1986 & 1987
Alone on the Great Wall
Fascinated by the Great Wall’s battlement-like symbol he found on the China-page of his Oxford School Atlas in 1967, William was reminded of his youthful pledge to traverse its length from desert to sea some 17 years later while tackling a ‘cross country’ run across England -- following the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall from the North Sea coast to the Irish Sea coast.
William arrived in China as the country was tentatively opening to the outside world, in 1986. Without any suitable-scale maps, his initial attempts were foiled by exhaustion, dysentery and injury. Recovered, he returned in 1987, setting off once again from the western terminus of the Ming Wall at Jiayuguan and this time following its segmented remains eastewards to the seaside terminus of Old Dragon’s Head on the Yellow Sea coast.
“Looking to the Yellow Sea coast, I watched the sun’s disc edge above the horizon and the slow trading of colour between the fading orange sky and the brightening green and yellow hues of the plain. Gradually my route of the previous day clarified, from the sea to town, over which now hung a patch of dawn smog, caused by the coal-burning stoves of the townsfolk. Between town and mountains, the low angle of sunlight gave the Wall a shadowed edge, underling the strategic importance of Shanhaiguan — ‘mountain-sea-pass’. I thought of soldiers from centuries ago billeted in this very watch-tower, waking up and pausing to witness this morning ritual of the sun.” — Extract from ‘Alone on the Great Wall.”
The bare statistics of William's journey — 2,470 kilometres on foot over 78 days, being sheltered and sustained by 60 un-arranged home-stays in Wall-side communities, nine apprehensions-arrests by the police (as most of China was closed to foreigners), one deportation and two passports, and three marriage proposals to the same woman (who became his wife) — summarise a life-changing journey not only for William, but also the woman he won and the Wall they would return to live beside, to explore and study it, pioneer its protection and create an extraordinary lifsetyle.