Long Distance Plans

My name is Tony and I’m a hill walker.

You’re never too old to become obsessed or develop an addiction, as I’m discovering. Fortunately, there are compulsive behaviours more pernicious than walking and, what’s more, ramblers don’t generally feel a need to conceal their foible, phone the Samaritans or join a Ramblers Anonymous group, although perhaps I should! Walking becomes a rhythm in the amygdala, a thread through the veins and a yawning void in your metabolism when you’re tethered to a computer all day long. Far from hiding my addiction, I want to share the pleasure of walking with like-minded eccentrics and perhaps even proselytise to the unconverted; we may live on a crowded island but there’s still plenty of open countryside out there to share.

In 2014 I decided I had a score to settle with the Pennine Way (PW). A year later, as you may have seen if you’ve read my earlier posts here, I finally cracked it. In achieving my goal I’d reached a level of fitness and an overall sense of well-being that I didn’t want to lose by flopping down onto a sofa to vegetate, so needed new challenges to keep me walking. My medium-term ambition was to do the South West Coast Path (SWCP) – I’d cover the Dorset section as practice walks, then do the remaining 544 miles in about 4 weeks as soon after retirement as possible. With a modest lump sum from my pension I’d buy a camper van so that Liz, possibly with the boys too if they’re minded to join us, could provide mobile accommodation (NOT backup!) along the way. Since I wasn’t due to retire until the October of 2018, I figured it would probably be 2019 when I set about it. In the meantime I had to keep ticking over, hence taking the family on a 5-day sampler of the Pennine Way in 2016 and on a walking holiday in the Lake District in 2017.

At some point last year, even before we set off for Coniston, new ambitions suddenly unfurled when I asked myself why I shouldn’t do Land’s End to John o’ Groats (LEJOG). Unable to answer that one, I set about planning a route. That’s my problem, see? ‘I wonder if…’ quickly becomes ‘Why don’t I?’ and, before ‘Is this really wise?’ even enters my head, there I am with a fully laden backpack at the start of another trail. Actually this depiction glosses over the months of planning and preparation, which I enjoy almost as much as the walking. I hadn’t spent long working on my route for LEJOG, however, before hitting a snag. I’d decided that, having done the SWCP, the obvious route through Cornwall and Devon would be up the middle, across Bodmin and Dartmoor, but the footpaths on the approach to Bodmin wouldn’t join up and there seemed to be no accommodation in places I’d want to stop, so I hit on a radical solution: I’ll split the SWCP in two and do the northern side as part of LEJOG. There are obvious advantages to this, specifically the fact that I can bring forward the southern section to 2018 and hence LEJOG to 2019, but also, by starting twice from Land’s End, I’ll have the prevailing westerlies at my back both ways. Ideally I’d have done the SWCP in one hit but, as the junior partner in this pair, it has to defer to LEJOG.

There are other complications this year, however; dad, now 90, can’t really be left alone, so, much as Liz and I would like to holiday together, it’s not really feasible. Brainwave! Liz would like to do a cruise, I most certainly wouldn’t, so why shouldn’t she chalk that up this year, hopefully getting it out of her system? She and the boys can head for the Med and sunnier climes in the school holidays, after I’ve plodded from Land’s End to Lyme Regis in June. As a bonus, I’ll be hiking outside school holidays. The boys are up for a cruise more than they are for ‘yet another’ walking holiday, while I won’t have to endure a week feeling like a caged hamster in a floating colony. Win-win.

You might think that, having done the 268-mile PW, this 289-mile stretch of the SWCP would be a similar proposition requiring pretty much the same kit and a similar level of fitness, but no! Firstly there are not as many accommodation options, such as youth hostels and bunkhouses, spaced at convenient intervals along the SWCP as there are along the PW. Then I’d like to average closer to 20 miles per day, so the usual stops and watering holes, as listed on the excellent SWCP website, don’t necessarily accord with my plans. Finally, relying largely on B&Bs and hotels for LEJOG would make the three month venture expensive, so re-learning to use a tent makes sense. The trouble with that idea is that for the past 30 years I’ve been saying I’ve grown out of camping, to the extent that, when I tentatively tried it with Liz back in 2001, we ended up doing B&B at the nearest pub instead. Now I have to re-think the contents of my backpack completely to minimise weight and do my practice walks with twice the load I’ve carried in the last few years. Stay tuned for my trials, tribulations and errors in re-kitting myself for the challenges ahead.

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