Monday 16 April 2018

Forty years ago, April 16, 1978, I set out from Land's End to John O'Groats

First pages of my Land's End to John O'Groats journal

On this day forty years ago I set off from Land’s End to John O’Groats, my first long-distance walk. I had no idea of course whether I could do such a walk or, more importantly, whether I’d enjoy it. I knew the answer 1255 miles and 71 days later. Yes, I could do the walk, and yes I really did enjoy it. I could happily have gone on for weeks more.

Even on a walk like this, much of in England, there was a sense of isolation back then. Unlike today with its tracking devices, mobile phones and the internet there was no option but to be out of touch for long periods. Contact was via phone when there was a phone box and, mostly, via the mail. Postcards were my standard means of communication. Only friends, family and work colleagues knew what I was doing and they rarely knew exactly where I was. There was no social media.

My gear was good, as it should have been given that I was working in an outdoor shop at the time and I’d learnt a great deal from a Pennine Way walk two years earlier. I’ve written about the equipment I used and what I’d take today in the latest issue of The Great Outdoors, which also has its fortieth anniversary this year. Long-distance walking and The Great Outdoors were soon to become intertwined in my life.

I hadn’t started writing seriously and it didn’t occur to me that I might want photographs of the walk. I did set off with a cheap compact (film of course, digital was decades away) which duly broke by the time I’d reached Bristol. Where the few photos I took are I have no idea. 

After the walk I wrote my first feature for a magazine, a long-gone publication called Camping World. The editor told me I really needed to supply photos as well as words so I bought a second-hand SLR camera and taught myself, slowly and painfully, how to take publishable pictures. I really wish I’d done so before the walk.

The Great Backpacking Adventure

I did however keep a journal, as I’d been doing for all walks for many years. That was to prove extremely valuable, both personally – I’d have forgotten much without it, and because eight years later I got my first book contract. The Great Backpacking Adventure covered seven backpacking trips, including some 20,000 words on Land’s End to John O’Groats. Without my journals I couldn’t have written the book.

Since then I haven’t written or thought that much about the walk until this year. Digging out my journal – the ink still legible, I must have used a good pen (this was before I discovered Alwych notebooks and space pens which I’ve mostly used since) – I was surprised at some of the stuff in it, especially the lists I kept. Not just the route but where I stopped every night, with the prices for camp sites where I used them (10p for Dale Head Farm in the Yorkshire Dales, a whole pound for the Pine Woods Caravan Site in Tyndrum), and the birds and flowers I saw.

Where I camped
At the end of the walk I wrote ‘now comes the hard part, the return to Manchester. I feel strangely lost. I wandered amongst the people at John O’Groats not quite sure what to do. I feel both glad and sad, that I’ve done it and that it’s over. Tomorrow it will seem real. Tonight in the tent it is just as normal. I like living in the tent.’

I still have those feeling at the end of every long-distance walk but now I know there will be another one. I solved the problem of returning to the world by making the outdoors my world. And whilst the world in general has changed greatly in the last forty years long-distance walking hasn’t. Moving slowly and quietly through the countryside and wild places, watching the clouds, wildlife, trees, rocks and the whole natural world, is still as fulfilling as ever.


  1. Lovely, lovely article, Chris. Thanks. I'm in my 60s (just!) and love a nostalgic look back to feelings and experiences long gone. I wonder if its an age thing? You were on this particular walk as I was recovering from glandular fever and doing my finals in Aberystwyth. Not a great combination!

  2. Thanks. I think it is at least partly an age thing. Experiences suddenly seem in the distant past yet still immediate in the memory.

  3. I had to chuckle at you noting down the cost of camp sites etc. When I backpacked Lejog in 1985 as a spotty teenager on the hoarded proceeds of working early mornings at the local newsagents, I kept a diary of every penny I spent; down to every ice cream and bottle of Ben Shaws. Some day I will walk it again.

  4. Hi Chris. I guess like a lot of people during lockdown, I was reflecting on the past and decided to write up my diary from my Land's End to John O'Groats walk in 1978. I was just writing up the Offas Dyke section just past Kington. I had got lost just past a golf course and met someone doing the same walk and using the same design of tent - a yellow Black's wedge shaped tent. We walked together for about 3 miles. I wonder if it was you? You were a big help with the map reading. I would not have told you at the time but I was partially sighted and really struggling with the map. Anyway, it would be good to know whether it was you or not. I started the walk on 15th April and got to John O'Groats 77 days later. The person I met was hoping to do walks later the same year in the Lake District. Anyway, it I would be good to know if it was you.

  5. Hi Torbay, no, it wasn't me. I wasn't on Offa's Dyke until early May and I had a green Ultimate tent. I hope you had as an enjoyable walk as I did.

  6. Hi Chris. Thanks for getting back to me. I thought it a long shot but good to read about your walk anyway. I was a keen reader of The Great Outdoors at the time. My diary entry was for 17th May. It read, "The guide said follow the well warn path but all I found was a ploughed field. I again walked around in circles before meeting a fellow walker (who was also lost). Together, but mainly due to his map and compass work, we found the way and walked together for the next three miles.

    It was a strange coincidence meeting him. He was also walking from Land’s End to John O’Groats, and had followed almost the exact route as myself even going out of his way to visit Harland Point. He was also using the same tent design. The main difference though was that he was averaging 20 miles a day and hoped to reach John O’Groats in two months because he had other plans for a walk in the Lake District later in the year. His route would also take him along the Pennine Way – which he had already walked once before."

    Good luck with all your future adventures

    Ken Pickering