End — to — End, Walking across the UK Part: 1
It was in 2016 that hiking became a big part of my life.
I was working as the manager of a shop and I felt the need for change. It wasn’t that I hated the job. I just knew I wanted something different for myself. I was thinking about what this change might be when someone walked into the shop with a pamphlet about a local hike, a 150-mile pilgrim trail through North Wales. It looked beautiful and seemed like a great idea.
I knew intuitively that I wanted to go alone and that I would have to learn a few things before getting on my way.
This dream, however, didn’t last long. I had a plan. I was going to quit my job, do this trail and then return to university to do an MA in Fine Art. It was a good plan. But for various reasons I decided I would leave work earlier than I had intended. I’m good at knowing what I can and cannot handle in my environment and the job was leaning too heavily towards the negative. Making yourself unhappy is easy. Clawing your way back to equilibrium can be a little harder in my experience. I didn’t want to get into that position so the job had to go.
This meant I had rather more time before my course would start and my 150 mile pilgrim trail would simply not be a long enough journey to fill the time. I needed to find something longer. And by longer obviously I mean LONGEST.
It’s an odd that the smallest events can have such large impacts on our lives. For me it was a pamphlet.
A week later I had decided that I was going to do a long walk. What was the longest trail in England? Internet searches led me to the End-To-End: Land’s End at the southern tip of Cornwall to John O’Groats at the top of Scotland. There is no agreed single route or specific trail to follow. You make it up on your own, which appealed to me. As long as you walk the whole way it’s an end-to-end of the UK. I started buying maps and guide books about various routes.
I was hooked.
I taught myself how to read a map (kinda… Who knew those weird lines were called contour lines? That they had an actual function and weren’t there for aesthetic purposes).
I researched the gear I would need and how long it would take me.
My time became a mix of getting fit enough for the journey and reading books and blog posts and watching films about hiking.
I had never slept alone in a tent.
I had never gone on a long distance hike by myself…
The only long distance hike I’d been on was a somewhat unsuccessful 40 mile walk with my sister (we got lost… it was no one’s fault…).
I did go walking a lot.
I’d always liked to be outside.
I’ve always felt calmer when alone on a mountain than anywhere else.
For me, silence brings clarity. Being with people drains my energy and I have always needed time to re-fuel, as it where, in solitude.
I thought three months ought to about do the trick.
I didn’t really care if I made it all the way or not. It wasn’t about goals and outcomes, but the experience. I would set off from Land’s End and walk as far as I could, as far as I felt I needed to walk. After all, what was the worst thing that could happen?
I set of on April 19th 2017. I had to start relatively early in the year as I was due to start university in September.
“Don’t be scared to walk alone. Don’t be scared to like it”
John Mayer, Age of Worry
The day’s journal entry is a quote from a song I had been listening to on the train journey to Penzance. I also wrote about how surreal everything felt. I had been planning this trip for so long that I don’t think it ever occurred to me that the day would come when I would actually begin. Everything felt so far away.
I got a bus the next morning to take me to Land’s End. The earliest one available meant that I was travelling there with the staff of the visitor centre. I sat in front of two young women talking about how terrible it was that their mothers criticised their choice to start smoking and how unfair it was that they wouldn’t buy them cigarettes. It made me chuckle to myself. There are times when you feel that you are embarked on something so momentous that you expect everyone to know how important and life changing it is. At such times you feel that others should be conversing about more significant topics. Had these people not heard the news? I was setting out today!
Arriving at Land’s End, I was hit by a wave of disappointment.
The pictures are of a remote tea-house on a hill and this… This was a tourist trap complete with Ferris wheel and a haunted house. I wanted to get out of there quickly and headed towards the beginning of the trail. I walked for about 5 minutes before I found the little tea-house I’d seen in the pictures and stopped for a cup of tea and to get my water filled up. I met three others there who were all walkers and had congregated to escape the initial shock of tourist t-shirts and key-rings. Two of them were also starting an End-To-End. Seasoned hikers who were planning on doing the walk in sections over the next 7 years, they had busy jobs and could only afford limited amounts of time each year.
The other walker was there for a 2 day hike and was waiting for a friend to arrive. He’d come from India and planned on travelling the world. When I asked him where was next he just smiled and said he didn’t know just yet.
The couple doing the end-to-end asked me what route I was planning on. The two most popular choices are to follow the coast or head through a more central trail across land. I didn’t like the look of the second route as it led to Birmingham where I was unlikely to find wild camping spots and I couldn’t afford to get hotels every night for a long stretch. I was also keen to do some on the Offa’s Dyke Path, which meets up with the coastal route. I said I was heading along the coast and they smiled and congratulated me on my bravery.
“Hard walking right from the start. Nice one!”
At this point I felt all I could do was shrug and pretend that I was of course fully prepared for this steep and apparently treacherous route.
So I started my trek, following the signs for the South-west Coast Path. It seemed that I had little need of my new and moderately improved map reading skills. There were waymarks everywhere and the ocean to follow along.
My brain immediately began turning in my head once I got the path.
“What have I done?”
“WHY AM I HERE!”
I’d spent a large amount of my savings on hiking gear and I couldn’t come up with any reason as to why!
I felt that I had done something incomprehensibly stupid and what made matters worse was that I’d told everyone I was going to do this.
I would walk for a week and then go home.
No one would say that I hadn’t tried.
Just walk for a week.
I walked to Zennor on my first day and set up camp on a small patch of flat ground. My tent opened onto view the ocean and I sat up late, watching the waves.
I found sleeping hard.
Every movement outside my tent, every rustle of leaves and grass was an invader.
My imagination created beasts and bad people with pitch forks who’d come to remove me from my camping spot.
I turned on my headphones and fell asleep with the music blaring, blocking out sounds from outside my shelter. Finally, I was able to get some rest.
Day 7: Treyarnon
A week later, I still hadn’t come up with a good reason as to why I was doing this. But I decided that I would give it another week before heading home. Just to make sure. I had come this far after all.
I was doing a steady amount of miles every day, which I was happy with. I didn’t want to push myself too much or risk injuring myself. I spent that night in a charming YHA hostel. The staff were brilliant and I spent the evening talking to them about my trip and poring over maps as we chatted about the area. One of the women was training for a 50-mile trail along the Jurassic Way. I would have stayed up and talked to them for longer but I was exhausted and I wanted to be in a real bed for as long as was possible.
The weather had been hot and beautiful. It felt like it matched the landscape. The walk along the South West Coast Path was incredible. Every turn gave a new view of cliffs hanging over the sea. The going could be tough but it was worth the constant ups and downs (I mean that in a completely literal manner of course). The terrain was steep and often I found myself walking extremely close to the cliff-edge where the path was somewhat narrower than felt comfortable. This was exacerbated by carrying have a heavy pack strapped to your back that alters your balance. And the path felt insanely precipitous when edging along to let another walker pass. But I was enjoying the scenery. And I was enjoying the walking.
By day 10 of my walk I had done 100 miles.
I wasn’t sure how to measure this as an accomplishment. On the one hand it didn’t really mean anything. No one would care about what I had done. It wasn’t a qualification I would bring up in an interview. No one would hand me a certificate. But it did mean something.
I had walked 100 miles on my own. No one carried my pack. No one helped me set up my tent every night or told me which way I should go. I did this. And that meant a great deal to me. I had always felt like I needed help. But I had shown myself that I could live on my own. That I could survive alone.
That was more important than anything anyone else could give me.
And there was no way I was going to quit.
The walk continued along the coast.
It was stunning. The weather was brutally hot but I didn’t mind. The sea seemed to go on forever. I woke up, walked, went to sleep and repeated this the next day. It was simple and beautiful.
I reached a small town at around 3pm on day 12 and decided that another shower was in order. I couldn’t quite get used to not showering. I felt sticky constantly and wanted to be clean at least once a week. I was walking through the town when I passed by a house. A couple was outside having a barbecue and they asked me what I was doing. The man offered to give me a lift to the campsite, saying that the road I was walking along got busy and wasn’t the safest for walking. The woman said I should just camp in their garden, which I ended up doing. They let me use their washer and I had a shower and felt shiny in clean clothes.
It was an interesting night. We sat in the garden drinking and talking. They fed me, liquored me up and then took me to the local pub. I felt rather like I was being shown off as they told each of their friends about what I was doing and that I was staying in their garden. Emphasis on ‘their’.
It was a relatively bizarre experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been that popular in my life. People bought me so many drinks that I could barely walk back to my tent. But somehow the three of us managed to stagger back, clinging onto each other for support. This turned out to be a mistake when I woke to walk in the morning.
I left them a note, as they weren’t going to be getting up anytime soon, thanking them for letting me stay and for a great evening. I threw up on the trail about one mile on and decided that I would hold off the binge drinking for the rest of the walk. I felt tired and sick and walked only 5 miles that day. This is not to say that I regretted meeting them. But maybe I regretted that last pint.
As I wondered along the trail I thought about what I would be doing if that woman had never come into the store with a pamphlet about a hike?
It’s an odd thought.
114 miles down.
1,163 miles to go.