My East Anglian Life: ‘My arthritis won’t stop me walking 150 miles’

Sarah Dennis 

Sarah Dennis - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Combined, the Norfolk and Suffolk coastal paths stretch across 144 miles of beautiful, natural, rugged scenery. Starting at Hunstanton in the west of the region, going all the way to Hopton-on-Sea, and right down to Felixstowe, it’s a breath-taking journey that many embark upon. 

And one woman who is currently conquering this challenging trek is Sarah Dennis.  

Hemsby-born Sarah currently works as a yoga teacher – but over a decade ago, her life was turned upside when she was diagnosed with arthritis when she was 36.  

“I had psoriasis from the age of 28 on my scalp and around the back of my ears. But by the time I’d reached my mid-30s, psoriasis, especially for women, can actually turn into a form of arthritis called psoriatic arthritis,” she explains. 

“I was suffering with a badly swollen toe, and saw a consultant who said it was suspected arthritis. At the time, I was about to head off on a 14-month backpacking trip, and I didn’t think I’d make it as I was in quite a lot of pain.” 

Sarah Dennis has already begun her trek, which will take her from Hunstanton to Felixstowe

Sarah Dennis has already begun her trek, which will take her from Hunstanton to Felixstowe - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Determined to continue with her plans, Sarah made her way across the globe – and found that being in a totally new environment actually helped ease her condition.  

“I’m not sure if it’s the climate or the food, but I found being in Asia helped me feel a lot better. I also have chronic food allergies, but when I was abroad, I was able to eat street food. However, when I came back to England afterwards, within three months all of my symptoms came back and were really aggressive.” 

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Reflecting on how she felt at the time of her diagnosis, she says it took her by surprise. 

“I’ve always been a healthy person. I've always eaten well, I don’t really have takeaways or processed foods, I’ve never smoked, and the last alcoholic drink I had was on my 21st birthday - and I haven’t drunk since. I’ve always looked after my health, and after my first diagnosis, I couldn’t quite believe it as I felt I hadn’t contributed to my illness.” 

Since her diagnosis, Sarah has learned to manage her symptoms and live with her condition – but she still suffers with chronic pain.  

“When I was first diagnosed, I was told if I didn’t take medication, I’d be in a wheelchair within 10 years. At the time, I could barely walk. However, I’ve not taken any strong medication for my arthritis, and for the last 12 years I’ve taken it upon myself to try and cope. I’m not saying I can get rid of it, but I can try to manage it.” 

Instead, Sarah has found solace in yoga, and finds keeping active helps keep some of the chronic pain at bay.  

Sarah with her mum, Monica

Sarah with her mum, Monica - Credit: Brittany Woodman

But when the pandemic forced everyone into lockdown, Sarah found her condition worsened as she wasn’t as active.  

“I’m used to teaching 15 classes a week, so I went from that to teaching one online class, and within a month my whole body changed. My fingers fused and deformed, and it made me realise how important it is to keep my body moving. 

“When I was backpacking in north Vietnam, I spent time with shamans from the Hmong tribes. And it was there that I got a brief insight into their wisdom and relationship when it comes to honouring nature, and I think that’s helped inspired my journey with walking.” 

When a member of the Dogon tribe visited the UK just a few years ago, Sarah did some work with him – and had an epiphany that helped inspired her even further.  

“This shaman asked where I was from, and when I said I’m originally from the coast, he said I should go back to the place my soul knows, and that I might find healing in it. I found that interesting because my dad has always said if I don’t feel well, I should come home. And when I moved inland to the West Midlands after university, that’s when my symptoms started.” 

That’s why Sarah is going back to her roots – and is currently embarking on a three-week trek along the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts. 

Hunstanton, where Sarah's trek starts

Hunstanton, where Sarah's trek starts - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

“Not only does chronic pain affect you physically, but mentally as well. It robs you of the person you used to be. I used to do marathons before I was diagnosed, and it’s upsetting and frustrating. So I’m using this walk to challenge myself. 

“I’m hoping this return back to the coast is going to offer me some sort of healing. I wanted to return to the place where I’m from, as it feels comfortable and familiar. It’s the place that my soul knows, as the shamans would say.” 

Sarah estimates her walk will take around three weeks – and she’s doing the entire stretch solo.  

She will be walking in aide of East Anglian charity Sunbeams, an organisation that provides a safe and fun environment for children with autism to enjoy play. Set up by her mum, she hopes to raise £1,500 in order to buy a defibrillator for the centre. 

“I’m used to having people around me to open things or lift them for me, but on this walk I’ll be alone. I’ll be carrying all of my supplies with me – and it comes to about 18kg which is 35% of my body weight.” 

Sarah started her journey from Hunstanton on Monday, May 30, and will carry on along the coasts until she reaches Hopton-on-Sea. “The Norfolk and Suffolk coasts don’t actually link, so I’ll need to walk through Hopton and Lowestoft for about five miles so I can get to the Suffolk stretch,” she says. 

Sarah Dennis

Sarah Dennis - Credit: Brittany Woodman

Feeling a mix of emotions, Sarah says she’s mostly excited. “It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time. I do have concerns for my hands though, and if they’re cold or I’m having a bad day, I can be quite limited. But I’m excited about the challenge – I’ve got an adventurous spirit.” 

Sarah adds she is also particularly excited to meet new people along the way – and encourages anyone who sees her on her travels to stop and have a chat. She will also be leaving messages on painted pebbles along the way – and would love for anyone who finds one to post it on social media, commenting where they found it. 

“I really want to engage with people along the way, and get involved with the communities I’ll be walking through. I’ll be wearing my ‘Heel to Heal’ shirt, and I’d love it if people walked along with me and told me their stories. I love speaking to people, hearing about their lives and finding out what inspires them. When I was backpacking, it wasn’t the places that made it, but the people I met.” 

To follow Sarah on her journey, visit facebook.com/heeltoheal or @heeltoheal_ on Instagram.