Four years ago, Chris Lewis made a spur of the moment decision to walk the entire coast of the UK. Around 13,000 miles later, we catch up with him to find out how he’s doing.
This month, former paratrooper Chris Lewis celebrates an important anniversary – four years since he first set out to walk the entire perimeter of the UK.
Originally from Wales, he struck off north from his home in the Gower in August 2017 with just £10 in his pocket and a backpack stocked with borrowed supplies. Since then, Chris has clocked up an estimated 13,000 miles of walking, raised more than £205,000 for armed forces charity SSAFA, met his girlfriend, spent a lockdown on a remote Scottish island, and adopted a dog.
Hanna Lindon caught up with him as he was heading south past Newcastle to find out more about his extraordinary walk.
Main image: Chris Lewis on Hildasay. Photo: Dave Donaldson
So, this month will be the fourth anniversary of your start date…
Yes, that’s right, I’m going into my fifth year!
And you’re walking the entire perimeter of the UK – does that include all the islands?
I am walking the coastal perimeter of mainland Britain, but also all of the islands as well – which means I’m walking the coastline of the entire United Kingdom. I’ve walked the coast of every inhabited island and as many uninhabited ones as it was possible to get to.
As far as you know, are you the first person to do this?
In short, yes. I know of many people who have walked mainland Britain mostly on the roads. I’ve also heard of people who have gone to islands – to the Hebrides, Shetland and Orkney – but I’m certainly the first person to have stuck rigidly and consistently to the coastline and not going onto the roads. Much of the coastline on the west coast of Scotland and the islands is completely unpathed, incredibly physically challenging and demands the need for a strong set of survival skills as part of the daily routine – such as foraging for food – which I have had to learn along the way. That is why the journey has taken me four years to date.
How many miles will you have walked by the time you’ve finished?
I’m not 100% sure as the UK coastline has never been perfectly mapped in terms of exact mileage, but I know it’s somewhere in the region of 20,000 miles.
What made you decide to set out on this incredible journey?
I’d come out of the parachute regiment and been a single parent for 10 years. To be honest, I was never happy no matter what job I was in. When my daughter eventually flew the nest, I felt like things were going seriously downhill for me and I knew I had to make a drastic change and quickly. I love the outdoors and I know how healing it can be. I’m a surfer, a walker, a runner.
Walking the perimeter of the coast was an off-the-cuff decision. I went for a surf one day, looked down the coast and thought: ‘sod it, I may as well set out to walk the coastline’. And I did, two days later!
Did you really start out with just a tenner and a few days’ worth of supplies?
Yup! I just borrowed some stuff from friends. My first tent had a hole in it and my first pair of shoes didn’t even fit me. I had no money. I’d learned a bit about foraging and did a lot of foraging as I went around the coast. Once numbers on my Facebook page started picking up a bit people started helping, but it was a long, hard year and a half before the press got interested and that happened. It was a leap of faith into the dark.
How have you managed to raise donations for food and accommodation on the go?
I’d like to say that it mainly happened through Facebook, but the truth is that my Facebook page has only catapulted because of the effort I put into speaking to people, certainly in the first few years of my journey. Every village, town or city that I’ve been to, regardless of how tired I’ve been from the walking, I’ve done everything in my power to promote the charity I’m doing it for, SSAFA, and the journey I’m on. It’s because of this, through the people that I’ve met along the way, that my story has been shared. So many people that find out about it want to help and become a part of the journey in some way, and I love showing off the kindness I receive on social media.
What are the best things you’ve received?
The best thing I’ve received on this journey to date is the realisation of how wonderful, kind and helpful people are across the UK. This is so wide-ranging, but one aspect is the effort people have gone to in order to make things for me that are really sentimental, such as hand-knitted items from Fair Isle and Shetland and a treasured pin of Hildasay, the island I stayed on during the first lockdown.
Tell us a bit more about that stay…
When that first lockdown happened I was in a tent on Shetland. A fisherman told me that there was an uninhabited island an hour and a half out to sea off the west coast of Shetland called Hildasay and asked me if I’d like him to take me there. I ended up staying there alone with my dog, Jet, for the whole three-and-a-half months of the lockdown. There was no fresh water, electricity or gas on the island. The fisherman would drop off water and food supplies by boat from time to time when the weather permitted, but other than that I had to forage for food. It was an amazing experience – I really learned a lot about myself.
Is there anywhere else you’ve stayed for a long period of time?
The second lockdown we spent camping in our tent in a woodland near a place called Gourdon, just south of Aberdeen. I spent nearly four months over the winter months in the woods, but this time with my girlfriend, Kate, alongside me as well as my dog.
Have you camped for most of the journey?
I’d say 98% of it. The only time I haven’t is if I’ve had a couple of weeks of freezing bad weather or if someone has offered to wash some stuff for me and I’ve ended up staying with them although always outside still – usually camping in their garden. I’ve tried to keep it as pure as possible when it comes to staying out. I’ve slept in a lot of strange places – toilets, ferry terminals, treehouses, you name it!
Roughly how many miles do you walk every day?
I don’t do it like that. Most of the time it’s a case of finding out where the nearest shop is and just plodding along. I really wanted to get away from the planning side of it – although of course there are parts I have had to plan. We just get up in the morning and go wherever our legs take us.
‘We’ includes you and your dog Jet who you acquired along the way? How did that happen?
I adopted Jet on the west coast of Scotland. She belonged to a family who were unable to keep her. It was just a case of right place, right time. We fell in love straight away and she’s really my best mate. She is literally by my side every second of the day. She sleeps in my sleeping bag and I’ll always adapt the walking to her. For the west coast and the islands [of Scotland] more often than not I’d be walking with only food for her because I couldn’t physically carry supplies for myself as well.
Has anyone else joined you?
My daughter came to see me in the Lake District and I know that in 100 miles or so she’s coming to see us again – I can’t wait for that! The majority of it, though, I’ve done alone. People say they’re going to join us for a stretch but they never do! Now, though, I’m walking with my girlfriend Kate. I met her on the north coast of Scotland, just after the first lockdown. She was doing the North Coast 500 and wild camping on her own. Two months later she said: ‘Right, I’m giving up my job and doing the rest of it with you!’ She’s been with me on this walk for nine months now. It’s amazing to have found Jet and then my girlfriend. It shows that if you just do what you love doing then you meet like-minded people and everything just falls into place.
What are the most memorable sections of your walk so far?
There are so many! I spent a Christmas off the Isle of Lewis. Again, I was taken to an uninhabited island and a family got wind I was there – they came over by boat on Christmas Day with Christmas dinner and a bottle of whisky! Hildasay was memorable as well. It was incredible being on an island on my own, out at sea for so many months.
How many miles have you walked so far?
I’d say about 13-14,000.
And do you have an estimated finish date?
It’s hard to say, but I’d be surprised if we weren’t finished within a year.