Long-distance Walking: What the human body's for
Trekking expert and Cicerone author Ronald Turnbull summarises the history, pleasures and different types of long distance walking we have in the UK.
Dawn came grey, and awfully early. At 3am the spruce twigs started to show dark against the sky. The skylarks were scraping toast crumbs off their beaks, and heading blearily up into the sky to start their morning’s twittering. I made my own breakfast of muesli and water, and headed north.
Behind me, Telford’s stony road stretched in a straight line across the grey heather. Ahead, it did exactly the same. Above the mist rose the shadows of the mountains. The only sound was my boot on the rounded granite pebbles of Telford’s roadway, followed, a second later, by the sound of the other boot.
There’s nothing new about this long-distance walking lark. After five days on the trail have rubbed off some of the tummy fat along with the urban attitudes, you learn that walking 15 or 20 miles a day, every day, is what human bodies are built for.
And so, as I strolled onwards through the Lairig Mor above Kinlochleven, I was recalling previous walkers. The Camerons of Lochaber used this path as a raiding route. A defeated army of Campbells passed by in 1645, their bloody bandages dripping into the snow. MacIain, the clan chieftain of Glencoe, came down the glen in the last days of 1691, an old man on a pony with a ghillie running alongside. He slipped four days off his long-distance schedule; his lateness at Inveraray was made the excuse for the Glencoe Massacre two months later.
Fourteen hundred years ago, converting the UK to Christianity was serious long-distance business. From Iona to Canterbury, Augustine and Columba must have been 30-mile men, bothered about boots, and the weight of the pack, and finding the way, and the weather. We call it St Cuthbert’s Way, but when St Cuthbert walked from Melrose down to Lindisfarne, he was on a road built by Roman soldiers. And it was probably old even when the Romans upgraded it, a path for Iron-age traders, a Bronze Age migration lane, a hunting trail when spears were tipped with flint.
The invention of the wheel was a bit of a mistake. Right into the 19th century, they never bothered with it in Borrowdale.
Until about 1850, you could walk anywhere you wanted on the roads. You’d walk up to Oxford University, or over to Wales to see the scenery, or to the Isle of Wight because you were Charles Dickens and you had a house there. The roads were sometimes stony, or muddy, and every hour or two you stepped aside into a thorn bush for a carriage to come past.
Even in 1938, when Alfred Wainwright walked from Settle to Hadrian’s Wall and back, he did half of it on the roads. But from the 1950s the roads were just too nasty, and if you wanted to go to the other side of England you went there on wheels. Now, however, anywhere you want to go, you can go on foot, on a path.
So how to choose? Some questions are quickly answered. How far do I want to go? Where haven’t I been already? Then I pull out the map and take a closer look. Some paths are special. And those ones tend to have:
- upland: mountains are the best sort of ground; and this is even truer if you don’t go up the mountains (as the West Highland Way doesn’t). Look for the paths around the bottoms of the tops, the paths passing through the passes.
- downland: fast grassy paths, at 300m, in country where 300m is as high as it gets: great walking, whether it’s the Cheviot foothills or the Marlborough Downs.
- lowland: straths, vales and valleys linking one range to the next. Just so long as it isn’t that dreary Vale of York on Wainwright’s Coast to Coast.
- riverside: switch off the brain and let the ears enjoy the water noises. The Pennine Way goes up the Tees for a day and a bit. I say Tees, yes please!
- footbridges: dangly suspension ones, long white latticework ones, thrillingly over-engineered ones where somebody had some funding to use up: I love them all.
- seaside: all the advantages of riverside, scaled up, plus a salty smell. (Perhaps the South West Coast Path overdoes this aspect a tad.)
- paths across steep hillsides: folk in olden days didn’t go up hills when they could go around. Contour-line paths are often old mine tracks, well-built but now grassy. And the views are great, even if one-sided.
- the small stone-built market town: you’ve heard about heather moorland and blanket bog, but this is the terrain that’s really threatened today. Whether sandstone, limestone or granite, it has a pub with a silly name, plus a real bakery.
- silly little hills: big hills and a big rucksack? Well yes if you’ve also got big legs. But climb for half an hour up a silly little hill. It’s probably volcanic, so slightly rocky on top. It has views across the plains you just passed over. It even has a silly little name, such as the Skirrid (Ysgyryd Fawr) or Roseberry Topping, Crook Peak, Caer Caradoc, the Clwydians or Conic Hill.
- above all, an idea: paths may be walked on the feet but even more in the mind. Hadrian’s Wall has field edges (see below), a bike path (see below), urban fringes and miles of roadside. But it’s a coast-to-coast (almost), a Roman remain, and everybody’s heard of it. Just divert it a little over the Winking Eye footbridge (see above).
Some like it high, and some like it low. But there’s a long path anywhere you look. Somerset is an easy one. Somerset is a lovely county, and it’s got seven ranges of hills, rising to a shaggy, heathery 519m at Dunkery Beacon. But attitude matters more than altitude. If I can’t think how you would make something in Suffolk that was worth travelling to Suffolk for – this is just a failure of imagination on my part. The compilers of this book (The UK Trailwalker's Handbook) have found plenty of Suffolk stuff. I did walk the Weavers’ Way in Norfolk. I got very excited because I hit some sand dunes and crossed the 10m contour line. Those sand dunes are demanding walking, they’re quite steep, and the view is different from anything in the Scottish Highlands. You see 12 miles of sea, 15 miles of shingle and a huge windfarm.
If you want to be old-fashioned there’s the Lairig Ghru (not featured here), and there’s the Lyke Wake Walk. There’s the Derwent Valley Skyline, which middle-aged men from Manchester used to do between the wars. It’s good to go in the footsteps of these old fellows, in their breeches so impregnated with peat they never needed to hang them up, they just stood them in the garden to dry. They tended to do these things at night and in the middle of winter. You still can, it’s called the High Peak Marathon. The High Peak Marathon happens in March, and they start at 10pm so as to get the pleasure of the darkness. I spoilt it myself by doing it in midsummer; I even slept. I unrolled my bivvy bag on Kinder Scout, in some soft peaty heather, and I watched the orange streetlights of Manchester shine into the sky. All through the evening the jet planes circled and descended into the orange light, like an evil phoenix descending into the deadly flames.
Then there are the challenge events. There’s the Across Wales Walk – an annual (rather than anytime) challenge so not in this book. Kind folk give you flapjack from the English border all the way across to the sea; and a bunch of fellow walkers discuss every topic under the sun (or rather more likely, the rain). The first long distance walking book was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. All these characters trekking from London to Canterbury, telling each other wonderful stories and having rows and encouraging each other. It’s about 70 miles from London to Canterbury, you’d use the Darent Valley Path and a bit of the North Downs National Trail. Disappointingly Chaucer doesn’t say how long and he doesn’t give the crucial speed and time data.
Any journey demands a destination – a place-name for when they say ‘where you off to then?’ – (Answers like ‘the rest of my life’ or ‘because it’s there’ earn you a sad look and a well deserved nudge into the nettles.) and some decent kit. I once asked a woman in the Long Distance Walkers Association about lightweight kit and got a wise reply:
‘I love lightweight kit but only ‘cos it’s usually sexier than the heavy duty stuff and I’m a bit of a outdoor trendy. Also I must confess my secret to lightweight coast-to-coast walking is called a Sherpa Van, for trekking trips a yak or a mule and on LDWA outings my husband’s rucksack.’
St Cuthbert himself couldn’t have said it better.
Some trendy kit, somewhere to say you’re going; but the point of a long walk is the variety. Putting it at its simplest: to be somewhere and then, by means only of your own feet, to be somewhere else. After my grey, misty morning on Rannoch Moor, early afternoon saw me somewhere else. The Lairig Mor is a high glen running westwards below the stony slopes of the Mamores. The Lairig Mor was as dreary as dawn Rannoch, but dreary in an altogether different way. The brown heather now was varied with beige of winter grassland. The skylarks had fallen silent, and it was drizzling. Out of the brown and beige ground, there stuck up ruined shielings, grey lumpy mementos of the Highland Clearances. Between Rannoch and here, I’d crossed the head of Glen Coe; I’d crossed the Devil’s Staircase, where, on their way back from the pub, the navvies of Blackwater used to perish in the snow. A long-distance walk, in late March, through one of the saddest parts of Scotland. It sounds a bit dismal. It is a bit dismal. I was just loving it.
But I loved it even more when the sky got those blue patches you sometimes see even in Scotland. And a sight still more unusual, poking above the spruce trees – the unclouded top bit of Ben Nevis. I diverted to the hill fort called Dun Deardail that’s above the West Highland Way where it turns down to Glen Nevis. I couldn’t see any of the vitrified stonework. What I could see was the high stony side of Ben Nevis, and a bit of snow like sugar frosting, and all going golden as the sun sank towards the hills. I lay in brown winter grasses, and enjoyed the tired feelings in my legs, the pine-scented cool breeze and the delicate flavour of a Mars bar garnished with rucksack fluff.
Glen Nevis was full of shadow, but orange lights of Fort William gleamed against the sea loch. Down in Fort William were bar meals, and beer, and a brand new pair of socks. But first I had to see the sun finish shining on Ben Nevis.
Ronald Turnbull writes regularly for TGO, Lakeland Walker, Trail and Cumbria magazines. His previous books include Across Scotland on Foot, Long Days in Lakeland and Welsh 3000ft Challenges. He has written many other Cicerone guides, including Walking in the Lowther Hills, The Book of the Bivvy and Not the West Highland Way.View Articles and Books by Ronald Turnbull