- Classic Reads
My Penniless Journey
In 1998 I decided to walk 805 km across England and into Scotland with no money. Would I be shown enough hospitality to keep going?
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 meSam, 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 sol-ace 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 hometown 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 dinners 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 Samdrank 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 there,” he said, and returned indoors. We arrived in Tavistock at7:30 p.m. to find the town empty. Steady rain thrummed onto 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 lon-ger 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 AlexWarne, 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 outa £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 Icreosoted 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 Grey-hound 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. Pee-ping 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.
I had no money to offer these generous people who had so little themselves, nor could I help pay for the petrol next day when they gave me a lift to make up for the distance I’d lost. I sat in the back next to Sam and Levanna, whose blue eyes stared at me.
After about 64 km the car stopped. I stood at the roadside and watched the car go, Levanna’s little face pressed against the back window, a small, white hand waving. I felt sorry for myself but knew the antidote. Get going.
The problem was my feet, which were blistered and painful. In Shaw village, Wiltshire, I came to a large stone building, the Shaw Clinic of complementary medicine. My knock was answered by the clinic’s owner Sheila Carter, a striking dark-haired woman wearing a white coat. She looked at me cautiously. I was walking to Edinburgh?
Soon the delicate hands of Sheila, a fully trained chiropodist, were examining my feet. “I have no money,”I warned, but she took no notice.
'“The feet are severely bruised,” she said. “I’ll try to take the pressure off the worst areas.” Skillfully she bandaged two cushions like ring doughnuts to the balls of my feet. It was a work of art.At 7 p.m., Sam and I were heading along the B4014, looking for a night’s shelter, when Avening appeared in front of us, clinging to a hillside. “No dogs!” yelled a middle-aged woman as we entered the village post office.I tethered Sam outside. Inside, the woman stood in my way. “How can you stay anywhere with no money?” I began to explain but she moved to the back of the shop. It was spitting with rain. I walked to a local pub, where the barmaid was friendly and her suggestion unexpected: “Try the College of Colour Therapy.”
THE TURQUOISE BATH
“Of course you can stay,” said Carmel Gimbel, a slim, tall, elegantIrishwoman who ran the Hygeia College of Colour Therapy with her husband Theophilus. The large rambling building dated from the fourteenth century. Carmel, resplendent in rainbow colours, led Sam and me down a corridor to The Blue Room, lit by a single blue light. “When you’re ready, come and have a drink with us in the music room,” Carmel said.
I reclined on a big settee with a glass of chilled white wine and Carmel asked to look at my feet. She massaged them tenderly. “Your voice is very tight,” she said. “What’s that fear inside you?”I told her. The fear of my journey, of not being up to it, physically or mentally. She continued the massage and I coughed. “That’s the fear being released,” said Carmel.
Next, food appeared: a sizzling barbecue of chicken legs, sausages, burgers, chops. I tore at them like a wolf.
Theophilus, 78, was a Bavarian who came to Britain in 1949. Years of imprisonment during the Second World War, some of it in dark, solitary confinement, inspired him to teach colour’s potential.
“A colour bath would help,”Carmel said. “Given your mental state,turquoise would be best.” Into my bathwater went two drops of natural blue dye, then two drops of green. It instantly transformed into a shimmering turquoise. I lowered myself in, propping my bandaged feet above the taps and the turquoise embraced me. I closed my eyes. I had found a wondrous house where food, wine,bath and bed were all given freely as if charity were the most natural thing in the world.
Day eight. “Try the Cotswold Hunt Kennels,” said a woman in Andoversford, outside Cheltenham. Thus I entered the world of fox hunting. The kennels had 100 hounds. “You can have a mattress in the back room,” said Julie Barnfield. “The spare room's being decorated.”
I mentioned to her husband Julian that I was anti-foxhunting and he shrugged, as if on such a brief contact he wasn’t interested in a fierce debate.But isn’t fox hunting cruel and unnecessary? “There’s a lot of ignorance,”he replied. “The fox is dead within seconds of being caught. In theory, the best method of killing a fox is at night,with rifle and spotlight, but you’re never sure the fox is dead. The fox is a pest, and sheep farmers around here would agree.”
Helpfully, he recommended Clifton upon Teme Hunt Kennels at Tedstone Delamere near Worcester for my next night’s shelter. Nobody seemed surprised to see me at Clifton, which consisted of a bungalow, some white-painted farm buildings and a lawn sloping up to the kennels.The owner was on holiday, and Peter Harper, James Cook and Johnnie James were holding the fort. They told me I was welcome to sleep on the settee in the bungalow’s living room.
That night my feet were burning like furnaces. In the morning I found a nearby chiropodist willing to see me—“I have no money,” I told her—but her earliest appointment was the next afternoon. “Stay here as long as you like,” said Peter in his Welsh lilt.
For two days I experienced the hospitality of a world that fascinated and horrified me. The kennels, kept spotless by Peter and shy 17-year-old James, held 120 hounds. When I stood by their enclosures they pushed noses and paws through the steel, big softies desperate for affection. Then I saw them at feeding time. They feasted on dead cows and sheep. Ferociously, they tore off long strips of flesh, pushing and snarling at one another, raising bloodied snouts from the carnage.I imagined them at a fox.
I set off next morning feeling bouncy. The chiropodist had carefully shaved layers of dead skin from my feet. “One reason they hurt so much,”she explained, “is the liquid trapped under the skin.”
Day 13. Kilometres travelled so far:370. I had evolved a new method of walking. Sam and I would walk for 90 minutes, then rest for about 30,when I would remove my boots and socks, and have a nap. We had moved into Staffordshire and we were on a bendy dangerous road. I needed a lift.At a lay-by, I approached a middle-aged couple munching sandwiches in a four-wheel drive. “We’re full up,” said the man. “Got the dog in the back.” On the vast rear seat was a tiny terrier.
A truck driver was no more charitable. “I’ve only just stopped,” he said.“Be here a long time yet.” Two minutes later, he hurtled past me without a second look. Was it my appearance? Was it Sam? From now on I decided I'd either arrange a lift at my night stop or do without.
I was north of Stafford by late afternoon when I tried a large detached house. A man stripped to the waist smiled as he opened the door,smiled as I stated my case, and smiled when he said no can do. “Why not try the Scout camp?”
The Kibblestone camp site, 80 acres of secluded woodland, was half a km up the road. I threw myself on the mercy of the warden Paul Westwood,a youngish man with a ponytail. “Officially we’re not allowed guests,” he said, “but you’ve got an honest face and you’ve come a long way.” Sam and I were given a fairly spartan but comfortable eight-bunk room.
Now hunger pangs had begun to gnaw. I drifted among the various Scout groups encamped through the forest. The leader of a Devon group was ladling out hot portions. Could I have some? She looked me up and down like a suspect in a police identity parade. “Food supplies are on a strict budget,” she said. “So much ahead and none to spare.
”Another group leader said: “We have come here for a special holiday. The last thing we want is strange men approaching us begging.”
I saw myself in a new light—a suspicious character wandering among young boys. I’d be lucky not to get arrested. Then I saw a tent pitched on its own, with a man, a woman and two boys. I sensed they didn’t belong to a group. I walked up and came straight out with it. “I’m pretty hungry. I wonder if you could share a bit of your food with me?”
“Sure!” Dean Coffield, a former Scoutmaster from Dudley, was with his wife Sharon, their 12-year-old son Jon and Jon’s mate James Sutton. “There's that much, but you’re welcome to it.” They had beans, sausages and garlic bread. We sat around their fire.
As I rose to leave, Sharon put a plastic bag in my hand. “For breakfast,” she said. An hour previously I had faced a hungry night followed by a hungry morning. Now look at the kindness I’d received.
This night virtually marked our halfway stage. Ahead lay Derbyshire and the Peak District.
"HE NEEDS REST”
I liked to think my doorstep manner was improving. Freda Chadwick,a lively woman in Cauldon, near the Peak District border, was amazed when I leant on the lower half of her stable-type kitchen door, told her about my journey and asked for water. “Are you totally mad?” she asked, and shouted for her husband John, who appeared looking slightly uncomfortable. He had a prominent pot-belly. “He’s travelling from Plymouth to Edinburgh with no money!” exclaimed Freda. John shot me a look.
Freda gave me a cup of tea, fruit, biscuits and dog biscuits for Sam.
Day 18. In high spirits I strode out across the open, flat landscape of the Vale of York, at one point plunging waist deep through a field of corn. Sam became a rustle of white and orange somewhere near my feet. The Buddhist monk at the monastery I visited before setting out was right about me eventually gaining strength. I was fit, lean, fast. We achieved an 11-hour, 39-km day.
At Whixley one woman, in answer to my request for food and shelter, told me slightly sniffily, “I don’t think people do that kind of thing around here.” Someone else suggested the pub, which was shut, and a third house-holder didn’t answer my knock, so I had to fend for myself.
The door to the pavilion of Whixley’s cricket club was slightly ajar. By 8 p.m., Sam and I were on the floor in my sleeping bag. I was worried about Sam. The temperature on the road to Pontefract had been in the 80s. He panted like a steam engine, lagged behind and I’d had to carry him for a while. I pulled him closer to me, whispering affections in his little pink ear.
The next day I dropped in to see two old friends, Tim and Jude Tribe, at Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire. Jude looked closely at Sam’s runny eye. “It needs seeing to,” she said. “There's a vet next door.” Enter Christine Mc Cormack. Her verdict was damn-ing. Sam had developed a deep ulcerin his eye. “I can give him ointment for now,” said Christine, “but he needs more treatment and a lot of rest.” Sam’sodyssey was finished.
Guilt consumed me. King Charles spaniels were not the world's greatest canine explorers yet Sam’swee legs had carried him 595 km.I’d turned him into an exhausted wreck. I arranged for his owner Sarah Davidson to pick him up, then stood staring at Sam on the settee. It was the end of an important relationship. I'd known this journey only with Sam.
“Just go,” said Jude. “That’s the best way.” I went.
Day 20. Approaching the village of Gilling West, north of Catterick, I came to a large stone house, heard voices and peeped over the garden wall to find a group of people looking uncommonly festive for 4.30 in the afternoon. I’d happened on a double celebration. Brian Sperring was 56 that day; his partner Dorothy Halford would be 50 the next.
COULD I SLEEP IN THE CARAVAN?“SURE,” ERNIE SAID. AS SIMPLE AS THAT.
Would they kindly fill my water bottle? “Of course. And have a cup of tea!” Did they know anyone nearby who could put me up? “Ask the farmer Hughie Bird.”Energetic Hughie, 60 years of age, welcomed me into the kitchen of Mill Farm like some long-lost relative, shoving a mug of tea and a piece of porkpie at me. Could he give me shelter?“Take the caravan in the field.
”After daybreak, I thought of making my usual early start but Hughie was keen to show me his farm, his life. “Stay this morning,” he said. “I’ll make upyour lost kilometres.” First I admired his 90 milking cows. Next, he led meinto a windowless shed, 125 feet longand 40 feet wide, for an extraordinary sight. The floor was covered with 9,000 two-week-old chicks. The dull light andhumid atmosphere contrasted with the constant chirruping of the chicks.Hughie took great pride in keeping theshed clean and habitable.
This room was the chicks’ entire life. They would live here from dayone to six weeks, then be taken away for slaughter. They would never even know of the sun’s existence. I wondered how I would feel, buying my next supermarket chicken, yet this was a normal part of Hughie’s world and if I worked in it, it would probably become normal for me.
Hughie’s lavish hospitality at meal-time was a revelation. We sat around the big kitchen table and his wife Joyce cooked a monstrous pile of bacon.Every time we attacked the pile more rashers appeared. There was fresh bread, scones, butter. We ate, chattered, laughed. Then, as promised, he gave me a lift. My buoyant spirits sank at Frosterley, in the Wear valley. At farm number one I had to walk through a yard with chained dogs only to be told it was no go.Farm number two: dogs, no go.
I knocked at a third door, a cottage. A shrill female voice shouted: “Who is it? What do you want?” I shouted my apologies and left.
A key to gaining invitations into British homes, I was coming to realize, was the presence of a caravan, as with Hughie Bird and with Cliff Brimblecombe, the Devon cidermaker. It gave a wanderer shelter but reduced the donor’s sense of territorial invasion. Now where could I find a caravan inFrosterley? I was virtually through the village when I spotted Bridge End Cottage. Next to it was a caravan. I rang the front doorbell.
“You’d better come in.” Joyce Crosierseemed amused by my plight. She and her sister-in-law Joanne were waiting for their husbands to return with an Indian takeaway. Meanwhile, would I like a glass of wine?
When Ron and Barrie arrived back to find a destitute itinerant on the settee they opted for charity rather than indignation. I had chicken korma that night—and the caravan.
A WARM WELCOME
Next day I spotted another caravan, this time behind a cottage near Slaley in Northumberland. My knock was answered by Ernie Auriemma, a big man with a thick dark moustache and a Mediterranean appearance.Could I sleep in the caravan?“Sure.” As simple as that. “Go and sort your stuff out, then come back to the house.
”At the kitchen table, Ernie’swife Vivien gave me food, while Ernie, an estate worker looking after 450 sheep, told me his story. He was here because his Neapolitan father, a POW at neighbouring Haydon Bridge, had fallen in love with the enemy after the Second World War, brought over his Italian sweetheart and they married.
Day 24. Gorse moorland high in the Pennines, forest tracks and shale paths made for hard, unstable walking. After32 km the cold began to seep through my clothes. My tired limbs cried “Stop!” but my soul wanted to sleep that night in Scotland.
At 6 p.m. I reached the border at Carter Bar, little more than two lay-bys and a mobile snack bar. I marched up to the young man at the snack-bar counter. “If I were to tell you I had travelled penniless all the way from Plymouth to get here, would that be worth a cup of tea?” I asked.
“Aye, it would.” His sing-song Scottish accent, plus the hot tea he put into my shivering hands, lifted my mood.
Fellside Boarding Kennels, the very first buildings I came to, gave me shelter. “You can have the caravan,” said Bernhard Whiteley. That night, I was asleep within minutes.
Early next morning I stood in the kitchen of the house, eating a slice of bread and feeling alone. Was I taking my welcome for granted? Was I becoming a parasite, crawling my way through the nation’s generosity?
When Bernard walked by exercising brace of dogs, I ran out and offered to help. Bernard’s face lit up—and he had a surprise for me. Although the kennels specialized in looking after holiday dogs, the Whiteleys kept a special pack of their own.
“Ever walked huskies?” Bernard asked. No. He gave me the leads of Sholk and Patchy and I whizzed down the lane behind turbo-charged, twin-booster rockets. All I could do was hang on and hope.
Only two more nights now, the first on Walter Inglis’s farm at Lilliesleaf,near Selkirk, some 50 miles from Edinburgh. My final night was in the hamlet of Heriot. “There’s a room in the annexe waiting to be decorated,” said Gillian Torrie, landlady of the Dug Inn.“Nothing in it, but you’re welcome.”
Friday, 12 August. Twenty-seven days and 853 km after leaving Plymouth I came to the vast plain out of which Edinburgh rises. By now I was a walking machine. My speed had increased to 6 km an hour. I felt uplifted.The knot of fear in my stomach had completely gone.
The lonely country roads were behind me. Then I landed on another planet: traffic jams, men in suits with mobile phones, restaurants, department stores, office blocks.
Back in Cullercoats with my partnerKitty and 14-year-old son Dylan, I returned the £10 note given me by Geoffrey Boucher. I also wrote and thanked everyone else who took a chance on me.
I was asked by people: “Did you find any regional differences in degrees of friendliness?” Not at all. I was shunned and made welcome in all parts. Many people distrusted me, but only once(at Whixley) was no help forthcoming.I found that those who offered shelter and food had more open faces.
As a townie, I discovered the startlingly simple truth that everything we humans manufacture, we eventually tire of. What’s created by nature, on the other hand, never wearies us.
A friend of mine joked: “I’m broke all the time!” “No, you’re not,” I replied.Total penury, like I experienced, brought a dreadful sense of alienation and exclusion. It made me understand how lucky most of us are. We take for granted a standard of living much of the world has never known. Despite poverty, most of us need not wonder where we will sleep tonight; hunger is a temporary state, relieved by a chocolate bar until the next meal.
And yet, despite our good fortune, many of us are restless and unfulfilled, and feel there should be more to life. One answer I believe is travel.
There’s a Hindu tradition of going on pilgrimage after the age of 50. Most of us are still physically active and have enough experience to fortify us against new challenges. Yet many are rushing into early retirement. What’s ahead is more important than what’s behind, on a 805-km trek or on your last day on earth. Comparatively few people really travel. They make surrogate expeditions on TV documentaries and are shuttled off on package tours. Where is the sense of wonder,the excitement?
Real travel is less high-tech, more unpredictable, and better.
Twenty-three years after his walkthrough Britain, Peter Mortimer still marvels at the challenges he faced.“The mental and the physical battles were close competitors,” he says. “I could never bear to think how far lay ahead or I would have succumbed.”These days, he wouldn't consider such an ambitious walk. “I was in my mid-50s then. The knees would forbid it now.”Peter continues to write. His latest book, Planet Corona, is a collection of his recent newspaper columns.
This excerpt was first published in the October 1999 issue of Reader's Digest.
Excerpted from the book broke through Britain: one man's penniless odyssey by Peter Mortimer copyright © 1999 by Peter Mortimer. Reprinted with the Permission of Peter Mortimer.