Hiking in the hills of Cumbria turned me from an addict into a fell-loving foodie

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My 19k followers on Instagram know me as Fell Foodie, a wellness campaigner and camp-stove cook from the Lake District. But I haven’t always been healthy. Before hitting rock bottom and turning my life around in 2016, I was an alcoholic and suffering from clinical depression. 

I had a normal childhood growing up in a rural area of Cumbria, close to the fells. Yet, I had a complete complacency about them and the outdoors in general. As a child, I started off as quite an extroverted character with lots of friends. Then, during puberty, I was hit with a complete sense of self-loathing, which I ended up masking for years.

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Previously, I was drinking around 10 pints a day

When I started work, I found myself getting jobs in the hospitality industry, working in pubs and hotels. It was during this time I discovered alcohol. Britain has a strong drinking culture, but I found booze also helped to sedate my dark thoughts. It allowed me some freedom from my own mind and, increasingly, I used it to self-medicate. 

At university in York, I was drinking around 10 pints a day; it quickly became my sole priority, while studying dropped by the wayside. I eventually dropped out and joined the hospitality trade full-time, living and working in a pub. My drinking escalated and alcohol no longer felt like it was allowing me to escape my feelings. I eventually reached a crisis point where I felt I couldn’t continue and I phoned my mum to say goodbye.

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To replace the void, I threw myself into fitness

My family encouraged me to get medical help, which I did, but unfortunately I wasn’t willing to make a change. Quickly, I slipped back into my old lifestyle. I then met my girlfriend. I tried to keep her separate from my drinking, but it was impossible to hide the fact that I was already in a relationship with alcohol. We had lots of arguments and, one night when drunk, I was unfaithful to her and she ended things. 

This was my turning point. I realised that alcohol was not only harming me, but that I was inflicting pain on others, too. From that moment, 6th June, 2016, I vowed to stop drinking. Overnight, I left my job as a pub manager in York and returned to where I grew up in the hills. In order to replace the void, I threw myself into fitness. 

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A friend led me up Blencathra, one of the Lake District’s most popular hills

I was lucky to still have lots of friends in my life who knocked on my door and took me cycling or persuaded me to go to the gym. One particular friend turned up on my doorstep and said, “We’re going for a hike.” I was penniless at the time and had zero experience or kit, so he brought me some hiking boots. Looking back, this was a huge act of friendship and faith.

He led me up Blencathra; it’s one of the Lake District’s most popular hills with a series of routes to the summit, including some quite difficult scrambles. It was a real baptism of fire. As a consequence, I don’t remember much of that hike. It was long and difficult, I was going through withdrawal, pining for my ex and also desperate for a cigarette (I’d given up smoking, too).

Yet, when we eventually reached the summit, it was a glorious blue-sky day with the Pennines in the background. My mate turned to me and said, “Right, we’re doing Helvellyn [another Lake District peak] next”. And that was it – the start of my journey into fell climbing. 

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Hiking started a cycle – after that, it was Snowdon in Wales

It was an experience that started a cycle. A week after completing Helvellyn, I hiked up England’s highest mountain, Scafell Pike, and then did the same in Wales on Snowdon. And I just kept going. The mountains gave me an endorphin hit like nothing else. I’d never really understood the appeal of hiking before but, suddenly, I got it. The feeling that came from pushing my limits was similar to the one I had when boozing – but without any of the downsides. Plus, there was a huge sense of achievement that came with setting a challenge and seeing it through.

There was also the element of time. Drinking had taken up huge amounts of it in my old life and hiking for five or six hours a day filled that gap. As I continued with my journey into sobriety, my lethargy fell away and I became more motivated and energised. Hiking levelled me out, helped me reset, made me tick.

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I realised food was fuel. So, I started to take supplies

By May 2017, I’d experienced a major turnaround. I was still sober and had lost seven stone in weight; it felt like redemption. It must have been odd for my loved ones to see such a dramatic transformation, but it goes to show the level of change that’s possible in just one year. It wasn’t easy. When I first began, even the smaller fells were hard work, but getting to the summit and looking down on all the lakes below was fantastic and motivated me to continue.

Food was also a hugely important part of my transformation. I’ve always been passionate about cooking from an early age and I learnt a lot from chefs during my time in the hospitality industry. My diet was rubbish, though, and I ate takeaways or whatever was at hand.

This changed when I started trekking. I realised food was fuel and I started to take leftover stews, salads or cold cuts, like antipasti, on my walks with me instead. This turned into buying a camping stove and other equipment to cook outdoors. All the while I was documenting the food I made, and the incredible views I had while eating it, on social media.

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My work looks at the therapeutic benefits of the landscape

In 2018, I set my account to public on Instagram, sharing my story and how that led to my passion for hiking and cooking. The response was huge and I was inundated with support, including from people who had loved ones going through similar things. 

In turn, the interest led to lots of public speaking work, as well as brand collaborations and corporate team-building. Much of my work revolves around the therapeutic benefits of the natural landscape, as well as what can be achieved with cooking alfresco. I also visit schools and try to reach out to the next generation, many of whom don’t have access to the outdoors like I did growing up. 

I’ve never been someone who preaches or places myself on a pedestal. I’m still in recovery every day and have to manage my depression. I don’t want to suggest what people should take from my story, but I think it’s important for me to share it.

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I never imagined being so vulnerable publicly

I’m raw, open and honest about what I’ve been through. I never imagined being so vulnerable publicly. I just want to help break down the barriers and stigmas we have around addiction and mental health issues. 

In many ways, the act of hiking reflects the journey I’ve been on to overcome my alcoholism. Both have been an uphill struggle, but it’s been important to have some blind faith and keep pushing through the pain regardless. When it came to it, I really only had two options – either stay put or, quite literally, climb my way out to a better future. I’m pleased I chose the latter. 

Harrison Ward is a wellbeing speaker, outdoor adventurer and founder of Fell Foodie, which creates restaurant-worthy meals in remote locations.

To find your connection with the outdoors, join Flash Pack and other travellers in their 30s and 40s on a group adventure

Images: ©Kenny Block, ©Daniel J, ©Dir Garth Dew, Courtesy of BBC-Love-to-Cook & Unsplash 

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