As a teenager, I always loved walking and secretly longed to go off backpacking, to explore pastures new and exciting. Unfortunately, my friends were more interested in fashion, boys and nightclubs, and it never occurred to me to find others with similar outdoor interests.
Walking on quiet country lanes in the Black Mountains, South Wales
Fast forward several decades and I thought I’d left it too late. I was still fit and healthy – I run regularly – but I was a grandmother of two who had become rather too attached to my home comforts (particularly my eye makeup and heated rollers).
Yet life has a strange way of throwing the unexpected at you. When I met my partner in 2006, he told me he’d always wanted to walk the length of Wales
For two years, we attempted to walk the 291-mile Cambrian Way, a challenging high-level route through the wildest parts of Wales; however, the frequently difficult terrain, travelling to and fro, and lack of public transport meant we were often restricted to circular walks, making our progress slow and tedious.
Eventually we came to the conclusion that if we wanted to walk from north to south Wales, we had no alternative but to do it in one continuous hiking trip... in other words to backpack. By now, Harri had also devised his own, longer route.
Now, if I tell you that I hate rain, mud and camping, you might wonder how I got myself roped into this epic 364-mile hike ... how indeed!
We agreed it would be a good idea to try a short long-distance hike first, a bit of a ‘reccie’ if you like. Not wanting to try anything too ambitious, we arranged to walk the stretch of coastline from Chepstow to Minehead, linking up the end of the Wales Coast Path with the beginning of the South West Coast Path.
Harri was busy with his editing work to calculate daily walking distances so he put me in charge of ‘measuring’ them. Thus we booked over overnight accommodation based on Google map driving distances – some days walking 30 miles against the wind.
My new ‘lightweight’ rucksack was now so heavy I could barely lift it and a bad shoe/sock combination on our first day resulted in five spectacular and agonising blisters on my little toes. We rolled up to our hotels after 9pm and spent one memorable night camping next to the perimeter fence of Hinkley Point Power Station under the instruction (and surveillance) of security staff
Never again, I wailed as we caught our train back to South Wales. Yet I must have caught the backpacking bug because a month later, with my 53rd birthday looming and my rucksack once more stuffed to capacity, I set off to walk from one end of Wales to the other.
Stopping for a rest at the Kymin, Monmouth
Harri has called his route ‘O Fôn i Fynwy’ after the traditional Welsh expression which literally means from c but is also used figuratively to mean the whole of Wales, in the same way that ‘From Malin to Mizen’ is used in Ireland.
We caught a train to Holyhead on Anglesey and followed the coast path eastwards, eventually rejoining the mainland at Bangor. At first, every part of our bodies ached, yet somehow we kept going and were rewarded with some of the most stunning scenery Wales has to offer including Snowdonia National Park, the Cambrian Mountains, the Brecon Beacons National Park and the Wye Valley.
There was a sleepless night camped on a Bronze Age settlement in the Carneddau, meltdown in Llandovery (just me!), the hunt for a long-lost friend in Beddgelert and karaoke in Brecon
We dined on dried bread and stale cheese, staggered into campsites after dark and splashed through flooded riverside paths; at times I wondered why I hadn’t insisted on that Mediterranean cruise.
At various times we were exhausted, exhilarated, ravenous, thirsty, sunburnt, drenched, bitten (by mozzies), bedazzled and bewildered and lost. Day by day, my fitness improved and when we reached the Brecon Beacons I walked to the summit of Pen y Fan (the highest peak) without stopping once.
We completed our epic hike in 22 days and I lost 8lbs without even trying.
Sheltering from the sun in the Algarve hills
That first backpacking trip ignited a long-buried passion for long-distance hiking. We have since walked the Algarve Way in Portugal and have just returned from walking a section of the GR92 from the French border to just north of Barcelona. I am writing books about both experiences.
We no longer carry a tent, but rely on last minute bookings in local hotels. This gives us the freedom to walk as far as we want each day. I’m 55 in a month’s time and my bucket list is full of long-distance hikes I want to do, like walking the coastlines of Spain and Portugal.
I’m living proof that you really are never too old to backpack!
Comparing marathon medals with my daughter and training partner Elinor. - Yes I run marathons too!
‘Never too old to backpack’’ by Tracy Burton and ‘O Fôn i Fynwy: Walking Wales from end to end’ by Harri Garrod Roberts are available from Amazon’s Kindle Store as ebooks. Please click on book titles to take you to Amazon.