Father’s pilgrimage helps him come to terms with loss of beloved daughter

By Leah Smith in Charity

The father of an inspiring teenager who dedicated much of her short life into raising awareness of brain tumours and funds for pioneering national charity, Brain Tumour Research, has completed a 560-mile pilgrimage along the Camino de Santiago in Spain in her memory.

Emma Welch, who lived in Chilcompton and was a pupil at Norton Hill School, raised more than £13,000 for the charity through a number of daring challenges until her untimely death at the age of fourteen, almost two years ago, following complications after spinal surgery.

Emma, who suffered with scoliosis, was inspired to support Brain Tumour Reseach, having learnt that her former church minister, Andrew Stammers, had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain tumour.

It was looking at photos of her Dad, Tony, and hearing him talking about the experience of completing the Marathon des Sables, a 156-mile ultra-marathon across the Sahara desert, often called the toughest foot race on Earth, which prompted Emma to take on her own challenges, including climbing the height of Everest on an indoor climbing wall.

When Tony, aged 56, set off in March to complete the Camino, he was carrying the very same rucksack he used thirty years earlier for the Marathon des Sables, which, with just a sleeping bag, a spare pair of socks, underwear and a change of t-shirt, along with a basic wash kit inside, weighed less than 3kg.

He also had a precious cargo in the shape of one of Emma’s teddies. Petal was attached to the outside of Tony’s rucksack, giving rise to him becoming known along the Camino as “the man with the bear.”

Deciding to live as simply as possible along the route to Santiago, from its starting point in France, across the Pyrenees and down the mountainous west coast of Spain, Tony gave himself a budget of just €20 per day.

Tony explained: “Living this simply was fine, apart from my idea to carry so little in my rucksack. I didn’t take into account the huge drop in temperature I would encounter when crossing mountains. It was often difficult to keep warm with just a t-shirt and a thin, if wind-proof, jacket at my disposal. The first time I found myself up in the mountains, I thought I had made a desperate mistake. On later occasions when the route took me to elevated altitudes, I waited until the sun was much higher before setting off. Being fitter by then also helped!

“The experience of walking the Camino seemed to divide itself into three distinct stages. I found the first third very tough physically, while my body got used to all the long-distance hiking. By the middle third, I was much fitter, but this time, there were mental challenges to cope with. A lot of days with long flat sections stretching for miles in front of me were very boring, leaving me with too much time to think about things and feeling like I was playing mind games.

“The final 150 miles or so however, I found very spiritual. I met so many others who had suffered bereavement, and we shared deep conversations about our grief.

“There were also spiritual leaders and priests on the Camino, specifically there to help people who had been bereaved. I learnt that I needed to stop thinking of Emma in the past, where all the pain is, and think of Emma now as a spiritual being. This was hugely comforting, and it has brought me such joy to think of her in this way. It left me feeling very empowered and I can now talk to Emma and feel no pain.”

Brain Tumour Research is campaigning to see the national spend on research into brain tumours increased to £30 million – £35 million a year, in line with breast cancer and leukaemia. The charity, which receives no Government funding, is building a network of experts working at world-class Research Centres of Excellence in the UK, with four already established.

Look out for Emma’s best friend, Victoria Roberts and her mother, Sandra, along with Emma’s teddy, Daisy Bear, who will be running a stall to raise funds for Brain Tumour Research at the Westfield Fun Day this Sunday, 4th June – the second anniversary of Emma’s passing.

For more information about fundraising in memory of Emma go to: www.facebook.com/daisy.bear.750

To add your donation to Tony’s fundraising, visit: www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Daisy-Bear