The Pioneer’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Pioneer’s Tale

by Ruth Ellison

I was about 14 when the phrase ‘from Land’s End to John o’Groats’ seized my imagination and, though it was not spoken in connection with walking, walking was what I intended to do. I had to wait some seven years until enough time, money and fitness coincided but meanwhile I collected maps and planned routes. My determination did waver when a sudden craze arose for racing the length of Britain and especially when on training walks I found small boys yelling after me ‘Go it Doctor Barbara!’, clear references to Barbara Moore who had completed the journey in just 22 days a couple of years before. But it was clear to me that all these racers had got it wrong. Not only were they marching by the shortest route along major roads; they were also starting at John o’Groats, when plainly one should start at Land’s End, alone and without fanfare, and walk as far as possible by footpaths and back lanes. This was not entirely easy: OS maps in those days (1 inch to 1 mile) did not distinguish rights of way and the only long distance path available, the Pennine Way, was not yet finalised in the north, was deliberately ‘undefined’ further south and boasted just one waymark, near Malham.

Ruth Ellison
Ruth Ellison

So, having completed my University Finals exams, I started from Land’s End in a heat-wave and walked through every kind of weather, short of snow, over moors and hills, through forests, along canal towpaths, up the Pennine Way and through the Highlands of Scotland, and was only fully resigned to road-walking north of Inverness. I stayed mostly in Youth Hostels and B&Bs recommended by the Ramblers’ Association, though sometimes I had to search for whatever shelter I could find. I recall the landlady in the south-west whose B&B existed to subsidise her breeding of cream labradors and whose prize bitch was fed more lavishly than her guests, and the shepherd and his wife in Upper Coquetdale who were dismayed to discover that they were listed in the Ramblers’ book. Nevertheless they welcomed me into their cottage (without electricity or mains water) since there wasn’t another house for miles. I remember the Peak District inn where the oldest inhabitant (a customer) welcomed me to the fire, saying ‘Come thee in wench, and take thy pack off’. And especially I recall squelching into the George and Dragon in Garrigill after being caught in a cloud-burst on Cross Fell and the landlord’s son running out to the kitchen shouting ‘Mum, Mum, Dad’s got a wet woman int’ bar!’

As to adventures, there was the narrow but deep-cut Red River in Cornwall where the bridge had disappeared, so I took the scariest jump of my life and landed face-down in a gorse bush. Or the very different river near Aviemore where the footway of the suspension bridge had vanished, leaving only four rather slack cables. Crossing was like being a puppet trying to manipulate its own strings. Then there was taking off boots and trousers to wade through a lane flooded 18 inches deep, or clinging with hands and feet to Hadrian’s Wall as a gale threatened to blow me clean off.

Most memorable, though, was making my way by compass over Fountains Fell with visibility down to 10 yards, when suddenly I heard a sheep bleat below my feet. Investigation showed that I was almost on the rim of a bell-shaped pothole in which a sheep had clearly been trapped for some days, since it was so weak it kept falling over. I was afraid that if I went into the pothole I might not get out again, so I took off my rain-cape, twisted it into a loose rope and, by hanging from the hips head-first into the hole, was able after several attempts to get the cape under the ewe’s belly. Then I wriggled backwards and hauled. The other sheep on the fell had recently been shorn, but not this one, and her fleece was saturated and heavy. I don’t know how I managed it, having no proper purchase, but suddenly I was lying on the ground with the sheep on top of me, covering me with foul-smelling yellow mud. The ewe began immediately to graze, tearing up lumps of grass at astonishing speed, while I limped on my way over Pen-y-Ghent to spend the night in Horton-in-Ribblesdale.

On reaching John o’Groats, I threw into the sea a pebble from Land’s End and totted up the daily distances I had walked. I reached a total of 1,111 miles; improbable, I agree. But true.

Ruth Ellison is a retired lecturer from the English Department of York University, a specialist in Icelandic studies and a keen musician. She remains an intrepid walker.