First published in the Yorkshire Post 20 April 2016.
The Italian media have dubbed him Yorkshire’s answer to Forrest Gump and today sees retired teacher Roger Gill set off on his epic walk from his home in Hebden Bridge to his holiday apartment in Santa Vittoria in Italy. The 69-year-old will have to cross the Alps and experience extreme temperatures as he backpacks, camps and youth hostels his way through Europe.
And what makes Roger’s expedition even more impressive is that six years ago he was diagnosed with a hereditary heart condition which had caused the death of his father and uncle in their 40s.
“I started to feel unwell,” explains the father of two. “I couldn’t walk 100 yards without sitting down two or three times. I went to the doctor and they said my artery was completely blocked. I think they were surprised I was still living.”
Roger, who has been married to wife Kate for 40 years, had some stents fitted to keep his artery expanded.
“They said ‘you can go and start jogging again’. It made me realise that life is too short to muck about without doing something and so I decided that once I had retired I would do this trip.”
When he was training to be a teacher many of his friends did exciting trips in the holidays or after college, but Roger was helping to look after his sick mother and disabled sister.
“They were all hitching around Europe in the summer holidays, but I couldn’t join them,” he says. “I always wanted to do something but the opportunity never arose and so when I was 60 I thought about retiring and doing something then, but by then I was self-employed and so I had to work until I was 69.”
But once retirement was losing and after his health scare Roger started to devise his adventure.
“I had read a book A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor who at the age of 18 decided to walk the length of Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul as he wanted to be a writer. He set off on 8 December 1933, less than a year after Hitler had come to power in Germany. He had plenty to write about as you can imagine. The book was totally inspirational.”
Roger decided that he wanted to follow, at least in some of, Fermor’s footsteps.
“We have a holiday house in Italy and got the idea that it would be a good idea to walk there following some of the route travelled by Patrick Leigh Fermor.” As well as a personal challenge, Roger decided he wanted to raise money for two charities close to his daughters’ hearts.
“Our eldest daughter Laura has cerebral palsy and needs 24 hour car which she receives in a marvellous place in Manchester. They have just bought a farm in Wiltshire which they want to turn into an outdoor centre for people with dementia, autism and other complex needs, called Creating Adventures so I want half the money I raise to go to them.”
Roger and Kate’s younger daughter Alice, 24, was born with one kidney. A nurse, Kate now works with kidney transplant patients at St James’s Hospital in Leeds.
“I said I was doing something for Laura, but I also wanted to do something for her and so she asked that any donations should go to the British Kidney Patients Association. I am hoping to raise £1,000 for each charity.”
Roger has been carrying out a British Heart Foundation approved training programme in readiness for his long walk which he estimates will take him until July 10. Kate will be joining him at points along the way.
“She has been so supportive and has given me her blessing, as has my doctor.”
Roger plans to average around 20 miles walking a day and plans to have a few days off to recuperate as well.
He has purchased a lightweight rucksack and plans to camp whenever possible.
“I have also joined the Youth Hostel Association which is a bit of a laugh at my age, as well as Air B&B and Couch Surfers. I am trying not to stay in any hotels if possible.”
Roger was due to leave home today at 8am for the four day walk to Hull to catch the ferry over night to the Hook of Holland. He will then follow the Rhine up through the Black Forest to Lake Constance and then over the Alps at Lech, which is set to be one of Roger’s biggest challenges.
Once he has conquered the Alps he descends into Italy at Trento then down to Lake Garda aiming to get to Ancona in early July for the final push to Santa Vittoria.
“After you get over the fact it’s a physical challenge the whole things a mental challenge,” says Roger who has an usual plan for keeping his spirits up.
“I am planning on doing some busking,” he says. “I was going to take a ukulele but it took up too much space so I am going to sing. I have a song list and I will have to learn the words along the way which is aimed at distracting me and keeping my mind busy. I’ve been told I haven’t got too bad a voice.”
To see Roger Gill’s progress follow him on Twitter: @walkingtoitalyTo sponsor him for Laura’s charity visit https://www.justgiving.com/Roger-Gill1To sponsor him for Alice’s charity visit http://bit.ly/1Z3YGJP