This piece was originally published in 2021. Chris, Kate and their son Magnus are trekking along on the final stretch of their walk. Find out more about the family’s story by listening to the podcast below
By August 2017, I’d been suffering from depression for a while and felt utterly lost and trapped inside my own mind.
I was 37 years old and at this stage, the downhill trajectory that I’d found myself on made me feel like I had really hit rock bottom.
I became extremely insular, often shutting myself away from people for weeks at a time and soon got to a stage where I barely recognised myself. The situation had exacerbated to a point where I knew that if I didn’t do something drastic, things would spiral out of control.
After what was my only escape – a surf – I realised that I did not want to return home back to the life that I’d been leading for so many years.
So I set off from my hometown, Swansea, on a mission to walk the entire coastline of the UK – including all its islands.
It was a spur of the moment decision: I left with just £10 in my pocket, two days’ worth of rations, a broken tent and a borrowed pair of walking boots that didn’t fit properly. The day I left, a completely broken man, I had absolutely no idea what lay ahead or if this was even possible.
Four and a half years later, soon to arrive in London and with around 10 months of my journey left to go, I would never have dreamt just how magical this journey would have become.
Not only will I be crossing the finish line with a beloved adopted dog, a beautiful girlfriend I met along the way and the support of over 130,000 followers on social media, we also now know that we shall be crossing the line with a baby.
My aim was to leave all my troubles behind and I promised myself I would return home a happy man, something I have accomplished.
I decided that I also wanted to do this walk to raise money and awareness for the veterans’ charity, Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association (SSAFA) who had helped me during my troubles when I felt really stuck and hopeless, trapped at home suffering with anxiety and depression.
I remember the day I set off like it was yesterday. I felt I’d finally been freed from the shackles of everyday life and for the first time in a long time, I felt so uplifted and liberated that I was able to do something for myself.
The first six months – where I headed north from Llangennith Beach in Swansea, completing Wales and the west coast of England going up into Scotland – were extremely difficult; I had no money and was continuously losing weight but something inside me just told me to keep going as I knew I had nothing to go back to and I was determined to complete what I had started.
When I first started, I wasn’t experienced enough to forage, but at times, I was lucky enough to bump into someone who would see my T-shirt – which said ‘Walking the UK Coastline for SSAFA’ – and offer a bacon roll or some form of sustenance.
Because of my weight loss, my body grew quickly accustomed to being able to sustain itself on very little, but I knew this could only go on for so long, something that spurred on my need to learn how to forage.
I spent my first winter – about seven months in – on the coast of Northern Ireland and South West Scotland. In a place called Workington, I met a man called Kevin who was the owner of a recycling company. On hearing what I was doing, he took me in and splashed out using his own money on a sleeping bag for me and various other pieces of kit that would make life easier for me as I went into Scotland.
This was a game changer from all of those previous months of being extremely cold and wet in my hole-ridden tent, and gave me the confidence to attack Scotland. It was an act of kindness that I’ll never forget.
While on the west coast of Scotland, I found a message in a bottle written by a nine-year-old boy over 30 years ago. In it, he talked about his best friends and hobbies, as well as including a name and return address.
That’s when I decided I’d go to Northern Ireland – something I initially thought I would avoid because I was an ex-paratrooper who spent time there.
So once I had hit Stranraer, Scotland, I headed over to Northern Ireland and managed to track the writer of the note down – a man now in his 40s. It felt so heartwarming to be able to return a piece of his own life story to him and I jokingly asked him never to throw a plastic bottle in the sea again – he laughed.
While in Northern Ireland, I got so much support from ex-police officers, given my background. I was nervous at first but when I got back on the boat, heading to Scotland, I’d made a whole load of new friends and conquered another coast.
After the completion of Northern Ireland in late February 2018, the biggest turning point to that date in my journey was about to happen: adopting my dog, Jet – a greyhound, saluki cross. This happened on the west coast of Scotland and it was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
I had been told about a family who were looking to put Jet up for adoption. I didn’t think twice. I collected Jet and it was clear that the bond between us both was immediate.
It was perfect timing as I knew I was about to embark on the toughest, most monumental feat of my entire life – avidly sticking to the coastline through the west of Scotland, including the surrounding islands.
Having been completely on my own so far and living in a tent for nine months, having Jet as company throughout the most physically demanding thing I would ever do, would be so gratifying. This experience solidified the most incredible bond between a man and his dog.
One of the biggest challenges throughout the trip so far was Shetland – an island a couple of hundred miles north off the north coast of Scotland – that has been known to bear the brunt of wind speeds exceeding 230mph.
The first night I arrived, my tent was completely obliterated and every single day was like waking up to 50 freezing hairdryers in my face. It was the first place on my walk to date that genuinely scared me. However, I was determined not to quit.
It took us just shy of three years to complete what has never been done before – the whole trip so far – in terms of sticking to such an unpathed, mountainous coastline through three winters, always in a tent. I know of people who have visited the islands and walked some of the roads but none have stuck to the coastline itself as rigidly as I did, hence the reason it took me so long.
In doing so, I earned the respect and support of so many islanders, the beginning of a strong online following and the media started to take keen interest in our journey because I was posting daily on my blog – signal permitting – and word spread so lots of attention began to come my way.
It was during my time on the west coast of Scotland and the islands that I started to realise all of my problems – like anxiety and depression – from before had slowly washed away. In fact, not only had they disappeared but I was starting to become a seriously happy man, realising the importance of having a positive focus.
I was truly ready to hit life head on; I had finally found my calling and felt excited for the first time in a long time, both for my present and for my future.
With only three weeks to go until finishing Shetland – after surviving the most brutal winter I will ever experience living in a tent – the first lockdown kicked in at the start of last year.
In my mind, the adventure would continue, although I couldn’t carry on walking because everyone was being told to stay at home. A local fisherman, Victor, took me over to a totally uninhabited island called Hildasay, half an hour out to sea off the west coast of Shetland to stay for the duration of the lockdown.
Little did I know I would be there for nearly four months. Again, everyone told me I was nuts but I knew that with all the experience I’d gained so far, particularly the fact that I had spent the last two and a half years essentially on my own in a tent, I was ready for it.
With the occasional drop off by Victor of fresh water and supplies for Jet and I, I foraged for lobster, crab and shellfish to keep us going throughout our stay. My time here hit news headlines not just in the UK, but around the world and also started talks about a documentary about my journey.
Three weeks after the first lockdown ended at the end of June, I finally completed Shetland and was about to have yet another life-changing encounter and something I never expected.
On returning to the North East coast of Scotland, I met another wild camper, Kate Barron. We got on like wildfire and a romance quickly blossomed.
The day after I met Kate, she had to return to London for work but it was evident that there was an immediate connection – we both shared a thirst for adventure and had so much in common. We kept in touch over the phone and two months later, Kate gave up her job, packed her stuff and began to walk the remainder of the UK coastline alongside myself and Jet.
Initially, the thought of having someone else around for every waking hour of the day was a worry for me having been on my own for so long but it soon became apparent that I was walking with a best friend and quite simply, the love of my life.
Surprisingly, when it came down to it, having Kate join me on the walk was probably the easiest decision I’d had to make because it just felt so natural and right. She is hardy, resilient and so positive every day – we quickly became the perfect team!
Kate joined in November last year, heading straight into another brutal Scottish winter and before we knew it, a second lockdown was announced. We pitched the tent in some woodland south of Aberdeen, just outside a little fishing village called Gourdon.
Once again, little did we know at the start that we would be there for nearly four months. It was blisteringly cold, with temperatures hitting -17 degrees at times. We kept ourselves busy by building a shelter out of fallen logs and continuously aiming to raise money for my chosen charity, SSAFA.
We did this by showing people that followed us that regardless of the situation, one can always remain positive. In our eyes, the vast majority of people were lucky enough to be in a warm house with an ability to cook food easily and access via the internet to friends and family – something we didn’t have. We believed that showing ourselves outside in the cold on the North East coast of Scotland and remaining positive and productive throughout all of it, would help others to realise that they could also get through the hardships of lockdown.
After the lockdown was over, a few months later, we completed Scotland having raised £200,000.
While on the east coast of England, sleeping on a stack of hay bales in a barn one night, Kate and I were overjoyed to discover that we would be having a baby. Because of our dedication and commitment to this walk and our cause, Kate and I made the decision that we would finish this walk together no matter what, crossing the line back in Swansea.
As it stands, to date, we have raised over £250,000. Kate is continuing to walk pregnant – she is currently five months along – and at some point in this journey, will be giving birth.
If all goes smoothly with the birth, after a brief period of rest, allowing Kate to recuperate, the baby to develop and a strong bond to be forged, we shall continue walking as a family. Whatever happens, we shall be crossing the line back in Swansea as a family of four.
I often have to pinch myself when I look back to how I felt the very first day that I started this walk on my own. By the time I finish, it will have roughly been five years since I started but because we do this step by step and one day at a time, it’s impossible to say exactly when we’re going to finish.
Putting up with the hardships of winters and consistently living in a tent is not easy but in doing so, we have stripped ourselves away from the modern pressures of timings, deadlines and schedules. The walk will finish when it finishes and completing it healthy and together is all that matters to us.
I started a lost man and will finish the happiest man alive – and with a family.
For the first time in my life, I made a decision to take a complete leap of faith in myself – and I am truly happy. It’s amazing what you can do when you believe in yourself and never quit.
If you’d like to follow the journey, you can find us on Facebook: Chris Walks the UK and Kate Walks the Coast. Our Facebook pages also have our JustGiving links if you’d like to make a donation.
Chris’s book, Finding Hildasay: How one man walked the UK’s coastline and found hope and happiness can be bought here
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