We talked with Chris Webber who once walked nearly the length of England with the backing of the then Prime Minister and Kevin Keegan – and is this weekend taking on an even bigger walking challenge of 54 miles in 24 hours to raise money for our soldiers, veterans and their families.

TONY Blair, then the Prime Minister, had backed the Echo campaign.

Thousands of pounds had been raised. Plans had been drawn up. Fundraising events been held…but now the campaign had stalled - and stalled badly.

“That’s when I got the daft idea of a fundraising walk,” says Chris, 50, of Darlington, a former reporter with The Northern Echo who is this weekend going to walk 54 miles in 24 hours in Scotland for ABF – the soldiers’ charity.

“It’s not like I’d ever done anything remotely like it before. It really changed my life.

“This was way back in the mid-2000s, I was reporting on the affairs of Stanley, a coal-mining town in north Durham when we started the campaign.

“One day someone had walked in the office and said ‘I’m trying to find a gravestone of relative who died in the 1909 coal pit disaster but there isn’t anything.’

“I’d heard of the disaster, an explosion in a mine, where 168 men and boys had died. I looked into it a bit and it turned out a lot of the lads had been buried in a mass grave – but there was no marker, nothing to record their names.

“The land where they lay was overgrown. A couple of old guys in the town had had to go out with old photos just to work out where it was.

“It wasn’t good enough. It was a quiet news day and we launched a campaign to get it sorted out. Like all these things, it went great guns at first – Kevin Keegan’s granddad had been a hero of the disaster– but then it stalled.”

Chris hit on the idea of walking from Britain’s oldest mine, a prehistoric flint mine called Cissbury Ring on the South Downs in a symbolic gesture back to the North East.

“It was hilarious – bear in mind the internet wasn’t anything like as accessible as it is now and information was harder to find – I got there wandered about a bit, feeling all profound, and found myself on a Barratt Homes estate. A bloke said to me, ‘I think it was near the Sainsburys’.”

Despite the setbacks eventually, with no small thanks to dedicated members of the Stanley community, the money was raised for the memorial.

Five years ago Chris took on the challenge of walking Britain’s three peaks in 24 hours - Ben Nevis in Scotland, Scafell Pike in England and Snowden in Wales - to raise money for a friend’s son in Darlington who has Muscular Dystrophy.

“It was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. The last hill was Snowden, we were approaching the mountain in our mini bus at 4am and a warning comes over the radio, ‘be very careful.’

“We ended up deciding to do it in the pouring rain. When we finished – beyond tired – we found a flat tyre on the mini-bus which we couldn’t get off and had to call the AA out on a Sunday. ‘We’ll get there in six hours,’ said the AA person. The pub wasn’t open for another three hours.”

Now Chris is taking on his final challenge, again for charity.

On Saturday and Sunday, September 11 and 12, he will walk 54 miles for The Army Benevolent Fund on the Cateran Yomp, at Blairgowrie in Scotland with brother, Hummersknot school teacher Dominic Webber and friends, Ben McKeown and Simon Harrison.

“I blame my friend who has been talking about it for some time and talked me into it and now I officially hate him,” said Chris.

“But, to be serious, it’s a great charity. I once had the privilege of meeting some former soldiers getting mental health support in Catterick after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. It has stayed with me all these years.

“This will be the end of my challenge walking – it will be strolls to the pub and back after this and no more!”

If you would like to sponsor Chris and help former servicemen, click https://events.soldierscharity.org/fundraisers/chriswebber/cateranyomp-21

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