4,000 Miles Across Europe – on Foot: Interview with Paul Webster
In 2002, Paul Webster set off with his wife Helen on an epic 4,000 mile walk from Spain to Turkey. Years later, Paul is reliving the journey on his blog, The Big Walk, which also raises funds for an environmental charity.
TravelBlogs exchanged emails with Paul and learned more about the walk and the impact it had on his and Helen’s lives.
What was the hardest thing about doing the trip?
There were quite a lot of days where odd things went wrong, we had a fright or unexpected problems, but it wasn’t really the immediate things that are the toughest to deal with as you don’t get a chance to worry about them in advance. The hardest part was trying to keep motivation going during the worst parts of the winter. It rained non-stop for days in parts of Italy and Greece; there were no hotels or campsites and we took to putting the tent up hidden behind roadside hedges and even beside graveyards. Obviously it also got dark very early so we spent alot of time in the soggy tent; our stove had failed at this point so our evenings were spent munching on cheese and biscuits in a chilly sleeping bag, with the fear of being discovered by passers-by. It’s when you get a few back-to-back days like this that you can lose the ability to imagine things improving, but there was always some surprise occurrence or kindness when least expected to turn things around.
You made the walk with your wife. Do you think this is the kind of trip you really need to do with someone?
I think it’s actually more usual to do this sort of walk on your own. The inspiration for our trip was Nick Crane’s book Clear Waters Rising, though we took a much easier route than Nick’s. He had done his walk on his own although he had only recently got married. Possibly you need a certain streak of insanity in your nature to want to do a trip like this at all and few people have a partner who’d be mad enough to want to do it too. Certainly you need to be sure of the strength of your relationship – you’d never spend so much time continually with one person in ordinary life. When things go wrong it can be very difficult not to take some of it out on your partner.
How much did you carry with you?
Although we did have a tent, stove, sleeping bag and one change of clothes each, we’d spent alot of time beforehand researching the lightest gear; without water or food we were carrying only about 16 kilos between us which is less than I carried on day-walks when I was younger! This was pretty essential as I sometimes carried upto five litres of water in the summer heat. Before doing the walk I thought carrying the backpacks would become a real chore but it never did – it just came to seem natural.
I’m interested that you started this blog now, years after you actually did the walk. Why now?
Like many people going travelling, on my return I wanted to write a book. Motivation for this began to wane as I realised that chances of finding a publisher are slim, but blogging gives us all a chance to write about our experiences without the fear of being rejected by publishers!
Did you write extensive notes when you were doing the walk?
The walk made us realise that material things mean much less to our happiness than we realised
I kept a journal which I wrote up every night. During the walk we actually found we had amazing recall of everything that happened. At one point we were pinned down in the tent during a fierce storm, and to pass the time we discussed the walk to that point day-by-day in our heads, and were amazed to find that we could both remember the details of every single meal we had eaten for the previous 300 days. During everyday life I can’t remember what I was up to a couple of days ago or sometimes what I had for a meal last night; I suppose a continuous journey gives your mind a structure by which to remember things. However total recall didn’t last and I’m now glad of the journal to trigger my memory.
You also have another website called Walk Highlands, which is dedicated to hiking in Scotland. What is it about travelling on foot that you love so much?
Although we both went back to our conventional careers on our return, we found that our outlook on life really had changed and began looking around to do something different – our feet were still on the go under our office desks! The walk made us realise that material things mean much less to our happiness than we realised, so we began looking around for a different type of life where our earnings might be minimal but we could concentrate on doing things we enjoy. We’ve always been keen hikers and have had a real passion for the Scottish Highlands, so we moved to the region and set up www.walkhighlands.co.uk, a hikers guide to the region. It takes small adverts from bed and breakfasts and other accommodation businesses and is now how we make our living.
So your walk really initiated quite a change in your life. Did you expect it would have such a big impact on your life?
It’s almost a cliche that undertaking a journey like this will be a life-changing experience. To be honest, when we were planning the walk, I think we were so excited about the whole thing that we weren’t really thinking beyond it. It was such a long way to try to walk, and I had no idea whether we would make it, but at that time, doing the walk itself was as far as the future went. A few months into the trip we met a guy who had been travelling on foot for seven years and had made it his way of life – it was at that point that we began to really think about what our future could be.
Do you have any other big walks planned?
Completing Walk Highlands is going to take us at least another year; then we are going to begin exploring the other Scottish islands, so no definite plans and it’s lots and lots of short trips for us now rather than one epic. I can’t rule it out though – it really was the time of my life!
Relive Paul’s journey on his blog, The Big Walk.