160 miles on Slow Ways, to the house where he was born
In autumn 2022, Steve and Sandra walked from their home in Buckinghamshire to their former homes in Birmingham and Wolverhampton using Slow Ways, in order to raise money for ActionforXP, a charity that offers support and guidance to those affected by the ultra-rare DNA repair disorder, Xeroderma Pigmentosum. Find out about how they planned the trip, who they met, and how Steve got stuck like an upside-down tortoise!
Tell us about your journey: what inspired your home to home walk?
Steve: It was Sandra’s idea really, to mark our retirement from the XPSG (Xeroderma Pigmentosum Support Group) by doing something a bit out of the ordinary and to raise funds at the same time. We wanted to explore parts of the Chilterns and Cotswolds which we had driven through hundreds of times without stopping.
Can you tell us a bit about the XP Support Group?
After our son Alex was diagnosed with Xeroderma Pigmentosum (XP) in 1998, all we really knew was he had to be fully protected from UV light, as his skin is unable to repair the damage done by sunlight and would become cancerous over time.
We struggled to find out more about the condition and how best to live with it, and we set up the XP Support Group in 1999 to help share this information with other patients and their families. Since XP has health implications for much more than just the skin, patients normally need to see a number of other specialists, such as neurologists, ophthalmologists, etc. Setting up consultations with all these people could be difficult, time-consuming, and expensive for people who don’t live in a major city. I think our single most significant achievement therefore was working with St Thomas’ Hospital London to establish a multi-disciplinary clinic where patients could see all the relevant specialists in one day including, if necessary, having minor surgical procedures to remove melanomas.
In 2019, the XP clinic team won the British Association of Dermatologists’ Team of The Year award, which was a great achievement.
How did you go about planning the itinerary for the journey?
Having blocked three weeks out of our diaries (that in itself was a challenge!), I used the Slow Ways website to look at possible routes from Prestwood to Wolverhampton via Birmingham. I did originally think about simply following the Grand Union Canal, as we live very close to one of its feeder canals, but we both felt that a varied route would be more interesting.
Having pulled together a Slow Ways waylist for the proposed route, I then looked to see if accommodation was available for all of the overnight stops. I had to shift our start date by one day to achieve this, and then I booked all of the rooms during one busy afternoon to ensure availability didn’t change! The final element of planning was to see if a convenient pub was open for lunch each day and, if not, to check where we could buy items for a picnic.
Having reviewed the final detailed itinerary, one friend described it as a 160-mile pub crawl!
Sandra and I did a one-week walk in Norfolk in September 2021, as a sort of practice for the longer home-to-home walk. A big lesson learned was to be more ruthless with non-essentials in our rucksacks; we also learned we did not enjoy walking in temperatures over 30 degrees!
Did you and Sandra have any interesting encounters while walking? Who did you meet?
We met a lot of interesting people along the way, from people on narrowboats when we were walking along towpaths, to an American couple from Philadelphia walking from Stratford-upon-Avon to Burford. They were on a rather more upmarket trip, as their belongings were being transported for them from hotel to hotel! While enjoying a picnic lunch near Stratford, we met a Swedish musician who specialised in playing period stringed instruments, e.g. 18th century violin. He had recently played at Symphony Hall, Birmingham, and was having a couple of days relaxing in the English countryside before his next concert in Prague. And no, he did not perform for us as he wasn’t carrying his violin with him!
What was your favourite part of the journey?
Obviously it was very satisfying to reach the end! Curiously enough, the last part of the route into Wolverhampton along the old industrial Birmingham canal was where we saw the most wildlife, with many herons, geese, etcetera. It was good to have friends and relatives joining us for some legs, as it meant walking never became tedious or boring. If I had to name just one highlight, it would be visiting the house where I was born in Birmingham.
You used Slow Ways routes on your home-to-home walk. What was your favourite route and why?
That’s difficult: Hooded one was really excellent, and not just because it concluded at the Hook Norton brewery! It passed through some lovely Cotswolds villages, was easy to follow, and had nice scenery for the whole route.
My personal favourite was the Ardley to Deddington stretch of Dedbic one. As I said in my review, this was very much a route of two halves; the route between Bicester and Ardley included a footpath parallel to the M40, which was noisy and dirty. The other section from Ardley on to Deddington was a complete contrast: rural, interesting, varied, and very scenic.
What were some of the more memorable places that you stayed and meals that you ate?
We stayed in Stratford-upon-Avon on our wedding anniversary, and marked the occasion with a meal at the Michelin-starred ‘Salt’ restaurant. A couple of days later we ate at Purnell’s in Birmingham, which is also Michelin-starred. Both of those meals were really excellent, though of course rather expensive. By contrast in Oldbury we ate at a Wetherspoons inn, where beer was under £2 a pint, and food simple but still tasty. We never had a bad meal during the whole trip.
What were some of the challenges of the journey?
Surprisingly few, really. The last thing we bought before setting off from home were blister plasters, but after 160 miles we never used any of them. Fairly early in the walk I slipped off a narrow, greasy footbridge, and fell on my back into a ditch full of nettles & thistles. I didn’t hurt myself, and was more concerned Sandra might bust a gut laughing at me lying there like an upside tortoise, with my arms & legs wiggling as I couldn’t get up due to the weight of the rucksack!
How did you feel when you arrived at your old home?
When we arrived at the house in Birmingham where I lived until leaving to go to university, we took a few photos outside and then rang the doorbell. When it was answered, I pointed to the front bedroom upstairs and said I had been born in that room. We were invited in and had a wonderful chat with the current occupants, and were able to indicate which features of the house and garden I remembered.
Do you have more journeys planned?
We’re still catching up on trips that were booked before covid, so have quite a few things in our diaries right now. This includes Peru and Bolivia, Amsterdam, Antarctica, and Boston. We have also bought three-month Interrail passes which we intend to use next spring. Apart from that it’s pretty quiet.
We do intend to make another Slow Ways waylist, taking the train to one location, spending a week or so walking to somewhere different, and taking the train back home from there. But it’s just at the contemplation stage right now.
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Like the idea of a longer Slow Ways journey? Read Ingrina’s guide to multi-day walks here
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