Yesterday I finally wrote a draft of this post, describing the fact that I feel guilty about the length of time (3 weeks and counting) that it’s taken me to write a review of my hike. It was beautiful, with a poetic metaphor about a guilt monster stalling me via paroxysms of doubt, concerned to do the experience justice and express my gratitude effusively enough. It was also bullshit. I woke up this morning and realised I was making excuses not only to myself but now also to you, dear reader and supporter. Certainly I experienced the post-adventure blues and my left knee is still giving me some grief but, really, I need to suck it up and admit that I have been procrastinating. I have a much cleaner house and I have read a few good books, done some voluntary work and spent time with friends and all the while avoided producing the following and I’m sorry. You deserve better. So I’ll stop fannying around as if I’m writing a university dissertation… here it is:
From 8-11th March 2017, Wednesday to Saturday, I travelled 81 miles on foot, from Epping to Harwich, on the various footpaths of The Essex Way. My aim was to raise funds and awareness for Essex Women’s Advisory Group, by creating a self-guided adventure and inviting people to follow my progress online and in real life if they fancied a stroll with me.
I am thrilled to say that I not only achieved what I set out to, I was surprised by so many unexpected outcomes along the way. From the pregnant friend who walked with me for 2 miles on the Wednesday, inspired by activity around International Women’s Day and professing that she really never walks outdoors, to the couple I chatted to for five minutes over their gate who subsequently donated a tenner on the JustGiving page, there were countless suprises over the four days.
Each day of the hike was an adventure in itself. Slip-sliding, rain-soaked, through sodden fields of Essex clay, marvelling at enormous cloud banks rolling bulbously as far as the eye could see, gorging myself on sun-glazed meadows and twinkling streams, it was joyful to cross the county on foot and at my own pace. I could pause in awe to admire seed pods and the silhouettes of leafless trees, equally as inspiring as the many ancient churches, chocolate box cottages and grand houses that littered my path. I wound my way through copses and woodlands, along riverbanks and bridleways, following the red poppies of the waymarker and now and again spotting the three Essex Seaxes signposting my way. I met horses and dogs and sheep and pygmy goats and llamas and a rat and surprisingly few people and revelled in the sensation of being a physical part of the landscape, instead of whizzing by on a train or in a car. I will post a list of my favourite scenic highlights on this blog very soon, because there are so many I want to return to.
A mile by mile account of the sights and sounds along the route would not only be a little tedious but also impossible. I can’t remember much about a few of the miles, particularly on Wednesday and Thursday afternoons, because they involved some head-down tramping to cover distance before darkness, however my main distraction was from people. The support I received from so many different people has floored me. Online and in real life, positive messages accompanied my every step. I carried a hardcore charger, since my iPhone represented my GPS mapping app (yes I had paper back-ups before you ask!) and also allowed me to update my social media accounts. The welcome coin-drop sound of the Justgiving app was particularly motivating and shockingly regular – donations to EWAG have exceeded my expectations tenfold and I am gobsmacked by everyone’s generosity. To those of you who could contribute, thank you. Your money will be distributed to Essex-based projects for disadvantaged women and girls, with a focus on work that promotes the positive effects of the outdoors on mental health and fitness.
There were some extra special people who physically came out to help me on my journey. Each of them deserves a huge thank you, so here are my journey’s credits, with the cast in order of appearance!
Thank you Mike – my dear friend, who waited patiently without judgement when I was late for my 6.45am pick-up and then braved the Epping rush hour to see me off. We have become good friends by volunteering together to produce the local parish magazine and we hike together often. He would have done the whole 81 miles with me if he didn’t have a knee operation looming. I am humbled by his endless faith in me and my hubby and I feel incredibly lucky to be able to call him and his wife Janie our great friends.
Thank you Martin – my fellow hiker. We met looking for the Essex Way plaque at Epping Station and discovered that our plans were almost identical. We spent the next few days crossing paths, walking together and talking for chunks of time before one of us decided we’d like a change of pace. His presence on the trail acted as a target for me – if he was ahead I’d push myself to catch up with him, then, after a few miles together, push on ahead of him again. I would inevitably then lose my impetus or get distracted by social media and he would pass me again. At one point on Day One, as we approached a desolate and creepy-looking house together, I felt a jab of concern that he might be an axe-murderer who’d found my plans online and come out to stalk me (I watch a lot of horror films). However he seemed to pick up on my unease and asked me to go on ahead claiming he couldn’t keep my pace, which perhaps I’d quickened without realising. Over the two and half days that I shared the Essex Way with him I was comforted by knowing we shared the endeavour, and more than once found his wisdom invaluable. Martin’s knee troubled him and he stopped on Day 3 at Ford Street, but not before pressing 50 quid into my hands as a donation. I was honoured to have spent time with him.
Thank you Cathy – my first InstaMeet on the hike! Cathy is the purveyor of beautiful jewellery and scarves via Alice’s Wonders, which I asked her all about while we jumped muddy puddles together in Epping Forest. She also clued me in on her army brat upbringing, to which she attributes her enjoyment of meeting new people. She was certainly very good at it, being interesting and relaxing company. Our three miles together through the forest, over the M11 and into some of the muddiest fields I’ve ever seen were too short and I hope to have the joy of her company again. Thanks for starting me off on the right foot Cathy!
Thank you Emma – the aforementioned pregnant friend, who I know through membership of Chelmsford Ladies Circle. Just over a mile from the end of Day One I came to yet another miserabley muddy section of path, made less pleasant by a pile of manure that had spilled across the road. I looked up to see a figure waving at me from the other side of it and there was Emma, who was due to drive me to where I was staying that night. I was thrilled that she’d come out to walk me in and there was a spring in my step for the final mile. We went to the pub for a celebratory pint (or J2O in her case). Cheers Emma!
Thank you Karen – another Chelmsford Ladies Circle friend, Karen gave me a very comfy bed, washed my stinky clothes, set me up with a hot bath and lashings of Germolene, fed me a delicious homemade Thai supper and then fuelled me up with porridge for breakfast before driving me back to Pleshey to begin Day 2. And she didn’t even mention the fact that I left her house reeking of Deep Heat. You’re a diamond Karen.
Thank you Julia (and Charles) – with her lovely husband Charles on driving duty, Julia, who is one of the sweetest human beings I know, met me at the start of Day 2 in Pleshey. As one of only 7 women to have held the annual role of High Sheriff of Essex in its 836-year history, Julia knows a thing or two about Essex and we spent an interesting five miles together. We got to know each other a few years ago when she cycled from Epping to Braintree via youth clubs, on an awareness raiser that I had organised for Essex Boys and Girls Clubs.
It was great to have a catch up and she and Charles also very kindly invited us in for a pit-stop, giving me a chance to use their landline to speak to BBC Essex about what I was up to. Coffee and biscuits went down well but I’m sorry to have left them with the stench of burnt plastic, having scorched my socks on their woodburner. Julia & Charles thank you for always being so supportive of so many things in this county, including me!
Thank you Candy & Lou – no one could wish for two bubblier human beings to cheer up a stroll in the countryside. Candy is the Treasurer of EWAG and her friend Lou also happened to have catered my wedding in 2009. Along with Stout, the very happy black Labrador, the ladies joined the hike at Great Waltham, Lou wearing the kit of someone who walks 10 miles before breakfast and Candy dressed, in her words, ‘for a dinner party’! They provided lots of stories and plenty of laughter and when it turned out that they had friends in common with Julia I was happy to hang back and hear connections being made. Thank you ladies, you were lots of fun!
Thank you Julie – a seize-the-day-er if ever I met one, Julie responded to an email from my mother on Wednesday night and decided to come and join me for a walk on Thursday morning! As a recently-retired-deputy-head of a school in Southend, as well as a voluntary Trustee on the Essex Youth Trust, Julie has a unique insight into Essex youth. This was the first time we’d spent any proper time together and I was incredibly touched that she would come out and join me at the last minute. I hope to see you again soon Julie!
Thank you Sheila (& Michael) – another part of the Ladies Circle gang, Sheila belongs to Chelmsford Tangent and her husband Mike is in 41 Club. I don’t know them well but as fellow members of the club family they opened their doors to me for a pit-stop in their suntrap of a garden. And surprise, surprise, this lovely couple and my hiking companion Julie had friends in common. It’s a small world! A truly generous-spirited couple, thank you Sheila and Michael!
Thank you Spike – well the hubby had to get a mention some time! Having been away overnight, Spike came out to get me at Coggeshall. I had lost time in the morning (having too much fun with the girls and gabbing on the radio!) and had spent the afternoon trying to make up time. By the final hour I was worn out and my pre-meeting Whatsapp conversation with him is filled repeatedly with the word ‘SLOOOOOOWWWWW’. I was struggling with a blister by now and had asked him to bring a pair of shoes or sandals to change my sore feet into. He brought two delightful pairs of strappy Gladiator sandals with zero arch support. One blue, one gold, both completely useless. I nearly brained him with them! There’s something about seeing my nearest and dearest when under stress that brings out the worst in me. We both agreed to agree that I should have been more specific. Love you sweetie x
Thank you Ginny – after walking over 40 miles in 2 days what do you need most? A sports massage. What do you want most? A cider. Ginny provided both, for free, with the added comedy of lying half-naked on a table in her kitchen whilst both our husbands made disparaging remarks from a safe distance. It hurt, but it was such an exquisite pain that I knew it was good for me. But oh god, my adductors. Oh God. Thank you Ginny for the best pain a friend could give!
Thank you Tracey (& Simon) – another early start with Tracey’s husband Simon on driving duty and this time we were actually on time. Tracey kept telling me she thought she’d only last a few hours but she wanted to try for the whole day. We sometimes go to yoga and walk the dogs together so I know she’s a lot fitter than me – I knew she could do it. And she did! Tracey has a strength of mind and a quiet confidence that she’s almost unaware of. As a public health researcher and a mother of three over-18s she possesses an extraordinary ability to be interested in people and make them feel proud of their accomplishments. She is also diplomatic and proved a great sidekick for the day as she could maintain conversation with fellow hikers when I was weary. The donation from the aforementioned couple at the gate was undoubtedly down to her graciousness, since by that point I was pretty tired and grumpy. It was such a pleasure to have this wonderful lady (and she’s a proper lady) with me for the day to cement our friendship – you’re a gem Tracey!
Thank you Ali – what a ball of fun and smiles this vintage pinup is! Ali came out to walk the dog and see us off before work. We originally met when she got involved with my husband’s grand plans to build a new war memorial in our little village. When she’s not high-powering it in London, Ali is a bit of an expert wartime reenactor. In a bittersweet twist, swing dancing has buggered up her ankle so, on doctor’s orders, she could only walk the first mile with us through Coggeshall. However the Essex Way took us past a Napoleonic 6-pound Field Gun and Carriage so she was extremely happy. Thank you Ali for shining your sunny disposition on our morning! (& thanks again to my hubby Spike for playing driver and head dogwalker again).
Thank you Saskia – when an Olympic Gold medallist asks to join you for a few miles because she happens to be in town, you take a big gulp. This is going to be one fit woman and I’m already hobbling from avoiding my blisters. Thank goodness Saskia is totally down-to-earth and unshowy, and deeply elegant even in trainers and a bobble hat. She joined us south of Great Tey and stayed with us until Ford Street, where we persuaded her to join us for a cake detour. Saskia started sailing at 8 years old, then got into competing and has spent more than 20 years of her life working towards the Olympic Gold, picking up multiple World Championship medals along the way, including Gold at Barcelona in 2012 and achieved her goal with gold at 2016’s Rios Olympics. Tracey and I quizzed her about her experiences and what happens now that she has retired, including the equality (or lack of) in the sailing community and what sorts of opportunities are open to her now. She’s in a transitional phase and since we are the same age I was interested to discuss what comes with changing your outlook in such a significant way. I am very grateful to have her support – Saskia you’re a star!
Thank you Sheila (& Clive) – another EWAG committee member, Sheila, supported by her driving husband, Clive, met us at Ford Street to walk to Boxted. Sheila is the President of Girlguiding Essex North East and has years of experience working in the outdoors. It was interesting to discuss ways to encourage Essex women to fulfill the need for more volunteer leaders for the Rainbows, Brownies and Girlguides, as well as upcoming changes to the Senior Section, and the role of the Trefoil. Sheila has a thoughtful attitude and weighs her words carefully, a trait I aspire to achieve (but I’m sadly some way off). She’s got a wealth of botanical knowledge and named the many flowers and trees and birds we saw. She also must have no sense of smell – her phone rang as we passed a muck heap that reeked of ammonia and she stopped to answer it as Tracey and I both gagged and sped onward! I was very grateful for her measured companionship en route – thank you Sheila!
Thank you Darran – if ever someone existed to provide sustenance to his fellow man, Darran is he. With his wife Caroline they are the landlords of my excellent local, The Five Bells and have, as part of the St Arnold Group, taken over a string of nearby pubs in the last few years. Each of these fantastic watering holes is uniquely involved with the community and Darran, his family and their team give a huge amount of their time to local events and good causes. The Three Horseshoes in Fordham is the latest addition and, mid-refurbishment, Darran invited us to drop in along the way for a pee-break, some tea and a pile of indulgent homemade cake. We got a good gander at the place too and made sure we bagged ourselves an invite to the launch party in May. Thanks Darran, for the sugar high!
Another thank you to Mike comes here, for venturing out with his 15-year-old granddaughter at the end of Day 3, to collect Tracey and I from Dedham. He sped us straight to The Essex for a steam and sauna followed by takeaway fish and chips at Janie’s kitchen table. We’d earned it!
Thank you Tina – Tina was one of two awesome women who I’d never met before but joined me for the entire final day. As the voluntary International County Liaison for Girlguiding Essex North East, she has travelled extensively across the world. Tina is currently fundraising for an India Challenge and has produced downloadable resources for Guide Leaders to help their troupe members to achieve badges. She is also voluntary Chairman of CARA, Centre for Action on Rape & Abuse in Essex and so provides a valuable understanding of the issues facing women. I was thrilled to find that Tina was a treasure trove of interesting conversation throughout the day and a real pleasure to walk alongside. Thanks Tina, your enthusiasm kept me going!
Thank you Lucy – triathlete Lucy was the second fantastic all-dayer. Having followed her blog for a while and communicated via Instagram and through mutual love of the Tough Girl podcast, I was a little nervous that my now lopsided hobble would be too slow for this woman of steel. She was certainly frustrated when we mounted the seawall at Wrabness to see Harwich in the distance and announced that she could swim to the end faster than we expected to walk there! However she was very kind and didn’t complain once about our sedate pace. Walking uses different muscles to running and cycling, as well as impacting on the soles of your feet if you do it all day. As we walked the last few miles into Harwich she finally admitted to feeling the ache a little and I felt like I’d done my job. Lucy’s energy is unbounded and her commitment and dedication to her fitness journey is impressive. As a This Girl Can Essex Ambassador she is also dedicated to supporting others and I feel privileged to have had her in my corner from well before I began the hike. Whenever I was flagging I’d ask her to take the lead and pacemake and she brought us in an hour earlier than planned! She has also written a very good review of the day here. Thanks Lucy, you’re a rock!
Thank you Emily – the last person to join the hike was another Instagram friend, Emily, who we met in Wrabness at Grayson Perry’s quite incredible House for Essex. I had almost let the blisters stop me from walking the short hill up to this mind-boggling structure but told myself out loud that I was being an idiot and I’m so glad. The house is a wayside tribute to a fictitious Essex everywoman, and not only was it fitting for a hike in aid of Essex Girls, it truly is a sight to behold. It was also an amusing location to link up with Miss Essex 2016. Emily has nearly reached the end of her year holding the title of Miss Essex 2016 and has spent her time helping to promote good causes. She is a Brownie Leader, volunteers at her local homeless shelter Harp as well as doing other charitable work around the county. Emily came out to support my hike because she likes to challenge the negative image of Essex Girls, a cliche that she has encountered in her job in the City and during the Miss England competition. Although she didn’t win the latter, she is proud to have won the Intelligence Round which is one in the eye for the stereotype. Emily is down-to-earth and charismatic and gave the three of us a great boost for the final afternoon of my journey. Thank you Emily you’re a star!
So, we did it. It felt epic. Epping to Pleshey, Pleshey to Coggeshall, Coggeshall to Dedham, Dedham to Harwich, over 20 miles each day and I am chuffed to say that I achieved what I set out to do. I have raised some money (way more than I expected), I have raised some awareness of EWAG and I have met and got to know an interesting group of Essex Girls.
Thank you to everyone who contributed in any way. The toughest lesson I’ve learned is that I don’t know if I could have done this on my own, and I’m still a bit scared to try. So I guess that’s the next challenge… Bring it on.
Extra thanks to these long-time cheerleaders who were hiking with me in spirit…
The Route, day by day
You can find my downloadable route map on the OutdoorGPS website. I made the map using their iPhone app and kept my iPhone 6S charged with with my Innergie PocketCell Plus, which would have lasted at least two days but I recharged each night.
I wore a wicking T-shirt and leggings that I knew didn’t rub and layered up and down with a hooded zip-up, gloves and a buff. I wore my comfort blankets, the Seasalt Drop Anchor Rain Coat and my Scarpa Walking Boots although my feet wished I’d worn trainers after the mud dried up on Day 2. I took spare socks and swapped them at every opportunity, drying the damp ones on the outside of my pack.
I carried my small amount of kit in the waterproof and pocket-tastic Osprey Jet 12 (yes it’s a child’s backpack and yes it was perfect) and put my paper backup maps in a transparent, waterproof, map carry-bag that I hung around my neck.
I carried 2 litres of water in sports bottles and also took a Sawyer Mini Water Filtration System but didn’t need to use it since I found enough clean water en route. I had big breakfasts and dinners and ate Crobars and apples during the hike.
I carried a small first aid kit which included Compeed blister plasters, normal plasters, painkillers, a whistle, an emergency blanket and a list of contact phone numbers.
For more info about my planning, read my pre-hike post here >
Disclaimer: All third party links included in my post are there because I like their work. I have not received any benefits in return for the links and I take no responsibility for what you find there.