A decade ago, prices in Britain (for accommodation at least) were fairly reasonable, and I rarely paid more than twenty pounds for a night in a bed and breakfast (you’ll have to pay at least twice the price to stay in most simple B&Bs now); hostels were cheaper of course, but by the turn of the new millennium the good old days when most of those staying there were walkers and interesting, friendly people with a story to tell and time to talk had already long since gone, and much of time my companions were families on holiday, or school groups, neither of whom had any interest in talking to me. If I ever do a similar trip across Britain again, I’ll be camping, with a tent on my back, although of course there’s Couchsurfing as well now. Walking every day for three months across a place with a highly uncertain climate like Britain, the simple pleasures of the night’s accommodation are sometimes the main thing that keep you going. Accommodation lists are all over the Web now (on the Ramblers Association, local Tourist Info sites, and on the official Long Distance Path websites) and although many of the prices (£50-70 or more a night!) are nothing short of ridiculous, there are a few reasonable bargains still to be had.
Tuesday 22nd August 2000: day 76
Milngavie, near Glasgow: distance walked to date: 1,010.25 miles
I have always assumed that although England, Scotland and Wales are technically separate countries, the distinction in everyday life was purely a technicality, but almost as soon as I stepped off the end of the Pennine Way north of the border, I was made to think again. An innocent cyclist arriving from the south, pulled into Kirk Yetholm just 2 miles over the Scottish border and asked the youth hostel warden, if he was still in England. The friendly Scottish warden politely put him right, saying he was “definitely in Scotland”.
I dropped a much larger clanger when, worried that the Bank of Scotland and the Royal Bank of Scotland (the only banks present in many towns) would not accept my Cashpoint Card, I asked a hostel warden in Melrose (it was the end of a long day) if there were any “English” banks in the town. There was a definite hardness of voice and coldness of eye as he replied no, because “I was in Scotland now”. Patriotic feelings of Scottish independence aside (and there are many signs of more extreme views daubed on walls and pavements), southern Scotland has truly been a special and thrilling sector of the walk. It took a while after the strenuous final few days of the Pennine Way to regain my stride, but right from the first day across the border I have been struck by the beauty of the countryside. The soft northern glow of autumn sunlight that made the walk through the Cheviot Hills (days 64 and 65) so very special has continued since, and lends an indescribable atmosphere to the heather-clad hills and valleys. The heather is in full flower now, covering many of the fells and moorland heights in purple or pink, while even the slag heaps that scar areas of the more distant countryside between Edinburgh and Glasgow have been softened by fast colonising groups of rosebay willowherb, transforming the ugly man-made hills with their tall stems covered in gaudy pink flowers. There is so much of great beauty in the Scottish border country and Southern Uplands, that even without the Highlands and the lochs, Scotland would be an exceptionally beautiful country.
For me, like so many others, one of Scotland’s greatest jewels must be Edinburgh. It’s such a well-loved city that I almost expected to find all the anticipation too much, and to be disappointed. But to be disappointed at Edinburgh is almost impossible, especially if arriving during the Edinburgh Festival as I did. The city’s situation amid the spectacular volcanic remains of Salisbury Crags, the great volcanic plug of Arthur’s Seat and the various lesser steep hills dotted all over the city give it a magnificence of setting unrivaled by any other British city I know. It’s surpassed in many ways by Rio de Janeiro and Cape Town (the two cities with the best setting of any I know of in the world to date), but it has just the same luck to stand in the shadow of magnificent surrounding countryside. Edinburgh, just like those other two great cities, has an atmosphere that makes me feel excited just being there. Add the huge, overpowering crag on which Edinburgh Castle stands, so unexpected in the heart of the bustling city, and the brilliance of the street artists of the Fringe Festival (astonishing, hilarious or just plain weird) and Edinburgh adds up to one of the greatest city experiences of all my world travels.
I am now at Milngavie (pronounced “Miln-guy”) at the end of that other British/Roman wall, the Antonine Wall, whose many interesting traces have proved one of the most fascinating new discoveries of my walk. Unlike Hadrian’s Wall, whose great battlements greatly diminished but still spectacular managed to make days 61 and 62 so memorable, there are no stone ramparts left along the course of the Antonine Wall. The 12 foot (4 metres) high ‘Wall’ was built not of rock but of turf. There remains however in many places long stretches of impressive dyke, over 10 feet high, with a deep ditch and secondary dyke beside it, the whole being every bit as impressive as the much better known earthworks of Offa’s Dyke on the English/Welsh border. It can only be the unexciting surroundings that ensure the continued neglect of the Antonine Wall by tourists; the neighbourhoods of Glasgow, Falkirk and Linlithgow are largely industrial and commercial. But I am surprised to find the Glasgow-Edinburgh valley is in general far easier on the eye than I had feared before walking there.
Tomorrow the Scottish Highlands begin with the southern edge of Loch Lomond and the scenery for which Scotland is renowned will finally unfold. But I definitely intend to return to explore the largely forgotten lowlands of Southeast Scotland some time in the future
Tuesday 12th September: Day 97
John O’Groats, Caithness: Total distance walked: 1322.5 miles (with detours to village pubs, tops of mountains etc. 1337.5 miles)
The walk finally over, I got back home, despite the petrol crisis, yesterday evening (Friday 15th September).
About a week before I finally reached John O’Groats, I suddenly realized that my attitude towards the walk had completely changed at that late stage. It wasn’t only the realization that I’d almost finished the whole thing – I still feel oddly cool about it all and feel relieved about it all being over more than anything else – it was more a case of my having changed during the trip. So many hours of sometimes boring walking and long evenings largely alone in a B&B or youth hostel gave me more time than I’ve ever had before to reflect and think. I don’t know if (apart from being fitter) I’m any better for it, but it was certainly an unforgettable experience!
The final three weeks through northern Scotland were as varied and memorable as the Scottish borders and Edinburgh. My route north from the northern suburbs of Glasgow lay conveniently along the West Highland Way Long-Distance National Trail. Despite being one of the most popular of all Britain’s ‘official’ long distance paths, I found it something of a two-way-split. The first half of the 95 mile trail is pretty unspectacular and even irritating at times. I repeatedly got the impression that the landowner is ‘king’ here and in planning the trail the authorities were up against it in negotiating a route across so much private land. For much of the first 40 miles the route shadows or follows roads; there’s a nice stretch beside Loch Lomond, then it’s back to civilization with a bump, following (at a close distance) a major, noisy trunk road [highway], partly along a bulldozed track. Less sympathetic walkers might easily imagine the landowners have agreed to the creation of the path with a very poor grace: dogs are not allowed on many stretches of the path – not even if on a lead! Indeed, one stretch is closed to EVERYONE (humans included) for a month a year to give the sheep that graze the mountainside some peace while they’re lambing. I found myself feeling constantly thankful that I live in England; no doubt many of the less walker-friendly landowners here too would happily exercise such stern powers over public access, only our vast network of public rights of way (which hardly exist as such in Scotland) are our great guarantee.
The second half of the path is given no greater lee-way in where it may wander, but by then the Scottish Highlands have become so fantastically scenic and wild that it hardly matters: almost any route would be wonderfully beautiful, and this last 40 odd miles is truly inspirational, and one can easily forgive any disappointment felt earlier. The inspirational scenery continued on the Great Glen Way, a new long-distance route up beside Lochs Ness and Lochy, as yet not fully opened. This follows long lengths of cycle way and tracks but from the high level sections you can see forever, and on the clear, sunny days that peppered the cloudy, threatening ones, it was a joy to be walking. I now felt myself being drawn
to John O’Groats as if by a magnet, and the final week, largely up roads was remarkably up-beat and pleasant: with few tourists out now, the scenic coast road didn’t feel at all hard under the feet, and, spiced up with close sightings of seals, dolphins and even a sea otter (alas no Nessie) I made quick work of the final stage of my long walk, and reached journey’s end two days early.
Perhaps it was inevitable that the very last day of the walk would be difficult. It was 18 miles long, which was considerably shorter than the preceding days, but lay on mind-numbing roads, straight-as-a-die across the flat and desolate ‘Flow Country’, huge, featureless peat bogs that cover the far northeastern reaches of Scotland. It really seemed I’d never reach my final goal…! John O’Groats is nothing at all to get excited about, but my parents and brother were there to greet
me, and share a quiet celebratory pint in the hotel there. They were all so much help and support throughout the whole trip, and they saved me several times on hostel/B&B-less stretches during the final few days of the walk.
Now it’s all finally over, I feel strangely depleted, with little feeling of achievement; I think I felt more of the triumph of completion upon finishing the Pennine Way or upon crossing the Severn Bridge from England into Wales. It’s just too large a project, it’s almost impossible for me to see it all as one continuous walk; it does, however contain a great store of incidents, people and memorable moments that I’ll not forget for a long time. Now, it’s a case of sorting out the donations and getting them sent off, then preparing for my return to Taiwan in two weeks. As yet no further plans for any long distance walks…!
A more detailed map of the route is up here: route map
…and a rundown of the route and the final mileage are here: final milage
To satisfy the sponsors and ‘officially’ prove you’ve completed the whole route, end to enders usually have someone sign them in each night of the way on a sheet like this: daily stamps
…and if you do it all right (register both ends and get enough stamps) you eventually get a smart ‘certificate’ through the post: certificate !!
Yeh, it’s all a bit commercial, but there’s nothing tacky about the walk itself – I’ve already got plans to do more long walks (if time allows) in both Britain and Taiwan!
Planning your own hike
To plan a walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats, or along any of Britain’s network of waymarked Long Distance Paths, the first stop used to be the be the Ramblers Association. Unfortunately their former database of long-distance walks seems to have been thrown out (or made available only to members) when they redesigned the website. Instead, try the Long Distance Walkers Association, which has an amazingly complete list of long distance paths (official and unofficial) all over Britain.
Following long distance paths as much as possible is a good idea, because the footpaths are more likely to be in good condition (or simply accessible) than other rights of way, but in England and Wales the best place to find rights of way is through the Ordnance Survey, which prints a fantastic range of maps showing all public rights of way and most of the more important long distance routes. The Landranger series (1:50 000) is usually fine for hiking, although some of the 2-sided Pathfinder series (1:25 000) are better value for money, covering a similar area for a similar price, but at twice the scale.
When it comes to Scotland, there are some real problems, as rights of way aren’t highlighted, and many aren’t even marked on maps. A great resource is Scottish Hill Tracks (published by and available from the Scottish Rights of Way and Access Society), which details (in book form) all the rights of way in the country.