A towpath odyssey

Over the past seven years, Rich Hawker has walked every single canal in the country – an epic 1,873-mile towpath odyssey. We joined him on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal for his triumphant final mile

Words by Joly Braime

Illustration by Victor de Jesus

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“This shoe’s been squeaking since 2017,” says Rich Hawker, emerging into the rain from underneath Bridge F of the Leeds & Liverpool canal, “and it’s just stopped today.” Actually, this is Rich’s fifth pair of trainers since he set out on a 1,873-mile towpath odyssey. After seven years and 96 walks, he’s now on his final mile.

Back in 2012, a colleague suggested he tried walking a stretch of the Kennet & Avon Canal. “I didn’t know anything about canals, but as soon as I stepped onto the towpath it was like stepping into another world – almost as if you’d gone back into the industrial age.”

Rich was hooked. Since then, he’s followed pretty much every canal in England and Wales, fitting his weekend adventures around his work as a technician for a car firm. He usually walks 25 miles a day, sometimes ending up so stiff after his journey home that he has to get off the train backwards.

The towpath year

Each year follows a now-familiar cycle. Starting in March or April, Rich’s early mornings are marked by the fragrance of wood burners from the live-aboards. He travels through the freshness of spring and the heat of summer, until the tell-tale smell of woodsmoke signals that his walking season is coming to an end. “In the autumn you get this leaf fall on the country towpaths and it’s like walking on carpet.”

And it’s not just the annual cycles of the waterways that Rich has noticed as the miles have fallen away. “You definitely see more bikes in the canals in the North,” he observes, peering into the rain-speckled broth of the Leeds & Liverpool. “In Birmingham it’s mostly footballs. And shopping trolleys are the most famous thing, but I didn’t see any until I got to Manchester, then I saw three in one day.”

At the lock up ahead, a Canal & River Trust worker is completing some checks. “I do want to say thanks to them for maintaining all this,” says Rich. “I know it costs an awful lot of money and it’s all there for people to use and enjoy.”

The Trust man soon scurries back to the shelter of his van. It really is a foul day to finish such an epic adventure, but Rich seems largely unperturbed by the weather. In nearly a hundred walks he’s only had rain six times.

“One of the really bad ones was walking from the Anderton Boat Lift to the middle of Manchester, where it was like a quagmire. Twenty seven miles of thick mud. I didn’t think they were going to let me on the train because I looked like I’d been in the trenches.”

Quiet times on the waterways

Rich is brimming over with stories and observations, but this last leisurely mile is a contrast to much of the rest of his walk. Normally he strides along at a brisk four-mile-an-hour clip, alone with his thoughts. “You leave town, get a train somewhere and walk six or seven hours and halfway through that you’re in a quiet place, where you get a chance to really think.”

And his thoughts, left unchecked, have run down some glorious avenues. “I was wondering last year…” he muses, “maybe in a hundred years’ time if all the motorways are closed, someone like me might walk them all. And there’ll be someone like you saying, ‘meet me at Junction 5 on the M25.’ It’ll be all overgrown,” he smiles, gesturing towards the weeds at the edge of the towpath, “everyone hovering around above.”

As the end of his journey approaches, Rich has been considering what his long walk along the towpaths has meant to him. “One of the reasons why I do it is for my wellbeing, really. It’s paid me back enormously and I’ll miss it.”

The next step

All too soon, we see the vast bulk of the Stanley Dock Tobacco Warehouse – journey’s end. Our photographer is poised to capture the moment of triumph. The water beneath us is full of tiny jellyfish that have swum through from the docks, proving that the journey has the capacity to surprise him right to the end.

Each time he gets back home, Rich writes up his journal and carefully marks off the stretch he’s walked on a wall map. Now it’s all done, he plans to write a book about his travels.

“It’ll be a different sort of challenge. It’ll be good for me, so I can sort of relive it all.” With a backward wave, Rich leaves us at the end of the canal and climbs the steps back up towards the modern world and his train home. As he reaches the road and disappears from view, his trainer begins to squeak again.

Posted on 08/11/2019