Walking 3000 miles for mental health

 

I had a high-stress job running a bar in London. Alcohol became a big part of my life and exercise took a back seat. I ended up burning out and having a major depressive episode.

At rock-bottom, I moved in with my mum on her houseboat in Maldon, Essex. I spent the first weeks just being ill, watching TV, feeling out of control of my life. I needed a purpose, so I started walking the dog. Each day we went a little further, until one day we walked the Blackwater and Chelmer Navigation [almost 14 miles]. By the end, the poor dog had this faraway look – it cracked me up. I realised it was the first time I had laughed in months.

Walking and nature had done so much for my mental health, I knew I needed to do more. I thought if I did a big walk, it might inspire others to recognise the positive effects of exercise and the open air. So I started researching places in Britain I’d always wanted to see – the Peaks, the Cairngorms, the Cornish coast – then I put a line around them and saw a circuit. It was something I had to do. 

I spent two months preparing, buying kit, training and telling people all about it. I wanted to reach people and raise money for the Mental Health Foundation, so from the lead-up onwards I documented my journey in a blog, sharing my posts on Facebook and photos on Instagram. 

On 27 June 2016 I set off from Brighton Pier heading west, thinking I’d get around Britain in six months – bonkers! I had a tent and sleeping bag, a few clothes, spare phone and maps – later ditched for the OS app. I was wild camping, and fortunately the weather was on my side. I could afford one proper meal a day, but mostly I snacked on dried fruit, nuts and berries.

For the first few months I felt pretty euphoric. I got lost once or twice, but had no injuries or nasty run-ins. My route took me through national trails and national parks, and I met a great community of walkers. Everyone was keen to know my story and share their own.

My early social posts were mostly funny videos to make my friends laugh, but my following built. People identified with me, related to my feelings about depression and shared their own troubles. 

When I arrived in Pembroke in October I’d had a bad day and felt knackered. I put up my tent, went to the pub and when I got back my stuff had been taken. I posted about it on Facebook, hoping it would be shared – it was. Local people rallied round, and I got everything back a few days later.

By five months in, the weather was cold, I was far from home and the novelty was wearing off. On good days I felt really lucky, but sometimes I got really down, thinking: ‘you’re 31, just walking – this whole thing’s daft’.

Then I was contacted by a casting agent from the BBC. They were planning a documentary about mental health and exercise, and asked me to join a group taking part in the London Marathon. So I took a break from the walk to train and film Mind Over Marathon. It was a real hit and put me in the public eye for a little while. By the time I returned to my walk, more people were aware of what I was doing, following my progress, even offering me a bed for the night.

Two men, heavily dressed for the cold, outdoors in a rocky and snowy valley

One special moment was my first Munro. I was camping by Loch Lomond and realised if I got up early I could climb Ben Lomond before my next day’s walking. At the summit I met a couple doing their final Munro, having spent 19 years scaling all 282. We shared a celebratory bottle of champagne at 9am!

I completed my walk this February, running the last stretch from Edinburgh. I’d been worrying about what I would to do with my life afterwards, but I find I’ve become a mental health campaigner. I’ve met Prince Harry, done a TEDx talk, started a weekly BBC radio show, and now there’s talk of a book.

When it comes to mental health, you can’t be dogmatic and say ‘this works’. Everyone’s different. But for me, walking through nature helps. Getting away from life’s pressures, escaping into a landscape thousands of years old, is amazingly calming and puts my problems into perspective.

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