On 5th June 2017, I joined a group of four AFC Telford United fans, The Walking Bucks, to walk some 27 miles between Aggborough, home of Kidderminster Harriers, and Greenhous Meadow, the home of Shrewsbury Town. The aim of the walk was to raise money for Prostate Cancer UK by helping Sky Sports’ presenter Jeff Stelling in his quest to walk 400 miles between Exeter and Newcastle, taking in football grounds as he did so. Here’s the story of our day…
We arrived at Aggborough, home of Kidderminster Harriers FC, at around 7.30 am, just as registration for the event was getting under way. Aggborough is a very neat and well-maintained ground; the black starting line marker was already inflated and in position, and the team from Prostate Cancer UK were setting themselves up in the area through which I’d normally access the press benches. We dutifully formed a line and waited to be handed our walk numbers. Listed alphabetically, it was no surprise to find myself last, something I got used to at school; I was handed number 24, then joined a subsequent line to queue for my event T-shirt, whilst others also received a longer-sleeved garment for raising in excess of £500. With my number safety-pinned to my ruck-sack I followed the small flight of stairs and emerged at the back of the main stand. Aggborough is predominantly red, with seats and stands to match the Harriers’ shirts, and the pitch looked to be well on the way to recovery after a hard season. Those who had already registered were gathering in the seats at the far end of the stand nearest the North Stand terrace, and after the day’s first loo stop the four Walking Bucks laid down our bags and headed for the catering hut, ready for breakfast!
If you’re a football fan, especially a fan of non-league football, then you’ll likely know that Aggborough is home to some of the best catering around. They are famed for their pies, although as Katie would be quick to point out their potato topping and lack of any pastry categorises them as a potato bake, not a pie; she should know too, as this year she was a judge at the British Pie Awards in Melton Mowbray. That knowledge is largely incidental because there were no pies on the menu at 7.45am; instead, the Harriers’ caterers had generously opened up to provide us all with a free breakfast bap to set us up for the day, and as befitted the mammoth task ahead the baps were huge, and filled with a choice of sausage, bacon, egg, mushrooms and tomatoes. Laden down with a proper breakfast of champions and cups of tea and coffee we sat in the stand and started to think about the day ahead. Our walking companions, with the exception of Jeff himself, were all assembling and enjoying their breakfasts too, providing a chance to start working out from people’s accents where they were from, as well as whether they were in a group, like our own foursome, or were there as individuals. It mattered little, we were all there to form a team for the day, to raise money and to support Jeff’s marathon effort.
As breakfasts were being finished, the rain which had been forecast for the day began to fall, not heavily, but enough to see waterproofs being donned and for those sat nearer the front of the stand to move back a few rows. No sooner had a round of introductions begun than they were curtailed by Jeff Stelling’s arrival. Looking extremely healthy and tanned, Jeff was clad in a Prostate Cancer UK rain jacket, a pair of off-white, knee-length shorts and some very comfortable looking training shoes, replete with green tread. He gave a cheery greeting to his assembled army and then stood back as we received our instructions for the day from our guides from Charity Challenge, who organised Jeff’s March for Prostate Cancer UK, as well as being addressed by the charity’s own representatives. With the formalities taken care of, it was time to hit the road…
Our happy band of walkers filtered out of Aggborough’s turnstiles and assembled for photographs stood beneath the Prostate Cancer UK inflatable start-line. Colin Gordon, the former professional footballer-turned-agent who now owns the Worcestershire club, had come down to the ground to see us off, and he was amongst the gathered crowd as the countdown to our 8.30 ‘kick-off’ grew closer. I had managed to stand directly under a spot where the rain, rolling down the cylindrical construction, was gathering, and it duly dripped off onto my head. The timer ticked to zero and we were under way, waving to the crowd and some local press photographers as we filed out of the stadium car park; I set my Garmin Vivosmart to ‘Walk’, launched the JogTracker app on my phone and then wrestled with my blue rain cape as we began the first leg of our journey, a distance of around five miles to Bewdley.
We’d been instructed that Jeff walked at an almost metronomic 3 miles per hour, which would put us easily on schedule to make a 10.30am rendezvous with the Severn Valley Railway’s service to Bridgnorth. Jeff’s March starts each day at a football ground and also ends that way too, and our leg of the march saw us journeying from Kidderminster to Shrewsbury Town’s Greenhous Meadow stadium, a path taken in recent years by both Mickey Demetriou and more recently Arthur Gnahoua, both of whom joined the Shropshire outfit after outstanding seasons in the Harriers’ colours. Kidderminster to Shrewsbury is a distance of just under 34 miles; Jeff’s March covers a distance of around a marathon each day, 26 miles or so, therefore walking the entire distance was outside of what could reasonably expected of a man of 63 years of age, albeit a very fit one. We would, therefore, walk to Bewdley, catch a steam train to Bridgnorth, then walk from there, via Much Wenlock, to Shrewsbury.
After an initial descent from Aggborough’s position above the town, we started to climb uphill towards Bewdley, making our first stop of the day to top up drinks bottles and the like outside the West Midlands Safari Park. This involved our first ‘off road’ section of the day, walking around the perimeter of the park, giving rise to some inevitable jokes about passing through the lion enclosures! The rain had stopped; however, the air and ground were still damp, so as we reached Bewdley Station, just shy of the 5-mile mark, we took advantage of their facilities to ‘lighten the load’ a little and take on some refreshments. Jeff had been largely a little way ahead of our Walking Bucks group but there’d been a chance for a quick greeting; before we had set off, Jeff made it clear to the group that he actively encouraged those walking with him to simply take the bull by the horns and come and chat. There were no airs and graces, and no need to feel we needed to be ‘invited’, and as far as I could tell the group took him at his word. It didn’t feel like we were walking with a celebrity, as whilst Jeff clearly has a bit of star quality about him he is also terrifically down-to-earth and engaging. At Bewdley he chatted on the platform and posed for a photograph or two with a gentleman, Miguel, who I’d been told had made the journey from Spain to take part in the day. Walking with Miguel later that afternoon would provide one of the highlights of my day…
I have many puzzles in my life, and one of the minor ones was the question of how I’d lived in Shropshire for nearly 49 years without ever riding on the Severn Valley Railway. Our train arrived and we sought out our carriages, which had been reserved for ‘Jeff’s March’ walkers. The Walking Bucks, who are pictured above, took our seats, stowed luggage on the racks and took advantage of the break to check our phones for messages, post a few new ones on Twitter to keep those following our progress up to date, and to put some more charge into said devices. The journey itself was lovely, calling at the beautifully maintained stations at Arley, Highley and Hampton Loade. Each was pristine in appearance; the wooden fences alongside the platform bore metal signs advertising products from the era when steam was king, the one most notably sticking in my mind being one for Wincarnis, a tonic wine which was a favourite tipple of my maternal grandmother. The Severn Valley is wonderfully picturesque, with the railway winding alongside providing fantastic views of the river. A party of schoolchildren on a train heading in the opposite direction all waved enthusiastically as we passed them, whilst the SVR’s volunteer staff served refreshments and stopped to ask us what event we were taking part in. Alas, Jeff’s fame seemed to have eluded them! As we got closer to Bridgnorth, a tall member of our party named Kevin asked us to write our sponsorship details on a board, then to follow him up the carriage to where Jeff was sat, to pose for a photo. As Kevin explained, if he took the photographs of Jeff with each of us, using our own mobile phones, then we’d be able to post the images on social media and hopefully generate some more sponsorship.
I thought Kevin was a member of the organising crew; however, I was later to find out that he was walking every day of the march alongside Jeff. A good many people on the march had personal tales to tell about prostate cancer, but Kevin’s is perhaps the most remarkable of all…
That’s because Kevin is dying. He received a diagnosis of terminal prostate cancer two and a half years ago and was given two years to live. As you’ll have worked out, he is already beyond that estimate, but his unquenchable spirit and desire to do as much as he can to help prevent the disease affecting other families in the way it has affected his, is truly humbling. I can’t really attempt to do his story justice, so here it is, in his own words, on the Prostate Cancer UK website:
I don’t think it ever crossed my mind during the walk that I wouldn’t complete the distance, and I wasn’t aware until later in the day of Kevin’s diagnosis. However, looking back it’s safe to say that any temptation to quit would have been overridden by the knowledge that I would have been letting down not only myself, but people like Kevin. If he could cover the distance, not just for one day, but for the entire fifteen days of the challenge, then what excuse would I have had for giving up, or even moaning about the weather?
We disembarked in Bridgnorth, and after taking on more water the group set off on the second, and much longer leg of our journey. To those of you who don’t know Bridgnorth, it is separated into ‘High Town’ and, unsurprisingly, ‘Low Town’. Our route meant ascending from the latter to the former, from where we would head north-west, into the countryside and in the direction of Much Wenlock. We were travelling more or less as the crow flies, albeit perhaps one who has had a drink or two, and Much Wenlock would be the biggest settlement we’d pass through before our eventual destination in Shrewsbury.
Having taken the opportunity to do some route reconnaissance a week before, the roads we took were familiar, turning right off the main route towards Wenlock and onto ‘B’ roads. On occasion we had to take to single file a little more rigidly as a vehicle passed us, however our guides from Charity Challenge had this well under control, with their support vehicle bringing up the rear to make sure no-one got left behind, whilst up front we marvelled at the energy of their guides in particular, who would run ahead to hold up his bright yellow sign and hold up traffic to let us all cross roads in safety. He must have covered a fair number of additional miles in doing so, but his enthusiasm never waned.
The rain had started to fall more steadily, and whilst not a deluge it was fairly constant. Worse still, being out of an urban environment meant we could see further across the landscape, and the bad news was that there were no apparent breaks in the low, grey clouds delivering the rain. The general mood of the group wasn’t dimmed by this; we all knew what we had signed up for, and there are never any guarantees of fine weather in a UK summer. With waterproofs looking likely to be in place for the rest of the day we pressed on. After making use of a portable convenience placed rather, well, conveniently, at the side of the road, our guide broke the news that our lunch stop was not too far away, but the sting in the tail was the path we’d have to take to get to it was all uphill, approximately 500 metres, he said. I’m not sure whether it was psychological, the equivalent of a man in a desert seeing a mirage, but it seemed a very long 500 metre climb, rising up through the woods. The path was sufficiently narrow to mean we were walking single file, meaning that conversation more or less stopped; it is, after all, hard to hear someone speak over the sound of rustling waterproofs. Eventually the climb started to level off, and there, just a little distance along the road, was our support vehicle, and lunch. We waited in line to rummage through the paper bags arranged in a large plastic try that held our lunches. Having collected a cheese and chutney sandwich, served in pleasingly rustic crusty bread, I then stood with our group as we reflected on how far we’d travelled, and how much further we still had to go.
The main purpose of the day was, of course, to support Jeff, hence we worked to Jeff’s schedule, mindful of the fact that as much as an extra five minutes rest might have been welcome, it was Jeff, and also Kevin, who would be getting up tomorrow morning to do this kind of distance all over again. After around 30 minutes or so for lunch we were off once more. We’d been protected from the easing rain by the shade of the trees, but that had merely been a little respite. As we got closer and closer to Much Wenlock the rain became heavier, so much so that by the time we reached the fringes of the town there were vast amounts of standing water on either side of the road. In some places this meant having to walk along the white centre line, and even then we were walking through some fairly lengthy puddles.
In Much Wenlock we had a short scheduled stop at The Gaskell Arms public house, who had provided complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits for Jeff’s Marchers. The pub is cosy, but not overly blessed with room for 30 or so walkers with rucksacks and wet jackets. I managed to hang up my cape and set off for the loo, passing Jeff en route as he participated in a telephone interview, updating whomever was on the other end with details of his progress. I rejoined the group in the lounge and was just about to take a seat and pour a drink when the call went up… we were setting off again! We headed out of town on a familiar road, the A4169 towards my home town of Telford, passing the William Brookes school, named in honour of Dr William Penny Brookes, who is credited as having an instrumental role in the birth of the modern Olympic movement. Indeed the town also lent it’s name to one of the two mascots for the London 2012 Olympics.
We headed past the sign for the notably-named village of Wigwig before taking a left turn in the direction of Cressage. The rain had abated, and the damp lanes of Shropshire, lined with trees, looked a picture. In no time at all we got our first proper sight of The Wrekin, the volcanic outcrop that rises to a height of 1,335 ft (407m) above the Shropshire landscape. We’d caught sight of it earlier, far in the distance, and it’s true to say that for a great many Salopians, especially those from Wellington, seeing The Wrekin after a long journey is a welcome sight, something that makes you feel that you are almost home. That wasn’t to be the case today. The route of Jeff’s March was to take us around the southern side of The Wrekin, and seeing it made me appreciate just how far we still had to walk. However, this section of the route did provide a terrific photo opportunity for The Walking Bucks, one we couldn’t resist…
We reached the next notable settlement en route a few miles later, the village of Cressage. Jeff was just ahead of us as we arrived and some of the residents were obviously aware we were coming, because there was a small welcoming committee. Jeff stopped to pose for a photograph with a young lad who’d been waiting with his mum, and once again his star quality shone through. Nothing was too much trouble, and the boy departed with a treasured memory and a terrific photo as a souvenir. We got a little closer to the centre of Cressage when a young man, clad in a Shrewsbury Town shirt, appeared at the bottom of his garden as we passed and greeted Jeff with a handshake and a gift of a box of Cadbury’s chocolate finger biscuits. His timing was immaculate, as we had another short scheduled stop in the village hall, a chance to use the loo and fill up those drinks bottles once more. Jeff traversed the hall’s wooden floor, handing around the biscuits whilst around him people took a break; some checked their phones, a couple of people peeled off their footwear and socks to check on their blisters, with one younger walker in particular needing the first aid skills of our guides from Charity Challenge.
Hitting the road again, Jeff dropped back from just ahead of us to ask how we, “the Telford contingent”, were getting on? We all joined in the conversation, and Jeff was as easy to talk to as you’d imagine. Katie took the opportunity to ask him about his left sock, which had been a subject of conversation between she and I earlier in the day. By her own admission, Katie has a little touch of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), and walking behind Jeff she’d commented on his left sock, which was slightly turned over at the top, unlike his right sock, which wasn’t. She’d joked about wanting to pull Jeff’s sock up, and couldn’t resist asking him if it was deliberately turned over before explaining her compulsion to want to adjust it. Jeff laughed when he explained that it wasn’t deliberate, but that now Katie had pointed it out it was going to stay that way! I found myself alongside him, and the conversation turned to his favourite team, Hartlepool United, who have just been relegated out of the Football League. In response they’ve appointed a new manager in Craig Harrison, who had enjoyed unprecedented success in the League of Wales with The New Saints, who of course are based in Shropshire. We chatted at some length about Harrison’s appointment, as well as what had happened with previous manager Dave Jones, formerly of Wolves. Jeff had landed in a degree of hot water with some on-air comments about the situation at Hartlepool as relegation had begun to threaten, and whilst I wouldn’t divulge what he said it was clear that Jeff’s love of the club and unhappiness about how things were being handled were both very real. Periodically traffic would slow to pass us and, as had happened all day, faces lit up as the drivers and passengers recognised Jeff and waved or gave a thumbs-up. It was great to get a chance to talk with him, and we chatted all the way up to the crossroads on the B4380 at Eaton Constantine. It’s a place where you can really appreciate just how much The Wrekin protrudes out of the landscape, and Jeff had joked earlier that he was pleased that our route went around it, rather than over.
Legs were starting to tire, and the group were getting spread further and further apart. Carolyn and Katie moved ahead of Richard and I, with Richard beginning to feel some soreness in his calf muscles. For a while the two of us were walking alone, but were caught by one of our guides, as well as Miguel, the gentleman who had travelled from Spain for the walk. He was short in stature, but looked tanned and very trim indeed, putting me, perhaps 20 years his junior, to shame. I started to chat to him, and an obvious first question was “why had he travelled from Spain?”. He explained that he had spent over 40 years working in Shropshire, and had two sons who still lived in the county. Miguel had moved back to Spain with his second wife, ahead of an eventual retirement, however having been diagnosed with and treated for prostate cancer a few years before that he’d felt he couldn’t not be involved in a walk through his adopted county that would help raise funds and also to raise awareness of the disease. Miguel explained that he was restaurateur, running a small establishment in a fishing village around 40 miles from Malaga, but that before that he had worked at The Lord Hill Hotel in Shrewsbury, owned at the time by Shrewsbury Town’s chairman Roland Wycherley. From that piece of information we managed to work out that he likely catered my younger sister’s wedding at the hotel in 2002! He had also worked at Albrighton Hall Hotel, north of Shrewsbury, as well as setting up and running the corporate hospitality catering when the town’s football club moved in 2007 to their new Greenhous Meadow home. That our leg of the march would end at the place he used to work added yet another reason why Miguel had flown in the day before to take part. We talked for what seemed like some time, about his cancer diagnosis and treatment, about how many memorable days he had contributed to over the years, be it weddings, christenings or wakes. He had become something of a minor celebrity, frequently called upon for interviews by BBC Radio Shropshire’s Colin Young, and it wasn’t hard to see why, as he was terrifically engaging company. We had passed through Eyton on Severn and then Wroxeter before I realised that Richard had dropped back by some distance, suffering in silence but continuing onwards. I let Miguel go ahead and fell back to accompany Richard for the last few miles of our journey.
We were almost at Attingham Park, a place I knew well; by road the distance to the stately home and National Trust property from Shrewsbury seems minimal, but when you’ve over 20 miles of walking in your legs and the rain is falling again you realise just how far it is. The footpath alongside the road that skirts Attingham Park isn’t wide enough to walk side by side, and the cars and lorries that speed along produce intermittent gusts that buffet you, although the accompanying spray that I was expecting to hit us didn’t materialise. It seemed to stretch on forever, though I was determined only to look ahead, and not behind me. I could see Katie up ahead, and she too seemed to be in some discomfort now. I certainly was; my right ankle ached and I had that familiar feeling on the ball of my foot that suggested blisters were developing. In training the use of orthotic insoles in my boots to support my arches had all but alleviated blistering, but after 23 miles or so it felt that they’d given up the ghost.
Outside the entrance to Attingham Park were some familiar and welcome faces, those of my younger sister Claire and my brother-in-law Roger, accompanied by their 17 week old puppy, Bailey, who was enthusiastically bounding around. They walked with us for a short distance before they got back to their car, where they bade us farewell for a short time, as they were going to meet us at the finishing line. Richard and I pushed on, walking alongside the River Severn. I could see the buildings of Salop Leisure in the distance, and knew when we got to them we’d be at Emstrey island, a huge traffic roundabout that denotes the outskirts of Shrewsbury. It seemed to take forever to get there; in my head I had our guide’s estimate of a 7.30pm finish in my head. I’d thought we’d be a good half-an-hour inside that estimate, but it looked likely to be bang on the money. Although we were both sore, it seemed as though we were getting closer to the main group in front, one that included Jeff. Carolyn was with that group, Katie just a little behind them. We negotiated Emstrey, via what I counted to be six pedestrian crossings. It’s far too busy a road junction to take chances by not using the crossings, but when you just want to keep going and are made to wait the frustration and irritation is huge. We got closer to the main group when a man recognised Jeff and stopped his van before leaping out, shaking his hand and giving him a donation, but they still weren’t held up enough for us to catch them. Richard’s drinks bottle had run out, so I volunteered him what remained of mine to see him home.
Ahead of us was the Weeping Cross traffic island; once beyond that, there were no more islands, just a single fairly straight run down towards Greenhous Meadow. As we got closer I could see the stands of the ground through a gap between the houses, and Richard and I were joined for the last half-mile by a lad from Kidderminster. He was suffering somewhat for having not trained that much and also because he was wearing a back brace! Eventually we crossed the road and the traffic lights that control access to the club’s car park were just yards away. Katie had crossed just ahead of us and waited so we could cross the line together, but then we had a surprise. The main group, with Jeff included, had also stopped, so that we could all arrive at the finishing line in the same way we had left Aggborough eleven hours earlier: as a group. We waited for another couple of the group just behind us, and Jeff posed with us for a final photograph before we set off to cover the few hundred yards to the line. Inside the car park and within the ground preparations were continuing for a concert by veteran rocker Rod Stewart two days later, but today, on this day, this was our stage, not Rod’s. We crossed the line to applause and a welcoming committee of family and friends, as well as club officials and representatives of Prostate Cancer UK at the ready with medals to commemorate our achievement.
After a chat with my sister once more we were ushered past the club’s reception area and into a hospitality room where there was food awaiting our arrival, as well as tea and coffee. Shrewsbury had staffed the bar, in case anyone felt like celebrating with an alcoholic drink, though after so many miles I figured that dehydration may be a factor, and that replacing those fluids with alcohol may not be the smartest move. I peeled off my waterproofs, found a clean dry t-shirt from the bag Carolyn’s husband Paul had transported to the finish line for me, and sat for a while, resting my feet. Although sore, a quick inspection revealed no blisters, something of a minor miracle. Refuelling was interrupted by short trip outside to welcome home the last few walkers from our group, including the lad whose blisters had required attention back in Cressage village hall. We applauded them home, then all returned to continue winding down, chatting, eating and drinking. It was perhaps a bit too soon to reflect on what I’d done; Katie asked me whether I felt a sense of achievement, and although I did, it wasn’t celebratory, more a sense of a task I’d set out to do having been completed.
Representatives from Prostate Cancer UK and Charity Challenge took the opportunity to speak and thank us for our efforts, and of course Jeff called in, fresh from his usual round of press interviews and media duties, to offer his thanks for joining him. However, I think it was an impromptu speech from Miguel that touched me the most; standing on a chair, he thanked the group, and although I can’t remember a single word that he said it was a properly emotional moment for me, and probably for others too. Taking on a challenge for charity was something I’d always wanted to do, but I had imagined that it would likely remain something I’d wished I’d done, rather than something I’d actually done. As well as raising money, taking part in Jeff’s March for Men has helped to change my mindset a little. I can now see how important it is for your well-being to have challenges and set yourself targets; not outrageous ones, but by ticking them off you start to think “what else might I be capable of?” I’m already missing the training that Katie and I did together, and must thank her for being such a positive example.
Although I didn’t have any prior link to Prostate Cancer UK, taking part in Jeff’s March for Men has created a link, and they are a cause that will always have my support from now on. If you’d like to give them your support, you can still sponsor us, using the link below. At the time of writing The Walking Bucks had just passed the £2,500 mark, a phenomenal total, much more than we could have expected to raise. I’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to everyone who sponsored our efforts, not only do we appreciate it, but the men whose lives you will impact through your donations will appreciate it too.