Land’s End to John O’Groats Walk

by breavman99

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.

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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.

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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.