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Kristian Smith decided to walk home for Christmas in support of the Walking with the Wounded charity - from Southampton to Marlborough in Wiltshire. Here's how he got on...
The charity Walking with the Wounded raise funds for wounded servicemen and servicewomen and ‘Walking home for Christmas’ is their annual campaign encouraging people walk home for veterans who don’t have a home to walk to. I had seen a few former colleagues supporting this in 2015 and made a mental note to do the same in 2016. As a consultant I work with clients all over the country but it turned out that this year I was working with Ordnance Survey in Southampton and realised that walking home for Christmas was a realistic proposition… if I was prepared to walk all the 43 miles to Marlborough in Wiltshire.
I used OS Maps to plan my route which predicted I’d be walking for 15 hours. The route would take me through the lower part of the scenic Test Valley, skirt the eastern reaches of the ancient landscapes of Salisbury Plain and Pewsey Vale, and finally through Savernake Forest, the historic hunting ground of Henry the VIII. I would then finish at the picturesque market town of Marlborough. Sadly… I would be walking most of the route at night so wouldn’t see any of this. Also, in keeping with the tradition of an ex-Army Officer, I shouldn’t be trusted with a map, so it was going to be a miracle if I got home in time for Christmas!
The day arrived and my wife and children dropped me at work and kindly hung around for me to finish my meetings and see me set off from Ordnance Survey HQ at lunchtime. My children were keen to walk the first few steps with me knowing they wouldn’t see me until the following morning. After kissing them goodbye it wasn’t long before I was handrailing the River Test north towards Romsey leaving the buzz of Southampton and the M27 behind me. Whilst I stuck to the minor roads I had good views of the valley which only got better the further north I went.
Within a couple of hours I had walked through Romsey and was well on my way towards Mottisfont, a National Trust treasure. It’s here that I parted company with the Test and began to work my way gently uphill and out of the valley. I walked through some stunning villages and managed a quick pit stop at a great pub in Broughton where I met two colleagues who filled me up with coffee, granola and crisps! Perfect! It was then, as I started towards the Wallops that the weather which had been threatening for the last few hours, finally closed in. The wind picked up and the rain seemed to come at me from all directions. An hour later it was pitch black too.
Between villages everything was a blur. If I looked to the sky I saw the light from my headtorch reflecting off the rain which looked to me like I was on the verge of entering warp speed. Unfortunately, as I lowered my gaze, I could see hedges in my periphery moving by at a speed decidedly slower than light. This visual trickery kept me entertained for a while though the real magic was the villages that were now punctuating my walk. I know that the Wallops are beautiful in the daylight but at night, two days before Christmas, they were idyllic. The rain seemed to make their Christmas lights and baubles sparkle more intensely and the smell of wood burning fires filling the air only enhanced their festive appeal.
Just before I left the next village, Grateley, I checked my map and realised I had done over 20 miles and was nearly half way home. I had a quick cup of coffee to celebrate and as I set off again my legs and feet reminded me that another 20 miles or so was not going to be as easy. I walked under the A303 and traffic sounded heavy with people driving home for the start of their Christmas holidays and for a few moments I envied them. I put them and any negative thoughts I was having behind me as I walked past Thruxton Race circuit and continued north towards Perham Down – an Army Barracks.
Ironically this is where I first took a wrong turn. As I approached the first street lights I looked at my map and noted that I had to take a left, right and then another left to get on the right road out of the barracks. I walked past the main guardroom and then the Officers Mess and wondered what the Duty Officer was doing. Perhaps they had volunteered for the duty to let others enjoy the run up to Christmas or maybe the subaltern in question had been awarded extras for some misdemeanour or other earlier in the year? It was as I reflected on my own misdemeanours as a subaltern I realised I wasn’t seeing the roads and junctions I should be. Another map check confirmed that I should have taken a left, right and then another right and had walked half a mile down the wrong road and another half mile to get back. 2000 extra steps! I wanted to swear but didn’t have the energy.
The rain was now easing and the night was a little clearer… and cooler, and the night sky glowed orange over the garrison town of Tidworth and market town of Ludgershall. As I continued walking between these markers I came to a secondary school where many tracks were marked on the map. The school was fenced off stopping me from using these tracks though the main route I wanted was only about a mile away. I started to skirt around the school but very quickly the going became difficult. I was climbing slowly through bushes and undergrowth running along the school fence and sensed I was veering away from where I needed to be. I was tired and getting increasingly frustrated and I knew that my judgement would soon suffer. I had intended to use footpaths and tracks to take me over the hills and woods towards the pretty village of Wilton and past the Crofton Beam Engines on the Kennet on Avon Canal.
However, I had to accept that I was tired. I’d already made one navigational error and would probably make more and the last 15 miles would quickly turn to 20. Also, the going on the wet slippery and occasionally steep footpaths would slow my progress significantly. Even if I didn’t get lost I’d need to accept the last few miles will take all night to complete.
"Between villages everything was a blur. If I looked to the sky I saw the light from my headtorch reflecting off the rain which looked to me like I was on the verge of entering warp speed."
I decided to change my route home and follow the main roads back to Marlborough. I know the roads well so there was no risk of getting lost and whilst the tarmac was hard on my feet I would be able to maintain a good pace. The main risk was going to be the traffic but I reckoned that it wouldn’t be long before the volume would decrease and I hoped I still had enough spring in my legs to leap into a verge if needs be… besides, I was also lit up like a Christmas tree! I let my wife know and after putting the children to bed, she set out to meet me (my mother-in-law was kindly babysitting). My wife found me as I was closed in on Collingbourne Kingston. We sat in our car drinking coffee and eating fish and chips as I recounted my walk so far. When I got out again my legs had all but seized up. I started walking like I’d just been run over. Step by step I loosened up and walked out of Collingbourne Kingston and through Collingbourne Ducis.
The next few miles were possibly the hardest. As I walked I watched pairs of headlights come and go trying to make sure the driver has seen my headtorch. My tender feet pounded over the rolling roads across the eastern edge of Salisbury Plain and all the time I wished that Burbage, the next village, was still my home. We moved out of Burbage two years earlier but I was pleasantly distracted with memories as I walked past the house my wife and I first owned and started a family in. I wondered if I’d bump into anyone I knew but I didn’t of course… they were all in the pub!
North of Burbage I re-joined the main road as it crossed the railway line and Kennet and Avon Canal. Two transport routes from different eras running side by side east to west connecting London to the West of England. I began to think of the ‘Devizes to Westminster’ which I’d done twice before. This is a 125 mile non-stop canoe marathon from the small town of Devizes in Wiltshire to Westminster Bridge which was possibly one of the hardest things I’d ever done.
These are my thoughts as I cross the canal and head into Savernake Forest. I love this forest. I run in it. Walk my dogs in it. Camp in it. I’ve even done an Easter Egg hunt in it. Tonight… I could barely see it. The forest is thick and the tree canopy blocked any ambient light though the sweat in my eyes didn’t help as I struggled up the hill. I was shattered and perhaps a little delirious though also happy to finally be in familiar territory and nearly home. For the next hour every rise was a false summit and every dip a valley. The forest seemed to go on forever but then I saw the sign to the Postern Hill campsite and knew I had less than a mile to go. Gingerly I walked down the last hill into Marlborough and just after midnight, 12hrs 30 minutes later, I had walked home for Christmas.