It was my father that put the idea of a fifty-mile charity walk in my head. He has spoken occasionally of doing a Margate to Maidstone walk during the early ‘sixties and funny anecdotes of that trek had engrained themselves into family legend – the advice given to harden up the skin of his feet in the week beforehand by soaking them in white spirit and how the smell had annoyed my mother. The grand send-off in Margate and all that early enthusiasm but then how they’d constantly come across people sitting by the side of the road having dropped out, with their shoes off and their feet in tatters. How late in the walk he’d stopped off at a transport café for food only to discover afterwards that he was so stiff from the effort that he couldn’t get up from his chair and so had to be picked up and physically unravelled by the others. And the final but wonderous piece of mirth – arriving exhausted in Maidstone to discover the finishing line to be in the ballroom of the old Royal Star Hotel where each walker was welcomed up on the stage to have their name called out in a “… and let’s have a cheer for our latest finisher, Alan Moor …” kind of way, composing himself for public adulation but only to discover afterwards that he had fainted as a result of the heat within the room just after he crossed the line and so had been carried off by the St.Johns Ambulance. It all sounded oddly hilarious.
Doing a bit of research, I discovered that these Margate to Maidstone walks were actually an annual event during the ‘sixties organised by the Kent Messenger newspaper. One year around 10,000 people attempted it, starting out from Margate at midnight, which ties in with Dad saying how many of the walkers in the year he did it set off with a head full of beer from boozing it up on the seafront beforehand. Could you imagine what Kent Police Ops Planning would make of an event like this now? 10,000 or so walkers, many of them boozed up, trekking from one end of the county to the other at night on a weekend?
So, of course, the opportunity to become involved in such larks of my own was clearly irresistible when Will on my team suggested some form of charity fund-raising for his disabled daughter, Helena, especially as we worked in Margate, Kent Police headquarters was in Maidstone and I enjoyed a bit of walking anyway. It also seemed strangely appealing to Jon, one of my walking mates who, being retired now and in his sixties, should presumably have known better. Okay, let’s do it …
We set a route but decided to turn that classic one of the ‘sixties on its head and have it go west to east instead, starting from Police Training College at Maidstone and finishing at Margate Police Station; that had a feeling of ‘walking home’ about it I suppose and also biased the quieter bits of the journey towards the end when we would be most knackered. The specifics of the route were that we would go down Willington Street before turning east along the Ashford Road, turn north at Lenham and up through the Newhnam Valley to Faversham before taking the coastal path all the way to Planet Thanet.
The big day arrived on Saturday 18th August 2018 with almost perfect walking weather – bit overcast, low 20s’c and even a slight tailwind – quite a relief after the weeks of implausibly hot weather that we had had recently. After the inevitable cheery photographs outside Training School we set out with a spring in our step and settled into the long drag along Willington Street and then the A20, ten miles of busy roads with traffic booming past us and brambled-covered pavements which no-one seemed to use anymore. Conversation was a little stunted, being as there was seldom room to walk side by side or, if you did, hear what anyone was saying because of the noise of the traffic. It allowed us, however, to chew up some quick miles.
Conversing become easier once we turned off the main drag and north towards Faversham, the only problem being of course that it was now so steep walking up the incline of the North Downs that no-one had a lot of breath to converse with. It got steeper and steeper and, once up-top, it did occur to me that Will might have begun suffering with some altitude difficulties … every now and then he would break into song – a lot of Eagles but mostly power-ballads from the 1980s … Meatloaf was clearly a firm favourite, singing long stretches in his flat Midlands accent. It was all rather strange but added to the entertainment of dodging speeding cars flying towards us along those remote country lanes.
And conversations to make the miles soak up … the best band you ever saw live … the best album that group produced … jobs we did when we were younger … the worst boss you ever had … and when these subjects became exhausted, even … your favourite vacuum cleaner – and why?
Of less interest to the others but considerable interest – almost alarm – to me was the colour of my piddle; it was coming out like raspberry juice. I had been so careful to avoid dehydration, sucking away manically on my water bladder, but it seemed that I had either failed miserably or had developed some form of spontaneous cystitis … it did trouble me. Then again, maybe it was those blackberries that I kept on plucking as we walked along …?
We trundled on into Faversham, pausing briefly for fish and chips – the great thing about these longs walks is that you can stuff as much rubbish food down your chops as you like … biscuits, sweets, chocolate – and I did my upmost to empty a two-litre bottle of spring water into my body in an attempt to improve the colour of my piddle … it didn’t work. Moving out of town we slipped on to the Saxon Shoreway path which would lead us east now along the coastline all the way to Margate!
After the luxury of tarmac for that first part of the journey, the hard, craggy, muddy and horse-crap riddled paths of the walk along the Graveney marshes to Seasalter was a little heavy-going on the feet. Will was clearly suffering with the uneven surface so we tried to take his mind off it with an intensive few rounds of name that song by hearing the first line of the lyrics spoken out in the most dead-pan voice imaginable … my God, there was a lot of Bruce Springsteen and Pogues stuff coming out.
I’m afraid the longer that stretch went on the more pain Will seemed to be suffering. He borrowed Jon’s walking pole at one stage to give him some more stability on the sloping surface but he wasn’t looking good. We got some fluids and food inside him down hoping that that would help. Emerging out from the marshes at The Sportsman, that gourmet favourite of Sunday supplement food writers, we descended off the path to the road in the hope that it might be easier for him on the tarmac, even if it did risk getting run down by some maniac car driver; then again, looking at Will’s anguished face, it occurred to me that getting run over for him might be a blessed relief. As an added morale-booster we were met by our mate Robin who was going to walk us into Whitstable and buy us a pint at The Neptune on the beach there. If only Will could make it …
Progress became rather stop-starty. Will’s original pain and discomfort had now turned to what increasingly looked like agony. Seemingly his calves were seizing up and it turned into a period of grim, head-down determination for him as he slowly trudged along – “… okay, leave me alone … I’m going to be fine … I just need to get in the zone …”
We had been met as well by another mate Paul, with Daisy his Jack Russell, who was going to walk the last part of the journey with us. Being so engaged in conversation it wasn’t hard to drift along only to discover, guiltily, that Will had been left a hundred yards behind. Checking the watch, it occurred to me that we had barely managed a mile in the last hour; if we carried on at this pace then we would be rolling into Margate at some stage late the following afternoon.
I had a chat with Will. It was horrible for him because he was doing the charity walk, with a lot of publicity, for his daughter and of course he didn’t want to let her down. We had to face facts, though; if his legs were in agony now at thirty miles then they were going to be in whatever comes after agony in a couple of miles’ time and then get worse and worse with every step. If on the other hand he peeled off now he would had the opportunity to catch a train from Whitstable back to home in Margate … if he didn’t take that opportunity then it was a long old slog to instead picking up that train from Herne Bay when reality truly had cut in … it was no disgrace … you’d done thirty miles … just do the last twenty miles next weekend … he was wavering …
With almost perfect timing a police patrol came driving slowly up the lane … when do you ever see a Bobby in Whitstable? I waved it down, thankfully getting recognised by the officers even in my sweat-riddled state. They offered to run Will the half-mile around to the train station and we packed him on the backseat looking like his life was ending. I walked on to catch the others at the pub and we had a quick toast to his stoicism.
A pint of Guinness later – and, yes, those old adverts were right, it really does give you strength – we were off again travelling east but very, very stiffly having made that schoolboy error of sitting down for a bit. Tankerton, which I always image as being the setting for Dad’s Army, appeared before we knew it with all its multicoloured beach huts and owners enjoying the lovely sunset behind us whilst scoffing away at food from their barbeques.
The stretch, thirty miles to forty miles, had been highlighted in our preplanning as possibly the most testing, the theory being that you would be knackered at this stage but weren’t yet in sniffing distance of a glorious finish. With that in mind we arranged to RV with my wife, Amanda, at The Hamptons, just before Herne Bay, with more food and some morale-boosting hot chocolate – a simple thing but it worked, especially as my hips were hurting so much at that stage that I did wonder if I had given birth to an elephant during the last couple of miles without realising it.
We cracked on suitably refreshed about half past eight, now in the fading light, and strolled past Herne Bay seafront and the noise from a concert at the Kings Hall, before continuing along to Beltinge with its long metal steps from the promenade up onto the cliffs before leading off to Reculver.
“Arr, character building!” said Jon, as we trudged up the steps and slope, different muscles screaming after miles and miles of flat surface.
“I’m fifty-one Jon … my character don’t need any more building … I’m perfectly satisfied with it as it is.”
It occurred to me, just to add to the fun, that in previous walks I had always reckoned on these steps as being eleven miles from Margate nick, where-as my walking app hadn’t even shouted out yet in its feminine but robotic way that we had done thirty-eight; it rather looked as if we would have to make up an extra mile or two somewhere. Image having to break that news to Will if he was still with us …
We crossed the cliffs, resisted the temptation of The King Ethelbert pub at Reculver, and continued along the straight, monotonous stretch running through to Minnis Bay. Hell, it was boring, walking now in the darkness. I wondered how far we could get before losing the sound of that concert booming out from the King’s Hall on Herne Bay seafront; we were already at least five miles away but could still hear it with that tail-wind.
We tried killing a bit of time with ‘what’s your favourite book … fiction … non-fiction … favourite film … favourite cult film …’ but got bored with the game within a few minutes. The whole nightmare of Brexit chewed up another mile and then, continuing the theme from earlier in the walk, we probed Paul’s opinion on vacuum cleaners, discovering in him the contentious – almost dangerous – view that a decent cleaner these days had to be cordless as a bare-minimum … well, listen to la-de-dah pants … here he is, rolling up thirty miles into the walk and now turning all our previous vacuum cleaning arguments on their head … made me nostalgic for Will’s affection for that old Henry the Hoover.
Oh God I was feeling rough at this stage, not helped by a few equipment issues. The zip on my rucksack has split earlier, resulting in my gortex repeatedly trying to escape from inside, so I had decided to put it on even though it was probably too warm for a jacket and so making me even more dehydrated than I was already … I hated to image what colour my piddle was now … not that I gone in about five hours. I also realised that my feet were finally succumbing to blisters – should have soaked them in white spirit – so had to hold the others up while applying some plasters, not the easiest job in the dark, torch held in my teeth, and back so stiff now I could barely reach down to untie my bootlaces. I took the opportunity to pop a couple of ibuprofen to add to the paracetamol-plus I had been taking earlier, and this pain-killing cocktail slowly had me feeling better as the miles ticked down.
Minnis Bay offered further temptation to the weary walker as we passed The Minnis pub but we ignored its charms and continued along the coastal path, past Epple Bay and along to Westgate where Paul proposed eating up a bit of the extra mileage we had to gain by diverting south half a mile or so to his house so that he could drop Daisy off. Once there he slipped off inside to settle the dog while Jon and I bimbled up and down the road repeatedly like two, knackered-looking, crazy people, knocking a few hundred yards off while we had the opportunity; I’m surprised the Old Bill wasn’t called. Paul then cheered us up considerably by leading us on a route back to the seafront which began by crossing a ploughed field. I then added to the mirth by insisting that I again delay everyone by adding yet more plasters to those covering my feet … it might have proved quicker just to carry me …
Passing along Westbrook seafront Jon reminded me that the last time we were there was the morning after a horrendous storm where all the beach huts had been smashed to matchwood and we had had to navigate around disgruntled owners gathering up broken lounger chairs and comparing horror stories of what they’d lost … buckets and spades were scattered everywhere.
And finally … finally … we arrived at Margate seafront … thank God for that! Never has Dreamland looked so … dream-like … the shouting and hollering of the drunks seemed so pleasant to the ear … the graffiti looked so appealing … you want to know how to make that Arlington House east-European monstrosity of a tower block overlooking the beach look pleasant? Tell someone it signals the end of their fifty-mile walk!
But not quite … checking the walking app, we discovered that we still had around another half a mile to go to register the full fifty. We decided on a detour to the end of the pier, which incidentally gives one of the best views of Margate, and then continued past the Turner Contemporary and Winter Gardens in the direction of the Lido. Taking then, what of course turned out to be, the steepest slope imaginable back up to the pleasure gardens we picked our way through the deserted funfair listening for the audio notification that we had clocked up the fifty miles from my phone app; it burst into life a couple of hundred yards short of the nick … arrrrhhhhhhh! We composed ourselves for our arrival photographs – not very well judging by the results.
Dropping Paul off and driving Jon back to mine to collect his car I recall indulging in a long rant along the lines of ‘… if I ever suggest doing this again …’, which is funny now a week after the walk because I’m oddly quite looking forward to doing it again next year – how bizarre. In fact, next year is going to be quite a big event, apparently, according to the number of people who say they want to do it with us …
For those of you interested in the statistics of something like this, according to the app we clocked up 117359 steps over the eighteen hours and thirty-four minutes of the walk. The app also suggests that we would have chewed up 5300 calories, so it was probably okay to have those fish and chips at lunch-time, and set an average pace of 22.13 minutes per mile over a final distance of 50.17 miles. I set the challenge to anyone who wants to beat this time but remember that Jon and I had a combined age of one hundred and seventeen when we did it, so some kind of handicap system might need to be imposed for you youngsters!
And There’s More … The Will Redemption
Having bowed out painfully – well, agonisingly – at thirty miles, Will was keen to finish the route when the opportunity arose and indeed he did on Saturday 29th September 2018 with yet another day of brilliant walking weather – the next time we do anything like this the weather is clearly going to be ghastly.
Overall, we raised over £1500.00 for Helena, which was a little better than the £400.00 intended. This has been used to buy some specialist equipment which will make her life easier.
And Finally. So Chas … Farewell …
Although we did the walk in support for Helena, I think it fitting that we dedicate our efforts this year to the memory of a man that did more than most to boast the seaside economy of our beautiful town, and who sadly died in the weeks between the two walks.
The English language has spouted some beautiful lines of poetry but I still think that …
“… you can keep your Costa-brava, I tell ya mate I’d rather …
… have a pint of Courage Best
– down Margate in the rain …”
stills ranks well up with the best of them! Thanks Chas – and Dave!