Walking didn’t cure my cancer, the NHS did that. But walking both healed me and made me feel normal again.
Following my illness, when I retreated to a small converted granary up and out of the town of Machynlleth it was primarily to walk and sleep and heal. Cancer had ripped me away from a life of housesitting in Bulgaria; I’d just kayaked the length of the Danube and was spending the winter in a village near Ruse in the northeast, with a plan to get to the Crimea once the spring came and walk back across Europe the following summer. Instead, that year, as the weather warmed from spring to summer I found myself back in Wales – unemployed, traumatised and with a newly acquired abdominal scar and cancer diagnosis. I would walk the four miles into Machynlleth, do a small amount of shopping, hitch-hike home and that would be the only thing I did that day. The immediate danger had passed, I had finished my treatment and only had a small chance of the cancer returning but it had changed my life, my feelings of strength and surety had gone, both of my body’s reliability and of my place in the world.
The shape of my future was determined by my schedule of hospital appointments, it was the only certain thing for me at that point, all else had been changed. I saw the appointments stretching away five years into the future, regular trips to hospital in Bristol to check my cancer hadn’t returned – I didn’t know where I was going to live or what I could do next but I knew that I would be regularly returning to this one place in the world at predictable times for the next half decade.
I saw blue lines on a map; the amorphous mountain mass of Plynlimon was six miles from my house, tucked up in the Uwchygarreg Valley leading away from Machynlleth, rivers stretching away from it. When I read the names they were two of the major rivers of Britain, the Severn and the Wye, and they led away from my new homeland and flowed to Bristol, the place I had to visit.
So I hatched a plan, lied to the job centre and, six months after major abdominal surgery, set off to walk 400 miles. I made no itinerary, just took a rucksack and a sleeping bag, and booked guidebooks out from the library. Walking as far as I could every day, sleeping out wherever I wanted, burrowing down in field corners, washing my socks in cafe bathrooms. I walked for four weeks and I felt capable again. I was no longer weak, I could handle the world on my own terms, get out there, be spontaneous, travel with my life on my shoulders, be free. It wasn’t abroad, no challenge of the unknown, but baby steps, an adventure in my own country, following the River Severn as it widened and deepened, tracing loops down from moorlands into a wide flood valley and down through flat, rich English countryside. I walked 400 miles and felt normal again, I was still me, I could still do this, cancer hadn’t taken this away.
The circumstances of my cancer gave me a need to tell others, there was a tumour that grew in my ovary, floating, hidden, seemingly symptomless – until it became too huge to hide. Looking back there were signs, I’d just passed them by, ignored them for bloating or constipation. It’s the way this cancer kills, by hiding in plain sight until it has spread too far for life-saving treatment. The shock of my illness and the ignorance of what was happening in my own body gave me the drive to fundraise and do my own piece of symptoms awareness. Walking felt like a natural way to do it.
So I planned another walk, looping down the Severn to Bristol and another hospital appointment but this time I didn’t head home, I went north. I could go up the Offa’s Dyke Path and around the Wales Coastal Path, coming back again to Bristol. But this didn’t seem enough to fill the time I had between appointments, I added in the Glyndwr’s Way, an easy detour connecting at either end to the Offa’s Dyke.
I’d been inspired by the proximity of the sources of the Severn and Wye and suddenly I kept seeing pairs of rivers on the map, the long rivers of Wales where I could trace my way up from the coast to the source then walk a couple of miles to another source and down to the sea again somewhere completely different.
I kept seeing paths that would slot nicely into my route – walk from Conwy to Cardiff via the mountainous Cambrian Way, then back to Conwy again via the Coast to Coast Path. Each piece of walking seemed essential, how could I walk Wales without covering the mountains or the coast? It was a surprise when I totted up the total and found that I’d planned myself a 3,700-mile journey.
It’s a distance that is hard to comprehend, hard to actualise. If I’d known exactly how much hard work was ahead of me I might not have done it. If I told people I was walking 3,700 miles they’d get a blank look on their faces – but if I told them I was walking to Cardiff from Conwy (approximately 200 miles) they’d be amazed. The total distance was too big to imagine, the only way I could plan for this was to imagine the whole thing was theoretical, leave it as ‘what if’. If I was going to set off for a 3,700-mile walk, what would I need? If I was leaving home for eight months, what would I need to do?
I planned for it to take eight months, I didn’t realise that it would take 17. Plantar fasciitis struck, eventually in both feet, and I limped through the first summer, limiting myself to 12 miles a day, sometimes much less. I had to realign my thinking, moving from a structured walk with a time limit and a targeted daily mileage, to one where I was just happy to walk at all, knowing that as long as I kept moving I’d make it and that the timings didn’t matter anymore.
I’d planned for it to be over by October, instead I found myself walking through the winter, swapping my kit for more lightweight and warmer versions, waking up to find ice on the inside of my tent, climbing Snowdon with borrowed crampons and coming through bare branches to the growth and regeneration of another spring/summer.
I planned to wild camp but instead people came forward to offer support, opened their beds to me, took my bag forward, gave me food and cups of tea. At first it was friends, then friends of friends, then people who’d read about my journey, pub landlords, strangers, supporters. I was buoyed up and supported across Wales. A bed every few nights made the aches and tiredness so much easier to bear, allowed me to keep clean and wash my clothes. Eating my hosts’ hot meals helped me to avoid the tiresome repetition of my rucksack rations.
Strangely, although I struggled and wore myself to the bare bones of my physical capabilities, sports therapists warning me of stress fractures and oedema, I never came close to giving up. After I’d walked 1,200 miles, I came to cross the mountains and it suddenly became harder than it ever had before. My legs hurt again, the muscles which had borne their effort so easily over the previous months, began to ache again. I was always carrying too much weight in my rucksack and the toil of shouldering a burden up and down all the highest peaks of the country, one after another, became tiresome and impossible. Winter was coming and I felt like a tiny ant, trying to cross a mountain, shrunken in the face of the mighty task I’d set myself. But somehow, one day, when I crossed over the uplands from Tregaron to Llandovery, when I trudged up a small mounded hill and saw the lapping rises of the Black Mountains and Brecon Beacons stretching away in front of me, my first thought was ‘That is where I’m going’ and I realised that, deep down, there never was any question that I would complete this walk, no matter how excruciating and exhausting it became.
Walking hurt; it fatigued and weakened me but it also made me believe in myself more than I ever have. It showed me what I am capable of. It showed me my own strengths and the support available from people around me, ready and waiting for me to accept it. It made me see that this was my community, helped me to see the deep vein of generosity and help for strangers that still glows golden throughout the country.
The days I spent living outside, waking up without a tent, picking a point in the far distance and knowing I would come to it in a few hours, throwing myself prone on the sheep-cropped turf to rub my feet, push in some trail mix and gulp carefully hoarded water; the prolonged exposure to the land in this way, for almost 18 months of travelling, brought me deep calmness and joy.
I didn’t realise that I had a problem, post cancer, in how to find a place in the world again. Walking Wales rooted me in the country and in myself. Now I know what I am capable of and can withstand – the physical and mental challenge of both serious illness and endurance athletics.
TEN OF THE BEST
For Ursula Martin, the 3,700-mile trek around Wales was an organic, evolving adventure. Consequently, her equipment choices followed a similarly improvised theme: crisp packet heat layers, walking poles foraged from her garden. When items had to be bought, reducing costs was a vital consideration and eBay and local stores proved key. Plus local libraries provided that most vital of gear, books to feed the brain on those long, cold nights (note: most images displayed here are just representative of the equipment used)...
1. Walking sticks
Bamboo walking poles
I picked up a bamboo stick from my own garden supplies as I left the house on my way to the starting point. I ended up using two of them as my walking poles. They’re lightweight, easily replaceable and cheap. Plus you can fix flags to them which helped attract attention (and charity donations).
2. Sleeping bag
KPacks lightweight down bag
I used an ordinary three-season bag right through until the first winter when I realised I needed to upgrade. I bought a warmer bag which weighed less and I soon realised the importance of investing in lightweight kit.
OMM Adventure 45l +10
A great lightweight rucksack but still at a reasonably budget price. Hardwearing. The only drawback is a single internal packspace, whereas I’d prefer a separate space to keep a sleeping bag. This would have saved me pulling everything out to get to it every night.
Warmth in winter walking but still small and packable. Fantastically warm in icy conditions, I never needed to layer up.
5. Hand warmer
Peacock hand warmer
An indispensable piece of kit for me, making up for my budget conscious purchase of other cheaper and less efficient pieces, or the lack of tent for the first eight months. Working by platinum catalysis, with no flames or fumes, it was safe enough to start up and then keep in the sleeping bag overnight. I used to tuck it in against the small of my back and it would warm up my whole lower half.
6. Heat reflector
Laminated crisp packets
An extremely thin and lightweight layer of metallic crisp packets sandwiched inside a plastic bag and run through a laminator. It made a damp and heat reflective layer to place under my sleeping pad during the cold months.
Icebreaker merino top
I started off wearing polyester sports clothing and found that they were stinky after a day of walking – the natural properties of wool meant I stayed less smelly and also warm when wet. Incredibly useful outdoor gear.
Foldable travel keyboard
A really useful way to write while travelling that’s easier than swiping words on a phone screen. A tiny, lightweight, foldable keyboard that connects with your phone via Bluetooth and makes both communications and blogging ten times easier.
Buff style neck band/fingerless gloves
A very easy way to regulate your body temperature without putting on or taking off too much bulky kit.
I received my first pair in the post when I reached Bristol for the first time, I was still wearing them at the end of the walk, 3,450 miles later. A rotation of three pairs, swapped daily and they were incredibly comfortable and hard-wearing. Combine with a thinner inner pair to avoid blisters.
…a book! The more complicated and difficult the better, yes it’s extra weight but reading is a wonderful way to escape the intensity of what you’re doing. I avoided a Kindle because I don’t like gadgets and the complication of a pack full of electrical goods.
This was published in the May 2017 edition of Geographical magazine.