The Snail’s Tale

Tales from End to End
The Snail’s Tale

by Alan Plowright

As we near the end of our trek, we are reminded that it’s taken us a fair time to complete the journey. However, it is possible to do the walk over an even longer time if you choose to do it in separate chunks in the same way that Alan Plowright managed to do.

Land's End to John o'Groats - in Fifteen Years
Land's End to John o'Groats - in Fifteen Years

Countless determined walkers have attempted the demanding trek from the south-west tip of England to where the land runs out in the north-east corner of Scotland. Some have completed this arduous journey suffering nothing more than a few blisters and ravaged footwear. Others, less successful, have succumbed to injury or fatigue and have been forced to retire, their hopes dashed.

Neither of these situations applied to my attempt, which involved the gentler approach of walking it in stages. It is not mandatory to complete the journey in a single attempt, though many participants relish that challenge, and I reckon my completion could be the longest ever recorded. In fact, fifteen years elapsed between the start of the first leg of my trek and the conclusion of my last.

My interest in the long-distance challenge was aroused as early as 1960. In that year a walking race was organised, under the auspices of Sir Billy Butlin the holiday camp magnate, which involved 700 competitors making the journey by road. Older readers may remember Doctor Barbara Moore who made her trek on a diet of grated vegetables, fruit and honey. Her fellow-racers included a Yorkshireman wearing hob-nailed boots and three steelworkers from Bradford. The winner was Jim Musgrove in a time of 15½ days.

Later, in the early 1980s, my imagination was captured by a book entitled ‘Journey Through Britain’ by John Hillaby, an eminent naturalist, writer and walker. It gave an account of his traverse, mainly across country, in 1967. An inspiring record of his adventures, its vividly descriptive narrative brought the journey to life.

Some years later, I began to walk the Yorkshire Dales near my home after my three children had fled the nest. Expanding my horizons, I began to walk in the Lake District, Derbyshire and Scotland before tackling my first long-distance path. My experiences taught me that walking was not merely putting one foot in front of the other, but enjoying the companionship of those I encountered and the tales that pass along the ‘bush telegraph’ between walkers.

To cut a long story short, my protracted journey from Land’s End to John o’Groats certainly provided a host of diverse characters and interludes which I look back upon with fondness and, often, a wry smile. Here are a few examples of why that never-to-be-forgotten long-distance adventure provided such pleasure.

Two elderly walkers on the Pennine Way, the older of whom never tired of telling all within earshot that he was 74 years old, were not the world’s best route finders. They got lost many times but, remarkably, kept up with me till we reached Bowes. From there to Kirk Yetholm I never saw them again but I was amused to find their names in the visitors’ book on the bar of the Border Hotel signifying that they had finished the walk two days ahead of me! What they did not know was that I had discovered their little game of hitch-hiking when out of sight of other walkers.

Another unforgettable couple was Ian and Sheila, whom I walked with for much of the Pennine Way. Ian, as thin as a rail, had a remarkable appetite, displayed at Malham Youth Hostel by consuming a large pan of soup almost single-handed and proceeding to finish the other courses with no problem whatsoever. At the end of the meal he produced a tea-bag, informing his fellow-hostellers that he held the record for the number of mugs of tea from one bag. Throughout the evening he poured mug after mug until the final tally was fifteen!

A very enjoyable evening was spent in Fort William, at the conclusion of the West Highland Way, in a hotel where many other walkers of that path had arranged to meet for a celebration. Unfortunately, most of them were Scots, who repeatedly requested Scottish tunes by the accordion player accompanying our sing-song. Fed up with this situation, I eventually bribed him to play ‘On Ilkley Moor Bah’t ‘At’, much to the consternation of our Scottish friends!

The section from Fort William to Skye provided its share of humorous incidents. At Spean Bridge my companion and I stayed in an old crofter’s cottage that we christened ‘Quasimodo’s Cottage’ because were were relegated, on a boiling hot evening, to a tiny attic room that required moving around it and the bathroom nearly bent double. The following morning we were taken aback by the sight of thousands of midges being vacuumed from the window ledges.

At Shiel Bridge near Skye, our appetites were put to the test by the arrival of enormous plates of food at the dinner table. A quarter of an enormous salmon, surrounded by mounds of potatoes and vegetables, filled each one and it was a Herculean task to make inroads into this gigantic offering. My friend had the temerity to leave part of his huge portion and refuse the massive slice of chocolate gateau that followed. At this, our female host demanded to know what was wrong with her food, grabbed the plate of gateau and stormed from the room. We christened our angry host ‘Dawn’ who, we reckoned, had come up like thunder at my friend’s refusal!

Alan Plowright has written 11 books on a variety of topics including walking, the countryside, Yorkshire characters and two outlining the history of the Metal Box Company. ‘Land’s End to John o’Groats – in Fifteen Years!’ was produced by Alan in 2002.