Faith: 80 year-old-pilgrim walks 1,333 miles to help Leprosy Mission




Rev John Merrill will walk from Canterbury to Rome in 80 days, arriving at the Vatican on his 80th birthday. John has walked a total of 228,500 miles on walking trails, almost the distance from earth to the moon, and worn out 151 pairs of boots! He keeps all his old boots in his garden shed in Hertfordshire as he says they feel like old friends. John has written 520 books about his expeditions. These range from walking the coastline of Britain, 7,000 miles, to the Pacific Crest Trail from the US/Mexican border to the Canadian border, 3,000 miles.

His latest challenge will see him leave Canterbury Cathedral June 1st where he will receive a pilgrims’ blessing. He is scheduled to arrive at the Vatican on August 19th; his 80th birthday. He has no rest days scheduled on the 1,333-mile route through France, Switzerland and Italy. Averaging 16.66 miles a day, he hopes to raise as much money as he can to help people affected by leprosy.

Rev Merrill, a multi-faith minister, heard how leprosy was still a problem in the world today at a Carol service at St Giles in the Fields Church in London. He heard Peter Waddup, Chief Executive of The Leprosy Mission, talk about Dr Paul Brand who was a medical missionary to India where he witnessed firsthand the prejudice surrounding leprosy. While treating a patient for the disease, Dr Brand put his hand on the patient to reassure him. He was concerned when the patient began to sob. A translator for the patient told him: “You touched him and no one has done that for years. They are tears of joy.”

John, deeply moved by this story, was inspired to raise money to help people affected by leprosy. This could mean giving the gift of reconstructive surgery, pioneered by Dr Brand, to restore movement to hands and feet frozen by leprosy. Or providing bespoke prosthetic limbs to those who have had limbs amputated because of injury caused by the disease. John said: “It would be lovely to think by doing this challenge for my 80th birthday, I could give someone else a second chance of life on their feet again.

“I have been extremely fortunate that I have never broken a bone or been hospitalised during my expeditions. I have some amazing adventures and have been up close to rattlesnakes and bears but have always remained safe. I have been very blessed really as I usually walk alone. That way you never forget what you have seen because you’ve been chatting! I have gone 14 days without seeing another human being.” John says that walking is a way of life for him and his pilgrimages have deepened his faith. He was adopted as a baby during the Second World War and said he was an exasperating child at school.

“I used to come bottom in everything and the only thing I loved was sport and running up and down Bell Hagg Rocks in Sheffield where I grew up. I loved the sense of freedom and exploring made a great impression on me.”

After being expelled from several schools, Rev Merrill’s father sent him to a Quaker boarding school in North Yorkshire. “I loved it there as you were allowed to explore anywhere, you just had to be back by 6pm. When I was 15, however, I was caught climbing up a three-storey building at the school. I was called to the headmaster’s office and thought I was going to be expelled. But amazingly, he sent me on an outward bound mountain course in the Lake District for a month! From then on I walked and climbed whenever I could. After I left school, I worked for my father’s company as a commercial director but it never suited me. I spent my holidays walking and climbing.

“One time I was climbing in the Isle of Arran and it felt like I was being prompted by God. I felt He was telling me that I was not doing what I should be doing. Then a short time later I camped outside Iona Abbey on the Isle of Iona in the Hebrides and saw there was a service there at 6pm. I somehow felt called to go the service. But when I got there I was thinking ‘what am I doing here?’ Anyway, the minister began his sermon and said ‘God gives you the chance to do what you should be doing. If you don’t take it, he will give it to you again’. It was the prompt I needed to leave work and start my new life of hiking, climbing and writing books.

“I drove back to Derbyshire and gave in my notice. I have been doing this ‘new life’ ever since! As I failed my English O-Level twice, they were quite surprised at my old school by the number of books I had published! Even though I’m approaching 80, age is but a number, and now I just intend to keep going and walk the Pennine Way when I turn 100!“

Rev Merrill has raised more than £1.5 million for good causes from his own walking expeditions. More than £1 million has also be raised by other walkers completing his challenge walks. To sponsor his 80th birthday Canterbury to Rome pilgrimage visit:

Main Photo Credit: Courtesy of Rev John Merrill

Val Fraser

Val Fraser is a trained journalist with over 12 years’ experience working on staff in various demanding media environments. She has authored/edited thousands of articles including news, travel and features. Val has authored/contributed to nine non-fiction books. A regular columnist, she stepped up to the role of Digital Editor in September 2022 and is responsible for the Sorted Magazine website.

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