Steven Payne: ‘I found a route that seemed feasible – 76 miles between Bardoneccia and Grenoble.’

I bought an original 1970s hopper on eBay and practised on a nearby hill

At the start of 2015, my life unexpectedly went belly up. Within the space of three months, my father died, I was made redundant, I split up with my fiancee and I was diagnosed with leukemia. It was an awful time, but once I had sold our home, I started to think about how I could turn my misfortune into an opportunity. With no job, house or relationship, I had the time to do anything I wanted. That is how I ended up spending several months researching and re-enacting a 14th-century pilgrimage.

I am not religious, but I thought a 200-mile walk across southern England would give me time away from my troubles and help me decide where my life was going. The experience was so fulfilling I made a second trip the following winter, travelling through Wales in a coracle.

I also started spending some of my free time working on projects to help homeless people in Chichester, where I live. One afternoon, I took a homeless friend, Paul, for a meal, where he told me about his determination to find a job and the difficulty of doing so without a permanent address. “It’s virtually impossible,” he said. “It’s like trying to cross the Alps on a space hopper.” I had been wondering what I could do for my next journey – and there it was. “Don’t be stupid,” said Paul. “You’ll die! It’s not going to happen.” So then I had to do it.

I bought an original 1970s space hopper on eBay and practised on a nearby hill through the snowy spring of 2018. I realised my Alpine adventure would have to take place in the summer – space hoppers don’t perform well in icy conditions – and discovered that slopes are more easily tackled on a child-sized hopper, whereas adult-sized ones are better suited to flat bouncing. I researched routes and found one that seemed feasible – 76 miles between Bardonecchia in Italy and Grenoble in France. I visited my GP, who assured me my leukaemia shouldn’t affect the journey, other than increasing tiredness.

I arrived in Bardonecchia on 1 August and set off in a tweed suit, partly to avoid insect bites, and an 1880s pith helmet, to keep the sun off my head and neck and protect me from falling rocks. That first day was a killer. I had planned my route so most of the toughest bouncing took place at the start, but by noon the temperature was 30C. On steep gradients, I had to pause every 10 bounces to make sure I didn’t get cramp; I quickly factored in a lengthy siesta at 11am each day. I had made sure there was a cheap B&B or refuge to stay overnight every five miles along the route. Travelling at a little over half a mile an hour and putting in eight or nine hours a day, I usually made my target, although a couple of times I had to sleep rough.

Some slopes were too steep for bouncing and I had to deflate my hopper and climb. Occasionally, the terrain was littered with sharp stones; I lost my first hopper to a puncture on day five. Fortunately, I had three spares.Advertisement

Most people en route dismissed me as an English eccentric, although many were politely intrigued. On one occasion, a local man offered me a huge meal and homemade wine. I fell asleep on his porch, then spent a very uncomfortable afternoon trying to bounce on a full stomach. After that, I limited myself to energy bars and water until the evening. As the days wore on, my many aches started to feel permanent. I suffered heatstroke, altitude sickness and then lost a second hopper to fatigue after I fell asleep on a mountainside.

With the end in sight, near-disaster struck when I twisted my knee. A hiker helped me bandage it and I pressed on, despite the pain. I had picked up a sizeable Facebook following while posting daily updates and some urged me to quit, but the last three days were mostly downhill. So on I bounced, finishing in agony on day 17. In Grenoble, I posted a video explaining my motivation and encouraging followers to approach homeless people with offers of help.

Back in Chichester, I seized up completely and spent five days on my hands and knees. When I next saw Paul, his life had picked up a little; he now had a toe-hold in a shelter. But we both knew his struggle was gruelling compared with my self-imposed one. He was keen to know what I am planning for next year, though. I’m trying to choose betweencycling across the Channel and something involving a penny farthing and a suit of armour