Why I’m running 5,000 miles around the coast of Britain solo

It has taken four winters so far, but wild beauty, nature and the kindness of strangers en route make this slow journey more than worthwhile

In the late summer of 2017 I became captivated by the sculpture A Line Made By Walking. It was created in 1967 by Bristol artist Richard Long, who walked carefully backwards and forwards through a grassy field, drawing a footpath with his feet. This fleeting track of trampled grass was the opposite of a footpath. It led nowhere and was created by one man.

Yet, it was a record of a journey, with endless possibilities of discovery within an ephemeral line. Pinning this photo to the wall, I began to plan a journey of my own that would trail a path through Britain’s landscapes. Many long-distance routes traverse the land, running from coast to coast and ending at the sea. Digging an old map of Britain out of the attic, I drew a different line, one without a destination, linking different footpaths until they formed a loop of almost 5,000 miles around the edges of the island.

Six weeks later I rounded a corner and collapsed on to a muddy verge. It was a frosty October afternoon: day one. Months lay ahead of me.

I enjoy casual jogs and had a couple of marathons under my belt, but with legs tired and feet sore, I wondered if my body would ever stop aching. Nothing had prepared me for the weight of my tent and backpack. Had I taken on too much?

Four years and 2,800 miles later, I’m still running. My job as a tour leader for Active England has allowed me time off out of season, though running over winter brings its own challenges. There have been many moments of panic and pain, fatigue and frustration. There were days when I couldn’t see my hands through the fog. Days of rain and stomping through snow.

There were days when I ran from cows, climbed hills and slid down the other side. I paused for a year and then, out of lockdown, resumed my wanderings. In Aesop’s fable, I am the tortoise. I run slowly, with my home on my back, which gives me time to take in the landscapes I move through, listen to the birdsong, appreciate the freedom of being outdoors – and stop at every castle, cafe and pub.

Stage 1: 2017-18, 1,300 miles along the south coast – three months

A lightweight tent in a field
A lightweight tent made a cosy refuge Photograph: Frances Mills

In October 2017 I ventured out from Bristol harbour along the River Avon and hugged the shore until I met the South West Coast Path at Minehead. This 630-mile trail loops around Devon and Cornwall’s headlands and crags, past Land’s End and Lizard Point and finishes on Dorset’s Jurassic Coast.

With no official path to follow from there, I pushed on, jogging through the New Forest and hopping on to the South Downs, which rolled back to the coast at Brighton. Riding the chalky cliffs of Kent, I traced the edges of this county, along the Thames, past suburbs and sewage plants, dipping a toe into London’s eastern commuter belt at Gravesend, before retreating to Suffolk’s swollen riverbanks and shingle beaches. My final few weeks took me through the twisting salt marshes and mudflats of the Norfolk Broads until I reached King’s Lynn in early February 2018.

Averaging about 18 miles a day, I took a day off every week, staying in a hostel or Airbnb to wash, stretch, write and read. After two months of running and camping I booked a train ticket to enjoy a Christmas of home comforts, family and friends. It was a shock to discover that my journey home would take less than two hours.

In 2017 Covid was not a word in common use by non-scientists. I could shake hands with strangers, and wander towards distant hills, through counties and countries. One particularly cold and breezy evening in early December I jogged along the Jurassic coast just as the sun was setting, heading towards a sheltered camping spot I had picked out on my map.

Tired and stopping to catch my breath as the sun was setting, I began chatting to a woman walking her dogs. Perhaps seeing my exhaustion and failure to beat the approaching dark, she invited me to stay and within the hour I was showered, sitting next to a roaring fire, cuddling two dogs, sipping a gin and tonic and chatting as if we were old friends. Every day was peppered with small and unexpected encounters like this that leave me smiling even now.

Making a friend as the ‘beast from the east’ blasts Norfolk.
Making a friend as the ‘beast from the east’ blasts Norfolk Photograph: Frances Mills

By late February I had reached Norfolk and the “beast from the east” was sweeping an icy gale across England. I was forced to pause. Invited indoors by a couple of walking enthusiasts, I stayed put for two days before setting off on a 30-mile day, my head torch shining a cone of yellow through the snow. The sun gradually rose to light up snow on sand, with tufts of icy dune grass sticking up. Just after dawn a silent figure curved towards me, folding white wings against the cream sky. The barn owl that flew alongside me became my quiet companion before retreating into the distance minutes later. I have still not experienced a more magnificent moment.

Stage 2: 2018, 900 miles along Welsh Coast – 2½ months

A stony shelter in a rainstorm.
A stony shelter in a rainstorm in Borrowdale, Cumbria Photograph: Frances Mills

The following November, I returned to Bristol, crossed the River Severn and ran north along the Wales Coast Path – all the way to Liverpool. I had entered a different land, wilder and more remote than the south, with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains. The built-up industrial coast that surrounds Cardiff, Swansea, and the steel mills of Port Talbot stayed with me for a few days until I left behind the towers of smoke and stepped on to the Gower peninsula, with Rhossili Bay at its head. Climbing to the top of a hill that overlooks its sweeping golden sands, and battered by the wind, I could see dark clouds gathering inland and charging toward me. Wild ponies walked along narrow paths, and I followed their steady ploddingup steep twisting paths.

Days passed with me seeing only dog walkers in the distance and I could camp with ease, tucked into the corner of a field. Wild camping is a contentious issue and I always make sure I pitch away from popular paths, arriving close to dark, departing early in the morning, and leaving no trace. Occasionally I judged it wrong.

One late-December afternoon I finished earlier than usual and pitched my tent in the corner of a grassy field slightly inland from the Pembrokeshire coast. As the sun began to set, I was snug inside my sleeping bag when I heard thunder approaching. Peeking out from my tent I looked first to the sky before a movement caught my eye and I watched a herd of cows charge into the same field, my field, hooves thumping as they gained ground. Panic-struck, I scrambled out of my tent, zipping it shut and ripping out its pegs. With everything still inside I threw the tent over a nearby gate and hurled myself headfirst after it. After several minutes of staring at the contented cows through the metal gate, I retreated to a far corner of my new field, to begin my evening again – muddy, bruised and relieved. I had learned my lesson and would never again set up camp too early in the day.

In a world of constant interruptions, media and noise, there is a freedom to multi-week journeys. Your world resets and the days fly by so quickly you can hardly believe you’ve been moving for months. That is until it rains. When it rains in Wales, it pours, and everything slows down. It drowns the land, turning paths into rivers, seeping first into your shoes, then under your hood and finally into your soul. Eventually, the sun emerges to bathe the land, and as tears mixed with rain began to dry on my cheeks, I didn’t want to be anywhere else.

Stage 3: 2020, 600 miles across the north of England – five weeks

A bright Septemberr day in the Lake Disrtict.
Taking in the view from the Old Man of Coniston in the Lake District Photograph: Frances Mills

With Covid-related travel restrictions briefly lifted last September, it was time to dig out my trail shoes, dust off my tent and head north to complete my English loop. Beginning where I’d left off in Liverpool, I ran into the Lake District before cutting across on Alfred Wainwrights’ coast-to-coast path from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay and journeying south to finish again in King’s Lynn.

The Lakes were a strange mixture of crowds and isolation and I crisscrossed popular intersections as I tried to find less-worn paths. One bright morning in late September, I set out from the village of Boot, jogging up a deserted valley with the aim of climbing Scafell from a less-well-known angle. I followed the familiar green dashed line on my map, though no path was visible in the land and at points I waded up to my knees through marshy river grasses. It led me to scramble on hands and feet up beside a waterfall where I stopped for a snack, perched on a rock and on top of the world.

Looking over three valleys I couldn’t see a single person. I thought of nature writer Robert Macfarlane’s words, that “paths are the habits of a landscape … paths need walking”. Without regular use they will fade and disappear, to be lost and rediscovered again. As I climbed higher and into a thick band of fog, the temperature dropped alongside my confidence in the green line. Was I on track, creating a new path or following one that was ancient, but little used? There was nothing to do but continue and trust my map. I was perhaps 200-300 metres from the summit of Scafell before I finally saw people. Slightly dazed to have come across so many after a solitary morning, I joined a train of 60 or 70 walkers for the last of the ascent, enjoying the murmurings of nearby conversations, before slipping away down another quiet and barely visible track, vanishing with it down a steep stony slope and retreating again into my thoughts.

Lessons from a Great British expedition

I hope to return to the trails soon: I have 2,000-odd miles still to go around Scotland, on the most isolated and challenging terrain. When the storms broke my tent by snapping its poles, as happened during Storm Fionn in January 2018, I was pretty annoyed. Not annoyed enough for it to get in the way of sleep, though. Sure that nothing too important had blown across the field, I stubbornly wrapped my crumpled tent around me and drifted off. It would take a week to get my tent repaired and in the meantime a few friends of friends reached out and offered me a tent to borrow, a couch to sleep on and a chance to stay in a community-owned bright blue converted bus that was parked in the chalk hills of the South Down national park. Before the day was out, I was sitting round a campfire chatting to new friends, something I would have missed had my tent been in one piece.

What to pack for a running-and-camping expedition

The author’s trusty trail shoe - and an unused one - after months of running.
The author’s trusty trail shoe - and an unused one - after months of running Photograph: Frances Mills

Somehow, every morning I fit all my kit into a 32L OMM Backpack (Classic) with some lightweight drybags inside. A lot of my kit was designed to be lightweight, including my sleeping bag – which made for a few chilly nights and improvised hot-water bottles. I never weighed my backpack, judging it instead by how much I felt I could comfortably carry. It was probably around 10kg-12kg at its heaviest, with full water pouches and food for the day.

The items I wouldn’t be without:

  • Tea: I am a nicer human once I’ve had a hot, milky cup of tea, so first on my list was a Pocket Rocket stove, along with teabags and powdered milk. Lots of water pouches are also necessary to keep hydrated: I took ones that could fold up when not in use.

  • Grippy trail shoes: I love my Saucony Peregrine trainers.

  • Lightweight everything for camping: tent, roll mat, sleeping bag, tent pegs.

  • Headtorch: vital for pitching a tent at night and running on roads at dawn or dusk – the more powerful the better.

  • Phone: for keeping in touch, calling ahead to campsites, playing podcasts and audiobooks, retaining sanity – and taking photos! Requires a waterproof/damage-proof case. Don’t forget a battery pack, leads and a plug.

  • Jar of peanut butter, to be eaten with a spoon – the world’s greatest on-the-go snack.

  • iPad Air: a lightweight luxury for reading books and watching films. Great for pretending the tent that is swaying wildly and somehow wet on the inside, is actually a snug little private cinema.

  • Small notepads, tiny watercolour set, pens and pencils. I enjoy writing and doodling, sticking together random scraps of leaflets with little scissors, glue stick and a couple of crayons.

  • A small wash kit with travel wash that doubles up as shampoo and clothes wash, toothbrush and paste, small deodorant, tiny folding brush/mirror, suncream, earplugs.

  • A small first aid kit.

  • When it comes to clothing, layers are key: base layers, down/synthetic pack-down padded jackets, a raincoat, gloves, hat and as many layers as you can wear at night.

  • The only item I didn’t use was my penknife, though it is possible I have been doing camping wrong all this time!

Follow Frances on Instagram @frances.mills

Frances Mills

The GuardianTramp

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