“It was a physical triumph and a media disaster.”
That was what I told the head of the literary group I belonged to the evening after I’d got home, got a bath, got a big takeaway and enough beer, got drunk and gone to bed. She’d wanted to know if I’d made it?
We were in Gosport Discovery Centre where we were entertaining whatever populace cared to show up by reading some of our creative writing and displaying relevant images. It had been planned and rehearsed for a long time and one of my most spectacular photographs – dawn framed by coconut palms at Dar Es Salaam – was displayed across one of the biggest walls there.
I’d made a solo effort there last year involving the first section of my African expedition. Normally the same part of the centre would have been used, but refurbishments replacing carpets had removed the optical equipment shoehorning the event into a conference room. Where a truncated audience had to book and half of them had trouble in seeing the images. Oh and the first casualty to miss the last place booked was the person I wanted to show up the most: my friend the lady who was the heroine of Gosport. Then there were no more evenings for me though I could have entertained Gosport with the whole of Africa.
A classic case of what could have been a clear success neatly compromised by crap that seemed to have been arranged just for yours truly. An objective of the walk had been the breaking of this pattern.
Instead of which a triumph that should have been decisive was equalised by an unprecedented dire performance on the part of the press. A whole new can of worms. Nothing had changed.
A colleague on the Council was sympathetically scathing when I told him what had happened with the press just short of Chichester. “Not what you want to hear when you’ve walked 60 miles.” Quite. As for proof: “What about the blisters on your feet?” Now there was a good answer I’d overlooked in the panic.
By luck I happened to collar the journalist in Gosport who’d told me the enterprise had been newsworthy. There was no apology for lack of contact or interviews before the walk or not even having an answerphone, but he did say it was still newsworthy so if I could email him a few favourite images and a summary of the walk it would be covered by the local press after all. I was left feeling we might be able to salvage the situation after all.
I had a few days rest then a mutual school friend of my old friend who’d died of cancer in January visited me. After some time together he left just before another old friend arrived to take me on another journey with my backpack seeing friends generally, though there was less walking involved this time because I used my over 60’s bus pass: to Basingstoke, Faringdon and Bletchley.
I’d shot my bolt as far as the Olympics was concerned and it wasn’t the result I’d aimed for. So I’d lost interest in the games, but the news was full of it which continued until Bletchley where they were Babylon 5 fans. I became aware that the UK was doing surprisingly well. Heartening.
When I got back I felt that I could finally truly relax. No such luck. There was a message waiting for me to contact the community centre to arrange a leaflet delivery job around the estate which involved a lot of walking. I was getting a lot of exercise on this summer holiday. Speaking of which I’d bought a pedometer and used that on the job. I’d have to do 3 jobs like that to get an idea of how far I’d walk on this kind of task but the calculation showed something like 30 miles. I’d done many jobs like this over the years which must have helped me on the London to Chichester hike.
By the time I finished that I was half way though the holidays, the rest of which was spent truly relaxing: lie ins, computer games, boozing, barbecues and friends.
One thing I tried was an email with a weblink to a Brian Cox website, as the Lay Preacher urged. I had little faith in contact because he must be busy and I got an email back to that effect; but it was one of those things one must try.
When Autumn term started I was in the community centre when a girl there decided to look online for my delayed article on the walk in the local paper. She couldn’t find it. It seemed as if they weren’t satisfied with what they’d achieved and wanted to take the shambles further. As I’m writing this I’ve just checked again: no article. I’ve heard nothing from the press.
Overwork? Undermanning? Nah. Just lousy behaviour.
I rounded up the money I’d made. The taxi firm and one of the banks had lost their sponsor forms but there was something from the others. Eventually I found I’d gained £220 for the school. An amount slightly more than the sums gained on the walks I’d organised 20 years ago.
The Head Teacher was delighted and organised an assembly where she described my exploit as “amazing.” It was a fun event a bit like a television interview with candles on the table between us giving it a surreal touch. The children and teachers were seated on 3 sides listening attentively.
There was a screen where some of my images were being shown and the first one was of the Olympic symbol on Tower Bridge. Then there was that one of me on London Bridge with the Shard Tower.
“What time were you getting up in the morning?” was one of the first questions.
“On that morning I was on the bridge by twenty past eight.”
“Twenty past eight!” The Head Teacher then regaled the school with how she couldn’t arise anything like as early during the holidays, striking a chord with children who had trouble in getting up perhaps. Well maybe she couldn’t; but I felt I wouldn’t have been as capable of getting up early had I been running a Special Needs School.
The ‘interview’ also ranged over the distance and time taken, with points of interest highlighted by other images of;- a grocers in Tooting for I felt the drunken teddy to be not suitable for the school image, the Shard Tower from Cheam, the North Downs track, the main road south of Dorking and the one I’d tried to avoid, one of the pubs, those horses at Bignor, the South Downs and Chichester Cathedral.
The magic moment for me though was when the image came up of my first sighting of the South Downs near the Travelodge, like a range of mountains seen from a desert. The camera had actually picked out sunrays glaring down from above emphasing the heat.
“Is that a desert?” piped up a small boy’s voice from our audience.
“It felt like a desert!” was my hearty response.
So. Okay, maybe someone should tell him there are no deserts in England but that boy was right on the button with getting the message I wanted to convey with that photograph.
Well played sir;-)
Chosen children put the candles out at the end of assembly.
Sometime later a teacher handed me a padded envelope. It contained thank you cards made by one of the classes of children. If ever there was a case of ‘it’s the thought that counts’ that had to be it! So sweet and so comical. She could tell it went straight to my heart. And so I put about a dozen folded coloured pieces of card bearing enthusiastic looking scribblings on to my bookcase. Some of the thank you’s were legible but I treasured them all. They went into storage at Christmas but I didn’t throw them out.
I tried to get my first ‘blog’ going. The trouble with a new enterprise is finding new ways in which things can go wrong. Something one hopes not to learn when one’s over 60. To be put off doing anything new by this though is to surrender to old age.
Even by my standards of misadventure this one turned out to be a Lulu. I was aiming for something like the end of October for completion of my account of my epic trek. It’s now March.
The first free blog website had an editing system that was so bad it upset a friend running a computer business and we decided to abandon it. The 2nd went through all the motions but failed to deliver and the friend who’d recommended that (also in computers) was always going to be available on Wednesday week. I was helped by the invalid I’d stayed with in Stanmore to master a third to the point of daring to write something. Just before the computer power supply broke down. Fixing that involved more crap flying between the guy who fixed it and me because of a wrong number I should have spotted on a business card. Then last but not least were some viruses in human form – somewhere out there – who persisted in bombarding me with phishing emails until they’d managed to send 1,000 American Express phishing emails from my computer; necessitating maximum disruption reinstalling everything, with my favourite bits of computer not working or working as well as they did. (OH PHISH OFF!)
Anyway now it can finally be told!
I was wrong about ‘nothing had changed.’ It’s a fact that I definitely did it and a Special Needs school has benefited by it. This has led to some admiration – among others – by people I know in the medical profession, which is good news for my state of health. It also means I should be able to do it yearly to maintain health, raise money with sponsored walks and carry on being a hero. It’s my ambition to be like Gandalf: to look and be bloody ancient but still capable of hacking it across the Misty Mountains with my trusty staff at 2 miles an hour.
Future ideas for sponsored walks? A walk back to London in 2014 where there’ll be a World SF convention. There’s the South Downs Way. There’s a ‘Wayfarers Walk’ which is some medieval relic involving the reward of half a pint in Winchester; the course of that though looks as though it was plotted by somebody on a damn sight more than half a pint! Later and further afield there’s another Roman road up through the Cotswolds, Offas Dyke, Pennine Way, Scotland. Maybe even walk abroad if I last long enough.
The plan for this year though is a circle walk involving Youth Hostels: across to the Isle of Wight, along it’s length, up to and across the New Forest to Southampton, down the coastal Solent path to a caravan site the driver who took me to London lives at, up to Fareham where my music teacher friend is, then finally along Portsdown Hill. I’m having a break from sponsored walks because this isn’t strictly a walk. I’ll take transport down to the Dinosaur Isle museum where I have a contact and a model, then after Portsdown Hill I’m taking the bus back home again.
Also on a positive note one can learn from hindsight:
- My biggest fault was not considering local radio and contacting them. How I didn’t think of it I’ll never know for I’d had fun discussing what I was about not only with a Reading radio station but with ones in Southampton and Portsmouth. Local radio would have been ideal for a sponsored walk. Had I done that I could have outflanked the whole problem with the local press.
- Speaking of which I’ll take care next time to find out if the same staff are employed, especially the editor. If they are I won’t work with them because I can’t trust them to take any interest or – worse than that – do what they say they can do. Someone who does that is a liability at best, can ruin an otherwise well planned project at worst.
- I depended on Ordnance Survey maps too much. They can still be very useful but one should take care they are up to date. Google Maps should be included when planning the next operation. Google Maps showed that landowners on the Sussex border had indeed got rid the footpaths leaving one with no option but that main road; unless one used the network of lanes immediately to the west. As for Google Earth that showed not only my old place and how hazardous a main road could be but also – I found – showed telltale tracks that might have allowed me to find my way across country after all.
- I learned from my friend in Health and Safety that there’s no such thing as the document I was after. One of the things I dread about an issue like this is it being so hard to obtain the truth and so easy to have the ground cut from under your feet. I could be flippant and say one thing to try next time would be the Spanish Inquisition but an easier way would be to rely on him because the secret of success can be having friends who are in the know. He advises a tailor made document which in my case would have included main roads. He also thinks I should contact the Ramblers Association on this subject.
- It might be better to try the Spanish Inquisition or a Perry Mason cross examination if I deal with charity websites, especially regarding cost: “And do you, or do you not, slip in charges and conditions without informing the relevant people beforehand thereby wilfully endangering human life or at any rate, benevolent projects? I must remind you that you are under oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God.”
- Set aside a notepad or sheet of paper next time to carry with me. Then write names on it: such as the name of the parents association and the name of any journalists contacted. I found names after I returned that I should have taken with me. Write down names and contact details of anything and anybody involved with the next walk.
- Charge up the bloody mobile phone before starting the adventure. Take recharging equipment too so it’s got no excuse.
- If it looks as though a problem could develop into trouble work out an emergency plan in time. If I’d taken care to say I’d taken 300 photos immediately I started that fatal conversation in Boxgrove rather than just before the mobile cut out it might have saved the situation with the press.
Learn from one’s mistakes while being happy one got most of it right. It’s all one can do.
© D Angus 02 13