LAND’S END TO JOHN O’GROATS WALK, Spring 2004
Helen Thomas and I left Land’s End in light rain at 3.30pm 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 (Helen’s a bit older), and I was relying on morris dancing and cycling having maintained my core fitness.
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, Padstow and Hartland Point. Inland cut-offs allowed us to visit Chysauster Iron-Age village and several ancient parish churches (Cubert, St Eval, St Breock, Woolfardisworthy, 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 and 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.
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 through 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 Coleford 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 first section of our journey.
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 us down to the summit section of the Rochdale Canal, also then 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.
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 weary trudge by an A-road led us north-east for three miles to a campsite for a re-pack of our supplies. 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 Warwick Bridge who had themselves walked Land’s End to John O”Groats, 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 (but not one shared by her husband!) Beyond Langholm we used mostly estate tracks to reach the Buddist monastery of Samye Ling. Its a fascinating place but we were unimpressed with the rough 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.
After two days at home to see to business affairs, and armed with a fresh set of Ordnance Survey maps, we returned to Polmont, after a slight detour to see the spectacular new narrow-boat lifting apparatus known as the Falkirk Wheel at the junction of canals 5 miles further west. We crossed the Forth on the Kincardine Bridge and used mostly roads to reach Dollar and Castle Campbell 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 used 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, briefly 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 battlefield then led to the camp-site at Blair Atholl.
We 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 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, However, our progress was plagued by rain which made one burn unfordable, necessitating a detour, 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.
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 Kilcoy. Our hosts were impressed by the fact Helen was collecting money for three conservation charities 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. At Forsinain we started on 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 huge 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.
We’d walked nearly 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 18. About 450 miles of our route was on tarmac including 90 miles on busy main roads, mostly what was needed to allow access in and out of supply and accommodation places. Nearly 60 miles was along canals. We used 2 youth hostels, 4B&Bs, had 5 nights with relatives/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 harder, probably until something broke.
CAPE WRATH TRAIL, May 2011
On Thursday 12th of May 2011 I took trains to Perth to meet up with Janet, a friend from the Backpackers Club. She drove us to Spean Bridge and then friends of hers drove us along Loch Arkaig and dropped us at Strathan for a 3 mile walk along forest tracks in rain to A’Chuil Bothy, which we shared with five others. I’d been to A’Chuil before so I knew it wasn’t that easy to spot from the track above, having previously done the 11 mile walk to A’Chuil past the bothy at Corryhully from Glenfinnan Station. The latter is the starting point of the route described in my book A Dozen Bothies to Cape Wrath (still available at £3.75 plus £2.25 postage).
On Friday Janet and I headed west along fairly good paths past the south side of Lochan a Mhaim and down over a new footbridge to the bothy at Sourlies, a single-room shelter with a hammock at one end and a fireplace at the other. There we had lunch. The afternoon was sunny and I was hoping to make Barrisdale that night but Janet had had enough by the time we reached the sharp NE bend of the River Carron having done just ten miles so we pitched there. Its a delightful spot but it wasn’t really sheltered enough from the strong west wind and I had a rough night under my sil-poncho tarp with a custom-made bell-end, getting a bit wet. Next day, further up the valley, we cut up across rough (not too difficult) to reach the track that leads NW over to Barrisdale, where we had lunch. There’s a small (honesty box) charge to use the bothy there, or you can camp opposite for even less. There’s two toilets and electricity, unusual in an unmanned bothy. From there we took the good path above the south side of Loch Hourn and, after 14 miles that day, camped at Kinloch Hourn on the fairly sheltered north bank of the river, for which we were charged £1 each.
Neither of the usual two routes to Shiel Bridge looked viable in Sunday’s steady rain. I’d already been up to check out the ford south-east of the campsite the previous evening and it looked deep after all the rain so the short-cut to A87 was ruled out, as was the pathless higher route. So we opted to use the tracks following the electricity pylons over Bealach Aoidhdailean to the bothy at Suardalan. The first river crossing has a bridge, but the others proved difficult to ford, and Janet lost a trekking pole at the last major ford before the bothy. Suardalan has three main rooms, one with a fireplace and another with a stove. In drier weather we headed up Glen More in the later afternoon, but the path was different to follow. By the time we’d got out to the road Janet was carrying a lost lamb. She took it to a house and was told she should have let nature take its course in the hope the mother would find it. As we climbed up eastwards on the road Janat was offered a lift to Rattagan Youth Hostel, which she accepted. I turned down the offer as I didn’t want a break in one of my trails (all of which have interconnected in some way), so I braved the wind and rain to the hostel, 17 miles via our route from Kinloch Hourn. In the early hours my sleep was disturbed by the discovery of a tick, which I managed to get out, only to carelessly drop it in my bedding.
On Monday Janet bailed out and headed back towards her camper on the bus. I bought a few supplies from the garage shop and used the road and bits of coastal path to Morvich and then up the valley to Durusduain. There a derelict building provided me with shelter for four hours of torrential rain. Whilst there I had a cooked meal and used some material from a scrapped tent found in a bin near the garage shop to make a top cap for the sil-poncho tarp. This kept water from getting in through the hole intended for one’s head. The Glomach Falls, finally reached late-afternoon, were spectacular, though navigating the path round west of them needed care, and careful use of trekking poles). I finally camped up beyond Nonich Lodge after 17 miles. On Tuesday I did 19 miles through Attadale to Strathcarron (with its meagrely-stocked shop), and Achnashellach. Fairly obvious tracks then led over to the tiny single-room bothy of Eason Dorcha Teahouse. On Wednesday I used the track along the south side of Loch Coulin and followed the quiet single- track A896 for 3 miles to Kinlochewe, the last shopping place for the next 100 miles.
I headed north-east on good tracks to Heights of Kinlochewe and then NNW on the good path to Lochan Fada. From there I climbed up to the right to a knoll, from which the Bealach na Croise was visible slightly below me and was reached without too much difficulty. Bits of path then led down to the main path heading north past Loch an Nid. After a faint section of path through bog, a track past Acheigle ran NW to the bothy of Shenavall, which has several rooms, including a space upstairs. No sooner had I arrived at 7pm after a tough 24 mile day (eight hours to do the 16 miles from Kinlochewe) than the heavens opened and the wind rattled the roof. From Glenfinnan this would be the halfway point to Cape Wrath (106 miles).
On the Thursday morning the paths out from Shenavall to Inverbroom via Corrie Hallie were fairly straightforward. There are marvellous views of Loch Broom on the descent to Inverbroom. I then headed up A836 to Inverlael and used the path (not obvious) that climbs beside where a track goes off at NH204853. Beyond the cairn at NH 225876 the going was quite rough but there were bits of path beyond the ruins at NH247905. I followed the east side of the River Douchary (easily crossed), went over Allt nan Caorach above some falls and crossed peat hags up to the track out to Knockdamph Bothy. This was another tough day, taking 12 hours to cover 22 miles. The bothy has three lower rooms and a single upper room with two double beds. On Friday 20th May the tracks out to Oykel Bridge past the Schoolhouse Bothy at Duag Bridge proved straightforward apart from having to wade the deep ford of the Abhainn Poiblidh. East of Duag Bridge I collected some fuel and tinned food I’d left carefully hidden in the roots of a tree the previous October and I had some chips in the hotel at Oykel Bridge. The track up to Ben More Lodge passes several open fishing huts. I camped a little further up having done 19 miles. It rained all night and my pitch became slightly flooded by dawn.
On Saturday I elected to go the eastern route behind Ben More as this offered the shortest section without either a path or burn to follow. Several river crossings were difficult and I accidentally wandered off the zigzags of the path at NC 340150, but this route allowed me to see the spectacular Eas a Chual Alumn waterfall from below on the way out down the glen to the two-room bothy at Glencoul. There were three other blokes there and a roaring fire so I decided to cut short my day after 14 miles and stay the night. On Sunday the climb over the shoulder to Glendhu was relatively easy with a clear path except for a short boggy section at the summit, and the tracks and paths out to Achfary presented no difficulties. After all the rain of the last few days I decided not to go via Strath Stack and Loch a Garbh-bhaid More, both routes notoriously wet at the best of times. Instead I stayed on A838 (virtually traffic-free) for a while, used the good and pleasant riverside paths to Laxford Bridge, then followed the wide but quiet A-Road to Rhiconich and B801 to Kinlochbervie. There I rented a caravan for the night, having covered 27 miles that day, although all of it was on roads or good paths.
The caravan owners fed me well on Monday morning and I stocked up with supplies at the shop before following the road out beyond Oldshoremore and then the faint path out through peat-hags to the three-room bothy at Strathan. From here a faint path led NW to the SE corner of Sandwood Loch, from which there was two miles of rough ground to the three-room bothy at Strathcailleach, famous as the haunt of the drunken recluse James MacRory-Smith. From there it took three hours to get out to the light- house at Cape Wrath. This section proved easier underfoot than expected, spongy in places, but no deep sections of bog and only one tricky river-crossing. The issue was the wind, which made the last section extremely difficult, despite being on tarmac. It was with great relief I finally reached Kervaig Bothy at 21.30 after a 20 mile walk. Kervaig is a wonderful multi-room bothy in a fantastic location, but its no place to run out of supplies, as happened to a woman from Essex in 2002. She died in Stornoway Hospital, to which she was airlifted after being discovered by shepherds in December.
The ferry which links the access road to Cape Wrath from Durness doesn’t run in the winter months or in windy conditions at other times, so it wasn’t in use for a whole week whilst I was out there. Luckily I was carrying sufficient food to do the long walk out via the bridges at NC 350629 and 364519. After 23 miles and a tricky final river crossing below the bothy I made it down to Strabeg Bothy on Tuesday 24th May. On Wednesday I passed Dun Dornague Broch and camped just short of the Crask Inn, and from there on Thursday I road-walked down to Lairg and then east to Rogart to join a trail I’d walked the previous year and to pick up a train down south. I’d walked 280 miles in 14 days.
LAND’S END TO JOHN O’GROATS BY BIKE, APRIL 2019
I did this ride on a Brompton folding bike with six gears during April 2019, fifteen years after I walked it. I must be one of the few people to have both walked and cycled Land’s End to John O’ Groats. I didn’t do any serious physical training for the ride, although I did quite a lot of thinking about my route and what was going to be carried, and how. I used a standard Brompton front bag with two pockets facing the rider, two smaller packs secured by straps to the back rack, and a small day backpack containing waterproofs. My purse, camera, GPS, and a drink were all carried in pouches on a waist belt. At all times I carried enough gear to allow me to wild camp, although I didn’t feel I was obliged to use it more than necessary and only actually pitched the tent a few nights when my wife wasn’t able to meet up with me in her camper van for one reason or another.
My aim was to ride a continuous thousand mile route via as many ancient monuments and heritage sites, from Iron Age forts to preserved steam railways, as possible. The final tally of such sites visited included 100 medieval parish churches and over 30 medieval castles/towers and overall I was pleased with the route chosen. I took care to keep my mileage on busy roads down to a minimum without dramatically increasing my distances or amount of climb as a result.
On the 2nd April I visited two churches and a stone circle on the way from Land’s End to St Michael’s Mount and then continued in light rain to near Portreath (32m). Truro Cathedral and Trerice were the main objectives of the 43m ride on the 3rd, to a pub at Boscarne Junction. The 4th was a long, wet day via St Clether with its well chapel and Launceston Castle to woodland near Lydford, where I arrived quite late, having done 43 miles. On the 5th I visited the castles of Lydford and Okehampton, using the old railway line cycleway between them. It rained all afternoon on the ride via North Tawton, so I cut the day short, staying at Puddington after 33m, where a morris dancing friend joined us in the pub. I made an early start on the 6th to compensate and had breakfast at Tiverton. A long jaunt across much of Somerset followed, via churches at Sampford Peverell, Nynehead and Hill Farrance, then through Taunton and out via East Lyng to Berrow Mump, a ride of 42 miles. On the 7th I made 55 miles, via Cheddar, Yatton and the Clifton Suspension Bridge and East Compton to Olveston, and on the 8th I managed the 53 miles back home to West Malvern via the canal towpath to Gloucester, churches at Hartbury and Corse, up to British Camp, and along the side of the Malvern Hills.
I had a day and a half at home before heading north on the afternoon of the 10th April, camping by the River Severn north of Bewdley after 28 miles via Knightwick, Martley and Great Witley. On the 11th I rode through the Severn Valley via Bridgnorth, Ironbridge and Wroxeter Roman city to camp at Moreton Corbet Castle after 46 miles. I also found eleven geocaches. The 12th saw the longest ride yet, 56 miles via Ightfield, Nantwich and Northwich to Warrington. Longer still was the 67 mile day on the 13th via Preston and Lancaster to Carnforth. The 14th April was a shorter, 32m ride, visiting Sizergh Castle and friends in Kendal, then up Longsleddale and over the Gatescarth Pass to Ullswater. The pass is so rough that the bike had to be carried about a mile, but this was deemed preferable to using either A6 via Shap, or the busy A591 via Ambleside. The next day I made 40 miles up to Carlisle via Lowther, Brougham Castle, Penrith and Skelton. A loose bungee wrapping itself round the chain caused a delay near Dalston.
An easterly wind made the 46 mile ride on the 16th April via Longtown and Eskdalemuir to near Ettrick a bit of a struggle. On the 17th I visited Traquair House and made the 40 miles via Borthwick to Crichton Castle just in time before it closed for the night. We found a place for showers at Newtongrange on the 18th April and then I used cycle routes through Edinburgh, where there was another loose-bungee-round-the-chain incident. I then went via Cramond and Dalmeny to Blackness Castle and on to near Grangemouth, 43 miles in all. Much of the next day was taken up with visiting the castles of Stirling and Doune and the cathedral at Dunblane, so I only did 33 miles, to near Callandar. On the 20th April my 41 mile ride was northwards on a cycleway to Finlarig Castle, then alongside the south shore of Loch Tay to Kenmore. An intended evening kayak trip out to a ruined castle on an island was thwarted by a puncture in the kayak, but that adventure (and two other island castle visits) were achieved later on the way home.
I made 55 miles up to Feshiebridge via Tummel Bridge, Dalwhinnie, Newtonmore, and Kingussie on the 21st April, and went to find a bothy in the forest in the evening. On the 22nd I covered 65 miles via Carrbridge, Inverness, Kessock Bridge, Munlochy and Evanton to Alness. Despite the east wind, and time taken to visit a bothy in the morning, and visit Dornoch Cathedral and Dunrobin Castle in the afternoon, I rode 55 miles to just beyond the Muir of Ord at dusk on the 23rd, just after finding my 5000th geocache since starting that hobby in 2006. Although an east wind remained a problem I managed the final 49 miles to John O’Groats on 24th April, via the minimal remains of the castles of Berridale and Knockkinnon, the Camster Cairns and Canisbay Church.