There comes a turning point for most of us in our lives and, for Katy MacMillan-Scott, the death of one of her best friends proved pivotal.
After losing Harriet, her partner in crime of 15 years, to bowel cancer at the age of 32, Katy, 34, made a change in every corner of her life. In quick succession she moved house, launched the film club she had been planning for years and quit her job of over a decade.
But perhaps most importantly, Katy has decided to complete a literary expedition that will see her walking 2,500 miles from Rotterdam to Istanbul over a number of years, in a fitting tribute to the friend with whom she shared a lifelong passion for books and an insatiable curiosity of the world.
Now, one week before she sets off on the first leg of her journey, she talks to Stylist’s Sarah Biddlecombe about friendship, grief and the importance of never giving up on your quest for adventure…
I’ve just asked Katy MacMillan-Scott to describe her best friend Harriet to me, and she is struggling to parcel their 15 years of friendship into a few short sentences.
“It’s so hard to summarise her, because she just had the most effervescent personality,” she begins. “She was always telling stories and was so gregarious in that way, but she was also an incredibly kind and generous person.
“She was so much fun but at her core she was just a really, really good friend.”
Katy goes on to give me the backstory to their friendship, describing how she met Harriet in 2001 when they were both studying English Literature at Newcastle University. Housemates in their third year, they moved to London together when they graduated, and spent regular nights completing an age-old rite of passage: crying – and laughing – about how much they hated their first jobs.
Later, Harriet moved in with Rich, the man she would later marry in a beautiful ceremony in a church in her home county of Shropshire in April 2015.
“She was so happy,” Katy recalls. “She completely adored Rich, and for her it was the absolute thing she wanted – to marry him.”
The pair soon fell pregnant and, when Harriet began to feel unwell, doctors attributed her stomach pains to either the baby or her history of IBS. It wasn’t until the following Autumn that she was diagnosed with advanced stage bowel cancer. After the tumour in her bowels was discovered she underwent an operation but then had to make the heartbreaking decision to lose her baby so she could start a course of chemotherapy.
However, although she then began chemotherapy, it was tragically too late. She died in March 2016 at the age of 32, less than a year after she was married.
“When you’ve lost someone, it can feel like the air has been sucked out of you”
“It was a complete shock,” Katy says of the moment she learned of Harriet’s death.
She had been at St Pancras station about to board the Eurostar to Paris to meet a friend when another friend Alex, also reeling from the news, called to tell her that Harriet was gone.
“I think I just went into autopilot. I was about to get on the train and I just had to not think about it for an hour and a half, because I knew I couldn’t get on the train if I did.”
After spending a “very strange” week in Paris, a distraught Katy returned home, where she slowly began to realise she wasn’t entirely happy with her life.
“I know everyone says this, but it really did make me step back and say, life is not long enough,” she says. “Harriet’s death made me realise that you have to live your life with a view to thinking about what you would miss out on otherwise. You have to try and make the best scenario for yourself as much as you can – and no one’s going to do that for you.”
Suddenly determined that she would no longer be someone who was just “buffeted around by life”, she began making drastic changes. She quit the job she had been working at for over a decade and moved house, alongside launching her first film club, The Bluestocking Club - a dream she’d had for years.
“It sounds mad now I think about how busy I was,” she says. “But I’ve realised the way I deal with grief is to keep busy, to plan things, to occupy my mind. When you’ve lost someone, it can sometimes feel like the air has been sucked out of you, and you have moments of feeling completely distraught.
“But most of the time you’re in shock, like a zombie, and you just keep moving forward.”
Despite moving forward while making so many changes in her life, the seed of an even bigger plan was starting to grow in Katy’s mind.
“Everything, even the most mundane things, were always an adventure when Harriet was around”
The last time she’d seen Harriet, the pair had gone to an event about polar explorers at The Frontline Club, where they’d listened to an all-male panel talk patronisingly about “lady adventurers”. Laughing afterwards about how dismissive the men had been at the thought of women explorers, they had begun emailing each other pictures of fascinating lady adventurers from history, including the legendary explorers Gertrude Bell, known as the “female Lawrence of Arabia”, and Freya Stark.
“After Harriet’s death, I kept coming back to that talk and the idea of an adventure in my mind, and I realised that the spirit we both have is an adventurous one,” Katy says. “Harriet wouldn’t let anything stop her and everything, even the most mundane things, were always an adventure when she was around. So I decided to go on an adventure in her memory.”
It took another few months, and an epiphany on a bus, for the plan to fully crystallise.
The decision was made when Katy read The Gifts of Reading, an essay by Robert Macfarlane about friendship, the power of walking and the pleasure of gifting books – in particular, A Time of Gifts, a book in which travel writer Paddy Leigh Fermor recounts an epic expedition he undertook in 1933 by travelling from Rotterdam to Istanbul. The essay had such an impact on her that she began to cry, sitting surrounded by people on a bus.
“I hadn’t been able to cry at all - this was the first time in months that I’d found myself crying,” she recalls.
Macfarlane’s words had unlocked something inside of her, and it was in that moment that she knew how she wanted to pay tribute to Harriet – she would follow in Paddy’s footsteps in her memory.
“Harriet and I read about so many pioneering women and it had started to inspire me,” she said. “Harriet had an inquisitive curiosity about the world, and I did too – I’ve travelled all over the Middle East with work, I’ve learnt Arabic, and I’ve always had a real interest in the wider world. This was something, aside from our love of books, that we have in common.”
“In order to fit adventure into your life you have to take it wherever you can”
Following the entire route is no mean feat, so Katy is tackling it piece by piece. She will plan a series of mini adventures until all the ground has been covered, keeping Harriet’s memory alive as she does so.
“I’m wary of even trying to say how many trips it will be, but I think in order to fit adventure into your life you just have to take it wherever you can,” she says. “One year it might be that I have a whole month to cover some of the distance, while another it might be that I take a long weekend. It’s got to fit in around my life.”
For the first leg of the trip, she will be travelling from Rotterdam to Budapest, mostly walking as she crosses the five countries in her path. She has been planning the three week expedition since last November, with the trip taking on an unprecedented momentum after she posted a Facebook status in January asking people along the route whether they could put her up for a night.
“There was such an outpouring of support – people have been so, so generous,” she says, recounting stories of strangers from all over Europe getting in touch to offer her bed and breakfast. One woman, based in the UK, told Katy she was keen to get back on her Harley Davidson after finishing a round of chemo, and asked if she could bring her home from the airport on her bike.
“That one was actually the most touching for me, because that’s the spirit I’m entering into this with,” she says. “I want to do positive things, I don’t want this to be all about grief.
“But when you’re grieving, the reassurance that you get from the kindness of others is the only thing you can really ask for.”
Alongside putting in a “huge” amount of time to plan the trip, Katy has also been preparing physically, walking to work every morning and gradually filling her backpack to help her get used to the weight.
“I don’t think anything could fully prepare me for it, but at least if I can sense what’s going to hurt and where, I can pre-empt it, such as taping my feet or making sure my collarbones are supported,” she says.
She also had to acclimatise to the world of shopping for sportswear, which was – to put it mildly – more challenging than expected.
“I’ve been trying to find clothing that’s practical but not ugly, and also not purple, which is literally the only colour sports shops seem to sell for women. I don’t want to wear skin-tight leggings, but I’m also not going to be buying a pair of zip-at-the-knee trousers – it’s a hard world to get into as a novice.”
Other essentials in her backpack will include practical items such as maps and chargers, alongside a Swiss army knife (with a corkscrew for wine and a saw for cheese), as well as mosquito repellent, sun cream and a waterproof mac.
She will also be packing the Kate Bush backlist, a couple of audio books and, of course, a paperback copy of A Time of Gifts.
“I don’t know how long the journey will take me – it might take my whole life”
However, she’s determined to try and do most of the trip without distraction, to finally give herself the time and space to fully process her loss.
“I still don’t really believe Harriet’s gone,” she admits. “I know it’s true but I can’t really take it in, and I haven’t been able to engage with it properly since it happened.”
And she says that, as mad as it seems, she has no real expectations of the trip.
“I need to give myself time to think, something I haven’t done for a long time. I want to be open to new experiences and meeting completely different people from all sorts of places. I think that’s an incredibly enriching thing.”
And of course, she wants the first journey – and all subsequent adventures – to be the ultimate tribute to her friend.
“Taking time each year to do this is my way of honouring our friendship,” she says. “It helps to keep her spirit alive, because the worst thing would be if we didn’t talk about her anymore.
“I don’t know how long the journey will take me – it might take my whole life. It’s basically a love letter to Harriet from me, because I couldn’t tell her myself.”
In Harriet’s memory, Katy is raising money and awareness for Bowel Cancer UK’s campaign for the under-50s, Never Too Young. For more information, click here.
All images: courtesy of Katy MacMillan-Scott