I am fairly confident that none of you have ever heard of one of my boyhood heroes from her maiden name, Anna Cherkasova (Анна Черкасова in Cyrillic) and very few of you will even recognise the English name she used later. Many people in the sixties probably didn’t notice her. I can tell you very little about her and most of the information comes from Wikipedia.
She was one of the first Soviet female engineers after the Revolution of 1917 and in 1932, she became the Soviet Union’s long-distance motorcycle champion. She immigrated to Great Britain in 1939, marrying an art teacher, Harry Moore, from whom she later separated. To me and to most Britons at the time she was known as the one and only: Doctor Barbara Moore.
I have no idea why she was a Doctor but she was always referred to as Doctor. She had unusual views, not usually associated with the medical profession. She was always a vegetarian and also a breatharian, claiming that it was possible to survive without food!
At the end of 1959 she walked from Edinburgh to London. Shortly afterwards she walked from John O’Groats to Land’s End. Then she walked the 3387 miles from San Francisco to New York, in 46 days, arriving in the middle of 1960!
It was the walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End that inspired me. I was fourteen at the time. (She was 56.) It made the national news and she appeared a few times briefly in television news broadcasts. Here she is passing through the village of Hodnet in Shropshire.
Many people have walked from Land’s End to John O’Groats or vice versa. (For non-UK readers, these are more or less the ends of the British mainland at its South-east and North-west tips.) When I researched it in 2000, I found somewhere the record of an Elihu Berritt, an American, who in 1863 walked from Land’s to John O’Groats and back again. Perhaps this was wrong, or perhaps the provenance is not good. Now Wikipedia suggests that the first recorded end-to-end walk, from John O’ Groats to Land’s End, was made by the brothers John and Robert Naylor in 1871.
After Barbara’s journey, a few months later in 1960, Billy Butlin launched the End-to-End Challenge, also making national news headlines and 715 people left John O’Groats. (Some of you will remember Billy Butlin from his Holiday Camps of the time. He may have done this to make the News.) With little preparation, only 138 reached the other end. But this started the great publicity surrounding this route which has been tackled in many strange ways since.
If you want to do it now, the End to Enders club will help.
I always knew, from the time I saw Barbara Moore, that I wanted to do this walk to follow her inspiration. I grew up with a strong love of walking and walking holidays, and always used to quote one of my ambitions as ‘to walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats.’ In spite of some long walks on footpaths, including the 200-mile Coast-to-Coast Walk across Northern England, I always imagined Land’s End to John O’Groats as a walk to be done at speed over roads, taking the shortest route possible – and eventually I did it!
I won’t bore you with the 20 000 word blog I wrote at the time but here is the cut-down version. (All right, it wasn’t a blog! It started as handwritten words in a few notebooks as I went, and it became a word processed document.) If you don’t want to read about me, skip to the end for a few more words about Barbara.
In 1999 chance circumstances left me on my own while my wife went to the USA for ten days. To make use of those ten days I considered the possibility of starting the long distance walk that I had long dreamed of. (I was still working so I couldn’t do it all at once. The ten days would bring me almost to my home at Cheltenham, with two more sections later.) I knew that I could walk well but I needed the confidence that I could do 25-30 miles a day for days at a time.
So I took a day off work, filled a backpack with enough clothes to represent the necessary weight and walked from Cheltenham to Tewkesbury and back, about nine miles each way. Then I told my wife what I was going to do when she was away. (She wasn’t surprised. It wasn’t that unusual for me to do strange things!)
In those days mobile phones, satellite navigation and the Internet were far more primitive than today. (Yes, even in 1999-2000. Mobile phones were just phones. They did text but nothing else. I had a cheap, clunky Nokia and many non-populated areas, some of which I walked through, could not even pick up phone coverage.)
Route planning was not freely available. I used some purchased software, Autoroute and Milemaster, the AA’s equivalent. The software quickly identified the main route, following the A30, A38, A6, A7 and A9. My aim was to go through Bristol and Edinburgh, but avoid other large cities and, as far as possible, main roads. In particular I wanted to go round Birmingham and between Manchester and Liverpool.
For the first section, as far as Gloucester, the obvious route was the A30 to Okehampton, some minor roads to avoid Exeter, and the A38 from Taunton. To plan in detail I bought large numbers of Ordnance Survey maps. At about £5:00, each map covered about one day’s walk. It would be impractical to take all these maps, so I photocopied them and made strips from which I could summarize the whole route at one A4 page per day. These were backed and laminated in plastic to be waterproof. They were of some basic use, but as they only showed about half a mile off the route, allowing for little flexibility.
For the first section I pre-booked stops and this tied me down to some long days. In my back-pack I had my mobile telephone, a Global Positioning (GPS) unit, compass, prepared maps, a first aid box, reflective strips, spare bootlaces and batteries. The laminated map sheets also included lists of local taxis and details of B&B through the route, not just the pre-booked stops. Spare clothes were kept to a minimum. Probably the essentials were a sturdy rainproof jacket, a litre bottle of water and my soft sports shoes – the ‘Desert Island Discs’ luxury I would change into at all stops. After my first test walk, I had a five-week preparation of weekend walks to toughen up the soles of my feet and prepare my legs for long walks each day.
The First Section – Land’s End to Gloucester
I started with two nights B&B at Redruth so my first day was without a backpack. After a train journey and a bus I registered at the start at Land’s End and wrote my entry in the book. (They gave me a transit form to be signed at points on the way to verify my progress.)
I started on almost traffic-free country roads, stopping briefly at Penzance for coffee. At Crowlas, I crossed the path of Ian Botham, famous as an England cricketer and a long-distance walker for charity, fighting my way through his extensive entourage and streets lined with fans. (My first day was his last, walking a similar route in the reverse direction.) He had police motorcycles, several marshals, cars for doctors and physiotherapists, and his family following in a caravan. He collected a lot of money but I am not sure the miles of traffic queued up behind him appreciated that.
My stop for lunch at Hayles, strictly rationed to an hour, gave me a rest in a pub by an open fire. My ‘blog’ from the time details all the stops, all the lunches and drinks, all the B&Bs and lots of statistics, most of which I will leave out. I continued to Camborne, then to Redruth. Day one had been long and difficult.
The second day started with the first of many cooked breakfasts. I started along the A30, not the most exciting walk. Traffic makes walking on major roads more and more dangerous, one of the reasons Ian Botham had made this his last one. Most of the next two days were along the A30. Generally I aimed to cover nearly twenty miles by lunchtime, leaving just a few for the afternoon.
There were some hard days in the first section because I had just looked at miles on the map without considering the hills! Dartmoor, with its ups and downs was the worst section of the entire walk. Walking downhill is worse on the feet that uphill. There were a couple of day in the first section when I stopped earlier than planned and used a taxi to get to the planned B&B, always carefully noting the exact spot to which the taxi would return the next day.
Days continued following a typical pattern – cooked breakfast – start walking as early as possible – mid-morning half-hour coffee stop (often at pubs that were closed) – late lunch, stopping for an hour – few miles afternoon walk – bath and patch feet up at B&B – cooked evening meal – sleep soundly. I always maintain that if you walk twenty-five miles every day you can eat what you want without putting on weight!
My route took me to Okehampton, which I skirted round, then uphill to panoramic views of Dartmoor and most of Devon. The next days were difficult and by the end of day five I was nearly a day behind schedule, using expensive taxis. I stopped for two nights at Bickleigh and moved later stops back a day, making good use of my mobile phone.
In view of my problems so far with the hills of Devon, I opted for the main route via Tiverton and Halberton. I I kept going until four miles short of Taunton, where I was pleased to find that my mobile telephone was working again after a gap of two days. I ordered a taxi to take me to my B&B in Taunton.
The following day I went through Taunton, the first real civilization since Redruth. (I had managed to go round Launceston, Bodmin, Okehampton and Tiverton.) From there the route went back to the A38 and now it had become flat, effectively following the flood plain of the Bristol Channel. I went straight through Bridgwater and on some straight boring bits of road. My B&B for the night was at Wrington, not a convenient stop. I went round Wrington at some distance and headed for Bristol Airport, where I picked up an airport taxi back to Wrington.
The next two days, more or less straight up the A38 still, were accompanied by my son (although for the last half a day I had to leave him behind as he couldn’t manage the pace.) His car enabled me to do the walks without a full pack. The road to Bristol was mostly gently downhill. Even with our map of Bristol we were lost at Avon Bridge, finding our way eventually on the way to Clifton. In general, my route had always been the shortest way possible, avoiding motorways, at times taking an extra mile or two to avoid major roads. Bristol was so much in the way that I made an exception, and we were both keen to aim specifically for Bristol Zoo where we stopped. After paying for entry I had a brief lunch and spent my ‘hour of rest’ in touring the Zoo. It was well worth it.
On the last day of the first leg I kept on, leaving my son behind, through Whitminster, then going through Quedgeley to avoid the traffic on the A38 but the last miles through downtown Gloucester were uninspiring and long. Finally I reached the logical end to this stage, the centre of Gloucester where Northgate Street, Southgate Street, Eastgate Street and Westgate Street meet!
I went on to Gloucester station. When the ticket seller signed my transit sheet, he was so impressed that he gave me a free ticket. I was soon home. My feet felt better that at the end of any of the last few days and I would have been ready to go on for a few more days.
I learned several thigs from the first section. Perhaps the most obvious was not to go in November when the hours of daylight were so short! The remaining stages were planned for the following March and May. I learned to be more flexible about stops, but it was easier to be flexible where stopping places were more frequent. I prepared a list of possible stops and aimed to book ahead perhaps one or two days at a time.
The Second Section – The Rest of England
Four months later, the next section started with two relatively easy days of local transport (sleeping at home in Cheltenham) without a pack. I started from Gloucester station more or less taking the A38. Leaving Gloucester was familiar, and then Coombe Hill to Tewkesbury retracing the route of my first test walk nearly a year earlier. The A38 took me to Worcester and Ombersley, a good first day of 33 miles. The following day continued up through Kidderminster on the A38, then onwards straight past Bridgnorth, stopping about three miles later for another lift home.
The route continued Northwards including the extensive ring road round Telford. I could have stopped at Hodnet, like Barbara but the pub there was too expensive so I went to nearby Moreton Mill. Another long day brought me to Tarporley.
The next day there were some light showers and Warrington proved to be a large town devoid of B&B stops. I ended up searching in light rain for a pub with accommodation in the downmarket end of the town. The pub I did find was not quite sawdust on the floors, but there were no carpets. The rain and Warrington made this a bad day, probably the low point of this section.
I continued through Newton-le-Willows (just Newton locally,) and Ashton (Ashton-in-Makerfield on the map) then straight through Wigan to the edge of Standish for lunch. It was beginning to look more like proper countryside as I crossed into Lancashire. I saw my first views of the Pennines and reached Euxton (pronounced ‘Exton.’) The journey continued round most of the urban development of Preston on to Garstang. At my B&B I mentioned in passing that this was the approximate halfway point for Land’s to John O’Groats, 425 miles each way, and the response was: “They all say that!”
Then I passed through Lancaster and took a diversion through the town and up the hill to the castle, which was: ‘Closed until March 18′. At Bolton-le-Sands, in spite of the name, there were no sandy beaches. I think a muddy estuary was hidden somewhere. After a lunch stop here I was soon at Carnforth for my B&B. The County Hotel and Lodge was quite a large hotel with accommodation in a separate Lodge – the best so far. I was joined for the weekend by my wife. Carnforth marked the nominal halfway point for the section from Gloucester to Edinburgh.
I moved into Cumbria, passed the village of Beetham and followed a tree-lined river into Milnthorpe for coffee, then on to Kendal for lunch – a straggly sort of town with no obvious centre. After crossing the route for the Dales Way, which we had walked a few years earlier (another significant milestone) I stopped at the Plough, Selside, a pub conveniently marked on the OS map, and was collected and taken to another excellent hotel, the Gateway at Burneside near Kendal.
After some gentle rises, there was a long steady climb to the top of Shap Fell (1400 feet), open moorland with views of mountains to the South and East. Although this was a long uphill walk it was so much easier than Dartmoor, where the climbs were short but steep. I came down into Shap, where I passed the marker to the Coast to Coast Walk and found the Crown Inn, where we had stayed on the Coast to Coast Walk a couple of years earlier.
I had enough time to spot a familiar face on a distant wall! It was a signed photograph of Ian Botham with his Leukaemia Research baseball hat. [Too fresh-faced for his 1999 efforts, this must have dated from an earlier incarnation.] I went on to Clifton, a small village about three miles South of Penrith.
The Battle of Clifton Moor was fought in 1745, just opposite this B&B. I went into Penrith and climbed steadily out. That day ended at Carlisle.
After the built-up bit North of Carlisle following signs to ‘The North’, junction 44 marked the end of the M6. It felt a significant achievement to have followed the M5 and M6 for their entire length. Only here was the first sign indicating ‘SCOTLAND’ to the West. To the North Hawick, Galashiels and Edinburgh were marked, but not Scotland.
I stopped at a cafe in Longtown for my final taste of England. It was a Viennese fancy freshly delivered from Gretna (Scotland). Traffic became much lighter at the junction with the road to Gretna. The transition to Scotland was almost unannounced but I stopped briefly to mark the event.
Coming into Canonbie just before noon, I found the Post Office and had my transit form signed and franked. A sudden pain developed and crossing the road back to the Cross Keys hotel was excruciating. In short I had something like sciatica that meant that walking was almost impossible. This section had been going really well until the last minute and least I had made it to Scotland. Fortunately the 198 bus stopped just outside the hotel, taking me to Carlisle station the next day and home. I soon saw my achievement in a more positive light. If I had known about the 198 bus, I could have chosen any point on its route as a convenient stopping point instead of Edinburgh. The final section just needed minor re-planning. (The injury recovered with a few days of rest.)
The Third Section – Scotland
A few weeks later, the long train ride to Edinburgh brought me, via the now familiar 198 bus route, back to the Cross Keys at Canonbie. After lunch I was ready to start and I took this short day at an easy pace, wary of a possible recurrence of the injury which had prematurely terminated the last section. The weather varied between hot and sunny, and cloudy but warm. [It is worth noting that the preceding week had seen some of the worst rain and flooding in recent times for the Edinburgh area! I had been prepared to delay the start, but kept to my original planned date on the basis of a good 5-day forecast.] I chatted to the landlord at Langholm, my B&B. He had gone from Land’s End to John O’Groats by bicycle.
The next morning I followed the fertile valley of the Ewes Water upstream, between low hills topped by moor and coniferous forests. There were continuing primroses, and fields of bullocks and horned sheep. I watched a group of herons fly from a field they shared with sheep to the tops of conifers. The river went through stage of classical meandering, with ox-bow puddles. Further upstream it became a fast-moving mountain stream, steeper and rockier. The third leg would offer far the best countryside views.
After lunch at Mosspaul, I crossed from Dumfries and Galloway to Borders and started to follow the Teviot. By Teviothead the river was already quite strong and it grew as the road went downhill and downstream. The first full day of this section had been a straightforward, if somewhat long start.
The next day started with quite a long steady climb uphill. Nearer the top, there were panoramic views to the East and, looking back, to the South. A few yards later, through the pass, there were similar views ahead to the North. This was an impressive start to some of the great views of Scotland. My GPS showed that I had climbed steadily from 500 to 1000 feet. The way then went steadily down to Ashkirk at 500 feet again. Then it was up and over another hill in continuing hot weather to Selkirk. In the afternoon I crossed the Tweed and seemed to climb steadily while following the river downstream, eventually reaching B&B at Galashiels.
I left and followed the Gala valley, which was idyllic countryside with flat meanders and oxbow lakes, stopping for coffee at Stow. [That’s Stow as in How Now Brown Cow, not Stow as in Low Blow Flow Mow.] I passed the little village of Heriot, went through Falahill and passed the gates which close off the road when snowbound. I was surprised to find that I was at 1000 feet again following a very gentle climb for much of the way. In a day of hot sun I failed to find lunch because the only isolated stopping points seemed to treat Bank Holiday Monday as a day to keep closed. I just kept going to my B&B at Bonnyrigg a little short of Edinburgh.
After an uninspiring walk through the suburbs of Edinburgh, I managed to find Edinburgh Zoo, where I was able to leave my pack at the information desk and change out of my walking boots for lunch stop combined with zoo visit. The café and zoo were both disappointing, not as good as Bristol. Most of the animals were too far away to be seen, or hidden out of sight, or asleep, or motionless. Something about ‘mad dogs’ and ‘Englishmen’ seemed to come to mind. I wandered round most of it and took a few photographs.
The road onwards led through built-up greater Edinburgh, then the busy A90. I took the diversion to South Queensferry, a pleasant little town, not very busy, with good views of the firth and both bridges. I stopped at a pub under the railway bridge. Then I went up and over the bridge, which carried a lot of traffic. Just before the A90 became the M90 I took the slip road to Inverkeithing, pleasant countryside walking. At my B&B the host talked at length about an attempt to run from John O’Groats to Land’s End in record time in the 1980s, which had failed at Telford.
On the next day, bypassing Cowdenbeath, I came to the county of Kinross. For miles the road followed within 200 yards of the motorway, mostly out of sight and sound, hidden in a cutting or behind an embankment. By junction 5 of the motorway I caught sight of my first loch – another one to tick off in the I-Spy book of Scotland. I had already passed enough wool/ tweed/ cashmere mills/ shops to last a lifetime. With lunch at Kinross I continued to the Bein Inn just beyond Glenfarg, an excellent, picturesque location and a good hotel.
The Bein Inn had a book on birds which may have started my interests in amateur ornithology. On my walking in Scotland I had begun to see in fields the birds I now know as Oystercatchers. (The picture, from Slimbridge, is much more recent.)
At the end of the glen the road opened out into the largest bit of really flat land I had seen in Scotland, with huge fields of oilseed rape in flower. On all sides hills were visible on the horizon. As I approached Bridge of Earn the hills started. Most of the up and down hills for the rest of the day were fairly gentle. There was a definite climb up to the complex junction where the M90 split into two, while crossing the A912 and a railway. Here, at the hill top, views of Perth and the Tay opened up. In the distance snow-capped hills were visible!
I went down into Perth where there were lots of nice coffee shops. It was time to sample a scone with butter and jam. The road went up out of Perth, passing Asda, McDonald’s and Perth’s industrial estates. I met the A9, a road I was to follow for two hundred miles! At this point it was a major dual carriageway but not too bad, with wooded banks to each side. Scrimgeour’s Restaurant near Luncarty was a significant find, a real upmarket restaurant almost in the middle of nowhere. It was a hot sunny walk in the afternoon taking me eventually to my accommodation at Birnam.
The next day was more of the A9. Passing the Blair Atholl Distillery, I came into the very upmarket town of Pitlochry. At the cheapest place I could find both lunch and Guinness were the most expensive I found in Scotland. Staying on the old A9 I went up and over the Pass of Killiekrankie (at 14%). There was little to Killiekrankie apart from its Visitor Centre, so I kept on to Blair Atholl, a nice little village for my B&B. As recommended I went to the Loft Restaurant, where the chef was an ex-Masterchef competitor. (That’s the original Masterchef, not the latest Version!)
Now I was able to avoid the A9 for some of the way, using the old A9 which acts as a cycle path. In the middle of this ‘cycle path’ I found a lost lamb, too weak to stand up. I carried it for a couple of miles and delivered it eventually to a local farmer – in the only car to pass me on a six-mile stretch of road.
Just before rejoining the A9, I found a couple of nameless houses – along the continuation of the old A9 where the designated cycle path had ended. Here I borrowed someone’s picnic table to sit down for lunch. At just over a thousand feet above sea level this junction marked the snow gates to one end of the pass. The way continued on the A9, the main road through the eastern highlands. I climbed gradually, almost imperceptibly, up to 1400 feet.
I found my next fortunate stop for the day. Dalnaspidal Lodge was just a house and a farm. A small concrete path led me down to a secluded little spot by a waterfall and a fast flowing stream, under the shade of the A9 above me.
Back on the A9, the road entered the Highland region at Drumochter Pass. From here it was a slow downhill slope, making a long hard stretch – boring but with views of some impressive snow-capped mountains. Even where the road split to a dual carriageway of motorway dimensions, it was marked by 8 feet high snow poles to either side. The descent to Dalwhinnie came through an open plain. There seemed to be hundreds of signs marking the way to this little village, spread over the mile or so before its very long exit road. The first building was the Loch Ericht Hotel. I had booked a two-night stop here well in advance.
In the evening, the meal was a new experience. Here I met the coach party from Leicester, spending a week touring the Highlands in day-trips by coach or train. I shared with them a limited choice fixed price menu. [I had a scheduled Sunday off here. They gave me a front door key so that they could close in the daytime! I took a casual stroll up and down part of the shore of Loch Ericht where the scenery was excellent. In the evening the Leicester coach had departed and I had the restaurant to myself. The chef provided portions which were large enough to feed at least four people.]
The next day I was able to keep off the A9. I followed the minor road from Dalwhinnie, passing its distillery. Where the road met the A9, the old A9 diverged to a traffic-free path, not part of the official cycle path. The path was like a narrow country lane between young silver birches, with the real A9 only about ten yards to the right.
After passing through Newtonmore the last two or three miles to Kingussie were very hot and tough. I had a complex stop at Kingussie, using the local launderette while nipping backwards and forwards for lunch at the Star Hotel. My extended stop had covered some of the hottest part of the day, but the going in the afternoon was still tough and hot. The road through Kincraig to Aviemore stayed off the A9.
The walk was very hot without any shade and I found it hard to think of Aviemore as the centre of skiing in Scotland. I think Aviemore was the hottest point in Britain on a day way when meteorological records for May were being broken. It certainly felt like it.
The next day was full of the scenic variety which seemed to typify Scotland. There were deciduous woods (mostly silver birch); conifers (natural, not Forestry Commission serried ranks); hills and moorland (with heather not yet in flower); lochs and marshland; grass, sheep and cattle; and arable forms – all in an ornithologist’s paradise. I spotted oystercatchers, ospreys and several other exotic species which I could not identify. (This was before by birdwatching days.) Among the wild flowers were more wild violets.
My first stop, Carrbridge or Carr-Bridge or Carr Bridge is named from an old stone bridge which is still there, but no longer used. Using A9 and the cycle path which was the old A9 took me over Slocht Summit (about 1300 feet) and down to Tomatin. Then a hot hilly walk tool me to my B&B at Daviot.
The wide dual carriageway which formed the A9 as it passed the environs of Inverness, with some fairly heavy traffic, was not one of the best bits. I crossed the Kessock Bridge on to the Black Isle (not really an island) and into Ross and Cromarty. At the other side a ‘cycle path’ led down to North Kessock, smaller and nicer than South Queensferry.
I stopped at Tore, then the afternoon section was another difficult segment of the A9. After a steady uphill incline of about two miles there was a steady descent of about five miles. For most of the descent the bridge ahead was visible, but it did not seem to be getting closer! At last I reached and crossed the bridge over the Cromarty Firth. It was a long, low causeway with short side rails. Cross winds made the experience quite frightening!
Well before this point I had decided to call it a day just over the bridge. I stopped at a very convenient tiny car park and ordered a taxi. The evening was to prove a little complex. When delivered to the Novar Arms Hotel, Evanton, where I had booked to stop overnight, I was informed of an overbooking problem. They had transferred my booking to Kiltearn House, a guest house a mile and a half away on the shores of the Firth of Cromarty. The manager of the hotel took me there in his car. The B&B was comfortable in a scenic location, although totally isolated from Evanton. The owner of the guest house took me to Evanton where the Novar Arms provided a pleasant meal. When he could find a spare minute, the owner took me back to the guest house.
Of course my taxi delivered my back to the bridge the next morning. The A9 followed the Cromarty Firth. Locals seem to call it ‘the beach’, but the map’s ‘mud and sand’ is more accurate. Gradually the oil rigs of Invergordon approached. The plain of Invergordon was mostly arable farmland – grass, corn and oilseed rape. I went up and over the top of the peninsular and on to my stay at Tain, a quaint old town with strangely named shops – The Dress Shop, The Chocolate Shop and The Shoe Shop.
Downhill next day to the Dornoch Bridge, less frightening than Cromarty in spite of a steady crosswind. Back on the A9, I could see Golspie some miles ahead, over the next firth. I went down a narrow, curving road to what looked like another major crossing. It was actually a dry causeway followed by a small bridge. To the left was a wild marshy area with a small loch. To the right was a huge sand flat. The whole area was the nature reserve of Loch Fleet, at low tide. Coming uphill at the other side, the road became largely flat, following a flood plain – with arable land to the right, and hills with sheep to the left.
I have to mention this lunch stop the Caberfeidh Inn at Golspie by the sea. [Apparently caberfeidh means ‘stag’s head’, with added overtones of military symbolism. The name crops up all over Northern Scotland.] The only food available was a choice of toasties or pizza. My 12″ pepperoni and onion pizza was one the best pizzas I have ever had. (I wrote that fifteen years ago and it’s still true.) The clientele were very chatty, and one had walked with Barbara Moore from Dunrobin castle down to Golspie. I was impressed! It beat all the Ian Botham comments.
A straight and flat walk, following the sea quite closely, brought me to Brora. Brora and the Braes Hotel did not win any prizes for their qualities. But Brora had a much nicer, upmarket section on the way out. The sea was always visible. When I stopped in the shade of a church for a short rest, I met another couple who were coming to the end of their walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats. They were the only others I met on the entire route! They were doing a much longer route, at a leisurely pace – a total of 1200 miles in about a hundred days, in several sections. As their stop for the day was planned for Helmsdale, I left them and I continued.
Still on the A9, traffic was now light, with straight, open roads. Oystercatchers were becoming a common sight. After Portgower both the road and the railway were almost at the water’s edge. I stopped at Helmsdale for lunch. In the afternoon the road wound slowly up heather-covered hills, continuing in great meanders. I met the LE-JOG couple again and passed them. When Berriedale came into sight there were some long, steep inclines – about a mile down at 13%, then a mile up at 13%. It was too reminiscent of Devon and Bickleigh! I stopped at the Berriedale Llama Farm.
My last full day went via Dunbeath and Latheronwheel. Later I was passed by a convoy of speed cyclists with their support vehicles, presumably aiming at John O’Groats. Lunch was at the Portland Arms Hotel, Lybster. [That’s Lye-bster, not Lib-ster.] With decreasing population, stops were not so easy. At Bruan church I telephoned for a taxi to Wick, where I went to my pre-booked B&B, unpacked, changed to lighter shoes and went in search of a meal. Not finding an interesting cafe in Wick, I went to the Mackay Hotel, near the station for coffee and some homemade shortbread – all for 85 pence! A little later my B&B host gave me a lift back to Bruan.
The last stretch of about eight miles was a pleasant walk in more comfortable shoes without a pack. The road was straight in flat countryside with extensive views to the left. To the right the sea was not often visible, with short hills masking the cliff tops. It was still a long session, particularly the final miles into Wick. I stopped just before the B&B in the now familiar town of Wick, to buy fish and chips to eat at the B&B in the kitchen. It was an unusual accommodation where the host was absent for most of the time – only £12 per night!
I had planned a short last day and was thinking already of an extravagant First Class train journey home. The land was flat, mostly farmland, sheep and cattle. After crossing a surprising pipeline construction I stopped briefly at Keiss. The Sinclair Arms Hotel was the only stop marked on the map for this stretch. It looked open and I went in, but there was no-one there. I chatted outside to a couple making up their own end-to-end in random bits. They seem to have started Scotland by doing a few bits of the coast from Wick to John O’Groats.
The rest was a long, uninterrupted stretch, spurred on by the prospect of finishing, mostly flat grassland with the sea to the right. Near to the end I was passed by a tandem aiming at a record End-to-End passage. Two or three miles from the end there was a gentle, heather-covered hill. At the top of this hill, John O’Groats suddenly became visible and there were stunning views of Orkney and the North Coast of Scotland. I thought these views were worth the 900-mile walk!
Coming down into the village, there were some tacky gift shops before the real village. I kept on to the Groats Inn, no longer a hotel just a pub. I ordered my pint of Guinness and produced my transit sheet for its final signature. Then me wife walked in the door! I was so surprised I don’t think I believed it. She had driven 600 miles, and was to drive back for another 600 miles to take me home. Before we left, I just had time to buy some John O’Groats shortbread and write my entry in The Book. After several days to think about it, I wrote:
I enjoyed every mile of it. Well, nearly every mile. (Sorry, Warrington!) I owe it all to Dr. Barbara Moore. The best holidays I have ever had.
The last stretch had been surprisingly easy, helped by an early start. I think the surprise at the end stopped me from realising the significance of having completed my lifelong ambition, by walking 900 miles. That gradually caught up with me in the following days and weeks.
I estimated my distance at 908 miles in 39 days at just under four miles per hour. If I did it today I would have accurate GPS tracking me with a full map and detailed statistics but realistically I can only say it was about 900 miles.
Back in 1960, Barbara had walked through some severe weather conditions, slept in the tent she carried and completed it in 22 days! She had just nuts, honey, raw fruit and vegetable juice for nourishment.
Her beliefs were that people could live to be 200 years old by abstaining from smoking, drinking alcohol and sex. She claimed she had cured herself of leukemia by way of a special diet. To test her health theories, she planned to build a laboratory next door to her home in Frimley. She was drawn into a lengthy legal battle over a sewer and access roads for a nearby housing estate. She spent years and her life savings fighting her case, but ultimately lost in the High Courts. She was jailed for contempt of court after she refused to accept the ruling.
She died in a London hospital on 14 May 1977, bankrupt and near starvation because of her refusal to eat.