Meet Alex Ellis-Roswell, the man who is walking 6,500 miles around the entire British coastline to raise money for a charity that saves lives at sea. Words Gabrielle Jaffe.
Alex Ellis-Roswell is harder to get hold of than a Hollywood celebrity. It takes almost a dozen attempts before I manage to get through to the 21-year-old.
Why the unavailability? Well, the reason is less glamorous than a star’s packed scheduled, but far more noble. He is a quarter of the way into his mission to hike around the whole of Britain to raise money for the RNLI, the charity that provides a 24-hour lifeboat rescue service. As part of his trek, he is visiting all 236 RNLI stations across the UK. It’s a feat that will take him two years to complete and will see him cover a coastline that meanders over 6,500 miles – that’s longer than the coastline of Brazil or India.
Vast stretches by the sea have poor reception, so when I finally get through to Alex on the phone, it’s something of a triumph. He’s walking on a beach between New Quay and Aberystwyth in Wales and, as we speak, I can hear the sounds of stones crunching under his shoes and the howl of the wind surrounding him. He apologises for the difficulty in reaching him: ‘That’s the problem with being a nomad,’ he laughs.
Growing up beside the sea in Margate, Essex, Alex and his family had always been supporters of the RNLI. When his father passed away at the end of 2013, he was inspired to attempt this challenge that had been on his bucket list for a long time. ‘I wanted to do something completely different, to change my environment,’ he explains. ‘I thought it would be a good way to raise awareness and cash for the RNLI and to see my own country.’
On 3 August last year – on his late father’s birthday – Alex set off from Minnis Bay, five miles down the road from Margate. It was hot and sunny and the extent of the physical and psychological challenge that lay ahead hadn’t yet dawned on him. He’d put his tent up for the first time just the night before he left. He’d packed his 20kg backpack only that morning.
CAUGHT IN A STORM
Barely a few days in, Alex faced his first test. Hurricane Bertha decided to visit the UK just as he was camped out on Dungeness, a highly exposed spit of shingle extending out into the English channel. He squirrelled away in his tent for two days, only coming out to re-peg it. ‘It was probably the worst place to be in a hurricane,’ he remembers, ‘but it was also intensely exciting. There’s only a sheet of canvas between you and the full force of Mother Nature. You feel very vulnerable but it’s also quite liberating.’
This was far from Alex’s only trial. He has had to lie flat on the ground to avoid being blown off cliffs and has trooped through gusts of hail, ‘being blown, like a power-shower of pins’. In the Isle of Wight, he woke up on the beach covered in sandhoppers, which remained in his rucksack and on his person for a good week afterwards.
In Cornwall, he once found himself locked in a church overnight, unsure whether someone would return to open up the following morning or not until the following Sunday.
Then there’s the slow toll that walking 10-20 miles a day has taken on his knees and the strain of being parted from loved ones, especially on difficult dates, such as the anniversary of his father’s death, when poor reception can make it impossible even to speak on the phone.
SIGHTS TO REMEMBER
But the road has been full of the beautiful and the breathtaking, too: butterflies flitting over the cliffs of New Haven; the wild goats, castles and church ruins of the Jurassic Coast; the wooded valleys, waterfalls and cobbled villages of Devon; a dappled sunrise over the picturesque Cornish port of Newlyn; and the sight of a pod of dolphins leaping out of calm waters on the Welsh coast.
Alex’s most stand-out memories, however, are of the people he has met, such as the cancer sufferer who joined him for a stretch in Wales and shared with him her inspiring story of walking every Welsh footpath to raise money, or the 78-year-old he encountered mid-swim in Falmouth harbour in late November – a swim that the septuagenarian vowed he does every day of the year.
Another surprising meeting came at Porthcawl Lifeboat Station, in Wales, where Alex was persuaded to stay on an extra day, so he could see Princess Anne, who was visiting that afternoon. ‘I thought I’d end up in the crowd, taking photos,’ he says. ‘But they made me go upstairs, with my muddy boots and big beard to join the other dignitaries. I don’t know what she made of me, but she seemed interested in what I was doing because it’s a charity she really supports.’
A HELPING HAND
Equally unexpected was the kindness of strangers that Alex experienced. One time, after he tweeted that his tent was broken and that he had woken up in a church doorway covered in ice, a man called Paul drove four hours to bring him a new tent. ‘He got home at 3am that night and went into work the next day,’ says Alex. ‘I didn’t know him at all. It was just incredible.
‘I am hugely grateful to everyone who has helped me along the way,’ he continues, recalling all the times when he has gone into a pub at the end of a cold, rainy day, expecting to have one drink before finding somewhere to camp for the night only to be offered a warm bed and hospitality by a B&B owner or local resident.
Social media has helped, too. Ten years ago, the best that someone like Alex could have hoped for was the odd mention in a local newspaper. Now, hundreds of people are following his story via Facebook and Twitter, and he has had dozens of people who he has never met reach out to him to either donate money or their time, to accompany him for stretches
of his long journey.
‘I’ve already had people send me messages saying they’re looking forward to meeting me when I’m up in Scotland,’ Alex reveals. ‘I don’t know what it is about the sea – perhaps it’s because it can be such a dangerous environment – that makes those who live beside it more community-minded, more likely to look out for each other. Meeting the people around the coast has been the greatest highlight for me.’
Perhaps the most inspiring people Alex have come across have been the RNLI volunteers themselves. ‘The RNLI is essentially an emergency service, run entirely on donations. And as a nation with a huge coastline, it’s a service we simply could not do without,’ explains Alex, who points out that the volunteers give up their time and risk their lives to save strangers without being paid. ‘They are the genuine definition of heroes.’
It’s the example of these volunteers that keeps Alex going – despite the squalls, the falls, and the separation from his friends and family – on this long walk round.
MAKE A NOTE!
At the time of going to press, Alex had raised over £6,344 towards his £10,000 target for the RNLI. To donate, visit mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/longwalkround. To follow his progress, see his Facebook account (facebook.com/alexellisroswell), Twitter (twitter.com/ellisroswell) or follow the hashtag #longwalkround.
The five best stretches of British coastline that Alex has walked so far, from Kent, clockwise, to northern Wales:
‘Britain’s only desert, with a nuclear power station dominating the flat landscape, a miniature steam railway and some of the best freshly-caught fish, available to buy from the many sheds. A unique place.’
Isle of Wight
‘From pine tree forests in the north, with hidden beaches looking out across the Solent, to the vast cliff and open rolling landscape of the south. The south had some of the clearest night skies I’ve seen. Also lots of red squirrels!’
Lizard Point to Mullion Cove, Cornwall
‘There’s nothing here but the power of nature. It’s just towering rock cliffs and ocean.’
Ilfracombe, Devon, to Minehead, Somerset
‘This walk along the coast of North Devon takes you down into magical-looking forested valleys and over the top of Exmoor where the moor falls steeply into the Bristol Channel.’
Cardigan to Aberporth, Ceredigion, Wales
‘This stretch of coast will always stand out to me simply because it’s where I saw my first dolphins in the wild.’