As I start writing this, she is walking through a Met Office yellow warning somewhere in the Borders of Scotland. Two nights’ ago, she arrived at a friend’s house and asked, “Please can I borrow some clothes and put everything of mine in the washing machine?”
She was laughing as she said it, but tent, clothes, rucksack and boots were all muddy and soaking. Why, we mere mortals ask, do people like Carol Smithard put themselves through such gruelling experiences? She is after all, an environmental consultant, who has just spent several months in the Bahamas gaining her dive master’s certificate, after stints in the baking heat of Abu Dhabi and the freezing peat bogs of Â Shetland. She is an attractive young lady with the world at her feet. But she is now spending up to 4 monthsÂ walking Â from Lands End to John Oâ€™Groats plus Orkney and Shetland, visiting 43 RNLI stations and climbing the three highest peaks (Snowdon, Scafell Pike and Ben Nevis), to raise Â£20,000 for the RNLI.
She says, “They are an institution that is non-Government funded, they are there purely for other people’s benefit, they are volunteers who give up their own time to be there to help other people. I want to do something for people who do good. I have friends who volunteer so I know a bit about the time, effort and risk they give.
“Also, I wanted to do something that challenged me, because there’s no point in me trying to raise money for something if what I do is easy. I’m relatively fit so something like the West Highland Way would hurt but it wouldn’t be too much of a challenge.”
She spent 6 weeks route planning and training, starting with short, regular walks, and progressing to longer walks, carrying a pack every day. Â Then, with some friends who were going to Everest base camp she walked Hadrian’s Wall and that was good for identifying what she thought she needed but didn’t and what she needed but didn’t have. “I had too many clothes. Now I carry fewer clothes and washing powder,” she says. “And I have a wee surround for my stove that stops the wind taking the heat away, so things cook quicker.”
She has had no sponsorship at all. “I asked various people. Some didn’t get back to me, others gave me what seems to be a generic response about the fact that there’s a recession on and they are just supporting their allocated charities, which is fair enough.” So she is taking a year off work and using her own savings.
People who walk from Lands’ End to John O’ Groats cover about 1000 miles and take 2-3 months, but with the Lifeboat stations, 3 peaks, Orkney and Shetland added on, Carol estimates she will cover an additional 500-600 miles and take an additional month, probably not finishing until the end of November. “Time isn’t my challenge but that doesn’t mean I’m taking it easy!
“I lost both my grandparents last year so we didn’t have many happy family occasions but it was my parents’ ruby wedding this August so we wanted to have a happy family celebration and I didn’t want to have to break into my walk for that so it’s just worked out that I’ve started later in the year. But that just adds to the challenge!”
She watches the weather forecast all the time. It doesn’t change anything but if she sees that there’s rain coming in later in the day, she might get up earlier. She’s been fortunate with the weather so far. Most of her early problems came from dehydration when it was too hot. The hardest walking was in the Brecon Beacons at the beginning of October when the whole country had gales and heavy rain. There were 60 mph winds that knocked her off her feet. Finding somewhere to pitch a tent in those conditions wasn’t straightforward.Â Now as the weather is deteriorating, she says, “I’m just going to have to deal with it. It’s not as though there’s going to be one storm and I can sit it out. I’m just going to have to get used to walking in waterproofs in the rain.”
People ask whether it wouldn’t be better to walk north to south, towards better weather and more daylight, but for Carol arriving in Scotland is coming home. “I can look at the signposts and know where everything is. I have friends and family to keep me company or stay with, stuff to look forward to.
“The most common thing I’m asked is, Do I get lonely? I thought I might in the south of England where I don’t know anyone. But it’s amazing who you meet, either walking or at the Lifeboat Stations, or in shops, and I’ve been amazed by the generosity of people who stop me when they see the flag on my bag, or just the size of my pack. They offer to put me up for the night, or buy me meals or give me a couple of pounds when they hear what I’m doing! I’ve been overwhelmed by people’s kindness and generosity. It wasn’t something I expected or looked for.”
The best bits are that she has visited a lot of places she would never have considered going to and many of them are beautiful. “I’ve loved it all,” she says, “but always the best bit is coming round the corner and seeing the RNLI flag because it’s hard work walking and it hurts now.”
Her pack weighs about 15 kilos, more as she is having to take warmer winter clothes. Â “When you’re camping,” she points out, “the wind keeps you awake, or else it stops and wakes you up because there’s no noise! I like my wee tent and my karrimat. A bed is nice but every mattress is different so I quite like my wee tent. But as the weather gets worse, I’ll probably ask my Dad to pick it up so that I can lighten the load and walk a bit quicker.”
And hurt is the operative word. Her hips, knees and feet are all aching. She expected that her back would hurt, carrying her pack, but while nothing has forced her to rest yet, her joints are sore and her muscles stiff. She is hobbling barefoot round her friend’s house but as soon as she puts on her boots and her pack, it’s back to work and she doesn’t (daren’t) think about it.
The rest day Â turns out to be hardly a rest day as, with internet access, she tries to keep on top of her statistics, keep in touch with people who hope to meet up with her and answer the odd press enquiry â€“ not to mention finding time for detailed route planning and stocking up on food as she has 3 days offroad ahead of her, before reaching her uncle’s house in East Calder.
From there she will go via South Queensferry Lifeboat Station to her parents’ home in Dunfermline for another rest/admin day and then take 4 or 5 days going across country to Fort William from where she will climb Ben Nevis.
Then it’s the south side of the Great Glen and the A9 to Thurso. From Inverness it’s all on road, which is going to hurt, so she plans to offload her tent and use B&Bs from there.Â Fortunately, she ‘did’ Shetland first as she had worked there and knew that there would be little daylight by the time she arrived if she left it till the end, so her 3 days on Orkney will see the culmination of this multi-marathon.
I asked her what her reward will be for finishing and quick as a flash she comes back “Stopping!” But she laughs and says, “I know from my rest days that I’mÂ going to have to wean myself off walking by going out for a few miles each day. I hadn’t thought about that.”
And of course, reaching her target of Â£20,000 would be a reward too. Carol hopes that no-one will need the services of the lifeboat crews she has met, but she also knows that some will. Every Â£ will make her journey even more worthwhile.
Now it’s dark and she will be huddled in her tent somewhere in the hills around St Mary’s Loch. When she can, she will update her facebook blog and it’s usually very amusing and good fun. Follow her journey here on Carol’s Wee WalkÂ and please, please, please, give something onÂ www.virginmoneygiving.com/carolsweewalk