The Winter’s Tale
Winter’s icy fingers tightly gripped my feet; the only thing brave enough to touch them after so long in the same pair of hiking boots. I sighed goodbye to any sleep that night and wriggled in my sleeping bag like a worm with ADHD. Camping in winter was always part of the plan but I had forgotten to factor in the wet clothes, freezing feet, 6.30pm bedtimes and the longest winter ever.
I knew the degrees would drop and I was duly kitted out for it. Three pairs of thick merino socks, crystal hand warmers shoved inside them, a sleeping bag that should have comfortably gone to -8 degrees, merino baselayers layered up with everything else when it got really cold, a four-season tent that dripped more condensation than a Finnish sauna, and a down-filled roll mat. Yet still my toes protested. It was my own fault, I’d had them outside their sweet-smelling boots for too long before putting them in the sleeping bag. Even popping them next to a hot cup of coffee did little to help and the coffee didn’t taste too great after that, either.
“I’ll get frostbite,” I thought, being completely melodramatic. It was only around -6 degrees but I had visions of being found frozen to death like a tragic Everest climber. I stared into the black void and waited for morning or the light at the end of the dark tunnel to reach me.
I was half way into my hike through British history, a journey that would see me walk 3,500 miles through the country. I’d left the summer behind in Lancashire, bolted over to the Isle of Man (despite it not being part of Britain), languished in Liverpool for three weeks, finally got my backside into gear and walked into North Wales.
The weather there in November and December lulled me into a false belief that it was autumn. It barely went below zero degrees for most of the time. Then an Arctic blast hit in early December, dumped snow and had me scurrying inside with invites from the Owain Glyndwr Society and a Facebook follower in Aberystwyth. I ventured back out a few days later, pitched on white fluffy snow and was delighted that it had replaced the hideous mud that had become my shadow for the past month.
I looked as dirt-smeared as an extra from Oliver Twist and was as hungry as one, too. Gripped by an insatiable appetite to haul a 25-kg dead weight behind me, with extra calories needed to keep me warm, I spent most of my money on food. That wasn’t difficult though, there were no accommodation costs in winter as nothing was open. It was stealth camping and strangers’ hospitality all the way.
I’d happily chat away to anyone, people’s curiosity causing them to ask about the buggy. They’d sometimes take pity on me and open their homes and thankfully their fridges to a ravenous, unclean hiker. A weekly wash was the norm, simply because there was nowhere to get a shower. I’d rather shove a buff on my unwashed hair than even so much as contemplate washing in an icy cold stream. Still, at least I was cleaner than the Tudor characters I’d been looking at, and I’m sure Dove deodorant must have made a killing from me.
Beast from the East
The biggest test, however, was to come at the end of February. I had been convinced spring had sprung early after spotting cherry blossom in January and basking in a week of sun. How wrong I was. The Cold War kicked off as Siberia landed in Britain and with it brought unheard of temperatures of -15 degrees. My hair iced up, my nose went numb and I lost all visibility as a snow blizzard smashed me in south Cornwall. Within an hour, Beast from the East, a Russian weather front, had thrown a foot of snow down and showed no sign of abating. It was fierce.
After falling over for about two hours, I eventually found accommodation and the adjoining restaurant owners were like snow angels. They dug me out of a 4-foot snow drift which had blocked the hostel door and plied me with hot drinks in their cozy eatery. I actually felt like a piece of furniture (a rather battered one, I must admit) by the time I left Sennen Bar and Bistro which, by the way, does the most amazing Sunday roasts.
I had plenty of decent weather, too. Blue skies, no rain, crisp, dry days that I craved when living abroad. But of course, that was interspersed with drizzle, fog, mist, ice and freezing temperatures. I never once considered taking a break from the hike, that’s not how I travel; I do it all in one go or not at all. I did wonder, though, by the time it got to April and the rain and temperatures were still dreadful, how on earth I’d had the spirit to get through it.
The Great British Public
A huge part of that was down to the humorous, kind and generous people I met along the way. Without them, it would have been inevitably more difficult. I met an ex-detective who had to go into hiding for his own safety, an infectiously happy woman who was fighting against cancer, a lovely farmer who had lost his mother on Christmas Day and a journalist whose life is as unmaterialistic, uncomplicated and as carefree as my own. The characters of the people I met shone through even when the sun didn’t and to them I am thankful.
Jane Batchelor finished hiking 3,500 miles through Britain in May 2018, looking at the history of the country in chronological order.
The Journey Part 1 – Shetland
The Journey Part 2 – Orkney to Ullapool
The Journey Part 3 – The Outer Hebrides
The Journey Part 4 – Oban to Glasgow
The Journey Part 5 – Glasgow to Newcastle
The Journey Part 6 – Newcastle to Darlington County
The Journey Part 7 – Middlesbrough to Scarborough
The Journey Part 9 – The End