Saturday, November 29, 2008

Other Big Walks 2 - John Hillaby - Journey Through Britain

It was 1968 when I first read John Hillaby’s famous account of his walk through Britain. He had made the journey the year before, at the age of 50.

The book is memorable for me in a number of ways. It the first of many volumes which I have read over the years about prolific walkers. Also, when I was searching for the book recently, to refresh my memory and to see if I could glean any useful tips from it, I had a very clear picture in my mind of the book cover (pictured above).

Another thing about the book is that it demonstrates to the user that it is not written by a superman. Hillaby frequently expresses doubts about his ability to go on. He gets miserable and hates what he is doing. He is not above admitting that the offer of a lift can be tempting. Even on the first day, a few hours after setting off from Land's End, he is overcome by weariness and has a 20 minute kip before he can carry on.

He carries a tent and gear for self-sufficiency, but is always very pleased to come across a hotel at the end of the day. Just as well – on his very first night, camping in St Ives, he is moved on by the police. It is no fun being a vagrant in Britain.

His route is of no use to me. His objective was to walk the length of the country without, if possible, setting foot on a public road. Because of the time constraints I have set myself, I will be doing the opposite, although a cunning plan is forming in my mind to avoid traffic for much of the British leg of VBW by walking on canal paths.

After a few days his calf muscles go on strike and he thinks the walk has come to an end. The hotel porter, "an ex-professional in the boxing game" is called in for a consultation. He recommends exercise. A reporter comes looking for the person walking to John o’ Groats, just as Hillaby hobbles out of a lift with a stick.

He gets going again, and re-discovers those days when the walking becomes effortless and almost sublime, somewhat like the so-called “runners’ high”.

How the world has changed since 1967. At a launderette in Stoke, he thinks it worth remarking that a young woman is washing, among other things, a man’s shirt and underwear – and yet she is not wearing a wedding ring! Oh, shame and scandal in de family!

Of course, he meets interesting people and sees fascinating places. It is a book worth reading, but with my planned activity, I am re-reading books like this on the lookout for tips. There are several here for me. One is to plan the route well, especially in the matter of avoiding traffic – British drivers are not noted for giving pedestrians a wide berth. Another is, yet again, to drink plenty. A key factor when walking long distance, one which I believe I already have covered, is to be very careful in the choice of footwear. Hillaby went to great pains to find shoes which were more flexible and supple than the army-style clompers which hikers of the period normally used, and yet he had foot problems. In fact he lost most, possibly all, of his toenails. Amazingly, one pair of shoes lasted the whole trip, but only just - the soles were falling off near the end and he had to sew them on again.


William-Fricker said...

I wish you good luck and strong feet. I am 59 and plan to walk next year from Land's End to the tip of Scotland, too, and to prove that life can be fun at 60! I managed a 3,500 trek 30 years ago to Greece, returning on two wheels via North Africa. I can tell you walking is much easier than cycling (with luggage). I suggest plenty of liquid, a plentiful supply of chocolate (it boosts your energy levels at low periods), a comfortable rucksack and knowledge on how to pack it, a walking stick and a dog (two necessary companions). I agree with Hillaby that a light tent is essential for it provides independence, and you can crawl into it when the weather is forbidding. As to footwear, I phoned Hillaby before I set out on my trek and woke him from his siesta (Grumpy)....I started it out with light boots but chucked them after a week (10 blisters per foot) and resorted to adidas leather trainers (3 pairs). You can skip and trot with light footwear. The secret is to be as light as possible and to remember that you will, at times, go mad, and that you will also meet a lot of bores, too. Bon viveur!

Will Fricker

Vic Heaney said...

Hello William. Thanks for the advice but you seem to have missed the point that I completed my walk over a year ago.

Ray Walder said...

Actually his walk was in 1966 not 1967 - sorry to be a bit pedantic! I met him on the walk and we walked together from Achnashellach to Kinlochewe. He was a fascinating guy.