Henry and Petes verry long walk

Why?

Bill Bryson knows why. Not that I’ve ever met or spoken to the author of Notes from a Small Island and current President of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, but as one who has spent many years in the US I know what Bryson has learned and now preaches: that the British countryside is a unique and wonderful place to treasure.

I think one may have to spend considerable time in another country to really appreciate the fundamentals of what is lost  in leaving Britain (in contrast to what may be gained): the gently rolling hills and ancient hedgerows, streams and ponds; ancient villages of timber-framed buildings and centuries-old churches; the grandeur of stark, bare mountains.

And the English footpaths. Oh, wow, those footpaths.

My wife and I lived in northern Ohio for nearly 14 years, then in Boston and Washington DC for another five years. We had plenty of really good national, state and regional parks near us but they were almost all Creations, with either recreation (jogging in Washington’s Rock Creek Park, for example) or magnificent Nature (Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Appalachian Trail) as the goal. Americans struggle with the concept of a public right of way through the middle of a cornfield or a field full of bulls. Once, as an environment writer, I wrote an investigative series that clashed with the superintendant of a new semi-rural National Park along the Cuyahoga River valley that links Cleveland with Akron, Ohio. He had ordered the acquisition and removal of long-established private houses simply because they did not fit his concept of a ‘natural’ park. After my series and a debate about what this park was really for, The US Congress stopped the practice and had him removed.

Growing up in England I instinctively knew what ‘natural’ meant. Man’s presence seemed always to be part of the landscape. My father was an RAF engineer and we lived a curious life deep in the countryside of Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire. It was part urban, in that an RAF base has most of the amenities of a small town, its occupants are largely townies, and it is noisy with jet planes and vehicles. But lying all around are fields, streams, woods - a huge playground for kids in the 1950s. From 9am to 5pm on non-school days my world was Mates and Mud. Lots of Mud. I can smell it by thinking of it, often with a fat, juicy worm in it, ideal as bait for hours of fishing. Frogs, tadpoles, baby mice, blackbirds with injured legs and wings; hidden dens in woods, clumps of wheat stubble to use as ammunition against your pals from other dens, scrumping apples, falling through the ice on flooded fields and drying out in front of some villager’s living room coal fire.

And forever exploring. The older I got the more I explored. When I learned about maps I used them to fire my imagination: “HERE BE DRAGONS” as the earliest maps used to say at the edge of the known world. Geography was my favourite subject at school, and with the 1:25,000 Ordnance Survey maps I was in seventh heaven, driven especially by those little green dotted lines: FOOTPATHS. Where did they go? Over the years I’ve learned to appreciate more and more their human antiquity and value in getting around a largely man-made country that doesn’t depend on roads, rails, canals or rivers. They can, and do, go everywhere; from pub to village church, from hill farm  to market square, from smithy to hamlet. I don’t know of another country that offers such public access to its countryside.

Once, as the Europe/Middle East correspondent for a Washington newspaper in the 1980s, I followed a story about a local council in Wiltshire getting a court order against a developer for building a housing estate on the edge of a town right over a public footpath. With my son and his pal we walked several miles along the path until we came to the completed and equipped house. We walked through the back door, through the kitchen, along the hallway and out through the front door.  The developer was not allowed to stop us, and he couldn’t sell that house for many months. My cautionary story about the costs of defying public rights of way made top of a page in my Washington newspaper.

Bill Bryson, in fact, wants to make the whole of England a national park.

“For all the pressures on rural England, and all that can be made better,” he said in a 2007 speech, “the countryside remains one of this country’s supreme achievements. I know of no landscape anywhere that is more universally appreciated, more visited and walked across and gazed upon, more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside of England. The landscape almost everywhere is eminently accessible. People feel a closeness to it, an affinity, that I don’t think they experience elsewhere.
“If you suggested to people in Iowa, where I come from, that you spend a day walking across farmland, they would think you were mad. Here walking in the country is the most natural thing in the world – so natural that it is dangerously easy to take it for granted…

“Wherever you turn in Britain you are confronted with wondrous and interesting things: 19,000 scheduled ancient monuments, 600,000 recorded archeological sites, 100,000 miles of public footpaths, 250,000 miles of hedgerow, 73,000 war memorials, 6,500 listed bridges, 14 National Parks, a hundred or so Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, over 4,000 miles of Special Scientific Interest. You can’t move ten feet in this country without bumping up against some striking reminder of a long and productive past. And it is almost entirely human-made…..Keeping it is the real trick.”

So now you know why I hold footpaths so highly, and why the more of them I do the better.

Still, WHY  Land’s End to John o’Groats? Why not, say, the North Downs Way?

Well, I’ve done the North Downs Way, all 140 miles from Farnham, Hants, to Dover. I did it with my youngest son, Jeff, over a number of days and weekends about 12 years ago. And I did half of Offa’s Dyke with my eldest son, Nick, 15 years ago. The point about Land’s End to John O’Groats, or LEJOG (the other way, from John O’Groats to Land’s End, is known as JOGLE) is that it is now iconic, the ultimate, the Everest of walking in Britain. Why be satisfied with the 270-mile Pennine Way when you could do the WHOLE THING, even if it is 1,300 miles and will quite possibly kill me?

Quite frankly, if I’m going to spend a month doing the Pennine Way I need the same sort of equipment and training as I’d need to do four months doing LEJOG.
I could do an Ian Botham and spend some 15 YEARS walking it bit by bit. But though I’m older than he was doing his famous walks for charity I have now reached that magical age when I can finally afford the TIME. I haven’t retired, but I do now have a bit of pension income to allow me to take a time-out and do things like this. Even so, I expect to spend a lot of time resting (so I might not finish till late September!). And somebody has to cut the grass at home.

Why now?

Simple: 2012 is the Olympics and I really want to be there; it will surely be the last in Britain in my lifetime. 2013? Well I will be 67 and Henry the Springer will be nine. I don’t know if either of us will be up for it by then. My vet says Henry is as fit and strong now as he will ever be.

 And why am I taking Henry at all?

If I can’t take my wife, Anna, then I’ll take Henry. He’s my pal;  reliable, loyal, fun, good-looking, totally non judgemental, and greatly therapeutic – if sometimes a pain in the neck. And he just LOVES the outdoors. Besides, I don’t know anyone else who wants to do it with me, not the whole way, anyway. A bit here and there, yes, but the entire four-plus months from one end of the country to the other? No. I’m not in the Boy Scouts, or the Army, or doing it on motor scooters like the Red Arrows. So I’ll be muttering away just to Henry.

And if the truth be told I’m hoping Henry will demonstrate a fundamental value of this walk and link to my Hounds for Heroes charity – the bond between dog and human. I’m lucky that I’ve reached 65 still fit and healthy and able to even consider walking the whole length of Britain. Hundreds of young lads and lasses in the forces and emergency services who are injured or disabled don’t have that luxury, but an assistance dog can make a profound difference for some.

I didn’t want my walk to be just about me. I had run the 1998 London Marathon for the Royal Air Forces Association charity, and the 2004 Edinburgh Marathon for Cancer Research, but with Henry alongside it seemed to make more sense to choose a charity involving dogs. There is Guide Dogs for the Blind, Canine Partners, Dogs Trust, RSPCA, Hearing Dogs for Deaf People, Dogs for the Disabled,  Blue Cross, Pets as Therapy, Battersea Dogs Home, and others. All very worthy charities, but not quite as specific to service and emergency personnel as I wanted. Then, last summer, I read Alan and Sandra Parton’s book “Endal”, the story of an embittered, wheelchair-bound Navy Chief Petty Officer whose chance encounter with a dog changed his life, saved his marriage and motivated him to found Hounds for Heroes.

More about Parton’s new charity is elsewhere on this site, but it is safe to say it fits another need in me to try to help some of the soldiers, sailors and airmen I have been writing about for years who come home broken way before their time. There’s no personal attachment, and I don’t know any lads with their legs blown off in Afghanistan, or with clear post traumatic stress syndrome whose scale I feel sure will grow significantly in coming years. But as a former foreign and defence correspondent for the Washington Times (’83-’90), defence correspondent for the Daily Telegraph (‘90-‘95), and still a freelance defence writer for the national press, I have known, met and lived alongside young British and American soldiers in Northern Ireland, Kuwait,  Kosovo, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan – some of whom did not return alive.

I think of people such as Cpl Michael ‘Lucy’ Lockett, of the Mercian regiment, who stood shivering in his thin desert camouflage at his battalion’s homecoming from Afghanistan in indifferent Hounslow in 2007, telling me of being unable to save his fellow squaddie South African Private Johan Botha, and his friend Sgt Craig Brelsford, and that he thought none of it was worth the loss. Nevertheless, he was awarded the Military Cross and he returned to duty in Afghanistan in 2009 only to die in combat there. I think of the 19-year-old I sat next to in the back of an armoured personnel carrier on Salisbury Plain, looking forward to six months in Afghanistan partly because he figured he’d be able to save £6,000 for a car when he returned. He was killed two months later. They both did their duty and deserve respect.

Perhaps I did help a little with the dignity of British soldiers in death with a front page story comparing the massive public tributes to Canada’s repatriated soldiers to that in Britain, where Thames Valley police’s failure to escort the flag-draped coffins left them stuck in Oxford traffic amidst an indifferent public, an error they ashamedly and instantly corrected. But I don’t think I’ve done much for ‘our boys.’ 

There’s lots more to tell of death and war and destruction,  the worst being the effect on civilians who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the ones neither I nor our service personnel could save. My hairiest war was actually Lebanon, 1985. But let’s be clear, many other journalists, police officers and soldiers have far stronger stories to tell, and I’m not wracked with guilt or anguish by my reporting rather than advocacy, or by taking no direct personal action other than that of immediate human caring.

I’m strongly aware, however, that as a relatively fit, healthy male walking the entire length of Britain’s amazing, constant and peaceful landscape I’ll be on another planet from the limited, painful world of limbless young men at Headley Court. With one exception – if they want it for their future - dogs. Hopefully, an assistance dog can help them find some of the peace and freedom I already have.

If my walk with Henry helps to raise some funds that will help some of those who serve our country then I’d be very grateful.

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