Part four of my London to Brighton challenge blog, now moved in its entirety from my old website.
The penultimate stretch of the L2B challenge was the shortest of the whole walk; a mere 7.3km hop to Plumpton’s College. Short though this stretch was Joanne and I were anxious to get it over and done with. The sooner we arrived at Plumpton’s, the sooner we could embark on the final 12.5km over the towering South Downs!
Shortly after leaving the breakfast stop, Joanne and I encountered a woman hobbling along at a snail’s pace, her walking poles tucked neatly under her arms. When we asked why she didn’t actually use the poles, she claimed she found it easier to carry them and limp. Seriously?
‘Bullshit!’ retorted Joanne as soon as we were out of earshot, and we burst out laughing.
The walk to Plumpton’s was fairly nondescript, but it was easy going on paved roads, and for the first time we arrived at a rest stop ahead of schedule. The final mile or so was over fields with stiles aplenty, which immediately put us in mind of Bronagh. Tiredness was making us more than a little silly; we decided that there would be a colossal, six foot high stile right on the finish line, and we staggered about the path roaring with laughter at the idea.
Yes, we really were that silly! I could have sworn I saw a little lizard cross the path, but on closer inspection all I could see was a twig lying on the ground. Joanne couldn’t make out why I was starting at it so intently.
‘It’s a stick,’ she said.
‘It’s a creature,’ I insisted, nudging ‘the lizard’ with my foot to prove my point.
It didn’t move.
It was a stick. Hilarious!
As we approached Plumpton’s College we encountered plenty of people out for a day in the sunshine, and they all had a smile and a few words of encouragement for us. I wonder if they knew just how welcome their kind words sounded to two exhausted walkers.
We got to Plumpton’s about the same time as two of the friendly hot food stop group, and one was the flip flop wearer! Big respect to her! The hobbling woman had also arrived, to our amazement. Either she power hobbled or got a lift most of the way; somehow I suspect the latter!
There was no reason to linger at Plumpton’s any longer than it took to perform the holy trinity of checking blisters, refilling water bottles and texting friends. I refer to the Plumpton’s stop by name and not by the food on offer for the simple reason there was no food on offer. Tasks performed, we were up and on our way; and there, right in front of us, were the dreaded South Downs.
The walk over the South Downs was so much easier than I’d been anticipating ever since I set off from Richmond the previous morning. The ascent was a little arduous, but no where near as arduous as a 1000 metre climb would have been! (See London to Brighton Challenge-Stage Three.)
We were impressed to spot the man who’d been bandaging his knee earlier in the day, still in pain but still going. Joanne aptly named him Mr Determination. As we’d departed from Plumpton’s one of the L2B staff had told us we’d be able to see Brighton once we got to the top of the Downs, so we pressed on, eager for our first sight of journey’s end….
He lied! All we could see on reaching the top of the Downs was the top of the Downs, stretching away into the distance. More walking, just at a higher level now, and a lot windier than ground level.
Joanne and I decided we’d take the Downs at our own pace, but promised we’d meet up again once we reached Brighton racecourse. We’d come this far together, we were determined to cross the finish line together.
The path went on, going downhill for a while which my knees hated, then up again. I’m normally quite self critical, but as I passed strugglers half my age I allowed myself an uncharacteristic moment of pride. Up and up I went, determined to reached the highest point of this particular stretch before I had a much needed water break. The path rounded a corner and continued to rise, finally reaching a plateau. Easing my rucksack off my sore shoulders with a sigh of relief, I had a welcome mouthful of water then glanced to my right and saw one of the most wonderful sights of my life.
There, on the horizon, was journey’s end. Brighton. Tears welled up, and I felt like screaming with joy. I felt like running back down the hill to tell the strugglers what lay just around the corner, but a timely twinge from my knees put paid to that idea! Joanne came power walking up the hill, having got her second wind; or was it her third, fourth or fifth? We’d hit the wall and ploughed straight on through it so many times by then! I flapped my hands in the general direction of Brighton and managed a tearful ‘Look!’ as Joanne approached.
‘That’s the sea, that is,’ she commented before carrying on with her power walk, determined to actually get to Brighton rather than admiring it from afar.
For a while Joanne went on ahead while I concentrated on my phone, updating facebook and replying to a multitude of texts. My friends back home were gathering in my local pub to cheer me on in their own unique way, and they were eager for progress updates. As I dawdled along a couple of horse riders stopped for a chat, gaping in disbelief when I told them I’d walked all night.
‘Really, I have!’ I assured them. ‘There were loads of us.’
‘Have you fallen out with everyone then?’ they teased, looking up and down the deserted bridle path. They walked their horses alongside me for a while, asking questions about the L2B challenge and making me laugh with their ready wit. Pointing out a hill in the distance, they told me all I had to do was cross it then I’d be finished.
‘Alternatively, there’s a really nice pub just around the corner,’ they added with a wink, before wishing me luck and riding on.
There was indeed a nice pub just around the corner. How I would have loved an ice cold cider at that moment, but once I’d got the taste I’d probably have stayed in the pub all night, 6km from the end of a 100km walk I’d never finish! I caught up with Joanne shortly before the 95km marker. Her feet were suffering on the bumpy, stony path, but she was still upbeat and determined. As we climbed the final hill of the L2B challenge every passer by smiled and congratulated us, while car drivers tooted their horns. I’ve never experienced such support before, and it felt amazing. The tears hadn’t been far away since I first saw Brighton from the Downs, and I was becoming rather overwhelmed by the time we actually walked into the town. Texts of encouragement continued to flood in from friends, the sun was still shining, and, after more than thirty hours of walking, I still felt good. The only slight dampener was that there was no word from my partner Andy, who was driving down to meet me at the finish line. I learned later that he had decided to drive through London and was stuck in traffic. Joanne asked if I wanted to hang back a bit and give him a chance to arrive, but I decided against it. Not only did I want to achieve a vaguely respectable time, I was longing to take my boots and rucksack off as soon as possible.
As we entered Brighton racecourse we passed the last marker of our journey. 99km completed, one to go. Just over half a mile, and we could see the end of the L2B challenge. Joanne received a text from friends saying they could see her from the finish line, and she could no longer hold the tears back. Of course that set me off, and for a while we gave in to the huge wave of emotion that hit us as we neared the end of our mammoth journey. My friends, who’d been celebrating my achievement in the pub all afternoon, rang as we walked the final half mile, intending to regale me with a rousing chorus of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’, but that had to wait until I’d finished. I didn’t want to cross the finish line on the phone, or in tears for that matter, so calls and emotions would just have to wait.
A day and a half of walking, sixty-two miles covered, blistered feet, raw shoulders, aching limbs and every emotion from despair to elation culminated in one moment shortly after 6.30pm on Sunday 26 May 2013. Joanne and I joined hands; and, raising them above our heads in triumph, we crossed the finish line of the London to Brighton challenge.