To walk, day after day, is a wonderful way to clean out one’s mind of all the debris that collects over the years a man who has spent 15 years walking round the coastline of England and Wales tells NADIA SAWYER. He is now planning to follow it up with a shorter trip around Cyprus
Christmas is in the air, which for many means in addition to everything else there is the turkey to wrestle with – a rather thankless task made somewhat merrier by recalling the amusing scene in Merry Christmas, Mr Bean, where the protagonist loses his watch inside the bird and ends up with it on his head. A scene that also flashed through my mind when I met Chris O’Grady, a diminutive Englishman, dressed in a quintessentially British tweed jacket, who looks a little perplexed and out of place in Nicosia’s old city. But any comparison to the hapless and often non-verbal TV character stops right there as my interviewee gets straight down to the business of recounting his life story, without me even asking the first question. He is in Cyprus to help raise money for the Friends’ Hospice in Paphos by giving an illustrated talk about his 15-year walk around the coastline of England and Wales. More of his hiking adventures, but starting at the start he tells me of his childhood. Rowan Atkinson’s description of his famous Bean character as being “a child in a grown man’s body” somewhat resembles Chris as he reverts to his younger self and vividly, yet eloquently, transports me back to his childhood in another country some 50 years ago.
Born in London in 1960, Chris spent most of his young life in Bournemouth until, at the impressionable age of nine, he was sent to boarding school in Cheltenham, where he says, “I discovered my independence from my family. Being a boarder, seeing Mum and Dad once every two or three months, coming home for a holiday and heading away again, defined the person I am,” he recalls.
Indeed, so independent was he that, at the tender age of eleven, he set eyes on a young blonde girl “across a crowded playground” and immediately knew that he had fallen in love. “She looked like she had just walked out of a movie,” he reminisces, speaking fondly of the fellow pupil who would later become his first wife.
When she left school to train as a teacher in London, Chris followed her to the city and enrolled on a business studies course, though his intention had been to study fine art. Nuptials followed, and four children thereafter but after 17 years of a seemingly happy working and family life in the Vale of Evesham, his marriage suddenly ended. “Sadly, when I appraoched 40, she decided that she didn’t want to be with me anymore,” he admits.
With his responsibilities for the children falling mainly at weekends, Chris found himself with a lot of spare time and, as he puts it, “I rediscovered my adventurous spirit”. So, in January 2000 to mark his 40th birthday he took a week off from his job as a printing rep and walked the Cotswold Way, a 100-mile long footpath along an escarpment in the Cotswold Hills. It was during this lonely journey that he seems to have caught the wanderlust bug. “I’ve got the adventurous gene, the one that makes you want to test yourself,” he concedes.
Over the following ten years he would begin what would become a walking odyssey around the entire coast of England and Wales, creating the subject matter for his recent talk in Cyprus. Describing this haphazard trek in one of his flyers as going around the edge of the ‘sceptred isle’, he references the phrase in William Shakespeare’s play, Richard II, which reads: “This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle, this earth of majesty, this seat of Mars… This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”.
Coincidentally, it would be in the quarterly magazine called This England that Chris would pen his article entitled To Be a Pilgrim about his walk along the Via Francigena which he undertook in 2010 to mark his 50th birthday. The Via Francigena is an ancient pilgrim route that starts in Canterbury, England, and then goes into France, on into Switzerland, up over the Alps and ends in Rome. Starting his journey in Pershore, Chris trekked through these four countries for four months, staying with friends and strangers along the way, often begging for a bed at night, but always, as he records, “being blessed with a place to rest my head”. One of these kindly souls turned out to be another adventurer of sorts: Michel Fiolek, a rocket engineer who worked for the European Space Agency.
“Walking with that never-ending contact with the earth and gentle progression ensures that all opportunities for human contact are taken,” Chris wrote, as I smile at the subtle irony of him meeting a man whose job it was to ensure that the launch vehicle, Ariane, would actually escape from the earth’s surface.
Indeed, the lengthy article is a brilliant read, with Chris beautifully capturing the geography and spirit of his walk. “To walk, day after day, is a wonderful way to clean out one’s mind of all the debris that collects over the years. Walking becomes a means of achieving a meditative state,” he wrote. Did any religious faith support him emotionally during his journey? “I am a Christian, but I struggle with religion because it is very complicated and it has lots of power struggles and I don’t understand it,” he tells me. “But I believe in, more than anything, the kindness of humanity… and the goodness… and that really is what the trip was about, to prove that the world is a good place, that you can be so bold as to ask for help”.
Indeed, Chris would meet other like-minded folk on his 1,200-mile journey and would conclude at the end of his article that “all of us saw in each other the same independence of mind, combined with a hint of madness in the eyes that bound us together as real pilgrims”.
Spending nearly a decade as a single man and a solitary walker seems a bitter pill to swallow after an unwelcome divorce and his well-meaning male friends would offer friendly encouragement and advice on what to look for in a woman, such as checking out her shoes before asking her out, which is probably quite good advice if you are an avid walker. But a more heartfelt suggestion came from one of his oldest friends: “Chris, if you ever find someone you think you are falling in love with, make sure she is musical,” he advised, both men having been keen choristers at school.
Chris currently performs in one of the world’s most famous choirs – the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) chorus. Once again, my mind strays to thoughts of Mr Bean and his hilarious renditions of O Mio Babbino Caro and All Creatures of Our God and King – I can’t help myself, that initial image is embedded in my mind!
As luck would have it, at a Christmas party at his friend’s house, just three months before his Via Francigena walk, Chris would meet the lady who would become his second wife, a classical music agent who has managed international vocalists, ensembles and instrumentalists, and Chris (not one to let the grass grow under his feet) asked her to marry him within four weeks of their meeting.
She continued her support by meeting up with Chris on several occasions during his Via Francigena walk and he reciprocated the commitment by marrying her on his return. In fact, if Helen Shapiro’s song Walkin’ Back to Happiness had been played at their wedding reception it would have been an apt and fitting tribute to their union.
Together, they relocated to Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire, and, using their joint skills and knowledge of the printing and music industries, are currently producing two annual information brochures both called Chamber Music Plus which provide details of hundreds of classical music concerts in the central and northern regions of England, while they are planning to add a third. Chris is also undertaking his various talks (with 50 booked in 2019), which brings us back to the winter of 2018 and his Cyprus gig.
Called over to a table after his pre-dinner soliloquy at the Kamares Club in Tala, he was informed by four people that he had inspired them to walk around the coast of the island and invited him to join them. “I would prefer to do it on my own,” he tells me. ”If you are in a group of people, you are inward looking, but if you are on your own, or if there is just two of you, you have a much greater chance of something interesting happening”.
So the plan is for his wife to stay with her mother, who has been living in Paphos for the past 23 years, while Chris circumnavigates the island on foot in a clockwise direction. In fact, it was his mother in law’s late husband, Stephen Willis, who was the founder president of the Friends’ Hospice Foundation, the charitable institution Chris’ recent talk benefited. Chris estimates his Cyprus journey will take four weeks and he plans to write about it in a journal along the way.
At this point he produces a brown, leather-bound book and gleefully opens it up for me to see. Once again my impish thoughts turn to Mr Bean and the infamous library scene where he vandalises a vintage manuscript. However, I silently chastise myself as Chris has saved the best until last. Handwritten in black ink, with detailed illustrations, this is a gem of work that contains not only his own scribblings, but those of the people he has met during his various walks and escapades. This latest journal begins in March 2017 when he walked along the Essex and Kent coastlines, but previous versions include his other walks undertaken between 2002 and 2017, including those along the South West Coast Path which runs from Poole Harbour in Dorset to Minehead in Somerset, a distance of some 630 miles. The journals are full of tales, funny and sad, some of which the storyteller Chris relates to me in his soothing bass voice. I also enjoy the romantic manner in which he describes the meeting and courtship of his beloved wife, at a time when he was least expecting it.
“I truly believe that every day you should believe that everything you are hoping for will happen,” he says.
It is not often one gets to meet an adult man who talks the talk and walks the walk and sings to boot, but Mr O’Grady does all three of these things with a child-like wonder – and old-fashioned decorum – that only a much-loved Mr Bean could possibly emulate.
Donations to The Friends’ Hospice, Paphos can be made online at paphoshospice.org/donations/