How “Desk Jockey” Peter Hill Walked 5000 Miles Around the Coast of Britain

It’s true that when we read books, we travel mentally. This is exactly what happened to Peter Hill from GBcoastwalk.com but the amazing thing was he made it a reality. The moment he read a few books from previous coast walkers, he decided to take a leap and go for an adventure!

In this interview, Peter Hill shares what he learned on the road. Here are his best trekking tips, his favorite trekking gear and much more you need to know to follow in his footsteps.

Walking Peter Hill

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Peter Hill. I graduated in Geology from Newcastle University in 1985. After 28 years working in both the upstream and downstream oil industry and at the age of 50, I rather bizarrely decided to attempt to walk around the British mainland coast, clockwise, starting in Southampton. Having sat behind a desk for much of my working life, ‘early retirement’ provided the ideal opportunity to do something a little more active and certainly more than a little different.

Friends and family speculated that it was to fill a hole in my life caused by my retirement from club cricket, due to dodgy knees, and ageing eyesight (not good for wicket keeping), or the ending of the Bristol to Windsor marathon canoe race of which I was a former paddler and long-time team manager. Clearly, it could also be that I just lost the plot. I have always had a love for outdoor photography, wildlife and the sea. I now work again, from my home in rural Leicestershire, a long way from the coast.

Walking Peter Hill

Why did you decide to walk around the British mainland coast?

To be honest, I’m still not sure why I decided to do the walk. Maybe it was a need for a change of scenery and repetitive dog walks around the same muddy Leicestershire fields. Maybe it was a hidden desire for adventure. Maybe it was numerous subliminal messages from friends who had previously suggested an expedition of some sorts but never followed it through. Maybe it was just an escapist fantasy. In reality, it was probably a combination of all the above.

Over Christmas 2012, I read a few books from previous coast walkers and their inspiration fixed my mind. Over the next 12 months, the idea just grew into a driving obsession — fertilised by formulating plans, drafting routes, examining the logistics and training. The plan fitted together to be able to make a start in February 2014.

Walking Peter Hill

What was your most memorable moment during your walk?

There were dozens of jaw droppingly beautiful, highly amusing, naggingly painful and even horrendously dull moments throughout the walk, but the best were probably when I was in the wildest parts of North West Scotland.

I can’t decide whether it was arriving in the remotest village in Britain (Inverie, Knoydart) to find a welcome sign in the Tea Room window, a free lunch and a room for the night at the local pub, or whether it was sleeping in a remote bothy atop a beautiful isolated sandy beach near Cape Wrath with only a herd of Red Deer for company. Both helped make the 5,000 mile walk worth every step.

Walking Peter Hill

What was the most difficult part?

Undoubtedly, the most physical challenge was the 630-mile South West Coast Path around Dorset, Devon & Cornwall. I knew that if I could do that section then I was capable of doing the whole walk, so I started it on day 3. Though 630 miles doesn’t seem too bad, the nature of the walk is along old cliff hugging smugglers paths comprising an apparently endless trail of steep climbs and descents.

Many days I was climbing over 6,000 ft and dropping down the same each time. It didn’t help that I had broken a toe on my first day on this section. I trimmed my daily distance down to about 18 miles per day to counter the hefty ascent but it was still exceptionally hard. By the end of the section 34 days later, I had climbed nearly 150,000 ft (the equivalent of Everest x 5).

Crucially, I had a fantastic support crew of over 40 friends, family and even strangers press-ganged into looking after my roving motorhome basecamp for weekly slots. As a consequence, the planning and logistics were absolutely essential.

Walking Peter Hill

Your 5 Essential Things

With my support crew driving my roving basecamp of a motorhome, it allowed me to mostly travel light with only the remotest wilderness requiring a big rucksack and camping kit. In all instances, I tried to balance lightweight kit with durability.

Every day I carried food and snacks, 2 litres of water and some lightweight waterproofs (vital in Britain). On top, would carry a spare baselayer set, a small first aid kit and a bivvy bag for safety. But my most important extras were my GPS enabled mobile phone with a superb tracking and mapping app, a spare battery and my camera – a good quality compact one with all the features of a large SLR. I judged how good a day was by how many times I stopped to take a photograph.

Oh – and my absolute life saver were some Corn Wraps, which I put around the fourth toe on each foot. They saved many blisters and finally relieved the long-standing pain I had after breaking my toe on day three.

Walking Peter Hill

How did you finance your walk?

I financed the entire trip almost entirely myself. A few friends, local business contacts and my old work colleagues helped buy me some of the more expensive kit and boots as presents and ViewRanger gave me all the 1:25,000 premium maps I needed.

Corporate sponsors were impossible to attract. I had no celebrity value and none of them even acknowledged me, despite my attempts to raise the profile a little through the charities I was trying to support and raise money for.

Walking Peter Hill

How about shoes & clothing?

I had some truly great kit all round, the majority of which had a British label, even if it might have been made in China. Everything was based around being lightweight (if possible) and quick drying or waterproof. My principle was to use lightweight layers and I usually found the one baselayer and a windshirt plus lightweight walking trousers was enough.

My favourite bit of kit, which proved incredibly versatile was my Buffalo windshirt, which must have been worn for 95% of the trip. For boots, I wouldn’t recommend any particular label, as I think comfort and fit are the most important attributes. However, my pair of Salomon Quest 4D GTX were great for me if not the most successful in keeping the water out. I managed to completely wear out three pairs, but they were completely ruined by the time I finished with them.

My 1000 Mile socks, outlived their brand name promise very nicely.

Walking Peter Hill

On boredom and loneliness

Loneliness was rarely an issue as I usually had evening company to look forward to. There were many occasions when I wish I had company to share the view or experience I was enjoying. Boredom, however, was an issue and probably the second biggest challenge I endured. It was at its worst around the flat lands and fens of the Lincolnshire Coast or the deep estuaries of Suffolk & Essex, where a day walking 27 miles would often cover less than a mile of coast on the map. These were mind-numbingly dull.

Often, there were no views to speak of and just very little to see except mile upon mile of flat empty horizon with industrial scale farms on one side and marsh land on the other. Here the challenge was undoubtedly more mental than physical. I needed to remain sane and did so by making up bizarre stories in my head, giving myself hourly rewards (usually chocolate) and setting distant landmarks (usually a post or a hedge) as targets. These were also the times when the charity money raising and daily support crew rendezvous plans provided a very real motivational edge.

I May be Gone for Some Time by Peter Hill

Can you tell us more about your book?

Originally, I had no plans to write a book at all, as I had little faith in my ability to grapple with the complexities of English grammar. I also didn’t think that I would have the patience or dedication to produce one.

However, I had foolishly decided to write twice weekly blog illustrated with a few of my photos (www.gbcoastwalk.com). It became quite popular beyond the band of friends and family I had following my progress and people seemed to like the photos and the fact that I didn’t take myself too seriously. By the end of the trip, the blog even won a public vote award.

I wanted to combine some of my best photos and journal into a full record of the walk and hence the book ‘I May be Gone for Some Time’ was born. It was never an easy task trying to edit it myself, proof read the manuscript, pick the best 300 photographs, format the pages and then get someone to publish it. It ended up being semi self-published with a publisher taking on post production work and quality control whilst I performed the editing and contributed to the printing costs. Despite proof reading it 4 or 5 times, my editing was never going to be perfect. Hence, there are still a few little errors and spelling mistakes hidden away in the text.

However, it was very rewarding when the book then became a ‘2016 International Photography Awards‘ prize winner.

Walking Peter Hill

Any advice for others who want to follow your footsteps?

If I had any advice for others trying a similar walk, it would be to plan and prepare well. The first successful complete coast walk was in 1978 and of the 40 or so people who have now completed a similar walk the success rate looks to be about 50%. Some have tried setting off with very few plans, but their success rate has been fairly low. Some have overestimated the daily mileage they could reasonably expect to do and ended up exhausted or injured. Some have just not bought the right boots or trained properly. I knew that trying the whole walk unsupported with a full rucksack would probably kill me, so my logistics suited me. Benjamin Franklin was right in saying: “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.”

These are my ten top tips for when the walk is underway:
a. Try not to think too far ahead (5,000 miles to go is not positive thinking at day 2).
b. Always wear those perfect fit boots. Any alternative for a day won’t pay.
c. Wear multi-purpose clothing (lightweight wind and water resistant layers).
d. Get a good weather forecast EVERY DAY & learn to read the weather.
e. Moisturise the feet regularly.
f. Catch blister development early and adjust boots / socks or dress it.
g. Keep essentials easily to hand – backpack side pockets or belt pouches.
h. Look back often or you will miss 50% of the views.
i. Don’t stop when climbing a steep hill.
j. Don’t start off too fast.

Did the walk change you?

I’m not sure that the walk has changed me much at all. My family might disagree, but I think I was just lucky enough to get the opportunity to do something a little different and I grabbed it. The first 100 days or so after the walk, I found difficult to readjust and to be honest I would happily have turned around and walked the coast the other way rather than return to reality.

However, I had to pay the bills again, so work is back on the agenda. The only real difference is that I now work for myself and don’t have to bow to the vagaries and politics of working within a large organisation. I do have a real respect for adventurers who just do it without the hype and support that celebrities and “professional adventurers” seem to get. People who do silly things for their own motives not linked to fame, self-promotion and money carry far more value to me.

Walking Peter Hill

What will the future bring?

As for the future – who knows. Britain has so much to offer once you escape the cities and the drudge of daily life. The variety is incredible and hard to match anywhere in the world. I would happily do it again, but anti-clockwise this time and maybe see if I can really raise the ante and do it unsupported.

I’m running out of years to be able to do it, so it is highly unlikely, but you never know. I’m not overly inclined to look at foreign long distance trails as I don’t want fancy getting shot at, mauled by a bear or bitten by some poisonous creepy crawly – though if I’m brutally honest there are more than a few which draw my eye. Why not buy the book and watch this space.

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