Tales from End to End
The Route Designer’s Tale
End to End: a Walk of Myth and Legend
by Andrew McCloy
The End to End phenomenon throws up some imponderables, not least what motivates someone to walk from one end of the land to the other in the first place? But something that puzzles me is why Land’s End and why John o’Groats? The Lizard to Dunnet Head is actually the furthest you can walk south and northwards on the British mainland; and in terms of inspirational start/finish points Cape Wrath beats John o’Groats hands down by some margin.
It all appeared to start in the mid-1800s, when an American called Elihu Burritt walked from London to John o’Groats, then afterwards from London to Land’s End. In 1871, two brothers, John and Paul Naylor, walked from John o’Groats to Land’s End on a wandering route (they carried no maps) in which they abstained from intoxicating drink and tobacco and attended two religious services every Sunday. But popular interest in the End to End really took off a century later when the eccentric, Russian-born Dr Barbara Moore completed the journey in an extraordinary walk taking just 22 days. It generated massive media interest, especially given her strict vegetarian diet of fruit juice, honey and green vegetables and the fact that she had to battle her way through some appalling weather conditions.
Soon after, holiday camp supremo and entrepreneur, Billy Butlin, organised a challenge walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats with prize money of over £5,000. Recreational long distance walking was still uncommon (there were not even any National Trails yet) so not surprisingly many of the entrants were ill-prepared and found the distance and harsh February weather too much to handle. Only 138 out of the 715 that set off finally made it to Land’s End, the first man arriving after 15 days and the first woman (a young apprentice hairdresser from Liverpool) two days later.
Ever since then the Land’s End to John o’Groats journey has become lodged in the national conscience, and above all else in the record books as the challenge to become the fastest has taken hold. The most direct route is inevitably by road (around 874 miles or 1,406km) and for what it’s worth the walking record stands at just 12 days, while the women’s record is 13 days. And then there are the nutters. In May 1990 Arvind Pandya from India took 26 days to join one end of Britain to the other by running backwards. Steve Fagan took nine days to roller skate from End to End; someone was literally posted to John o’Groats as first class mail; and two brothers-in-law spent 30 days of their lives taking turns to push each other in a wheelbarrow the entire distance. The most favoured method of propulsion is actually by bicycle, although few come close to matching the record set in 1990 by Andy Wilkinson who cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats in the amazing time of just 1 day, 21 hours, 2 minutes and 19 seconds. And for the record a McDonnell F-4K Phantom jet (the ‘Jump Jet’) did it in 46 minutes in 1988.
In terms of published accounts of End to End walks, ‘Journey Through Britain’ by John Hillaby and ‘Hamish’s Groats End Walk’ by Hamish Brown are by some way the two most polished and readable titles, but such is the epic nature of any End to End endeavour – and the many and varied tales behind each individual journey – that there’s plenty more books to come. However you do it and whatever route you take, the End to End walk truly is an adventure of a lifetime.
Editor: We have derived great enjoyment from Andrew’ McCloy’s ‘The Land’s End to John o’Groats Walk’ (published by Cordee Books) as well as from his earlier publication (‘Land’s End to John o’Groats’) in which he describes three possible alternative routes.