Sophie Brown

Walking the Length and Breadth of Wales

On April 3rd 2017 I walked out of my front door and turned left. Three months and 1,050 miles later I walked back up my driveway having come full circle, becoming the youngest person to walk the perimeter of Wales.

I had never done a long distance walk, and I’ve never been ‘the outdoorsy one’. I’m the one with outdoorsy friends. I like being warm and dry. I’m not very organized. I usually pack too much going anywhere. I’m pretty terrible at directions. Not to mention I’m a massive extrovert. In short, if you had to imagine a person that would take off for two months of solo walking in the wilderness with a backpack, it would not be me.

But in the January of my year out from Durham, I found out that my lovely little country is the first in the world to have a walking path all the way around it. To me, this sounded like an invitation. Though the idea wouldn’t leave me alone, it was just an idea. The Sara Pilkington Fund changed it from a vague notion to a radically life-affirming reality.

Fundraising was not my original motivation, but so many people asked what charity I was doing it for that it made me recognise the scope to do some good for others as well as myself. I chose The Costa Foundation, a charity which builds schools in developing coffee growing communities. As I’ve worked in the coffee industry for over four years, it seemed like the least I could do to give back to the communities that make that wage possible.

I was glad to start in such a beautiful place. It made up for how rough and extremely painful that first week actually was. By day three, my metabolism had clicked into overdrive. As soon as I had food the energy was there, then just as suddenly as it came it would vanish. Imagine a hoover when you’ve taken it too far from the plug socket; without warning it cuts out with a whimper. That was me, and I wish I was lying about the whimpering.

That day I’d had to leave my camping spot before sunrise and so I hiked about an hour before making breakfast. The simple process of making porridge reduced me inexplicably to tears. But after eating I immediately felt great, and went on my way. A few hours later I bumped into a lovely man called Ken, walking the whole coast of Britain. Just talking about the weather, I started to cry. I couldn’t get any momentum going and started to think I’d made a terrible mistake taking this challenge on. I pulled off my boots, calling them several mean names. My relationship with my boots at this point was like that of a stroppy teenager with their parents. I shouted at them for being oppressive and restrictive when they were only trying to protect and support me. I slumped at the side of the path, and pretty much shut down.

Eventually something stirred me to stop lying on the path as if I was going to give up. I put lavender on my sore spots, put my boots back on and, just as an afterthought, I had a snack.

As soon as I’d eaten I was in the best mood ever. As I reflected on my day, trying to figure out why it has been so full of severe highs and lows, I realised that all the high points had followed a snack. Because of the constant exercise, I never actually felt hungry, so my emotions were my body’s way of telling me it needed food. Thankfully I learned this lesson nice and early.

I spent a lot of time going the wrong way; never in a really major way. But half a mile backtracking or a few loops of the wrong farmer’s fields here and there added many marathons onto the mile count. Some of my mistakes I accepted graciously; others, definitely not.

It was also during this period that I started to notice the ripple effects of what I was doing, not least on the fundraising side of things. I think because The Costa Foundation is associated with a big coffee chain, people assume that they have all the resources they need. But I received wonderful messages from people at the foundation saying how encouraged they were by what I was doing, including from the charity’s founder. It was such an energising thought that what I was doing might have a very real impact on developing communities, and that it was heartening to the people making it happen.

 In two weeks and 180 miles, it was amazing how much had become normal. My body was finally getting used to the slightly bizarre routine and my relationship with my boots was much more congenial. Little did I know, the ‘real’ walking was just about to start.

At some point in his reign, this Anglo-Saxon king decided to build a mound of earth defining his kingdom, separating what we now know as England from what we now know as Wales. It’s a Hadrian’s Wall of the West, a symbol of division. As the path follows a man-made construction rather than a natural feature, you pass through an impressive array of different landscapes, including three areas of outstanding natural beauty (the Brecon Beacons, the Shropshire Hills and the Clwydian Mountains). It crosses the modern day border more than 20 times. As a result I spent most of the two weeks not knowing what country I was in, and admiring views unsure which nation it belonged to. I’d usually pick the prettiest and decide that was probably Wales.

The trip really took a turn for the kick-ass when I got caught in a snowstorm on top of Llanfair Hill. I’d walked in a light snow for a while, but then it came in thick and fast. I took off my backpack to put on waterproofs, saw it was caked in a thick layer of snow and realised waterproofs wouldn’t quite cut it. So, launching into a survival mode I didn’t know I had, I scanned for the nearest flat ground, climbed over a few gates to get there, put up my tent in record time and piled everything inside. I even gathered snow so I’d have enough water, made myself a hot water bottle from it and in the morning, filtered it using my aeropress so I could make breakfast. It was an incredibly cold night and even the condensation inside my tent froze, but I couldn’t help but think “this is such a good story.”

There were sore muscles, aching feet and times of low energy, but by far the biggest personal challenge was spending so much time by myself. I’m an extrovert by nature and wired to be with people.

But amid the loneliness, the hospitality of strangers absolutely warmed my soul. Once, when I ran out of water, I’d asked two older gentlemen sitting outside their garage if I could fill up from their tap. Before I knew it I was sitting with them drinking coffee and being updated on all the village gossip. I left with a bottle of Roy’s homemade cider and the advice from his son-in-law to drink it slowly, and only when I was done with hills for the day. The night before it had snowed, June at Panpwnton Farm came out with a big woollen blanket for me having noticed the sudden cold snap. In Chester I had a great evening staying with the parents of a university friend, sitting for hours at the dining table talking with themselves and their guests. And not forgetting my own lovely dad and sister who spent their bank holiday weekend trudging along beside me. In so many ways, people made me feel loved and looked after as I bounced in and out of their borders. I stopped looking at the path as a massive task to complete, but as a way of getting to this friend or that friend. The 700 miles started to break down into 20 miles to this person’s town, and 30 miles to that person I’ve been meaning to catch up with.

In Amlwch I strolled into a pub at random and walked straight into a wonderful community vibe and the friendliness of John, the landlord at the Adelphi Vaults. I got to know Rachel, the chef, and other various people coming and going. I ate my dinner with Rachel’s daughter and her friend. I absolutely loved telling them about my trip; children like those remind you to be full of awe and wonder. I had an incredible lasagne, so filling I almost burst (which, given my hefty walkers appetite) and afterwards the girls took me to ‘the rocking boat’, a place they like to go and play.

Now Rachel was also the person who, after I’d made it to South Stack lighthouse on Holyhead, phoned me via Facebook and offered to pick me up and let me stay at her house because the weather was turning rough. I hesitated at first, but then I remembered that all the most memorable parts of the trip had come from letting people be kind.

Not long after that, I hit a huge milestone: the 500 mile mark of my 1,000ish mile trip. I may have walked 500 miles before then, but at South Stack lighthouse I knew that I’d done it for sure. I got there at about nine after climbing over Holyhead Mountain. There wasn’t much of a sunset and the weather was un-inspiringly grey, but it looked beautiful to me. The sight made me quite emotional actually. I was really, really proud of myself.

This was the day I met Jean McKenna. She was also walking to whole Wales Coastal Path with everything on her back, wild camping as she goes. She also turns 70 in October. I met her in a café just after the causeway onto Holyhead Island. Once we got talking, I don’t think either of us could believe we had met the other. I was so inspired by her fearless and youthful heart. And she couldn’t believe that for my first walk I’d taken such a massive challenge on. In her 20 years of long distance walking, she had never met another woman walking and wild camping alone. We walked together the rest of that day, and parted just before the scramble over Holyhead Mountain, when we’d found her a good camping spot and she was happy to call it a day.

In Caernarfon I was met by three people who made the drive from the Costa head office near Luton, to take me for lunch on behalf of the Costa Foundation, just to say thank you. It was wonderful to meet them face to face, to see the passion they had for the Foundation and how much my walk had impacted them. I had been used as inspiration at training events across the country. But what they were able to share impacted me immensely. I’ve done voluntary work with charities that prize education as a breaker of the poverty cycle, but after those lunchtime discussions I discovered a new passion for the life changing power of quality education. Moreover, the integrity behind the charity was striking. I was heading into what would be the most challenging time of the walk, and the ‘afterthought’ of fundraising became the motivation that got me through it.

Just outside Nefyn, I met a merry band of Scottish golfers, wandering the coastal path in pursuit of a renowned pub. We got talking and with no hesitation at all, they handed me £35 as a donation. I went with them to Tŷ Coch Inn, my new favourite pub. I’d read about it in Will Renwick’s blog, who used to hold the title of the youngest person to walk around Wales, and who subsequently inspired me to do the same. It lived up to all of its high praise. You step off the sand and through the front door, get your drink, and then enjoy it on the sand with a jaw-dropping view of mountains and a picturesque harbour.

A defining characteristic of my day had been the need for a proper meal, since my stove had run out of gas, and had found nowhere. As my new acquaintances departed, I asked in the pub for some hot water, which sparked a woman’s curiosity. She saw me start to make lukewarm cous-cous, and invited me in for dinner. The comfort of a home cooked stew after a couple of days of only snack food and physical exertion cannot be overestimated. The family were on holiday from Leeds, and they came to this house every single year. As we were talking about my trip, it turned out that they had also had Will Renwick for breakfast when he did his walk. Their kindness, and the kindness I had been shown throughout the day was extraordinary.

The west coast goes quickly. Merionydd is soon succeeded by Ceredigion, but not before one of the most staggering displays of soul-level beauty and kindess of the trip. I walked into a pub with my enormous backpack, which inevitably starts a few conversations. From my table I briefly chatted with some men at the bar about my trip and what it was in aid of. I sat journaling and eating my dinner. The men at the bar left, saying goodbye and good luck as they went. Then after they had gone, the landlord came over with a pint glass of money, saying the gentlemen had made a collection for me. I was so, so moved.

A lady named Safiya asked the landlord what that was all about, and she came over to meet me. We got chatting. She asked me where I was staying that night and I said I was planning to wild camp somewhere outside the village. She said she had a spare room, and welcomed me to stay in her home. Incidentally this was moments after my mum had sent me the weather forecast, predicting a month’s worth of rain to fall the next day. There was a very surreal moment, sitting on a sofa with a blanket, stroking a cat and drinking prosecco while the rain poured and thinking “I’m supposed to be roughing it around Wales, how did this happen?”

Entering Pembrokeshire properly signified the beginning of the end. And what a way to finish. If you’ve never been, Pembrokeshire is an astounding place. The path has national trail status in its own right, and in contrast to the rest of my walk, there seemed to be long distance walkers everywhere. I spent a couple of nights in hostels, to soak up the walking culture more than anything.

I found myself walking in the hottest June since 1976. After the heat absolutely annihilated both me and my chocolate raisins (in equal measure), family friends in Milford Haven let me spend a day in their home recovering from sunstroke, after I’d arrived at their house for lunch dazed and confused. It was difficult to heed their advice and take a day off, so close to being home, but it was definitely the right thing to do. I hadn’t realised how much my body was struggling until I stopped. But being good to myself and taking the recovery time that was needed meant I could actually enjoy my final week. I think if it hadn’t been for that couple inviting me to stay, I believe I’d have become too ill and had to go home.

People’s kindnesses continued to define this trip for me, right up to the end. Even on my very last night I got chatting to a woman outside her home, and was invited in for some tea and food. I was offered a place to sleep too, but wanted to be outside for my final night. I camped wild on the foreshore at Ferryside. Half a mile across the water was Llansteffan, where I’d started my 17 ½ mile walk that day. There was a lot of looking out over the water feeling sentimental.

Some friends joined me at Ferryside, and I was glad of the company. A few hours of fields and roads got us to Kidwelly, where some more family friends joined us. It was good to be able to talk and share some stories and thoughts. And to have people around for the bursts of excitement along the vast expanse of Cefn Sidan beach, as it finally felt like I was walking home.

I was left to do the few miles to Burry Port on my own. I’m not sure what emotion filled that time, but I was certainly full of it. The Gower could be seen so clearly, every detail brought out by the sun and then reflecting off the sea. It looked so close, like I could touch the sand I’d walked on three months before. Then rounding the end of the beach, Burry Port comes into view, and the beach-side flats at Llanelli. Slightly behind are the city-of-Swansea hills, and more hills beyond. Everything was rendered in perfect detail in the evening light, all seeming so close; a whole country in walking distance.

One of my favourite things about that view was that I only saw it because I’d missed a turning. I’m the only person I know who could walk around Wales, and then get lost on her home turf. Thankfully, because of the tides I could still get to Burry Port without turning around. I just had to paddle through a bit of water and confuse the crowd that had gathered by arriving barefoot and from the wrong direction.

I knew I was meeting a few people at Burry Port, but I had not pictured the hero’s welcome I found waiting for me. We all walked the final few miles together, which I felt was so appropriate. So many people had supported, encouraged, provided and prayed for me in those three months that it wasn’t my achievement alone.

We walked the familiar length of my running route and finally came to the spot just after the little footbridge, where I had stepped onto the Wales Coastal Path twelve weeks and one day before. I had come full circle, a thousand miles to arrive back where I’d started. There aren’t many things that can give you a feeling like that. That’s the point where there were tears.

We went home, we celebrated, we ate good food, and I was sprayed with champagne. A curtain started to close over the last three months of my life in which I did something I never expected. Even now, it feels like someone else did it and I just know a lot about how it went. It’s taken a long time since finishing to gather my thoughts and be able to describe it all.

You expect that an adventure like this fundamentally changes who you are. I don’t think this trip did that for me, rather it expanded my capacity to be who I am in a daring, different and adventurous way.

The Sara Pilkington Fund made this all possible. Many times I would be looking over gorgeous scenery or feeling proud of a day’s achievement, and my thoughts would turn to hoping that my legacy might be as positive as the wonderful girl I never met, but I’m sure I would get on with. It has been an honour to share her memory with so many as they have joined me on the journey. Many thanks for this amazing fund, and for your belief in me from the beginning. It was never once taken for granted.

Collingwood College
South Road

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