Reading and Walking

Walking, Reading, and Reading about Walking

Month: January, 2015

Land’s End to John O’Groats Walk

In the mid-1960s, journalist John Hillaby walked across the United Kingdom, from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats on the north-eastern tip of Scotland. He wasn’t the first person to make this journey–according to Andrew McCloy, records of similar walks date back to the 1840s–but in 1968 he published a book about his trip, Journey Through Britain, that is considered the best account of what the British call an “End-to-End” walk. Hillaby tried to avoid roads, and since he was walking before the establishment of the system of National Trails that now criss-crosses the U.K.–the Pennine Way was only two years old, and unfinished, when he started walking–he often found himself walking cross-country, angering local farmers who maintained that there was no pedestrian right-of-way across their land. Without clearly marked paths to follow, he also got lost–a lot. His book is filled with various misadventures; the ones that stood out for me include trying to walk across an estuary at low tide and sinking up to the waist in tidal mud, and various attempts at crossing peat bogs that turned out much the same way. No wonder so many landlords looked askance at Hillaby when he turned up at their inns looking for accommodation; he must’ve been incredibly filthy most of the time. But Hillaby completed his journey in less than ten weeks, covering 25 to 30 miles every day (an unimaginable distance for me–I’m much more comfortable walking 25 to 30 kilometres, which is a completely different thing), and sleeping in barns, abandoned buildings, and in the tent he brought along when other lodgings were unavailable. And, of course, it rained constantly–Hillaby seems to have walked during an unusually wet season, even for the U.K. I really enjoyed his book; it’s a quick read and an entertaining account of a minor adventure.


Fifty years later, it’s a lot easier to make the Land’s End to John O’Groats trip, and as McCloy points out, that journey has established itself in the British national consciousness. The current speed record, according to McCloy, established in 1986 by Malcolm Barnish, a soldier in the Royal Artillery, is just over 12 days. That’s 12 days to cover 1,000 miles, or 83 miles per day. In 1990, Arvind Pandya took 26 days to cover the distance running backwards; another man, Steve Fagan, took nine days to do the journey on roller skates; and two brothers-in-law spent 30 days pushing each other from one of the U.K. to the other in a wheelbarrow. Most of the people who make the trip, though, do it by bicycle; in fact, when we were in the Cotswolds last summer we met a family who had made the journey that way. There are speed records for cycling across Britain, too; the current record holder, McCloy tells us, completed the trip in 1 day, 21 hours, 2 minutes and 19 seconds. I don’t know how that’s even possible.


What McCloy’s book, The Land’s End to John O’Groats Walk, makes very clear, though, is that with the proliferation of National Trails in the U.K. it’s gotten a lot easier to walk from one end of the country to the other while avoiding roads–and remember, because highways in Europe generally don’t have shoulders, it’s dangerous to walk along them. McCloy maps out a route that, in addition to using country roads and footpaths, would take walkers along the Cotswold Way, the Staffordshire Way, and the Pennine Way to Scotland, and then along the St. Cuthbert’s Way, the Southern Upland Way, and the West Highland Way through Scotland to Inverness. The only time one would have to walk along a highway would be north from Inverness, but McCloy suggests that isn’t a problem because there is little traffic in the highlands. Unfortunately, McCloy’s maps aren’t detailed, and one would have to spend a small fortune on Ordnance Survey maps of the U.K. to work out a clear route, since there would be a lot of traveling between those waymarked National Trails. I suppose planning the route would be half the fun, if you consider walking 1,000 miles fun. I’d like to think I would consider it, if not fun, then a worthwhile accomplishment. After all, I enjoyed walking 500 miles in Spain, and my only complaint about the 100-mile Cotswold Way is that it was too short.

Still, I’m not sure that the Land’s End to John O’Groats walk is in my future, for many of the same reasons that I can’t imagine walking the Appalachian Trail in one go. Would I really want to be away from home and on the road for two or three months? Could I physically manage to cover that kind of distance? I mean, I was pretty exhausted by the time I got to Santiago de Compostela, and the LEJOG route (that’s McCloy’s short form) is twice as long. Maybe it would be more reasonable to focus on individual National Trails–to spend a couple of weeks walking the Pennine Way, for example–instead of attempting something as challenging as an End-to-End walk. Still, Hillaby’s book leaves me wondering what it might be like. It’s worth thinking about. Maybe I’ll add the Land’s End to John O’Groats walk to my list of trips I’d like to take before I’m too old to take them. But I can’t see myself ordering the maps and planning the route just yet.

Walking on a Friday in January

When the temperature gets close to the freezing point and the sun is out–for a while, anyway–on a Friday in January, you’d better get outside. You’ll regret if you don’t, because you can be sure that the weather will soon be a whole lot colder.


So I went out for a walk around Wascana Lake. It was lovely, even though it clouded over later in the afternoon (the weather forecast is calling for freezing rain, which is my least favourite form of precipitation). Now, after walking 16 kilometres, I feel like I’ve earned my dinner.


If the weather holds, I might go for a similar walk tomorrow. It’s early enough in the semester that I can afford the time.


I finally finished Rebecca Solnit’s book Wanderlust: A History of Walking yesterday afternoon. It’s a tremendous book, one that manages to be both broad in scope and deeply attentive to details at the same time–the kind of book that makes you wonder just how its author came to know so much and think so clearly.

Wanderlust is not just a history, although the subtitle describes it as one. The topics Solnit covers range from the anthropological debates about the role walking played in making humans into humans to the pilgrimage to Chimayó in New Mexico, to the history of gardening and William Wordsworth’s legs (the fact that he was an inveterate walker escaped me in the course I took on Romantic poetry so many years ago), to the fight for access to public lands in Britain and elsewhere. There are chapters on walking in the city (with an obligatory discussion of Walter Benjamin and the flâneur) and the way that the freedom to walk is not equally distributed, something I was reminded of recently when an acquaintance from the Filmpool, Simon Ash Moccasin, went public with a story about being beaten up by the police here for the crime of Walking While Aboriginal. The last chapters, which focus on walking in contemporary North America, a place not always hospitable to that activity, are particularly thought-provoking. I especially enjoyed the discussion of walking as an art form, which helped clarify some of my responses to the work of Richard Long, which I’ve discussed in this blog before.


Solnit’s notes and sources have pointed the way to more books about walking–as if I’ll have time for extracurricular reading now that the winter semester has begun. I also found myself wondering about the feasibility of the pilgrimage from Denver to Chimayó, a village near Santa Fé. I heard about that in Spain but didn’t know much about it until I read Solnit’s discussion of the annual Easter pilgrimage. I’ll put it on the list of walks I’d like to take someday.

I started Wanderlust in the summer and put it aside before we went to England. I’m glad I picked it up again this Christmas and I’m looking forward to reading Solnit’s other work. So many books to read and so little time to do it.

Walking 12 Kilometres When the Wind Chill is Minus 40

When the temperature dips below the point where I’m comfortable going for a walk–that’s around minus 10 or minus 15 for me–I’ve been staying home. Like today: the most recent bulletin from Environment Canada says that it’s currently minus 26, with a wind chill of minus 39. But we’re going to be having those temperatures for the next three months, and what am I going to do, hide from them? No.

So I went for a walk around the lake. Now, I’m sure you’re wondering: what’s it like to walk 12 kilometres in a minus 40 wind chill?

Well, it’s not cold. That’s a surprise. I wasn’t wearing a winter coat–just layers under a gore tex rain jacket–but my body wasn’t cold. My feet were warm and, eventually, my hands warmed up, too.

On the other hand, it is cold. I was wearing long underwear and hiking pants and I needed another layer on my legs; they were freezing. And the only part of my face that was exposed to the cold–the area around my eyes–ached from the cold. My eyelashes gathered clumps of ice that threatened to freeze my eyes shut. Ice formed on my balaclava and that made the end of my nose cold. And the cold drained the battery in my camera. I only managed to get one photograph before it died completely.


There were sun dogs but I don’t think you can see them in that picture.

The wind had blown drifts over the path but they weren’t very deep. Usually the path is cleared by the park but their staff must’ve been given a long weekend off. I think I like it better when there’s some snow on it; I like the way the snow creaks underfoot. There were several other people walking, and a couple of cross-country skiers on the groomed trails by the Science Centre, so I wasn’t completely alone.

I thought about stopping for a cup of tea but decided not to. I didn’t want to warm up in the coffee shop and then face the cold outside all over again.

Will I go for a walk again when it’s this cold? Yes. Why not? I survived my walk today. And because the sun usually comes out when it’s this cold, the snow and the shadows look very pretty. But I’ll wear an extra pair of pants.

Remembering My Day on the Bruce Trail

A Walk in the Woods brought to mind a day I spent on the Bruce Trail some 20 years ago. I’d bought a trail guide in a bookstore and decided I would spend a couple of days hiking the Bruce, just to see what it was like. The easiest way to get to the trail, I decided, would be to take a GO train to Burlington and walk to the trail from there. And so, early one morning in August, that’s what I did.

The night before, I loaded all the camping stuff we’d bought for a canoe trip in Algonquin Park into a 75-litre backpack. I had a two-person tent, a set of pots, a plate and a bowl, a stove, a bulky sleeping bag, and more than enough food. By the time I was finished, I could barely lift the pack, never mind carrying it for miles across country. It’ll be okay, I thought. I’ll get used to it. I laced up my heavy leather hiking boots, staggered out of the house, and took the TTC to Union Station.


It was the hottest day of the summer and by the time I got to the Trail I was feverish and shaking with heat exhaustion. I stumbled along the trail for a while. It was quiet and I kept stopping to rest under the trees but that didn’t help. Nothing did. My head was throbbing. I had chills despite the heat. Drinking water just made things worse. Late in the afternoon I decided to stop for the day. I was too shaky to eat anything and too self-conscious to pitch the tent so I sat under a foil emergency blanket all night. I was too far gone to sleep. Mosquitoes from miles around came to taste my depleted blood.There was a small yellow tent nearby but no one went into or came out of it. I was alone. It was the longest night of my life.

Early the next morning I shouldered my massive burden again and walked out to a gas station that was marked in the trail guide. I called a taxi from the pay phone there and went back to the GO station. It took a couple of days, and many litres of Gatorade, before I started to feel like a human being again. Never again, I said to myself. Never again.