Land’s End to John O’Groats Walk

Helen Thomas and I left Land’s End in light rain at 3.3-pm on 1st April 2004. We’d got a lift from a friend from Malvern to Bristol, taken a train to Penzance and then a bus to Land’s End. At Easter 2003 we’d backpacked 40 miles round the Gower coast for three days and during January and February of 2004 we’d walked up to a dozen miles a day at weekends around the Malvern Hills to toughen us up and test equipment. Before 2003 Helen hadn’t done any backpacking and I hadn’t done any since 1984, so our adventure was rather a step of faith into the unknown. I’d turned 50 at the end of 2003 (and Helen was bit older), and I was relying on morris dancing and cycling having maintained my core fitness.

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Men-an-Tol, Cornwall

We used parts of the coast path along the north side of Cornwall and Devon, but cut off several headlands, including the sections with St Ives, Pad- stow and Hartland Point. Inland cut-offs allowed us to visit Chysauster Iron-Age village and several ancient parish churches (Cubert, St Eval, St Breock, Woolsery, Parkham, Littleham, Parracombe) in addition other churches lying on or near the coast path at Tintagel, Forrabury, Morwenstow (and also Culbone in Somerset). In addition to their historic interest old churches offer shelter and sometimes access to water-taps or power-points.The coast path has frequent steep ascents and descents, often with sets of rather high steps which are difficult when carrying a heavy pack (the Hartland Point section is particularly notorious) and going further inland eliminated the worst of these. The downside was that the inland paths are less well-used and proved harder to follow. Twice we had to give up on a route and backtrack, and it led to a greater amount of road walking although most of it was on quiet lanes. We wild camped several times by the coast path (seeing herds of wild deer on one occasion), but we mostly used proper campsites when inland. Two campsites were not yet open for the season when we arrived anjd two others no longer took tents but luckily they all allowed us to stay. Tintagel Castle was visited and and several old mines in Cornwall. We got quite wet on our second full day of walking but the weather gradually improved for a while. Between Bideford and Barnstaple we used the Tarka Trail, a cycle path on a former railway.

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Culbone Church on the north coast of Somerset

By the time we reached Minehead on the 14th of April we’d covered 180 miles. Beyond Watchet we struck inland along the Quantock Hills, then through Bridgwater and across the Somerset Levels to Axbridge. A former railway track then gave us access to Clevedon, where we stayed with friends. Paths led Cadbury Camp towards the cycle-track beside the M5 over the River Avon. A section of the Severn Way then led to the cycle-track over the old Severn Bridge, giving us access to Chepstow. Crossing the Wye back into England put us on Offa’s Dyke Path for several miles with wonderful views and well-preserved sections of the Dyke itself. We then headed off across the Forest of Dean through Colefield to Welsh Bicknor Youth Hostel. A path beside the River Wye took us to Ross-on-Wye, and then roads brought us through Dymock and onto the south end of the Malvern Hills ten miles from home. Our arrival at my house near the north end of the Malvern Hills on 22nd April ended the 310 mile section of our journey.

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Holy Austin Rock on the side of Kinver Edge

After most of a day off to see to business affairs we used paths and quiet roads to Holt Fleet Bridge over the Severn and then followed the Severnside Way to Stourport to pick up the tow-path of the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. After a diversion from the canal for a wild camp high up on Kinver Edge we reached the western outskirts of Wolverhampton to stay a night with my parents. Bad weather then set in for a couple of days. We left the canal near Gailey to go over to Cannock Chase for a wet wild camp, then briefly joined the Trent and Mersey Canal past a rare inland salt marsh. From Walton- on-Trent we cut across through Tean to the Churnet Valley, using roads and hard-to-follow paths across wet silage fields. After staying with Helen’s relatives near Leek we followed an old railway track beside Rudyard Lake and then joined a sequence of tow-paths beside the Macclesfield Canal, the Peak Forest Canal and the recently restored Huddersfield Narrow Canal as far as Uppermill. However we made a diversion along a section of the Middlewood Way (an old railway line) and into the eastern suburbs of Stockport to stay with friends, unfortunately thus missing the flight of locks and the spectacular aqueduct and railway bridge conjunction at Marple. From Uppermill we joined a section of the Pennine Bridleway across moors with reservoirs and the M62. It brought ut down to the summit section of the Rochdale Canal, also recently restored. We left the canal tow-path where the Pennine Way crosses it east of Todmorden and headed across the moors to Trawden and then onto Earby Youth Hostel, rain now again being a problem. On the 5th of May a short section of the Leeds and Liverpool canal tow-path and a sequence of tracks past some woods maintained by the Woodland Trust (these are good places to wild camp once its gone dark) and a waterfall took us over to Settle, our halfway point, 500 miles from Land’s End.

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Wild camp on Whernside

We headed north up the valley from Settle, wild camped near the Ribblehead Viaduct and then headed over Whernside and through Dent (to which I had to return after a while to retrieve a forgotten trekking pole). At Sedburgh there was major stock-up on supplies. A wearly trudge by an A-road led us NE for three miles to a campsite for a re-pack. Tracks then took us over moors to Ravenstonedale. Then, using mostly minor roads, we went down the Vale of Eden through Appleby and stayed with friends at Faugh, near Warwicjk Bridge who had themselves done LEJOG, but in bits (ie a fortnight’s worth each year). From there our route over the Border and onto Langholm was entirely on roads. There’s no useful paths in this area nor any places to stay or camp so we were very luckly that a lady dog-walker took pity on us and allowed us a lovely pitch above a stream running through a small ravine on her land. It turned out we were living out her dream. Beyond Langholm we used mostly estate tracks to reach the Buddist monastery of Samye Ling. Its a fascinating place but we unimpressed with the camping pitch we were offered and the price of it so we wild camped a bit further on. Long road sections then took us through Eskdalemuir and Ettrick. A moorland track brought us over to St Mary’s Loch and then another moorland track took us down to the minor road following Manor Water as far as Peebles, completing a fifty mile section from Langholm without any shops. We then headed through West Linton and onto an old drove-road over the Pentland Hills. Several miles on roads then brought us to the Union Canal, whose restoration was another Millenium project. We followed the canal as far as Polmont and then came home on the train on the 19th of May, having walked about 700 miles from Land’s End.

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Wild Camp by Wade road, south of Aberfeldy

After two days at home to see to business affairs we returned to Polmont after a slight detour to see the spectacular new narrow-boat lifting apparatus whown as the Falkirk Wheel at the junction of canals 5 miles west of Polmont. We crossed the Forth on the Kincardine Bridge and used mostly roads to reach Dollar and Castle Campell in the glen up behind it. A day of moorland tracks brought us to a campsite near Auchterader and another day of road- walking put us on General Wade’s military road leading north to Aberfeldy. Sections of pleasant track (not signed or now use as any sort of through route) alternated with bits of A-road walking. From Aberfeldy a minor road and track over hills brought us to Pitlochry for a major stock-up on food, increasing my packweight from 13kg to 18kg. I was carrying another 4kg (all fluids, plus camera, etc) in pouches on a hip-belt. A B-road past the Killiecrankie bat- tlefield then led to the camp-site at Blair Atholl. We then followed tracks up Glen Tilt where deer on high ridges watched us wild camp. After fording a river by a ruined lodge we reached Head of Dee and turned left to camp up at Corrour Bothy. There were about 30 people camped there on 29th May 2004 and there’s nothing higher than the heather to hide behind so “toileteering” involved a long walk. We found bits of snow on the Lairig Ghru Pass and then went through sections of Old Caledonian Forest to Rothiemurchus. Our arrival at Boat of Garten ended a 40 mile wilderness section without shops. The next section was another Wade road, this time signposted as a through route and with an occasional red squirrel, but our progress was plagued by rain which made one burn unfordable and my suffering from a stomach upset. We came down alongside the A9 and then down a back route to stay on the campsite at Inverness, 850 miles from Land’s End.

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Wild Camp above the Milton Burn, east of Cartridge

After crossing Kessock Bridge on 3rd June a lane took us along the south edge of the Black Isle to Redcastle, a red kite being spotted just before we used a B&B at Kilcot since no campsite was available. Our hosts were impressed by the fact Helen was collecting money for three conservation chari- ties and knocked a bit off the usual fee. Roads and a track through rare bog woodland brought us to the Cromarty Firth Bridge. It was then roads all the way into Tain, and then over a newish bridge onto Dornoch, beyond which a section of an old railway track was walkable two thirds of the way to Skelbo Castle. An osprey was spotted from our wild camp on The Mound at the head of Loch Fleet but the expected otters failed to show up. Beyond Golspie it was possible to get off the A9 and onto a coastal track nearly as far as Brora. This was the last shopping place for the next 50 miles. After a few miles on the A9 a minor road up through Glen Loth brought us down onto a quiet A-road with passing places which we followed up through the Flow Country to the RSPB centre at Forsinard Station, and then up to Forsinain to pick up a sequence of tracks into Cathness which our friends at Faugh had used, but which didn’t join up on any maps then available. The RSPB had recently obtained a hugh estate here and felled the young trees to prevent them drying out the peat bog. After a soaking from a squall near Strathmore Lodge it was roads (most of them quiet) all the way to John O’Groats, which we reached in sunshine at 2pm on 12th June, having walked about a thousand miles in 72 days (including four days with little or no walking. We’d averaged 14 miles a day, rarely less than 12 a day and never more than 20. About 450 miles of our route was on tarmac including 90 miles on busy main roads, inevitable to some point to allow access in and out of supply and accomodation places. Nearly 60 miles was along canals. We used 2 youth hostels, 4B&Bs, stayed 5 nights with relatives or friends, used official campsites for 30 nights and wild camped the other 30 nights. I had very few problems with blisters or aches and pains going at Helen’s modest pace. On my own I’d have pushed myself much harder, probably until something broke. I’ve been known to cover 160 miles in a week, but doing that for several weeks non-stop is another matter.

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