On Saturday, Caralyn and I set off on Action Challenge’s inaugural “Cotswold Way Challenge”: 100km from Bath to Cheltenham, largely following the Cotswold Way but with the sadistic addition of some extra hills.
We had pondered not turning up, given how tired we were after the London to Brighton event and not having had time to train since then. Indeed, if I had seen the elevation chart or watched the pre-event briefing video, I might have stayed at home: “Now, a big feature of this is lots of hills…2000 metres of climb. That’s double Mount Snowdon over 100 km, so it’s a big challenge this one”.
The event began in the beautiful city of Bath, right in front of the Royal Crescent: a stunning backdrop.
I used to read quite a lot of science fiction so I was pleased that my walker number was “2001”. This did not go unnoticed by one of the event volunteers and we had a rather nerdy chat about obelisks, the future of mankind etc. Before long though, it was 7am and time to start walking. As locals will know, Bath is surrounded by hills so the only way out is up.
There were some lovely views at the top of those first hills and despite the dark clouds, it didn’t actually rain.
The first section of the walk was from Bath to Tormarton, with a mid-point stop after 11km, where we were glad to take the weight off our feet and to catch up with friends Pam and Julie, who radiate humour and energy and always boost our spirits. In fact we kept bumping into them all the way through the day and night, which helped us to keep going.
For readers unfamiliar with the UK, The Cotswolds is a mainly rural area, known for its rolling hills, grasslands and golden-stone villages. Correspondingly, as the day went on, we found ourselves walking past seas of rippling grass and crops, exquisite houses, and that epitome of English sights – a cricket match.
Temperatures had risen sharply through the afternoon and when we finally reached the half-way stop at Wotton-under-Edge, we were hot, sweaty, achey and more than ready for a hot meal and a long rest. Fortunately we had moral support from faithful soigneur Michael and from Caralyn’s parents, who turned up to see us.
We didn’t feel too enthusiastic about setting out for the second half. If you look at the chart above, you’ll see that the hills were even worse in that section – and we knew that we’d be walking through the night. Sure enough, the ascent out of Wotton was absolutely punishing and we had to keep stopping for breathing breaks. How on earth would we keep going for another 50k? Just when we were feeling our most disheartened, a man walking towards us stopped short and said (in a lilting Welsh accent): “Don’t I know you? It’s Caralyn and Sally isn’t it?” It was PETE. To know who Pete is, look no further than my post on Race to the King. If you haven’t got time to do that, suffice to say that we met Pete last year, and were much entertained by his faultless recitation of Shakespeare. It turned out that he was now walking towards Wotton where he would be helping out as a “Trek master” overnight, shepherding a group of individual walkers between rest stops. We were amazed and cheered by this coincidence. Pete had time to spare so he turned round and walked part of the next section with us.
Pete knew the area well and when we came across a mysterious tower, he explained that it was a monument to the Protestant martyr, William Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English and was a key figure of the Reformation. Even those of a Catholic persuasion would have appreciated the sight of the lonely tower in the gathering dusk, the River Severn gleaming silver in the background.
Alas, it was soon time for Pete to turn back, so he bid us farewell with an enthusiastic “Once more unto the breach dear friends! Once more!” Our good mood continued for quite a while, not least while traversing a field of wheat, in a not-terribly-naughty way. I assume we were not the first people to crack Theresa May jokes that day.
By the time we reached the mid-point stop at Coaley Peak, it was almost nightfall. I would describe the view as breathtaking – except that I didn’t have much breath left after climbing up there.
If you’ve followed our adventures before, you will know what comes next. Regardless of the event and the terrain, night time means head-torches, stumbling around in pitch dark, following a trail of twinkly glowsticks, trying to avoid tripping over tree roots, feeling utterly nauseous and weary, yet trying to continue to eat and drink when you can because you must. After an initially exciting five minutes or so, night walking is a miserable experience, especially after walking all day. So it proved, as we sleep-walked on to the aptly named Painswick. We were very, very close to abandoning it at that point but the encouragement from Michael, Pam, Julie and a St John’s ambulance man was somehow enough for us to set off for the final 21kms.
A paradoxical pleasure of night-walking is that although every hour means you are more exhausted and more depleted, it is also another hour closer to daylight and to actually being able to see. So as the skies lightened, our eyes were happy, even if our bodies weren’t. Birdsong broke out as we walked through the woods and by the time we reached the hills above Cheltenham, the early sunlight turned the meadows a beautiful golden-green.
We had looked forward to the final descent as we knew it would be relatively easy walking: daylight and pavements had become sought-after luxuries. In reality, we were so exhausted that it was mainly gravity that got us down the hill and into Cheltenham. The distance between the 99km sign and the finish line seemed eternal. Then, finally, we saw El Dorado (aka Dean Close school). It had taken 23 hours, 39 minutes, but we had done it.
Along with many others who took part, we felt this was one of the hardest challenges we’ve done. It left us with blisters, bruised toenails, sunburn, insect bites and aching muscles. Yet it also left us with memories of glorious countryside, lovely people and a huge sense of achievement. On top of that, Caralyn has raised nearly £1000 for Macmillan cancer support. A big thank you to everyone who has supported us!