Pursued by a Portaloo and waving Hammond’s head on a pike, Farage’s foot soldiers bear down on London to demand Brexit

Fifty men and women are walking 270 miles from Sunderland to London to demand Leave means Leave on 29 March

Colin Drury
Thursday 21 March 2019 10:08
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Nigel Farage leads pro-Brexit march from Sunderland to London

It’s 9am just outside the North Yorkshire village of Aldfield, and Ruth Robinson, 81 years old, is preparing to walk the 14 miles to Knaresborough.

“I’m pretty fit,” the great grandmother-of-two, from Thirsk, says. “And the thought of why we’re here will keep me going. The future of democracy is at stake.”

This is day four on the much-publicised – and much-maligned – March to Leave, a 14-day Union Jack-waving, Brexit-demanding footslog from Sunderland to London’s Parliament Square.

Fifty men and women (mostly men) are undertaking this 270-mile hike to demand the UK leaves the EU on 29 March, deal or (preferably, for most here) no deal. They are doing it, they say, as a physical representation of the 17.4 million people who voted for Brexit in 2016, and whose vote, they reckon, is being undermined by ongoing delays. Think part political protest, part slightly surreal walking holiday, and you have the right vibe.

And, today, here in Aldfield – with the sun shining, free Tesco sandwiches for breakfast and the promise of a Wetherspoon pub at the finish line – spirits are high.

Nigel Farage, the movement’s pint-clutching figurehead who launched the walk on Saturday, may no longer be here – “other commitments” apparently. But, big cheer at the announcement, a portable loo is. After feedback, organisers have arranged for the mobile toilet to follow the group south from here on in. A wag also covering the march is overheard to observe that by the time it reaches London, it will be a close-run thing as to which of the two is more full of the proverbial.

It’s a strange old walk, as it goes: picturesque villages, woodland ways and hardline views on things like access to fishing waters.

Another writer in another newspaper – writing from a London office – said the whole scene was like a Duke of Edinburgh bronze badge for senior citizens. It’s not. Walking some 14-20 miles a day for two weeks is, whichever side of this national existential schism you’re on, no mean feat. It’s hard on the old feet.

“My blisters have got blisters,” says Roger Tattersall, a 55-year-old IT contractor from Leeds. “I’ve finished every day aching. But it’s mind over matter. I don’t mind because Brexit matters. I wouldn’t miss being part of this for the world.”

This is a fairly standard view offered en route. Most people here feel they are making history, that they are taking part in something which will be talked about, glowingly, for centuries to come. A historical reference point is never far away. At different times today, there are allusions to the Jarrow March, English Civil War and Magna Carta (although no one asks: “Did she die in vain?”)

The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 also gets several conversational airings. “The elites have seen us as the peasants for decades,” says Brett Trevelyan. “Well, Brexit is our revolt.”

The 59-year-old from Chorley is, himself, unusual among the hikers on two counts.

The first is that he voted against Brexit in 2016. “What I now can’t understand is why other Remainers believe my vote was somehow worth more – of more intellectual value – than my wife’s, who voted leave,” he says. “The country was offered a choice. It chose. That’s democracy. Get on with it.”

Walkers on the pro-Brexit March to Leave

The second reason Mr Trevelyan stands out is because he is holding a pikestaff with a picture of chancellor Philip Hammond’s head speared through the top of it; a symbol, he says, of the aforementioned Peasants’ Revolt.

I ask if he believes it’s appropriate imagery? “It’s a perfectly reasonable metaphor,” he replies. “It’s a political head on a pike. It’s not suggestive of anything else. It’s a form of ridicule.”

I’m not convinced, and ask John Longworth, chair of the Leave Means Leave group which has organised the march, his thoughts on the symbolic spiking.

“It’s not something I would have brought,” he muses. “This is a polite, sensible walk for polite, sensible but frustrated people.”

He says Mr Trevelyan is not one of the core 50 marchers but among the 40 or so supporters who have come for the day’s leg. It is suggested, if he was on the full journey, he would be asked to lose the implement.

All the same, Mr Longworth, a one-time director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, has his own ominous prediction: “If we don’t leave the EU and end up ignoring or somehow fudging the results of the referendum,” he says, sat in The Inn at South Stainley pub mid-journey, “the consequences of that will manifest themselves in ways we cannot predict or control.”

By the end of the day, it’s worth adding, the pikestaff remains with us.

As we press on into the early afternoon, one thing becomes clear: Brexit is popular among truck drivers. Dozens upon dozens smash their horns at seeing the blue, red and white procession.

“We’ve been getting this every day,” says Mr Longworth. “A shop owner near Middlesbrough gave us free Lucozade. In Sunderland, one guy turned up to walk in the morning despite having his daughter’s wedding in the afternoon.”

He thinks about this for a moment. “I’m not sure how his daughter felt about that,” he admits.

‘I don’t know if all this will have been a waste of time and energy in the end but at least I’ll have tried,’ says Ruth Robinson, 81

Among those doing the full journey are people from across the UK, from Dorset and Buckinghamshire to a chap from Scotland.

The latter is Dominic Callaghan, a 60-year-old crane engineer. A medical bus follows the group and, when Mr Callaghan bangs his head on a road sign, there is momentary concern he may need treatment. “Not at all, son,” he tells me. “I’m from Glasgow – ask the sign if it’s OK.”

He says he’s on the march because he believes a federal Europe could become a dictatorship in all but name – and because he likes a good stroll.

“I had my doubts about signing up,” he says. “I thought there might be a lot of extremists, but we’re all normal here. We’re good people, and this is something we feel strongly about.”

Any mention of a Final Say vote – a campaign The Independent supports – is given short shrift.

“A people’s vote?” asks 24-year-old Joshua Spencer, from Pontefract and between jobs. “Who voted last time? Extraterrestrials?”

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Approaching Knaresborough’s finishing line, there are plenty of aching muscles. After celebratory drinks in The Crown Inn, core walkers are bused to a hotel in Wetherby on a chartered coach. Organisers say logistics stop them walking there, although it remains a little unclear exactly what that means. It may be code for: “Fourteen miles is enough for today.”

Either way, that vehicle, for what it’s worth, comes with the slogan “Believe in Britain” on the side. No room is left to mention an extra £350m a week for the NHS.

As for Mrs Robinson – that great grandma who is just here for the day’s walk – she’s tired but glad to have taken part.

“I have so many friends who despair at what parliament is doing, but they say, ‘What’s the point of worrying?’” she says.

“Well, that’s how politicians get away with it. I don’t know if all this will have been a waste of time and energy in the end but at least I’ll have tried, and at least I’ve had a nice day and nice walk doing it.”

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