Interview: Karen Penny Completes 32,000km UK Circumwalk

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

The hardest part was COVID interruptions and online trolls; the best part, the people she met.

Karen Penny, 55, began her circumwalk of the UK on January 14, 2019. Eleven pairs of walking shoes, five backpacks, and 32,000km later, she has completed her walk around mainland Britain, Ireland and over 100 islands.

She has walked the entire distance without a support team, carrying a 15 to 22kg backpack with her camping gear and some food.

She had initially planned to walk the distance continuously. From her home in Gower, Wales, she wanted to go clockwise until she made it back to her front door. COVID-19 swiftly brought an end to that. “The pandemic was a real curveball,” she told ExplorersWeb.

First lockdown

She trekked the Welsh Coastal Path to Fishguard, then hopped on a ferry to Ireland. After covering its perimeter clockwise, she returned to mainland Britain and continued up the west coast. She walked every day for 15 months and was on the Shetland Islands when word came of the first UK lockdown.

Karen arrives home in Wales after completing her walk. Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

“I really couldn’t have been much further from home,” she said. Penny had five days to return home before the lockdown began.

From March 20 until the beginning of August, she stayed at home. From the freedom of walking to only leaving the house for an hour a day was a shock to the system. Looking back, she now feels that the lockdowns “reintroduced me to being at home and not walking, which was actually quite helpful.”

She had intended to pick up her walk in the Shetlands, but restrictions remained in place in Scotland, so she had to change her route. This time, she set off from her house in the opposite direction. Her new endpoint was Shetland. She did the South West Coastal Path and rounded the Isle of Scilly. On her first day on the Isle of Wight, the second UK lockdown was announced. This time, she had just 24 hours to hurry home.

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

Restart after the second lockdown

Six months later, she set off again. Restarting on the Isle of Wight, she then covered the Channel Islands and walked up the East Coast until she was back on Shetland. One of Penny’s biggest challenges was the logistics of the walk. Tier systems in the UK meant that she relied on family and friends to update her on changing COVID regulations.

Despite all the changes and pauses, “it all worked out perfectly in the end. I was able to walk the South West Coastal Path in the summer and see beautiful parts of Britain in the best weather.”

Penny was walking to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s Research UK. Over two and a half years, she raised £110,000. She was inspired to do the walk after watching her husband’s parents suffer from the disease.

ExplorersWeb spoke to Karen Penny about her trek:

Had you done any walking before this?

In 2017, I decided to walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End. I…spent three months walking. That was really an experience. I didn’t even know how to put the tent up at that time. Before that, I had walked the border between Wales and England. I love walking, it’s been pivotal in my life.

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

Worried parents

What did your family think when you told them what you wanted to do? 

My husband has always been extremely supportive. We have a very strong relationship and that’s really the foundation of me spending so much time away from home. My son is also very supportive. My parents were the ones that I had to impress and convince. They were just so worried, from the day I left until the day I got home.

Quite a few people joined you on your walk. Any particularly memorable companions?

In Ireland, I got off of the ferry and didn’t know anyone. Five months later, I had had the most amazing experiences all around Ireland. People constantly looking out for you and taking you in in horrible weather. I left Ireland with a huge number of friends. And that happened all the way around Britain.

There was a gentleman in Suffolk, Charlie, who heard me on the radio. His partner contacted me and asked if it would be all right for him to walk with me for a day. He was 79 and had been locked down for so long.

Four days later, Charlie was still with me. Every day, he went home on the bus and he’d arrive the next day with his map around his neck, ready to walk again. It was just a wonderful experience. This journey wasn’t mainly about being out in the wilderness and living on a piece of bread and a blob of cheese.

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

The trolls

Did you come across anybody who did not understand why you were doing it?

Sadly, it’s mostly people behind a computer who are anonymous and just want to say something antagonistic. Some people wrote, “How on earth is this woman walking around Britain? Why isn’t she working?” Others say really unkind things: “She’s been walking for ages, I thought she might have lost some weight doing this.” People were commenting about my presentation, how I looked, that my equipment wasn’t very good.

Ultimately, I’m just an ordinary person doing something quite different. If you don’t have anything nice to say, then maybe don’t say anything at all and keep your opinions to yourself. I have to say that this was just one percent of people. The rest were really kind.

Were you camping most of the time?

There were a few factors — COVID issues or how remote an area was. In Wales and areas where I knew people, I had a lot of help. When I got to Scotland, it was really remote. There are very few people living there and you just have to get by. They were the toughest months.

It was winter. You’re carrying your winter gear, extra food, your rucksacks have gone up by about five kilos. It’s snowing. It’s poor weather and you’re in the tent at four in the afternoon and you’re there until eight in the morning.

The kindness of strangers

Then out of nowhere, somebody will appear in a car and offer you a bed for the night. Once, I got driven back the next day to the spot where I’d been picked up. I asked, how do you remember where you picked me up? He’d actually marked it with a cross to make sure I didn’t miss any miles. After the second lockdown, from Essex onward, it was mostly camping. Fortunately, the restrictions on campsites were lifted on May 17.

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

Did you carry a certain amount of food and water at all times?

I was a good size fourteen when I left, and at some points in the walk, I went down to size eight. In more remote places, I ended up living on cheese rolls and a lot of custard creams. But not for long: You’re talking five days before you see you see civilization and shops again. At other points, I passed shops daily.

I’m probably not a very good advocate for how to walk properly. The more you drink, the more you need to go to the toilet. In busier areas, I ended up not drinking enough during the day, then drinking a lot when I stopped at night. My body adapted.

I always had two half-litre bottles of water on me, and I always kept them topped up. In Scotland, I used water purification tablets when I was filling up my bottles from streams. I always managed to find water.

Expanding interests

What surprised you the most while you were walking? 

When you do a walk like this, you become interested in things that you’ve never had any previous experience of. Things like bird watching. I saw an albatross, a really unique bird. Had I not been doing something like this, I would never have seen that.

I now love steam trains because I met a volunteer group restoring old-fashioned steam trains in Preston. I actually stayed on a train in Glenfinnan. That’s where they filmed Harry Potter. There was a museum there, and they said, look, why don’t you just sleep the night in the cabin on the steam train. I was in my element.

I love being outside and taking photographs. My biggest regret, I think, is only having a smartphone. I would have loved to have had some decent camera equipment. My photos are lovely enough but it would have been wonderful to have really good high-resolution photographs of the journey.

Photo: @Karen Penny/Facebook

Highlights and lowlights

Was there a highlight for you?

Definitely the people I met. Going into the care homes, particularly before COVID, and actually sitting down, spending time with people who live with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Speaking to the carers, who do such an amazing job looking after the people we love.

What about low points?

The low points go back to what I mentioned earlier — people who don’t even know you making hurtful comments. You can’t help but be affected by it. Obviously, some just let that go over their heads. But I was taking them quite personally and it was upsetting.

Also, my husband and son came to spend Christmas in 2019, then they went home. I was still in that holiday season in the middle of Scotland in the pouring rain, and you get lonely.

Did you have a favorite area?

Scotland, it’s just the most wonderful, unique place. It’s so remote. I was there through autumn and winter. So you’ve got the snow on the hills, you turn a corner, there’s nobody about and you see this red stag just standing, looking at you. The rainbows over the lochs. The weather is all over the place, but it’s just stunningly beautiful. It’s the unspoiled places that I suppose I’m drawn to.

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About the Author

Rebecca McPhee

Rebecca is a freelance writer and science teacher based in the UK.

She is a keen traveler and has been lucky enough to backpack her way around Africa, South America, and Asia. With a background in marine biology, she is interested in everything to do with the oceans and aims to dive and open-water swim in as many seas as possible.

Her areas of expertise include open water sports, marine wildlife and adventure travel.

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