22 January, 2014

The Scenic Route

A 1395 mile walk through mainland UK from The Lizard to Dunnet Head incorporating Lands End to John o’Groats

by Kathryn Hough

Kathryn with her certificate, and some of the postcards she wrote to her daughter and husband while on her walk.

Although I have always been a keen walker, my first proper long distance expedition of more than a week or so was when I completed the entire South West Coast Path between the end of October and early December 2010. On this journey, I walked 687 miles in 39 days, including walking around all the estuaries where ferries are closed in the winter. I wanted to complete a longer and more challenging walk, whilst remaining in UK. I decided that I would use footpaths rather than roads as much as possible. I had met a walker on the South West Coast path who was circumnavigating UK. However, I was unable to take sufficient time off for that challenge – at least not as a continuous or near continuous expedition. Inspired by John Hillaby’s book, Journey through Britain, which I read in my late teens, I looked at completing LeJOG. However I soon realised that, for little additional time, I could do this within a walk from the far south to far north points of mainland UK.

I started on 14 March 2013 and planned a journey with eighty walking days. The timing was planned so that I could attend a School Governor’s meeting on evening of 13 March, get out of the south west peninsula before Easter and the arrival of tourists who might occupy many of the bed and breakfast stops, hopefully avoid snow throughout, and walk through Scotland before the arrival of the midges.

I was indeed out of the south west peninsula by Easter, spending Easter Day walking from Cheddar to Keynsham to stay with my mother. I reached The Cotswold Way on the morning of Easter Monday at Lansdown, a few miles away from its start point in the centre of Bath.

However, winter was late to end in 2013 and I caught up with snow on Exmoor. Fortunately there was never so much snow to prevent me walking. Snow in the sun over Dunkery Beacon, as I walked from Exford made for impressive views, but once I was over the Beacon the snow rapidly disappeared. My next encounter with snow was some remnants on the Cotswold Way. On my two days from Ilam to the start of the Pennine Way at Edale, there were some drifts on some of the footpaths and this made for difficult and uncomfortable walking in places. On the Pennine Way itself, there was a difficult section walking off Fountains Fell, where snow and ice had collected in a gully and I had to leave the path on a steep slope to get around this. The walk from Dufton to Alston over the highest point of the entire walk at Cross Fell was passable. There was one big band of snow before Knock Fell summit but I managed to find a relatively narrow part of it and was able to kick some steps in it to get over. The warden at Alston Youth Hostel told me that the route had been virtually impassable for walkers due to snow only a week previously. This wouldn’t have prevented my “End to End” walk as I could have walked round the high ground. However it would have prevented one of the secondary aims – to complete The Pennine Way. Once I was in Scotland, the only lying snow I saw was at a distance.

With respect to midges, the late cold spell meant that they caused me no trouble. They all seemed to be hibernating. Moreover, my change of planned route after Fort William – up the Great Glen and then sharp north from Drumnadochit instead of a remote route across the North West Highlands – meant that I avoided the usual most midge infested areas.

In the end my route change meant that I walked for seventy-six days rather than the planned eighty days. I had two rest days – one after a thirty mile walk when I fitted two days into one due to accommodation issues and one when I met my husband who brought my larger rucksack and camping equipment to Glasgow. Before that I had relied entirely on B&B, hostels and hotels. I did have some shorter days though, which gave me extra time to organise bookings, write cards or just to read and relax.

I walked an estimated total of 1395 miles, the long distance accounted for by my route weaving between west and east and my decision to include the whole Pennine Way. The only other long distance path that I covered in its entirety was the West Highland Way. Other major paths that I used in parts were the South West Coast Path, Macmillan Way West, Cotswold Way, Heart of England Way, Staffordshire Way, St Cuthbert’s Way, Southern Uplands Way and Great Glen Way.

High points: 

  • Starting the walk at Lizard Point and the expectation of looking forward to my upcoming adventure. 
  • Staying at B+B I had been to previously on my South West Coast Path walk and meeting some “old friends” – Mrs Foy at Praa Sands, Chris Hutton (himself a walking end to ender) at Porthcurno, Emma at Portreath, Pat and Bernard at Crantock, Mrs Nederpel at Porthcothan. 
  • Leaving Cornwall – amazingly this was already the eleventh day – Cornwall is a very long county and it wasn’t helped by me spending just over two days at the beginning getting from The Lizard to Lands End. 
  • An owl swooping in front of me when I walked to the pub in Clovelly. 
  • Staying at a B&B in Leonard Stanley where the owner had met the Queen at a reception when she was named Landlady of the Year. The evening meal and breakfast were extremely luxurious and a huge bath with loads of hot water. 
  • Having dinner at Cleeve Hill with an old friend, Dr Judy Dale, who I had not met for many years. 
  • Successfully sewing up the hole in my trousers (after dog bite – see low points) and sewing up my waterproof rucksack cover (see low points). 
  • The tranquillity and beauty of Dove Dale. 
  • The Kinder Downfall spray (impressive from a distance but not very pleasant close up!). 
  • The people I met walking the Pennine Way – Tom who I continued to see intermittently as far north as Traquair and he was doing a similar walk to me, Peter and Liz whose Pennine Way attempt sadly stopped near Middleton in Teesdale when Liz developed Achilles tendonitis, Arthur who had done loads of long distance walks – was doing a north to south end to end – and planning the complete South West Coast Path immediately after that, another Peter who completed the Pennine Way on the same day as me and I joined in his celebration with friends at The Border Hotel. 
  • The amazing impressive High Cup U shaped valley on the Pennine Way. 
  • The achievement of completing the Pennine Way. 
  • The Jacuzzi bath with waterproof TV at the hotel at Lennoxstown. 
  • Successfully pitching my tent for the first night of camping near Crianlarich. Unfortunately I couldn’t work out how to adjust it to keep the inner away from the flysheet though – so realising how to achieve this on my third camping night was a further high point. 
  • Being saved by Phil and Zita, with whom I stayed for two nights near Inveroran to allow me to dry out after my first attempt at camping. 
  • The bluebell wood with views to the sea near Dunrobin Castle. 
  • “Moonlight” near Brora and amazing views of the full moon over the sea. 
  • Seeing the Cairns of Camster. 
  • The first sight of the Pentland Firth and north coast 
  • Sunset over the Pentland Firth from camp site at Huna. 
  • The stacks at Duncansby Head. 
  • Eating Queen Mother Cake and drinking coffee at the Castle of Mey visitor centre having walked in “the back way”. 
  • Reaching Dunnet Head where a very impressed family took my photograph – on their cameras as well as on mine! 
  • The whole experience – having an opportunity to realise what varied and wonderful scenery there is in the UK and how much open space exists even in what is such a densely populated country. 
Low points: 

  •  The cold north easterly wind which persisted for day after day. 
  • Arriving at Bideford too early to go to the B&B but all the tea shops were just closing – it was bitterly cold! 
  • Being bitten by an old lady’s dog near Painswick – fortunately my skin was intact although bruised. I had a big tear in my trousers. 
  • Walking through the “industrial farmland” which seemed to constitute much of the Heart of England Way and Staffordshire Way. I became fed up with ploughed fields. 
  • An insect flew into my eye between Rugeley and Uttoxeter and the “foreign body” sensation in my eye persisted for days although there was nothing obvious to see in my eye. 
  • All the loose dogs that ran out from farms and houses on to roads and footpaths and seemed to bark in a menacing way. 
  • Public footpaths going through fields with bulls in them and having to work out how to get past by another route. 
  • All the dog walkers who had their dogs off the lead and thought I wouldn’t mind (or even blamed me) when their dogs jumped up at me. 
  • Finding myself in a field with two bullocks running towards me – I dived under a barbed wire fence and shredded my waterproof rucksack cover – fortunately no other damage. 
  • Wearing wet boots for day after day – especially on the Pennine Way. 
  • At times, I would describe walking the Pennine Way as being like walking through a very large peat bog in a wind tunnel. 
  • It took me over an hour to walk about 1.5miles from Kinder Downfall because I kept being knocked off my feet by the wind. 
  • Total exhaustion having walked over thirty miles from Malham to Hawes in a single day. This included crossing Fountains Fell and Pen-y-Ghent. I had decided to walk two days in one day as I was unable to get anywhere to stay at Horton-in-Ribblesdale. However the warden at Hawes Youth Hostel was incredibly kind and helpful. 
  • Slipping backwards at Hardraw Force – this injury to my left lower back remained painful to varying degrees for the remainder of the walk, not improving until a few weeks after I finished walking and I had seen a physio a couple of times. 
  • Reaching Inveroran Hotel in the pouring rain and strong wind with a wet tent and sleeping bag and finding that there was no chance of staying there except in the camping field (however I was rescued by Phil and Zita – see high points). 
  • The realisation that the weather conditions were too poor (rain and risk of snow fall) for me to take my planned route north of Fort William so I would have to follow the Great Glen and then a more easterly route, with little sensible alternative to some days of virtually all road walking. 
  • The very odd man who tried to talk to me on the Great Glen Way near Drumnadochit. I don’t know whether he was a danger to me but I engaged as little as possible. 
  • The very windy and wet campsite near the Dornoch Firth Bridge. Fortunately I realised that I could retreat to the laundry room to fold my tent and pack my ruck sack in the morning. 
  • The anti-climax of the commercial John O’Groats centre after the rugged splendour of Duncansby Stacks. 
  • The five mile walk from the end at Dunnet head to my campsite near Dunnet Village and the realisation that, although I had achieved my goal, the walk that I had planned and looked forward to for so long had ended.

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