I’ve done things on a whim before; bought that dress that was too expensive, or had that second (OK third) slice of cake. But Leicestershire cricketer Matt Boyce means business when he acts on a whim. In the middle of the 2012 domestic cricket season, Matt decided, on a ‘whim’, to walk the length of Britain to raise money for Mind, a mental illness charity. On the 3 December he will complete his walk from John O’Groats to Lands End. Of course, I can’t predict the future, but having walked alongside Matt for a few hours, I can be certain that neither hell nor high water will stop him completing his journey. In fact, I can be certain on the second point: I joined Matt on the wettest day of his epic walk, and, as it turned out, the wettest day of the year in Somerset. So bad was the weather, that we were unable to conduct the interview that I had planned, eventually having to take shelter in a rural pub to chat and drip dry.
GW: So why Mind?
MB: I’ve never suffered from mental illness myself, but at the time I was thinking of doing this Gary Speed’s suicide was in the media, there was a television programme by Andrew Flintoff, and something by Michael Vaughan on BBC 5live, so it was quite a prominent issue.
You don’t think about it yourself because you don’t suffer. I’ve become more and more aware of guys who are suffering around me who probably wouldn’t come forward because of what their friends, family and colleagues might think. So I was trying to make a statement that there is some support out there. I can’t necessarily understand depression, but I can accept it, and accept that it’s not a weakness.
Did you decide you wanted to do something for Mind and then decide on the walk, or was it the other way around?
It kind of all happened at the same time. I wanted to do something this winter for charity, at the same time I knew I wanted to do something around depression. A teammate who has joined me on this walk has struggled with depression, but it’s only been in the last couple years that he’s realised what it was. I feel really guilty because I’d call him a lazy toad because he didn’t want to leave the house! I couldn’t understand it.
As cricketers by nature we are quite selfish blokes. I knew there must be a few guys around me who are struggling with depression, but because you’re so locked up in your own world you don’t notice.
I had a friend at University. In the first year he was the life and soul of the party, and I lived with him for the next two years. He used to be a really big bloke, but during our time at University he shrank down to about eight stone. He hardly ate anything. We knew there was a bit of a problem and we tried to confront him about it occasionally, but we didn’t make a big enough issue out of it. We were so wrapped up in our own bubbles.
But it’s not just non-sufferers who can struggle to understand mental illness is it? It can also be hard for sufferers to diagnose their own problems.
That’s definitely the case. Guys who are really struggling might just feel really ill within themselves – tired or run down – and they probably don’t recognise the symptoms. I’ve heard lots of cases where people have gone to their doctor, and they put two and two together, and realise they’re suffering. It is an illness. I think people and GPs are becoming much more aware of mental illness, which helps with diagnosis. But there is still a lot of work to be done.
That’s where MIND come in, raising awareness about mental illness in society, and providing a place to go to, and people to talk to. As well as the main Mind charity, they have over 160 local branches that deal with people one on one. They’re trying to end the stigma that surrounds mental health and how it affects different people. They are a really good centre for people who’ve got issues, for someone to go and talk to.
Looking at people who’ve suffered, and looking at tweets from Mind charity, there is still a stigma that revolves around depression, but I think it’s becoming less and less prominent in society. It helps when guys like Flintoff, Matthew Hoggard, and Steve Harmison come out and say they’ve suffered, and it’s not a weakness. It helps others to try and find help. And that’s what Mind do very well.
Is there still a lot of work to be done within County cricket in terms of supporting players with mental illness?
Cricket clubs and counties can be quite unforgiving environments in terms of lads’ banter. It’s all good fun, and when you’re around your mates like that you wouldn’t necessarily pick up on someone who’s struggling a bit. You might just think he’s in a bad mood. I don’t think the environment that’s created is a good one for guys who want to come out and say they’re having problems. But having said that, there is a serious support network in place, and when someone does come out and say they’re suffering, it’s accepted rather than looked down on.
I’ve never witnessed any prejudice towards a cricketer who’s admitted suffering from depression. I’d relate that to when Steve Davies came out as being gay and everyone just accepted it. For him, that would have been a massive thing. You have banter about it in the changing room, but when you play against him you just treat him as you did before. It’s accepted straight away.
What is being done within the game to help?
The PCA (Professional Cricketers’ Association) are doing good work. Through the winter they’re constantly in contact with the Welfare Officers and Personal Development guys (at counties) and they’ve got a really good support network there. It’s about changing people’s awareness of the situation.
The online videos are very good. At the start of each year the PCA go and meet the counties and they put up tutorials which we have to do, otherwise we cannot be registered to play, so it’s not just a case of do it if you want to or need to.
Back to the walk, and Matt gleefully informs me that I am the only person to accompany him and not offer to carry his hefty rucksack. Oh dear! To ease his rucksack woes, Matt gets a weekly visit from either of his parents or his girlfriend Rose who bring him clean clothes and the next set of maps for his journey. Speaking of maps, I was alarmed to learn that Matt had never read a map before he started this walk. As we left the main roads of Radstock behind and headed into the depths of the Somerset countryside, Matt looked bewilderingly around the sodden village we were in, before glancing hopefully at me for assistance. Happily (and unsurprisingly some would say) it’s at this point that I found us the pub to take shelter in.
GW: So who else has joined you on the walk so far?
MB: Loads of people have joined me. My dad was with me in a campervan for the first two weeks up in Scotland, which was nice. He’s been really good at helping find my accommodation etc. Some Leicestershire teammates have come along; Paul Nixon, Alex Wyatt, James Sykes, Josh Cobb, Nathan Buck, Robbie Williams, and Ben Smith the batting coach. My girlfriend has walked with me a few times, lots of friends, and both of my parents. My Aunt and her scout troop joined me as well. They’re raising some money for me, which is great. That day there were about 15 of us including my friends from London.
Did you talk to anyone else who’s done the walk?
No. Ian Botham has done it but he did it on the road. Not that it makes it any less hard. (But I am much tougher than him)!”
66 days is a very long time to be away. How long were you planning for this adventure?
I got a couple of books off the Internet from someone who’d done it before, and just followed his route – mainly off road. As I said it was a little bit on a whim! I spoke to my Dad about it, and when I’d read the books I gave them to him. I set up a Virgin Giving page, and my brother-in-law set up the website. I only ordered the maps two weeks before the start, so there wasn’t much planning before I went! I took the first two weeks (of the walk) to plan and prepare for the rest of it.
We knew where I was going to be stopping every night to book accommodation, and I look at the map every night for the next day. I haven’t even looked at the map for tomorrow; I’ll do that when I reach my destination tonight. I guess the planning and preparation is an ongoing thing for me!
Although Matt would be the first to say that he was totally unprepared for the walk, I got the impression that he’s taking each challenge in his stride (no pun intended). Aside from the worst flooding for five years, and a bout of sickness, he’s also had to content with unexpected animal attacks!
Tell me about the horses?!
When my Aunt and her scouts were with me we were attacked by horses! That was interesting. It could have been carnage, air ambulance and all sorts! We didn’t really appreciate it at the time. These horses decided to tag along with us, but on a narrow path they started running past me. I was pulling my cousin out of the way and shouting, “watch out”. They were properly going for it. One knocked a scout down a hill, and knocked my Aunt over, then a second one ran over her. Then everyone scarpered out of the way and the horses ran up the hill. She got back up, put her hat back on and carried on, which I thought was pretty inspiring.
How much are you hoping to raise?
I would like to raise at least £6,000, and I’m about half way there. I think that a lot will come in at the end and afterwards.
Coming to the end of your second month of walking you must have experienced some amazing highs and lows? Can you tell us about some of them?
When I got off road in Scotland on to the West highland Way and the Great Glen Way, I saw the most incredible sights. The weather was good at that point, so it was really nice walking there. Coming down the Pennine Way was nice as well. I saw some amazing things. You do appreciate how nice a country it is. It’s something that I would have never thought about, something that I’ve taken for granted before I started this walk. The Pennine Way was tough, that was probably the hardest part of the walk just because it was so wet under foot. I had to be concentrating all the time.
They were tough stages: I’d be climbing a lot. And any day it rains, they’re the worst. Cricketers don’t like rain, unless we’re losing! We don’t have to be out in the rain so I’m not used to it! I wouldn’t say I’ve had too many, but the lowest point I’ve had was when I was ill. But, looking back I can turn that round into a positive thing for me because I got through that time when I was sick and exhausted, and I kept walking. If I’d had to stop then it would have been bad.
So what has surprised you (other than the horses)?!
I’ve been surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed different parts of the walk, especially after the first couple of weeks when I was walking on the road. But I’ve actually shocked myself by how I’ve managed to stick with it. I think planning the route the night before helps, and telling myself that it’s going to be 4 o’clock at some point! When it’s 4 o’clock I’m going to be in a warm B&B or pub.
But I knew I’d always get through the walking. I knew I’d be letting too many people down, letting myself down, to not complete the walking. But I’ve been surprised by how I’m really in my comfort zone now. I think when I stop walking, I’ll wake up the next day and want to go for a walk. I’ve enjoyed the challenge, and much of the walking, but honestly, when it rains that’s the worst.
How will you celebrate accomplishing such a massive achievement?
It will just be my mum and dad there, and my girlfriend Rose, so it’s not going to be much of a celebration! Land’s End is quite far away from Leicester, so not many people can come down. But when I get home I’m going to put my feet up for a couple of weeks and just chill out.
Should you be in training right now?
Yes the guys went back two or three weeks ago. But this is training I guess! I forfeited my month and a half off to start this so I think it would be a bit out of order if they didn’t let me finish it! I’ll probably go dip my toes into training before Christmas, but I’ll start proper training in the New Year.”
Has this motivated you to do more fundraising?
I’ll have to tell you after I finish this one. I’ve got to finish this first! But it has made me think about what I want to do in the future regarding fundraising and I’ve already thought of a couple of things I could do. I just felt it was important to raise the issue of depression in sport, of depression in general, and I would like to continue doing that kind of work, whether that’s fundraising, or speaking to people, or anything else.
Might you consider it as a job after cricket?
I probably wouldn’t consider it as a job necessarily. I’d like to do it in and around whatever I choose to do.
<em>As we left the pub and said goodbye after our interview, I helped Matt on his way, confidently pointing him off to the right. He only made it a mile down the road before he realised I was wrong. Oops!</em>
<em>With one in four people suffering from some form of mental illness in any given year, chances are you, or someone you know, is affected. Even if you don’t, Matt Boyce is walking six hours a day for 66 days, facing horrendous weather, wild horses, and worst of all, cricket journalists. Surely that deserves a donation?</em>