John O’Groats to Land’s End, part 3: Southern England
When I was younger, there used to be a big advert up in the middle of the Kingfisher Shopping Centre proclaiming that Redditch was ‘at the hub of England’. By the time I reached the town, the advert (and the part of the shopping centre it used to be in) had long gone, and having spent so long walking through first Scotland, then the north of England, I was sure that it couldn’t really be as central as that old slogan had made it sound. In fact, it did turn out to be almost halfway between that point where I crossed the border and Land’s End. Just like the way no one quite realises quite how big Scotland is, so you don’t also realise just how big the South West is either.
I headed out of Redditch on roads that were familiar, but from driving on them rather than walking on them. I was used to the idea that Alcester, for instance, was somewhere not too far from Redditch, reachable in a relatively short drive, not somewhere it would take a couple of hours to get to. The same went for all those points beyond on that first day of walking south — Evesham and Broadway were no longer short trips, but a full day’s walking. By now, though, I’d got used to the slower pace of walking life, slowly moving down the big map, watching the miles tick down one by one rather than in dozens at a time, glimpsed only from a sign blurring past the window of the car.
The other good news of the journey to the south was that the weather was still generally holding for me, even as it turned from summer into autumn. It was cooler, and the sun a little less bright as more clouds filled the sky, but most importantly for me, it remained mostly dry for the next few weeks, and when I look back at it now, it’s actually quite remarkable just how little rain and poor weather I had to deal with across the whole length of the walk. Sure, there were bad days — and more of them to come — but even those weren’t completely bad throughout, usually giving me a chance to dry out as I carried on, and the worst day of walking had been the sweat-soaked overheated day through Fort Augustus, rather than any of the wet ones.
Although I was heading south-west, heading south out of Redditch was deliberate in order to allow me to find the Cotswold Way as soon as possible, rather than lumbering towards Bristol in parallel with it. At the time I walked it, it was still a relatively new National Trail — and one source I’m checking now tells me it didn’t actually make it to that official status until after I’d walked it — and it was a curious part of the walk. The walking itself was great — the route was well-marked, the scenery was interesting and it wasn’t too taxing, but a lot of the places you passed through didn’t seem to have yet grasped the concept of people coming walking through them, looking for food and places to sleep. This wasn’t a hospitable northerners vs rude southerners issue, as it seemed more limited to Gloucestershire than anywhere else I passed through in the south, but there was a feeling I got in places that there were people who still weren’t quite used to the idea of this tourism thing. Or maybe, given the sort of people who we normally associate with Cotswold breaks, they just weren’t used to the idea of tourists who weren’t driving Range Rovers, wearing Barbour and Burberry and mainly interested in buying the perfect objet d’art to complete their rustic kitchen at home.
As an example, and some details spared to avoid causing problems for places that are likely under new ownership by now, I was looking for a place to stay, asked at a B&B/Hotel and was told by the guy at reception that they didn’t have any places, but there was somewhere else in town that he knew and he’d call them for me. So he did, and they had a room, and he gave me directions there…and then asked me for 10p to pay for the cost of the call he’d just made. I laughed, thinking it was a joke, but he was deadly serious and seemed quite offended I hadn’t already given it to him. Not wanting a scene, I gave it to him, but it was just one part of a general sense of weirdness I had throughout that part of the walk, like I was repeatedly stumbling into some secret world that didn’t want to be disturbed or intruded upon.
For reasons that clearly made sense at the time, but I can’t recall why now, although the Cotswold Way ended in Bath, I’d booked myself two nights in the youth hostel at Bristol, which meant doing some shuttling back and forth over that weekend as I headed down towards Somerset. After just a week in the countryside, it was still weird to be back in a city, and staying in a hostel that wasn’t geared towards walkers but rather the cheap city-break crowd. And although I didn’t plan it that way, it would be the last hostel I stayed in on the walk — from then on, it would be just B&Bs for me as I turned towards the south west and fully into the wind. It would have been nice for my last hostel to have been like the small ones I’d stayed in on the way down, especially the ones in Scotland or the converted country houses of the Pennines, but perhaps fitting that my final contact with the YHA would be somewhere whose design was urban glass and concrete, marking the gradual decline of the rural hostel and its replacement by cheap places to sleep in cities.
This isn’t to complain — city hostels do a fantastic job in facilitating cheap travel for young people all over the world, and I used a few when I was younger and less fussy about sharing a room with a dozen other people — but rather to mark the way things have changed and the countryside is now more than just a place where you’re expected to go and rough it if you want to go and experience it. It’s part of the process I talked about back on the Pennine Way, where the walker has slowly replaced the hiker as the focus of activity, and comfort is no longer a dirty word. Or maybe that dirt is no longer a comfortable word, with people wanting places where they’re not confronted with the detritus of everyone else’s outdoor activities as well as their own.
Away from the city, it was time to make my way into Somerset, first by completing the walk from Bath to Wells that disappointingly didn’t end with a greeting from a baby-eating bishop and then on past Glastonbury the next day, which answered my question of ‘just how many shops selling crystals and other nonsense can you cram into one small town?’ with ‘more than you’d imagine possible’. My route didn’t take me over the Tor, so it meant that although I’d heard the term ‘Somerset Levels’ before, I had no idea just how flat my next day’s walking would be as I didn’t get a view of them beforehand.
After the various ups and downs of the nearly two months of walking I’d had at this point, a day that was almost completely flat should have been a relief, and physically it was a very easy day, following mainly arrow-straight roads and paths across a completely level landscape. It’s just that a level landscape like that stretches out all around you with little to see and focus the eye on, and despite knowing I was near to towns, roads and all sorts of other things there was a sensation of being quite alone out there under a very big sky, tramping on towards a target that was an indeterminate number of miles away. Then again, that isolation could just have been the result of having been walking for so long that I’d retreated entirely into myself when I was moving.
Right back from the start, I’d discovered that doing a walk of this length wasn’t so much a physical challenge as it was a mental one. Once I’d got a rucksack I could comfortably carry and walk with most days, and as I was avoiding any steep or rough routes, the main challenge was making myself get going each day, and then keep going until the end of that day and that was generally more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The test is to keep your mind occupied and not think about those minor twinges and niggles you get when you walk a long distance — and, as I was discovering, would persist and multiply or wane from day to day, adding an interesting randomness to the start of each day’s travelling — which I was an expert at by now, though I do wonder now, looking back, just how much that weird travelling hermit-like nature of a long walk like that did leave my thought processes far away from the norm. It was the same as doing a pilgrimage, only a secular one, and with no prospect of a religious experience at the end, just running out of places to walk to.
The route I took through Somerset and Devon was very rural, following back roads and by ways away from the major roads as much as I could manage and so frequently leaving me in the middle of nowhere hoping for serendipitous discoveries of places for food and drink along the way. Most days it worked, even if it was just through finding a village big enough to have its own Co-op branch, and occasionally lucking into discovering somewhere with a pub serving decent food along with a nice place to take a seat and have a break. Some days it didn’t work, and I’d end up spending a lunch break, crouched under somewhere for a little bit of shelter while I rooted through my bag in search of whatever food I’d picked up the last time I was at a shop ‘just in case’. These were probably also the days I looked least like ‘man boldly taking on a challenge for charity’ and most like ‘wild-eyed madman descending from the hills having seen things that no mortal man should have had to reckon with’. There are points where I have to feel pretty grateful for all the places that gave me accommodation when looking like that.
In those last couple of weeks, it became obvious that summer had finally gone away and autumn was here, as not only was I getting rained on a lot more (including one spectacular drenching on the way out of Okehampton on my final Sunday), it was greyer and cooler most days, the nights were starting earlier and the winds were picking up. I’d got used to having lighter evenings for most of the walk, which meant that I’d normally have time to find a place to stay, get changed, showered etc and then still have light to head out and find somewhere to eat. Now I was finding myself in unfamiliar towns generally after dark, and things were starting to blur into each other much more as similar collections of well-lit shop fronts on similar looking streets, finding chain pubs serving similar looking and tasting food whichever place I happened to be in.
One place that has stuck in my mind from that section of the walk is the small town of Crediton in Devon. I knew nothing about it before I got there, only that it was a decent-sized blob on the map a decent day’s walking from Tiverton, so made for a good destination that Thursday. It was one of those places where I got lucky with accommodation, arriving early enough to get to the tourist information centre and them finding me a decent B&B just on the edge of centre, with friendly owners, a decent cup of tea as a greeting on arrival and a choice for breakfast that was a little bit more than just ‘English or continental?’ I’d only booked for a night, but they were very good when I decided after about half an hour of being there that I needed a day off from walking and were perfectly happy to extend it for another. Outside of there, the town itself was a very nice, traditional rural market town with a long High Street and very large and rather old parish church — after weeks of mostly seeing occasional small country chapels, it felt huge — and a generally welcoming atmosphere and feel. Perhaps it was just being grateful at having found somewhere relaxing to have that one last rest day before the final push, but the town’s general air of being nice, but not too twee or cloying, just friendly, made it a good place for that final stop before the last push.
September was ending and October starting as that final week began, and there was an ominous moment as I walked into Okehampton on a Saturday afternoon, when the grey clouds that had characterised the day parted somewhat, only to reveal a darker part behind them, like someone had opened a hole in the sky above me. It was five years too early for it to bring up any thoughts of Avengers movies and aliens pouring out of it, but it was enough of an oddity that I tried to take a photo to capture it, and now you too can look at the different patterns of blurs and be spooked out by just how poor the resolution was on phone cameras in 2006.
Writing this has reminded me how much some things have changed since I did the walk, and not just in what’s available to watch when you want to see a superhero movie. My phone had a camera on it, and I found a rudimentary way to send emails from it (at a cost for each one, I think) that allowed me to put photos onto Flickr, but apart from that I didn’t have any internet connection, so I couldn’t just hop onto a site and book my accommodation at the start of the day. Instead, I was generally rushing to try and get to places before the tourist information office closed, where they’d normally be able to find me somewhere. I had no Google Maps to track my route, no GPS on the phone to be sure of my location or track how many miles I’d done, no Twitter or Facebook to keep people up to date with on my progress. Sure, I had my blog to tell people what I was doing and where I was going, but updating that was limited to where I could find an internet cafe, a public library that allowed anyone to use their computers, or a hostel with a computer for residents to use. If I was doing the walk again now, then some things would likely be so much easier than they were back then, but the entire experience would likely be very different to the one I had. Even though I was still in Britain, and never too far from roads and towns, I was off on my own for most of it, without easy distractions to get in my head, and I don’t think a walk where I’d been tweeting my progress would have been as mentally rewarding as the self-imposed isolation of this one would have been. There’s also a good chance that if I’d had some kind of GPS tracker on me, telling me just how slowly I was going that first day and giving me figures to extrapolate out to the whole journey, I might well have quit the whole thing that first night and decided it was impossible.
Nine or so weeks after that decision to carry on, I was heading into Cornwall on the Sunday of that final week, having survived a drenching on the way out of Okehampton, nature deciding that even if I was only going to walk around the edge of Dartmoor, I could still have a good sampling of the sort of weather I’d get out on the moor. I crossed the last bit of Devon following what I’d thought would be a back road, but turned out to be what looked like the old main road until they built the A30 somewhere to the north of it. It made it a relatively simple day’s walking, but was rather reminiscent of being back at the start in Scotland, trudging down the side of a road while cars whizzed past in both directions. Towards the end of the day, I crossed the Tamar, headed into Launceston and now only had one county left to traverse before I finished.
In the same way that Scotland is much taller than you think, so Cornwall’s longer than you imagine, and it also offers you a whole range of different routes you can take from the Devon border down to Land’s End. Back when I’d been planning the walk, I’d had an idea that it might be nice to finish it by doing a section of the South West Coast Path, following either the north or south coast of Cornwall all the way to the end. It’s one of those good ideas that doesn’t survive contact with an actual map, which reveals just how fractal the coast of Cornwall is, and how what looks like a short few days of coastal walking from on high is actually likely to turn into weeks of twisty paths following the route of various bays, coves and cliffs, with plenty of rises and falls, all the while walking great distances on the ground but very little on paper. There’s a reason the coast path is Britain’s longest national trail — and by a considerable distance — and it’s because following the coast of Cornwall is way more complicated an endeavour than I was capable of considering doing after having been walking for two months.
So instead I followed a vaguely southern route through my final county, keeping the same method I’d had before of following paths where I could, by-roads and back ways where I couldn’t, and occasionally having no option but to follow the major roads. The timing of the walk had worked out pretty well for me, as Cornwall in October was still markedly warmer than most other places in the UK would be, and definitely more hospitable than the far north of Scotland would have been for that final week. Even the fact that I was walking into the headwind more fully than I had for most of the journey — especially once I’d skirted the edge of Bodmin Moor on my way from Launceston to Liskeard and there was no more properly high ground to protect me from it — wasn’t a significant hindrance, except for one afternoon, of which more in a little bit.
The overall sensation I had of Cornwall was a place beginning to close itself down for the winter. It’s clearly a place geared towards the summer, and as that fades, children go back to school and holidays become a thing you think about as happening next year, so everything in Cornwall enters a ticking-over mode, just keeping itself ready enough for those hardened souls who still pass through whether they’re walking somewhere, surfing, or just confused about the possibilities of the English climate. For me, the week passed easily, possibly fuelled by the adrenaline rush of knowing I was close to the end. There were no problems finding places to stay, no getting lost on the roads, and no real problems with the weather, just steady progress, though tinged with a sense of a kind of sadness that the walk was coming to an end, and feeling like I’d soon be losing the sense of purpose that had driven me for the past two months.
Oddly, I’ve had that same sense of lack of purpose as I’ve come towards the end of this writing project. The earlier sections came flowing quickly out of me, this one has been a long struggle. Part of that’s because that final section of the walk wasn’t as externally interesting as the others, but it’s also because when I’m done with this I have to decide what to go and write next. After two months of walking like that (though it hasn’t taken me as long to write this), my life had become a routine of get up, eat breakfast, pack rucksack, get walking, find place to stay, eat, sleep, repeat, and once you’ve got into doing that and got your mind into a space where you can do that repeatedly, life is very easy, with the only choice being what route you’re going to take that day. But once that end comes into view and you’re passing through your final county (even if the road signs don’t give miles to Land’s End) then the rest of the world starts coming into focus as well, everything you left behind to do this nudges back in to remind you that its still there and all its problems are unresolved.
Luckily, even though this had resembled a pilgrimage at times, and given me some kind of understanding of what it is to go through one, I hadn’t come on the walk to answer any questions about myself or my life, save one: could I do this? The answer to that was becoming an increasingly obvious ‘yes’, so maybe what was important for me was finding another question that I needed to answer, which probably didn’t come along for a few years in the form of ‘could I finish a Masters’ (answer again ‘yes’, question now upgraded to PhD).
And so that final week took me down through Cornwall, first Launceston to Liskeard, then St Austell, Truro, Camborne until all that remained was getting into Penzance, and then a final half day of walking to get from there to Land’s End. Sounded easy, and generally was until I finally discovered just what a south-westerly wind meant on that last stretch from Marazion along by St Michael’s Mount. It looked an easy stretch of the coastal path — relatively flat, nice views — but the wind that had been picking up all morning chose that afternoon to blow hard along the south coast, which made the walk along there a lot tougher than I’d expected. It was a reminder that a tall man walking with a rucksack on is a great windbreak, and that I was tired from all the miles I’d covered over the last couple of months. What I was hoping would be an easy walk into my final night of the walk turned into a long hard slog where every step was an effort until I finally staggered into Penzance.
Then it was time for the final iteration of my morning routine, strapping on the rucksack for one last time and walking to Land’s End through the back roads of the toe of Cornwall to Land’s End. It was a lot easier than the first day of walking, all that time ago back in John O’Groats, but it was kind of fitting that Land’s End itself, when I reached it was just as disappointing as John O’Groats had been. A dispiriting theme park with few visitors on a grey day, but in this case it did mark an actual point of geographic interest, the westernmost point of the UK mainland was there for me to stand on and be photographed in front of a signpost just like the one I had been in John O’Groats. And there I was done, and all that was left to do was to look out at the sea for a while, then climb in my friend’s car and begin the journey home which was a hell of a lot quicker than the way I’d got there.