, check the time - 10 past 12 - and then unzip the tent and peer out. Under the light of my headtorch, I see water rushing, a torrent replacing the earlier trickle in the channel. It strikes me in an instant that the engine is, in fact, the sound of pumps. I look towards the pumping station and see water cascading from a large pipe. It's then that I panic. Gathering all my stuff, I cram everything into my rucksack and then make for higher ground. After dumping it, I go back down to where the water is now lapping around my tent. Retrieving my shelter, I sit for a while in the dark, realising how close my trip just came to an embarrassing and disastrous end. A great story to tell in the pub in the future, I reason. Soon, however, tiredness smothers adrenalin. I get to work efficiently. Within 20 minutes I'm set up again in a new location and headed for sleep.

Walking is something we're forgetting how to do. In Britain, between 1986 and 2005, the average proportion of journeys made on foot fell from 34% to 25% - from over a third to under a quarter. The total distance walked by each person, each year, fell from 244 miles in 1986 to around 200 miles in 2005.

Whilst these figures are depressing in themselves (although I'm sure many would beg to differ, citing 'progress'), what's worse is that they don't specific countryside walking. In fact, the most popular reason for walking is to go shopping. It's clear that our connection to the earth, our physical attachment to it, and our personal experience of it is evaporating year by year.

Perhaps this was the reason why I needed to make this particular journey at a walking pace. Recent months had largely been spent on the roads. When training for a road marathon, I guess it's the sensible thing to do. But, whilst I enjoyed the experience, I couldn't help but feel that a piece in the centre of who I am had been cast aside. My interaction with the voices of the hedgerows, the fields, the big sky had been severed. I needed to reconnect.

Although also an accomplished ultra-runner, the fore-mentioned Heather Anderson refers to walking as 'aerobic meditation',. By slowing the pace of my journey, my trip would become a 4-day retreat - a chance to re-find myself in my surroundings.

Joe Grant writes eloquently about taking more time:

I have always liked the idea that I can run and explore a place in a few hours whereas it would take a traditional hiker several days to cover the same distance. While this adds to the quantity of what I can see, it does not necessarily add to the quality of the experience. I have come back to appreciating a slower, longer immersion in wild places as a way to feel my surroundings more fully. A reduction in the amount of gear I bring also allows for a much more direct interaction with place and the opportunity to observe a broader palette of emotions. I seek neither comfort nor suffering, but a rawness in my exchange with place. I feel the wet and cold from the snow, the heat and burn from the fire, the tree roots jabbing under my back during the night, the delight at the glow of the rising sun through the mist. Immersion calluses our being, leading us to be more part of the wild, rather than simply visitors.

By immersing myself, I felt sure that not only would I be able to renew my acquaintance with this place I call home, but also, by moving through it slowly for the first time, also be able to discover things about it that I'd previously been blind to.

Geoff Roes mentions this exact aspect in a recent article:

I guess this is the beauty of exploring the world around us on foot. The more you do it, the more you want to do it, and thus the more motivated and capable you are to do it. It’s not always easy if you are somewhere that you’ve been dozens of times previously, but you can always slow things down, look around, look for something new, and go explore it. As soon as you do this, you will find yourself wanting more. The satisfaction of doing this will make you want to look for more, and no matter how many times you have been down the same trail, you will begin to find that there is always a new way to experience old locations. Wander, get lost, stop, and sit down, it’s actually very easy to make the outdoor world feel like a very novel and unique place because, no matter how many times you’ve been in a particular place, it’s always a little different each time you go back.

As my journey on foot progressed, the truth of his words became clear.

I spend Saturday morning lost in a cloud of memories. Spending our childhood years living in a caravan in Ingoldmells, the prom between Skegness and Chapel-St-Leonards had been our stomping ground. As I walk this stretch, my pack seems lighter, my feet less laden. The steps where I gave Hazel a polo and then kissed her cheek, aged 11. The empty space where our favourite camp shop used to be. The wall I jumped off and broke my brand new Bay City Rollers necklace. The café where we played Space Invaders and Defender in denim jackets emblazoned with Rainbow and Saxon sew-on patches. The path where three of us would wait for Joanne and Amanda (too many boys - who'd miss out?), listening to Elvis Costello's 'Punch the Clock' on a home-taped cassette.

Links from a life away. If only for an hour, I'm glad I came back.


A young man runs towards me on the beach near the Huttoft Car Terrace. Blond hair blowing over his face, Lightning greets me with a simple, 'Hi Dad!' Understated - that's his way. A fizz of energy follows him. Whirlwind wraps her arms around my waist and presses her head into my belly. 'Missed you, Daddy!' she tells me.

We walk together till we reach the fell-wagon, where Tam's waiting with the back door up. It's great to see them. I sit for a bit and, despite my intentions to be self-sufficient, find it impossible to resist the warm bacon sandwich which magically appears.

For the next four miles, I walk with my superheroes, talking about everything, something and nothing. The Queen of the Mountains appears on her 'porch bike' to say hello, and we're welcomed into Mablethorpe by Shez and her three little Friars. The coffee she's brought me goes down a treat. 'And I've brought you some of your favourites for when you get hungry,' she goes, 'French fancies!'

As I leave Mablethorpe a little later, it's with a certain weariness. I'd so been looking forward to seeing everyone. But the clock never stops, and despite wanting to stay longer, I know that I have to head on.

A long beach section beckons. Panoramic, gorgeous, never-ending. But the sand subsides slightly with each step. Try as I might to keep my spirits high, I feel optimism slip away. I've a long way to go if I'm to reach Cleethorpes by the end of the day. I slog on as the light fades and my surroundings take on a cloak of foreboding. I need to be on the sea-bank by nightfall. I think of the numerous incidents over the years of people cut off by an incoming tide - a tide that travels so fast that it's impossible to outrun. I glance to my left at the dunes, to my right at the salt-marsh, and can't help thinking that being here in the dark would be a bad idea.

There's relief when I eventually reach Donna Nook. The light is low, but now a short inland diversion will take me straight onto the sea-bank that I'll follow all the way to Cleethorpes. Tired, but invigorated, forward progress picks up again. A stunning moon appears over the North Sea and I walk for miles with nothing but the sound of my own footsteps and the lazy whoosh of gently-breaking waves.

It's nearly 9 when I find a good camping spot on the bank south of Fitties. As I pitch the tent, a light rain starts falling. Ten minutes later, as I slide into my shelter and zip up the front porch, it's absolutely banging it down.

Does a long journey by foot carry meaning? My answer would have to be both 'yes' and 'no'.

What makes a trip like this so special is its pointlessness. I leave Point A and I walk. Eventually, I reach Point B and I stop. The trip means nothing.

But, of course, it's precisely this pointlessness that makes it mean everything too. The journey has no inherent usefulness - I'm doing it, to coin a clichĂ©, 'because it's there.' However, it's in these exact activities - the ones we do for their own sake - that we find the most. These are the journeys where life's Quality lies.

I spend the majority of my time doing things that are 'useful' - that are a means to an end. I get up early in the morning to go to work. I go to work to earn money. I earn money to spend on useful stuff like providing for my family, buying diesel for the van, paying the mortgage, keeping the electricity direct debits up to date so we can watch The X-Factor and The Great British Bake-Off.

That's fair enough. Most of us can't help but be on the treadmill to some extent

But that's also why four days and three nights away from it all is so magical.

Here, I've no need to chase things I don't particularly want, do things that have no value in themselves but are merely a springboard to something else.

Here, life is difficult, but simple. I'm walking just because I want to. It's an effort - each step requires determination - but it comes with a freedom we seldom experience in modern life.

As you travel from its southern edge to its northern extremity, the character of the Lincolnshire Coast changes dramatically. At first, you're treated to the desolate and lonely sea-bank bordering The Wash  - a site of special scientific interest, and one of the most important bird habitats in the UK. Once you reach Skegness, tourism takes over. Seaside arcades, Butlin's holiday camp, the highest concentration of static caravans in Europe. After Mablethorpe, the promenade gives way to open beaches and salt-marsh.

Waking on Sunday morning, I know that what lies ahead of me is the part of the Coast I looked forward to the least. Today will take me through Cleethorpes and Grimsby. After a short section along the sea-wall, I'll then be forced to detour along a busy dual-carriageway through the port of Immingham, before negotiating the gas refineries and container terminal at Killingholme. As I contemplate wiggling out of my sleeping bag at 4am, I'm not exactly filled with enthusiasm.

A coffee and a couple of French fancies later, though, I'm ready to go. In no time at all, I'm packed and starting the walk towards Thorpe Park. It takes me a good half-hour before I can take a step without discomfort. My feet are swollen and painful. I gain solace by recalling the same information I've seen on many thru-hike blogs - your feet tend to get most battered in the first 10 days - after that they generally adjust to their new, more-demanding role. A busy cross-country season looms, starting next weekend. I'm hopeful everything will be back to normal by then.

Along the long, long road between Cleethorpes and Grimsby, I realise how hungry I am - I've eaten very little on the whole trip. I'm reduced to popping into MacD's for a coffee and an egg and bacon muffin. Strange folk populate fast food restaurants at 6.30 in the morning. Maybe it's for this reason that the girl on the check-out doesn't bat an eyelid when serving a skinny guy with a dodgy 'tache and a backpack who's wearing dirty running gear and smells like he hasn't washed for some days.

After stumbling through the maze of Grimsby's streets, it's good to see the sea again. The sun's shining and the walk along the sea-wall towards Immingham is pleasant, populated by fishermen who greet me with cheery 'alright's. In the distance, chimneys of chemical works and huge container ships blight and obscure the view of the Humber Estuary.

The walk through Immingham is a low point. To class it as a 'town' is somewhat optimistic. A run-down shambles of sink-estate housing, boarded-up cafes, burger vans and lorry parks, it's almost certainly the most depressing place I've ever visited. As I trudge along the road-side verge, dodging discarded wing-mirrors, the debris of frayed tyres and dog-shit, I wish, for the first time on my journey that I was somewhere else. Anywhere else. For the next two hours, the walk is an uncompromising chore.

The sun's shining again by the time I reach Skitter Ness. From here, the grassy bank of the Humber will take me straight to the Bridge, some 8 miles distant.

Those last miles are hard. Although my legs feel fine, my feet are really suffering. I can't recall feeling this tired since those last miles of the Viking Way a year and a half ago.

But while my body's failing, my mind's alive. As the Humber Bridge gets closer, I remember a quote I ear-marked in Boff Whalley's 'Run Wild', from Ursula LeGuin:

'It's good to have an end to  journey towards; but it is the journey that matters in the end.'

And she's right. In a year of journeying, it's this one that has affected me the most. In many months of seeking increasing detachment from the modern way, it's only here that I've truly discovered what I've been looking for.

I meet Tam and the superheroes by the Humber boat-house doors and take off my pack. I'm at the end of my trip. But I'm already plotting my next over-nighter, planning the inclusion of a weekly long day of walking into my preparations for next year's Big Race.

This is the end.

But it isn't the end at all.   

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