A POWERFUL VOICE INSIDE me whispered that I was being idiotic, that a man of 54 should have more sense. If I wanted to try walking 805 km from Plymouth to Edinburgh without the security of a wallet, I should have done it years ago.
I told the voice to shut up. The idea took root. As far as I knew, no one had done this before. A friend offered me Sam, her seven-year-old King Charles spaniel. “He’ll walk forever,” she said, “and people will like you.” Sam looked cuddly. Also, he would give me solace in hours of loneliness and I could snuggle up to him in the cold. I welcomed Sam as my companion.
For practical tips on wandering destitute I visited a Buddhist monastery 32 km from Cullercoats, my home town at the mouth of the River Tyne in northeast England. The monks advised me to carry an umbrella and wrap moleskin round my feet. “You will find the walk very hard,” one monk warned, “but eventually you will gain strength. It will be part of your journey through life, so you must do it.”
Day one. A 9:35 a.m. on Sunday, 26 July 1998, I set off from Plymouth on my odyssey. A small knot of fear gripped my stomach. I was entering an unknown world. For 14 km Sam and I were buffeted by thundering traffic on the A386 out of Plymouth, then we sought refuge in the spacious grounds of the Moorland Links Hotel. Without thinking, I led Sam in.
“Can I help you, sir?” asked the receptionist. I looked around. Sunday diners reclined in comfort, the smell of roast beef was in the air. I wanted to order a pint, but realized that from now on this was one of many places I could look at but not touch. I was a person apart, trapped in an invisible bubble of poverty.
“I’d, um, like some water for my dog,” I said. The receptionist put a bowl on the thick pile carpet and Sam drank eagerly. For our Sunday lunch, Sam and I shared two small triangles of toast, plus some butter, saved from my hotel breakfast in Plymouth. The shadow of total destitution deepened as I tried to hitch a lift from a middle-aged couple driving away from the hotel. They looked at me with disdain and accelerated away. Their rejection knocked me back. Then came my first—albeit mixed—experience of Christian charity.
“Is that all you want, water for your dog?” asked the rector of the nearby village of Yelverton when I interrupted him mowing his lawn.
“Anything else, naturally, would not go amiss,” I mumbled.
The rector walked towards his front door. I followed. Suddenly he swivelled and said loudly, “Do not enter the rectory!” He motioned me to a garden seat. Some minutes later he emerged with water for Sam, and tea and chocolate biscuits for me.
I thanked him and apologized. “I wouldn’t have come inside.”
“If you knew what had happened here,” he said, and returned indoors.
We arrived in Tavistock at 7:30 p.m. to find the town empty. Steady rain thrummed on to my small umbrella. All doors seemed excessively closed. Sam looked up at me with his big brown eyes as if to say, “What do we do now?”
From the large parish church of St. Eustachius I heard singing. We stood at the back of the nave, wet and bedraggled, while the packed congregation sang of Christian charity, mercy and compassion. The service over, they filed past me. I approached several and explained I needed food and shelter. They were embarrassed but had perfectly reasonable excuses for rejecting me.
I felt I was an irritation. I was no longer Peter Mortimer, writer. I was a beggar, a person you crossed the road to avoid. Then Geoffrey Boucher, a young curate, said I could sleep in his garage. As he drove me to his home I told him about my journey.
“Actually,” he said, “you can have the spare room.” I mentioned the Yelverton rector. “Ah, yes. Last year someone came, just like you. The rector invited him in and was badly beaten. He’s nervous.”
While Geoffrey cooked me pork chops and vegetables, I consoled weary Sam and unpacked the few contents of my backpack: a spare set of clothes, wash bag, sleeping bag and camera. My body felt drained. I went to bed, lay in the dark and huge doubts assailed me. I resolved that in the morning I’d abandon the whole absurd venture.
Day two. At 7:30 a.m. I awoke in better spirits. A new day, a new perspective. Sam, too, was livelier. “Maybe we’ll not give up,” I told him. “Not just yet.” My knot of fear was still there, though.
Geoffrey gave me valuable help for the night to come. “I’ve phoned Alex Warne, owner of the East Dart Hotel at Postbridge on Dartmoor,” he said. “It’s on your route and you can sleep in his stable.” Geoffrey drove me to the edge of Dartmoor. As we parted he held out a £10 note. “I know you intend to carry no money. I respect that. This is for extreme emergencies.”
I took the note, realizing the importance of the gesture. We shook hands and embraced.
KINDNESS AND CHAOS
“HOW ARE YOU with a paintbrush?” asked Alex Warne when I offered to sing for my supper. For three hours I creosoted the outside of his stables. Alex, grey-bearded and slightly grizzled, then offered me a bath and my first hot food of the day, chicken casserole. Sleeping in stables sounds romantic, conjuring up images of soft hay, but Alex’s stables had bare concrete floors. I moved this way and that in my sleeping bag in a futile attempt to find lasting comfort.
Day three. Terrible weather on Dartmoor: a soaking-wet curtain of mist and rain. Every car hurtling past me threw up curved sprays of water. I had no idea where we might spend the night, where we might get a meal. I found it in a bungalow at Dunsford, outside Exeter.
“You’d best take the caravan. Just up the lane,” said Cliff Brimblecombe, a 67-year-old cider-maker with a strong Devon accent. His wife Evelyn appeared in the doorway behind him. “I’ll make you a meal,” she said. A few moments later I was up the muddy lane, into the caravan and tucking into hot meat pie and potatoes while Sam crunched on dog food.
Day four. I took care to shave every morning. Stubble may be attractive on a 21-year-old, but at my age it gave the appearance of an old wino. Even so, I got wary looks if I tried to strike up conversations. That day my plan was to head for the village of Clyst Hydon, where my partner Kitty had lived as a student. Thirty years on, I found Tom Coleman and his wife Jean still living at Town Tenement Farm and they offered me a cup of tea and a bed for the night. I was keeping a watch on a runny eye Sam had and cleaning it regularly. It seemed to give him no bother.
Next day it was back to the game of chance, standing beside the A303, checking my map and deciding where to try next. I decided to avoid main roads and large towns where possible. Meandering lanes would lengthen my journey, but I hated the blur of traffic, and if you have no money, towns are depressing.
Staple Fitzpaine? A village with a name like that had to have something going for it. I entered the Greyhound pub with all the confidence a penniless man could muster, explained my journey to the young male bar staff but they knew of no farm which might offer shelter.
I turned to trudge away with Sam. “You can stay with us for the night.” A young couple, Teresa Hurley and David Takle, had been eavesdropping. Peeping round the table was their twinkly three-year-old Levanna. I laughed out loud in sheer relief.
We drove the few kilometres to Ilminster in Dave’s battered car. Dave, 39, worked when and where he could in the building trade. “Often we can’t pay the rent,” said Teresa, “but we’re madly in love.” The flat was untidy, chaotic. I felt at home. We ate pizzas, drank beer and played Scrabble. Levanna refused to go to bed unless Sam went with her. I slept on the settee.
Next morning, as I gloomily packed to go out on the road again, Teresa said: “We both think you should take a break. Rest up here for today.” I thought about it. Why not? I had travelled 129 km. I needed a day off. Teresa and Dave were true friends.
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