"Quo Vadis" Articles.


Julie Roberts walked from Land's End to John o'Groats.  Here's her story.


Firstly, let me start by apologising for this account of my Land's End to John o' Groats walk, which I am about to inflict upon you. In my defence, I must say that I've written it only at the request of Don Dyer, and as he was so incredibly helpful and encouraging, both before and during the walk, I felt obliged to comply with his request. So if you should be bored senseless by this article, bear in mind that it's his fault, not mine.


Right, now I've exonerated myself from all blame, I can proceed happily. I don't know if Association members express curiosity as to why people decide to walk 1200 miles or so through Great Britain, but as almost every person I met on the way did, I'll start by saying that one day out of the blue, for no good reason  whatsoever, it came to me that it would be a fine thing to walk the length of the countries of this island, and that it would be an even finer thing to have the final 500 or so miles in Scotland, as this is my heartland, and where I will one day live, if I can convince my partner that the sun does occasionally break through the clouds there, and that midges are only a figment of the summer heat, and not a reality. Once I had this idea in my head, it wouldn't go away, so I saved up the money I thought I would need for such an endeavour and set off. And began at the bottom, for the above-mentioned reason.


This is not strictly true. I did not just 'set off'. Before I did that, I vaguely planned a route, linking various long-distance paths, ordered the maps I thought I would need from the Ramblers' Association library to be sent to various post offices around the country. And then, thinking about fitness, I cast my mind back to the jolly time of 1998, when I spent three months trekking in Nepal. I well remember training for my trip to Everest Base Camp and Annapurna, by walking 10 flat miles with a fully loaded rucksack, and, as my muscles made no complaint, thinking all would be well. I also well remember arriving at a small village lodge in the mid-morning of my second day in the Himalaya, sinking gratefully down onto a wooden bench, and then being completely unable to rise from it after my refreshing bottle of coke (yes, coke is everywhere, and impossible to escape, like politicians). Having tried to maintain my dignity by assuring everyone that I had all along intended to stay the night at this lodge due to its scenic location, I then greatly amused the whole village by crawling on my hands and knees to my room. Not wishing to similarly entertain a Cornish village, I actually did a lot of training for this walk, going for long walks in the Welsh hills, with a half-packed rucksack. And to my great delight, when I finally set off, waved away by my boyfriend, who'd walked the first five miles with me, I found that my leg muscles ached not at all!


Which was just as well, because if I'd had aching muscles as well as blisters, a pulled muscle in my neck and dodgy knees, I think I'd have given up! On one memorable day, just when I was thinking that someone was actually stretching Cornwall, so that I would never reach Devon, I had three blisters on one foot, and was manfully trying not to limp, knowing that if I did, this would cause all sorts of other problems elsewhere. I tried to concentrate on the fabulous scenery of the South West Coastal Path; to console myself that the weather was lovely; all to no avail. I love walking alone; it gives me lots of time to think. I can pause to look at flowers and beetles and any other detail that I notice, I can compose poetry in my head (most of it, thankfully, stays there), and I can be quiet, something most of my friends would be stunned that I was capable of, being renowned for my incurable verbal diarrhoea (and written diarrhoea too, as you are now experiencing). However, when one is in agony, being alone is not good. You have no one to take your mind off the pain you're in, and to cheer you up. With the result that by the time I arrived at the camp site to be told by the owner that it had closed last year, I was not of a disposition to bear this news with fortitude. I eyed the gibbet-like bracket outside her house, which had no doubt once held a 'Welcome to my camp site' sign and which looked sturdy enough to take my weight. I think the lady realised that if she didn't do something, she would open her door in the morning to my gently swinging corpse.  She opened up the showers and toilet, made me a cup of tea, and let me pitch my tent. And wouldn't take any payment for it.


She was only one of many wonderful people I met along the way, but she was the first. I lay in my tent that night, having popped, germolined and melolined my blisters into submission, and contemplated the fact that all those of my acquaintance who had assured me I was insane to attempt this walk at all, let alone without backup, were probably right. (I say acquaintance, rather than friends; my friends have long taken my lunacy for granted, and would no more comment on this than the fact that I have blue eyes). That was my lowest moment, I think, and the only time I thought of giving up. But I knew that if I did, I would never do this again, and that within a week of getting home, I'd be really wishing I'd continued. As my main motto in life seems to be; "Attempt anything you want, no matter how stupid, but on your deathbed have as few regrets as possible", I got up the next morning, and struggled on. The next campsite owner offered to carry my bag on to the next campsite for me - he did this for two days, and the day after that a woman I met in the youth hostel offered to carry my pack on once more.


The great kindness of these people (and others too numerous to name) gave not only a chance for my feet to heal, but made me all warm inside, which was a nice enough feeling for me to keep going. It also gave me the chance to realise that it was not my fitness that was the problem, but the weight of my rucksack, and in fact, my rucksack itself, which being of great age, and having accompanied me round India, Nepal, and Spain, now decided enough was enough and died spectacularly, in a way that resulted in the pulled neck muscle. I did an emergency repair, abandoned the idea of pootling merrily through Glastonbury and Wells, charged round the corner of England as fast as possible, and got my boyfriend to meet me, in horizontal rain, as I crossed the Severn Bridge to Chepstow. I went home, bought a new rucksack, discarded everything I could possibly do without, smugly watched the rain pouring down the window for four days, then got my boyfriend to take me back to Chepstow, where I found a campsite and prepared for the next leg, to Manchester, where I could inflict myself on a friend for a few days.


The Offa's Dyke Path is my second favourite of all the long distance paths I tackled on this trip (the West Highland Way is my first, in case you're at all interested). The scenery is wonderful and varied; there are plenty of campsites and a lot of hostels, although if you're inspired by my account to walk the Offa's Dyke Path, the hostels will not be there next year, as the YHA in its idiocy has decided to close all except one of its hostels on this route, as well as a great many on the Pennine Way. So I'm glad I did it this year, as my finances don't stretch to B & B, and a hostel was a welcome cheapish way of avoiding having to put a tent up every night only to have to take it down again the next morning. Anyway; Offa's Dyke is great, except for one important thing: stiles. There are 700 on the path, and, having dragged myself and my pack over most of them (I left the dyke at Chirk), I now know that the saying 'that which does not kill you makes you stronger' is indeed true. And I decided that when it had made me strong enough, I would seek out and kill, slowly and painfully, all builders of stiles. I realise that they have a function: they stop livestock escaping, and prevent cyclists etc using paths meant only for walkers. But let me put it to you - so do kissing gates, and they're much easier to negotiate (unless they're only designed, as many seem to be, for anorexics walking without a pack). Let us campaign for the kissing gate; as well as being practical, they bring to mind pleasant pastoral images of lusty well-built young shepherds embracing buxom blushing dairymaids. Well, they do to me, anyway.


I finally achieved Manchester, where my long-suffering friend collected me and my soapbox a day earlier than expected, from the campsite I'd wearily achieved after a twenty-four-plus mile walk from Frodsham in intense heat, only to have my tentpole snap on me as I was attempting to erect my tent without bending my legs, for fear they'd collapse completely. She 'there-thered' as only friends can do without sounding patronising, scooped me into her car and took me home to a long bath and a fine meal. The next day I got the bus back to the campsite and walked the bit I'd been driven; I was determined to walk all the way, no lifts, buses etc.


During my few days lounging about, drinking lots of wine and eating very good food (my friend is an expert in nutrition) I contemplated the fact that my legs, back etc. were fine, and that although I now had hobbit-feet, I no longer suffered from blisters, as I'd stopped wearing boots altogether in favour of sandals somewhere in Cornwall. However, my feet still ached like hell every day, and I realised that this was because they could not walk more than 15 miles a day carrying the weight of pack I had (I don't know exactly what it weighed, but every man who lifted it expressed shock that I was carrying such a load). As I couldn't get rid of anything from the pack, and to the best of my knowledge it isn't possible to build up the foot muscles to carry such loads, no matter how bloody-minded you are, I realised that I would have to decrease the distance I walked each day. This was possible, as I was not restricted by time, only by budget, and as I can, and do, live incredibly frugally, I was well within it (the whole trip, of 3 ½ months, plus a new rucksack and sandals, cost less than £2,500). But I was reluctant to reduce my daily mileage, for one reason only. Vanity. When preparing for the trip I read that every single person who has ever walked or cycled LEJOG (it's an acronym, not a French marathon) has come back a shadow of their former selves, losing vast quantities of fat along the way. I was not particularly overweight, having always been one of those very annoying people who can eat anything they want and remain very slim; nevertheless, since reaching 40, I had noticed that the discrepancy between what the scales said and what I knew to be my true weight was getting bigger; and that my clothes had more of a tendency to shrink in the wash than formerly. I had hoped that the walk would reverse this tendency, and that I would emerge from it with the firmness and willow slenderness I had maintained so effortlessly until recently. However, I had now walked upwards of 500 miles, gone through hell, had some fabulous experiences and met lots of lovely people, but had not lost an ounce of fat. It was unbelievable, and unfair.


Even so, I did reduce my daily mileage, attempting, except in extreme circumstances, to walk no more than 15 miles a day, and the very strange thing was, that by the time I'd trotted happily along the Pennine way to Middleton-on-Teesdale, where my next friends picked me up for three days in Durham, I had lost 6 pounds! Is this not a miracle? For three days I explored Durham, ate well (again) and stayed up late into the night with my friend Steve listening to Capercaillie and drinking copious quantities of medicinal Edradour malt whisky whilst contemplating the beauties of Scotland to come, and reminiscing on what a great time we'd had in Skye learning Gaelic the previous year. Just what I needed to prepare myself for the next leg.


I knew now that short of a disaster, I would complete this trip. For one thing, I'd come too far to give up now. And for another thing, I was really enjoying myself. Because I was no longer in pain, I had more time to notice other things. The hedgerow flowers, cobwebs strung with dew-diamonds, lovely blue, and orange-tipped butterflies, the fox cub that appeared suddenly from a hedge and obligingly stayed still long enough for me to take a photo before fleeing….the list was endless.


As I neared Scotland, I reflected on my experiences in England and Wales. Before I had set out, many people, aghast at what I was about to do, warned me of the many dangers I could encounter in undertaking such a journey alone. Their main concern was that I would be robbed, raped, or murdered, or all three. It seemed to them that the whole country was full of violent and unprincipled villains, and if you read the newspapers and watch the news, this is indeed the way the country seems to be. Yet in two months of walking through the southern part of Britain, I had not met anyone who was anything other than friendly. And had met a great many people who were a lot more than that. Apart from the ones I've mentioned, there was the man in Shropshire, who when I knocked on his door enquiring as to the whereabouts of the elusive camp site, invited me to pitch my tent in his garden and made me tea; and then came to inform me an hour later that he and his wife were going out for the evening, but would leave the door open so I could go in and have a shower! And, at Frodsham, another couple also invited me to camp in the garden, and then changed their minds and put me up in their spare room instead, making me breakfast and a packed lunch in the morning. And there was the merry evening in the pub in Pandy, at the end of which I found myself the proud owner of a dining table and six chairs, for the price of a £5 donation to the air ambulance. (No, I didn't carry them on to John  o'Groats, my long-suffering boyfriend came and picked them up in his van).


I also reflected on the attitude of the English towards my trip. I found it sad that almost everyone seemed to feel that the only possible reason there could be for walking the length of their beautiful country was to collect money for charity. When I told them I was doing it purely for pleasure, they were so stunned that in the end I decided that the only way to avoid being committed to the local lunatic asylum was to contact Cancer Research and advise them that I would collect for them along the way. This seemed to relieve people greatly, knowing that I was not some sort of imbecile who actually enjoyed walking vast distances burdened by a pack and camping in muddy fields. I had a purpose; I was collecting for charity; I was no longer a dangerous lunatic. They were generous, donating trustingly without asking for proof that I was a bona fide collector, and telling me touching and heart-rending stories of their own experiences with cancer.


The other thing that surprised me greatly (and I'd be interested to know if other walkers had the same experience) was the general conversation I had with everyone who asked me where I was going with such a huge rucksack. It went like this:

"You're walking from Land's End to John  o'Groats? All by yourself? Wow, that's amazing! All the way from Land's End to John  o'Groats! Where did you start?"

Now when the first person asked me this, I was tactful, realising that I must be conversing with someone who was, to be PC, cerebrally challenged. But after many, many such conversations, I began to wonder whether the whole of England was cerebrally challenged. I have given this a lot of thought since, and have come to the more charitable conclusion that there are two other reasons why so many people would ask such a stupid question. 1) They were not really listening to what I'd said. 2) They were so stunned by my bravery in this land of evil, and astounded by my great beauty and now toned, tanned and athletic body, that they didn't realise what they were saying.


I am sure number 2) applied in the majority of cases.


I wondered whether the Scots would be similarly impressed by me, and equally kind and generous. I also wondered whether the reason why I had not met any vicious ravishers and killers in England was because they had all emigrated northwards and were lying in wait for me in the Highlands.


I spent my last night in England at Byrness Youth Hostel (to be closed) watching England get knocked out of the World Cup, and then walked to the border the next day, to be greeted by the extremely talented and larger-than-life kilted border piper, with whom I ended up having lunch. Between playing the pipes and having his photo taken with tourists, he was attempting to give away English flags to those entering that fair country. Unsuccessfully.

"No," came the general reply to his offer. "We'll be bringing them back to you after yesterday."

"Och, come on, man," the piper said in despair. "Are ye no' proud tae be English anyway?" Then looking at the man's uncomprehending look, he shook his head sadly. "No, I can see why ye wouldnae be," he said.

Now I have lived for most of my life in England, but have the fortune to be blessed with a Scottish sense of humour, to which end I have spent a great deal of time explaining that no, I wasn't being insulting or rude, I was joking. So it was refreshing in the extreme for me to realise that I was now entering a land where people would understand my cynical, dry sense of humour.


I carried on to Jedburgh, where the people in the café carried my bag on to the campsite, and when I followed it on I found that they'd paid for my night's camping. The campsite owner wouldn't take any money for the second night, and gave me £5 to pay for my next campsite. This sort of generosity continued, as it had in England, with people paying for my meals, refusing to charge me for accommodation, giving me free drinks, etc. The Scots, in spite of the jokes, are not mean with money, but quite the opposite. There were differences though, apart from the accent. The Scots, in general didn't ask me which charity I was walking for, but seemed to find it perfectly acceptable that someone should want to walk through their country just for the sake of it. Which led me to think that the Scots seem to have more appreciation of the beauty of their country than the English do of theirs. Which, if I'm right, is quite sad, from the English point of view. Also sad was the fact that the Scots didn't seem to be quite so stunned by my beauty and splendour of physique, as no one asked where I'd started my walk anymore. The rapists and murderers were clearly so afraid of my imposing leg muscles that they melted away into the distance. I met not a one.


I won't detail how beautiful Scotland is. If you've been, you'll know. And if you haven't been, go, and find out for yourself. Photographs don't do it justice, and neither does description, you have to see it. I saw it by walking to  Edinburgh, then along the canals to Milngavie and the West Highland Way, then the Great Glen Way to Inverness and up from there to John o'Groats. I stopped a lot to sight-see: 4 nights in Edinburgh, 3 in Stirling, 3 in Fort William….in the end, my boyfriend became so concerned at my dawdling, and worried that I wouldn't ever finish the walk, but use it as an excuse to just go and live in Scotland, that he decided to meet me and walk the last five miles with me, as he'd walked the first. I have many great memories of Scotland, apart from the scenery; not least the William Wallace lookalike, who paused between collecting for charity on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to gaily lift his kilt to show me and anyone else passing, not only the Scottish lion tattoo on his posterior, but also a great deal more. (He's collected over a million pounds for charity, giving up his weekends to have his photo taken with tourists for a voluntary donation). Also memorable were the two days I spent on a croft on the Black Isle with a holidaying couple I'd met at Lauder, who invited me to visit them at home, during which time I enjoyed a good deal of wine, whisky, home-grown food, great hospitality and a dollop of dry humour. I hope they'll keep in touch and become friends. And the two days in the company of a man who's walking the whole coast of Scotland. His wife, acting as back up in a camper van, carried my bag on for two days, and we had a very merry evening in Helmsdale, where the gale force wind threatened to blow their van over, and necessitated me staying B & B, realising that I had no chance of getting my tent up at all.


Finally, of course, there was the wonderful moment when my boyfriend drew up in his car at Thurso, the lovely walk, not to John o'Groats, which I didn't count as the end, but to Duncansby Head along the beautiful coast, and then the bottle of pink champagne he produced from his rucksack for us to toast my success as we watched the ferry making its stately progress to Orkney. I won't mention the bit where I got very tipsy, fell down a rabbit hole and then managed to accidentally erase two days worth of photos off my digital camera, before giggling my way back to John  o'Groats. I want you to believe the conclusion of my trip to be a dignified one.


So, been there, done that, as they say, whoever they are. Would I do it again? No. Not because it was bloody hard work (it was), but because there are too many other places I want to see to do the same trip twice.


In conclusion (at last, you say, I thought she'd never shut up) this was the most difficult trip I've ever done, not only physically, but emotionally too. On all my other trips, I've always gone alone, but then met up with lots of other people doing the same thing. On this trip I only met three other people walking LEJOG, and two of them were taking public transport at times. So when things were hard I had only my own resources to fall back on. But I like that. I like to challenge myself. I enjoyed camping; there's something good in reminding yourself that the real necessities of life are food, warmth and shelter, and that everything else is a luxury, and easily dispensed with. And I guess, deep down, I do respond to the maxim, "that which does not kill you, makes you stronger."


Right. So while I'm still strong, before luxuries weaken me again - where's that damned builder of stiles!!