Author Interview: Martyn Howe, Tales From the Big Trails
- Wednesday 4 August 2021
Martyn Howe is a freelance technology consultant with a passion for long-distance walking. In 2016, he realised a lifelong ambition to walk nineteen classic trails in England, Scotland and Wales. In total, these walks covered some 3,000 miles over 153 days, taking him through some of the most wonderful and diverse landscapes in the world. In this interview Martyn tells us about his experience and offers advice to any other walkers who want to follow in his footsteps and take on the big trails!
Author Martyn has a quick photo break before continuing his walk accross the stunning landscape © Martyn Howe
If you had to choose, which of the nineteen trails did you enjoy the most?
A difficult question to answer, I enjoyed them all in their own way: The Pennine Way for the high-level route, the coastal paths to be close to the sea, Scotland for its wild beauty. The greatest sense of achievement would have to be the South West Coast Path, yet the Cleveland Way combined people, moorland and coastal elements to make it a very enjoyable route.
When I am asked that question, I detect an insight that might lead the questioner to walk the ‘best’ trail – but there is no ‘best’ trail. The experience depends on the weather, who you meet or walk with, the season, and your own state of mind. There are many factors that contribute to the answer. I also think of my journey as one continuous path. In fact a path that has no end, and draws me still to continue to satisfy my curiosity and sense of adventure.
Many other walkers may be wondering how do you find the time? Do you have any advice?
Ten years ago, I made a decision to become a freelance consultant and try to find work over summer or winter and walk in the spring and/or autumn. I have been fortunate enough to make this work financially, combined with a conscious decision to spend less on stuff. Walking and cycle touring are economical, if you camp and cook for yourself, often I spend less away than when at home. My wife, the ultimate arbiter you might like to jest, has been very supportive. We see the value of independent time, and I like to think I support her achieving her goals and ambitions too.
A quick stop on the trail: Benches such as this can be found dotted all over the National Trails, providing a much needed resting spot for tired travellers. © Martyn Howe
Tales from the Big Trails contains a range of beautiful poetry, what inspired you to choose the poems you selected for the book?
Many of the poems were found on the route, either written on benches, or read at local hostels. Later, with a smartphone, I would also research poetry in the evenings if I had a good internet connection. Many of the poems remained with me for days, having time to contemplate their meaning. They enhanced my walking experience and give me something to think about. There is a poem by Sarah Teasdale that is very moving for me. The last line reads “It was myself that sang in me” – this describes the joy I feel at times when walking and the joy coming from within as a result of your endeavours.
Throughout the book you describe a few locations where you stayed overnight. Do you have any favourite accommodations?
There is a sweet pleasure of a single-occupant dorm in a youth hostel, but without question the most thrilling nights were spent wild camping in appalling weather. You survive the night and seem to have renewed energy in the early morning as you walk from dawn, having conquered the elements. The storm has passed and you break camp at dawn to walk with the birds and animals, who have, like you, survived the night. Having said that, nothing beats a soak in a deep antique bath, full of peaty, hot, soft water. A rare pleasure indeed.
The iconic acorn guides walkers through the big trails, with signposts like this making sure they stay on the right path. © Martyn Howe
Now you’ve ticked the Big Trails off your walking list, do you ever plan on exploring paths beyond the UK?
Ireland is very tempting, as is Europe, but I like exploring travel outside of the UK with a bicycle. There are so many options in Scotland, England and Wales that I cannot imagine running out of ideas, but I should really read about routes in France, or Corsica, for example. I am not a fan of walking when it is too hot; 10C is perfect. There is something unique about the British Isles. Just run your finger around the globe and find another archipelago that is blessed by the gulf stream and has a network of paths built over centuries – we really shouldn’t take this for granted.
After your journey across the Big Trails, what's next?
I walked the Wales Coast Path in 2019, and I am now trying to find time, after the pandemic, to walk the England Coast Path and Scottish National Trail – all three will for the basis of another book, the UK “Triple Crown”, over 4,000 miles in total. Perhaps I am dreaming and work might intervene, but the thought of walking from Cromer, where I intend to start (where I finished the National Trails), fills me with excitement and I will start planning soon. If work schedules overlap with good weather and eats into the time available, I’d like to do some shorter bikepacking trips in Scotland instead. I spent two weeks island hopping last year, exploring the Southern Hebridean islands and was blessed with superb weather.
Would you recommend new trail walkers to experience wild camping?
I would first get used to camp craft and backpacking using pre-booked campsites, walking for a few days and even mixing accommodation with B&B or hostels. As soon as you are confident, then start wild camping, in Scotland, in a glen without too many midges. You just need to develop the art of finding an excellent wild camping spot. Just check the weather forecast for your first night at least.
Keep your equipment lightweight and spend money on the four important items: tent, sleeping bag; backpack and boots – trying to keep each one below 1kg. The remaining items can be acquired over time, but you will struggle to go lightweight if you do not get these ‘big four’ right. Some say that every gram saved on the weight of your boots is four saved from your backpack. My experience is that durability and foot protection are more important, so I walk in leather boots, which do break the 1kg rule. Durability vs Weight vs Cost – pick any two. Learn to cook in one pot, with a camping stove. Freeze dried is fine for short trips, but longer trips mean you have to get serious about cooking, especially when it is remote.
Do you have any advice for those wanting to begin their journey into trail walking?
Make a start! Every journey starts with the first step. Build up your walking fitness and confidence with day walks, then add an overnight B&B and then add camping to the mix and then tackle a major trail over a week. You will soon find multi-day trail walks become easier as you gain confidence of knowing you can actually do it. Managing any injury, such as a pesky blister, is more important than fitness, which develops in time. Lastly, walk at your pace – it is not a race, learn to walk with a rhythm of breath and cadence, when the going gets steep, reduce your gait, but keep the rhythm going. Walking poles are fantastic and I rarely walk without them – imagine a four-wheel drive car across a muddy field, the security and stability are worth the weight and I feel less fatigued at the end of the day, and rarely get shoulder pain from carrying my backpack.
The stunning view from the aqueduct on the Offa's Dyke Path. © Martyn Howe
What is the most important thing you have gained from your trail walking journey?
It is an addiction – an addiction to the sheer joy and pleasure of walking through stunning landscapes of the UK. Through these journeys I have gained confidence, self-awareness and a contentment – characteristics that make me happier. If I can add to this, it would be the people I meet. There is such a diversity of culture in the UK, and regional differences are noticeable. You learn so much from this, and it enriches your own approach to life and you develop greater empathy and understanding. These experiences have translated into my work life too – I hope to come across as a valued team member, with improved listening skills and greater resilience and endurance gained from overcoming the obstacles that you face as a long-distance walker.
Finally, what inspired you to write a book about your experience?
I read a few books which explained how memory works, and I noticed how I am able to recall small details about all my walks. You seem to retain more when you read too, compared to the passive medium of television or social media. Someone then suggested that writing is an intense form of reading, so I made a start. A blog became a chapter, written from the journals I kept for all the trails. Nineteen chapters formed a book, which I rewrote a few times with support and encouragement from friends.
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