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Walking London’s M25 – in the snow

As soon as the idea formed I knew it would be an adventure. Not a massive adventure. But that was fine. I was not looking for that. I wanted something small. I wanted a micro adventure. I recruited friend and fellow adventurer Ron Lilwall to accompany me, we decided to make a film of our experiences, and we set off to walk a lap of the M25.

“Walking the M25?! Are you mad?”

“Well it should be quicker than driving.”

“In this weather? Rather you than me…”

For, completely by chance, we had chosen the coldest week of the worst winter in 30 years with which to undertake our adventure. A Siberian suburban experience.

The general consensus was that we were mad, that it was a stupid, nonsensical idea. It made people chuckle, made them roll their eyes at our folly, made folks wrap their arms round themselves and be glad they would soon be in their warm car commuting to work, their warm bed at night.

The M25 is 118 miles long, encircling London. Our plan was to walk as close to the motorway as possible, from Junction 1 to 31, from Kent to Essex via Surrey, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, through fields and farmland, down footpaths if we saw them, along occasional small parallel roads from time to time. We deliberately had no real plan. We carried just one map, a large scale one that showed the whole M25. We would sleep outside at night, in bivvy bags, but hoped that we would find refuge under a bridge, in a barn, or in some kind stranger’s home from time to time. It seemed likely that we would walk somewhere between 150 and 200 miles.

It was dawn. Snow was falling. Rob and I were in a cheerless industrial estate on the banks of the Thames estuary. Above us arched the impressive span of the Queen Elizabeth bridge, gridlocked with traffic creeping towards the toll booths, towards Junction 1 of the M25. It was the first working day after the New Year holidays and everything about the scene was gloomy and dull. I began to feel that this was not such a great idea after all. I tried to look on the bright side: a week from now we should be finished.

It is not very easy to walk a lap of the M25. It is, understandably, hardly geared towards pedestrians. Sliproads and flyovers and high fences blocked our route. We walked down pavements and through housing estates, across waste land and through hedges. On the corner of Main Street a greasy spoon cafe confirmed all my hopes about this trip. People in hiking gear with large packs on their backs were not the cafe’s usual customers (“Oi mate, shut the bleedin’ door”, “two sugars or three?”). The walk was an instant opening into conversation and we were bombarded from all sides with questions, incredulity and good-humoured mocking. Builders, old men, a young couple: all thought we were mad, that our idea was ridiculous, and that doing it during the worst winter in a generation sealed our insanity. And so began the first of many attempts over the next week to explain ourselves. To say that we were looking for a challenging adventure right here on our doorsteps, that we would learn about our own country, meet interesting people and so on. A bacon butty and mug of tea; hat and gloves steaming on the radiator. But what really warmed up us and quickened our stride back towards the M25 were the wishes of goodwill, the laughter we had created, and the feeling that we really did have a good story here, that we must never rush so much to miss a story, that we should have the nerve to talk to everyone. And that maybe we weren’t mad after all.

Eventually, round about lunchtime and Junction 2, we broke free of Dartford, and its satellite sprawl, breakin’ out of this two-star town. We left behind the wandering through housing estates and round cul-de-sacs, the fence jumping through fields watched only by gypsies’ ponies.

I find it exciting being under a motorway bridge. Above you the huddled masses race madly in both directions 24 hours a day. And down below is little you, unseen by the world, sheltering from the falling snow beneath massive slabs of concrete. While Rob removed his boots to tend to his already-sore feet I glanced over the repetitive, basic graffiti tags of bored youths who had been here before me signing proof of their repetitive, basic lives, kicking cans through puddles, smoking fags, boasting of women and Saturday nights.

It was only early afternoon but the light was already seeping from the dull, monochrome January day. Britain was beginning to return to work after the New Year festivities. We were beginning to get back into the mindset and rhythm of life in the outdoors. Normal modern life is played out in permanent sterilty – we live in the light until we choose some hours of darkness. Temperatures remain the same, even as the seasons outside rotate through their cycle. The fridge holds food, taps give water, and the warmth and refuge of our bed awaits us each night.

But we were having to return to the old ways, the daily forage for food and water, the challenge to keep warm or dry in response to the whims of the day’s weather, the mild anxiety of seeking a safe shelter each night. And all this played out, just miles from central London, within the strict constraints of the hours of daylight which, we were remembering, limited us to only about 9 hours of action each day.

By now we were tramping through white fields, their silence emphasised by the drone of the M25 muffled by the snow falling all around us. Pylons loomed in the gloom. It was a disorientating, fantastical feeling, crunching across the snow covered stubble of fallow fields. We had no idea of where we were or what lay ahead of us but it mattered little so long as we were following our road.

Night fell and we lashed a poncho between two trees. Home sweet home! We lay in sleeping bags beneath our poncho eating Supernoodles and feeling well with the world. It is amazing how your mood rises once you are warm and tucked up in bed, even if your bed is under a poncho in a snowy wood.

The motorway did not sleep; cars and lorries roared endlessly through the night. Each time I woke I glanced at the moon, its progress across the sky giving me a rough idea of how long I had been asleep. And each time I glanced at the motorway as well and it was always alive and moving. The only disturbance through the long night was a fox who grabbed his chance and crept up to try to steal our bag of food. Hungry times for wild animals. Hungry times for long distance walkers too so I shooed him and he slunk away into the night. One of the few pleasant aspects of a winter expedition is the amount of sleep you get. Twelve hours after going to bed the alarm sounded and we rose and packed our bags in the 6.30 darkness. The stars were blazing like rebel diamonds cut out of the sun.

Call that a tent? Sleeping under a poncho

The ground was covered with the tracks of rabbits, foxes and birds. No longer did this feel like a human-dominated world. It was as though we had moved to a forest in Siberia, flown centuries back in time to mediaeval Kent, switched channels to the nature station. We pushed and ducked under bushes and tree branches. I jumped to grab a brach and showered Rob with snow. We could see no sign of mankind. Ours were the only footprints in the snow. We were alone in the wild, about 20 metres from the hard shoulder.

Our idyll was rather spoiled by the realisation that in order for us to cover the requisite four junctions per day we would have to begin trekking into the night. And so each day we just kept on walking through the frozen darkness until we had covered sufficient distance. We woke at 6am and our latest finish was 11pm. Added to this unpleasantness was a good deal of pain for Rob. As well as not wearing in his boots and therefore suffering a lot, it appeared that middle age had also caught up with my long-time expedition partner. His knees hurt, his back hurt and he was in pain for the entire trek. I dealt with this as sympathetically as always (not very). He was far more tolerant on the night when I lost our map and we had to rely on directions from a motorist who sent us on a route that took three hours longer than it ought to have done.

We arrived in Redhill -Junction 8- quite late at night. We were cold and tired and Rob was commenting on how he could walk home in just a few hours from here. We stopped in a pub for some morale boosting food. The barmaid gave us free beer and a kind couple, Ronan and Helen, rescued us from a night sleeping in the snow by inviting us to stay at their house for the night. As well as being thrilled at the prospect of a shower and a warm sleep, we were delighted to discover that the kind strangers who have helped us so often in distant lands also live in southern England. The strongest memories of all adventures tend to be the people that you meet along the way. Once again I was discovering that if you break away from the norm a little bit and do something different, difficult and interesting then people respond.

Kindness and incredulity followed us in equal measure along the way. Matt, who knew our whereabouts from Twitter, came out on his bike to find us and invite us home for a fried breakfast. We crossed the Thames – a halfway point of sorts- and planes rumbled over our heads as we passed Heathrow. We had learned the importance of pubs as hubs of conversation and community and so headed to another one near Rickmansworth (Junction 17). A lady bought us brandy and the pub band played “These boots are made for walking”.

A city trader finished his pint and said we could camp on his lawn. He didn’t quite feel comfortable enough to allow us into his family home, but he did come out at 6am in his boxer shorts with mugs of hot tea to wish us well.

Rob found a discarded child’s sledge and loaded his pack into it to tow like Ranulph Fiennes. Instead of being in Antarctica though we were trekking through Hertfordshire. The sledge broke and Rob moved on to a shopping trolley, wheeling his belongings through grey streets like a character from Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road. We were now degenerating towards Hobo status. A lady walking her dog lowered her gaze, and walked by at speed.

Our standard diet of ketchup sandwiches was wearing a little thin and we set our sights on the luxuries of South Mimms service station. We walked through a frightening junk yard filled with threatening signs about guard dogs. We were lost, stumbling around in the night and trying to find a way to get across the A1 into the service station.

Not content to just eat chips for dinner in the service station we also slept in some bushes in the car park so that we could eat breakfast there too. I topped up my coffee over and over from the free milk until I was just drinking milk. We marched on knowing we only had a couple more days to go.

The variety of landscapes, natural and man-made, that we encountered walking through six counties was interesting. There was clear separation between the different classes or groups we walked past. The Surrey gentry, clusters of Sikhs, white working class, North London boys done good and moved to suburbia… This “ghetto-isation” is partially voluntary and self-fulfilling and the dividing lines very clear cut.

The M25 walk was through an environment very much controlled by man. But I relished feeling the forces of nature at work as well. We can build highways that transport thousands of people and tonnes of manafactured goods. We can blot out the stars with the glow of a city’s orange street lights. But we cannot control the land being covered in snow that reflects the glow so that even at night it was easy to see and walk cross country, following in the footsteps of Rob’s black silhouette. Down to my left the pouring stream of red and white lights raced on, but the cold on my face and the searing raw wind reminded me that nature is still with us, even in the most mundane of man-controlled environments.

After a week of hard walking the columns of the Queen Elizabeth bridge came into view again. Our circle was complete. The snow, the wild camping, the kebab shops, the fence jumping, the shopping trolley: it had been quite a week. We were cold and tired and more jubilant than we would have imagined. We had successfully found adventure in 21st Century southern England, we had scratched our curiosity and proved that if you step just a fraction away from the main road, away from the conventional route, the path everyone else is taking, the road you have always taken then you can see things differently, challenge yourself and have novel, interesting experiences.

All that remained was to get across the bridge and complete our circle. We knew that we would not be allowed to walk across the bridge but had heard rumours that the Transport Police would give a lift to pedestrians and cyclists. Arriving at the bridge we found a phone that was a direct line to request a lift across.

“Sorry”, the man on the other end told us. “We’re only allowed to take cyclists across these days. No walkers.”

“Why?” we asked

“Health and Safety, mate.”

It was the perfect end to a microadventure round the M25.

More by Alastair Humphreys on his website here.

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