Signed First Edition
By Madeline Bocaro
Who ever thought that our beloved rock star from the 70s, from our favorite band Mott The Hoople (who wore the most outrageous ‘suits and platform boots’) would take on such an incredibly extensive hike after his semi-retirement at the age of fifty-five. (He was ‘Born Late ’58’!) After Mott, Watts owned an antiques shop for decades, and enjoyed fishing. Then he embarked on an astonishing journey – walking four times the height of Mt. Everest. After seeing someone on TV talking of completing the walk, Watts decided to do it – mostly because he admired the freedom of hobos when he was young.
“This is the story of my 2003 attempt to walk the 630.4 miles of the Southwest Coast Path having never walked an inch previously in my life. The journey was like banging my head against a brick wall. In other words it was great when I stopped! … and now that it’s all over, I never intend to walk another single step, and so, for that reason I pledge to reduce my carbon footprint by having both feet amputated forthwith!”
Overend’s heavy rucksack did not contain any of his stage clothing, although one would think that his thigh-high platform boots would have been perfect for trout fishing!
There are plentiful pitfalls and cliffhangers – literally! On crumbling ledges, rocky roads and tiny, rickety footbridges, Watts’ walking stick is the only protection from the distant fall to the crashing waves below. AND he must overcome Vertigo! There is great seriousness and danger amidst the comedy and calamity of his journey. Overend appreciates and respects both the treacherous and the enchanting elements of the English coastal scenery.
He is enraptured by beautiful villages, harbors, cottages, cathedrals, waterfalls, river valleys and enchanted forests, where he feels the presence of pixies and fairies. Spooky and spiritual nighttime scenes conjure up witches and ghosts of shipwrecks along the coast, giving him ‘collywobbles’. Watts visits ancient hamlets and haunts where old poets dwelled, and where fairytales originated such as King Arthur’s Camelot. He stumbles over foothills and headlands, plods through abandoned mining towns, happening upon festivals and many chance meetings.
“I hate the public. I hate myself too though, if that’s a consolation to anyone happens to be a member of the aforementioned public. I’m a bit of a renegade, extremely antisocial and can’t bear going anywhere unless I have to…Most people look for their 15 minutes of fame. Since my mid-30s I would give my eye teeth for 15 minutes of peace and quiet.”
Although self-proclaimed antisocial, he enjoys meeting lots of people along the way (fellow walkers, locals, tourists, workers (some horrible, but most charming). Between miles and miles of loneliness, they share stories of their travels. ‘A pair of eighty-three year olds overtook me, sitting at the top of the mountain when I arrived fifteen minutes later – knackered.” One of the women he met suggested the title of this book!
Overend frequently forgets his most important piece of equipment – his walking stick, and must retrace his steps back to the pub or B&B to receive it. He details the items he was wearing and carrying. “…scanning the horizon in all directions with my new monocular – a brainwave of a purchase – half the weight and half the price of a pair of binoculars, but unfortunately only half the vision too.”
Watts relishes or detests each meal with gusto whether it’s something he concocted in his tent, or one that he had treated himself to at a proper place of rest – cheese pasty, lardy cake, endless pots of tea. On an extremely windy night, he monitors his sausages cooking from his tent 30 meters away through his monocular. “Every five minutes, I ran to the bridge with my fork to turn them, and then scurried back to the tent”.
Most of Overend’s time is spent in blistering daytime heat and shivering cold nights. He is drenched by frequent downpours, swept up by gales and survives a hurricane. He pushes onwards with horribly blistered painful feet. “I haven’t mentioned my feet for a few days because they’re not there anymore. By not there I mean I can’t feel them.” Most nights, he hunkers down in his tent on wet ground in precarious places. Watts travelled an extra thirty miles due to regularly getting lost, hitting dead-ends and having to back track. Despite the simple fact that the ocean should always be on his right, he is frequently forced to detour and travel inland. Through all the pain and hardship, he finally becomes ecstatic and emotional with ‘a sudden sensation of complete freedom.’
Trepidations of encountering wild animals were quelled when all he happened upon were a couple of harmless cows and bulls, and random scurrying terriers. Overend was playfully nudged by some ponies. He had more to fear from packs of evil children whom he encountered!
The map would describe the next path as ‘Dangerous’ or ‘Severe’. Watts’ mind played tricks – music loops played endlessly in his head. But he is never discouraged, and appreciates the beauty of each lyrically named place (Paddywack, Clovelly…) every time the sun peeks through. Overend appreciates the architecture – Medieval, Georgian, Victorian, Dickensian…respectfully conveying each town’s beauty and historical significance. He names legendary fictional characters and actual celebrities who heralded from each place. When faced with incomprehensible situations, Watts makes hilarious imaginative speculations!
After several extreme challenges, causing him to want to pack it all in, Watts delivers these lines…“I walked in a trance like state through a kind of mystical landscape. I’ve never experienced any conditions quite like these. It made for terrific walking even though I hate walking most of the time… I was back in the zone again with all my senses on red alert, floating on air appreciating every sight, sound and smell around me…I wish this would happen more than once a week, as it’s stupefyingly wonderful.”
The final 20 miles (from Kimmerage to Swanage) were the worst – more like rock climbing than walking. Covered in rain, sludge and pollen, Watts complains, “This is not what walking is all about, I told myself, and myself agreed.” Suffering several mishaps, he goes off on his loudest rant yet, “cackling like a fruitcake the whole time. …I began looking for a sheltered spot to pitch the tent so I could kill myself in peace once inside it.”
Past and present merged when ‘All The Young Dudes’ came on a pub jukebox in Newquay, with Watts exclaiming, “This is my band!” An old timer drinking there was a Mott The Hoople fan. He asked how Ian Hunter is doing. (Ian just celebrated his 75th birthday gig in June 2014.) Overend also encountered an ex-Teddy boy in his late 60s with whom he reminisced about the 1950s. “The sad ending remnants of a once mighty quiff just managed to cling to the front of his shining cranium.”
Arriving in Dawlish on Day 45, Watts has renewed vigor with the excitement of only 100 more miles to go, along the ancient Jurassic Coast. Finally reaching the end on Day 52, he feels “wild, free and strangely – completely ageless.” The epilogue lists his 18 subsequent walks, carrying lightweight modern equipment, reducing his load from 60 pounds to less than 20 pounds.
This book is even more endearing if you know the charming, adorable and hilarious character of Overend Watts. It is a delight read about a subject that I would never think to investigate, but it was nice to be along for the journey with the man who hated walking, yet loved it so much!
See also: Boogaloo Dudes! Return of Mott The Hoople!