Real Life: 'Why I walked Britain's coastline'
Despite suffering hypothermia, trench foot and braving raging storms, Cambridge dad Chris Howard completed an epic 11,100-mile charity walk of Britain’s coastline, as he tells Louise Cummings
Dad of three Chris Howard is no stranger to adventure. His list of daring exploits includes cycling Paris to Cambridge non-stop, trekking the foothills of the Himalayas and rowing the Atlantic with his best friend. “We were the first unsupported crew to row the Atlantic since the original crossing in the 1800s,” explains Chris. “It took 105 days and was the toughest thing I’ve done as we were stalked by sharks, sprung a leak, lost power so had to navigate by the stars, and both suffered skin infections. It was a life defining journey, that really set the tone for the next 10 years.”
Those arduous days at sea certainly helped to build the endurance and survival spirit needed on Chris’s latest adventure, which has dominated his life for the best part of two years.
He set off from Heacham in July 2020, on a mission to walk the coastline of Britain, surviving on minimal kit, and relying on the kindness of strangers. Heading clockwise from Norfolk, he'd navigate by OS map, GPS and the stars, sleep mainly outdoors and forage for food where necessary.
It was a wrench to leave wife Abigail, twin daughters Elsa and Nala, 8, and his youngest, Aria, 5, but Chris was motivated by the opportunity to raise money for Children in Need.
“I thought it would push me both mentally and physically, but my primary aim was to raise money for Children in Need because there are a lot of young people in the UK that are struggling,” he explains.
Though Chris had estimated the walk would take a year, it actually took 450 days, with Boris’s Christmas 2020 lockdown halting progress for four months.
Whilst the weather was fine, Chris was able to pitch his tent, but when it became inclement, he had to be a little more inventive with his sleeping arrangements.
“I slept on boats, in grave yards, in a telephone box, which wasn’t very comfortable, in the back of a lorry, in hay barns, a horse box, in a windmill, a lighthouse, on school floors, scout huts and in bothies,” he recalls.
With Chris clocking up marathon distance mileage most days, whilst carrying a 25k rucksack, fuelling his body was a crucial factor.
“I’d basically eat whatever I could get my hands on!” he smiles. “I’d always carry packs of noodles because they are cheap and light to carry. But in the north west of Scotland I walked for 23 days without seeing a single person and you can’t carry 23 packs of noodles, so I foraged and found leeks, turnips, leaves, wild garlic and wild raspberries.”
Passing through so many towns and villages, Chris witnessed the best and the worst of humanity.
“In some towns people assumed I was homeless, even though I was wearing a note explaining my challenge, and I got spat at and pushed around,” he says sadly.
Conversely he encountered heart-warming kindness in more remote regions.
“The reception I got in Filey was amazing. So many people had turned out and they all wanted to buy me tea, cake and fish and chips!” he says incredulously.
Whilst he fell in love with the natural beauty of Wales and Scotland, the latter proved the most punishing section of his journey.
“I hadn’t anticipated how isolated and remote Cape Wrath would be. I encountered really bad storms, got hypothermia and trench foot, and my navigation system didn’t work as there is a magnetic phenomenon there which throws all compasses off,” he recalls. “At one point I had to swim across a swollen river and a dead sheep floated up next to me.”
The highlight of Chris’s coastal pilgrimage was hugging his family as he arrived back in Cambridge on March 5 to a hero’s welcome. “I’d been looking forward to coming home for so long. It wasn’t a case of just seeing family; I needed to breathe that family in, to smell those kids. I needed to feel like I was part of the family again.”
Back home with wife Abigail, who he describes as ‘my rock and support’, Chris is writing a book about his extraordinary adventure, which raised £42,000 for Children in Need
Physically he is a changed man - two-stone lighter and sporting an impressive beard – but what about mentally? “I don’t think I’ve changed?” he muses. “But what I have realised is that, for all the disconnection that Covid brought, there’s still an element of human kindness that prevails.”
Find out more at thecoastwalker.com.
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More by this authorLouise Cummings