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From John o’Groats to Land’s End, walking in search of wellbeing

After a tough lockdown, Big Issue vendor Richard Cotterill decided to sell everything he owned and travel the length of Britain on foot. Before he set off, he told us why.

I really struggled with the last lockdown to be honest, as anybody who finds their creativity through going places struggled. I thought, as soon as this lockdown’s over I’m going to walk from John o’Groats to Land’s End. I’ve wanted to do it for quite a few years so after being locked in a room on my own for three and a half months I thought, this is it. 

During the last lockdown I was put into a homeless hostel but most of the time I was sleeping in my car. I’ve got my tent and I can pitch that in various places. I’m finding it extremely difficult to secure any permanent accommodation. I’m from Wolverhampton but I haven’t lived there for over 30 years.

I lived in London for quite a few years, working in the City as a trainee investment analyst and then a unit trust dealer. But I had to move away from that, it just wasn’t me. I went off to Devon and drove tractors instead.

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I lived abroad for a few years then in Dorset for about eight years. I’ve been in Cornwall now for two and a half years and they try to say I don’t have a local connection. During lockdown I was getting so tired, it’s mentally fatiguing having this constant battle to be housed. It’s almost like a tactic to stop you trying. I thought, I’ll just go walking and then try privately. Hopefully the strength that I get from the walk will act as a springboard towards something a bit more permanent.

I’ve always done a lot of walking, especially long distances. I trained as a trekking guide and worked in Spain, Morocco, Nepal, France and Italy. Then over the past few years it’s been my pastime and my passion. I love it. I got back out on my pitch after lockdown, sold some magazines and managed to save up enough to pay towards this trip. I’ve sold everything I have of value, and donated the rest. I’ll have enough for about £10 a day and in my experience that’s enough. I’ll wild camp every night and you can eat really cheaply if you cook your own food. Hopefully my boots will last, if not I’ll sell some magazines along the way. The Big Issue enabled me to do it in the first place and it will enable me to complete it.

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I think it’ll take between eight and 10 weeks at my average speed, or maybe I’ll go a bit slower. I pretty much know the route I’m going to take but I can chop and change as I go along. I’ll start off at John o’Groats, there’s a track at the side of the road that goes down to Inverness. Then it’s the Great Glen Way to Fort William and if the weather’s OK I’ll go to the top of Ben Nevis. That will be my day off. The West Highland Way to Glasgow and then I’m going to head towards the Pennine Way down into Derbyshire, skirt around the west side of Birmingham towards the Cotswolds. I’ll follow the Cotswold Way down to Bath then across Dartmoor and through Cornwall. I’ll try to stick to the most beautiful route that I can. Each little opportunity that arises, I’ll take it.

This walk is about my enjoyment, my creativity and my passion but it’s also got so many health benefits. There’s a whole scientific side to it. I never understood before why I enjoyed it so much but it’s all to do with our brains. As we switch left to right, like movement of the eyes or movement of the arms, it’s very calming. By the time you finish the walk you’re ready for anything. You’ve built up so much mental strength, physical strength and emotional strength that you’re in a place of great confidence.

We all have a certain level of anxiety in us all the time. I think walking can help level things out and give us more clarity of thought. With all the lockdowns my anxiety levels did increase, which is why I decided to do such a long walk this time. It’s not my longest though, I did one once that was about 9,000km in Spain, which took me the best part of a year. I just never found I got to the point where I wanted to finish. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it was so beneficial to me.

I don’t do any social media but my customers and people who know me have my number and I’ll keep in touch with them. I think for a lot of people the initial interest is in how far you can go in a day but also they want to know how much I’m actually spending. Sometimes people get the idea that it’s really expensive but you can do it just as cheaply as if you’re living at home. 

I’m going to be doing quite a lot of writing in the evenings. There’s a particular thing I’ve been trying to complete for a few years now. It’s a book about walking that someone has asked me to write but I found out you have to get the words down while you’re actually doing it or you don’t get the full feeling. It’s about the psychology of the whole thing, how it’s quite easy to complicate some of the simplest things in life. 

The only thing that frightens me is the midges. Hills and mountains, you learn to tackle them. You just slow down. And the weather doesn’t bother me because I’ve got good waterproofs. But anything that flies and bites loves me. The thing I’m looking forward to most is the enjoyment each day of having the freedom to just walk. I’m looking forward to the reduced anxiety, which I’m still feeling from the last lockdown. Because it’s simple, it’s so refreshing. We have complicated lives and the simplicity of this is one of the biggest attractions.

Everyone who’s helped me knows who they are. The last few months have been really difficult but three people – Paul, Leona and Daniela – got me through a very dark period. I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in now if it wasn’t for the help I’ve received and The Big Issue payments when I couldn’t work. You’ll see me back on my pitch again one day but once an opportunity like this arises it would be rude to say no. 

Richard Cotterill was speaking to Sarah Reid

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