London to Brighton Challenge-Stage Three

Continuing with moving blogs from my old website, here’s part three of my London to Brighton story.

As Joanne, Bronagh and I left Tulley’s farm for stage three of the L2B challenge, walking through an adventure playground that appeared to consist entirely of broken down vehicles, all around us nature was bursting into life and celebrating the end of the night. Early morning mist rose from the meadows as the moon sank slowly against a backdrop of blue.

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The moon setting

A group of deer ran across our path, heading towards woodland. Flowers unfurled, shadows retreated, birds added their voices to the dawn chorus. To think only a few hours earlier I’d been envious of ‘normal’ people sleeping in their warm beds; I wouldn’t have missed daybreak  on 26 May 2013 for all the snugly duvets in the world!

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Sunrise
                                                                                    

In high spirits my companions and I arrived at the golf course (yes, golf course!) of an extremely posh school, tracks of the multitude of L2B participants who’d crossed the course before us clearly visible in the dew. The sun had risen by this time, but it was still very early and we were the only people about.

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Pretty lane

Our playful mood continued as we reached a pretty country lane, where I was delighted to find a long twig perfect for use as a back scratcher. While an oblivious Bronagh walked on ahead, Joanne and I hid in the bushes, weeping with laughter at our hilarious joke. On such a beautiful morning, a little delirious from lack of sleep, laughter came very easily!

However, it wasn’t long before the pace slowed again and my agitation returned. Warning my companions that I was going to be antisocial for a while, I put my iPod on and walked at my own pace. As a result I was quite a long way ahead by the time the L2B arrows pointed into the trees at the side of the pretty lane.

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The markers pointing off the pretty lane onto the horrid path!

Sitting on a tree stump, mobile phone in hand, was another L2B challenge retiree, who tearfully told me that her knees were too painful for her to continue. I made all the appropriate sympathetic noises, then left her talking on her phone and walked on.

I’m not surprised the poor woman’s knees had given out if she had attempted the next bit of the walk. Even my sturdy joints grumbled as I stomped down a steep, woodland path, sometimes tripping over tree roots, sometimes sinking into large patches of mud. Finally, aching and despondent, I reached the bottom of the path and wondered what horrors lay in store next.

Ardingly Reservoir lay in store, and it was one of the most breathtakingly beautiful places I have ever seen. A narrow wooden bridge stretched out in front for me, spanning the reservoir. The water was surrounded by trees, reflected in its surface which was smooth as glass, and I was the only person in this gorgeous, tranquil place. Despondent no more I crossed the bridge, packed my night clothes back into my rucksack, retrieved my camera and snapped the scene for posterity.

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The beautiful Ardingly Reservoir

Joanne joined me after a while, a little frustrated at the slow pace, and when Bronagh arrived we had a quick water break then set off again. Bronagh was feeling a bit down; she knew she was struggling, but didn’t want to disappoint all the generous people who’d pledged money to her charity. Andy phoned while Bronagh and I were chatting, and was surprised to find I was still so far from Brighton. Before the L2B began I’d naively declared I’d be crossing the finish line by Sunday lunch time. Now it was looking like it would be evening at the earliest; and, if we carried on at the pace we were going, we’d be lucky to finish before dark. Tiredness, disappointment and frustration suddenly overwhelmed me as I talked to Andy, and it took all my will power not to burst into tears.

My emotional phone call proved something of a turning point for me. As we approached the next rest stop, later than intended yet again, I decided I had to to up the pace from then onwards. The next stop was the fudge stop (we’d taken to referring to all the stops by the food they offered rather than their official names). Being a lover of fudge I’d been looking forward to this stop with particular relish, but by the time we arrived my only concern was to get going again as quickly as possible. The friendly people I’d met at the hot food stop were by the entrance, one of them in floods of tears. I clearly wasn’t the only one having emotional meltdowns by that point on the L2B! Joanne was as anxious to get going as I was, so after a quick blister check we were ready to depart. Bronagh looked very sad at being left behind; and having enjoyed her company right from the start I found saying farewell was the worst moment of the entire walk.

Once Joanne and I got going our moods soon lifted. It felt so good to be walking at a decent pace, and the euphoria we’d experienced as the sun rose came flooding back. With the sun being high in the sky by this time, Joanne took out a baseball cap and I laughed at the football badge it displayed.

‘Luton Town? Really?’

Having discovered that we were non-league rivals, being as I’m a Cambridge United fan, we enjoyed some light hearted banter and football chat as we walked on. In the midst of a patch of woodland we found our path blocked by a ridiculously large log, and the only way to proceed was to climb over the thing. I’m not sure what Joanne found funnier: the idea of climbing-phobic Bronagh scrambling over the log, or the undignified sight of me straddling it for an impromptu rest! Before long Joanne started ribbing me about my constant references to the arduous climb over the South Downs right at the end of the walk, which according to our route plan was a total ascent of over 1000 metres. The fact that would make the downs higher than the highest point in England should have hinted to me that wasn’t quite right, and I felt suitably silly when I realised 1000 metres was the actually total ascent over the entire walk!

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                               Having missed the half way point, there was no way I was going to make the same mistake at the three-quarter marker

Joanne and I continued to make good progress, passing more and more strugglers as we went. One woman told us that a colossal blister had suddenly appeared without warning on her foot, and further on a bloke winced in pain as he bandaged his knee. My cheerful hot food stop friends were also conducting a bit of trackside first aid on their blisters, and it was then I noticed that one of them was wearing flip flops. Amazingly, she seemed to be the only one of the four whose feet were fine.

‘But what about the dust? Doesn’t it rub between your toes?’ I asked.

‘Lovey,’ she replied, ‘dust is the least of my worries right now!’

Continuing along the lane, I pointed out some more ‘strugglers’ up ahead.

‘They’re cows!’ said Joanne.

Cows; people; they all looked the same to me by then! On the approach to the next rest stop, the breakfast stop, we were constantly overtaking and being overtaken by fellow walkers. One minute we were rejoicing at having a few behind us, the next we suspected we were at that back of the pack yet again.

Shortly after the 79km marker, 1km from the breakfast stop, was a field full of cattle. Being a country bumpkin I’d  grown up around cows, and I walked on with confidence, promising to protect a couple of nervous young women from the nasty beasts. However, even I baulked a little at the sight of a big, mean bull, standing right in our path and mooing ominously.

Joanne, on the other hand, wasn’t fazed in the slightest.

‘You, shift!’ she told the bull. ‘Because I’m not stopping.’

We arrived at the breakfast stop around about midday, by which time it was also known as the 80k club due to the huge amount of people who had come so far but could go no further. Personally I enjoyed this stop more than any other. The weather was glorious, and laying in the sun airing my sore feet while eating a hot sausage sandwich was one of the best feelings ever. According to another sunbather we only had 33 hours from our start time in which to finish if we wanted our time to be registered, which would give Joanne and me over six hours. Six hours to walk 20km. Yes, we could do that! Joanne emerged from the first aid room and joined me in the sunshine, complaining her feet felt worse than they had before treatment. We enjoyed another ten minutes in the sunshine, then Joanne went off in search of food while I put my reluctant feet back into their boots. The friendly hot food stop group was sitting just outside the first aid room as I refilled my water bottles, and a first aider was offering consolation to the group’s struggler. She was upset at having to join the 80k club, and he was reminding her she’d achieved something amazing getting this far.

‘You do amazing things, not me,’ she argued through her tears. ‘You save lives.’

‘No I don’t,’ he replied, laughing. ‘I treat blisters.’

I turned to locate Joanne, and to my amazement found her talking to Bronagh! How on Earth had Bronagh managed to catch us up? With a little help from a minibus, that’s how; but by this stage I was a little less opinionated about other people’s methods of completing the L2B challenge. The first aid man was quite right; every single person who made it to the 80k stop had already achieved something amazing.

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.