From: Land’s End to John o’Groats
Distance: 2000 kms .. give or take

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The black dog who inspired the walk

Driving the miles from John o’Groats to Inverness once I’d finished the walk, felt as if I was playing the rewind button on the last ten days of my walk. It was kind of fun, in a fairground sort of way, to be seeing the places where I’d slept, the bridge where I’d dropped a pole, the tearoom where Gus and had tucked into cheesecake etc, all concertinaed up into two hours. There was something of Benjamin Button’s world to the experience. Quite unique and not a little curious.

It took a few days for me to realise the adventure was over. Walking out of Waitrose, with a full trolley, I passed two cyclists, drinking at an outdoor table, after a long ride. I felt a pang in my stomach as it dawned on me that I was no longer part of that world. There I was dressed in my summer frock and sandals, no longer focusing on my goal of reaching the top of Scotland. I won’t pretend I didn’t feel sad and regretful. Of course, I could have put on my walking boots and tramped round the Cotswolds, but it just wouldn’t have been the same, without the same purpose.

While I was able to chuck all my clothes straight into the washing machine and feel gleeful about how clean they came out at the other end of the cycle, I took over a week to relinquish my little plastic zip-top bag. It had contained my cash and the couple of credit cards I’d used during the walk. Transferring the contents to my wallet was absurdly difficult. Somehow, if I continued to use the little bag, I felt I would still be part of that simple world of walking.

Left foot lifted at The End

Part of me had been quite happy to finish at John o’Groats .. well, my left foot was, to be precise. The discomfort had become far too much of a factor in my daily routine and was really clouding the pleasure I’d been deriving for the vast majority of the journey before it had tried to take centre stage. It’s been diagnosed now .. plantar fasciitis together with shin splints and tendonitis .. nothing serious, just debilitating. And while it knocked at the door of obsession in northern Scotland, I’m glad to say it hasn’t taken away from the memories of the rest of the journey.

One of the many messages I received, wryly suggested that the adventure would not have felt nearly as rewarding if I’d not had the issues with My Left Foot. And that was probably quite right. When I very first conjured up the plan to walk End to End, I did it because I really wanted to challenge myself in a way I’d never done before. In Cornwall, when I found myself back walking along the cliff-top ridge in a howling gale, feeling as vulnerable as a novice trapeze artist, I remember saying out loud to myself, ‘Well Jules, you said you wanted an adventure and here it is. Get on with it, woman!’

Coast at Hartland Quay

Because the circumstances were so dramatic .. crashing waves down below, steel grey storm clouds above and not another soul in sight .. the reward of finishing the day was electric. I felt absurdly pleased with myself. As I fell asleep that night, I could almost imagine the film that would one day be made of my heroics! Perspective returned when the cold light of day dawned.

Other times when I had to dig in on a long day, never felt as extraordinary. The closest time was when I was coming down with a virus. The route was pretty and I knew that normally I would be relishing the views. I couldn’t kid myself I was being in any way brave. I was just plodding. Putting one foot in front of the other. There was just a quiet sense of achievement at the end of the day but honestly, it was more a sense of relief at being able to pull off my shoes and fling myself on the bed than anything else.

It was just the same towards the end.  Anyone who’s had the same foot issues as me .. and I know there will be many of you out there, as none of the ailments is uncommon .. will know that it just makes the days crushingly dull. You end up willing yourself on, till you know you can take the weight off your feet. I resorted to lying to myself. It was a trick I learned from David Felton, another End to Ender. You tell yourself you’re going to have a sit down and have a drink from your flask at the next gate. And then you walk straight past the next gate and make up another lie to get you to another little landmark. It works a dream.

But this is all rather negative. I need go no further than turn to your wonderful messages to get an instant lift. They never failed to lift my spirits, even when I’d got myself desperately lost, wet and exhausted. Just before falling asleep I would give myself the treat of looking through them each day and I’d be able to put my head on the pillow feeling buoyed up and contented, ready for the next section of the journey. There was never a day without messages. It was almost as if readers had organised a rosta so that the baton would be passed from writer to writer. Except for Frannie and Conrad that is, who deserve special mentions. Frannie wrote to me every single day with the most uplifting and supportive of messages. Conrad, who I have never met, sent frequent words of advice and encouragement and would often include excerpts of his own diary from the time when he too walked the End to End. Thank you both so very much.

Some of the messages were pretty high profile. Jeremy Clarkeson wrote in suggesting a 4x4 would be a better way to tackle the high cliffs of Hartland Quay. When I mentioned pavlova in a post Mary Berry put fingers to keyboard and flicked off a message about its origins being in New Zealand. There were other missives from Billy Joel, M Python and Julius C’zar. It was only when Captain Scott sent a message that I started to smell a rat. Actually three rats .. you know who you are!

My gratitude also goes to those people who were more private in their messages and sent emails instead. You too were wonderful in helping me crunch the miles northwards, up the country. I loved receiving your photos of black dogs, other walks and messages written in the sand.

Tottie putting her SANE fund-raising ball to good use

 

Well-wishing busker with his black guide-dog

 

Well wishes from Lord Howe Island

At times I was overwhelmed by the beauty of the country. Along the coast in Cornwall and Scotland, I could just about see the outline of the map of the UK, as if I were a gull hovering above .. it gave me a ridiculous sense of joy. Hearing accents subtly change from dawn to dusk was fascinating. Learning about the history, the mad local traditions and discovering the quirkiness of village names was a constant reminder of both the grandeur and the extreme silliness of the country. And from sampling scones and clotted cream to haggis, neeps and tatties, the rich tapestry of the nation was revealed. I’ve always been an Anglophile but walking the length of the country endeared me to it in a much deeper way. 

Since I’ve finished several people have asked me about the best and worst bits of the journey. I love a list, so here is my top five in no particular order and my worst two ..

Day 42:  I’ll never forget walking for hours across bleak moorland and suddenly coming across the most magnificent sight that was High Cup Nick

 

Day 73: Bridge of Orchy to Inveroran. It was a small section of a day when my spirit soared at the sight of mountains and Loch Tulla

 

Day 64: Lying in splendid isolation on the Scottish moors. I played ‘The Lark Ascending’ and felt as contented as a woman ever could

 

Day 13: Having Patrick arrive. After an arduous, up and down sort of day along the Cornish coast, with the dark of night descending, I could not have been more surprised when the man approaching me on the road, asked me the way to John o’Groats and turned out to be my husband, playing hookie from Sydney.

 

Day 7: Lying with my head over Treyarnon cliffs in Cornwall .. it was truly exhilarating looking down on the flocks of seagulls, riding the gauntlet with the crashing waves

 

Day 82: Culbokie. After a hallucinogenic sort of day, when I’d taken Codeine instead of Panadol, it was extraordinary to be able to share the gorgeousness of nine black lab puppies with my beautiful boy, who popped in to surprise me from Sydney. And that after the greatest kindness from total strangers earlier in the day.

 

Day 50: Revisiting my youth with Nick and AC in The Pennines. I was transported back to my twenties and adored every moment.

 

Day 21: Somerset. Laughing till I could laugh no more with my bridesmaid, Adi as we tackled mud and gave ourselves lama hairstyles.

OK, that’s more than five but seriously it was very difficult to leave any out and really I’d like to have included a whole heap more. And the worst .. you’ve probably guessed, they were the big A road days. Long, gruelling and no fun at all. My hat goes off to those End to Enders whose quest it is to make the journey in the shortest amount of time .. they must spend most of their days pounding the tarmac on the tight sides of these sorts of roads. I don’t get it.

Day 89: A99 Towards the end, when my foot was complaining loudly, the 17 mile day along the verge was a nightmare

 

Day 59: A68 Byrness to Jedburgh Day in sweltering heat, competing with Harley Davidsons for space at the side of the road. The highlight of crossing the border into Scotland and then arriving at Abby’s have helped blur the discomfort considerably. It’s extraordinary how the mind can do that .. I guess it’s this same resourcefulness that enables us to go on and have a second and third child!

The other question people have been asking is whether the journey has changed me, whether I’ve learned anything along the way. The simplicity of the days was something I revelled in. Two sets of clothes, an emergency kit, wet weather apparel and not a lot else, besides the maps and my packed lunch. I wrote about it a fair amount on the blog .. the lack of choice being liberating, freeing me up to think of other things. I loved the fact that all I needed was on my back. But has it changed anything in my life .. it’s probably too soon to say, even a month after the end. I started by doing some gentle decluttering, not wanting to be over-zealous in my approach in case I regretted it. Getting back to Sydney I ditched that approach and only this morning threw out four big black bin bags of clothes. I suspect I will just want to keep taking away choices instead of adding them to my life. It makes me feel more clear-headed and at peace as I approach each new day.

I feel the biggest thing I learned about myself was that, when push came to shove, I could actually dig in. For the first couple of weeks back at home, as I limped out of bed, I didn’t even walk to the postbox. And yet only a short while before, the motivation to get to the end and touch the famed finger-post was so strong that I never questioned pulling on my shoes and heading off to the next destination. Each and every day.       I think we all have that in us. It’s just that we seldom get the opportunity to demonstrate it. I do feel immensely grateful for being given that chance. 

And that has definitely made me feel a sense of empowerment. I hesitate to write about this, fearing that I will sound grandiose and insincere. After all, I didn’t climb Everest or swim the Atlantic .. I just walked, with the comfort of a bed and a hot meal to finish each day. But there were times when I could have given up and didn’t.  It’s been curious when the feeling of pride has visited me and given me a warm inner glow. Over the years I have at times felt intimidated by the company of others who seemed to me to be much higher-achievers, more intelligent, more sophisticated. Since finishing I attended a formal dinner when I was placed next to just such a person. Glamorous, vivacious, super-clever, opinionated with an accent that could cut glass. Time to feel intimidated .. and yet hang on, I didn’t. I just felt cool and contented and interested to engage with this gorgeous creature. It’s only taken 58 years .. but it was completing the walk that got me there.

The flag that I carried, peering out of my rucksack, engineered many, many conversations. From the first night at the North Inn in Pendeen, all the way to the John o’Groats. ‘Where’s the dog?’, was the most frequent question .. not too surprisingly. There were jokes about him not being able to keep up and preferring to stay at home in his bed. But it enabled me to talk about the black dog of depression and the issues of mental health that are just emerging from a silent world. Each and every conversation underlined the fact that you just never know what’s going on in other people’s lives. And it may sound glib but the learning is incredibly simply .. be kind to one another. And hugs are important. I lost count the number of times I hugged complete strangers, with whom I felt a compassionate bond.

The flag opened up numerous conversations ..

Walking is an amazing conduit for talking. Over the miles with friends at my side, I covered a huge breadth of ground, from the frivolous to the deep and meaningful .. with everything in between. Some days were just a hoot from beginning to end. But the days walking by myself were also very precious to me. They gave me the opportunity to be fully in tune with the countryside I was passing through and my own state of mind. Really, they were walking meditations.

So, there were the conversations but there was also the kindness that I found in strangers.  There were too many kindnesses to mention but of course, some stick in the memory. The lovely Julie who saw me sway across the car park as I made my way to a cafe, to buy a double espresso in an attempt to knock the Codeine out of my body. ‘I’ve been watching you, my dear .. and you don’t look well’, was her opening gambit. Having established that I was indeed poorly, she and her husband scooped me up and took me back to their home for a bite to eat and to put my feet up. They returned me to the same spot, refreshed and ready to go on an hour later. I so regret not having a photo of them.

And then there were the hospitable Nicholsons who raced out to invite us in for tea and cake as they saw Nigel, Swampy and me doubling back across their field in an attempt to navigate the map correctly.

The wonderful Nicholson family

Later in the walk, when I found my B&B stop for the night had been flooded out and closed down for renovation, the people at the Red Lion, on both sides of the bar, put their heads together and found me a bed for the night. I would have been lost without them.

And then there was the thoughtfulness of friends and family .. Nick walking the section of the Pennine Way which he felt would have been too hazardous for me to tackle on my own, Gus carrying my pack as well as his own when my foot was giving me grief, the Lights being there for me at the beginning and at the end and Sophie giving me massages every evening, without baulking at the ugliness of my feet by that late stage on the walk. I drew enormous support from all my walking companions and from the hospitality of Liz, Richard, Alex, David, Helks and Abby. How kind were you all.

The number of people who donated along the way was astonishing. From the postie who emptied his pocket, to the hoteliers who gave the cost of my stay to the charities. From dog-walkers to taxi-drivers. From baristas to refuse-collectors. It was often emotional. On-line we received massive donations and of course there was the generosity of everyone who came to the fund-raising dinner in Sydney. People were amazingly giving. It’s meant that we raised a very cool AUD66,821 for The Black Dog Institute here in Australia and £9,775 for SANE in UK. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for your magnificent generosity.

Writing this last paragraph is difficult. It means that the walk has been wrapped up. I don’t want it to end and yet it must. Until the next one .. New Zealand top to bottom .. France East to West .. John o’Groats back down to Land’s End. Who knows. But there will be one! And in the meantime there’s a book to write and an exhibition to prepare ..

Walking The Black Dog comes to an end

Black Dog Tails

The last one. I couldn’t resist showing a newly found pic of Treo, the black hero dog, part Labrador part Springer Spaniel, who fought in Afghanistan, alongside his handler Sgt Dave Heyhoe. Click on the pic to get the story ..