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.
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!’
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.
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 ..
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.
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.
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.
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 ..
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 ..
An illuminating account for those who have not had this kind of experience, but there are many of your observations that will only be recognised by those who have, and so well described. In particular your feelings afterwards not wanting to relinquish certain aspects, but many others. I had a lump in my throat as I read this morning.
You have achieved something nobody can take away from you. It is now now nine years since I completed my trip and there is hardly a day goes by that I don’t have a little smile about it, and I am sure that will always be the same for you.
With my very best regards,
Dearest Conrad, you were such a friend to me along the way. Thank you for such a beautiful last message. I had a smile as I read it and suspect that I will continue to have a daily smile about walking End to End, just as you have. I have the inkling of a plan to walk St Cuthbert’s Way next year .. maybe we could do a day together. With my very best wishes, Jules
My friend Bowland Climber who comments on my blog has walked St. Cuthbert’s Way and I have done parts of it and it is well recommended. I would be very happy to join you for a day if you get to it. You can contact me by email at email@example.com
Will keep in touch, Conrad. Best, J
Congratulations again for completing the walk, a wonderful achievement. I loved reading you final blog, it really gave me a great sense of what its was like to have achieved this. I loved the simplicity of some of the things that you taken from the walk, in particular the “be nice” comment, and keeping ones possessions to a minimum. The latter is liberating to think about and easy to start but difficult to sustain as you feel you never know when you might need that thing!
Congratulations again and look forward to being able to talk to you all about it when we meet sometime in the future!
Thank you Tony. Great getting your messages along the way .. I’ll always remember your support when I felt the pull of a taxi! My best, Jules
Jules – how could I not! And I didn’t want to stop reading either as that would really be the end….until the next time!
This has shown me so clearly that we all have to have a purpose and something to work towards to be truly fulfilled. Thank you for that.
All my love xx
Oh Frannie .. one last message! Thank you so much. Your messages also taught me just how significant and powerful daily support can be. All my love xx
Thank you for these reflections. I’m reading from my tent in Melrose and share some of your thoughts, especially about the kindness of strangers. So glad you found the strength in yourself too. Very well done.
Helen, I’ve just been reading your blog to see how you’re doing .. wow! You’re so far up the country now. Well done indeed. I see that you’ve been meeting and talking to lots of people along the way, as I did. Very special. You have my respect for carrying your tent .. an altogether different walk when you have to add on that weight to your pack. You’re amazing. Will be making a donation to your charity tomorrow. Keep going .. you’re doing a fabulous thing and I can promise the sense of achievement is enormous at the end. x
So good to get this email today and to return to reading about your trip….it felt like the “old days” and made me realize just how much I miss your daily updates!
Wonderful to get your thoughts about it all now that it’s had some time to “gel” and you’ve had a chance to reenter the real world.
Which one is nicer?!
I look forward to reconnecting live in a couple of months and to hearing more about your experiences and your proposed book. Can I preorder a copy??
Linda, I am SO looking forward to seeing you in November. There’ll be lots to talk about and catch up on. Can’t wait! xx
Loved following you on this journey Jules – awed by your achievement and much enjoyed you fabulous writing – great to hear that there may be a book!
Thanks Kate .. thank goodness there weren’t any lunches along the way, as testing as yours on Friday, though! xx
Love the recap. Love the lessons learnt! It is a huge achievement and you absolutely should be proud. I also want to walk across France so let me know when that is on the cards and we can plan it together… Sydney is treating us really well although I am working too many hours. Going well though and hopefully will improve as staffing increases. I am at CBA leading work on the APRA recommendations for the Business Banking Division. We love living in Balmain East. We are hoping we can get together with you and Patrick some time. I have no doubt your lives are hectic though so let us know when its possible. Love Ingrid x
Ingrid! I had quite forgotten you were moving to Sydney. We would love to meet up .. please send me an email firstname.lastname@example.org so we can arrange. Thanks for your message, Jx
A fabulous and moving read. Thank you, Jules. Xx
Thank you Woze. So appreciated .. hope to meet up next time I’m in UK. xx
Well, Jules, you certainly are an achiever. But for all of us, the gig ends and we must look forward with purpose and vision as to how we can make the world a better place. I know that you will come up Trumps! Michelle and I wish you well, as does our black dog Bo
Oh my, yet another celebrity .. and one of the very best on MY blog! Thank you so much Barack and Michelle and of course, Bo.
WOW! That gave rise to a very emotional read.
A lot there for many of us to digest.
Thank you Jules for the inspiration and for having the strength of character to pull it off.
Great that you are re-living it with such fondness.
See you soon in Blighty.
Thanks so much, Tony. Doubt many End to Enders can record that they punctuated their walk with a fab first-class wedding like I did! Back in October and then over Christmas/NY .. so sharpen up your Hat Game names!! xx
Dear Jules, Your last and final blog has been eagerly awaited by me. So often I have thought of you and wondered how life back in Australia has been these past three months. Your comments brought tears to my eyes and hope to my heart. “Be kind to one another”, what a great message. Simple, straightforward and yet profound. It was so uplifting to read of all the kindnesses you received from complete strangers. Fantastic achievement too, having raised a marvellous sum here in Britain and even more so, in Australia. When your book is written, please let us know. You are a born writer. With love and good thoughts, always. Anthea and Jasper xx
What a beautiful message, Anthea. Thank you so much. We were lucky to have had such a chance meeting on the road, weren’t we! It’s thanks to Jasper, really. I’m looking forward to writing the book next year .. I have a show in February, so I’ll be putting it together after that. Sending all kind thoughts to you and pats to Jasper, xx
Just watched the video and read the story of Treo and his human “Daddy”. Another tear jerker. Absolutely wonderful team. So glad the Sergeant was able to keep Treo for another few years and that his life was safe and happy. Unbearably sad when he died, but what a lasting tribute he carries with him now. Beautiful story.
Loved reading your final blog Jules and thrilled there is a book to follow! What an achievement, especially with your left foot and determination that it would not stop your walk to John O’Groats! I felt so anxious for you in those early days when the weather was such a challenge and you were on your own. You did dig deep and continued to do so right to the end. Hope to see you at the Penguin Dinner and give you a big congratulatory hug!
Angie, I felt the warmth of your hugs often on my walk when you left messages for me to read! I will so look forward to seeing you and claiming the real hug next month. Thank you for your thoughtfulness. x
Thank you Jules for the lovely wrap-up blog. It was a pleasure to read of your adventures on a daily basis as you were en route to John O’Groats and I have to say that I even felt a bit of a let down on your behalf when it was finished. Those hours and days of simply putting one foot in front of the other are so special. Very happy for you and I look forward to seeing your book! All the best.
Thank you, Silvia. Was great having you along for the ride! Do you and Doug have any plans to come and walk in Australia soon? Should love to see you both. Jx