The History Behind the Footstep Challenge

The story of John Clare’s walk:

In July 1841 John Clare absconded from High Beach Asylum in Epping Forest and headed towards his home in Northborough. Clare covered eighty miles in four days; on foot, alone, sleeping rough and feeding on grass.

Setting out 21st July 1841 Clare walked nearly 25 miles on the first day before

resting somewhere near Stevenage. He had initially headed the wrong way, walking into Enfield Town before regaining the correct direction on the ‘great York Road’. Clare spent the night in a dilapidated shed dreaming of Mary Joyce, his childhood sweetheart, to whom he believed he was married. He was not aware that at this time, 1841, Mary had been dead for three years.

On the second day Clare continued north. On his morning journey he came across a man and boy sleeping by the side of the road and later met a man on horseback who threw him a penny. With this Clare bought a half pint of beer at the nearby pub. As night approached, tired and hungry, Clare was suffering from an injured foot. His already old, worn shoe was full of gravel and tearing away at his foot. Somewhere near Potton in Bedfordshire, Clare hopped his last steps before trying to sleep beside

an old shed under some elm trees. However, as darkness fell he shivered from the cold. He intended to find somewhere to sleep at an inn but, with no money, decided to move on.

Reaching a turnpike Clare had lost all sense of direction, now unsure which was north and which was south. For the next mile or two he hobbled onwards, barely able to walk and tormented by the possibility he was heading in the wrong direction. Finally he reached a tollgate at Tempsford where a man reassured him he was indeed heading northward. Clare eventually settled down in the porch of a house and slept until day-break.

Day three and somewhat refreshed Clare headed onwards, soon reaching St Neots where he met a gypsy girl who walked with him for a while until they were close to Offord. Clare hobbled through Buckden in a weak and physically impaired condition. Frail from hunger and dehydration Clare ate some grass which he later described as tasting like bread. With his hunger satisfied Clare headed on. He seems to have tried sleeping that night in a dyke, to keep out the chilly wind, but he woke to find himself wet through.

On the fourth and final day Clare was in no condition to walk. He eventually reached Stilton where he tries resting or sleeping on a gravel causeway. Just before reaching Peterborough a man and woman in a cart came by whom Clare recognised from his old village of Helpston. The couple gave Clare five pence with which he headed straight for the nearest public house and ordered two half pints of ale and some bread and cheese.

Though refreshed from the food and drink Clare struggled to walk on, his feet now crippled from the four day trek. He reached Walton and Werrington before a cart approached. By some coincidence the woman on board was Patty, Clare’s wife.

Clare wrote about his walk soon after returning home in the form of a journal titled Journey out of Essex. Five months later, with his mental condition fast deteriorating and his wife unable to cope, Clare was taken to Northampton County Asylum. He remained there for the final twenty three years of his life.