Rosie Swale Pope is choosing to spend Christmas Day alone. At some point on Friday, she will walk into John O’Groats, in northernmost Scotland, climb into the little trailer-cum-home she has dragged across the length of Britain from Land’s End in Cornwall, and gorge on chocolates and wine.
“Then I’ll turn on my solar panel if it’s sunny, plug in my phone and call all my family and friends — as many as I can,” the 74-year-old tells me, speaking at dawn from a layby outside Thurso. “It will be wonderful.”
The last time I spoke to Swale Pope, in late March, she was confined to a deserted hotel in the hills of Safranbolu in Turkey. The adventurer and writer had been running unsupported from her home in Sussex to Kathmandu when the coronavirus pandemic struck.
Swale Pope spent more than two months cooking spaghetti on her camping stove and running up and down the locked-down hotel’s stairs to stay fit. Her red coffin-sized trailer, which held all her supplies and space for sleeping, sat in the empty car park.
Then her visa expired. She had no choice but to fly back to Britain, arriving in June and going into quarantine. She hoped to fly back to Turkey to continue her 5,300-mile journey through 18 countries, to raise money for Phase Worldwide, a British charity that supports rural communities in Nepal.
But as days turned to weeks, and with no sure sign that she would be able to complete the 3,000 remaining miles through Georgia, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Pakistan and Kashmir, she had another, only slightly less mad idea.
“I thought, ‘Hey, there’s England, you know,’” she recalls, breaking off to describe the rising sun shooting under clouds on the horizon. “You can’t love another country unless you love your own and I’d always had a dream to run from Land’s End to John O’Groats.”
With her lightweight carbon-fibre trailer still stuck at the Turkish hotel, she has had to use her back-up vehicle, a greater burden made of fibreglass. She got a lift in a van to Land’s End — at the far south-west of mainland Britain — and started running on July 12. She hasn’t stopped since, mostly camping in the 110kg trailer, and has been managing about 10 miles a day. “I haven’t taken all my clothes off for several weeks,” says Swale Pope, who has faced days on end of rain on her route through Exeter, Bristol, Liverpool, Carlisle, Edinburgh and Inverness.
The spontaneous adventure began as a 1,000-mile training run while she waited to complete her bigger challenge. But the plan now is for it to be the start of an alternative route back to Nepal — she intends to catch a cargo ship or ferry from Scotland to Norway, then to attempt to reach Kathmandu via Finland, Russia and China. “Nearly getting to Kathmandu just isn’t good enough, is it?” she says.
If anyone else spoke as breezily about such outlandish plans in the grip of a global pandemic while nearing the middle of her eighth decade, she might inspire derision. But Swale Pope is not familiar with the concepts of self-doubt or giving up. In a globetrotting career as a writer and adventurer, she has completed ultra-marathons in the Sahara, sailed solo across the Atlantic, ridden the length of Chile on horseback and raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for charity in sponsorship.
Propelled by grief after the death of her husband Clive in 2002, she set out from her then home in Wales and ran around the world, clocking up almost 20,000 miles over five years and passing through northern Europe, Russia, Alaska, Canada and the US while dragging her own supplies. The cold of a Christmas day in northern Scotland will be unlikely to trouble her — she nearly froze to death in Alaska and was chased by wolves in Siberia. “When you have icicles for earrings, you’re prepared for anything,” she says.
Yet it has been in her own country, on an unplanned jaunt by her standards, that she has felt perhaps most fulfilled. Her bright-red trailer has been a beacon for well-wishers. “One woman came up to me at midnight when I was in a muddy layby,” she says. “We chatted and she came back an hour later with an amazing cheese board.”
Her plans for this trip were too rushed to alert Guinness World Records but she hopes to have collected enough evidence on her phone to be recognised as the oldest woman to travel from Land's End to John O'Groats on foot. Relative spring chicken Angela White, 60, set the record last year. She was nine times as fast, although carried nothing and slept in a motorhome.
On her latest adventures, which she still completes in Clive’s memory, Swale Pope’s own mortality has appeared over the horizon. As the clock ticks on her Kathmandu trek, she’s keenly aware that she doesn’t have many continent-crossing years left in her. “I’m fit and 74, and hope to skip along when I’m 94, but nothing is certain,” she says.
Swale Pope may wait out any travel ban in Scotland if she needs to, seeing it as a chance to work on her latest book. The adventurer’s resilience and patience in the face of age, discomfort and thwarted plans are, perhaps, a universal lesson in a tumultuous year. “Sometimes you can’t do what you’re meant to do, but you can always do something,” she tells me above the sound of a passing tractor. She hangs up, hauls her trailer back on the road and continues north.
To read more about Rosie and the charity she is supporting, see phaseworldwide.org/rosieruns
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