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Inbetween apostrophes: from Land’s End to John O’Groats

It might have been the merry month of May but standing at Land’s End and staring out into the mist and the drizzle, I could only just make out the Longships Lighthouse a mile offshore. But the shop was open and so was the café so I bought some postcards and sat in the café writing them then I dropped them into the official postbox, where they would be franked ‘Land’s End’. There could be no turning back now. I’d used up all the diversionary tactics I could think of and couldn’t put the evil moment off any longer. I went out into the drizzle and found the famous signpost which told me that John O’Groats was some 874 miles distant. I had my photo taken, smiling and looking a whole lot more confident than I was feeling inside, and then I set off walking.

The path curved over the headland for Sennen Cove, the next bay along. I was trying very hard not to think about John O’Groats but at Land’s End it’s almost impossible not to. The two names have become inextricably linked: Land’s End to John O’Groats, John O’Groats to Land’s End. The signpost may have said it was 874 miles away but in the public’s mind the two places are tied together. People have gone from Land’s End to John O’Groats by every conceivable means: bikes, cars, roller skates, I even saw someone on a unicycle. And anyway, I knew the distance of 874 miles was something of an arbitrary figure. 874 miles had a lot more to do with crows flying than walkers walking. Taking highways, byways and avoiding motorways into consideration, the minimum distance was closer to 900 miles. The Billy Butlin End to End race walk in 1960 was 891 miles long. But I was planning a green route, avoiding roads whenever I could and trying to keep to tracks and footpaths, so I was expecting to have to walk something closer to 1,200 miles (it ended up being 1,270 miles) before I reached that windswept rocky headland which is the most northeasterly corner of mainland Britain. The adrenalin-fuelled high of taking the first few steps of my End to End walk lasted for all of five minutes and then reality kicked in. Is this it? I found myself thinking.

Just walking now and nothing else? Start walking and keep going for 1,200 miles? My steps faltered and I ground to a halt. When I looked back, I could still see the Land’s End signpost. What on earth was I thinking of? Let’s be honest, I thought to myself, it’s just not possible. I might as well have said that I’m setting out to walk to Narnia, or to Shangri-La, or even Mordor. ‘I’m just off to the “Cracks of Doom”, love. I’m giving Frodo a hand with the Ring. Don’t wait up.’ I’m not sure how long I stood there looking back. I didn’t want to be the first person in the history of End to End walking who packed in before he’d even covered the first half mile but it was a moment of brutal clarity after all the hype and hubris of buying new kit, catching a train to the West Country and setting off. It was by far the blackest moment of the entire walk and time sort of telescoped. At the end of this little crisis I’d like to report how I felt a great surge of resolution or some noble sense of purpose which welled up inside of me but the truth is I just started to feel pretty stupid standing there like a lemon, so I promised myself a pint when I got to St Just, hitched up my rucksack and set off walking again.

More about Robin Richard’s journey can be found in his book.

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