Going to ground after a cancer diagnosis and treatment wasn’t an option for Ursula Martin – that is unless you count walking thousands of miles over it.
Looking at myself now, feeling the way I feel (which is mostly desirous of a biscuit), I’m not sure how I managed this journey.
I don’t appear to be an athlete, not with the size of this bottom. I am a lumpy, goofy, speccy woman in her mid-30s and yet, I pulled it together to achieve something incredible.
The short version of my story is that I had cancer and then I walked 3,700 miles. The long version spans three-and-a-half years. First came a year of cancer and recovery, then a year of work and preparation, and then 17 months of walking.
The long version spans the length and breadth of Wales; the edge and the middle, the route of nine rivers, the height of 16 mountains. It spans the hundreds of people I met, who took me into their homes, who gave me cups of tea in cafes, who beeped their horns to cheer me on and donated thousands of pounds to the charities I raised money for.
It spans sleeping in fields, in bushes, in churchyards, under bridges, on benches, once in the shelter of a huge black plastic pipe and, to balance the hardship, in the comfortable homes of more than 100 complete strangers. For the first time in my life I’m proud to tell you about going home with someone I met in the pub.
For anyone asking why I did this – well, I have two answers, because there are two questions.
1. Why walking Wales? Because of ovarian cancer.
2. Why travelling and hardship? Because it’s the way I want to live.
For the three years prior to cancer, my ‘normal’ had been living out of a rucksack, always moving on, living with the lack of schedules and certainty, the hardship of dirt and discomfort, the daily unknown.
In the aftermath of cancer, when my life changed and I was wondering what to do – no relationship, children or career to call me back from fear and ground me in my normal – I decided to walk to hospital.
“Wales is the country of my heart and it has the lowest ovarian cancer survival rate in the UK.”
I followed the river Severn 226 miles from the sodden ooze of mossy pools at its mountain source, through the Hafren Forest, through the farmland of the Welsh borders, through the wooded valleys of Ironbridge and Bridgnorth, down to the open plains of Gloucestershire and down to the estuary, miles of water swirling against the Severn bridges.
I walked to the check-up itself, in the centre of the Bristol city sprawl. There was a belly prod, a blood test. “No cancer this time,” they said and I was free again.
I walked back, all the way up the river Wye, another 186 miles, through woods, through fields, over hills and into small nestled towns, following as the river became smaller and smaller until it ended in sheep and mist; forking out into trickles that tumbled down from the side of a steep hill.
I did that and I loved it. That walk of 400 miles brought me back towards my pre-cancer state, a woman who could challenge herself physically and could handle it.
Cancer made me scared and vulnerable; in need of roots and security. These walks showed me that I could handle the world, make life as I wanted it once again.
So I’d walked 400 miles; now maybe I could go further.
I decided that I could extend my journey: in between walking to hospital appointments, I could walk around the country. I had reasons other than a supposed jolly ramble. I wanted to raise money for charity and I wanted to tell women about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
Wales is the country of my heart and it has the lowest ovarian cancer survival rate in the UK.
“Cold water on couscous left to soak, tinned mackerel in tomato sauce and a sachet of mayonnaise, the occasional packet of boiled beetroot or fresh tomatoes. I managed with this delightful meal for almost the whole journey.”
I looked at maps, noticed the shape that rivers made across the land, joined them up, found more paths; paths across mountains, around the coast, between landmarks, tracing borders, and I made a route.
I wasn’t thinking about the total, just making an interesting journey and it was with a gulp that I made the final calculation. I’d set myself a goal of 3,700 miles.
This is clearly a huge and ridiculous figure. Had I’d known just how difficult, strenuous and painful it would be, I’m not sure that I would have set out on that size of journey. But fortunately, I am an impetuous fool who doesn’t think things through.
I can’t tell you about the whole journey, it would fill a book. There were months of pain, most specifically in my feet, but every single part of my body hurt at some point during the walk.
My neck and shoulders had to brace against the weight of my rucksack. My hands grew blisters and then calluses as they gripped my walking poles. My legs grew thick with muscles, cramped into solid blocks as I continued to push them to move. My feet. There is not the time to tell you about my feet.
I devised a main meal that I could carry round in my rucksack and eat any time, nothing to spill or stain, nothing to sweat, crumble or go off. Cold water on couscous left to soak, tinned mackerel in tomato sauce and a sachet of mayonnaise, the occasional packet of boiled beetroot or fresh tomatoes.
I managed with this delightful meal for almost the whole journey (thankfully, the many, many people hosting me meant that I didn’t have to eat it every day) and it was only towards the end that I started to turn against it.
I have experienced exhilaration and exhaustion, wonderment and peace. I have sat quietly in a filthy barn watching rain sheet past in silver flickers. I have sat up in my sleeping bag, awoken by dew-soaked sunrises, my breath condensed in my hair. I have tumbled down to rest in fields, flinging my boots off, rubbing feet. I have slowed to a plod and pushed to a stride, many days, many hours, many weathers.
After ducking under branches and scraping through gaps, I have paused in the peace of many fields and forests, deciding a direction and plunging on, too focused to wonder why the hell I’m doing this, too committed to stop
This walk is the most wonderful thing I have ever done, I’m so proud of myself for completing it.
I have raised more than £10,000 for two charities and in various ways; handing out cards, sharing online and appearing in local newspapers, I have reminded thousands of women about the symptoms of ovarian cancer.
I don’t make any grandiose claims to save lives, but if this information goes to sit quietly in the back of people’s minds, one day it may come back to the surface of memory at the right time and help a woman decide to make a doctor’s appointment about that strange pain deep in her pelvis. The pain I had four years ago and ignored.
I’ve finished now. It took a bit of a comedown – a few days in bed, many hot baths, a solid week of cheese toasties for breakfast – but I have finally stopped aching.
I look around at my friends with young children and know already that this is not the life I want. I want to get out there again; to embrace the edges of civilised existence, the adrenaline of survival.
I’m going to walk across Europe, to finish a journey that cancer interrupted. Hopefully I’ll think of some rucksack meals that don’t involve mackerel or couscous – maybe this time I’ll pack a toastie maker.
To read more about Ursula’s journey, you can find her blog here.
Ursula also has a Kickstarter campaign running until 4 November to help her fund a book about her walk.