London to Birmingham – The Great Walk

“For my next CWB fundraiser I’m going to walk between London and Birmingham in 3 days.”

“How far is it?”

“150 miles following the Grand Union Canal.”

“No chance,” we said, “it’s impossible to walk 50 miles per day.”

“4 days then.”

“Still ridiculous, but sounds possible we’ll join you.”

The above conversation provides a pretty accurate description into why, at 6am Good Friday morning, myself, Carl, Jamie and Gary joined Dave Terrace at Little Venice in London to depart on the long hike to the scenic sounding Gas Street Basin in Birmingham.

Despite our small size and largely volunteer-led approach a CWB project is a well-planned operation. Sure, things may change on a day-to-day basis as is the way of things when dealing with African cricket associations and plans that have been set remotely. But big picture logistics; safety issues, back-up plans, and so on, are formulated well in advance. For a team with experience of over 30 projects between us you would imagine that the planning for this expedition would be the same. It was not.

“It’s only walking” was a common refrain, until the training started in earnest. The 20 mile mark seemed a good starting point. This was when the penny dropped, sore ankles, knees and backs, and blisters, so many blisters.

Most free weekends in the run up became training walks; snow, rain and even the occasional sunny day had us tramping around our various neighbourhoods with a Whatsapp group becoming the home of updates, encouragement and increasingly worried posts. We quickly realised that it would be very hard to replicate anything like the walk itself, there just wasn’t enough time to practice walking up to 40 miles a day for 4 days.

So we return to Little Venice, and the grand depart. Once daylight arrived it at least became clear that we looked set fair for weather, and indeed other than 2 or 3 short showers we were blessed with perfect conditions throughout, clear days with little wind but never getting too hot.

The next thing to become clear was that the Romans didn’t build the canals. I’m not an expert in geography but even I know Birmingham is north of London, it was therefore an interesting first few hours traveling south-west before the Victorians got their act together and started heading in the right direction.

Late afternoon had us pass under the M25 and out into the countryside that would become ever present until the last few miles into Birmingham.

14 hours on from our first steps we arrived in Berkhamsted with just over 42 miles under our belts. A quick meal and a drink and we headed back to Hemel to our accommodation.

Another 6am depart was planned but before this it became clear that the exertions of day 1 had taken their toll. One team members right foot was now more blister than skin and another’s knees were so swollen that his gait resembled the tin man from Wizard of Oz, before the oiling from Dorothy.

From this moment on it was clear that mine, Jamie and Gary’s role would now be very much that of domestiques to the 2 real men, Dave and Carl.

Day 2 had been down as a gentler 37 miles but it quickly became clear that our Day 1 pace would not be maintained. We had averaged over 4 miles per hour and for large parts had been around 4.5, but from now until the finish line just over 3 would be the norm.

This meant that as the light faded we were 4 miles short of our planned finish and we would need to catch up again in the morning. Fortunately the hotel contained a bar and restaurant and the friendly helpful staff were on hand so would could speedily refuel and get off to bed at just after 9.

Some particularly impressive logistics with Uber and National Rail had us hooking up with Dave and Carl just after breakfast, the rest of the day proceeded without incident through some beautiful peaceful countryside until again as light faded we limped into the Boat Inn at Stockton.

To give an idea of how peaceful the area was no taxis served the pub and public transport had finished hours earlier. This left us in a bit of difficulty as getting through the extra 7 miles to our proposed finish in Leamington seemed impossible. Up stepped the landlady in an act of kindness that will be long remembered. On hearing our situation she asked her daughter who was working behind the bar if she would take us, “No problem at all” she replied.

Over hastily ordered food at the Falstaff Inn in Leamington, a hotel very much modelled on a budget Fawlty Towers, a plan was again hatched (by some) to start at 5am and make up the miles.

I think it is worth a pause at this stage to explain what a 5am start actually looked like in practice. Springing out of bed dashing in the shower and out of the door was not much of an option. Levering out of bed, hobbling to bathroom were the quick bits. The main event of the morning was at least 30 minutes of taping, plastering and padding. Indeed, on entering Carls room some hours after he had left it, it appeared as though the invisible man had met an untimely end such was the array of bandages scattered throughout.

While Dave somehow managed to look at all times like a man out on a Sunday stroll this cannot be said for Carl. From day 2 onwards he had looked at all times as though he could fall over at any minute, his mental strength was incredible to witness and to see him constantly push himself way beyond what was sensible was inspiring.

One of the benefits of being in a team that had been on so many CWB projects was that we all had many stories to share and reminisce about. They served as constant reminders of why we were doing this; we have all witnessed extreme poverty, seen the ravages that HIV can have on communities and seen the effects of FGM on women and girls. These stories are what motivate us to continue to volunteer for the charity, and I am sure Carl channelled some of these in his tougher moments, refusing to allow something as “simple” as walking beat him.

And so at just after 8 in the evening we all finally made it to our destination in Birmingham after another 16 hours walking. There had just been time for David to save a drowning man from the canal on the outskirts, but to be honest the final day is mainly a head down blur as we slogged the last few miles.

A quick thanks are in order to Sara, Sam, Nick, and the family Terrace who all walked part of the journey with us. Their support provided a much needed change in faces and a bit of grown up conversation.

It is now 2 days later as I sit to write this, my ankles are still swollen and covered in blisters, my knees ache and the back is ruined, all this on around 35 miles less than David and Carl managed. Their commitment and grit is genuinely awe inspiring, and there is still time to donate if you can, all of the money will be going out to support our amazing volunteers in Africa.

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