Christian Lewis was healed by a four-legged friend – and the woman he fell in love with


Book of the week 

Finding Hildasay by Christian Lewis (Macmillan £16.99, 352pp) 

In the spring of 2017, Christian Lewis stood on top of Swansea’s Rhossili cliffs looking down on the fiercest waves he’d ever seen. ‘I can definitely surf,’ he says. ‘But I’m no professional.

‘On any other day my normal sense of fear would have made me walk away,’ he said. But on that day, the former paratrooper ‘just didn’t seem to care’.

After ten years struggling to raise his daughter Caitlin (then 16) alone, she had decided to move out. The debt collectors were circling and Lewis was on the brink of eviction.

‘I felt an immense sense of calm, or was it abandon?’ he writes, as he attached the leash of his surfboard to his ankle and headed out to face ‘the monster’.

Although he says he ‘wasn’t suicidal’, he was aware of ‘not wanting to exist any more’ as he headed out towards the break. 

‘Then, behind me, thundering out of nowhere, came the killer wave. I turned myself and my board to face the oncoming slaughter, to give myself half a chance to dive underneath it.’ But as the muscular wall of water hurtled towards him, Lewis realised he was outmatched.

Long journey: Christian Lewis and his faithful companion Jet

Long journey: Christian Lewis and his faithful companion Jet 

‘The white water hit me so hard my board was immediately ripped from my body. My arms and legs were being dragged every which way and felt as if they were being pulled out of their sockets. One second it was light and the next it was dark. I had no idea if I was upside down or facing upright.’

Somehow Lewis scrambled back onto his board. It took every fibre of his being to ride the next wave — ‘the longest and most beautiful of my life’ — back to the shore where he kissed the Welsh sand. ‘It was the first battle in a long time where I had triumphed,’ he recalls.

He’d struggled with the practicalities of civilian life ever since leaving the Army, and for the first time in too long he was ‘happy and grateful to be alive’. Having felt the pure joy of survival, Lewis decided to continue pitting himself against the British coast. As he’d been supported by forces charity SSAFA in the past, he resolved to walk the entire perimeter of the UK to raise funds for the organisation.

His journey began chaotically. He acquired a tent (with a hole in the top) from another ex-para and some (oversized) boots from his brother. Other friends donated a sleeping bag, camping stove and a Crocodile Dundee-sized knife (of the sort you wouldn’t want to be caught with). Then he got drunk and torched all traces of his old life: birth certificate, passport, driving licence. All went on to a fire in his garden.

The next day, his mum and stepdad drove him to Llangennith beach in the Gower, near his Swansea home, and waved him off. After they left, Lewis realised he hadn’t even decided whether to head north or south. ‘The only plan I had was to keep moving forward,’ he realised, and headed north with £10 in his pocket.

He quickly realised what he was up against. Hunger kicked in, reducing him to ‘a skeleton covered in skin’, as he rummaged through bins for food. He found it hard to find safe places to camp near towns. As wild camping is illegal in England and Wales, he had to pitch his tent secretively — once in the middle of a roundabout.

His clothes began to stink. ‘When I had a few quid to spare I’d walk into a laundrette to freshen up my clothes,’ he says. He’d don his army poncho and strip off beneath it, sitting silently ‘while the old ladies chatted away, itching to ask what I was doing!’

In towns, Lewis found himself befriending members of the homeless community, many of whom were also former veterans. Their plight hit him hard. Heading to the Lake District, his mood was lifted by the scenery.

As he'd been supported by forces charity SSAFA in the past, Chris resolved to walk the entire perimeter of the UK to raise funds for the organisation

Before he began he torched all traces of his old life: birth certificate, passport, driving licence. All went on to a fire in his garden

In towns, Lewis found himself befriending members of the homeless community, many of whom were also former veterans 

Adventurous couple, Chris and his then girlfriend Kate Barron, met while both exploring Scotland (pictured in December 2020)

Adventurous couple, Chris and his then girlfriend Kate Barron, met while both exploring Scotland (pictured in December 2020)

But by the time he reached Scotland, the days were drawing in and a frozen shoreline stretched ahead. At night, temperatures plummeted and he couldn’t find enough dry driftwood to make fires. The cold made the pain in his hands and feet ‘unbearable’.

Then, crossing over to the Northern Irish coast, Lewis found a companion to warm both his body and soul. Jet is a beautiful white lurcher whose owners were struggling to keep her. ‘I looked into her wise eyes,’ recalls Lewis, ‘and wrapped my arms around her while she stood still. I had acquired the best friend I would ever have.’ From then on, Jet walked beside Lewis by day and slept at his feet by night.

Back in Scotland, as spring turned to summer, Lewis was bitten raw by midges and cleggs (horseflies). On Skye, Jet ripped the tent with her claws, giving the insects free access to them all night.

But, in the absence of shops along the wilder coastline, he learned to forage for shellfish. Supporters of his Facebook fundraising page donated better gear to help him survive the icy weather and brought regular meals.

Lewis had scary moments, like when he twisted an ankle (and had to drag himself miles to safety), and when a gale blew a metal pan into his face, shattering a tooth (which he extracted himself using a guitar string).

At the tip of Mull, the terrain of freshly logged pine was impossible for Jet to navigate and Lewis was forced to carry her until he vomited with exhaustion.

His lonely days were occasionally balanced by evenings in local homes and pubs, where kindly Scots bought him meals and drinks and even got him dancing to traditional music. By the time he reached Jura his journey was making the national news and he’d raised almost £50,000 for SSAFA.

Lewis had walked 12,000 miles to Shetland by the time Covid struck. He spent the first lockdown in a former shepherd’s hut (with no running water, heating or electricity) on the 104-hectare island of Hildasay, off the west coast of the Shetland mainland

Lewis had walked 12,000 miles to Shetland by the time Covid struck. He spent the first lockdown in a former shepherd’s hut (with no running water, heating or electricity) on the 104-hectare island of Hildasay, off the west coast of the Shetland mainland

He met fellow walker Kate back on the mainland and the pair became engaged. They now have a young son named Magnus

He met fellow walker Kate back on the mainland and the pair became engaged. They now have a young son named Magnus

Lewis (who has so far raised £270,000 for SSAFA) promises that, as soon as Magnus is old enough, they will all continue the adventure together

Lewis (who has so far raised £270,000 for SSAFA) promises that, as soon as Magnus is old enough, they will all continue the adventure together

Lewis had walked 12,000 miles to Shetland by the time Covid struck. He spent the first lockdown in a former shepherd’s hut (with no running water, heating or electricity) on the 104-hectare island of Hildasay, off the west coast of the Shetland mainland.

There he learned to catch lobster and helped a farmer out by caring for the sheep. He bathed in the sea and one day spotted a football floating towards the shore. Thinking of Tom Hanks’s obsession with a volleyball in the movie Castaway, Lewis waded out to collect it. He drew a face onto it, added a driftwood body and a scallop shell bra and called her Hilda.

Lewis’s book (and his journey) ends there for now. Because back on the mainland he met a fellow walker called Kate and the pair became engaged. They now have a young son named Magnus.

But Lewis (who has so far raised £270,000 for SSAFA) promises that, as soon as Magnus is old enough, they will all continue on together. His adventure has taught him ‘how little I needed in the way of material possessions and home comforts to wake up happy’.

And he credits the brutality and beauty of the Scottish landscape and the warmth of the people with helping transform his life. ‘I came to Scotland a little broken and I’m going to leave here not just unbroken, but with a dog and girlfriend.

‘What I’ve really learned from this journey is that home can be in many different places and exist in many different forms.’



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