The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Dermot Breen – One man who walked the entire Ulster Way in memory of his wife
Posted on September 28, 2015 @ 3:44 PM in
At the start of September, having pledged to walk the entire Ulster Way in memory of his wife Jacqui, Dermot Breen completed his long distance walking challenge raising thousands of pounds for Cancer Research UK along the way . Inspired by the book ‘The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry’ (a firm favourite of the couples), in which the title character walks 627 miles to visit a terminally ill colleague Dermot pledged to walk even further (and did so covering a distance of 652 miles!) Inspired by his story, we recently caught up with Dermot to chat about his experiences along the Ulster Way.
Previous to your challenge, had you much walking experience?
Absolutely none, apart from the odd short casual walk for a mile or two along a beach or through a park, usually with my wife Jacqui. Invariably I would be the first one to say "Right, that's far enough; time to turn back now". I suppose that's what made doing this walk such a challenge. I was taking on something entirely new and I had no idea how I would cope with over 625 miles.
Did you have any expectations going into the challenge? Were these met?
Not so much expectations as I didn't really know what to expect; more hopes. I hoped that I was going to be able to complete the challenge within the schedule I had set for myself and I also hoped that I was going to raise lots of funds for Cancer Research UK. Thankfully both of these hopes were met. I finished the walk on 4th September as planned and I managed to raise over £12,000 for Cancer Research UK.
Did you do much preparation / planning? If so, what?
To be honest, plenty of planning, but not enough preparation. I had it all worked out in great detail on paper, knowing how far I would walk each day, where my set down and pick up points were, where I would be staying overnight, possible eating places, etc. The WalkNI website was invaluable for this planning, particularly the descriptions of the routes and the printable maps. However, my physical preparation left a lot to be desired. I guess I was so keen to get started that I didn’t really give my feet and legs a chance to properly adapt over sufficient time. My first “training” walk turned out to be a 24 mile hike from Belfast to Lisburn and back in a pair of casual boots. Absolute madness and not to be recommended. My feet were ruined and my legs ached for days afterwards - I still have one blackened toenail remaining from that experience! Then after the first few days of my walk, I had to stop and rest up for a couple of weeks when I developed a painful case of shin splints. Not a great start to my challenge!
Some curious friends along the way
What kit did you bring on your walk? What could you not have done without?
The fact that I was normally being left off and picked up by car each day, meant that I was able to keep my kit to an absolute minimum. I thankfully had no need to carry a tent and generally didn’t need to worry about overnight provisions. I routinely packed a waterproof jacket and leggings – essential for the NI climate - and also a waterproof cape that was large enough to cover me and my backpack when required. I learned early on during my short training period that good lightweight and waterproof hiking boots/shoes and good quality socks were essential – I had boots for the hills and rough terrain and a pair of good walking shoes for the roads and other flat sections. Maps, route descriptions, plasters, compass, mobile phone, iPod and plenty of snack bars were also carried as was a packed lunch if there was not going to be anywhere to stop off on route, which was normally the case. I also took a pair of walking poles with me when I knew I would be tackling boggy ground and/or steep slopes and these proved invaluable. However, the thing I could not have done without was not actually an essential in the normal sense, and that was my camera. It was important for me right from the start to keep a record of my journey and to be able to provide my Facebook followers with a visual account of my challenge. I took over 6,000 photos during the 38 days of my walk. Needless to say, not all of these were worth showing but I like to think that there was the odd decent one among them!
How did you find the navigation of the route?
Generally this was straightforward enough as a lot of the route is well signed and way-marked and I also carried maps and route descriptions downloaded from the WalkNI website for each of the sections. I would advise against depending on any one of these on their own though. I really needed to use them all in combination and even then there were a few occasions when I inadvertently went off route for a bit before realising and having to double back or take an alternate route to meet up with the Way again. There are certainly a few sections where the way-markers could be better and I did discover a few inaccuracies in some of the maps (which have since been corrected). I did carry a compass, but only needed to use it a couple of times and even then it was more for reassurance than for actual navigation. However, I would imagine that in certain weather conditions a compass could be essential.
Approaching Ballintoy (L) Whitepark Bay (R)
If you could choose to go back and walk any section again, which would it be?
This is a hard one as there were so many wonderful sections along the Ulster Way. However, if I was to choose one it would have to be the Causeway Coast Way section and particularly the section from Portrush East Strand to Carrick-a-rede. There are just so many stunning sights to see along this section including Whiterocks, Dunluce Castle, Runkerry, the Giant’s Causeway, Whitepark Bay and Ballintoy. On a good day it is just impossible to beat in my estimation.
What was your favourite view?
I am going to cheat here and give two. First was the fantastic view from the summit of Benbradagh, which actually requires a short detour from the official route, but it is definitely worth it. The second is the breath taking view from Binevenagh. The view from here on a clear day is simply stunning, overlooking the River Roe and Lough Foyle to the West, Magilligan Point and Inishowen to the North and Gortmore and Benone to the East. If I was forced to narrow my choice down to one, it would have to be Binevenagh. However, I am conscious of the fact that some other potentially superb views were denied to me due to poor weather, such as the views from Slieve Gullion summit, the Magho Cliffs and Cuilcagh Mountain.
Sitting on top of Binevenagh
What was your most challenging moment / lowest point whilst walking and how did you overcome it?
I don't have to think very hard about this one. Donald’s Hill, in the Sperrins north of Dungiven, and the subsequent trek across the blanket bog and heather to Rigged Hill, was, without a shadow of a doubt, the most challenging and exhausting section of the Ulster Way that I encountered. The climb up the steep slope of Donald’s Hill was tough in itself. However, what followed made the climb up Donald’s Hill seem like a walk in the park! Bog hell awaited. The absence of way-markers here meant that I had to simply head in the direction of the radio masts and wind turbines in the distance and pick my way through the very rough bogland as best I could. There were plenty of stumbles and falls along the way, accompanied by even more sweat and curses, and for a long time the masts or turbines just didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I have never been so happy to finally reach a proper hard track roadway. Undoubtedly, it was the thought of why I was undertaking the challenge in the first place that kept me going. That and the thought of the bottles of cold beer that were waiting for me in the fridge when I got back home!
Benbradagh from Donald's Hill
If you had to single out one memory from your walk that you could revisit, what would it be?
There are so many to choose from, but I suppose the one that replays in my mind the most is the final day of the walk and my return to Greenisland Primary School, where I had set off from two and a half months beforehand. I had chosen this as my starting/finishing point as it was the school where Jacqui had taught for 25 years. My daughter, Hannah, and her boyfriend, Jonny, were walking with me from the starting point that day in Ballynure and I was joined by a lot of friends and colleagues along the way, which was fantastic. The welcome back I received from the staff and children at the school was just incredible. It all made for a very heady mix of elation and emotion and I don't think I will ever forget it for as long as I live. It was a truly fitting end to what was, for me, a very personal challenge.
Dermot and his daughter Hannah return to Greenisland Primary School
Any interesting stories/memorable people from along the way?
Again, there were so many. There were interesting animal encounters, including a deafening donkey demanding attention, a wandering dog that stopped and rolled over in front of me to have its tummy rubbed, a curious seal watching silently from the water and a large brown cow on the road that caused me to unhitch one of my walking poles just in case! In relation to people, I had tremendous support from family and friends along the way, helping out with a bed for the night, packed lunches, lifts to starting points and from finish points and even walking sections with me. The kindness of strangers that I met along the way was also memorable, from people that offered lifts in the rain (which obviously I had to decline), to people that helped with directions and even handed me donations when they found out why I was doing the walk. Particularly memorable were the two young teenagers, Oscar and Rowan, who I met at a church in Coleraine one Sunday morning where I had stopped to use the toilet facilities. They had been asking a friend about my walk and when I came out they insisted on giving me a donation - one of a number of spontaneous acts of kindness that I witnessed during my challenge.
Some sections you had company but the majority of the miles where spent walking alone. Did you listen to any music along the way – if so what was on your playlist?
I liked to enjoy the sounds of nature when I could and there were even times when I just enjoyed the silence, but there were certainly some long monotonous sections where I was very glad of my iPod. I have quite an eclectic taste in music mostly dominated by rock, indie and Americana. My playlist is quite varied and includes the likes of older stuff like the Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen and newer artists like The Charlatans and Dawes. I like to mix things up a bit and therefore tend to listen on shuffle mode rather than stick with one album or artist. I like the surprise of not knowing what song is coming up next. It was surprising how often the song would just suit the section of the walk perfectly, like Walking on Sunshine by Katrina and the Waves when walking on a gloriously sunny day in the Sperrins or Echo Beach by Martha and the Muffins as I headed out across East Strand from Portrush!
Donaghadee (L) Mourne Way (R)
Do you have any information or advice you think would be important to someone thinking of walking the Ulster Way?
Be properly prepared, both in terms of knowledge and equipment. Most people are probably quite familiar with seeing Ulster Way signs when they drive around various parts of Northern Ireland, but this is only the more accessible parts of the route that are on show. What most people perhaps don't realise is that the Ulster Way brings you over lots of very remote and challenging terrain and there are many sections where you will not see another single person for miles on end. It is also important to read the route descriptions on the WalkNI website very carefully in conjunction with the maps - sometimes one sentence on the page or an inch on the map can take an hour or more to cover on the ground! Invest in a good pair of comfortable, waterproof boots and/or walking shoes - it's your feet that you are going to be depending on more than anything else to get you round so look after them!
Will you keep walking or are the feet happy enjoying a well-deserved rest?
A well-deserved rest for now but I would certainly like to keep walking in the future and I don’t think it will be too long before I start planning my next adventure. There are certainly plenty of options in Northern Ireland and there are even some places on the Ulster Way that I wouldn't mind returning to in better weather. For example, I took the route round the lower slopes of Slieve Gullion during my challenge due to low cloud on the day. I would love to return on a better day to take the route over the summit - apparently the views are superb on a clear day! Although I undertook my challenge for a very particular reason, my trek round the Ulster Way has certainly given me a much better appreciation of the varied beauty of little country that we live in and my advice to anyone reading this is to get out there and explore it.
If you would like to support Dermot in his fundraising efforts for Cancer Research UK you can do so via his Just Giving Page. You can also read about his journey in more detail via his blog posts and view hundreds more photos taken along the route on the 1000K4J Facebook Page.