London to Brighton Challenge-Stage Four

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.

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Destination Plumpton!

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.

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The South Downs, NOT 1000 metres high!

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.)

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Beginning the ascent of the South Downs

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.

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At the top of the Downs was…the top of the Downs!

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.

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Crossing the final hill.

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.

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Nearly there

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.

L2B Certificate
My certificate

London to Brighton Walk-Stage Two

Part two of my epic walk from London to Brighton.

 

Almost immediately after leaving Oaks Park rest stop, my new friend Bronagh and I were in open countryside. Walking along a narrow path bordering woodland and fields, it was a little surreal to look to our left and see the central London skyline visible in the distance.

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Open fields, with the central London skyscrapers etched on the horizon

As we were both still feeling good we decided to up the pace, but the terrain had other ideas. Open countryside, although more attractive than the suburbs, meant muddy, uneven paths. Bronagh confessed to a fear of climbing over stiles, but luckily during this stretch of the walk all the field boundaries had gaps in their fences or unlocked gates. No stiles yet; they would come later!

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‘City of London. Farthing Downs & New Hill’. As I was taking this photo Joanne joined us.

Just before we reached Farthing Downs we were joined by Joanne, another lone walker, who had started quarter of an hour before us. She explained that she’d been walking with people who’d had to drop out before they’d even completed stage one; and, nice though they were, they’d held her up to such an extent that she was way behind her group. With the night-time approaching I was very happy to have another companion, and it seemed appropriate that we entered the beautiful Happy Valley at this point. The shadows were lengthening, but it was a glorious evening and we were starting to overtake some of the L2B strugglers. It gave us a real confidence boost not to be bringing up the rear any more; a Happy Valley bonus!

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The aptly named ‘Happy Valley’

As we walked on we encountered more people struggling. One group of three ladies was having a miserable time with blisters, especially the youngest one who could barely walk. Joanne suggested they try walking backwards, which made us all laugh but amazingly seemed to help. However long would it have taken to walk the remaining 65km to Brighton backwards?

We left the three ladies walking backwards and enjoyed one of the most stunningly beautiful stretches of the walk. The evening sunshine shone on picturesque valleys, woodland and houses as we descended a steep track. All was peaceful, all was tranquil, and the breathtaking beauty took our minds off our grumbling knees as we continued downhill.

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Then, in the midst of all this tranquillity, we heard the relentless sound of traffic. Lots of traffic…

We’d reached the M25! London was most definitely behind us. By the time we passed under the M25, making the obligatory silly noises to echo round the tunnel, we were in a fairly large group of people, including a very friendly lady from Leeds walking with her godson and his partner. Leeds Lady (I never did find out her name) was finding the walk rather painful, and her godson was very kindly carrying her rucksack for her. I was delighted to be part of a sizeable group as the sun set over rest stop number three, Hawthorne’s School, and not even the L2B staff stacking up the chairs as fast as we tried to sit down could dampen my spirits.

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Sunset over Hawthorne’s School

Hawthorne’s was the ‘Pick & mix’ stop, and I helped myself rather liberally. Glancing guiltily over my shoulder, I filled not one, not two, but THREE bags with sweets to see me through the night, much to the amusement of Joanne. There were chairs inside the school hall as yet undisturbed by the L2B staff, so I headed in from the cooling evening to give my feet a bit of pampering. The three blister ladies had arrived (backwards?) and were getting checked by the first aiders, and there were a couple of people in tears, obviously unable to carry on. I realised then that it hadn’t once crossed my mind I might not complete the challenge. I’d just kept walking and walking, and eventually I’d rock up in Brighton. Ha ha. Rock up. Brighton rock. Hah!

By the time we left Hawthorne’s, nine o’clock-ish according to my route card, the sun had set and my group had dwindled back down to the three amigos. Nice Leeds Lady and the lads had gone on ahead, and everyone else at Hawthorne’s seemed more intent on nursing their feet than carrying on to Brighton. With a huge moon illuminating the fields, a stash of sweets in my pockets and two cheerful companions, night walking was great! Well, it was until the stiles began. Bronagh wasn’t fibbing when she said she doesn’t like climbing. She approached the many stiles with a look of trepidation, and needed to be coaxed over each one. We caught up with Nice Leeds Lady, who by this point was struggling quite badly. The lads were still with her, and she still seemed in good humour, but I think she’s the kind of person who always has a smile on her face. The three of them were great company, but Bronagh, Joanne and I decided to forge on ahead. We were all still in high spirits, teasing Bronagh mercilessly every time we approached a stile, and attempting to photograph the moon on our phones. By the time I’d put my phone away, Bronagh and Joanne had miraculously managed to get through a gap in a fence no wider than my arm! How? How had they done it?

Voices wobbly with laughter, my companions told me I could try squeezing through the tiny gap if I liked…

Alternatively I could use the huge gap, the width of a farm gate, right next to it!

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The full moon lighting our way, with a little help from my head torch!

As midnight approached, we started to get a little more subdued. My partner Andy phoned as he was getting ready to go to bed, and it struck me that we were out in the middle of nowhere while normal folk were snuggling into their duvets. It was starting to get seriously cold too, and without warning tiredness kicked in with a vengeance. By the time we reached the Rough Beach Farm rest stop the three of us were very dispirited indeed. It was ‘one-ish’ according to my score card; the early hours of Sunday morning, and we weren’t even half way to Brighton. On removing my boots and socks I discovered that the little toe on my left foot had swollen up and was a most peculiar colour. Cue hasty visit to the first aid tent!

Getting my toe treated by the experts turned out to be a wise move. The on site doctor told me it was nothing more serious than an unpleasantly coloured blister, and once she’d bound it up my positive mood had returned. Others weren’t so lucky. While I was being treated, a sobbing woman was making arrangements to drop out of the challenge. Her foot was in agony, and there was no way she could go on. Nice Leeds Lady hobbled into the tent as I was being treated, still cheerful but obviously in pain, and the three blister ladies had amazingly made it this far, but clearly couldn’t go any further. A minibus was on its way, ostensibly to pick up the inured, but it soon became apparent that some people were catching a lift to the next stop, and I was a little vocal about the fact I considered this cheating.

‘The L2B motto is: “100k. Walk. Jog. Run. Your challenge. Your way.” It says nothing about getting a bus!’ I declared to one of the young men accompanying Nice Leeds Lady.

‘Actually, we’re getting the bus,’ he replied, looking a little sheepish.

Oops! Apparently I’m not the most tactful person in the world when I’m tired!

Joanne, Bronagh and I were the only participants to leave Rough Beach farm on foot, and as we set off one of the staff came scuttling after us.

‘You’re getting the bus!’ she said. ‘Aren’t you?’

When we assured her that we were not only fine to walk, we WANTED to walk, she made a hasty phone call to arrange for two staff members to accompany us as back markers. The staff members in question were fast asleep on one of the rest stop tables, obviously having assumed everyone was getting the bus, but before long they had been roused from their slumbers and the three amigos were on the road again.

It’s amazing the difference some warm clothes and a little TLC can make! Even though it was deepest, darkest night-time, we all seemed to have our second wind as we chatted, laughed and planned silly photos at the 50km marker. We were so busy planning that we completely missed the half way marker. In fact, it was only when Joanne and I came to a junction suspiciously lacking in pink direction arrows, glow sticks, hazard signs or any form of L2B guidance we realised we hadn’t seen any markers at all for a while. Retracing our steps, meeting a baffled looking Bronagh head on, we found where we’d gone wrong without too much difficulty and were back on track. The back markers had caught us up thanks to our little detour, and they were happy to keep Bronagh company while Joanne and I forged on ahead, eager to reach the next rest stop and the hot food it promised.

As Joanne and I picked our way to the end of a muddy, sticky path, we encountered the most forlorn looking person I’d seen all day, sitting by herself on the cold ground.  Joanne and I stopped to keep her company for a while, and she explained that she’d been there for half an hour, in too much pain to go on, waiting for someone to pick her up. The back markers were suitably embarrassed that a young woman had ended up walking the night stretch alone, and they did their best to make amends by waiting with her. Like the fading glow sticks marking the route, my spirits were beginning to dim again. It was more than seventeen hours since we’d set off, and we’d only just passed half way. Bronagh was feeling quite ill, and the going was slow. I was tired and hungry, two things guaranteed to make me irritable, and the only thing I could think of was getting to the hot food stop as quickly as possible. Leaving Joanne with Bronagh, I started to power walk.

It felt really good to be making swift progress, and neither guilt at deserting my companions nor apprehension at being alone in a dark, shadowy wood was going to slow me down. I could hear the sound of a PA system and loud music, which I guessed was coming from the hot food stop at Tulley’s farm. I bet the local people had loved that going on all night! As I approached Tulley’s Farm, thinking delicious thoughts of hot bolognaise sauce, another sound filled the air. It took a while for the significance of this sound to sink in as I strode purposefully onwards, but then it rang out again, and again.

The sound of a cockerel crowing, heralding the dawn. The dreaded night stretch of the L2B was over!

I arrived at Tulley’s farm as the compere was packing up, obviously assuming his night’s work was done. The L2B staff were very surprised to see me power walk through the gate, face set in grim determination to be fed. Happily the food was still bubbling away on hot plates, and I pushed aside guilty thoughts about Bronagh and Joanne still walking as I stuffed my face. A friendly group of four, the only other L2B participants left at Tulley’s farm, was preparing to depart as I sat down, and I fleetingly considered leaving my meal and walking with them. No chance! I was ravenous, and I wanted to apologise to Joanne and Bronagh for leaving them behind. It was some time before they joined me, and by then poor Bronagh was feeling faint. Hoping that a hot meal would perk her up, I massaged my feet and enjoyed a rest while my companions ate. Finally, fed and rested, the three amigos set off into the dawn for stage three of the L2B challenge.

Late August 2012. Brighton

When the euphoria that greeted Book Guild’s offer to publish Dory’s Avengers had finally calmed a little I took time to gauge the opinion of my partner, the eternally down to earth Andy. To my delight he was very encouraging, and being a printer by trade he was also able to make sense of any technical printing terms used by Book Guild.

Book Guild are happy for prospective authors call in to the office in Brighton and talk to the publishing team face to face. Before I committed to working with Book Guild Andy and I decided that is exactly what we would do, and so we set off on a day trip to the seaside. Oh yes, and a meeting that could change my life.

Our appointment with Carol, the top lady at Book Guild, was at 2.30, and I did become a little agitated as we made our way from London Bridge to Brighton on the slowest train in living history. Mental note to self: consult a train timetable in future! Luckily we arrived in Brighton and found the Book Guild office, located in the very heart of the town opposite the Pavilion Theatre, with time to spare.

DSC02780Opposite the Book Guild office was a the very thing I needed at that moment: a pub, of course!

Sitting at the bar, sensibly nursing a soft drink rather than the cider I craved, I gazed over the street at the Book Guild office. All around people were going about their daily lives, unaware that in their midst was a very excited author on the verge of making her dream come true. Definitely a goose flesh moment.

The informality of the Book Guild offices put me at my ease straight away. Predominantly open plan, a little untidy, bright, airy, and everywhere books, books, lovely books! They were  stacked on every surface, propped up on trolleys, displayed on book cases, all clearly well loved by the Book Guild staff. What book lover could fail to feel at home in this higgledy piggledy book-centric office?

I took to Carol straight away. She clearly loves her work, proudly showing me one Book Guild publication after another, and enthusing about the cover art and printing, individually tailored to suit each book. Naturally Andy was very interested in the printing side of the process. He and Carol discussed the finer points of printing while I daydreamed about holding a beautiful, hard covered first edition of Dory’s Avengers in my hands. At no point during the meeting did Carol try to pull the wool over my eyes. The publication process takes a long time, about a year in all, which took me rather by surprise. Also, it’s not going to be easy to get my work noticed among the thousands of books that are published every year, and often an author’s success owes more to luck than talent. However, there’s always the chance, if Dory’s Avengers is published, that I might be one of the lucky ones. Remain unpublished and I’ll never know.

The meeting with Carol was very positive, and sometimes quite exciting. It’s more than likely that I will have a book signing in the Cambridge branch of Waterstones to coincide with the launch of Dory’s Avengers, and if this goes well then there may be more book signings, perhaps even one in London. At about this point in the meeting I began to wonder when I was going to wake up from this crazy dream. Book signings? Me?

DSC02781When Andy and I finally emerged from the Book Guild offices on to the sunny streets of Brighton, we were amazed to discover we had been talking to Carol for over an hour. In need of some liquid refreshment we headed to another of Brighton’s lovely pubs, and this time I did treat myself to a cider. More than one actually as Andy and I discussed the meeting we’d just attended. I stood on the threshold of becoming the very thing I’ve wanted to be from the moment I learnt to write: a published author.

Sitting on a packed train back to London, a much faster train than the one on which we’d travelled down to Brighton, the opening lyrics of the Eminem song “Lose Yourself” kept repeating over and over again in my head:

‘Look, if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted in one moment, would you capture it? Or just let it slip?’

The next morning I emailed Carol to let her know I would love Book Guild to publish Dory’s Avengers. This was my one opportunity, and there was no way I was going to let it slip.