As an attaché to the U.S. embassy in London back in the 1830s, author Washington Irving had some definite ideas about a diplomat’s work. “The stranger who would form a correct opinion of the English,” he wrote, “must go forth into the country…and cope with the people in all their conditions.” Some 170 years later, the current U.S. ambassador to the Court of St. James’s, Philip Lader, has taken that advice to heart—and to his feet.
Over the past year, mostly on weekends, Lader, 52, walked the length of Great Britain, from Land’s End in the south to John O’Groats at the northernmost tip of Scotland—some 1,100 miles. (His wife, Linda, and two daughters, Mary-Catherine, 13, and Whitaker, 11, spent some evenings with him at B&Bs along the way.) The cheerfully unpretentious ambassador (“Just call me Phil”) covered roughly 25 miles a day, incognito. “I didn’t want to make a big deal as I was going through, since it would defeat the whole purpose,” says Lader, a South Carolina businessman who was deputy chief of staff in the Clinton White House before his posting to London in 1997. “To them I was just a jeans-clad American tourist.”
There were occasional crises, like the time he had to rush back to London to supervise a heightened alert to a possible attack by Middle East terrorists. But the biggest obstacle to Lader’s mission was the redoubtable British weather. Lader says he experienced “every degree of rain, wind, sleet, mist, hail and snow.” The worst was on Bodmin Moor in southwestern England, where he “was frozen the whole time. I was as cold as I’ve been at the top of the Swiss Alps.”
All the same, Lader says he wasn’t trying to impress flinty Brits with his exploit, which is probably just as well. At one point, in the town of Carlisle, an elderly woman asked where he came from. Lader replied, “Land’s End”—several hundred miles away. The woman nodded politely. “That’s a good day’s walk,” she allowed.