Calais to Arras

From the coast to the capital of Pas-de-Calais

146kms – 5 days

When most of us think of Calais, we think of P&O ferry rides, booze cruises, and the beginning or the end of a long drive to the South of France. It’s safe to say that Calais and the Pas-de-Calais department that it sits in are largely overlooked by tourists, who only pass through or at most make an overnight stop before an early morning ferry ride. Unlike them I would be travelling slowly, as fast as my feet could carry me. And slow travel would allow me to get acquainted with this lesser-known corner of France.

Calais’ Hôtel de Ville

Weaving my way between Calais’ towers and lighthouses, through its parks and colossal churches, I made my way to the imposing Hôtel de Ville. I couldn’t help but liken it to a space station crossed with Big Ben, ready to launch into the sky. In reality, it’s like some sort of watchtower from which the people of Calais keep tabs on intruders from the south. Because beyond the Hôtel de Ville there’s nothing. The city came to an abrupt halt, and I was soon working my way along canals that felt like they were in the middle of nowhere.

The Forest of Guînes

Outside the town of Guînes the canals morphed in to dense forest, the site where Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard and American Dr. John Jeffries landed the first successful balloon crossing of the English Channel in 1785. The forest canopy provided a welcome relief from the burning sun, but it’s bugs had firm plans to drive me back out into the light of day. My picnic lunch under the shade of a tree had to be relocated to a farm track in an open field, underneath an electricity pylon – the glamour of long distance walking!

Emerging from the forest the scenery quickly turned to golden wheat fields, which were to be the backdrop for much of my journey south to Arras. One never ending wheat field, or so it seemed, punctuated only by a flash of red poppies here and there and the scars left by a tractor’s twists and turns.

Poppies adding colour to the fields of golden wheat

Days were broken up by what became a familiar routine…scanning the horizon for a church. Some were huge, like cargo ships sailing across the fields, and others were on the petit side with pointy spires topped with an iconic, proud, cockerel. Whether large or small, a church always meant shade, water, a town, and perhaps even the hope of a pain au chocolat. And they were, without fail, always empty, with no real signs of life on the streets surrounding them either. I began to wonder whether it’s not just tourists who neglect Pas-de-Calais, but the French too.

Churches provide a cool refuge from the sun and a place to fill up water bottles

Signs of religion were everywhere, not just in the village churches. Roadsides were adorned with chapels and crosses. I even passed holy springs, and the birthplace of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre, a patron saint of pilgrims. Perhaps a fortuitous sign.

The 18th century home of Saint Benoît-Joseph Labre

Passing through tiny French town after tiny French town, I soon became acquainted with their look and feel. The pretty, crumbling Mairie (town hall and mayor’s office), the boulangerie, the absence of any green space on which to sit and take off my boots, the sleepy Tabac with next to no customers and where I guzzled down cold Orangina, and the tiled old road signs that I have developed a slight thing for.

The Mairie in Licques
Boulangeries, my new best friends
Old tiled road signs which I can’t resist photographing

I walked through these villages with a huge amount of house envy. Beautiful rustic farm houses were kept from view behind thick courtyard walls and enormous wooden doors. Being bold and stepping over the threshold revealed colourful shutters and geraniums, sloping tiled roofs, old farm machinery and a world from years gone by. Snooping on chateaux wasn’t anywhere near as challenging, as their showy-offy nature meant they were visible from the road. I ogled at them in wonder – their different shapes and sizes, their towers, their countless windows.

The kindness of locals meant that I was lucky enough to stay in a traditional farm house in the beautiful village of Amettes and a chateau in equally stunning Villers-Châtel. And I stayed in them for next to nothing. People say that “the camino provides”, that one way or another pilgrims are taken care of as they journey from place to place. But the generosity and kindness of those I met in Pas-de-Calais was overwhelming. People wouldn’t let me set off in the morning without the hand drawn map they had prepared for me, and wouldn’t let me put my feet up at night unless I had a glass of wine in hand. I’m quickly learning that it’s a very special and humbling thing, to walk across unfamiliar parts of Europe and be treated like one of the family.

The beautiful farm house I stayed in in Amettes
Although it may look like it’s a display, every pot and pan has its use!
The stunning Chateau Villers-Châtel

But the most memorable night’s stay (the 1970s caravan coming a close second) would have to be in Abbaye Notre-Dame, which is home to an order of Benedictine nuns. I was looked after by Sister Lucie, who showed me to my room in a beautiful former hunting lodge within the abbey’s grounds. I was invited to listen to the nuns sing their nightly prayers under the enormous vaulted ceiling of their church, to eat a wholesome evening meal cooked using vegetables they had grown, and to enjoy a peaceful night’s sleep that was broken only by the sound of church bells in the morning. Some places have an air about them, an aura that’s hard to explain. The abbey had just that, and the nuns living there exuded a sense of calm and contentedness that was infectious.

Abbaye Notre-Dame

Wheat fields gave way to open cast mines, which marked the landscape with huge mountains of earth that looked quite out of place in the otherwise gently rolling hills. Run down mining towns were spruced up by a grand Hôtel de Ville with a bell tower that would sing a merry song every hour.

The beautiful Hôtel de Ville of Calonne-Ricouart

Arras’ spires soon came in to view, and signs for McDonalds and Subway replaced my friend the yellow knap-sack carrying pilgrim and signs for the Via Francigena. As I approached the city I wasn’t sure how I felt about returning to urban life. The sleepiness of the countryside had lured me in, and the hum of traffic felt alien and suffocating. But as I walked through Arras’ quiet back streets I realised that there was no need to panic. Arras is about as sleepy as cities come.

Canterbury to Calais

Crossing the Channel and contemplating Rome

31kms + a ferry ride – 2 days

Canterbury, the spiritual capital of England, has been synonymous with pilgrimage since the founding of its Cathedral over 1,400 years ago. The murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett inside the Cathedral by King Henry II’s knights in 1170 sparked hundreds of years of pilgrimage to Beckett’s shrine, cementing Canterbury as England’s premier pilgrimage destination.

Geoffrey Chaucer famously turned this pilgrim traffic into the subject of his “The Canterbury Tales” – where knights and nuns, merchants and monks, took part in a story telling contest en route to Beckett’s shrine, vying for the honour of being the best story teller and a free meal at the Tabard Inn on their return to London.

Canterbury Cathedral’s Christ Church Gate, the start, and end, point of many people’s pilgrimage

The city remains an epicentre of pilgrimage today. As I wandered around the outskirts of the Cathedral I saw a group of Dutch cyclists smiling and embracing, having their photo taken outside Christ Church Gate, the end point of their Amsterdam to Canterbury bike ride. I wondered how it must feel – to arrive, to be at the end. Their elation, their sense of achievement, brought a smile to my face. And I hoped that those emotions would be my own in a few months’ time.

Canterbury was deserted when I set off on my own pilgrimage. The city was enjoying a lazy Sunday morning while I walked out to the south, met only by the occasional dog walker or runner. Shop lined streets and residential roads soon turned in to country lanes as I followed signs for the Via Francigena – the yellow knapsack carrying pilgrim who would be my companion all the way to Rome.

Via Francigena signs leading me out of Canterbury and through Kent
Walking through a sea of wildflowers

Wheat fields were interrupted by seas of wildflowers. The church bells of every village I passed through seemed to want to lure me away from my path and in to the Sunday service. But the coast was calling, and soon enough I got that first glimpse of the sun twinkling on the water. I had to stop myself, as I couldn’t quite take it in – I’d walked from my house in London to the sea!

The evening was one of soft powdery light, and I spent it high above the port town of Dover taking in the famous White Cliffs and the setting sun. France was there, in the distance, and beyond France there was Switzerland, and Italy. I started thinking about everything that lay before me, and why I’d chosen to walk in the direction of Rome.

The White Cliffs of Dover

I’m half Italian, my mother and grandparents were born in northern Lazio before they moved to the UK in the late 1940s. Despite never having lived in Italy myself, a huge part of me identifies with my Italian heritage. Maybe it’s my hot-headedness, my gesticulating. It’s certainly not my sense of style, or my cooking.

A year to the day that I sat looking over the White Cliffs and the English Channel, my grandmother, my Nonna, passed away. She was everything you think of when you think of a little old Italian lady – stylish, fiercely strong willed, devout to her faith, at times hard to understand with her incredibly thick accent, and full of love for her family and friends. I miss her tremendously, and without her I sometimes don’t feel very Italian anymore. And that’s why I chose to walk to Rome, as apposed to anywhere else. So that I can re-connect with my heritage and embrace the Italian in me.

I hadn’t taken a ferry to France since going on a school trip, and I naively thought that I would be one of only a handful of passengers setting sail rather than boarding the Eurostar or taking to the sky. But the Strait of Dover remains the busiest shipping lane in the world, and my ferry was busy with school trips, booze cruises, coach trips, caravaners, and motorbike tourers.

Farewell Angleterre!

On arrival in Calais my friend the yellow knapsack carrying pilgrim guided me out of the port and in to the city, as though he was expecting others aboard the ferry to also be journeying to Rome. But from what I could tell, as the one or two other foot passengers caught buses or jumped in taxis, it was just me.

Spending a relaxing first evening in France on Calais Beach

London to Canterbury

Time to hit the road

134kms – 6 days

On Monday 1st July I walked out of my front door in Stoke Newington, London, closing it behind me like it was any other, normal, day. But it wasn’t a normal day. I wasn’t just nipping to the shops for some milk, or walking to my nearest bus stop. I was closing the front door behind me and walking to Rome. It was a strange feeling, and a private one at that. Nobody that I passed on the street knew of the kilometres that lay ahead of me, of the months of walking, and of the (literal) ups and downs that were to come.

Ready and raring to go

The vast majority of my route to Rome will follow the Via Francigena, a medieval pilgrimage trail that starts at Canterbury Cathedral. How I would chose to get myself from Stoke Newington to Canterbury was, however, entirely up to me. The extra 134 kilometers are my own optional extra, and there’s no ready made route that will deliver me door to door. After some deliberation I decided to try and walk through the London that I know, the London where I’ve lived, worked, and revelled for the last 11 years.

In no time I found my rhythm and was striding out. Stoke Newington turned into Dalston, which turned into Shoreditch, which turned into the City. And before I knew it I had reached the River Thames. Leaving the familiar territory of all things north of the river behind, I ventured into lands unknown. The sprawling Borough of Southwark, and its many hills, felt to be never ending in the absence of familiar landmarks to help me track my progress. And then I saw it, the fake Eiffel Tower that is the Crystal Palace Trasmitting Station, marking my stopping point for the night.

Continuing the journey south of the River Thames and looking back on Tower Bridge and the Tower of London

I feared a long and monotonous walk out of London’s suburbs, but I found myself in fields full of wheat and quaint little villages far sooner than I anticipated. Unexpected finds included the Wilberforce Seat, where in 1788 William Wilberforce vowed to abolish the slave trade, and a sundial in the small parish church of St. Mary the Virgin in Downe that’s dedicated to Charles Darwin, who lived in the village for 40 years.

Crossing the M25, Greater London’s busy ring road, was something of a landmark moment. I crossed over the motorway and immediately snaked through a dense forest, where I heard a rustling and noticed a deer watching me from only a few metres away. We held each others’ gaze for what felt like a lifetime, before it ran off and I carried on walking towards the clearing. As I emerged into the bright light of day, Kent, the Garden of England, stretched out in front of me. All I could see were fields of crops, horses grazing, and traditional oast houses dotting the landscape. London was well and truly behind me.

Kent, the Garden of England, stretching out in front of me after crossing the M25

The next few days developed a pattern of their own – following a mixture of the North Downs Way and the Pilgrims Way, passing through picturesque villages steeped in thousands of years of history (Otford, Aylesford, and Charing being amongst my favourites), and traversing fields bursting with crops and colour-popping with wild flowers. The further east I walked, the more I stumbled upon enormous manor houses, and the more striking the landscape seemed to become, dotted with vineyards and orchards as I edged closer to Canterbury.

Colourful corn fields
Walking through Kent’s thriving vineyards

Arriving in to Canterbury had something of a surreal feel – I had reached the end point, but the end point of the beginning. I was crossing a finish line, however it was only momentary. As I walked through the cobbled streets of the historic city, crossing bridges under which tourists were merrily punted along the River Stour, the elation began to wear off and it started to sink in that my journey was really only just beginning.

I headed for Canterbury Cathedral to get my “Pilgrim’s Passport” stamped, marking the beginning of my journey to Rome. The Cathedral attendant asked me “Where are you heading, Rome?” I nodded. “All in one go?” I managed a feeble “Yes”. He handed me back my stamped passport and told me to take my time looking around the Cathedral, sending me off with a smile that was a mix of all things excitement, envy, and encouragement.

The lofty heights of Canterbury Cathedral

The quiet backwards of the River Stour

What’s in the bag?

With only a day to go before I set off on my walk to Rome, one of the questions I’ve been asked the most in the run up to D-Day is…what are you taking with you?

Packing for a long weekend away, let alone a three and a half month adventure, is challenging enough. But when everything you pack is going to be carried on your back, the ruthlessness in you comes out.

When it comes to packing, we all know that the more space you have the more things you pack. So my first, and most important, consideration was which backpack to take. I’ve used Lowe Alpine backpacks in the past when trekking in Nepal, and have always found them to be fantastic. So I opted for the Lowe Alpine AirZone Pro+ 33:40, a 33 litre backpack that can expand to 40 litres if necessary. It has a fully adjustable, breathable, back support system, plus tons of pockets and gizmos to ensure I can access extra layers or blister plasters with ease. With some help from a public vote on Instagram, she’s been christened Bonnie the Backpack.

Bonnie the Backpack, who will be with me every step of the way to Rome

Bonnie was very kindly bought for me by my wonderful friends at Estancia Los Potreros, a horse riding and working cattle ranch in Argentina where I worked for a number of months earlier this year. Their support for my walk to Rome has been both impassioned and unwavering, and I can’t thank them enough.

With my backpack sorted, my next big consideration…what should I put in it? Well, that’s proved to be something of a science, and most definitely an exercise in practicality and restraint. I’ve had a stab at packing a number of times only to realise (after picking Bonnie up and seeing how heavy she is!) that I need to start again, with more ruthlessness. Clothes that have been laid out ready to be packed have instead been folded up and put back in their drawers. If it’s not lightweight, durable, practical, and, most importantly, necessary, it’s not going in.

Nearly everyone I’ve spoken to about my walk has been disproportionately interested in the contents of my backpack, perhaps because they can’t imagine what three and a half months of your life, packed into a small space, looks like! So for those of you who have been interested in the particulars, here’s what it’s come down to…

Things I’ll walk in:

Extra layers:

  • A linen shirt, for protection from the sun
  • A jumper, kindly donated by Sweaty Betty
  • A thin insulated gillet
  • A raincoat
  • A pair of waterproof trousers

Things for the evenings and rest days:

  • A pair of lightweight baggy trousers
  • A Mind t-shirt
  • A lightweight jersey dress
  • A pair of flip flops
  • A pair of pyjamas

Other bits and bobs:

  • A Buff, kindly donated by the travel agent Far and Ride, who specialise in horse riding holidays
  • A lightweight scarf to cover my shoulders when visiting churches en route
  • A pair of walking poles
  • A pair of sunglasses
  • A sun hat
  • A bikini for soaking in the hot springs I’ll pass en route
  • A travel towel
  • A silk sleeping bag liner
  • A 1.5 litre water bladder and a 1 litre water bottle, plus an emergency collapsible 500ml water bottle
  • A head torch
  • A Swiss Army Knife
  • Gaffer tape (which can be used for so many things, from repairing clothes to holding a smashed iPhone together!)
  • Some basic toiletries, kindly donated by Lush and Neal’s Yard Remedies
  • Sunscreen
  • A bottle of travel wash
  • A first aid kit (including plenty of Compeed)
  • An iPad
  • An iPhone
  • A power bank
  • Charging cables and adapters
  • A notebook and pen
  • A French phrase book
  • My passport!

My Buff, kindly donated by Far and Ride

I have allowed myself one luxury item, though. A number of years ago I was travelling in Nepal and was given something called a mani stone by a Tibetan refugee, a small stone inscribed with the Buddhist mantra “Om mani padme hum”. This mantra has a number of different meanings, all of which resonate with me, but it’s also a prayer for protection for travellers. When trekking in Nepal you see piles of mani stones lining the mountain paths, placed their as offerings to the gods for the protection of all who pass them. A few years ago I actually gave that mani stone to a friend who spends a lot of his life on the road in countries far from home. So on a return trip to Nepal I acquired a new mani stone, and, call me superstitious, but I take it with me whenever I embark on a long journey. And this time around it’ll be coming with me all the way to Rome.

Perhaps it’s counterintuitive to fill my bag with rocks, but this mani stone from Nepal will be accompanying me to Rome

So that’s it…my worldly possessions for the next three and a half months. When written down it sounds like a lot, but I promise you that it’s actually very little. Isn’t it amazing, though, how little we need in life. I think that’s where much of the appeal of this walk lies for me, in stripping things back to the very basics and living simply. Like a pilgrim from the Middle Ages…except with an iPhone, high tech walking shoes, and a lifetime’s supply of blister plasters!

My bag is packed, my shoes are waiting by the door…tomorrow it’s time to start walking to Rome.

Mental health first aid

It would be hard to argue that we aren’t better off for having trained first aiders in our midst – people who, whether it’s in the workplace or on the street, can step in and help when someone has collapsed or broken their arm. But as much as we need first aiders for our physical health, we also need mental health first aiders. What do we mean, though, when we talk about mental health first aid?

Well, it does exactly what it says on the tin. It’s first aid but instead of focussing on the Heimlich manoeuvre and the recovery position it’s focussed on identifying and responding to mental health problems. In the grand scheme of things it’s a relatively new phenomenon, despite the fact that there’s long been a need for mental health first aiders. However, it’s only in recent years that the potential to have people in the workplace and in the street, people like you and me, who can help those experiencing a mental health problem has been realised.

The materials provided on Mental Health First Aid England’s courses are incredibly comprehensive, and a great resource to refer back to from time to time

Mental Health First Aid England is an organisation that’s been delivering mental health first aid courses in the UK since 2009. It’s part of a global movement, active in 25 or so countries, that has trained over 3 million people in how to look after their own and others’ mental wellbeing. Mental Health First Aid England’s goal is to train one in every ten people as a mental health first aider, and they work alongside organisations such as St John Ambulance (who provide traditional first aid courses) to achieve that goal.

I took one of Mental Health First Aid England’s two day courses last month, a course that was focussed on adult mental health. They have a number of other courses though, of varying duration, which are tailored to the mental health needs of, for example, children, students, employees, and people working in the armed forces. My course was taught by Christina, a former mental health nurse who grew up caring for her schizophrenic mother and bipolar father. Christina brought not only a wealth of personal experience to the course, but also a huge amount of passion to normalise society’s attitudes and behaviours towards mental health through education. And that’s what I’ve always encountered when I’ve delved into the world of mental health – people who are passionate about making a difference, both to people’s lives and to the status quo.

My mental health first aid course wasn’t just interesting and informative, it challenged the way I view things and forced me to think hard about some uncomfortable subjects which it’s sometimes easier to avoid. It didn’t always make for easy listening, but it was a privilege to hear the stories of people who talk openly about their mental health in the hope that it helps others to better understand, and support, them. And it was hugely empowering. Since finishing my course I’ve felt better equipped to talk to friends about their anxiety, to support someone with an eating disorder, and to help a friend who told me they were having suicidal thoughts. It’s often a case of knowing what to say and how to say it, or which direction to point people in for professional help, and my first aid course taught me all of those things.

Mental Health First Aid England’s five step “ALGEE” approach to assessing and assisting someone with a mental health problem

Is there a mental health first aider in your midst? Maybe one of your friends has done a course, or someone in your family? Does your workplace have any mental health first aiders, and if so, do you know who they are? Why not take a moment to look them up, and make sure everyone in the office knows about them. Because someone will need their support at some stage, and that someone may be you. Or maybe your workplace is one of the four in every five organisations that doesn’t have a trained mental health first aider. In which case, maybe it’s a good time to put yourself forward and ask if you can go on a mental health first aid course. It won’t just change your attitudes towards and your understanding of mental health, it’s very likely that it will change someone else’s life.

Four legged friends

We might laugh about cafes where, whilst sipping on Earl Grey, you can pet a cat, snuggle with a hedgehog, or spend quality time with sheep. But animal therapy…it’s genuinely a thing.

The special bond between humans and animals dates as far back as prehistoric times, when the dog is thought to have first been domesticated. For millennia animals have been trained for working purposes, but there has long been more to our relationship with animals than mere functionality. The practice of keeping animals as pets has, up to the present day, been a part of nearly every culture and society throughout the world. As though it’s something that goes to the very core of our being.

On the receiving end of some unconditional love from Ghillie, one of the nine dogs I had the pleasure of living with earlier this year

When it comes to connection, animals are some of our best teachers. They have an ability to bring us out of our shells, and have been thought to positively influence our relationships with other humans. Animals also provide us with a huge source of comfort and companionship, and can have a profoundly relaxing and calming influence on our daily lives. For these reasons they have been thought to reduce anxiety and stress, and to help people living with, amongst other things, depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and loneliness to live mentally healthier lives. Countless animals, whether working as official support animals or otherwise, have changed the lives of their human companions, even saved them.

Growing up I had two dogs and I spent much of my spare time riding horses at a local stables. Our dogs sadly passed away, and new chapters of my life took me to university and a job in London so horse riding became a thing of the past. I don’t think I fully appreciated what my four legged friends did for my mental health at the time, but I certainly missed them and their impact on my life when they were no longer a part of it. When I struggled with my mental health a few years ago I found myself reflecting on the time I spent with dogs and horses as a child, and wondered whether I was in need of a bit of animal therapy.

Exploring the bluebell woods of the National Trust’s Ashridge Estate with Olive

Sadly my life in a garden-less flat in London isn’t particularly conducive to owning a dog, so I had to seek out the next best thing. From time to time I would borrow my sister’s dog Olive, and take her for walks that would not only clear my head but also provide me with the kind of unconditional love and lack of judgement that I craved. A day spent with Olive was never a bad day, and I owe her much more than the long walks and dog treats that I gave her. Although she did get some rather luxurious dog shampoo out of it too.

l hadn’t sat on a horse for the best part of 17 years, and wondered if it was possible to gain anything except fear and apprehension from getting back in the saddle. I nervously booked myself onto a ride at the start of 2017, which could’ve gone one of two ways. But being around horses again instantly brought me a sense of calm, and an unspoken connection and understanding that can be hard to find in our daily lives.

Connecting with horses and with nature whilst working at Estancia Los Potreros, Argentina

Horses are now a huge part of my life, and have taken me to some incredible places. I’ve ridden them through the Welsh hills, raced them across the Mongolian steppe, had jaw dropping game sightings from horseback in South Africa, and most recently been immensely privileged to spend four months working with them at Estancia Los Potreros in Argentina. They’ve brought smiles to my face, and caused tears of joy to run from my eyes as I’ve galloped into the wind leaving behind the things that are weighing me down. They’ve known when I’m sad or when I’m heartbroken, and when I need them to just be there. They’ve taught me to listen to them, to trust their judgement, and to know when to listen to myself and to trust my own. And they’ve allowed me to get outdoors, to breathe in lungfuls of fresh country air, and to meet new friends from all over the world. I’m indebted to every single one of them all.

Whether it’s horses or dogs, cats or birds, hedgehogs or sheep, there are easy ways that you can incorporate animals into your life. If you don’t own a dog or cat, why not ask around and see if friends or family, or maybe even someone in your neighbourhood, needs help with theirs. Why not sit in the garden and admire the birds, or head to your local park or nature reserve. City and country farms are also a great place to spend time with animals and to connect with nature. Or you could sit in a cafe and stroke a cat, hedgehog or sheep while you drink a cup of Earl Grey.

Actor, one of the horses at Estanica Los Potreros, with whom I developed a special bond

So, how’s your training going?

Hmm…good question.

With my walk from London to Rome now just over a month away, everyone’s been asking me how my training is going. I know it’s usually their way of showing an interest in the challenge that lies ahead, but that question often makes me go stiff with panic. What if the training I’m doing isn’t enough?

How exactly do you train for a walk that will take three and a half months? Google hasn’t come to my aid with anything resembling a training plan. But maybe that’s a good thing…if I haven’t got one to stick to, I can’t beat myself up for not sticking to it! So, taking matters into my own hands, I’ve come up with a training plan of sorts. It consists of…you guessed it…walking.

Getting some practice in whilst house sitting for my parents by walking 10km along the River Stort to the pub for lunch…and back

Day long walks were always going to be hard to fit in to everyday life. And whilst they would get me used to walking for long periods of time, they wouldn’t prepare me for being on my feet day after day, which is where the real challenge lies.

One and two hour walks have therefore become a daily ritual, replacing bus and Tube journeys as my way of commuting around London. And they’ve been far from a chore. Getting out and about on two feet has allowed me to be a tourist in my own city, revisiting places that I haven’t wandered past in years, noticing things that I’ve previously been too pre-occupied to take in, and discovering places that I usually miss out on because I’m in a cramped Tube carriage 20 odd metres below ground.

If you’re a Londoner, or are visiting the city, and are looking for some walk inspiration, here are two of my tried and tested favourites that take in some of the city’s lesser know sights. I’ve walked, run, and cycled these routes many times and they never get old or dull. They offer a slightly different perspective on the city from the more traditional stroll along the Southbank and saunter through the parks. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do!

1. A wander around Hackney’s green spaces

I’m one of those annoying Hackney residents that bangs on about how amazing Hackney is. But when it comes to green space, Hackney really is amazing.

One of my favourite walks in the borough starts in my local Stoke Newington green space, Clissold Park, with it’s deer enclosure, butterfly house, paddling pool and cafe. From Clissold Park you head north around the West Reservoir Water Sports Centre, where you can watch people sailing, canoeing, and open water swimming. You then head over to the East Reservoir, known as Woodberry Wetlands, a nature reserve that’s home to an abundance of wildlife. A boardwalk circles the reservoir, and makes you feel like you’re in the Norfolk Broads rather than Zone 2.

Slowing life down on a stroll along the River Lea

Leaving the reservoirs and heading further east you eventually reach the River Lea, which is one of the largest rivers in London and the easternmost major tributary to the River Thames. Here it feels less like London and more like Oxford. Cyclists whizz along the tow path, boat clubs line the banks of the river, and rowers skull up and down the water dodging colourful canal boats. All this activity takes place against the backdrop of the Walthamstow Marshes, where there isn’t a high rise in sight.

Walking south along the River Lea you enter the wonderful, and totally underrated, Springfield Park. The wooded areas, the ponds, and the cafe are all highlights, but it’s the views across the Walthamstow Marshes that make Springfield Park special. From here it’s a quick walk back to Stoke Newington, by which time you’ve earned a well deserved drink in one of it’s many pubs.

Top tip: The Coal House Cafe at Woodberry Wetlands not only does delicious food, but also has wonderful views across the reservoir. You feel like you’re having tea and cake in a National Trust property, not next to a reservoir in Hackney.

2. Going traffic free from Kings Cross to Victoria Park

If there’s a chance to walk in London without cars and mopeds whizzing by, I’m taking it. The walk along Regent’s Canal from Kings Cross to Victoria Park is a real gem, especially if you’re a foodie.

It won’t be long before you come to a halt as you pass Word on the Water, a bookshop on a narrow boat moored to the banks of the canal. For a bit more culture you could visit the London Canal Museum, which is housed in an ice warehouse that dates from the 1860s and was owned by a famous ice cream maker, Carlo Gatti. As well as learning about London’s canals you can also learn about the city’s ice cream history!

Keep walking east and the canal will soon head into a long tunnel, which sadly means you have to part ways and resurface onto the roads. But not for long – you’ll rejoin the canal east of Angel, and the hive of activity that is City Road Basin. Kayakers and stand up paddle boarders will pass you by on the water, as you wander past narrow boats that double as cafes – the perfect place to refuel on coffee.

You’ll spend the stretch from Angel to Haggerston struggling to decide where to stop for a bite to eat. There are too many good options for me to mention, so I’ll leave that to the professionals. But hopefully you’ve worked up your appetite again by the time you get to Broadway Market. Leave the canal behind and explore its shops, restaurants and pubs. If you’re there on a Saturday you’ll have the street market to explore too, and can stock up on everything from cheese, to chorizo, to artisanal chocolates.

A cheese seller at Broadway Market’s Saturday street market © Paolo Paradiso / Shuttershock.com

Return to the canal to continue your journey east, and you’ll be spotting funky graffiti all the way to Victoria Park. Once you arrive at the park itself you might want to rent a rowing boat or pedalo, visit the Chinese pagoda, watch boats speed around the model boating lake, or just lie down and relax. And there’s always room for a slice of cake…head to Pavillion cafe, overlooking the west boating lake, and enjoy something naughty.

Top tip: Even though the Saturday street market is fabulous, it’s worth visiting Broadway Market on any day of the week. There will be less people, so you’ll be able to enjoy the shops, restaurants and pubs without too much pushing and shoving. If you’re feeling energetic, you can also take your swimmers and head to the London Fields Lido for a spot of outdoor swimming.

Mental Health Awareness Week

Mental health. It’s interesting how people start to fidget and look uncomfortable when they hear those words, like they’re something to be scared of. No one wants to be associated with them, with their negative connotations which are weighed down by judgement and prejudice. It’s better to look away, to avoid the conversation, than to talk about mental health.

The reality is that we all have mental health, just like we all have physical health. Some of us have good mental health, and some of us have poor mental health. And many of us have a mixture of both, depending on what’s happening in our worlds at a given moment in time. So why are we so scared of something that we all have? Perhaps it’s because it’s something that, for many years, we haven’t really talked about and therefore don’t properly understand.

This week it’s Mental Health Awareness Week. So it’s the perfect opportunity for each of us to check in with our own mental health and that of our family, friends and colleagues, and to learn a bit more about mental health so that we can all get to a place where we understand it better.

Why not take a few minutes this week to ask yourself what your mental health looks like – is it good, or is it poor? And if you don’t like the way it looks, what can you do to change it?

Knowing where to start can be overwhelming, but there are countless resources that are available online which give advice and guidance on everything from stress to sleeping problems. You could also spend this week following a new Instagram account to get some ideas on how to better look after your mental health. Some of my favourites are MindMental Health Foundation and Time to Change, but there are many more – find one that has the right tone and content for you.

Instagram accounts, like that of the mental health charity Mind (@mindcharity), can be a great source of information and advice

You could also watch some of the programmes being screened by the BBC this week as part of their Mental Health Season, programmes which help us to realise that its normal to experience poor mental health and to better understand what its like living with a mental health problem.

But nothing beats talking. Maybe this is the week that you start a conversation with your friends, family or colleagues about your own and their mental health. You might realise that you’re not alone in the struggles you face, and that the people you thought may be quick to judge you are actually there to lend you their ear and to share their own experiences. Starting a conversation might end up with you getting the support that you need, or giving that support to someone who has needed it for far longer than anyone realised. We should be having these conversations 52 weeks of the year, but we’re not. If there was ever a time to start having them, it’s this week.

Speaking about mental health and mental health awareness in Libreria bookshop, London

A few years ago I was struggling with my mental health, and I started my own conversation with some of my friends. It wasn’t easy, but it was a first step in the right direction. And I never dreamed that that first step would lead me to where I am now. I spent last week and will also be spending this week standing at the front of a room of people, some of whom I know and some I don’t, talking about mental health and mental health awareness.

What the last few years have taught me is that talking about mental health is contagious – when one person opens up, so does everyone else. And that although that first conversation may be difficult, and you may try to talk yourself out of it for fear of being judged and ridiculed, subsequent conversations are always much easier.

So start that first conversation, open yourself up and be open to others. And together we can make the words “mental health” nothing to be scared of.

The art of walking

There’s something about walking. Something soothing, something meditative about its repetitiveness. Something simple.

When the idea to journey from London to Rome started to take shape, people asked me what my mode of transport would be. I’ve got friends who have embarked on epic overland voyages by bike and on horseback. But I’ve always felt the pull of a journey that’s entirely stripped back. A journey that involves just me and my two feet.

Hiking in Patagonia, Argentina

Walking has long been something of a kind of therapy for me. When I get into my rhythm my body moves without thought or instruction. While my body works my mind can wander – sometimes I find myself mulling over a tough decision I have to make, sometimes I daydream of memories happy or sad, and sometimes I agonise over what I’m going to cook for dinner. And then there are those magic moments when my mind quietens and I get lost in the sights, smells, and sounds of my surroundings.

As I walk to Rome I’m certain I’ll have all manner of thoughts running through my head. There will be self doubt, and the temptation to throw in the towel. There will be thoughts of relaxing in the sun on a paradisiacal beach somewhere, and a fixation on the number of days left until I reach Rome. But there will also be plenty of opportunities to assess, to reflect, and to switch off.

Life threw me some curve balls a few years ago, and I found myself in a very bleak place that I wasn’t at all familiar with. I craved the therapy of walking and felt an overwhelming urge to return to Nepal, a country that I’d fallen in love with many years before. For me Nepal has healing properties, and my hope was that a return visit would help my journey to recovery. So I embarked on a 16 day trek to Everest Base Camp, and in the world’s highest mountains I walked my way back to me.

The view of Mount Everest and various other peaks from the top of Gokyo Ri, Nepal

My walk to Rome isn’t driven by the same need for therapy and healing. It is, however, driven by the deaths of two of my friends who took their own lives last year. As I walk to Rome I’ll spend some time thinking about mental health, and plan to share those thoughts with you. Mental health awareness plays a huge part in changing the way we perceive and respond to mental health problems, and it’s something we all need to engage with.

As you track my progress to Rome, maybe you’ll feel inspired to get out on your own two feet and go for a walk. You may have a dilemma that you need to think over, you may need to get some headspace and perspective. Maybe you want to go for a walk with a friend and have a chat about your mental health. Or maybe you just need your feet to carry you to a place where you tune into the birdsong and tune out of everything else.

Happy walking…

Where it all began

It was a Sunday afternoon in London, and I found myself with nothing to do. I felt the urge to head into the city and wander its streets. On days like these when I have plenty of time and no agenda, it’s like some sort of homing beacon kicks in. I find myself gravitating to Covent Garden to wile away the hours in one of my favourite shops, Stanfords.
 
Stanfords is the world’s largest map and travel bookshop. For someone like me, it’s a treasure trove that jolts memories and inspires in equal measure. Walking its floors is akin to flicking through my passport, mulling over its many stamps and recalling travel experiences from years gone by. And my wanderlust is given space to breathe. As I browse the shelves I indulge myself, planning a lifetime of adventures in countries near and far.
Stanfords Map and Travel Bookshop

I was browsing through the Italy section, when a book caught my eye. It was a walking guide to the Via Francigena, a pilgrimage trail that runs from Canterbury to Rome. I was familiar with the Camino de Santiago, a popular pilgrimage trail that culminates in the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela. But I’d never heard of the Via Francigena.

Before I’d even picked the book up off the shelf, I knew the Via Francigena would be a journey that I’d make at some point in my life. It seemed too perfect – a trail, and adventure, linking the countries of my heritage. England and Italy.

As I thumbed through the book and made my way to the cashier, I didn’t dwell on the question of whether walking the trail was possible. I jumped straight to the question of when.