On Saturday, I joined around 2,000 walkers to take part in a Mighty Hike for Macmillan – a 26-mile trek along the South East Coast path from Brighton to Eastbourne. The whole trail makes up around a quarter of the South Downs Way, taking in countryside to coast, and finishing along the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters Country Park.
I felt excitement tinged with nerves as I gathered at the start line, along with the rest of the 9.40am tranche of walkers, including three of my closest friends who joined me in making up our fundraising team: the chevy chafes.
Having only walked a maximum of 13 miles in training, I had no benchmark for how my body would cope walking an entire marathon, or being on my feet for 10 hours solid. We’d heard some pretty scary stories about black toes and giant blisters from well-meaning friends, and the fates of our feet had been at front of mind for weeks.
Still, the sun was breaking out, and so were the smiles on all walkers’ faces as we warmed up to a lively Zumba routine. Some encouraging words from a MacMillan host gave us all a healthy dose of perspective before the starter horn sounded and we set off.
We started with a slow and steady incline through the racecourse and out of Brighton, navigating a few busy roads along the way – all carefully managed by Macmillan volunteers. It wasn’t long until we’d joined the South Downs Way and were surrounded by bucolic, rolling landscapes stretching as far as Lewes. In what seemed like no time at all, we had clocked our first mile.
Seven miles in and we’d reached our first pit stop in the picturesque village of Southease. Everything we needed was laid out before us: fresh fruit, hot drinks, sweets, mini cheddars, energy bars, Portaloo’s and water stations. As we surveyed the small tuck shop we’d amassed between us, I could hear Bill Withers signing ‘Lovely Day’ over the speakers, and had to admit that, so far, it was.
Refuelled and recharged we continued onwards, ascending Firle Beacon, and estimating the hours till our lunch stop. On top of the Beacon the views were spectacular. The river Ouse was on our left, snaking its way towards Glynde, and to the right we could see the sea and the port of Newhaven in the distance.
As we marched on, we made our way through herds of unfazed cows before receiving what I could only interpret as a bit of a pep talk from some very loud sheep. We were clocking the miles now, and occasionally felt buoyed by the realisation we’d missed a marker or two and covered more distance than we thought.
Over the half-way point, we passed through some fields peppered with poppies and meadow flowers before reaching the stunning village of Alfriston. There, we weaved our way through narrow village lanes and passed through the village high street, where we saw chocolate-box pubs and antique shops, before passing the National Trust Clergy House. Beyond that, in a corner of the village, two huge marquees awaited offering lunch and respite.
A friend had warned me not to fill up too much on food – or sit down for too long. Any thoughts of a quick stopover, however, quickly evaporated when I spied the feast that had been put on for us. Pasta, salad, scotch eggs, cheeses, cake, more tea and coffee – I’d soon filled my plate, kicked off my walking boots and settled in for a delicious feast.
But all good things come to an end. After applying some strategically-placed plasters, I reluctantly laced my boots back up and the chevy chafes hit the trail again, with heavier legs and stomachs than before.
Thankfully, there was so much beautiful scenery crammed into the next stretch of our walk through Alfriston towards Litlington, that the lethargy didn’t last long. As we meandered our way alongside the banks of the Cuckmere River to the sounds of rippling water, we spotted herons, swans and the chalky white horse of Litlington looming over a distant hill.
We eventually emerged at the mouth of river and joined the Seven Sisters Country Park, where we were rewarded with breathtaking views of Cuckmere Haven, and the first flash of the white cliffs ahead that we were about to take on.
The final leg of our walk was definitely the hardest. We ascended each of the sisters with backs bent over and noses pointing down, and the descents were even harder. The awe-inspiring cliff-top views spurred us onward, along with the camaraderie of fellow walkers, with encouraging smiles and positive words.
After what felt like an eternity, Birling Gap came into view, and our final pit stop for another much needed refuel. After a brief interlude, we pushed on towards Beachy Head, with the famous lighthouse in the distance. We were on the home stretch.
Spirits soared as we caught our first glimpses of Eastbourne in the distance, but our legs and toes were throbbing. We caught up with some fellow walkers with a stereo, and their aptly chosen playlist provided us with a much-needed boost, or was it delirium? Eitthher way we sang along to ‘These boots are made for walking’, ‘Sweet Caroline’ and ‘We are the champions’, as we took on the final challenge – a very steep descent into Eastbourne – with gusto.
The welcome we received as we crossed the finish line just after 7pm was unforgettable. We were met with medals, cheers, shout outs and glasses of prosecco. Tents surrounded us with even more food – as if we hadn’t had enough already – and plenty of chairs to sit and cheer on the walkers coming in behind us.
I’m so pleased that I took part. The day was truly memorable and the rewards of great company and beautiful scenery more than made it worthwhile. My mind was buzzing with the achievement long after the pain in my legs subsided, and that was made even more meaningful with the knowledge that it was all in aid of a good cause.
With one in two people now facing cancer in their lifetime, and every one of us knowing someone who has been touched by it, every penny raised for MacMillan is absolutely vital, and so, I’d happily do it all again.
If you would like to donate to this vital cause, please visit my sponsor page at: Lauren Hatch is fundraising for Macmillan Cancer Support (justgiving.com).