From Ullapool I headed East to Lairg, changing my initial plans which would have taken me North to Tongue then East along the North coast road to John o’ Groats. I had decided on this course of action following a very close encounter with a vehicle on the way to Ullapool. Facing the oncoming traffic (as you do), means that one is not always aware of vehicles heading in the same direction that perform overtaking manoeuvres without consideration. Just inches away from serious injury or death, I believed the coast road might have too much traffic and reworked my route accordingly.
From Lairg I would be spending the last week camping wild, finding a spot to pitch with suitable shelter from the elements as well as a supply of water. This turned out not to be the case, a good look at the maps indicated a couple of buildings, and although there was nothing to indicate exactly what they were, I sensed that they were bothies, well placed on my route to have short walks for two consecutive days with time to stop and listen to the England v Wales World Cup Qualifier on the wireless.
Into the last week, I was counting down the days to the end, as the forecasts of the maximum night temperatures were dropping in correlation. The number of pairs of socks in my rucksack was also decreasing at a steady rate. Why carry dirty, wet and threadbare socks?
The final three days were spent walking along quiet roads, the wind blowing across the bleak moors and farmland that reminded me of a landscape closer to home. The roads were long and straight and uninspiring, but seeing the coast and the island of Stroma as I approached John o’ Groats raised spirits as the end was now almost literally in sight.
As I walked towards Dunnet Head from Jo’G’s, (day 174), the rain gave way for a brighter afternoon. Spurred on, I quickened along the empty road of the headland, the milestones indicating two miles and then one mile to the lighthouse. At the Northern most point of the island I sat alone and gazed out towards Cape Wrath, the sun casting a beautiful orange glow along the coast. I was 472 miles from my start point at Lowestoft Ness, although I had walked two thousand and seventy odd miles in 174 days to arrive here, (taking the scenic route I suppose). This was the end of my incredible journey and I felt a warm sense of pride from what I had achieved, and privileged to have seen so much of this land, though there is still much more.
From Ardnamurchan the weather was rancid. After such a beautiful day at the Western most point of the mainland, my journey would now continue through a sustained period of wet and windy weather.
The first night I woke as the wind battered my tent. I decided to turn it around as the rain lashed down and settled down again only to wake in the morning in a lochan, comfortable in a waterbed sort of way but with soaking kit. That afternoon I was so wet that I stopped caring about the constant rain and the footpath that was just another tributary, and in a strange sort of way, actually enjoyed the walking. I had two more nights in the tent before I would make Glenfinnan, and from there, the bothy run.
In the next seventeen nights I would spend all but three in sheltered accommodation. This would include 10 bothies, the bunkhouse at Inverie, 2 nights at the Scottish Youth Hostel in Ullapool and a semi-derelict cottage-cum-barn that I happened across (location undisclosed).
As the weather continued to be “inclement”, (more like excrement), it was a major relief and psychological boost to know I would be arriving at a building with room to hang wet kit and on some occasions, sufficient wood for a modest fire. The quality ranged from old cottages to a really basic form of shelter such as a barn or large garden shed. Whatever they were, I was pleased that the route I had plotted passed by so many, carrying me through the Glens at a nice steady pace with not too much distance between them.
The only thing bothering me at this stage of my journey was the number of ticks I had encountered along the way, or rather Lyme’s Disease. It’s very rare (“more likely to win the lottery” the nurse in Minehead informed me), and I’m not one to worry unnecessarily, but I was displaying some of the symptoms and although I could explain each of them in the context of walking nearly 1900 miles in the last 5 months, I thought it best to get checked out. The doctor at Ullapool took a blood sample for testing and said he’d call me in a couple of weeks. I may buy a ticket for the midweek draw, if it’s a rollover.
I headed down from the summit of Ben Nevis by the tourist trail, a very busy and rather uninspiring route if like most of the people, used for both the ascent and descent. I camped in a sheltered spot offering a splendid view from the North. After another couple of days of gorgeous sunshine, ensuring my recovery from the lurgy was complete, I set off for Ardnamurchan.
Much of the walking was by road and the weather had turned, lots of rain and strong winds. However I reached the Western Limit on a day of clear skies and warmth, sunbathing by the lighthouse, in no particular rush. My progress was slow either because of very bad weather or due to very good weather, there was no happy medium allowing a greater daily mileage.
I really liked Ardnamurchan Point, it wasn’t nearly as busy as the Lizard or Lands End, yet more beautiful, with the views out across the sea to the islands, rising from the clear water. Eventually I headed off along the shoreline on the North coast of the peninsula, passed a group of seals basking on the rocks and pitched my tent as the evening brought the day to an end. The final leg of my journey would begin tomorrow.
It seemed to be fate. Not reaching the Upper Limit at the first attempt meant I would be there on a day like this. Perfect weather conditions and I didn’t see a soul until I reached the crowded summit.
At the end of the Pennine Way I had completed over 1500 miles of my marathon and the legs were feeling a little heavy. Perhaps the heavy going had begun to take its toll or maybe I was feeling sympathy for our Olympic athlete! Who knows? It would be another week before I reached the West Highland Way, through the Scottish lowlands, following the River Tweed and seeing a number of Herons along the way. The walking was a mixture of good paths, non-existant paths and old railways, now part of the National Cycle Network, and canal towpaths.
It was during this time that I was asked the most amusing question so far. Having camped in a field by a track leading to a popular fishing spot, I was woken at about 6 a.m. by a group of three heading home. One was very interested in what I was up to. I peered out of my tent to be greeted by a young fella, can of Tennants in hand, pupils the size of saucers, with 1001 questions, but without the time to ask them all or listen to the answers. It was his 8th or 9th – Are ye on the run ? I assured him I was just walking and he left me to it. Not wanting another visit I headed off by 7.30 and was soon passing through Cumbernauld. Not much to say about the place except that I had probably now seen the worst place on my travels. Never to return.
The West Highland Way was great. Easy walking and lots of interesting people along the way. I had walked over 200 miles in 11 days to reach Kinlochleven, just South of Ben Nevis, including a 3 hour burst from Kingshouse up the Devil’s Staircase where I would meet a colourful character from Falkirk. I had picked up a jacket on the ascent, obviously left in error and returned it to it’s owner on the way down to Kinlochleven at which point he produced a bottle of Scotch from his rucsack and offered me a wee dram. He told me where he was staying and promised me an ale or two for my troubles. I headed down to pitch my tent which was wet from that morning and met up with him later. Looking a little confused I asked if he was OK. “I fell asleep”, he informed me, “on the way down, woke up with midges in my mouth”. At least he was safe.
Meeting a mate from Sheffield the next day we planned our next two days, staying in a bothy overnight before heading along the Grey Corries towards Ben Nevis. It was not to turn out that way. I felt a little out of sorts, not sure exactly what was wrong, yet knowing something wasn’t quite right. I put the consistency of my morning constitutional down to the butterscotch Angel Delight from the previous night, but had little enthusiasm for what should have been a significant day on my adventure. Eventually we had to call it a day and headed down to safety, passed the filming of Harry Potter 4 at Glen Nevis, energy spent.
I lay in my tent the next day, flushing my system with mugs of tea, (NB: Do not attempt to fart!) and had recovered enough the following to eat again and got dropped off where we had left the hills, ready for another attempt.
It was great to see so many familiar faces again and to catch up with the news, and I set off from Edale along the Pennine Way on a sunny Sunday, refreshed and happy. This, of course, is where the Island Limits story began. I had completed a North-South Pennine Way walk on 6 June, the day before Argentina v England in the 2002 World Cup, and slowly set about devising my next outing. I had no idea how it would turn out, but that chapter is for another day.
It was only a few hours from Edale before I had met up with an old friend who would accompany me for the next two days. We headed towards Bleaklow from the Snake Pass, impressed by our surroundings on such a clear day. After descending for an hour or so, we realised that too much chat and the distraction of not being in thick fog (map and compass would have been used) resulted in a slight deviation from our intended route. No matter.
After another rest day at my Mothers (full laundry service and a roast meal) I set out again, into Bronte country. I had avoided a serious downpour whilst being pampered and would enjoy fine weather for a couple more days, parallels with the first ‘leg’ back in April. It was during this initial period that I came across something rather interesting.
At Pinhaw Beacon on Elsack Moor, my attention was drawn to a piece of litter. I often pocket dropped items in remote areas, except tissue paper, which this was. However, as I approached this offending item, a napkin from a local Fish & Chip shop, I noticed some writing – a note! I have taken the liberty of displaying it in my shop window – call it a Bagpuss moment. Anybody wishing to claim their lost property can contact me in complete confidence.
For the rest of the Way, not a day passed without at least a distant rumble of thunder. Mostly though, it was rain, rain, and just a few more million drops of rain for good measure. The familiarity of the route was at times a double edged sword. Knowing what lay ahead meant few surprises, although knowing what lay ahead (the miles and miles of saturated peat bog) was no surprise.
I had met a number of fellow walkers along the route, many attempting the whole lot. The weather had taken its toll, dampening enthusiasm and sapping spirits, but a determined lot they are, and congratulations to all who completed their trip. It was a trying time.
Setting out along Offa’s Dyke Path I was again accompanied by acorns, the symbols used to way mark all of the National Trails. The walking was easy going, following the Dyke at times, then dropping down to the River Wye and then a 10 mile stretch to Hay-on-Wye along the high level route offering views across the Brecon Beacons beneath their dark skies. At Hay, apart from many shed loads of books, was a recently arranged rendezvous with a mate, needing to escape city life. A couple of days chillin’ out with familiar company (we didn’t walk a great deal) spurred me towards and beyond the Inland Limit as I made arrangements to meet up with a number of the Poker crowd as well as members of The Death Penguin in Edale.
I crossed back into England for the final time whilst quietly chalking up 1000 miles and I now had a new pair of shoes on my feet. The first had lasted over 900 miles and were now safe from further abuse until mounted on a plinth to commemorate this first challenge. Making haste across the fine Shropshire landscape I was uncertain whether I would make it to Edale on time.
The flat lands far from the sea offered little distraction and were covered quickly through Cannock Chase and along the canal towards Coton-in-the-Elms. On the evening of Sunday 25 July I entered the Shoulder of Mutton in the “Village of the Damned”. After being thoroughly entertained by the punters, I departed into the fading light and found a quiet spot for the night before exploring the area in the morning. The farm in question was unwelcoming to say the least. Everything about the place said “stay away”, “don’t come near” or “Tony Martin lives here”, and as I was satisfied I had reached my intended point (as near as damn it, anyway) I retraced my steps for a number of miles before striking North towards the Peak National Park.
My greatest wildlife coup since watching a basking shark for the first time on the Southern Cornwall coast would occur in Staffordshire with one, two, three badgers crossing the path just a few metres ahead of me late one evening.
Worries about lateness disappeared when two full days from the Edale meetings and only 8 hours walking time remained, allowing the familiar landscape of the Derbyshire Dales to be fully appreciated, along with the weather, very warm and a little sticky. Ninety-nine days had elapsed since departing Lowestoft as I rested up and enjoyed the company of many good friends.
Text for this section has vanished. Like an old oak table.
There is a team of crack experts working to recover the missing files.
It’s difficult to find the words to describe this leg of my journey. It is best to tell you that the pace dropped from 15-20 miles per day to no more than 10 m.p.d. The weather, I have pleasure in telling, was hot and sunny. It was so hot and sunny the backs of my hands were blistering despite multiple applications of sun cream each day.
Dotted along this stretch of coast there were people, myself included, lazing in the early summer sun and gazing across the vast ocean. Those that I passed while walking seemed to have been there for hours, and could have stayed for many more. No one appeared to be in much of a hurry. It matters not when time is seemingly at a standstill.
My progress was slow due to the continual inspection of this spectacular coast, carved by the constant action of the sea, and the irony had not escaped me that since leaving Lizard Point my destination was the Inland Limit, yet I was clinging, limpet style, to the shores of this island.
Camping out at the waters edge, high on cliffs and in the coves, watching the setting sun, I could have gone snap happy with the camera, capturing the sights. Yet the sights alone give only a partial view of what makes this corner of our island such a special place.
Heading along the beach from Lyme Regis my attention was immediately drawn to the cliffs as I heard the sound of a rockfall, a reminder, if one were needed, of the instability of this environment as the elements work to destroy that which has been created over millions of years.
I had two half-days on the coast – a taste of what was to come – before heading inland towards Dartmoor (via Exeter to see the FA Cup Final). The route leading to and leaving the National Park required walking along narrow country roads with hedges on both sides, a case of head down and swallow the miles.
I also had the misfortune of having my route blocked by military exercises taking place. Initially ignoring the red flags and declaring, “Today’s a good day to die.” I was to beat a hasty retreat on hearing the crackle of gunfire and seeing a mass of trained killers swarming up the hillside in the general direction of my path across the moor.
On reaching St Austell (mostly by road, occasionally on the coast path) and stopping for a wet break at my Dads static caravan/mobile house, I continued towards Helford Passage, again mostly by road and in the wet. It was here that the magic began for the next stage of my journey.