Page last updated at 08:34 GMT, Friday, 11 September 2009 09:34 UK

Living on no money and strangers' kindness

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Maxim Laithwaite has been moved by people's generosity

In two months, he's walked more than 600 miles and climbed the equivalent of four Mount Everests. And all the time relying on strangers to provide him with food and shelter. BBC Radio 5 live reporter Bob Walker joins the self-styled water pilgrim, Maxim Laithwaite.

One phrase has been the key to Maxim Laithwaite's survival on his nine-week walk with no money through the South West of England.

Refusing to beg, he has used 12 simple words to prick the conscience of people he meets. The valuable prize, depending on their response, could be a meal or a bed for the night.

"I'm relying on the kindness of strangers as I make my way" has opened doors, literally, to homes of people just five minutes after meeting them.

The 29-year-old, who trained at Sandhurst as a medical support officer, is about to finish his remarkable, 600-mile journey which has relied on the generosity of passers-by for his food and shelter.

Maxim Laithwaite
The white flag has accompanied him throughout

His strategy is not to knock on doors but to engage people he meets about water conservation, the issue for which he is raising money, and to hope that his favoured phrase can elicit an offer of help.

It doesn't always pay off. At a fish and chip shop near Lulworth Cove, after 15 miles and a full day on his feet, the young staff are sympathetic and take his leaflets but there is no goody bag or plate of food passed over the counter.

After a five-minute conversation, he tries the restaurant next-door, where the same strategy earns him a plate of fish and chips.

Only one night has been spent sleeping rough, on the ancient flagstones of a church porch, and that hardship, he says, only heightened the enjoyment of the generosity of others.

One hotel owner gave him a luxury suite with a King-sized bed, while others have brought him into their homes.

Map of Maxim Laithwaite's route

For the last nine weeks Mr Laithwaite has slowly evolved to become an unmissable feature of the South West Coast Path, almost becoming a tourist attraction in his own right.

Long before his tanned face comes into focus, he can be spotted on the distant horizon toiling up or down the precipitous cliffs as he makes his way to the next port of call.

He stands out partly because of the white flag bearing his own "water pilgrim" logo that flutters in the strong sea breeze atop a four-foot fishing pole attached to his heavy backpack.

"One of the first things people ask me when they see the white flag is whether I'm surrendering," he laughs.

But he never has.

Nappy rash

Despite the odd setback and moments of discomfort, Mr Laithwaite - whose Army career ended when he was injured in training - has ploughed on through the challenging but glorious landscape of Cornwall, Devon and Dorset.

Given that he is aiming to raise awareness surrounding national and global water issues, it's somewhat ironic that it was copious amounts of the stuff that almost put paid to his mission.

Before you've had a chance to communicate, they've already offered somewhere to stay

July was a wet month. A very wet month. And Mr Laithwaite was soaked to the skin for days on end. Choosing to wear cotton underwear was a big mistake. It chafed. And the chafing led to what he describes as a severe nappy rash on the inner thighs which then became infected. Every step was agony for days until he got hold of some antiseptic cream and some much-needed relief.

Another indication of some of the trials and tribulations can be found by looking at his cloth cap. A thing of simple design, it's main function to protect him from the sun.

Unfortunately he's tangled with so many low level brambles along the route that virtually nothing remains of the original material on the crown. He needed an emergency flag replacement for the same reason.

Maxim Laithwaite
Only one night has been spent sleeping rough

The idea for the journey was inspired by a meeting with an Indian monk, Satish Kumar, who walked around the world preaching against nuclear proliferation.

Mr Laithwaite has refused to accept many offers of cash during the trek and all donations to Water Aid must be made online.

As he nears his journey's end, which comes on Saturday at Poole in Dorset, he says the experience has been uplifting - both for the things he's seen, such as Peregrine Falcons and adders and picture postcard views - and for the kindnesses shown to him by complete strangers.

Some people you could talk to all day and not get anywhere, he says, but the majority are willing to help if they can slow down their lives long enough to listen to his message.

"Then there's a very, very special group of people - they're the sort of people who are already thinking ahead of what you're saying and before you've had a chance to communicate, they've already offered somewhere to stay.

"And every time that happens - and it's happened countless times - that's the magic that I've been looking for."

The experience has re-enforced his faith in human nature, he says.

"It's worth working at grassroots level when you think you're never getting anywhere with the bigger geopolitical problems. And these tiny little successes are so important."


Below is a selection of your comments.

My boyfriend Joe and I met Max in Mevagissey in Cornwall where we had dinner and a drink together. From what we saw that day Max's story brings out the best in people as the people of Mevagissey tried (and eventually succeeded) to find a bed for Max for the night at the height of the tourist season. Water conservation is an important issue and it is great to see Max's pilgrimage getting the publicity it deserves for highlighting this issue in a novel way. Keep it going until Saturday Max and well done so far!
Keily Beirne, London

I've never done a trek like that without money at all, but I've been cycle-camping many times in the past and am always overwhelmed by people's generosity. Most times people would refuse to accept money for allowing me to pitch camp on their land, and I'll never forget the pub landlord who came out one morning with a plate of hot toast and some coffee as I was 'depitching' in the pouring rain, and wouldn't take any money. Most people really are very kind, given the chance.
Catherine, Leicester

This is inspirational - a fine Maxim.
Steve Somers, Salisbury UK

Typical that it was in my home village, Braunton that the man failed to get a bed for the night! I'd have offered if I had known! I guess it was St Brannock's Church that he slept in.
Nigel Webber, Braunton, Devon

What this man has done is beautiful.
Desmond Moore, Gorey, Co Wexford, Ireland

My father, (my hero) similarly completed the South West coast path six years ago. It took him 67 days with his last day of walking coinciding with his 67th birthday. Well done and thank you Maxim. We need people like you and my father to inspire us.
Wendy Steadman, Birmingham

The kindness of strangers is fantastic. This is a great story and I admire Maxim's cause and beautiful way of bringing attention to it. The chaffing of the pants is something I experienced in a very remote town in Russia; the kindness of the crumbling Soviet-era hospital and its staff will never be forgotten, treated like a czar and my offer of payment point blank refused.
Luke, United Kingdom

My girlfriend and I walked a stretch of the coastal path only last week. We were really surprised at the kindness of people we passed on the way. We had a tent but didn't once have to part with cash to pitch. Pubs and farms always offered a patch of grass as we passed.
Andy, Bournemouth



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