Walking from Bath to Cambridge

I recently walked and ran from my house near Bath, to Cambridge (to start my final year at uni), a distance of around 160 miles over 4 days.

Before starting, I did not feel in top form because I’d just got back from a month away in Singapore and Malaysia, where I didn’t do any exercise. However, I had decided that I definitely wanted to run to Cambridge at some point, and the only other opportunity would be at the start of the summer term (the start of the spring term would be too dark and miserable). Therefore, if I left it until the summer and ended up being injured at that time, there would be no other opportunities.

Although I was planning to do the run anyway, I thought I might as well raise money for a charity. I’ve been obsessed with beavers for some time, after first reading about their incredible ecological impacts, and in the easter holiday visiting a beaver swamp in Devon, which was probably the most incredible wildlife site I have ever visited in the UK. About a week before the start of the run, I found out about the Beaver Trust on facebook, and decided that, since they were a brand new charity specifically about beavers, this was too good an opportunity to miss. I set up a fund-raising page, packed my stuff for the term in Cambridge (my dad drove it there after I had arrived), and left 4 days after committing to doing it.

The kit I took with me – sleeping bag, sleeping mat, bivvy bag, jumper, waterproof, water bottles, head torch, compass, chlorine tablets, battery pack, cable, first aid kit, wallet, snacks.

The route was broken into 3 convenient sections. Firstly, the Kennet and Avon canal could take me all the way from Bath to Newbury, a distance of about 57 miles. After that, there would be about 15 miles of roads and footpaths to connect to the Ridgeway, a long distance trail. This would take me about 45 miles to within a few miles of Luton and from there it was another 38 miles to Cambridge, again along a mixture of roads and footpaths. My ambitious plan was to complete this in 3 days – day 1 along the canal, day 2 the connecting bit and most of the ridgeway, and day 3 the last few miles of the ridgeway and the final trek to Cambridge. More realistically, I was confident that if I could nail the canal on day 1, then I could easily finish it in 4 days (you can easily cover 33 miles a day by just walking).

The first part of the route – (almost) the length of the Kennet and Avon canal

The first half of day 1 was pretty nice. I was running at about 6-7 miles per hour, stopping about every 2 hours to have a drink or eat a cereal bar. After “lunchtime” (which, because I didn’t feel hungry, didn’t actually involve any more food than another cereal bar), I alternated between walking and jogging. At around 6pm, I asked someone how far it was to Newbury, and he said 6 miles. This made me feel great, so I speeded up and decided to push on and wait to get some proper food once I arrived. However, this must have been a mistake, because after a few hours I had still not arrived. Looking at google maps, I reckon he must have meant 16 miles. By the time I arrived, I was only walking, with huge blisters around the base of my toes, and very hungry and tired. I also realised that I had only sat down once all day. I found a pub in Newbury that had a special meal deal to share between 2 people, and ordered one just for myself. Unfortunately, I was so tired that I couldn’t eat most of it, so packed it into a box and left to find somewhere to sleep. It was around 11pm by the time I fell asleep in some bushes in a park next to a road, and I didn’t sleep well due to the noise of the traffic.

A massive meal on the first night, after only eating a few cereal bars all day.

The next morning, it was painful to move my legs to get out of the sleeping bag, and walking through Newbury I was overtaken by an old granny. I decided to ditch any idea of going on nice footpaths and take the most direct route along the road to Goring, where I would pick up the ridgeway. This was only about 15 miles, but took me around 6 hours. The blisters were a big problem. With blisters around the front of your foot, you automatically put your weight on the outside edge of your foot, however, this can shift the problem to the muscles in your leg and ankle. The solution is to pop the blisters so that the fluid can drain out (I did it with my teeth to ensure that the hole was big enough to not seal up again), and focus on pressing the blisters into the ground and feeling the pain every time you step, so that you are pushing off the ground normally with your forefoot and toes. In the short term this is more painful but compared to hurting your legs and ankles (which could actually prevent you from completing the challenge) the blister pain doesn’t matter that much. A side effect is that the socks I wore for the whole trip were soaked in slimy pus by the end.

Good advice for covering long distances

After getting some cheese toasties for lunch and buying some mars bars and energy drinks, I spent the afternoon navigating quite inefficiently to join the Ridgeway path. Having finally reached it at around 6:30, I was feeling pretty tired, but I still had at least 2 hours left to fill my allocated time of at least 12 hours a day on the move (it seems excessive to spend 12 hours not moving when there is basically nothing else to do apart from move, eat, and sleep, and you only need about 8 hours of sleep). I set a timer on my phone for 3 hours, put my head torch on, and jogged and power walked along the trail. The terrain was gently undulating and it was more peaceful and easier to focus in the dark. I think that, although sticking to main roads might seem like the quickest option, running along trails can actually be quicker, because the variation in topography, scenery, and surface underfoot can keep you motivated (and also make it easier on the blisters). Although the scenery was quite picturesque, one thing I didn’t like was the absolutely vast numbers of pheasants in this area. People who support pheasant shooting often argue that the management associated with it can benefit other wildlife, but I increasingly feel that this is mostly rubbish. When there are such crazily high densities of pheasants (according to one estimate, there is almost one pheasant released every year for each person in the UK) the devastation they cause to invertebrate populations (the food source for so much wildlife higher up the food chain) is probably immense. In addition, releasing pheasants (and some of them getting run over) is like handing out free food parcels for foxes, crows, and buzzards, so could well be artificially inflating the populations of these predators, which in turn reduces the populations of songbirds and small mammals, the very species which the game shooting community often claims to be protecting. As for habitat creation, most of the cover crops for pheasants just consists of blocks of maize at the edges of arable fields, which is pretty crap for wildlife. The hedges in these places are no less trashed than everywhere else.

Anyway, after a few hours of jogging and power walking through the dark my hands and mouth felt weirdly fuzzy and I couldn’t always walk in a straight line, so I kept a look out for any dry places to sleep. When I reached the M40 motorway, the track passed under it through a tunnel, which was perfectly dry. Compared to the previous night’s accommodation, this was luxury! It was calming to feel like I was in the middle of nowhere (in reality I was only about 2 miles from the nearest town), but the downside of this was that I didn’t find anywhere to eat, so only had some peanuts and a mars bar for dinner.

Luxury accommodation under the motorway

The next morning I downed an energy drink and, after my blisters had numbed down, managed to jog for about 2 hours (in which I covered about 10 miles). At around 11am I ate 2 cheese toasties and bought a few more mars bars and energy drinks, then continued running. Cruising along the trail through woodlands and chalk grasslands, and up and down gentle hills, it was, for the first time in this journey, actually enjoyable. For a couple of hours I tagged along with 2 other runners who looked like they were training for an ultramarathon. However, after they went home, I realised that we had left the main path that I was supposed to be on. I then spent about 2 hours walking through the woods trying to rejoin it, and, when there was only a few hours of daylight left, I decided to ditch finding the trail and take the most direct route along a main road to Luton. Fuelled by another energy drink, I managed to properly run about 6 miles. However, the tendons on the front of my ankles seized up, so I had to walk and limp the last 7-8 miles into Luton. I bought some bread, milk, nuts, and fruit, and went to sleep in an overgrown area of a park. Nestled in some long grass, looking up at the stars, and further from the noise of traffic than I had been on the past two nights, it was very peaceful. Today had been the best day of the journey.

The next morning the tendons on the front of my ankles were incredibly painful whenever I moved my feet, and it was a struggle to get out of my sleeping bag and start walking. I decided that, in order to not do any serious damage, I would not try running today, and would stick to the shortest possible route along the main roads. It was only 38 miles to Cambridge, so I was confident that I could walk this in a day. Taking an extra day would make the overall finishing time of 5 days sound pretty rubbish, so I was determined to simply continue walking until I got there. In the end, it took 16 hours, the last 4 of them in the dark and the rain. For most of the time I was limping because of the pain in my ankles. Taking ibuprofens did make a big difference (or maybe its just the placebo effect), so at some points I could walk fairly normally. I walked past some huge fields covered with solar panels. Because solar panels are very inefficient, this made me wonder whether restoring woodland on this land, rather than covering fields in solar panels, could actually sequester more carbon than the reduction in emissions from using solar panels instead of burning fossil fuels. (I’ve tried some rough calculations but am not sure what the answer would be). The last 10 miles seemed to take forever. My pace slowed down as I got closer to Cambridge, as if I would get infinitely closer but never actually reach it. Reaching the edge of the city, I felt like I was almost there, but it still took an hour or more to walk into the centre. Even when I could actually see the end a few hundred metres away, I couldn’t celebrate, because it would still take a few minutes in the cold and rain to cover that distance. I arrived at 11pm, had an amazing shower, ate some porridge, and went to sleep feeling incredibly happy. 

Here is a breakdown of how far I covered on each day, according to google maps. Estimates for days 2 and 3 are very approximate, because google maps cannot recognise the Ridgeway trail, so I had to drag the route to the nearest roads. I didn’t do any proper training for this challenge, so I’m sure someone else could do it much faster.

Day 1 – 57 miles, 1000 ft ascent, 14 hrs

Day 2 – 30 miles, 1600 ft ascent, 12 hrs

Day 3 – 36 miles, 2200 ft ascent, 11 hrs

Day 4 – 38 miles, 900 ft ascent, 16 hrs

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