Meet 95-year-old Harold Messam - the Peak District walker who defied the odds
- Credit: Harold Messam
Through triumph and adversity, 95-year-old Harold Messam's walking journey is something to behold - and he's not done yet, as Nathan Fearn discovers
‘We’ve been here 62 years, we moved in on my son’s tenth birthday. Me and Barbara across the road have been neighbours for half a century,’ Harold tells me as we settle with a cup of tea at his home in Breaston.
‘I’ve worked a lot locally over the years but travelled a lot too, I was 72 when I finally retired. I spent 34 years doing household removals in Long Eaton; when the owner retired, I took it over. I actually went into the business as it was a lighter job. Before that, I was in pre-cast concrete – lorries didn’t have cranes on then!
‘I guess I have always loved been out and about rather than staring at four walls. My wife and I were keen caravaners for over 40 years. I was 91 when I stopped towing a caravan and 93 when I stopped driving – my eyesight isn’t what it was.’
Given Harold’s clearly insatiable appetite for life, his incredible walking exploits are perhaps not totally surprising – but they are no less impressive.
In 2000, in his mid-70s, he walked almost 3,000 miles in the year.
He completed the renowned and gruelling 26-mile Belvoir Challenge on 20 occasions - ‘if you didn’t come back plastered in mud, you weren’t doing it right!’ he suggests with a smile.
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He completed the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge in torrential rain and the Snowdon Horseshoe, described on mountain-walks.co.uk as ‘great, epic and intense’ at the age of 82.
Harold was the first to complete Derby’s Nomad Way – forming a close and enduring bond with the Derby Nomads group in the process.
With the Long Distance Walkers group, he would regularly complete a marathon-length hike each Sunday, taking in all the Peak District has to offer.
These achievements – a mere snapshot of all he has done – paints the picture of a remarkable man who is still going strong. And what experiences and memories he has taken in along the way.
‘The Snowdon Horseshoe is one that really stands out,’ says Harold with a glint in his eye.
‘Three generations of us – my son, grandson and myself – out together, hiking and taking in such amazing views.’
Whilst walking has been – and continues to be – a way of life for Harold, it’s a hobby that can be challenging and he’s seen many an enthusiast come a cropper over the years – he's witnessed some dubious activity too!
‘We did the 268-mile Pennine Way during a heatwave once, completing it in 12 and a half days – I'd only got a couple of weeks holiday after all!’ he laughs.
‘Another group had set off just before us and when we got to the first night’s stop over we saw that one of them had broken his ankle and was waiting to be picked up.
‘When we got to Dent, just over halfway, another in the same group had been injured – all his muscles in his leg had dropped, the only time I had ever seen it. Someone had to come and pick him up.
‘The other member of the group, his feet were all blistered and in a terrible state. We bumped into him later in the walk and were surprised to see him sat on a wall ahead of us. We asked how he had got there and he was adamant he had walked it – a likely story!
‘When we got to the finish, who should be there in front of us – him again! Let’s just say we suspected a car may well have been involved!’
Harold is no stranger to adversity himself – and here comes arguably the most remarkable part of his story.
Two years ago, Harold had a fall whilst out walking. A man who had conquered all before him with gusto was now set for the ultimate challenge. At 93, he was told he may never walk again.
‘I remember the day very vividly. I was out walking on my own and I came to grief,’ he describes.
‘I’ve fallen plenty of times over the years – it's an occupational hazard – but this time I knew I had done serious damage.
‘I couldn’t get up and fortunately three people on horseback turned up – I was on a bridal path - and they headed back to get help.
‘As they headed towards Draycott they met a couple coming down and they managed to get me home.
‘I slept on the sofa that night as I couldn’t get up the stairs. The following morning I rang the doctors and within 20 minutes they here and swiftly called for an ambulance.
‘I had suffered a double fractured pelvis and was in hospital for four days. It was the first time I had spent a night in a hospital since 1936. They told me I wouldn’t be doing the walks I was accustomed to again – I may not be able to walk at all.
‘I was determined to keep going. Even then my mind was made up. I thought to myself, if I can’t get out walking I might as well be in a box – it was a way of life for me.’
And the rest, as they say, is history. Incredibly, 2022 has already seen Harold record three successive Personal Bests (PBs) at the park runs he attends each Saturday - ‘as long as there’s no ice, I won’t come out when there’s ice around’ he offers as a caveat.
Yet whilst Harold’s recovery can be put down in the main to his own sheer determination, he’s the first to acknowledge the phenomenal support network around him – including friends, neighbours and a family he adores, and who adore him in return.
‘Every time I headed out during my recovery, my next-door neighbour, Lin, would be straight out making sure I was alright, she was so encouraging’ he recalls. ‘This was in the July and by October I was walking up to ten miles.
‘During that journey back to fitness Lin would mark off how far I had managed – one step and one walk at a time.
‘When I managed to get down to the main road it was a great feeling. Then it was round the block and then a little further, then a bit further after that. Eventually I was heading out without any supportive equipment and managed to walk to Long Eaton.
And it is in Long Eaton that Harold has made quite a name for himself – reaching local celebrity status.
‘My neighbour on the other side takes me to the park run each weekend. If she’s away, I will often walk down – it's only a mile – and then walk back afterwards.’
As we flick through a photo album which begins with a carefully created family tree – including son Phil, daughter Pam, grandchildren Neil, Iain, David and Mark and great grandchildren Laurie, Edward, Liam, Thomas, Abigail (the first girl born into the family in 60 years), Benjamin and Ethan – Harold recalls with great affection his recent 95th birthday, which will live long in the memory.
‘I knew something was going on, but I didn’t have a clue what,’ he concedes.
‘I was at the park run in Long Eaton and the tanoy was announcing something but I couldn’t hear it. ‘That was for you, dad’ my son remarked.
And then the family all arrived – a total surprise. The youngest great grandchild is eight and even she did it with me – it was a wonderful occasion to have them there.’
Harold catches my eye settling on a framed black and white photograph on the side.
‘That’s my wife, Freda, when she was 20,’ he says, pre-empting my next question.
‘I lost her two years ago after 70 years of marriage. We had our 70th wedding anniversary at Donnington Manor in November 2019 and she passed away on May 10 2020.
‘I met her in 1947. I was in the Army and had come back from Egypt in 1946. I was still active fitness-wise out there, we used to swim five-mile stretches of the Suez Canal.
‘When I got back, I spent a few months on mine clearance on the coasts of Scotland which had been put down for invasion.
‘After that I was sent to another job, bulldozer work, reinstating a footpath across a quarry which had been dug up for the war, about six miles out of Evesham, near Stratford.
‘One day, a lady came up and we got talking. Her main work was as a shop assistant but she had another job helping look after these two children. They’d heard of a bulldozer working nearby and wanted to come and see it.
‘I was struck, from that day onwards. It was just before Easter. I came home for a few days leave but cycled back to see her – 62 miles back to where the camp was. It was a Raleigh Sport – no gears.
‘I found out where she lived as we had agreed to meet again and that was another 13 miles cycling. I got there and one of her brothers said to me ‘we don’t want folk like you around here, get lost!’ or words to that effect!
‘I stood my ground and her mother came out and asked if I was Ted (a name I had been given in my Army days). Both her parents were very good to me.
‘From that point, I cycled there probably three times a week to see her. All that cycling and when we met we usually then went for a walk or a bike ride! We were fortunate to then spend over 70 happy years together.’
Three years ago, the year before she passed, we went back to visit the church we were married in all those years ago, which was a very emotional experience.’
And what of the future? One thing appears certain, Harold won’t be hanging up his walking boots any time soon.
‘I’d like to keep doing it,’ he reveals with steely determination. ‘I might need to slow down a little now, I probably push myself a bit too hard sometimes.
‘I’ve always had a policy. If I finish what I start, that’s an achievement. Each time I go out walking I feel I am achieving something.’
It’s clear the Long Eaton park run will continue to be graced by its local celebrity for some time yet. Cliché as it may be, Harold is the personification of the view that age is just a number.
‘I do hope I haven’t bored you’, he says as we say our goodbyes. On the contrary, Harold. It was an absolute pleasure.