In January 2010, adventurers Rob Lilwall and Al Humphreys teamed up for a ‘local’ English adventure. The choice of route was obvious: they decided to walk a lap of London’s infamous M25, the motorway that rings around London and gave rise to Chris Reah’s song ‘The Road to Hell’.
As it happened, the day they set off also coincided with some of the worst winter weather to descend on the country in decades. They walked 180 miles in 6 days, sleeping rough in the snowy forests and fields along the way.

The infamous M25 Rob and Al walking M25 (Small)

After many adventures abroad, Lilwall and Humphreys were both living in England, both married, and both only had a week to spare amidst their slightly hectic calendars…. so walking around England’s least favourite motorway seemed like the perfect choice for a good, yet silly adventure.
At the same time, they wanted to test two theories:

  1. That you don’t have to fly to the other side of the world to have a good adventure
  2. On their far flung travels on bicycles they had often been invited to stay with complete strangers and looked after admirably. But surely it was not just in other parts of the world that people are friendly – would not people in England be friendly too?

They put the date of their departure in their diary: the week after new years 2010. When the day came, the 6th of January, it turned out that it was also the day that extreme blizzards swept across the English Channel and plunged the country into some of its worst weather for 30 years. Half the population took a week off work. But for Lilwall and Humphreys it was time to go walking.

They used twitter to document their ‘microadventure’ and keep the world updated what was happening on that ‘road to nowhere’. Here is there funky twitter story:

  • Coldest snap in 30 yrs… Perfect timing to set off to walk a lap of the M25! I leave at dawn tomorrow. Think it will take about 8 days.
  • 3 hours into walking round the m25 we’ve stopped for our first bacon butty and cup of tea
  • Tucked up in bed just off junction 3… 8:45 AM Jan 6th
  • Fox tried to nab food last night. Chilly night in bivvy bag.
  • Told off for being on private land by man with shotgun
  • Bread and ketchup for lunch near junction 6: living the dream
  • Dark now. Headtorch on. Cold. Hoping to reach junction 8 in a few hrs to camp
  • Starving! Headed into a pub by junction 8. Barmaid gives us free beer!
  • Ronan and helen, two people we met in the pub, have invited us to stay in their house! Heroes!
  • Anyone live by the m25 and fancy letting me stay the night?! Bloody cold and wet in a bivvy bag…!
  • Found a tea tray on reigate hill. Sledging descents should speed us up
  • thank you for heroic offers of coffee at junction 10. But we don’t have time for fun!
  • Extra large chips and cheese in leatherhead’s finest kebab house
  • Slow day so far. Almost sunset and less than 2 junctions walked.
  • 3 more junctions to walk before sleep. We only have 8 days to complete walk so cannot slow down…
  • Sitting in the snow as cars rush by. Eating a mars bar and feeling glum. 2 hours more walking to go.
  • Had two beautiful days trek through leafy kent and surrey.
  • Camping at intersection of m3 and m25. Heathrow planes circling.
  • Matt – thanks so much for inviting us in to your house for sausage sandwiches!
  • Printing out Google Map zoom-ins at Matt’s house to get us past Heathrow airport. Not a good place for the usual fence hopping..
  • It’s quite a buzz to lie on ground under flight path as planes land at heathrow
  • Free brandy and garlic bread at a kind pub in rickmansworth
  • Live band in local pub (“these boots were made for walking”). Someone’s allowed us to camp in their garden.
  • Found broken kids’ sled. @roblilwall towing his pack on it. Good training for south pole.
  • Less fence jumping today. Commandeered shopping trolley for packs and accelerating towards junction 21
  • Grr… I lost our map. Hard work trying to get through dark, rural hertfordshire without one. Idiot.
  • Enjoying warmth in deserted south mimms service station. Never considered it an oasis of luxury before.
  • Slept in bushes in car park at south mimms service station. Handy for getting breakfast in morning!
  • People avoid my gaze in service station. Without my pack i look like a homeless man.
  • Grey sky, slushy paths, damp sleeping bag, sore feet, a little whine and a moan.
  • The prospect of cooking super noodles in a cold field has been trumped by a turkish chippy near junction 26
  • Free chips! Walking on now. Hope to sleep in epping forest tonight.
  • Camping 10m from the noisy road. Imagining the trucks are waves on the shore to lull me to sleep…
  • Cup of tea at a stables in essex. “my son’s mad like you. A hot drink will do you good”
  • Asked directions from two essex geezers shooting pigeons in a slushy field.
  • Hopped a fence and striding across a golf course.
  • Marching on together into our final gloomy dusk. My own bed and a hot shower beckon…
  • Finished the m25. What a walk!

On his own website http://roblilwall.com, Lilwall describes the trip in more detail. Read ahead if you need a convincing argument that you can find some real cool adventures in your ‘own backyard’. Real kickass stuff.

We started at dawn from beneath the Dartford Bridge. It spanned the grey skyline behind us, illuminated by orange street lights, and connecting two ends of the motorway across the chilly River Thames which lay out of sight behind a concrete wall. We heaved our heavy packs onto our backs, walked for an hour through a faceless industrial estate, and then eventually found our way to Junction One of the motorway.

The thick, fast traffic, roared forwards and backwards, and we stood watching, dazed at the thought of the million different lives which were rushing past us to spend some more time in the office despite the snow. Climbing a wooded embankment, suddenly we entered a world of virgin white fields.

bridge shelter (Small) jumping fences M25 (Small)

Except for the continuing buzz of cars on the other side of the hedgerow, we could have been in the middle of nowhere. We strolled through that first day with a spring in our step, chatting and taking photos until eight hours later the dusk arrived. A light snow shower was falling, and a line of giant electricity pylons danced nimbly across the lines of ploughed fields ahead of us.

We started scanning for somewhere to camp. We had not brought a tent with us (we wanted to travel light), so instead we had a bivvy bag each, and a sheet of waterproof material for making a shelter. Stomping into a small forest at the end of a hedgerow, we tied out our tarpaulin, and settled down for a satisfying night’s sleep.

shelter at night M25 (Small)

Setting out into a glowing dawn the next morning, the motorway was already awake with fast moving headlights. It felt glorious to be out in the snow, living in the wild again. However, as the morning progressed, it began to occur to us that we were in fact making slow progress. Our way across fields and small roads was often obstructed and this meant that we were frequently having to climb over fences, hack our way through bushes, and detour around properties – sometimes walking three sides of a square to progress.

As a result, we realised we would have to walk a lot further than the 120 miles which the motorway covers in a car. We only had a week to complete the walk, so we worked out that we would have to walk a minimum of four junctions a day – about 30 miles – if we were going to make it.

As the daylight was short, this meant we were in for a lot of night marches. That night, after four hours of walking into the darkness, we reached the town of Redbridge (I confess not a place that I had ever been particularly motivated to visit). We stumbled into a pub to have a warm dinner inside.

quality food M25 (Small)

A sea of rosy faces turned towards our dishevelled figures and looked at us strangely. This was the first time our theory about English hospitality would be put to the test. But then the girl behind the bar said the drinks were on her. And after we had started chatting to an Irishman and his wife for a few minutes, they had invited us to stay! We enjoyed having a hot shower and dry bed that night.

We pressed onwards into the week. The snow kept falling, but we reminded ourselves that snow and cold was a hundred times better than rain and mud. We camped in more forests and fields, and each day crossed constantly changing landscapes, from protected marshlands, to the drab estates, from wealthy commuter villages, to the concrete jungle surrounding Heathrow Airport.

 

We passed through many places which I’d heard of, or driven past, but never been to. We encountered horses, sheep, foxes, and cows; we had friendly conversations with dog walkers, road workers, and farm hands. We decided that the snow actually helped make people even friendlier than they would be normally – our walk seemed to appeal to the British sense of the absurd.

walk M25 (Small)

As well as walking, we’d also borrowed a couple of broadcast quality video cameras and so we were documenting the journey with video diaries, interviews, and walking shots. And all the time, the buzz of the M25 was our soundtrack.

On our fourth morning, after we had just set off from our latest campsite in a forest, a cyclist appeared on the road and stopped as he reached us. He announced that he had been following our walk through Al’s Twitter, and had actually come looking for us so that he could invite us back to his house for a cooked breakfast!

Another time, in another pub one evening, a city commuter invited us to camp in his garden (he wasn’t quite brave enough to invite us inside, but did appear at the door the next morning in his boxer shorts with two cups of tea).

plenty of hospitality along the way of the M25 (Small)

We were having a great adventure, but as the week wore on, the walking became an agony for me, as I developed increasingly severe foot blisters and a painful knee ache. I began to move in less of a walk, and more of a stagger. It made me realise what a relatively painless form of travel cycling is compared to walking, in large part because you can carry all of your gear on the bike racks, and not on your back.

As the pain intensified and our progress slowed, I was delighted to find an abandoned child’s sled in the hedge. I put my pack in it, tied the rope over my shoulder, and for the next few blissful hours, dragged my pack instead of carrying it. I sadly had to abandon the sledge when we came to a snow-free lane, and I was back to the agony of carrying the pack.sledding the backpack M25 (Small)

But in the next town I found an abandoned shopping trolley. Again, dumping my pack in it, I could now push it down the road, Cormac McCarthy style (if you haven’t seen the movie ‘The Road’ yet, then I highly recommend it).

shopping carting the backpack M25 (Small)

Finally, after seven long hard days of four junctions a day, we made it back to the Dartford Bridge. A traffic policeman in a patrol vehicle blocked our way told us sternly that we were not allowed to walk across. But then he had pity on us and gave us a lift to the other side in his car.

We had made it. That night, enjoying a well-earned beer at Al’s house, we reflected that our two theories had been put to the test – and proved beyond reasonable doubt. Indeed, you do only need to step out of your front door to have an adventure… and the people of England are a lot friendlier than we sometimes expect!

The finish of a lap around the M25 (Small)

 

Sources: alastairhumphreys.com, roblilwall.com
Photo credits: alastairhumphreys.com