“I’m walking the length of Britain on my own – despite losing my sight”

Nicky Button is almost blind, but she’s walking solo down the length of the UK in a remarkable modern-day pilgrimage

Nicky Button is a month into an epic pilgrimage down the length of Britain.

It’s a remarkable feat for anyone, and all the more so as 54-year-old Button is almost blind. She started losing her sight 10 years ago and as a result she lost her driving licence, her job and then her home.

She turned to walking during her darkest moments, and now she’s on a pilgrimage – similar to the one in the new film The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry – to inspire others and prove to herself that her life isn’t over.

A woman walkerCredit: Nicky Button

“Losing your sight is terrifying,” admits Button. “Within the space of four months I lost everything. I started walking the South West Coast Path and I didn’t care whether I was going to fall off a cliff.

“But being outside got me through that, and now I want to show people that losing your sight isn’t the end of your life. Yes, it’s hard, but you can still go out and make dreams come true.”

Landing her dream job

Button had been really happy in her life before her diagnosis.

She laughs as she remembers. “I had been leading a normal life as a mum in Surrey, helping run the local pony club. But then in 2000 when my daughter was eight, I joined the local kayak club so I could start paddling down my local canal.

“Someone mentioned that they met on a Thursday night for an adult-only paddling session and then went to the pub afterwards.

“I signed up because I only heard ‘adults’ and ‘pub’. I hadn’t heard the bit in the middle. It was a white-water kayaking session! I spent a lot of time out of the kayak and in the water. I was terrified but also exhilarated and six months later I did my first white-water river in Wales.”

Button was hooked, then one day another member asked if she would help out on set for the filming of Midsomer Murders. Her eyes light up as she remembers the day that changed her life.

A woman on an inflatable boat in the Thames in front of Tower BridgeCredit: Nicky Button
Button during her work as an on-set safety officer on the River Thames, in London

“I loved every moment. I’d never imagined you could get paid to do something like this.”

So Button changed her life. She moved to Worcestershire and joined her local search and rescue team, where she learned rope rescue techniques and swift water rescue. She started running to improve her fitness and then began working as an on-set safety officer in the film and television industry.

Button beams as she says: “I had a dream job. I might be setting up belays for an abseil one day or paddling down rivers on another. I was being paid to have the best time of my life.”

Losing her sight – and her life

But then in 2013 she returned from a skiing trip and couldn’t see her daughter properly across the room.

Button says: “I thought something was wrong with the lights to start with. I ended up being referred for tests and when more and more specialists came in to look at my results, I realised this wasn’t cataracts or something simple like that.”

Button had a genetic degenerative eye condition called Stargardt disease.

Four months later her failing sight meant she’d lost her driving licence, her job and her home.

She had to move in with her dad hundreds of miles away and lost her friends too. In that short space of time the dream life she’d worked so hard for was over and she felt like she had nothing left to live for.

She says: “I couldn’t see a future. I had nothing left.”

Her dad’s home was on the South West Coast Path, and Button started going out walking to pass the time. To start with she didn’t walk far, just up to the headland above Brixham.

A woman walker in front of the John O'Groats signCredit: Nicky Button
A smiling Button at John O’Groats as part of her pilgrimage in April this year

“I would go up there and stand in the gales and then lean into the wind. Then I would scream and shout until I had nothing left. There are very few places where you can be loud, where you can scream and rant and shout about how unfair life is and let it all out.

“Everyone is happy for us to talk about our emotions, but in a quiet way, rather than actually screaming and ranting and howling. Sometimes you need that.”

How walking healed her

Button is very matter-of fact when she talks about what she went through, but says this opportunity to vent played a key part in coming to terms with what was happening to her.

From there, Button started to walk further and further. She went on to set up a walking group for people with visual impairment.

She says: “I’m passionate about the fact that we don’t need a sighted guide to take us out. We’re not puppies. We guide ourselves, we navigate ourselves, it’s a way of reclaiming our independence.”

She explains that she has lost her central vision, and her peripheral vision is failing.

She says: “If someone puts a mug in front of me, I know it’s there but I can’t see it. So my brain tries to fill in the gap with colours. Then my peripheral vision is blurred. I can see shapes and colour so I have to work out what I am seeing.

“Eating meals out is a huge entertainment, because I haven’t put the food on my plate. Even though I ordered the food, I don’t know what is on my plate right in front of me.

“I can work out that something green may be spinach, broccoli or peas, or something orange is carrots, but I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to be putting in my mouth next.”

A woman in sunglasses in front of a lake
Button says its her love of the outdoors that got her through her darkest days

As a walker myself, I can’t imagine walking over rough ground without being able to see the rocks, rabbit holes and other obstacles in front of me. I ask Button whether she just sticks to roads and gravel tracks, and she laughs.

“No, I walk over bogs, mountains and moorland, but it took some practice,” she admits.

Before she started losing her sight, she had been a trail runner and used to run at night, relying only on her night vision and sense of touch.

Button says: “I was lucky because my running coach, besides shouting at me to get my moving, taught me how to trust what my feet were telling me up through the ground. That really helped me as my vision went.

“I also use walking poles,” she says, although she didn’t like the idea of them at first. “I thought they were for old people, but they have been a game-changer for me. I can feel for rocks or boulders with them and check I’m not about to walk off a cliff.

“With walking, I found something I could still do. So I started to push myself. Through the group I got to know other walkers. I went up Ben Nevis and then entered a 31 mile (50km) challenge walk over Exmoor.”

Button’s favourite kit

Button’s walking poles of choice are the Leki Makalu FX Carbon AS walking poles.

She says: “They are folding poles, they are really lightweight and made of carbon, but the lower section is made of aluminium, so it is tougher.”

She also has discovered a new type of sock. “I love my Injinji liner toesocks. I found them a few weeks before I started. I get really bad blisters in between my toes. But since I got these I haven’t had a single blister, not even a tiny one. I use the liner socks inside my normal socks.”

Nicky’s Most Marvellous Ridiculous Adventure

During lockdown, Nicky started to dream of doing a long-distance walk, and that’s when the idea of Nicky’s Most Marvellous Ridiculous Adventure was born – walking from the Orkney Islands to the Scilly Isles, unsupported and solo.

“I chose the name because it is an amazing adventure but also complete madness,” says Button. “That’s why I chose April 1 this year as my starting day. People have been really supportive, but they think I’ve taken leave of my senses.”

“So far I’ve been really lucky. In April a lot of the UK had bad weather, but in Scotland the weather was great and I even got sunburned one day. There was a storm one day, where I stayed in my tent until 2pm because I didn’t dare get out because the tent would have blown away.

“Walking the trails over the hills feels far safer for me than going on the roads. Crossing an A-road is terrifying. You can’t judge how fast vehicles are travelling.”

Button’s most-missed home comforts

Button says she misses showers and dry socks the most so far.

“At the end of a long day’s walk I would love to get into a hot bath or shower. But I can’t do that; I’m putting up my tent, scrambling into it and then lying down exhausted. I stay at campsites when I can and the showers there are pure luxury.

“And socks. Dry socks. I hate putting my feet into wet socks in the morning.”

She’s altered some stretches of her route to avoid the trickiest terrain and is also encouraging people to join her for a day’s walking or to meet her in the evening to chat.

“I’ve met so many people already,” she says. “There was a lady last week who had a diagnosis of macular degeneration and was terrified that she wouldn’t be able to knit or crochet again. How was she going to do anything? How would she leave the house without help?

“By the end of a day walking with me, she turned around and said, ‘I’m going to be all right.’ That is what this journey is about. If I can make one person’s life a bit easier, then it’s worth it.”

A visually impaired walker on a rock scree by a waterfallCredit: Nicky Button
Tricky terrain is no deterrent to Button and her trusty walking poles

Button expects to get lost on her way, but is philosophical about it, as she is carrying all her camping equipment, water and food, so has everything she needs. She hopes to reach the Isles of Scilly by the end of October, before the clocks change.

“This walk is giving me time to work out what to do with the rest of my life,” she admits. “It isn’t easy and I do still throw my toys out of the pram from time to time.

“But you either succumb to that fear, depression and anxiety, or you go, ‘OK, what am I going to do now?’ And the one thing that I can still do is walk.”

I am in awe of Button’s determination as I speak to her, but when I press her, she gives a rueful laugh and says she wishes she could swap all these life lessons for her vision and just be able to see again.

“At some stage the lights are going to go out for me,” she tells me.” The specialists don’t know whether that will be in six months’ time or six years’ time. So I want to do as much as I can before then.

“I’ve met people who have lost their vision through tumours, diabetes and genetics, and suddenly their lives have been flipped in an instant. We all tend to think that we’ll follow our dreams next year, or in two years or when we retire. But you never know what lies ahead of you. You really must grab every opportunity to say yes, rather than find excuses to say no.”

You can follow Nicky’s Most Marvellous Ridiculous Adventure on Facebook, with updates from every day of her journey so far. You can also donate via her JustGiving page.

Phillipa Cherryson

Written by Phillipa Cherryson she/her

Updated:

Phillipa Cherryson is a senior digital editor for Saga Exceptional. Phillipa has been a journalist for 30 years, writing for local and national newspapers, UK magazines and reporting onscreen for ITV. In her spare time she loves the outdoors and is a trainee mountain leader and Ordnance Survey Champion.

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