27 July, 2014

A Long-Distance Walker

by John Desborough 

After walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End in May/June 2000 and from Land’s End to John O’Groats in May/June 2003, I have given a talk on the subject at 28 different local locations, to ladies’ groups, men’s groups and mixed groups. Two questions are frequently asked, namely, “Have you always walked long distances?” and “Where will your next long-distance walk be?”

Have I always walked long distances? No. My very first long-distance walk was from John O’Groats to Land’s End, and it was to celebrate my 60th birthday (which I celebrated at Camelford just two days from Land’s End) and was in response to an article which appeared in the Saga Magazine. In this article David White invited Saga readers to help prove that the over 50s are not short of energy, commitment or discipline. His article concluded with these words: “Even though, in others’ opinion, I suffer from all the ailments of age, I intend to walk from one end of Britain to the other and gather some of my peers en route.” He was very disappointed that no-one joined him! Whilst not agreeing with all his sentiments, it inspired me to have a go. I completed 1,000 miles’ training on Dartmoor. At the conclusion of the training I knew that my body wouldn’t let me down.

At the last group I spoke to I was introduced as “a serious long-distance walker.” Personally I do not see myself as a serious walker, for that title belongs to those who complete the LEJOG walk entirely off road, usually along national trails, across moorlands and on canal towpaths, etc. I covered the walk almost entirely on tarmac so that Margaret (my wife) could drop me off and pick me up at an agreed location each day.

I found the experience very exciting because I could enjoy the scenery, whilst filling my mind with unusual street names, odd street notices like “Caution – heavy plant crossing,” and meet lots of people. Some stopped and chatted, some wanted to know all about the walk (and the Association) and a few just said hello. Vehicle drivers flashed their lights, blew their horns and cheered me on my way. Every layby café offered me a drink and food at no cost (I always accepted a mug of tea but declined the food offer). I sang almost all the way and once, having sung whilst walking along with a lady, was introduced to her friend as “the singing walker”. I was asked for my autograph, and received a number of gifts for my chosen charity. I also met a number of cyclists who passed me on their way to John O’Groats. They were always very encouraging, expressing their surprise that I was walking on average 23 miles a day and left me with the words “See you at JOG” to which I always replied, “Not at my pace you won’t”. I think I would have missed all this if I had been a “serious walker” off road.

My answer to the question, “Where will your next long distance walk be?” depended on when the question was raised. Since my two walks recorded by the Association, I have walked 4,000 miles round the coast of Britain (over a period of 6 Mays and 6 Septembers), twice walked The West Highland Way (the second time walking with Margaret), spent two weeks on the Isle of Arran, and walked the Offa’s Dyke Path.

I am not a serious long-distance walker; I am a fun walker and will continue to walk until I no longer find it pleasurable as well as challenging.

The Coast-to-Coast Walk

This May I completed Wainwright’s Coast to Coast walk from St Bees to Robin Hood’s Bay. It was not "a piece of cake" as was expected by some. I found it very strenuous at times; every day was different - in terrain, in gradients, in wildlife, and in the number of fellow walkers I met.

I was nicknamed the sprinter, the fast old man, the marathon chaser and other names I couldn't repeat but they were all very good-natured comments/titles and Margaret was praised very highly for her part in my solo walk.

I had one or two days when there was a threat of a shower or two and I always carried my mac in my rucksack just in case. One day I had a very long and heavy drizzle when I was between Rosthwaite and Grasmere – walking from cairn to cairn before the descent into the valley leading to Grasmere. The stone steps up from Rosthwaite were all wet with a stream running down them, as was the descent into the valley leading to Grasmere.

The only other rain was as I left the woodland on the approach to Richmond. I already had my waterproof trousers on and quickly put on my mac. In seconds the heavens opened and the next twenty minutes was a real soaker. By the time I reached the Tourist Information Centre, where I was due to meet Margaret, the road and pavement were awash with water, not just a stream but a river, with it coming halfway up my boots! Whilst I waited for Margaret – I phoned her and she was just a few doors away in a café – the rain turned to hail resulting in a heavy covering on the roads and pavement which looked like snow but was very slippery.

The Black Sail YHA Hut (midway between Ennerdale Bridge and Rosthwaite) has obviously had a very recent, good make-over. It was occupied by two couples also doing the C2C walk and they were having their packed lunch whilst sheltering from a very blustery wind. There was a land-rover parked at the side of the hostel but no sign of a warden!

I was a bit concerned that I might lose my way crossing the Lake District because there were no C2C way markers and I cannot read a compass. However, I had Martin Wainwright’s book “The Coast to Coast Walk” which included a map of each section plus a detailed description of the route.

Walking from Patterdale to Shap I stopped to eat my lunch at the point where I could see The High Street (the roman road) continuing directly in front of me and the path leading to Kidsty Pike on my left. A number of walkers went straight passed me and would have walked straight ahead and joined The High Street. I told them that I thought they needed to turn left if they were heading for Kidsty Pike and Shap. One group were walking using the Ordnance Survey maps, another group were using GPS(?) and others were using Wainwright’s book. It took a lot of persuading for them to turn left but I passed them all later and they were very grateful to me for my advice. Proof, if any was needed, that my book was the most reliable and saved me from any further worry.

I nearly lost my way after negotiating the steep climb out of Grosmont. My book said “look out for a cattle grid, walk straight ahead where the road bears off to the left and be careful crossing the main road and walking down to Hawsker”. Well, I crossed a cattle grid and looked at my map which showed a footpath immediately going right and another going directly left and up to a disused quarry, but the path and road continued straight ahead. It took me a long time and effort to find the right path (after a couple of attempts walking across the heathland) but I finally did after I crossed a second cattle grid which was not shown on my map. This was the only time I was let down by my book.

Most of the other walkers I met – and passed - were also walking just with day packs, having their luggage transported by “Sherpa”, “Packhorse”, or by supporters like Margaret. Of the dozens of walkers, I only met 4 men who had huge rucksacks on their backs. None of my fellow walkers envied me my speed but they almost all envied me having my wife support me in the car and, when they met her at one of the various Hostels or B&Bs, told her so.

I completed every day’s walk within minutes of the time suggested in my book which worked out at 2 mph each day except for the two 18 miles stretches when we were expected to walk at 3 mph, which wasn’t easy. A Dutch man caught up with me as I sat and ate a banana and had a drink having walked up the steep road from Kirkby Stephen and heading for Keld. He was convinced that I was a local man, used to walking in the Lake District because “you always look so relaxed and make the climbs look easy”.

I had remembered to pick up a pebble at St Bees, and I threw it into the sea at Robin Hood’s Bay and bought myself a certificate. I completed each day with a genuine sense of achievement and was so glad that I did it. It was probably the hardest walk thus far but I haven’t stop walking yet!

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