John's long distance walk
Long-distance walking sounds intimidating, but John Roberts proves even a heart attack shouldn’t stop you trying. He tells Rachael Healy how he fulfilled a lifelong dream and conquered Offa’s Dyke.
John Roberts lives in Oswestry, surrounded by the beautiful countryside of the Welsh Marches, where England meets Wales. He’s always explored his surroundings on foot, but it was only after a heart attack seven years ago that he decided to tackle Offa’s Dyke trail.
“It was something I’d been talking about for years, since I was much younger, but with work and everything else, you never seem to find the time,” says John. “And you need to find someone to walk with, don’t you? My son, Huw, said: ‘When I’ve got some time off, I’ll walk with you.’ We had the best part of a week, so we decided we’d walk as far as we could.”
John, 75, had long enjoyed walking in his spare time. He spent his career in the building trade, so he’d led an active life and tried to follow a healthy diet. He certainly wasn’t expecting a heart attack.
It was something I’d been talking about for years
“We would always have at least two veg in the evening and a lot of fruit, I wasn’t really overweight and I’ve never smoked, so it was out of the blue,” he says. “You think you’re fit and healthy, but we just don’t know, do we?”
On the night of his heart attack in August 2008, John hadn’t been sleeping well. “I thought I’d get up. I only walked part-way round the bed and I must’ve gone down, then I was on my knees trying to get back up. It happened so quickly.”
Thinking he’d simply stood up too suddenly, John went back to bed. “I had no pain,” he says. In the morning, his wife, Eyrie, insisted he visit his GP. After an ECG test, John was sent straight to hospital. “I went to the surgery and then my feet never touched the ground,” he says. “I was in Shrewsbury Hospital within 20 minutes of the doctor seeing me. The air ambulance took me.”
John needed a triple bypass. After 17 days at Shrewsbury Hospital, he was transferred to Stoke Hospital for the surgery. He stayed there for a week to recover before returning home, where Eyrie helped make him comfortable. “My wife’s been nursing all her life, so I had to do as I was told,” says John. “She’s still watching me now!”
His recovery continued with cardiac rehabilitation classes at his local hospital. “It was really good,” he says.
“We were in the gym for the most part and they just built us up quietly. It was hard, because you didn’t know how far you could push yourself to get back to doing things. We did a lot of exercises in the gym, then we did cooling-off exercises afterwards. I really enjoyed it.”
Having learnt a lot from cardiac rehab, and with Eyrie looking out for him, John made a great recovery. “I keep busy, I do a few jobs,” he says. “I can’t sit still.” John started playing bowls, both indoors and outdoors, and returned to his favourite Oswestry walks. He loves to take his nine grandchildren out for hikes in the school holidays too.
When he and Huw decided to tackle Offa’s Dyke, John stepped up his activity levels in preparation (check with your GP before embarking on a long-distance walk of your own). “We walked along the local canal a lot and Llanymynech locks – there’s a golf course up there too. I did a lot of nice walks; we’re not short of walks around here.”
A worthy challenge
In the end, the adventurous father and son trekked 90 miles, from Chepstow (in England), at the southern end of Offa’s Dyke, to Knighton in Wales. They decided to turn their hike into a fundraising challenge, collecting money for Wales Air Ambulance, the same organisation that had rushed John to hospital back in 2008. They succeeded in raising over £1,000.
We’re not short of walks around here
Huw’s wife booked a series of bed and breakfasts in advance so the pair could recuperate after each day’s hike. “They were all very good,” says John. “On the first day, from Chepstow, it never stopped raining from the time we started until we went to bed that night.”
“I was soaked by the time we got to the B&B, but the owner was wonderful. She dried out our clothes and told us it was just part of the job.”
John found this first, damp day the most challenging of the trip. “There wasn’t a shop or a pub or anything along the way – we couldn’t believe it. We saw a sign for a pub, but when we got there, it looked like it had been shut for a few years.”
The route itself had some tricky points too. “There were some quite steep bits, but I coped with them alright,” says John. “There are a lot of stiles and some parts are a bit muddy – there were a couple of ploughed fields we had to cross – but it was just really enjoyable.”
“I think my favourite part was in the Black Mountains. It was a good climb to the top and honestly, the view... you could see the countryside for miles around you.”
Walking with the BHF
Whether you’re a seasoned long-distance walker or an enthusiastic first-timer, there’s a BHF walk to suit you. Here are a few of our upcoming hikes. To see the full list or register for an event, visit the BHF walks and treks website or call 0845 130 8663.