Start North, Walk South
Tom Baggott tells us about his slow adventure walking the length of the UK
Interview by Tor McIntosh; Photos by Tom Baggott and Owen Finney
Coming to the end of a day hike along the South West Coast Path, togged up in walking gear and carrying a daypack — clearly a serious walker among a sea of holidaymakers — I was stopped by two bearded chaps who told me about an epic walk they’d just completed. Intrigued by their story we exchanged details — in fact, I was given their last dog-eared and Rennie-encrusted business card — so that I could find out more about their ‘Start North, Walk South’ challenge.
First of all, can you tell us what your ‘Start North, Walk South’ challenge was?
Between May and August 2015 I walked, with a friend, from John O’Groats to Land’s End (JOGLE), which is starting pretty far north and walking pretty far south. However, the adapted route was actually around 1,700 miles in distance and included a number of the UK’s high points and classic long-distance trails, so it was longer — and tougher — than the traditional 1,200-mile JOGLE route.
And a very simple question: why did you decide to do it?
I suspected this question might come up, and it’s always a fun one to answer. I can think of plenty of quotes that are applicable to this, but I’m going to quote JFK for this one: “We choose to go… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win…” Basically I wanted a challenge. I knew I wanted to explore the UK more — having been guilty of travelling a lot around the world and seeing very little of my own country — and I knew I wanted it to be hard.
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”
President John F. Kennedy speaking at Rice University, 12 September 1962
What influenced the route that you decided to follow down the length of the UK?
I started climbing and hill walking about four years ago and quickly fell head over heels for it. Dreaming away many an hour sat at my desk at work I started thinking of challenges I would like to do. After completing the Three Peaks Challenge, and it not satisfying my appetite for UK adventure, I started to look into the long distance trails that the UK has to offer. Some of the things I really wanted to do were the Cape Wrath Trail and the Cambrian Way after hearing about the five-day Dragon’s Back ultra-running race. I looked at a map of long distance routes and essentially started connecting the dots whilst trying to hit as many of the UK’s hilly regions as possible. On our walk we covered parts of the North West Highlands; the West Highlands; the Lake District; the Dales; the Peak District; Snowdonia, including the popular end and the Rhinogs; and the Brecon Beacons.
But you didn’t do this challenge alone — who was brave enough to join you?
Originally I planned to do the walk solo and I was going to quit my job in order to go ahead with it — I thought I needed this attitude to ensure it actually happened. Luckily I was given unpaid leave from work and one of my school friends, Owen Finney, decided he could do with an escape too. We’ve been friends for over 10 years now, having met during our time at sixth form. It’s safe to say we are even closer friends now after our experience and I couldn’t have asked for a better companion on the walk. A sense of humour has to go near the top of the ‘must have’ list for a potential walking buddy, as well as being relaxed — it’s so important to remember in the darker moments that you are there out of choice and try to see the funny side. We managed to go the entire walk without one argument, and more than that we had a real blast the whole way down. Owen definitely had a knack of making light of even the hardest parts of the trip.
Prior to this challenge had you done any long-distance walking adventures before?
The simple answer is no. I’ve been a fitness fanatic for a long time and I did 40.5 miles of The Ridgeway overnight in one push with a colleague. I’ve also been on wild camping holidays in Scotland for four or so days, but only walking minimal mileage. So after Day One of our ‘Start North, Walk South’ challenge I was basically in new territory.
How did you mentally and physically prepare yourself for over three months of walking?
I started doing a large amount of walking beforehand by getting out every weekend for sustained trips. Owen and I also did a practice weekend in the Peak District; it was snowing so it certainly got us mentally prepared for the cold. However, for the three months prior to starting the walk I was working in the Middle East preparing financially for the trip. Doha inner city is not the nicest place to walk so my training sadly wasn’t what it should have been; I was regularly climbing though (my other passion) which kept me in pretty good general shape. We also went through a few “training weeks” at the start of the walk, where we were both getting fit on the trail.
Mentally I’m not sure I did a lot to prepare, although climbing is great mental training, as you are regularly placed out of your comfort zone. I also think high intensity training (HIT) has a good place in making you push yourself and develop some toughness. The final thing I did was read The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide by Andrew Skurka — one of the top (if not the top) long distance hikers in the world. I can highly recommend it if you want to learn a bit more about kit and trimming your pack weight down.
From your time on the road, what were the standout moments that will remain in your memory in years to come?
It’s funny looking back as so many of the days seem very distinctive, unique and incredible, but if I had to pick a few highlights they’d be:
- The Cape Wrath Trail will remain the jewel in our long distance walking crown. It was the first trail we hit and it felt so much wilder and remote than the rest of the UK (possibly because we were greener at this point too). It felt all consuming, as it was the longest time we spent on a single trail, and we had everything thrown at us: we were the least fit, faced the worst weather, and walked on some of the hardest terrain. It was a real initiation, but it gave us heaps of confidence that we were going to finish the whole walk. Not a bad thing to feel only four weeks into the trip.
- Having coffee and cake at Jenkin’s Crag, which is a small crag overlooking Windermere — we were basking in the morning sunshine after only about half an hour of walking. When you find those spots the schedule or plan can go to pot; you just have to stop and enjoy the moment.
- Smashing up the Pyg Track to the summit of Snowdon. We flew past everyone even though we were lumbered with heavy packs. Owen hit the summit in 1h12m and I did in 1h14m — this proved we truly had become hill fit.
- Wild camping near Tintagel on the South West Coast Path with an Italian friend, Mirko, we had met in Bath. We pitched our tents on a flat plateau surrounded by sea cliffs where we looked out over the Atlantic Ocean with a near full moon in the sky. Those are the campsites you dream about finding.
- Finally, reaching that iconic sign at Land’s End after all the months of hard work. We covered each other in cheap Cava and I certainly nearly shed a tear. It’s amazing how powerful the culmination of so much work and so many experiences can feel.
And on the flip side, what do you never want to see/hear/experience again after doing this trip?
Probably the easiest question so far: I’d happily never see a midge or a tick again. And after a rather indulgent night on the West Highland Way I wouldn’t mind avoiding tequila for quite a while.
From pictures we can see your beard became bushier and your body became leaner — were you aware of how much you physically transformed during the challenge? And did you experience any mental transformations too?
Definitely. Although I have to say our changes in appearance didn’t truly reveal the extent of our physical changes throughout the trip. We took a fairly relaxed view on distances — as long as we were pushing ourselves hard, but not to breaking point, that was good with us. At the start of the trip we were on the go for only 7 hours a day and hitting 15–20 miles per day, and resting every 3–4 days. By the end we were on the go for 10–12 hours a day, resting on every seventh day and pushing out 25+ miles on a daily basis. Our engines certainly felt pretty strong by the end.
I think mentally you can’t help but change. Rarely are we put into uncomfortable situations in our day-to-day lives and very often we forget how to deal with tricky situations. However, nature will throw everything and the kitchen sink at you. But when it does, over and over again, you learn that as long as you keep a cool head everything will work out in the end. It certainly makes you relax a lot. Also, something I thought about a lot while walking was how refreshing it is to temporarily head back down to the bottom level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. When you go back to only worrying about your physiological needs it seems like a veritable utopia coming back to your house and bed every evening. So yes, I certainly feel like I am carrying some good vibes with me from the trip.
On a practical level, how did you make the challenge affordable to do, especially when it came to sleeping and eating for over three months — did you wild camp/cook every night, or did you occasionally allow yourself to be pampered?
It wasn’t actually a conversation Owen and I openly had at any point. We were both fortunate to have come from fairly well paid professional jobs before the walk and had decent savings. We did seem to both have an internal non-spending mechanism though, as neither of us are in the habit of throwing money away. At times when we had wild camped a lot we would often treat ourselves to more meals or lunches out. On the flip side when we stayed in places — normally because of the weather and the need to dry off — we often cooked our own meals and tried to eat cheaply. Overall it worked out well, and it’s amazing how cheap life can be when you carry your home on your back and only need to fuel your legs for the day. However, I will admit that the occasional pampering has morale value that is invaluable so it needs to be done. After all, the point of the trip was to enjoy it and not make it a ‘sufferfest’. We even stayed in a spa hotel the night we finished.
Often on long distance journeys there’s not a lot of time to explore one place as you’re always moving on to the next pin on your map — is there anywhere that you wish you could’ve stayed longer?
We actually took a four-day sojourn over to the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides to allow Owen’s rather serious blisters to heal (warning: this photo is not for the faint-hearted). It was the only place that we stayed put for a period of time, but we didn’t end up exploring much as we were there to rest. However, I’d love to get back and see more of the island, as I’ve heard amazing things about Luskentyre Sands. More generally I’d love to explore the north coast of Scotland too — it blew me away.
The British weather in spring/summer can be, well, unreliable to say the least — were the Weather Gods on your side during your 3+ months outside?
I think they were for most of the trip. We had abysmal weather in Scotland on the Cape Wrath Trail, which basically meant putting wet socks and clothing on most mornings for a month solid. It was a real trial by fire, but probably what we needed as it got us in the right frame of mind for the rest of the trip. However, after Cape Wrath I can only recall one or two sustained periods of really bad weather and the rest of the time we had glorious conditions. Both of us had pretty rocking t-shirt tans by the end of the walk!
What do you miss from your time walking the length of Britain?
I miss how simple it was; simple mind, not easy. Only one goal for the day: put some more miles behind you. If I’m being honest I miss most things from walking, but there are upsides to being back too, such as seeing friends and family and getting back to climbing. So yes, I miss a lot from those days.
Now that you’re back in the land of normality have you been inspired to do any more epic challenges?
I’ve got something that I’ve been thinking about for a while. Not being an incredible climber or walker, but being OK at both, I’ve been thinking about doing some challenges that link the two together. So one of my plans for the end of next summer is to do the Welsh 3000s over a weekend, but climb to as many of the summits as is practical rather than walking. I’m also working towards getting my Mountain Leader and Single Pitch Award qualifications, which is keeping me busy for the moment.
And finally, as an experienced long-distance walker now (you’ve certainly earned your badge), what do you wish you’d been told before you started your challenge?
For your first long distance challenge I’d say what a lot of people say: just get on and do it. If you’re not worried about being an earth-shattering speedy hiker then what is there to worry about? Is it the worst thing to get fit on the trail, to have a loose itinerary, to start with a heavy pack and lighten it through experience? I’d say absolutely not; in fact, it makes it such a great learning experience.
I would also say don’t over plan. If you have a strict itinerary and you’ve booked accommodation the whole way it doesn’t give you a lot of contingency. At the end of the day reading about long distance walking will never completely prepare you for it. If you find the weather turns very nasty, just sit it out. If you’ve over planned and booked everything then this would throw everything out. Personally I prefer to remain flexible with the planning and logistics; at the end of the day you’ll always be able to find a quiet corner in which to sling your tent.
But my main advice is: keep a cool head, accept people’s generosity and have a great time
To find out more about Tom and Owen’s slow adventure and to see more photos from their trip, visit their Facebook page: Start North, Walk South.
The chaps completed this challenge to raise money for WaterAid, therefore if you’d like to help them reach their £3000 target then you can donate via their Just Giving page.