Walking from John O’Groats to Land’s End: an introduction

Some of you may already know this about me, but for those of you who don’t, here’s my most unlikely and unexpected accomplishment: in the summer of 2006, I walked from John O’Groats to Land’s End. To answer your questions: yes, it is a long way; yes, it did take a while; no, I didn’t actually get too many blisters; and, to raise money for the Brain Research Trust.

Well, the last one needs a bit of unpacking.

Back in 1998, my brother Simon was diagnosed with a brain tumour and had an operation to remove it, and that operation, along with others over the following years and various sets of radiotherapy and chemotherapy appeared to have finally killed it off a few years later. But tumours are funny things, and even when you get the all-clear for one, it doesn’t mean another one can’t just come along after it and do exactly the same as the previous one, and that this your time your body will have built up so much resistance to the various treatments that there’s nothing they can do to fight it off. One thing you learn about brain tumours is that the distinction between benign and malignant tumours isn’t as important when it’s growing in someone’s brain. Sure, a benign tumour’s not going to be actively spreading itself through the rest of your body, but why bother doing that when you’re sitting in the control centre for the whole thing?

It’s hard to accept the prospect of mortality in a member of your family, especially from something so arbitrary as a tumour, especially when that tumour is something they’ve already recovered from more than once. The tumour affected him from the obvious physical symptom of an occasionally shaven head revealing the long thick scar down one side through to the symptoms it, or the efforts to remove it, would sometimes cause, be it pausing for thought to try and find the right word (an added complication to which was that was bilingual, slipping between English and French with ease) those moments when he’d seemingly just withdraw totally into himself like his brain was rebooting itself to try and get round a route that was now blocked or just completely absent. But my thought always was that despite the effects of the tumour, the treatment and everything else, he might be different, but he’d always be there.

Simon died on October 11th, 2005.

Sometime after that — I never recorded the date of it, probably because I didn’t realise the significance of it at the time, I decided (and perhaps more foolishly, publicly stated) that I was going to walk from John O’Groats to Land’s End to raise money for charity in his name. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re trying to process grief, isn’t it? Declare you’re going to make a big, ridiculous gesture that somehow relates to the person who’s gone, and that will magically make everything all right.

And it did seem kind of fitting because Simon had been the fittest of us which was why the whole getting ill thing seemed like the universe’s sick joke. He was the one who ran marathons, who got to travel the world engaging with supremely fit people in his job as a producer for Eurosport, he was the one with the healthy lifestyle while me and my other brother gradually succumbed to the gradual weight gain and swelling bellies that we seemed doomed to. I you were going to choose which brother would get a serious medical condition, and which two would get to sail on regardless, well, you wouldn’t have picked the one fate did.

When a family member dies like that, it’s often the sort of thing that motivates people to go and do something in their memory, usually with a charitable aim attached. Some sort of sponsored event, a marathon or even something that might take a week or two accomplish. What they don’t usually do is declare they’re going to do something that’ll take them a couple of months to do, involve a huge amount of thinking about how they’re actually going to accomplish it, and do all that without some sort of organised charity backup. I decided that I could pretty much do it on my own, without anyone else around to carry bags, book accommodation, provide emergency assistance or anything else. After all, I figured from some searching on the internet, plenty of people have done it, so how hard could it actually be?

Grief is a funny thing, affecting us all in different ways. For me, doing that walk was something that would somehow make meaning out of Simon’s death. As well as reading up about practical information I’d need to know — you’d be amazed at just how many different ways you can go between the two points, and how many people swear their way is the only good way — I found myself reading information about pilgrimages and why people take them on. That urge to find some sort of explanation through walking isn’t a new thing, and the message that comes home from all those accounts is that it’s not the destination in itself that’s important but the act of getting there, committing yourself to taking on a long journey, powered entirely by yourself. Walking has a different effect on the mind and body than other forms of transport too. For most of the time, and for most of us, it doesn’t require too much attention or focus to do, all you need to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other, and let your body do what comes naturally. If you’re running or cycling a long distance you’re focused a lot on the mechanics of what you’re doing — what pace am I going at? what gear am I in? What might break down next? — but when you’re walking, you can just let things happen, let yourself keep moving with the consequence that you have to be able to spend a lot of time in your own head.

The first decision I made — and this again, was more of a gut judgement rather than something carefully worked out — was that I was going to be starting in the north and walking south. Most people do it the other way around — starting in Land’s End, and then heading north to John O’Groats — for a number of solid and practical reasons. First of all, the prevailing weather in this country comes from the south and west, so doing it in that direction means you’re more likely to have the wind at your heels throughout the journey, rather than blowing in your face. Second, two of the major walking routes you encounter on the way — the Pennine Way and the West Highland Way, and more on them later — are generally walked south to north, and have support services set up to accommodate that. And, perhaps most importantly, Land’s End is a lot easier to reach than John O’Groats. Just getting to the far north of Scotland is an adventure itself, whereas the bottom end of Cornwall is a train to Penzance then a bus journey away.

The one issue that was key in my decision about which route to go was when I was starting. Circumstances (and the need to do something that resembled training beforehand) meant I’d be starting the walk in July and walking through the summer. While this would generally mean dry weather, it would also mean hot weather, especially in the south and so going the other way round meant I’d hopefully find myself in a situation where the weather would remain pretty constant. That southern England ended up going through a heatwave in July and August of 2006 wasn’t something I’d anticipated, but it definitely played out in favour of my decision. Going through some of the early struggles I had would have been a lot harder if I’d been roasting in the sun throughout them as well.

And so, I started in Scotland in late July, and in my next three posts I’ll tell you all about the long journey from there to Cornwall, and what I found on the way. There’ll be a few pictures on the way, but they’re ones I took on the way, with either a disposable camera or the camera on my very low-range, well-priced 2006 phone, so apologies in advance for the blurring.

Anyway, here are the posts:

Part 1: Scotland
Part 2: Northern England
Part 3: Southern England

Spoiler: I finished.

Written by

Many, many things. PhD student at QMUL. Councillor. Ran the 2019 London Marathon for Brain Research UK. @nickjbarlow on Twitter.

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