A sports commentator is to run and cycle from John O’Groats to Land’s End to commemorate the lives of four friends who all died within the last two years.
Olympic broadcaster and snooker announcer Rob Walker, 48, is set to travel over 1,000 miles in 19 days from June 5 to 23 in what he is calling The Absent Friends Tour to raise money for two charities – The Brain Tumour Charity and Jessie May Children’s Hospice at Home.
Mr Walker said he was inspired to take on the challenge through “tragic necessity” after his friends Robin Thomas, Martyn Settle, Stephen Isles, and George Hawkins – one of his son Arthur’s best friends – died in the last two years.
“Robin was a larger than life character, literally and metaphorically,” Mr Walker, from the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, told the PA news agency.
“He struck up a conversation and we became friends from there. He was a guest at mine and my wife’s wedding, he played the guitar at my wedding.”
Mr Thomas died at the age of 48 in October 2021 after having a heart attack.
Two months later, Mr Walker lost another close friend, Martyn Settle, who died at the age of 45.
“We were housemates at Exeter University,” Mr Walker explained.
“When Martyn died, I have never experienced anything like it. I had known him 24 years, it absolutely shattered me.”
He added: “He didn’t have anything wrong, he simply went to bed and that was it.”
Another of Mr Walker’s friend’s, Stephen Isles, who had lived with a brain tumour for 10 years, died at the age of 53 in May 2022.
Mr Walker said: “I got to sit with Stephen, unlike Robin and Martyn, which was all very sudden.
“I knew it was coming with Stephen, and I had the privilege of sitting with him on the day he died.”
Due to the deaths of his three friends, Mr Walker decided “it was time to do something”, which prompted him to take on The Absent Friends Tour.
As preparations for the challenge began, he dealt with the news that his son Arthur’s friend, George Hawkins, died at the age of nine over Christmas last year.
“There was no reason behind it, there was no cause. He had a great day and he went to bed and in the morning he was gone,” Mr Walker said.
He added that George was a “fabulous little character” and “a ray of sunshine”.
During the challenge, Mr Walker plans to hand out four bottles of champagne everyday – one for each friend – so people along the way can toast their lost friends with his.
He is also inviting those who want to join him along the route to Cornwall to get in touch.
Mr Walker said: “I’m a little bit nervous because I feel quite a weight of responsibility to get over the finish line and complete the task in honour of the four.”
He added: “It will be a very emotional experience for me.
“If I manage to hit the [fundraising] target, I think it will be one of the best things I’ve ever done.”
Mr Walker has set up a JustGiving page to fundraise for the two charities, raising more than £10,000 so far out of a target of £25,000, which he said has been “really encouraging”.
Every person who donates to the page will be automatically entered into a prize draw for an all-expenses paid trip to Uganda – a country close to Mr Walker’s heart.
The snooker announcer and commentator has visited Uganda regularly since 2005, and he has recently been made the official Goodwill Sports Tourism Ambassador in the country.
He also plans to complete the challenge in an official Ugandan sports kit.
“I want to make it very clear that I’m not being paid in any way to promote Uganda,” he said.
“Not everything is a bed of roses there, but I’ve been going there regularly since 2005 and I’ve never found another place as friendly.”
Throughout his journey, Mr Walker will be sleeping in a campervan, which has been lent to him by a friend.
He said: “I’m not aiming to get there as fast as possible. It’s a celebration of the lives of four people who in various ways influenced me.”
Pascale Harvie, president and general manager at JustGiving, said: “We at JustGiving have been completely moved by Rob and how he’s turning his grief into something so positive.
“As well as benefitting two incredible charities, throughout his Absent Friends Tour Rob plans to bring people across communities together, encouraging those who have lost loved ones to join him and celebrate their lives.”
To find out more about Mr Walker’s fundraising efforts, visit his JustGiving page at www.justgiving.com/team/robwalkersabsentfriendstour.