Monday, 20 August 2012


Calm down. It’s not a headline from the Sunday red-tops, but an update on where we are with the statue.
With the final clay complete, the entire statue and platform was gingerly scooped up by a forklift and placed in the back of a cavernous juggernaut. With sculptor Martin Jennings driving at the head of the convoy, it made the slow and delicate journey from his studio near Oxford to the foundry in Gloucestershire.
Seeing sunlight bathe the familiar figure for the first time, it brought my illustrious forebear even more to life and the next time daylight hits him, it will be when the wraps are pulled off and he is unveiled to the world in Portsmouth’s Guildhall Square. 
Martin was on hand to repair the inevitable small cracks and splits caused by the journey and then it was over to the foundry workers to paint the clay with a latex rubber solution. It will pick up every miniscule impression of his brilliant sculpting talent and once dried, a fibre glass layer was added. This becomes the mould, which now awaits the pouring of the bronze and subsequent welding of the statue elements in to the final, magnificently patinated finished piece.
But that’s where things stop until we have raised the remaining £60,000 to complete the process.
Donations continue to trickle in from our walk and many of those will be in Euros. Gerry performed Nicholas Nickleby at Kyteler’s Inn as part of the Kilkenny Arts Festival last week and there was an audible gasp when the audience discovered that no statue exists in the UK.  Donations were as generous as the standing ovation, led - perhaps a tad too enthusiastically - by the establishments owner. The fact that she is our sister is beside the point and it was good to have Nicky Flynn (nee Dickens) rallying to the cause.
And showing that sibling love was dished out fairly, Nicky had ensured that my blogs were on display around the room for the good folk of Co. Kilkenny to enjoy. It is gratifying to see that we are heading towards 3,000 views from a truly international audience and the feedback has been generous in its praise. To our friends in America, thank you for following the story so far - you stand in the silver medal position behind the UK in terms of reader numbers. Russia takes the bronze (I don’t know anyone in Russia, but it’s great to know you are so interested in our project) closely followed by Ireland. After that, there is an extraordinary kaleidoscope of countries including Colombia, India, Thailand, Switzerland and Singapore. In total, 22 nations have logged on so far and to all who have taken a look, we are most grateful.

Although this blog was initially conceived to promote and report on our fund-raising walk, it will remain for a little longer thanks to popular demand. The intention is to write an update three or four times a month - either until the statue project is complete, or when I see that our readership has dwindled to one hit from the UK and one from Ireland. Or rather, when I know it’s just Gerry and Nicky dutifully following my words...

One thing that strikes me as we continue our fund-raising push is the credit card statements now coming in. They display a clear story of our expenditure and it raises a slightly uncomfortable issue.
To walk 94 miles, you need decent kit and buying boots, quick dry trousers, shirts and fleeces plus backpacks and walking poles probably set Gerry and I back to the tune of £500. Then there was the fund raising brochure that needed designing and printing, which adds another £150 to the outlay.  Oh, plus the envelopes and stamps to mail it to our data base. KERCHING! That’s another £50.

We needed to find overnight accommodation on route and while some establishments offered various levels of discount, none of it was free so there’s another £280 that’s gone on the credit card - and that was just for kipping and sticking aching feet in to a variety of sinks.

Suppers and a drink or two (we were not exactly Monk-like in our abstinence) means another £180 has flown from the account – walking is thirsty work, after all. The statement also reminds me that we stayed in London on the eve of the walk which meant a £160 hotel room in the West End. Supper in a restaurant during the London Olympics was always going to be costly and it delivered little change from £100. Fifty quid a head for a bowl of pasta and a glass or two of Vino Rosso? Really?  
We needed to do a couple of site visits for the venues where Gerry performed and a day’s driving sucked £70’s worth of petrol through the carburettors.  Gerry’s partner Liz had to deliver his costume and stage props to the venues in Godalming and Rowlands Castle (and collect them again after the applause had died away), so there’s another £50 of unleaded to be added to the total.

Chasing up our numerous media contacts probably added £25’s worth of calls on our iPhones and having internet access was vital to share these blogs and respond to e-mails, so I estimate another £15 has flown off in to the ether. Then there was the new video camera so I could upload footage to the BBC, and the accounts department at Panasonic are no doubt grateful for the £130 I gave them. Oh and the tripod too, so we could both be in shot, added £30 to the outlay and several more pounds to the weight of my backpack (I carried more media/communications kit than I did change of clothes, which might explain both the sore back and our ripe smelling odours by day five)
Not thinking about the monthly statement from VISA, I stupidly forgot to do what used to be the norm on budget ski holidays, where you raid the hotel buffet bar and put together your own packed lunch at the expense of the hotelier. So water, bananas, sandwiches, energy drinks, coffee stops  and the occasional cooling ice cream probably added another £50 as we kept fed and watered during our trip.

All of which begs the question ‘wouldn’t it have been easier to have just written a cheque for £1,690 to the charities?’
Well yes, in one sense that would have been the sensible thing to do. But the walk was a catalyst to generate greater awareness of our cause and with a combined media audience totalling over 1,000,000 people, we certainly spread the word. As mentioned earlier, we have 22 lovely countries following developments and with our personal fund-raising total coming in at around £4,000, the investment to speculate has been firmly outstripped by what has been accumulated so far.

And anyway, we don’t do sensible.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012


Last week, it took three days to pass the 65 mile mark on our walk. This morning it took me 80 minutes to cover the same distance, but I have to thank Mercedes, a turbo-charged engine and a hefty right foot (which still feels a little sore) that hurtled me so effortlessly up the A3 to the office.

It was a drive of landmarks that previously had been mere patches of flashing green. The rainbow arch of the bridge connecting Havant to Portsmouth had a lone pedestrian on it and I knew he would be getting a little breathless on an incline I had not noticed before. Through the South Downs, I could glimpse the steep path climbing up the chalk escarpment that gives walkers their first view of the distant sea.

The signs to Petersfield, Liss and Milford delivered fond recollections of kindness, characters and generosity, while the sign to Guildford gave me a cold chill. It was good that my route to Windsor had me turning off before the receding city and the pain of trying to get there vanished in my fast moving rear view mirror. It felt like I was getting my own back.

I remembered the lovely group of Mums who we met near Hindhead asking where we were heading to in the evening. “Liss” we said and the response made us smile. “Not too far then” they said. Well no, in a 3 litre Range Rover, it’s just 20 minutes down the road. But by foot, it was another five hours of muscle burning slog.

Tonight as I drive home and just before I hurtle in to the darkness of the Hindhead tunnel, I’ll look up at the pine clad slopes which gave us such a short, sharp workout and look at the gap in the trees where we stared down at an incredible feat of engineering. At the time, we stood and waved our top hats at the passing traffic slicing down the valley of the new road but no one waved, flashed their light or hooted their horns. I doubt if anyone will be there, but I’ll be keeping a lookout, just in case.

Yesterday I went back to the Dickens Fellowship Conference and the lecture theatre we tried to enter on Thursday night was now properly open. I was there to chair a talk given by Martin Jennings on the making of his fine statue of Charles Dickens. You could have heard a pin drop as he shared his insight, motivation and approach to the commission and the thought and attention to detail that has gone in to four months of creativity was impressive. Some Dickens fans have been against the idea of a statue because they believe it goes against the wording of Dickens’s Will but afterwards, a steady queue of academics had clearly been won round and are now convinced that this is an important project to support.

We thought so too, which is why we got off our backsides and slogged our guts out for five days. My goal had always been to create a catalyst that would be picked up by others and the media coverage we generated can only have helped. But in terms of unlocking funds through our efforts, it’s been a bit if a disappointment. The current combined total for the Statue Fund and the National Literacy Trust stands at just under £4,000 – way short of our £10,000 personal target.

We are incredibly grateful to all those who made donations, either through the links here or out on the road. The first contribution as we walked was a £1 coin given to us on the first day in Chelsea and it will play its part in allowing the foundry to buy another bronze ingot as they prepare for the statue to be cast. 

If you have been following us but have yet to pledge your support, the lines are, unsurprisingly, still open and will remain so until all the funds are secured. If you click on the statue link at the top of this blog, don’t be surprised that it takes you to the Portsmouth City Council web site. They are enthusiastic supporters of the project and their finance department has created the ability to make a contribution that will be handed over to the statue fund. Click on ‘Miscellaneous’ on the first page and you will see Dickens Statue as an option. Simply follow directions from there.

Getting a rich benefactor to write a cheque for £60,000 is, I guess, a bit like driving to Liss in a Range Rover. If you have one, then it's dead easy and you do it without a moments thought. But if you don't, then the long slog with a firm eye on the goal is the only option open to us.

We are desperately eager to achieve - driven, infact.



Friday, 10 August 2012


94 miles after leaving London’s Golden Square, we arrived at Guildhall Square, Portsmouth.

The original expectation was to walk 75 miles but twisting footpaths, the odd diversion and the occasional wrong turn added the extra distance. Over the five days, we have walked for 44 hours, the longest day covering 25 miles.

And our constant companion throughout has been a set of now rather dog-eared Ordnance Survey maps that have faithfully lead us down footpaths, along bridleways, across hectic roads, through ancient woodlands, down shaded valleys and atop high chalk ridges as central London gave way to Surrey, West Sussex and finally Hampshire.

I love an Ordnance Survey map and can settle down to ‘read’one like a good book. The contour lines in brown swirls ripple out across the landscape revealing a flat river plane here or a steep ridge there. Bold motorways in blue, bulldoze their way through the landscape regardless. Bright red 'A' roads hurtle self importantly from town to town. Dull 'B' roads in brown join them in a series of tributaries while the back roads, the narrow lanes, the rural roads meander haphazardly in paths of serene yellow. Criss-crossing it all are the dotted green lines of footpaths, bridleways and byways that have been walked upon for centuries and it is these old and ancient ways that have been our best friend.

It is all deeply reassuring. The map shows a track should be just ahead to take us off a horrible 'A' road where there is no pavement and wing mirrors shave by our backpacks at 70 mph. And sure enough, unseen by the hurtling motorist, there indeed is a worn wooden signpost with FOOTPATH carved in to it, pointing the way across untroubled countryside. And it’s not just the maps that deserve praise. It is the parish councils meeting in the village halls and pubs, the local councils in the towns and the county bigwigs in their labyrinth of corridors in sprawling county halls, who ensure the networks are marked and maintained. Stiles, kissing gates and small bridges are all there to ease our path by the curious stares of cattle and the farmers too respect the ways, leaving narrow bands of soil uncultivated as lines across their fields.

The one thing the maps don’t do is to give any warning of vegetation or conditions underfoot. Yesterday dawned bright and clear with the promise of hot and sunny conditions, so for the first time in our walk, the lower section of trousers were unzipped and our milky white legs were on show. Which, of course, meant that the first wooden footpath sign, just outside Rowlands Castle, pointed the way down a narrow avenue lined with overgrown patches of stinging nettles.

The nettles, having spurred us on with plenty of poisoned barbs, gave way to rich banks of brambles and their thorns seemed to delight in ensuring that the damage continued. And from there, it was over a long meadow full of cows. In the heat, the horseflies were out in force and we could feel them taking great chunks out of our legs as we covered the 16 miles in to Portsmouth.

We were both feeling pretty weary. Gerry’s performance the night before had been a huge success as Rowlands Castle came out to support us in force. It was standing room only at the Robin Hood Inn and when the top hats went round at the end of the show, the donations were generous in the extreme. The generosity continued at the bar where several of the locals insisted we join them for a drink.

Followed by another.

And then one for the road.

And then a nightcap. And then ein for the strasse.

And then a very last one.

Breakfast was a quiet affair but once on the road, we were back to our easy pace and the combination of hot sun and top hats soon had the sweat pouring from our brows as the excess of fluids took their leave. Around the back of Havant, we were quickly on to the Portsdown Hill with Chichester Harbour, Langstone Harbour, Portsmouth Harbour and the Solent spread out beneath us. It’s one of the finest views in the UK and plenty of people were out enjoying it in a long line of family picnics. We needed to liaise with BBC South to film another piece, having spent the previous day doing the same with ITV Meridian.

As we spotted producer David Allard, a beaten up car braked sharply to a halt and a friendly young chap by the name of Toby donated £10 to the cause. Walking down in to Cosham, a lovely lady proffered a fiver and two further passers by emptied their pockets of change. As we walked through a park with immaculate bowling greens, the ladies interrupted their game and a gaggle of white matrons waved and applauded our passing.

A back street in Portsmouth lead to more kindnesses and the filling up water bottles and making a donation came easily to David and Amanda at number 13. We walked by the Dickens Birthplace Museum and got a lovely welcome from the staff there, then it was on down Commercial Road, and in to Guildhall Square, following the original path of the old A3 that has connected Portsmouth to London for centuries.

The global delegates in town for the Dickens Fellowship were out in force and we were welcomed with applause, flag waving and cheers from a crowd of around 150, which included my eight month old grandson Joe. The Lord Mayor was warm in his praise of our efforts, our fund raising initiatives and the publicity we have generated for our cause. The spot where we were standing will be where the Charles Dickens statue will be unveiled and I am certain it will be there for all to see by next spring.

Sculptor Martin Jennings has been a generous supporter of our walk and two days ago, we took a call from him telling us that after four months of work, the final piece of clay had been placed. Yesterday, the full size Charles DIckens was driven in a slow convoy to the foundry for the mould to be made and all we need now is the final sums of cash to start the casting process.

Gerry and I were due to address the Fellowship Conference with an illustrated talk in one of the University Lecture Theatres last night, but things went a tad awry. The bloke who was supposed to show up with the keys didn’t appear, leaving 150 delegates from all over the world amassed on the pavement with nothing to do. So we hoofed it, giving an impromptu talk on our walk and the six generations of Dickens’s who have lived in Portsmouth. We hoofed it from the steps outside the building and the audience responded in kind. It was the lark of all larks, full of laughter and fun and by the end of it, the top hats were overflowing once again with a richness of notes.

And then when the delegate’s coaches didn’t appear either, I blazed a trail through the streets of Portsmouth, leading them back to their accommodation in Rees Hall (the site of the old Southsea Pier Hotel where Charles Dickens once stayed).

 It was the least I could do and anyway, it was nice to have a walk.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012


We are in sniffing distance of the sea and our journey from London is almost over.

As a Portsmouth boy, (the sixth generation Dickens to live in the city), today felt like home territory as we walked through countryside I have strolled over several times before. As we crested one particular hill, there before us lay the first sight of the English Channel. Across fields of rolling ripe corn, small blue smudges of coppiced woodland and nestling ancient villages, I could see the hills of the Isle of Wight, the Solent forts, distant shipping making their ponderous way towards the ferry port and underneath a heavy cloud of rain, Portsmouth itself.

The day had started under misty and damp skies, but the air – even at seven o’clock when we left the sleeping pub, had a thickness and warmth to it. And while lightweight Gortex does the job in helping shirts, trousers and socks to breath, black felt top hats with their heavy inner rim of leather are not quite so advanced.

As such, a steady stream of sweat trickled down our faces and my topper now has a rather unpleasant salty white rim around its once smart band. But our trademarks continued to work their wonder as we walked from Liss into Petersfield in search of a hearty breakfast. Fate took us to the Folly Bar near the town centre and we immediately knew it was full of positive vibes and goodness. The ladies at the counter were genuine in their warmth, the other diners were equally quick to trade banter and we were swiftly ensconced at a window table with two plates crammed with eggs, bacon, sausages and all the other elements that make the full English quite so full.

Another hat wearer was quick to spot us. His purple beret suggested ‘character’ and his opening gambit confirmed it.

“Your great-great-grandfather was a randy old bugger” he roared, followed by a loud guffaw. This unconventional 72 year old was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the word STIFF. The word amplified itself in to a full Technicolor boast thanks to his admirably proportioned belly and our response was quick and predictable.

His craggy features, full-on grey beard and twinkling eyes clearly betrayed an entertaining life. We learnt that he had mild cirrhosis which meant he could only drink occasionally “Bloody doctor said he had bad news, then told me my liver was damaged. Could have told the silly sod that decades ago. So I can’t drink now - but I do have some fantastic memories” he added, only slightly wistfully.

“If you can remember, then you weren’t trying hard enough” we said and he laughed at that.

He told us about an old friend who loved Smoked Salmon but was so tight, he was the only one allowed to carve it. “The slices were so thin, they were like tissue paper” he related, before continuing; “He was carving one day when someone was rude about the Queen. Quick as a flash, he raised the knife and sliced half the chap’s ear off. Case went to court and the Judge was not impressed until he found out about the rudeness to Her Majesty. After that, it was deemed perfectly fair and reasonable. Case dismissed!”
We asked for his name and the response was a reassuring nickname rather than a formal title. ‘Gibbo. Call me Gibbo’ he said, before adding “you can also call me Arsehole, but if you do, make sure it’s Mr. Arsehole as without manners, all sense of decorum in society is lost’. At that, he bid us good day and left.

And people wonder how Charles Dickens found the material for his extraordinary characters.

The owner of the Folly Bar was in equally gregarious form, desperate to donate a bottle to help us on our way. With heavy back packs and little space, we declined but he was ready to counter and came back with a solution. Two miniature bottles of Cava – one white and one pink - emerged from behind the bar and made rather curious bedfellow with the bottle of HP Sauce. If Gibbo had not left already, we would have given the bottle of Rose to him. It matched his hat and a small glass of bubbles would surely be OK - it was only mild cirrhosis after all.

Suitably refreshed, we attacked the South Downs and picked our way through delightful folds of rural countryside with only bird song and the occasional squirrel for company. Our path took us to the village of Chalton in which the 16th century pub ‘The Red Lion’ features heavily. Chalton is a tiny hamlet and it was at this wayside inn that we think Dickens set a key scene in Nicholas Nickleby. Our hero and his friend Smike find themselves 10 miles from Portsmouth and are persuaded by the Landlord to stop for the night. In the long room next to the old bar was one Vincent Crummles taking supper and the introduction – and what followed – delivered some of the funniest scenes in the book.

And we had a welcoming committee too. Hats appear to be a theme of today and purple beret had been replaced with straw boaters. Underneath them were three smiling faces, as the Pickwick Bicycle Club, beers in hand, gave us a warm welcome. They preside over the oldest Dickens club in the world and I greatly enjoy being an honorary member.
Hanging baskets rich with flowers, a gently thatched roof, an ancient church, distant views to the Downs and a bar rich with ghosts made it tempting to follow Nicholas and Smike’s lead and stay the night. But another performance beckons and as I write this in the convivial surrounds of The Robin Hood Inn, on the village green in Rowland’s Castle, an expectant buzz is building behind me.

The bar is packed, Meridian TV is here, the Portsmouth News are sending a photographer - it’s ‘curtain up’ in 20 minutes time. And with hats as today’s theme, our toppers will be upturned at the door, ready for some hefty donations.

As Gibbo might say “there’s no such thing as a free lunch.”

Tuesday, 7 August 2012


What a beautiful day August 7th turned out to be.
We seemed to reach some invisible border where the tight fisted, the mealy mouthed and the watery smiles were replaced with full on, good hearted, sublimely beautiful experiences that kept coming. The clues started early – within 50 paces from our start point at the Inn on the Lake, we got the first hoot of goodwill. In the next 60 seconds, several more followed and not all of them came from white van man with their cheery smiles and raised thumbs.
After about a mile, we were aware that a woman was waiting on the pavement with that look that said ‘it’s you I’m after’. That’s how we came to meet our first patron saint in the form of Godalming’s Jackie Rees-Thomas. She had her mobile camera phone at the ready, so we posed for pictures and then had a lovely chat.
She had seen us on the BBC News the night before and generously thrust a significant contribution (of the folding kind) in to our hand. She signed the copy of Nicholas Nickleby we are carrying and the pages are filling up nicely with the names of all the good people with good souls we have met along the way. Jackie, I said we’d mention you – thank you again so much, and we hope your daughter is feeling better soon.
All of 200 yards further on, we dived in to a quaint corner shop in Milford by the name of Tesco Express. At the till, an old boy spied us and exclaimed ‘What the Dickens are you doing here?' It was the same story – ‘saw you on the TV news last night and love what you are doing’. We discussed the torrential rain yesterday which had put paid to his Bowls match and as we made ready to leave, he pulled all the change out of his pocket and donated it to our cause. He upped Mrs. Fragrant Chelsea lady from day one on the Kings Road by 10%

On the way out of Milford, an old chap was walking towards us and as we drew level he looked us in the eye and said “Blimey, I thought it was the undertakers coming to get me”. And with the joke shared, he laughed. When I say laughed, I mean he really exploded in to the loudest, heartiest, happiest laugh there could be. His lips pulled back to reveal a fine set of porcelain dentures and as he drew breath to raise the second and then the third belly laugh, the light caught them and we were bathed in an ethereal glow of dental happiness. As we walked on, we could hear the guffaws continue and we joined in too. It WAS a very funny joke.
And just when our giggles subsided, there on the way to Witley Common was another person looking down the road to see where we were. He too had seen us on the telly and the trade mark top hats were working their treat again. “Ah, the Dickens Boys!” he said, (which made us sound a bit like a vaudeville act) and once more, a generous donation, lots of goodwill and delightful dollops of support were shared before he sent us on our way.
Even the way itself had taken a happy pill. Witley Common gave us a soft and gentle carpet of pine needles to cushion our suffering feet and I’m sure that if we looked up, the birdsong in the trees above would be coming from a Snow White cast of chirpy cheery feathered friends.

Our path lead towards the A3 once more. We first walked next to it as the Portsmouth road thundered out of Roehampton, on Sunday. We saw it again from a motorway bridge as it hurtled aggressively underneath, assaulting the senses as we closed in on Cobham yesterday. Today, we had stopped in a tranquil country lane and realized that for the first time on this walk, there was no din, do hurtling cars, not even the distant all-pervading hum hissing across the trees coming from a thousand reps with deadlines to meet.
The path worked its way steeply towards the sky and, not for the first time in the day, I admired the receding form of my brother as he took to the paths with a healthy, youthful ease. It was a short, very sharp work out and when we paused, the hum of traffic was back but it took on a different tone. Through the trees, we watch the ground swallow up the hurtling trucks, the BMW’s and the Golfs as they pinged past us - and then vanished in to the bowels of the earth. Or the new Hindehead tunnel, as it’s known in these parts.

Further on (or rather, further upwards), we came out on to the old, old London to Portsmouth Road. Down below us, the more recent one replaced by the tunnel is being turned back to nature and in just one year, I’m delighted to report that nature is doing a grand job. Just along from us on the old, old road sat one of the key milestones of this trip and waiting to meet us was a reporter from the local paper.

A large stone marks the spot of a grizzly murder that took place in the 1700’s when three men set upon a friendly sailor who had recently bought them drinks at the local pub. They ambushed him, took his life (along with his money and clothes) and fled down the path we had just struggled up. They were duly caught and hung within spitting distance of the crime there.
In Nicholas Nickleby, our hero and his friend Smike paused at the very spot to read the story and today we did the same. As we did, a lovely lady (because today, everyone was lovely) came by and stopped for a chat. Gerry gave her an exclusive performance of the reading, as her dogs sat dutifully at her feet and she promised to rush home, log on to this site and donate. And when she had gone, a lively and noisy group of Mums and toddlers walked by and once again, the greeting refrain was ‘Oooo – we saw you on TV last night’ and we had another happy, smiling chat. After that, four more people out for a stroll hove in to view and a complete stranger said ‘Goodness me, it’s the Dickens brothers’. And then the complete stranger enthusiastically introduced us to more complete strangers, with our story being accurately relayed to the friends he was with.

The stone is supposed to have a curse and ghosts haunt this magical bit of Surrey, known as the Devils Punchbowl. As we stood to leave, the decent weather was interrupted by a sudden chill and dark clouds rolled over the hill, turning it almost dark. Rain stung on our faces from the sudden onslaught and I looked at my phone to check our leaving time. It was almost a quarter past one in the afternoon, so my digital read out said 13:13. Perhaps it was coincidence, but dear old Uncle Cedric always told me that 13 was Charles Dickens’s lucky number. Dismiss it if you will, but I’d like to see it as a sign that we were being watched by benign and supportive ghosts.
On towards Liss and the hooting and tooting continued. Money was thrust out of a passing car with shouts of good luck and on Liphook’s very smart golf course (through which our footpath was winding) two chaps about to putt stopped to take us in.  I thought this would be the ultimate test and was half braced for a members rant at invading their precious club in fanct dress. But no, the Barabra Cartland haze continued and yet another two were telling us they had seen the TV news and loved what we were doing. Even in Liss itself (where we were due to stay tonight), a lovely chap called Dave added his support. Dave had an armful of tattoos, several piercings and looked and sounded like he was on the wrong side of around six pints of beer. But in to our hat went numerous coins and an earnest entreaty to come inside his favourite watering hole to join him for a drink.

We would have loved to, but it turned out that our pub/hotel was not in Liss at all but five miles back down the track we had just plodded for the last two hours. So we took a taxi and will return to our stopping point tomorrow morning as we stride out towards Rowlands Castle. But even with that error, the magic was not over. We were shown to our rooms in the Flying Bull and for the first time on this challenge, they were fitted with long, wide, deep, beautiful baths.
Those baths are now filled to the steaming brim and this blog comes to you live from my tub in which I’m wearing nothing but a smile. It’s been that sort of day.


Note: Apologies for the delay in this post. Poor internet connection now resolved!

Monday, 6 August 2012


Poor old Gene Pitney. He is forever locked in the hell of always being 24 hours from Tulsa and today we rather sympathized with his plight.

No matter how far we walked, how hard we strode, how quick our pace, sodding, bloody, pissing Guildford remained frustratingly out of reach as some unseen force tugged the city south, and then south again. Day two was supposed to be around 15 miles but it turned in to a 25 mile marathon before we arrived footsore, damp and tired at our hotel in Godalming.

But there is no peace for the wicked. Arriving at 7pm after ten hours on the road gave us an entire 20 minutes to shower, change and meet the rather select audience who had turned out to see the first of Gerry’s performance. As I type this, I can hear him in full flow, giving his all and I’m glad I’m behind a pillar, so he can’t see the tears of pride.

But back to Esher, which feels like a lifetime ago. We stepped out feeling pretty good after a full-on English breakfast laden with all the nonsense. The only other diner was an old boy from the old school. Meticulous in his manners and busy showing crumpled snaps of his grandchildren to the bored Russian waitress, I looked at him with a benign affection. After all, here was a grandfather, rather slow on his feet, joints aching a bit first thing in the morning – and then realized that aside from 20 years and a pocket full of Werthers Originals, we were in the same club – especially with the aching joints bit. He was very impressed with our challenge and bade us good day with all the courtesy of a charming cameo character in one of Dickens’s more feel good novels.
For the first hour, the roads were full with shiny motor cars driven by yummy mummy blondes that swept by the bespoke kitchen shop, the Farrow & Ball paint showroom, the luxury boutiques and the Pilates studios. No boarded-up high streets and lines of charity shops in Esher or Cobham and Mary Portas can rest easy in her bed that Surrey, at least, is doing OK.

Today was a bit of a media day. We kicked off with a well briefed DJ on BBC Radio Surrey who asked all the right questions and said all the right things to our answers. Then we needed to hook up with a writer and photographer from the Daily Telegraph. Rather amazingly, they managed to spot us on Cobham High Street – like yesterday, we were starting to wonder whether the top hats and large signs on our backpacks were working like some kind of invisibility cloak, but they pulled up with a confident flourish and did the interview at a nearby Costa. Then it was photo time and some of our 25 miles were taken up with several takes as we performed for the camera, walking up and down the same path.
As soon as we heard "it’s a wrap", the Telegraph team gave us a cheery wave outside the historic semaphore tower and we headed confidently towards Guildford, surely just around the next corner. An hour later, we were live on Katie Martin’s show on BBC Radio Solent and when she asked where we were, we were able to confidently announce that we were "well, just outside Guildford". 40 minutes later, a newspaper from Hindhead called and we planned to meet with their photographer tomorrow.

"So how are you getting on?" asked the researcher and we were pleased to report that “well, we are just on the outskirts of Guildford." 90 minutes later and the phone rang again. It was the Surrey Advertiser - based in the holy grail of…Guildford. "We’d like to send a photographer to meet you" they said. "Where are you?"
"Well, really extraordinarily close to Guildford" we said and with some confidence too.
After all, we had been just outside Guildford for the last three hours, so it must surely be round the next bend. What was round the next bend was a sign that said in unrelenting Helvetica Bold ‘Guildford 4 miles’. And it was a horrid four miles of dual carriage way with roaring motors, no pavements and huge puddles for cars to soak us in.
By the time we had gone by the large houses on the outskirts of Guildford, the terraced houses halfway towards the centre of Guildford and finally Guildford High Street itself, we sank gratefully into the welcome seats of a handy Starbucks and called the local paper back. Sadly, the photographer had given up on us and gone home…
Today, our Dad would have been 87 and he would have enjoyed our walk immensely. It had all the ingredients he liked – barbed wire, muddy streams, torrential rain, signs that said ‘PRIVATE’ and stiles that headed to nowhere. He would also have blown steam at the pompous, the sneering and the downright rude.
While today was mainly countryside, we still walked through plenty of towns and not a penny of support came our way. It was noticeable that the people in the Mercs and Audis, the Range Rovers and Porsches simply didn’t see us. All the support came from smiling blokes in vans giving us a cheery hoot and a ‘good on yer mate’ out of the window as a raised thumb vanished off down the road.
Just as it was in Dickens’s day, the decency came from the real people, the folk who really work for their crust and to all the plasterers, electricians, plumbers and builders who spurred us on with their cheeriness, ‘Thank you’.
At one point, deep in the Surrey countryside (somewhere apparently quite near Guildford), we chanced upon a lady unloading her shopping in to an attractive looking farmhouse. Because we had been delayed with the Telegraph and had a deadline to meet, we had skipped lunch (other than a bar of Kendal Mint Cake which needed washing down with plenty of water). With supplies almost empty, here was an opportunity to fill our bottles, so I called out and asked if that may be possible.
With a thin smile, she pointed us to a cobweb encrusted dirty hose attached to an outside pipe in their yard and went inside and shut the door. If nothing else, this trip is truly Dickensian in its authenticity!

Sunday, 5 August 2012


And so it has started.

Being authentic to the project, we met at Golden Square under leaden skies this morning just as Nicholas and Smike did in the book. A small gathering of family and friends were there to see us off, along with David Allard from BBC South. Despite our lowly sporting endeavor, it was nice to learn that he needed full Olympic media accreditation in order to capture the historic moment as we stepped out towards Portsmouth. The Dickens Walk is right up there in media importance it seems.

The Olympics were immediately ready to hamper our progress with numerous roads closed for the marathon. One thing not closed were the heavens and we had gone no more than half a mile when the mother of all thunder storms decided to park itself over central London. In true Captain Scott style, we plugged on regardless – well, for at least another quarter of a mile before seeking shelter in the recently opened Bomber Command memorial at Green Park.
Olympic spectators from all corners of the planet sought shelter too and one can only assume that they thought a group of top hat attired walkers is perfectly normal for Brits taking a Sunday morning stroll in London. No one made mention and studiously ignored us.

Walking the first eight miles were family members and it was great to have company and conversation as Sloane Square made way for the Kings Road. Two of the walkers were girls and we could only admire their stamina and will-power to avoid the alluring tug of Peter Jones and numerous Chelsea boutiques. The good people of the Borough of Chelsea could see nothing odd in our appearance either but then again, I guess not much will surprise those who reside along the famous ribbon of high end galleries, up market eateries and multi-million pound houses. They have been watching it every decade since the swinging ‘60s.
With the rain returning, it was inevitable that Starbucks got our business and as Gerry set his soaking top hat down, the poor piece of millinery gave a quiet sob and expired. Not wanting to risk his expensive performance topper, he had reverted to a low cost felt affair and as the rain fell in torrents, the felt turned to blotting paper and the shape reverted to something that perhaps Ermintrude the cow might wear during her guest appearances on The Magic Roundabout. It only vaguely resembled a hat, but one that took no form, shape or style and it sat forlorn, like a disastrous soufflé at a disastrous dinner party. A new one will join us from tomorrow night.

It was after six miles that the first brave soul plucked up courage and asked us who we were raising money for. She was an attractive woman, elegantly coiffured, wearing expensive fabrics and fingers adorned with gold and diamonds. A serene waft of expensive scent filled the air and her orthodontically perfect teeth flashed a smile through the carefully applied make up. Her home was no doubt one of the multi-million pound pads nearby, filled with rich banker husband, a richness of cars on the drive and richly sumptuous furniture. She listened intently to our goals, thought it ‘absolutely marvelous’ and gushingly reached in to her Louis Vuitton handbag to give us a donation.
The elegant hand reached out and as she earnestly continued her eulogistic support, I felt a whole £1 coin get pressed in to my hand. So the statue committee now only needs a mere £59,999 more and we were very grateful – heck, it made us believe we had almost broken the back of our challenge.

On through Putney and at Putney Vale Cemetery, we took a detour in to the massive graveyard where the likes of J. Bruce Ismay, Arthur Askey and the small-boy-giggle-inducing 1930’s racing driver Dick Seaman lie. At the graves of Henry Fielding Dickens (“the 6th son and last surviving child of Charles Dickens”), a grand picnic was ready for us. Cousin Marion had laid on a memorable spread and we think Henry (our great grandfather), his wife Marie, son Pip and wife Sybil (in the next door grave) would have approved. Especially when we discovered that the edge of Pip’s tombstone gave the ideal edge for popping off the crown top on a bottle of Bud. Several times.
Our morning walkers left and we were on our own heading in to Richmond Park, Kingston and along a sun dappled river  Thames towards Esher. Only around one in twenty either stopped to ask about the walk or shouted a good luck message, while the rest pretended we weren’t there.

Heading out of Kingston, we overtook a young and loved up couple in their early 20’s. As we overtook them (I’ve written that just to give you an indication that our pace never slacked), they read our posters and came chasing after us to give a donation. The pair of them emptied out their pockets of change and gave the entire content. It was a genuine and touching display and their £6.78p rather put the Chelsea donation in to perspective.
And even better was to come. Walking by the City Arms pub on the road towards Esher, a lovely bar-maid came chasing out of the door after us. She asked about our challenge and we were quickly ushered inside, offered drinks and made to feel incredibly welcome. They topped us up with free  bottles of water and several locals enjoying an afternoon glass or two wanted to know more. A fiver was pressed in to our hand by an older lady and they all signed our copy of Nicholas Nickleby with promises of several more on-line pledges. As we took to the road for the last four miles, there were waves and cheers of support with an open offer to ‘come  back and visit’ when we have more time. Nicholas and Smike would have stayed for a pint and we were sorely tempted too.

The last two miles hurt rather and it confirmed that 15-18 miles a day is the right level. Now ensconced in a pub with rooms, I’ve just discovered a new art of balancing. Stood on a tiny chair, I lowered my aching feet in to the tiny basin, one at a time to try to work some comfort on my aching soles. It worked OK, but the chamber maid may well wonder how handprints managed to smudge themselves in to the ceiling some 10’ above the floor.
It’s always good to leave a mark of ones passing, and that one is mine.