In 2017, Karen walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats to raise money for Alzheimer’s UK. This endeavour, which would wipe out most, simply wasn’t enough for her, so she decided to set off on a walk that would take her around the entire coastline of both the UK and Ireland.
Despite a global pandemic, which triggered UK-wide lockdowns that forced Karen to halt her journey twice, she achieved her goal a few months ago, on Shetland – making her the first ever woman to do so.
Karen, a retiree in her mid-50s from Swansea finished her nearly 11,000 mile journey in Scotland, on September 21 as expected - albeit in quite a dramatic manner. On the day, she faced 50mph winds on the way to her finish line at Muckle Flugga. She was warned of the weather by a local man, who told her: ‘Don’t hang around - we need to get you back in one piece’.
In spite of the wild weather, Karen made it, with the help of her husband Mark and son George, who joined her on her last week of walking.
Both of Karen’s charity walks have been inspired by her family, and their experiences with Alzheimer’s. Mark’s parents - Alma and Kingsley Faulkner - were both diagnosed in 2008.
While Alma passed away soon after her diagnosis, Karen’s father-in-law lived with the disorder for several years before his death.
She said: “My husband found it very difficult, because he felt like he lost his dad when he was given the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s.”
When her father-in-law eventually died, she said: “It was like losing him twice."
However, this strife motivated Karen to raise awareness of Alzheimer’s, which she admitted she knew “so little about” before the diagnosis of her parents-in-law.
At the finish line, Karen said that Mark “got really emotional”. While most would put this down to sheer pride of his wife, Karen said: “I think it really brought it home to him that this started with his parents becoming unwell with Alzheimer’s and dementia”.
“It’s been a journey for all of us. Before, we knew so little about the disease. But now, through this walk, we’ve met so many people - from carers to people living with dementia - who want to talk about their experiences and engage with you”.
Karen isn’t the only one who has progressed, as she said that, since her parents-in-law were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and dementia in 2008, “there has been a huge stride since then in awareness and support”.
For Karen, her charity walks have not just been a learning experience or a means to raising awareness, but also a way to make a tangible difference to research into Alzheimer’s. By the end of her last hike, she raised £126,000 for Alzheimer’s UK - much of which she says was raised in Scotland.
Some might think that after a 11,000 mile walk, one might want to rest. But not Karen. She is currently writing a book about her journey around the coastlines of the UK and Ireland. Once again, this venture is a selfless one - she plans to donate all the proceeds to Alzheimer’s UK.
While she is currently enjoying some home comforts, Karen is excited to get out walking again - and is especially looking forward to returning to Scotland.
On her last journey, she was asked many times about her favourite place to walk. While she said that the region of Gower, where she lives in Wales, is “stunningly beautiful”, she admitted that she has a real soft spot for Scotland.
“I just love Scotland”, she said. It wasn’t the jaw-dropping landscapes that won her over, but “the warmth of the people”.
“I can honestly say that I never had any trouble on my walk”, Karen said. “The people were just wonderful”.
On her journey around Scotland, she was offered many cups of tea and spare beds to stay in, and was often kept in good company by locals while hiking.
“There was hardly a day where I didn’t walk with anyone in Scotland”, she said.
She particularly loved spending time on the islands. “The islands are a very special place to be”, she said, “whether it’s the Outer Hebrides, Orkney, the Western Isles or Shetland”.
“It’s like stepping back in time, and there’s a wonderful community spirit”.
However, Karen does not discriminate in her love of Scotland. She also waxed lyrical about the West Coast, and mentioned enjoying short stop-offs in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen.
She experienced a particularly magical moment in the latter. When she arrived in Aberdeen, to catch the ferry to Shetland, she said: “Someone had arranged for pipers to come and pipe me off for the final leg of my journey”.
Her time in Scotland has ended for now, but Karen will be returning.
Next year, on April Fool’s Day, she will be setting out on another awe-inspiring journey. Starting in her home county, she plans to walk round every county boundary in Britain and Ireland.
She estimates the walk will take her around three to four years to finish, and said: “I’ll be sixty when I finish!”
“I don’t have any training for it. I’m just a normal mid-50s lady. It shows you that anyone can do it at any time”
“You’ve just got to have that bit of madness and that mental ability to get up everyday and keep going - but I find that easy”