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Comedian Ed Byrne and a Big Issue vendor talk trekking

Comedian Ed Byrne and Big Issue vendor Richard Cotterill discuss nature, trekking and the energy boost a bag of M&Ms can bring.

Richard Cotterill is no stranger to The Big Issue. Over the last few months we’ve tracked his attempt to walk the length of the UK. Sadly injury forced a halt to that trek, but walking remains a passion – one shared by comedian Ed Byrne, whose Ed Venturing podcasts and YouTube films see him take his famous friends out for a hike.

Here the pair discuss the call of the mountains, the joy of conquering new territory and how food can give tired legs a new lease of life

Ed Byrne: Where are you right now?

Richard Cotterill:I’m sat in the Job Centre in lovely Newton Abbot. Walking has been my passion for years and I discovered your Ed Venturing podcasts. It’s interesting when people are out walking. They interact differently.

EB: Part of it is the fact you’re not looking at each other. I know that sounds strange but conversation is slightly different.

RC: People consider whatever the subject they’re talking about a lot more.

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EB: When I take people out walking who haven’t done it before, I always find they can go a lot further than they thought they could.

RC: I used to work as a trekking guide. If you said, “Right, we’re going to do a 10-mile walk,” a lot of people, if they’ve never done it, they’re already anxious before they start. If you can distract them and get them talking and moving at the same time you soon start eating up the miles.

You need to be relaxed. Your head’s 80 per cent of the energy. If you’re too negative it’s difficult to get your body to follow.

EB: I try not to look back for as long as possible – go 45 minutes or an hour without turning around. Then when you turn and look back, it’s always amazing. You’ve always gone further than you thought. That’s why I always like to ask about the guest’s history, you know, when did they start in their career.

There’s no better time to think about how far you’ve come than when you’re literally looking back at how far you’ve come. When did you start as a trekking guide?

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RC: About 2006, 2007. Once you’ve got the right group together, it is quite easy. But I prefer walking on my own. I found that when I was out in the mountains I wasn’t enjoying the mountains.

EB: I’ve never seen the effect of food on a person like you see when you’re walking up a hill. I never really thought about the relationship between meals and energy and mood. But the difference between somebody who’s lagging and flagging and grumpy, feeling like giving up, then you pour a bag of M&Ms down their throat, and suddenly they’re zipping again. It’s incredible.

‘Nature demands nothing of us. You can go up the hill or walk around it’
Richard Cotterill

RC: I was walking from John O’ Groats to Land’s End recently and I was going on the West Highland Way. It felt that the bottoms of my feet were bruised. I was struggling. I stopped and I ate and it was just fatigue of my legs. It was almost like my feet were going to pretend they were hurt until I stopped.

EB: They pulled a sickie.

RC: I didn’t even feel hungry but my body was lacking because I’d been doing 20-25 miles a day for a few weeks. My trousers were falling down, my belt was getting tighter and tighter each day. I think I had cheesy chips and a cup of tea.

EB: You had to interrupt the walk in the end. What happened?

RC: In the last lockdown I fractured my ankle. I started testing my ankle, 10 miles a couple of times a week – absolutely fi ne. I came all the way through the mountains of Scotland and the Pennine Way to Hebden Bridge, a beautiful place, where you can follow the canal network pretty much all the way down to Bristol.

I did that for a couple of days and my ankle went again. It was really weird. I hadn’t tripped and there were no tell-tale signs. I went to the hospital and they said the ligaments were torn.

When I fractured my ankle I tore the ligaments at the same time but that wasn’t scanned for so it was assumed it was just a fracture. The ligaments repaired just enough. On the flat your foot placement is the same with each step, whereas on a mountain path there’s a little difference with your placement each time.

Richard Cotterill Pitch: Tyneham. Photo: Kevin McGarry Studio 2019

EB: So that spreads out the stress a bit more?

RC: Yeah. Most people get blisters on tarmac because the foot placement is exactly the same each time so it’s the same bit of skin rubbing each time. I never ever get them now because the skin has toughened up so much.

EB: I keep getting asked: why do I do it? And I can never think of a reasonable answer. Do you have one?

RC: Recently I finally got there. I went to see a therapist for something called EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing] therapy. It’s like a post-traumatic stress therapy based on eye movement.

If we’re calm, as we’re walking along, our eyes look left to right and everything we’re taking in exercises the prefrontal cortex. Exercising the mind has an amazing calming effect. If you’re having an argument with a girlfriend, say, one person will storm out and go walking. You come back and feel a lot calmer.

EB: I sometimes find that when I go for a proper hillwalking undertaking it can be a source of stress, then I get very annoyed at myself for how stressed I’m getting about walking. You leave just a bit too late, get stuck in traffic. The hotel stops serving food at eight o’clock so you’ve got to back earlier. Then you suddenly realise, this is causing you grief now.

RC: If you see somebody ambling down the road, their mind will be calm. They haven’t got a care in the world. If somebody is super stressed – maybe they just had an argument – they’re walking really quickly, there’s no flow, no easiness. Our mind reflects that. Our thoughts start becoming like that.

EB: I have to say, I’m very into the sense of achievement that goes along with it. I don’t know about you, but growing up I was never considered by others or myself to be a sporty person.

It was Gaelic football or hurling and that was about it. Soccer a bit. And if you weren’t good at those, that was that. As someone who came very late in life to doing any kind of physical pastime, to be decent at it has given me an enormous sense of achievement.

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RC: I always get a sense of achievement, but not as much as I used to because I’ve done a 20-mile walk so many times before. But if I manage to get to a particular walk that’s going to take three or four weeks – I focused on it, saved up the money, dedicated the time and now I’m doing it – that’s a sense of achievement for me.

I’ve done something for myself I know is good for me. Over the years, I’ve done plenty of things that are unhealthy. Nature demands nothing of us.

You can go up the hill if you want, you can walk around it. We’re choosing what we’re doing with each footstep and truly being ourselves. That’s where a sense of identity, freedom, control come in. It gives us a lot of confidence as well.

EB: There’s something about looking at the landscape and thinking, I want more than to just look. I want to participate. My absolute favourite thing in the world is doing a long-distance trek, being at a high point and being able to look at where you’re going to be tomorrow. In the distance. It’s like stepping into a painting.

Ed Byrne outdoors. Photo courtesy of Ed Byrne

RC: There are parts of the South West Coast Path as you’re walking to Land’s End where you can see all the different bays and peninsulas. You can see where you’re going to be pretty much all week.

EB: In life it is difficult to look at where you are now and appreciate what is still to come, and where you have come from. It’s a difficult thing to be able to do in a philosophical or mental sense.

Do you think being in a physical position, where you can do it in a literal sense, somehow makes you feel better about life?

RC: It’s a wonderful analogy. I find it difficult to look back on parts of my past – I’ve got no criminal past or anything like that, just how I’ve treated myself. I find it difficult to remember exactly how I was feeling and I stop looking forward. I focus purely on today. I reflect on the day. What made me happy today? What didn’t I get quite right? I never look back on my whole life [and ask], what was causing all that? I know some of the stuff. Why the alcohol? It made everything worse. Homeless, penniless, jobless, I lost friends. What was I thinking? It was anxiety, this, that and the other. It made everything worse.

The fact that I’m still alive and I can still enjoy walking – I scratch my head sometimes. How did I manage to get through all that and be here now? How am I going to move forward without knowing where I want to be? It’s very difficult to pick a route. The path of least resistance is what I look at now and I see where that path leads.

EB: Good luck with it, and I hope your ligaments heal soon.

Ed Byrne is on tour across the UK. For dates visit edbyrne.com

Richard Cotterhill sells The Big Issue at The Platt, Wadebridge, Cornwall

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