Put your body to the test, learn what you can do now. These are the words I have been repeating to myself. Diving in without knowing my capabilities is going to end in the minor disaster of an injury, or worse; not finishing. My Gran tells me she can walk eight miles in a day. The theory is I am still young and should be able to match her efforts through the simple fact of being in my prime. Maybe she’s still in hers? I have to make it a challenge. The south coast won’t just be about distance, cliffs rise and fall. I need at least eight miles with a fair ascent over the distance. The Box Hill hike should be the perfect testing ground. I’ve been there once before. Straight up, a quick stroll around the top and back down again. I mean straight as well, some of the hills are almost vertical.
I wasn’t putting only my body to the test. My house mate Matt and our pal Charlie were joining me. Both came dressed as dads from different generations and I was their surrogate child for the day. I’d made lunch to give me an excuse to carry some sort of weight and keep up the pretence that I am trying to save money. The weather was supposed to be fair and for once we all had suitable footwear. Preparation, as they say, is key. Matt and I drove into Dorking to pick up Charlie. Who’d have thought a place with a name like that would look nice? There was still snow on the peaks, the shaded corners of fields remained under a blanket of white. The Surrey Hills are recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and it’s easy to see why. Who doesn’t love a viewpoint overlooking the rolling hills, farmland and pretty little villages with ridiculous names? Abinger Hammer sounds more like a washed up Scandinavian detective who’s got one last case to save their job than somewhere to stop for a cucumber sandwich and a spot of cricket.
The National Trust provide not to scale maps showing most of the footpaths that cross the gentle peaks. There are helpful posts marked with coloured arrows to help you out. Of course you can ignore all of this, make your own decisions and include additional and completely unnecessary ascents just to go back down and straight back up the other side. Climbing the steep hills isn’t easy, with plenty of giant steps cut into some of them I was starting to regret owning such little legs. Fortunately Matt and Charlie were having similar issues. The day was made on one of the slippery paths that dropped into a valley, Charlie got himself stuck. Both sides of his route seemed ready to give way under the slightest of touches and help him find the fastest way to the bottom. Rather than offer any assistance as he debated which move to make next, I stopped above him to laugh.
Comic relief aside, the long flat stretches of the valley floors and the straights tracing the summits were an opportunity to recover from the ups and downs. At the tops there are various lookouts providing spectacular views across the countryside, making the whole journey feel a little bit more worthwhile. Even under grey skies, the wind blowing almost freezing rain into your face. So much for the weather. Genial conversation between us, being outdoors, actually achieving something. The inclement weather added a layer of authenticity to the experience, we were not just fair-weather hikers. It wasn’t until we’d completed the final descent that I felt any discomfort. My legs were ready to mutiny during the home straight along the road to the car. They weren’t the only ones who’d had enough.
The Purbeck Heritage Coast is going to consist of daily highs and lows along the chalk cliffs. The morning after a day on the trail, convincing the legs to move one in front of the other is going to be tough. However, those eight miles were achievable, almost easy. Albeit without much weight on my back, the daily mileage along the coast is within my capabilities. The more serious I’ve started to become about walking those 50 miles, the more I find reasons for caution. The closing miles of my itinerary are across the beaches of Studland. Sounds idyllic, right? Waves lapping on the shore, the soft, warm sand crunching under foot. Have you ever tried to walk on sand? At the end five-zero miles, at least a few nights under canvass and probably feeling malnutritioned. I’m picturing me on the home straight as some disturbing sloth-tortoise hybrid, dragging my exhausted body across the sand. At least I’m now more confident of making it that far.
I’m excited to have the sea to my right, the hills spilling away to my left. But what if the wind gets up, with all that weight on my back will I be top heavy enough to launch into the open air like a kite? This is perhaps my only irrational fear. The rest are limited to expecting it to rain and for me to have a miserable time of it. This is Britain after all. Not all of my anticipation is negative. I love solitude and the idea of accomplishing a physical test of my strength. I long to be out in the world, breathing the salty air, marvelling at the sea’s infinite power against the land. There are few things like the great outdoors to remind you that by and large, things are OK.