Before Covid, I’d spent the good part of a year planning a group hiking holiday in Britain for my oldest and dearest friends. There are family connections to the sceptered isle weaving through many of my closest social connections, so our 2019 What’s App chain was a string of Airbnb recommendations, hiking trail maps, and good-natured “which country is best?” debates among those with Scottish, Welsh, and English roots. It was all supposed to happen in the late summer of 2020 but disappeared into the pandemical abyss. Everyone else sort of moved on, but I couldn’t get over the loss of that trip. I needed to walk in Britain. If for nothing else, at least to lose a bit of that pandemic weight.
I started walking. Out my northern Ontario front door and along the tracks, trails, and woodland paths I would learn extremely well over the coming months. I signed up for one of those virtual fitness challenges you follow on Google Maps — the LEJOG, a trudge from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in northern Scotland — and I got moving. The entire length of mainland Britain, except not in Britain.
Years before the pandemic, in an optimistic act of retirement prep, my wife and I bought a small fixer-upper home on a river flowing into Lake Huron’s wild North Channel. Coming from Toronto’s hyper-inflated real estate market, the seven-hour drive was the deciding factor in that purchase. In Toronto, we were condo dwellers by economic necessity. Nowhere closer to the city would an actual house be even remotely affordable.
At the time we were gently mocked by city friends because of our home’s distance from, well, everything. Suddenly, that feature was a bonus. Luckily, the hundred-year-old place was previously fitted with high-speed internet, so when the time came for it full-time remote work was possible.
Cut to the summer of 2020. We’d quarantined and huddled in anxious concern for family and friends. We’d been through the bread-making and the bean-soaking. We’d raved and raged about how our professional lives were now owned and operated by Zoom. We’d watched our ice-bound world thaw, bloom, and become spectacularly wild and lush. That spring, we met many foxes, hawks, otters, beavers, bobcats, coyotes, and exactly one wolf and one bear. We were northerners.
Like everyone else, we missed much. Like many, we discovered there were parts of our previous life we did not mind leaving behind. My Toronto subway commute… bless you, and goodbye. For me, though, as I looked past the fear and the weird, virtually connected isolation, there was one great unresolved loss I couldn’t quite accept. I missed Britain. Desperately.
My maternal great grandparents were married near the end of the 19th century in a little church on the south bank of the Thames, in what is now bustling Battersea. A few years later, after devastating personal loss to another public health crisis (three young daughters swept away by diphtheria), they sailed to Halifax and eventually settled in Toronto. By the time I came along, generations later, the family was thoroughly North American, and our link to Britain was mostly severed. But the country still called.
In 1987, I spent a few months on a student work-abroad program living in a decrepit bedsit in Kensington, London. As such formative experiences often are, that was one of the best periods of my life. My girlfriend and I could barely make rent, yet we plunged ourselves into the cultural and political life of the city. I remember listening to an entire Peter Gabriel concert from my bathtub as he blasted out from the now dearly departed Earl’s Court Exhibition. We took in every free gallery show and church concert we could find. The Thatcher government’s third and final campaign was an intellectual and entertainment centerpiece for us as we debated, unsuccessfully, most of our neighbours. We made an early discovery of mudlarking at what was soon to be Canary Wharf, watching locals pull treasures from the Thames at low tide.
Returning to Toronto for post-graduate studies, I determined I’d move back to London as soon as I could. So much for the plans of youth. Jobs, marriages, family — in the blink of an eye, thirty years flew by, and only in 2017 did I find myself landing back on British soil. It was like I’d never left, except my crappy old flat was now a £1 million listing. Again, I promised myself I would return, and I did at least once a year until the global shutdown. It felt like my long-lost home had been snatched away from me again.
So, I walked. Every evening I measured my distance, and entered it into an app that told me where I was on my epic journey. Google Street view gave me many a delightful surprise — once I found I’d stopped smack in the middle of the Kessock Bridge, halfway across the Beauly Firth in Scotland, heading north from Inverness.
I gave myself a year to walk the island of Britain, and completed my journey with 70 days to spare. I’ve since received my medal, and am awaiting a well-deserved foot massage when the pandemic allows.
In total, I walked 1,744.2 kilometers (1084 miles), and along the way saw so much remotely, and learned so much about the land I miss. Who knew the pond called Ibsley Water was an RAF airfield for Spitfires and Hurricanes in WWII? I didn’t, until I walked past it and wondered.
A couple months into this journey, I was receiving so much encouragement on social media, I turned the walk into a fundraiser for Toronto’s Sick Kids Hospital Foundation. Hoping to raise a modest $2,000, I blew past that and the fund now stands at $3,565. It’s still active at the link above if anyone wants to celebrate my exhaustion with a donation. I’m a veteran of the special hell that involves time as a parent in a children’s hospital. I’d walk two Britains to help Sick Kids.
So, mission accomplished, at least as far as distance and fundraising are concerned. I still miss Britain, but this long virtual trudge has helped immensely. Alas, there has been no weight loss. I blame the post-walk ales south of Hadrian’s Wall, and the scotch tour I did once I crossed it.
Copyright 2021, John Degen
John Degen is a novelist and poet now living in Thessalon, northern Ontario. He works as Executive Director for The Writers’ Union of Canada, and is Chair of the International Authors Forum in the UK.