Last week I walked to Brighton on a bit of a whim. 50-odd miles later, I came away feeling so proud of my little solo adventure. It was nice to have done it just for me. I’ve jotted down some important things to know, involving snacks, beer, podcasts and falling in the sea. It’s not a guide, because I’m sure there are far more fantastic and organised ways of doing it.i
1. Anyone can do it (probably)
It’s important to have some base fitness but honestly I reckon anyone can walk 50-odd miles. It obviously can’t hurt to practice a bit though, especially in the shoes you’ll use. As a quick background: I walked this London to Brighton trip in June. Earlier in the year back in April I ran a marathon, and in May I limped another marathon with a flared-up leg injury. The leg injury that re-appeared during the walk wasn’t helpful, but having a context on what 26.2 miles can feel like was useful for my head: “If I can run this in under four hours, I can walk two of them,” I thought.
2. Limit your planning
Don’t overthink it. I casually thought about this for a week before I then did it. When – an hour before departure – I was still lying on my bed in a dress, a bit worn out from a saunter up the road to Hackney earlier in the afternoon, I wasn’t quite mentally ready. When I was walking past the London Eye, and heading into south London, I still hadn’t quite processed it. But there was a kind of joy to that. I don’t think you ever really need to be ‘ready’.
It helps to believe that there’s a limit as to how genuinely bad it can go – you’re fairly close to villages throughout the trip, even if the roads seem a bit endless at points. The most useful bit of advice I got was: “What is your motivation to walk to Brighton? If your motivation is pure and genuine then look for the strength to walk. If it is not then make a choice. Will this walk support/empower/ teach me? What would be the kindest choice for me right now? Where do I want to spend my time/energy?” If you can answer yes to that, I think that’s more than enough planning. Bear in mind that I say this as someone who’d cycled the route three or so times in the past. Walking is a different beast, but having an idea of it was helpful (though knowing how far there is to go has it’s own downsides). But it is ultimately just a walk.
3. Directions are useful
You can hastily scribble down the the cycling directions half an hour before you leave. This is one option. You could also look up a more official walking route. That’s another option, too. Be aware that there isn’t mobile signal the whole route.
4. Do it by yourself
Heck, why not. The most I met was a slightly drunk cyclist around Mordon who decided they wanted to join me for the challenge. “It’s a private challenge,” I said to him about 10 times before they cycled off home. Let the fact that you’ll be by yourself affect the route you choose though. There’s a reason I didn’t do any late night cross-country trails. Having to think for myself, without given help was a breath of fresh air and made it feel like a real adventure. There’s also a limit as to how genuinely bored of your own company you can become in 24 hours (by the time you’ve started, and the adrenaline of every little thing happening has passed, you’re essentially there).
5. Tell some pals
Always useful if you’re doing it by yourself. I told one London friend, Lucy who I cycle with a lot, and one out of town pal. Keeping it quiet was a nice thing – it felt like I was doing it for the right reasons, and made it feel less like an obligation I’d put on myself. It was nice to originally float the idea with MJ, a friend who sends me nice emails about the blog. Getting an initial reaction from him of “that sounds great, do it!” was nice, and spurred me on a little into believing in it. It was also swiftly followed up by Lucy’s comment of “sounds like it might be a bit boring.” Ultimately though, it only really matters if you think the idea’s interesting, of course. ‘The sort of adventure you’d do, without the purpose of writing about it’ Alastair Humphreys once described it as. That’s a really nice way of thinking about it, and I enjoyed feeling that.A good time to listen to your gut and see if you’ve got that feeling of fizzy gut-wiggling joy. I did.
That said, it’s always nice to have people congratulate you on being mad whilst you walk down a never ending road. It was only when I was about 20 miles in and had swooped under the M25, stopping at the first pub I’d found for a coffee and a coke, that I sent a little screengrabbed map to a group of friends. They expressed that they were delighted by the lack of death that I’d incorporated into the trip so far. Ultimately, there’s a limit to how helpful people can be from anther city but make sure someone somewhere knows.
6. Use the solstice to your advantage
If you do the walk in mid-June you really only have about 6 hours of darkness, from 9pm to 3:30/4am. It’s also less likely to rain, if British summertime is doing what it’s meant to. (I briefly got showered on by Haywards Heath, but otherwise kept dry) It’s long enough to keep the night feeling like a good adventure, but by the time you’re used to it and have scared yourself with a few woodland walks down the side of the road, the night has passed.
7. Leave in the evening
This is all about pavements. You can reasonably walk to Brighton in 24 hours; this is a time suggested by a charity that organise a fundraising challenge on this theme. It took me around 18-ish. There are, if you’re following roads, pavements all the way for the first half the of route. I left around 8:30pm, the sun set as I walked through Clapham and Tooting, and came up shortly after I’d gone under the M25.
Podcasts are your friend. Playlists are great but when you realise how little ground you’ve covered in your three and a half minute song, it can be a little disheartening. Through the night I listened to some Rich Roll podcasts, in which empowering, positive people chat about their lives and life beliefs. I specifically love the super kickass Robin Arzon talking about life (find the first here and the second here). When you’re busy getting lost around a duck pond in Mitcham at 1am, they’re really helpful (I quite like them for general life, also). Take a battery pack too, because this is a 21st century adventure.
9. Eat snacks when sulking
Is the reason you’ve suddenly starting grumbling “I don’t like this anymore” like a petulant child because you haven’t eaten in over an hour? Yes. Feed yourself snacks. That will fix this. Most of my bag was full of snacks (and a Nike Flash Jacket ready any time I might want to be easily spotted in the dark). Between copious snacks, spare layers and dungarees for splashing in the sea, I didn’t pack too light.
10. Enjoy the silence
Having a banana pitstop in a tiny village at 2am might be one of the most special moments of the trips. Worth taking out the blaring headphones for and stopping to sit on a wall, just to enjoy the complete oddness of it all. It’s also a good time to say hello to the harmless fox which has insisted on joining your adventure from the other side for the last few miles (the loose and noisy dog around corner from this point warrants some concern though).
11. Dance and sing down country lanes as the sun rises
No one is there to witness it. You are on a silly adventure and these things are important. The horses might not care for your singing, but they’ll probably be curious and come and say hello too. There’s also no shame in shouting “hello horses!” It might be tired delirium but so what.
12. Grass verges are your friends
When the pavements disappear, enjoy the thrill of leaping in and out of the nearby forestry as you avoid cars. Nail-biting fun.
When the above proves too unsafe, hitchhike. Spend some time wondering why you’ve never enjoyed this free method of transport before (a lack of gap years or and/or cross-American trips, perhaps). I hitchhiked about three miles when the pavement ran out shortly after Turner’s Hill.
14. Two meals for lunch is normal
In fact, it’s a great way to shoehorn your adventure into the conversation. “Are you hungry?” The cafe owner may ask. “I HAVE WALKED THROUGH THE NIGHT FROM LONDON TO HERE, AND I SHALL BE GOING TO BRIGHTON,” you might bellow, jamming a second quiche into your face. “MAY I HAVE A COFFEE PLEASE.” It might be hard to want to move after the carbs hit your stomach, though.
15. Enjoy a strange and overwhelming sense of pride
Even when it’s an endlessly boring road remind yourself how quietly awesome and strange this is. It’s amazing what humans can do individually, sometimes. True, it’s not putting on LiveAid or becoming the Wolf of Wall Street, but there’s something quietly brilliant about doing these sorts of things. I don’t mean that I am brilliant, I mean that the feeling of realising that you’re actually doing something that seems slightly mad to you is. For me, at the time, walking to London to Brighton was a bit of impressively baffling nonsense – sure, it’s not a 135 mile ultra marathon but y’know, have context. For me, it still sounds a bit bemusing and silly to say it out loud. Even when I was doing it, it didn’t entirely feel very real.
16. Deep life thoughts
In the run-up to having the idea I listened to an interview with a poet who walked the South West Way around Dorset and beyond. He said that often people expected him to have big, deep thoughts about life whilst he covered his huge amount of miles. Sometimes he was just bored. Part of this may involve becoming delighted by the small things you see on route, like this rad ironing shop. But expect to go in expecting to learn about the human condition. Anticipate that you might not come away as Keats.
17. Have inspiring friends
Sure, it probably helped that six weeks after my walk ten or so of my friends are all going to run an ultra marathon that’s 60 miles. Things like that put it into perspective, but it doesn’t take away from it. Don’t let it. I’d only ever cycled this route, and once that took twelve hours (although, when you’re walking at 2am you won’t tend to get stuck in much traffic).
18. The ‘walkers code’ is a real thing
When you may, or may not, briefly find yourself sitting on the floor, lost at Ditchling Common, carefully obeying rule #9 [eat when sulky], a man might appear sprouting words about the ‘walkers code’ and announce that walkers help each other out. Sure, as you look up from eating your snacks and fussing with your battery pack, you might feel like a fraudulent walker but such is life. He’ll walk you through gorgeous countryside and some fields of cows, restoring your faith in strangers.
19. Have Beer on arrival
Instead of being knackered on arrival, let the endorphins hit you like you’re about to go raving. Now is the time for deep chat on the telephone with anyone you’ve had differences with and to be greeted by long lost friends. Make sure you have said friend to greet you on arrival, especially if they harbour a fond obsession for craft beer and are both ready and willing to introduce you to their favourite bottles and spin some records. (Although really you could be drinking any beer at the rate you’ll merrily speed through them. But the touch of sophistication is nice.)
20. Ice pack
Even if you think you don’t need it, use it on any twinges.
21. Brighton day trip
Having a day out in Brighton was not the reason I went. Really, I find something fascinating about the idea of walking down to the sea and I used to live in Brighton. However, a day out was a pretty neat side effect. After a quick nap (sleep), I recommend a trip involving a breakfast at Billie’s, stroll down the pier, take a trip on the little electric Volks railway to the Marina and back (I’m turning into my Father but I think I’m cool with that), The Marwood Cafe for coffee and cake, buy some craft beer from Byson beer and then go and drink some in the super charming Scandinavian Northern Lights bar, when you realise your legs are actually tired. That’s for starters. Watch your friend fall over themselves in to the sea, too.