I was hiding under the stairs when I decided to walk. I hadn’t considered walking 630 miles and climbing the equivalent of Everest nearly four times, while carrying everything we needed to survive in a rucksack on my back. I hadn’t carefully planned how we would live wild on the headlands of the South West Coast Path for nearly one hundred nights, or if we could afford to do it. But as the bailiffs hammered on the door trying to get in, it seemed like the best response. I’d just lived through the sort of week that happens to someone else. My husband, Moth, and I had lost our home of twenty years, our business and most of our possessions. Days later a doctor sat on the edge of his desk and told Moth that he had a rare neurodegenerative disease and he would die. There was no treatment, no cure; the only thing that could help at all was physiotherapy.
Unable to find anywhere to rent, we sofa-surfed as our lives spiralled into chaos and we seized the idea of physiotherapy as if it was a lifeline. In my past life, the idea of walking the whole coastline from Somerset through North Devon, Cornwall, South Devon and into Dorset, would have been irrational, irresponsible even. But as Moth threw himself into a tough exercise regimen, the idea of the walk grew. Not only as a form of extreme physio, but in the hope that by following a line on the map we might find a reason to put one foot in front of another, a way to rebuild our lives. And I desperately needed a map, something to show me the way.
Campsites were beyond our budget, so the wind-battered coastal cliffs became our home. Living wild, sleeping wild, it’s a romantic notion. But as food rapidly became our priority and each day a struggle to keep moving, those notions were quickly replaced by the realities of being homeless. Yet slowly, with every hard-earned mile, material needs began to slip away and the quietly powerful force of nature crept in. Waking in the dense fog of a wet, bracken-shrouded hillside, as light broke along the sea’s edge and the low calls of seals drifted up from the cove below, I began to let go of needs and wants. To accept that I could exist in nature without owning a part of it, and to let the wilderness in. Camped on the blocky granite cliffs near Land’s End, after a storm which had battered us in a sand-swept abrasion of horizontal rain, we were alone at the edge of the Atlantic. Just two sheets of nylon between us and Canada. We were free, free to make our own choices; to walk on or not, to give up or not. Free to choose.