Jen Lowthrop and her rescue dog Cookie walked 1,000 miles last year through all England’s national parks to raise money for the Peak District National Park Foundation. Here is her story…
MUD had soaked into my boots, my hands were cold and my eyes were wet as tears fell down my face. We had made it to the finish line.
Tears of joy to be reunited with my family and friends and my own bed, and of sadness at our ludicrous 10-week hiking adventure coming to an end.
My rescue dog, Cookie, and I had finished an epic two-and-a-half month traversal of all 10 national parks in England, walking border to border and up the highest peak in each, and ending in our incredible Peak District.
This was all to raise money for the Peak District National Park Foundation, the charity funding projects to ensure our national park can be enjoyed by everyone, forever, and as chair of that charity, I wanted to step up and do something to raise money and awareness for the Foundation.
My initial idea of a bit of a challenging jaunt around the Peaks snowballed and before I knew it, I was planning routes for a 1,000 mile, 10-week odyssey that became ‘A Walk in the Parks’. I knew that once I told people I was going to do the walk, I’d have no choice but to go through with it. So tell people I did. I knew I wasn’t the only person who thought my lofty goal was a little unrealistic – I loved the outdoors, but I rarely walked more than a couple of miles at a time. The naysayers only made me stronger in my conviction to do this hike justice, not just by reaching the finish line, but by using it as a catalyst to learn more about the projects happening across the country and what more needs to be done to protect our National Parks.
My journey started in Northumberland, close to the Scottish borders, as Cookie and I set off on day one up Northumberland’s highest peak, The Cheviot. Only 2,000 people live within the park, making it the least populous, and you can walk for miles without seeing another soul. Phone boxes still have phones in them and accommodation can be hard to find! I was lucky to visit the now famous Sycamore Gap on my final day in Northumberland, a few weeks before the tree’s sad demise.
My second park was the North York Moors. I had timed my hike perfectly for the moorlands to be filled with purple shades of flowering heather. Heather is said to bring luck and protection so I attached a small bunch to my backpack and Cookie’s collar as we walked across Urra Moor.
Next up was the Yorkshire Dales which, for me, was reminiscent of the White Peak in its limestone geology. It was early September but it seemed that summer had arrived after a wet August. Burnsall Bridge was like a festival, with hundreds of people enjoying BBQs and wild swims in the River Wharfe. Each National Park I visited made it clearer how we are all fighting similar battles; the constant balance to find ways we can support the natural habitats and wildlife, whilst supporting the needs of locals and making our National Parks accessible to all.
Messages came through from friends, ‘You’re so lucky with the weather’. In many ways I was, but really the perfect walking weather is a reasonable 15 degrees, anything more and I find myself sweating at the first hint of an ascent. My fluffy companion Cookie also struggled in the heat and I made the decision to send her home for a few days with my mum, who had come to support us.
It meant my fourth park, the Lake District, I completed alone. The September heatwave continued as I hiked up the Lake’s peaks. England’s highest hostel – Skiddaw House –was a shining beacon on a sweltering day and I lapped up its honesty bar treats and lay on the cool flagstone floor for a much needed rest.
My third day in the Lakes I was up early to hike up England’s highest peak, Scafell Pike. This was my third time reaching the top, but felt like my biggest high of the trip, physically and mentally. I had made it across the large boulders and steep scree path and found my way through clouds to reach the top and was treated to panoramic views as the clouds briefly parted. I’m not sure I would have found my way without the app Komoot. I was heavily reliant on my pre-planned routes on Komoot, following my little blue dot, counting down the miles left to each day’s finish line.
The fifth park, The Broads, was a little different being mainly water, so alongside walking from north to south, my partner Olly and I did two days by canoe. This was a well-deserved rest for my feet and a chance to see the Park as it should be, from the water.
Day one in the South Downs saw us scaling the Seven Sisters, and the flat Broads soon felt like a distant memory. I followed the South Downs Way from Eastbourne to Winchester, walking almost 120 miles over 7 days. It was tough and I was thankful for another flat Park, the New Forest, after a couple of days rest by the coast.
I love how unique each national park is. They have many similar challenges, but each has their own individuality, none more so than the New Forest. Over 6,000 roaming wild ponies, alongside deer, donkeys and even pigs give it the feel of an open safari park.
I was again spoiled with an unseasonably sunny October in Dartmoor. I was warned of changeable weather in Dartmoor and the miles of seemingly stark moorland that can quickly disorient you when the fog descends. It wasn’t until my final day hiking up High Willhays, that we found the fog and drizzle I’d expected.
The weather brightened again for day one in Exmoor, our penultimate Park. We walked along the coast from Berrynarbor to Minehead over three days before turning inland to head up the highest peak, Dunkery Beacon, where the weather changed to steal all visibility from the summit. I watched Park Ranger Charlotte, who had joined me for the morning, disappear into the fog as Cookie and I continued on the final stretch.
As I was making my departure from Exmoor, Storm Babet was arriving, bringing with it train chaos, flooded roads, and ruined paths.
After delaying my start of the Peak District by a day due to the floods, we started on the northern edge of the park in Marsden and headed along the Pennine Way towards Snake Pass. I was thankful I had my partner Olly with me as we ended a long day of hiking in the dark walking across Bleaklow.
I was in my home park and I wanted to make the most of it, so I wiggled my way to the south over nine days. Heading up Kinder Scout on day two and down into Edale, before a wet and muddy day up Win Hill and down the Long Causeway into Hathersage. Thank you to The Bike and Boot Hotel and Maynard Hotel who provided accommodation along the way!
After arriving in Grindleford on the only sunny blue skied day of the week, it was back to the drizzle as I headed west to Taddington and then onwards to Rainow across Erewood Reservoir and the Goyt Valley. I had wanted to explore new parts of the Peak District I didn’t know well and loved the variety the Peak District brings. From the vast moorlands in the north, to the magnificent craggy gritstone rocks of the Roaches, and limestone valleys in the south.
I also got to see some of the work the Peak District Foundation has funded along the way. I saw the work to slow down water on the moorlands through gully blocking and creating dam reserves, the improved accessible pathways and heard more about the work of volunteers across the park.
As the sun set, I arrived at Callow Hall, near Ashbourne, our finish line. My feet were hardened from the miles they had stomped, but my heart was full of love: for our National Parks, for the people and projects I met along the way and the hope that everyone gets to experience the incredible benefits a walk in the parks brings.
I have had so much support along the way for this hike, a solo adventure is rarely a solo endeavour and I want to thank my family, sponsors and all the National Park teams who have supported us.
We have so far raised over £10,000 for the Peak District National Park Foundation and thanks to Alpkit’s match funding, another £10,000 for projects in each of the national parks I visited.
The funds from the hike are going towards access projects to disadvantaged groups across the Peak District, including growing our ‘Connect Fund’ which makes small community grants to remove barriers to under-served communities accessing the park. Some of the funds will also go to improving a popular path by Stanage to make it more accessible.
My fundraiser is still open if you would like to donate to help ensure more people can access the benefits of nature and our beautiful Peak District National Park.
Editor’s Note: You can follow Jen’s adventures on her Instagram @jlowthrop and donate via her blog https://awalkintheparks.co.uk. One day there might be a book too.