The wife notes that I’m dragging my heels slightly on the way to Trumpton, as she calls it. She is right, as usual, but don’t tell her I said that. When I eventually get into the car the satnav tells me the M25 has gone wrong yet again (if it were a horse it would surely be retired) and it will take over two and a half hours. Again, the Gods of Probability seem to be taunting me, putting obstacles in my path as if to say “do you really want to keep doing this Neil?” But somehow I start the car and set off cross-country. Six weeks ago I didn’t know why I was starting this, and now I don’t know why I’m not stopping it.
Plumpton is hard to find. The satnav wants to take me down a dirt track, but I am scarred by the moment I parked the wife’s car in a copse in Monmouthshire after an over-ambitious short cut got disastrously out of control during a treasure hunt for a friend’s birthday. To this day I’m not sure how we got it back up the 1:3 slippery slope, or whether the two friendly hikers who helped are now suffering from some mud-inhalation related disease. Certainly the clutch was never the same. Or the car really. So I’ve learnt my lesson and ignore the appealing possible short cut.
When I find this Sussex outpost I discover that the course is unremarkable. There are a couple of big sheds for stands and a bar under one of them where a band start up some old favourites and punters sing along. The one exception to the usual grassroots fare is a big sign detailing a man’s route around all the racecourses. For a moment I panic that I have been usurped by a rival with big posters! On closer inspection it turns out that he has taken a slightly different and more literal interpretation of the British racecourse pilgrimage by choosing to walk between them. I am mightily impressed by his resolve, but also sneakily jealous that he is therefore avoiding the M25.
The track-suited man in question turns out to be Richard, who is replenishing his fluids with Guinness (it’s good for you, they used to say before the health and safety lot got involved) after the walk from Brighton. Although his is a far more onerous task than mine, I feel a vague comradeship and am unabashed about introducing myself. He is six racecourses into a 13-month journey, and I ask him how it’s going.
“Alright actually,” he says, shaking my hand in an instantly easy going manner, “it’s going really well but it’s about to get busy – May is going to be a big month.” How are the legs, I enquire?
“Ah, it’s all about the legs!” he agrees. “They’re alright, touch wood. I’m quietly quite relieved at how they feel, because they did 145 miles in 8 days this month. I was quite worried about that.”
As a ‘veteran’ of a chunk of the Cotswold Way I am relieved for him. I was a younger and fitter man when I did that, but had vastly underestimated the differences between running and walking and it felt like I’d broken my feet by the end of just three days.
“I did 62 miles to Taunton and at the end of that I felt surprisingly fresh.” In a day, I splutter in shock?!? “No it was three days: 27, 25 and then 10 on the final morning before racing, but it was hard yards, up in the Mendips.”
Richard’s tale is both personal and inspirational. You can read all about it at www.walkingthecourses.com where there is a link for donating to his two very worthwhile causes.
“Pancreatic cancer got £700,000 in government funding in 2013, which for a disease that kills 9000 people a year and has the same survival stats as it had 40 years ago – you’ve got less than a 1 in 4 chance of living a year, it just seems wrong,” he explains passionately, “so I want to raise more than the government.”
As he is also fundraising for Racing Welfare equally, his aim is therefore £1.4 million. This seems almost as ambitious as walking 2750 miles! But a glance at his website reveals an enormous cast list of horse racing glitterati who are supporting him. Publicity has been garnered from such notables as Channel 4 Racing and the Racing Post.
Perhaps this is what my ‘campaign manager’ Paul envisaged when he talked about “doing it properly”, and contrasts sharply with my own ramshackle affair. Even so, I have been shown generosity from good folk who have a lot of better things to do with their time, including for that matter Richard himself who should surely be having an energy bar or an ice bath rather than talking to me.
“But people in racing support people who put back into racing,” he explains when I tell him this, “the support I’ve had has been completely ridiculous.”
He looks at my schedule to see if we crossover again on our very different travels, and we make a plan to see each other At Wincanton in mid-May, before wishing each other good luck. So I’ve met John at Taunton where he was finishing his quest, and now Richard in Plumpton is just starting his. Mine is past halfway now, and I feel weary, but really have no right to be given what others are achieving.