► WEST HIGHLAND WAY, PART 1 – MILNGAVIE TO CRIANLARICH (MAY 2022).

From the 13th to the 15th of May, 2022, I walked the southern fifty miles of the West Highland Way path in Scotland. A fulfilling, ‘re-discovering oneself’ walk after a difficult couple of years. Especially pleased with how well my knees coped, having had suspicions of cartilage trouble – I am 57 – but they did fine.

Simple tireness and sore feet brought the walk to an end. I’d had a nominal plan to do another couple of twenty-mile days, then wild camp above Fort William to drop down to the railway station there, but didn’t feel the need.

The walk cheered me up. I started off in low mood, but after a while trying to identify what was bothering me, whittled it down to just three things. One, concern about the slightly dodgy locality where I’d left my car before catching the train. This was trivia, I decided. There were no valuables in it and I am thinking of selling the thing anyway. If a window got smashed, so be it. Two, my tight personal finances. Well, just got to be really disiciplined. Save, save, save! Live on Jack Monroe recipes and keep everything turned off at home. Worry number three, I realised, was really just an ephemeral, unsettled feeling due to recent changes in personal circumstances, a ‘nameless fears’ thing. Once I’d recognised where the feelings were coming from, they pretty much disappeared.

Now the Victor Meldrew bit … I’m lucky to have walked the Way many years ago when it was new and soft underfoot. I don’t personally think it’s so good any more, at least not the southern half. The track by Lomond is ridiculously undulating and degraded in places, and there are so many annoying walkers!

There are individuals or groups rather full of themselves, often dressed in brand new, smartly-pressed hiking gear, stomping along too-rapidly for their own good and giving chipper ‘mornings’ and ‘hiyas’. There were campers hogging some of the best spots with tents the size of bungalows, decked inside with items of household furniture, their owners’ SUVs parked nearby.

A bothy I’d intended to use had been commandered by a single group of fifteen youths. The ‘head’ invited me stay, speaking as if he owned the place, but said they might ‘party’, whatever that meant. I smelled cannabis.

Heading up to Crianlarich, three thirty-something males with stubbly beards, wrap-around dark glasses and all wearing the same streamlined helmets and black T-shirts, came thundering down the narrow path at high speed on huge bicycles – the kind that look like motorbikes, just without engines – with zero consideration for anyone else. I chose not to jump aside for them, and the lead biker began some comment directed at me through bared teeth and curled lips, but he was past and distant before I had the opportunity to benefit from his wisdom, which, in any case, was drowned out by the rattle of his own barely-controlled machine.

The runners were different. They tend to have a positive and more understanding take on other path users. I’ve done a little running myself and happily step aside so they don’t have to break their rhythym, usually geting a smile and thanks. One used it as an excuse to stop and we chatted for some time. He was training for the West Highland Way Untramarathon later this year.

I’d like to say there were plenty of chatty, cheerful walkers, but they do seem in a minority these days, but I’ll remember with pleasure Kate and Pat, two elderly ladies bravely taking on the Lomond section, and a 20-year-old Japanese girl walking on her own, who asked how I was doing. She had skied, bungeed and hiked in her own country, but admitted that she’d under-estimated the walk and was also thinking of stopping at the fifty-mile mark.

At the end of the walk, not really wanting to be bothered with bivying one last time, I decided to hang around on Crianlarich railway station platform. There’s a lovely little heated waiting room there, and, lounging on a bench, I unexpectedly found myself sleeping solidly for five-and-a-half hours, my mobile alarm waking me at 06:00.

A good trip, and being a fan of train travel, rather enjoyed the eight hour journey back to Leamington Spa, where my car was exactly as I had left it, untouched. Looking forward to doing the rest of the West Highland Way.


Advice for anyone contemplating the walk (Milngavie to Crianlarich):

  1. This stretch is hard going in places, especially by Loch Lomond, very uppy-and-downy. It catches a lot of people out, forcing them to end their walk prematurely. Unless your’re super fit, break it up in to a couple of sections. I have walked the first fifty miles in one go twice in the past few years as excercises in deliberate extreme walking, and can confirm it to be a more than ordinarily exhausting section.
  2. Camp, or, if you’re wealthy enough, pre-book accomodation at suitable intervals. It’s a busy trail and bothys may be full to caspacity. I camped Drymen and two-thirds of the way up the lake side (and would have spent the third night on the hill above Crianlarich, were it not for my waiting room sojourn).
  3. Midges … I used Avon ‘Skin So Soft’, after seeing it recommended on a YouTube video. Seemed to keep them at bay and smells nice too. One 150ml bottle of the Avon stuff should last a week. Pat (one of the older lady walkers) approved of it, “or just wear lots of perfume”. She said a friend of her’s had used some expensive DEET-based spray, but the midges seemed to like it and swarmed all over her even more.
  4. There are shops at reasonably regular intervals on this southern part of the walk, but it is still possible to get caught out with food. Keep the pack topped up with a couple of days of rations. I eat cold, not wanting the extra weight of cooking equipment.
  5. Scotland’s climate means water is never far away, and it’s safe to drink direct from the waterfalls and fast-flowing streams where they’re coming direct from the mountainsides. I carry a 750ml bottle with incorporated water-filter (various brands, I use ‘Water-to-Go’) from which I can keep a plain 750ml plastic bottle filled up. I try to remember to keep a spare bottle top in the backpack. It’s so annoying when you stop for a drink, drop the top and can’t find it again.
  6. I walk with a single Leki pole. The extra point of stability is so useful when clumbering about of the rougher bits of path. Many walk with two poles, but I prefer to have one hand completely free. I have a rubber stopper on the end of my pole (and a spare in the backpack) to be kinder to the path surface.

► ACROSS THE ISTHMUS – A WALK ACROSS THE SOUTH-WEST PENINSULA IN JUNE 2016.

This is the story of a walk I took across the south-west peninsula isthmus in June, 2016.

The south-west peninsula ‘isthmus’ is the neck of land which separates southern England from the Devon/Cornwall peninsula, and it is almost exactly 33 miles across. I fancied walking across the isthmus using a route of my own devising, which, with all the twists and turns would mean a stroll of at least 50 miles.

Having planning the route carefully, I bought my train tickets, and on the 20th of June, off I went. My plan had specific goals:

  • Locate exactly where the ends of the isthmus are.
  • Walk in the night – I’d never done this and wanted to try it, having met someone a few weeks beforehand who was keen on night walking.
  • See how easy it was to travel light – just a few clothes, stuff needed for hygiene, food, water, a camera, and a handful of other essentials.
  • Find out how far could I walk in one day.
  • Discover how practical it is to follow a home-made route like this– a hodgepodge of footpaths, bridleways, permissive paths, farm tracks and minor roads.

20 June 2016 – AXMINSTER TO BEER.

Catching the 09:00 train to Axminster on the 20th of June, I occupied myself by sketching odd things during the journey down. There was no conversation on the train, people being plugged into their mobile phones, buried in books or newspapers or just not being willingly communicative.

Arrived Axminster at 1 p.m., I stepped on to the platform and took the first of what I estimated would be a 150,000 footsteps. I wandered up to the main road through the town to have a look at the scene. Nothing remarkable, but felt good and quietly exciting to have finally got there. Walking back through a small industrial estate by the station and squeezing through a narrow alleyway, I was immediately in the countryside being stared at by farmyard cows. The walk had begun.

The weather was good and there was no rain the first day. From recent indundations, however, there was still plenty of water running off the fields such that some minor roads were running water courses.

My first goal was to reach Beer Youth Hostel, where I would spend the night. Although theoretically an easy day, I kept up a rapid pace, anticipating possible hold-ups, delays or diversions to my intended route and possible loss of my bed.

Passing Doatshayne Farm (SY280952), I noted a sign by a small cage with eggs in it and an honesty box, reading:

EGGS! We have re-homed 20 ex-caged hens So apologies if you get the odd pale yolk in your box. Hopefully they will be back to full health after some TLC. Thanks.

One of the many styles I encountered. Many were in good repair, like this one above Sellers Wood Farm (SY280939) others were rotten and slippery with moss and algae, or in places where the landowner wasn’t so bothered about their preservation crossed by barbed or electrified wires, hidden away in impenetratable thickets or lying in decayed fragments on the ground.

Higher Bruckland Farm (SY282932).

One never quite knows what is going to be beyond the next gate or style. At a spot called Higher Lane (SY267909), the route turned out to necessiate ploughing through an acre of fern jungle – a machete would have been useful – but then emerged through some ancient but clearly well-to-do metal gates to run beside the grounds of an ancient manor house. In walking a route like this, rather than a recognised long-distance path, one encounters such an entertaining variety of landscapes and challenges. Both kinds of walking have their values, of course. I’m not advocating one over the other.

Green Lane (SY277916). The pools of water turned out to be a sign of things to come.

Came across a relic of the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. The farming community organised something called Green Wellie Support Day. This notice at Parsonage Barn (SY262906) was still readable, amazingly, 15 years after the event.

I could hear the waves crashing half-a-mile inland, but it was only when right above Seaton that the sea came into view.

Spent a very comfortable night at Beer Youth Hostel.

21 June 2016 – BEER TO MONKTON WYLD.

Started out at 3 am the next morning.

Beer village, 3:15 am

Seaton sea front at 4 am. Light already. One has the entire place to oneself walking this early.

Sign by Seaton Gold Course.

The Lyme Regis Undercliffs were beautiful, a winding footpath with curiosities around every corner and orchids growing on the cliff top – I identified a Pyramidal Orchid, a Spotted Orchid and (I think) a Greater Butterfly Orchid. Although a five-mile cliff-top walk, the sea is rarely visible, just occasionally through the dense woodland.

After 3½ hours walking through the Undercliffs, Lyme Regis suddenly appeared. It was 8:30 in the morning but there were people playing bowls already. I remember there being some interesting odds and ends between the boulders along the coast, all sorts of natural and industrial sea debris, but my main interest was finally seeing the inward curve of the coast as I approached the southern point of the isthmus, still one mile away, seeing in reality what I’d studied as a map feature for so long.

Standing at the precise point of the southern apex of the isthmus – the low cliff is a soft mudstone, with the coast here being gradually being eroded away.

My last view of the English Channel.

Having spent some time on the beach, at 10:30 a.m. I turned inland.

My home for the second night was the independent hostel accomodation at Monkton Wyld Court. This, I discovered, was a commune. The dozen or so people who live there managing their own water supply, farming organically and recycling as much as possible. Some of the people were temporary volunteers, but for the others it is their permanent home. Their key principles are sustainibility and mutual respect.

They make an income from educating others in their land management methods, running part of the house as a travellers hostel and selling surplus produce. Any surplus income is divided amongst the people as their ‘stipend’. As the only guest, I was invited to eat with them and had a rather luxurious room all to myself.

22 June 2016 – MONYTON WYLD TO BRIDGEWATER MOTORWAY SERVICES.

Started off the next morning at 03:15, walking by torchlight and the light of the moon.

Hawkchurch church porch, 03:45 am, breakfast – an orange.

And then it rained for four hours. I rather enjoyed this, strolling happily along with umbrella deployed.

Shangri La! Stocked upon sandwiches.

Thanks to Sainsburys and the like, never went hungry on the whole walk. Carried water as well, but in reality drank mostly tea and coffee – almost every village shop I passed had a coffee machine.

Arrived, very soggy, in Chard town centre at 9 am. Bought a fresh shirt in a charity shop and felt (and looked) better, and then took a short excursion to a spot called Snowdon Hill, a small prominance just west of Chard – couldn’t resist scaling this little Snowdon, having done the bigger one several times.

My plan for this day was maybe to walk all the way to the Bristol Channel and sit out the short night on the beach, listening to the waves and watching the moon slowly sail across the sky.

The highest point of the walk was Combe Beacon (ST294122), a small hill outside Chard with a triangulation pillar on top. From there could see the Bristol Channel coastline, now only twenty miles away and the end point of my walk. I though at the time I might reach it with no more sleeps, but a couple of unexpected hiccups plus general fatigue were to modify that idea.

The end in sight.

First I got lost, sort of. Trying to take a shortcut to reach a track called Belcome Drove – it only meant crossing a single, empty grassy field – I found myself in a maze of stoutly barb-wired fences with surprisingly few gateways, and spent what seemed an age going backwards and forwards trying to find my way across what was only a few hundred yards.

Then came Fresh Moor, the valley between Combe Beacon and Buckland St Mary – and it was very fresh indeed! Numerous times I stepped on what looked like a safe clod of grass only to find my leg disappearing into deep, muddy slime. Thankfully I’d packed several thick pairs of socks. Once the water had squidged out of my boots, on went a dry pair.

The woodland at Castle Neroche (ST270162) was a lovely place and especially welcome after the trials of Fresh Moor. I rested on a tree stump realising that I was now feeling pretty much worn out. I slowed my pace, ate something, and gently carried on.

The significance of this photo is that it is the half way point between coasts – the precise point being the cat’s-eye in the foreground (ST 30097 19082).

Reaching Hatch Beachamp I was now on the lookout for accommodation. There was none. This was the case throughout the walk. When I walked across south Wales about twenty years ago, there were bed-and-breakfasts everywhere. Not here. The couple of places I did find said no vacancies, or perhaps they just didn’t want the trouble of a late-evening, bedraggled-looking walker to deal with.

Fortune smiled. In the middle of nowhere I came across a quality hot food van, ‘Layz Rick’s’. They gave me a huge bundle of chips with some delicious chicken strips. I felt I could go on all night with that inside me, and, indeed, that’s exactly what I had to do. I’d have continued without the food, of course – just the few small very snacks in my backpack – but the energy the meal gave was a great boost.

I knew of a farmhouse near a place called – I’d better not say – which offered accomodation, but the man there, in spite of a sign declaring vacancies, said his wife was out and he was busy preparing for a wedding party. He offered me a shortcut across his land which I took, and found it was interesting because of some curious remains which I later learned belonged to the Chard Canal, a venture of the mid 19th century which has lain derelict (and waterless) for a century and a half. The bottom end of this short cut was not so great as an overflow of slurry from a cow shed was covering the path.

I decided to use the River Parrett path. The walk fortunately coincided with a full moon. With that and a torch for the darker bits, this night-time walking went fine. I’d occasionally have a 15-minute or ½-hour rest, then carry on. It’s an interesting experience – owls hoot, things rattle in the undergrowth, the occasional startled bird sounds a warning as I pass. The eyes can play tricks, with distances being very deceptive – passing through one village I was certain I could see some white ponies shuffling about behind a fence, but when I reached the point there was nothing there. An illusion produced by the beam of my torch and my tired brain trying to interpret the flickering light and shadow. I’d seen them so clearly, even heard them gently snorting in my head. I’ve read since about how some extreme atheletes such as ocean rowers, high altitude climbers and long-distance runners can experience hallucinations, but just accept it part of the experience.

After a long tramp I was back in civilisation, sort of – the motorway services on the M5 by Bridgwater. This was four o’clock in the morning and VERY welcome. While physically reasonably fit – I’d done some long walks around Southam in the weeks beforehand – the soles of my feet were now really painful. After each stop, starting to walk again felt like walking barefoot on pointed cobbles. My plan at this point had been to lounge about in the town for a few hours, have a wash somewhere then do the final stretch to the north coast, but the lure of a shower and a bed was too strong. It was excellent, although extravagantly expensive – £88 – considering I was there for just a few hours.

23 June 2016 – BRIDGEWATER SERVICES TO STEART.

After a few hours sleep felt much refreshed. My camera and phone batteries had recharged. Pocketing all the complimentary tea, coffee and sugar packets I could find, set off again at eleven in the morning. Getting out of the services was surprisingly challenging – they’re designed for cars, not pedestrians – and I started off in the wrong direction. It took me an hour trying first one road then another, eventually finding myself back on track.

The Bridgewater Canal in the town centre (ST300364), a pleasant green spot.

The beams across the impressive Victorian canal-works which run through the town have the following carved on them:

NAVIGATORS / SINEW AND BONE / CRACK OF THE HAMMER / IRON ON STONE / RED QUANTOCK / WE CAME AND WENT / OUR LEGACY / A BOAT / COMING CLEAN / THROUGH THE HILL

[I later learned that this was part of a community arts project of the ?1990s, the lines of the poem being decided by school children.]

I navigated largely using GPS. When walking years ago all I had were maps and a compass – GPS being non-existent. Some good memories are of conversations with complete strangers, sharing coffee or chocolate bars and discussing what we’d seen and which was the best way to go. Now people are more often than not staring into their phones or shuffling through their music tracks with a frustrated look on their face, managing a mumbled ‘hello’ at most. Modern life.

Close to the end now, and with plenty of daylight had some long rests to ease the feet. Made the mistake of trying to use my umbrella as a walking stick and broke the handle off. Thankfully there was no more rain. Wandering through the grounds of Gurney Manor Mill was passed by a young boy driving a tractor, who kindly gave me permission to take a short cut across the land.

Coombwich village was a friendly place. The woman in the Post Office offered to fill my water bottles without me even asking, and they put their post office stamp in my notebook as a souvenir. An elderly lady in the shop who overheard me talking about my walk, a sponsered affair to benefit a dementia care charity, and gave me a £5 donation. I started to decline but she insisted, saying her husband had died with dementia and she thought it was a very good cause. Thank you, Betty of Coombwich.

A short walk out of the village and suddenly there it was – the Steart peninsula with the Bristol Channel just beyond. Fantastic.

I arrived at six o’clock in the evening. It was a good feeling to reach here at last, having stared at the point on the map for so long. I spent a couple of hours exploring and enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach, a mixture of shingle, sand and mud.

A small log washed up by the tide happened to point more or less precisely to the location of the isthmus northern apex.

The sky then started to do some magic tricks. There was a curious effect as the sun was setting – a sort of ribbon-like cloud high up caused a fan effect above the nearby Hinkley Point Nuclear Power Station. [I have since seen this elsewhere and believe it to be caused by the sun shining through the ripples of a high-altitude aircraft vapour trail.]

A little later for a short time there was a sort of rainbow high up in the ice crystal clouds.

There was a beautiful sunset – I couldn’t have asked for a better finish to the walk.

My plan to sit on the beach listening to the waves as the moon sailed past turned out to be a romantic fantasy. With Stert being so flat, a keen, chilly breeze whipped across it. Plan B had been to shelter in one of the bird hides, but they were all locked and in any case were constructed in such a way that the wind whistled straight through them – perhaps to discourage people from doing exactly what I had been planning.

So, plan C … I said goodbye to the Bristol Channel and started plodding back inland. It was a long slog. I was very tired and the soles of my feet were aching more than ever, but I decided to take the roads, thankfully almost vehicle-free, for simplicity of route-finding even though the hardness of the tarmac was extraordinarily painful to walk on now. The knowledge that there’d probably be some quality food and drink at Bridgewater helped a bit.

24 June 2016 – HOME.

I arrived in Bridgewater town centre at three in the morning and sat on a bench enjoying NOT walking. There was a drunk shouting in the distance. I finished off my sandwiches and found a 24-hour petrol station and ordered a coffee through the window. Another passer by (not the drunk man) did the same. The attendant disappeared for ages, the man said he was always ‘doing that’, and we joked about what might be going on in the back room.

I’d had ideas of walking to a relative’s house about fifteen miles away that day, but seeing that there was a train departing for Bristol at 6 am, took that, then one to Birmingham, and then one to Leamington Spa and was soon home. My souvenirs were two miniature jam pots with a bit of water and piece of pottery I found in the mud on the English Channel side and water and a patterened pebble from the other.

[I kept the jam pots for a couple of years, but then the water went strangely black, so I discarded it, but still have the bit of pottery and the pebble – it would be nice to return them one day, perhaps repeating the walk with a few minor alterations and completing it in one single, continuous effort.]

The answers to my questions:

  • The north and south apexes of the isthmus are at grid references SY 35723 93090 and ST 25150 45180, and are 33.03 miles apart.
  • Walking at night was good. Lovely and quiet, although I did have the advantage of beneficient, mild weather conditions. Might not be so much fun in the cold, wind and rain.
  • The lightpacking worked fine. Being mild weather, I didn’t need much. Having walked with much heavier packs, it was a pleasent change to have something so much lighter.
  • The length of my route between the apexes was 60 miles. With other bits of walking I found I’d walked almost exactly 100 miles in 3 days and 15 hours, the longest day being Monkton Wyld to Bridgewater, a smidgen under 40 miles.
  • Self-designed routes? The way-finding was largely fine, although the northern third was a little more difficult, some paths poorly maintained.

[I did get blisters under the webs of my big toes, but they were not serious matters – I remember them stinging when having to plod through some slurry. When I got home, I also found I’d picked up what I was later told was probably a deer tick sitting just below by navel. A tiny thing, I thought it was a little scab at first. Googling what to do, I cautiously removed it, a surprisingly difficult job, and on NHS telephone advice went to A&E. A nurse cleaned the small wound and I was put on antibiotics. While I’d kept myself well covered while walking, this one had got in at the waistline where my T-shirt was flapping open, perhaps while I was cat-napping lying in the grass. Lesson learned!]

June 2016 [minor amendments December 2022].


► TO WALK LIKE BORROW.

A piece I wrote for The George Borrow Bulletin (Autumn 2017), with the kind encouragement of the late Dr Ann Soutter [1]. George Borrow (1803-1881) was a farmer and author who went on long walks, sometimes lasting days or weeks, through the British countryside.

DSCN0400

EARLIER THIS YEAR [2017] I went for a long walk through southern Wales. Ever since reading Borrow’s description of his three-hundred-mile trek in the book Wild Wales, I have at various times tried copying some of his achievements. This year I happened to be the same age as Borrow when he made his mammoth journey from Llangollen to Chepstow, so I devised a plan to walk the length of Wales using footpaths, bridleways, permissive paths and minor roads. I trained myself physically for the distances involved, asked advice from friends who are experienced walkers, acquired the necessary equipment and on 28 June set off from the southern-most tip of mainland Wales, my intention being to reach the north coast within a fortnight.

It didn’t quite work out that way. The boots I had chosen could not cope with the water-logged condition of the countryside, the first twenty-four hours of my trip coinciding with the downpour that followed the June heat wave. On top of this, a surprising number of the rights-of-way I’d intended to take were impassable due to poor maintenance, heavy overgrowth or deliberate blocking, adding many miles to my originally planned distances.

DSCN0404C

By the end of the second day the impossibility of the task I’d set myself was becoming apparent. I sat on the hillside above Merthyr Tydfil looking down at the spot where, 163 years earlier, Borrow had strolled by, and I began thinking about the differences between long-distance walking in his day and now. With all my dedicated clothing, footwear, maps, GPS and other specialised equipment, I came to the conclusion that Borrow benefited from advantages not available to the modern walker, and that I would have to reconsider my plans if I was to attempt another such expedition.

Of greatest significance, it seemed to me, was that apart from some deliberate excursions over hills of special interest to him, Borrow was travelling by road. He was taking the most direct and least gradient-challenged routes between towns and villages. My route wandered all over the place and not infrequently involved steep ascents or descents, sometimes unexpected. One innocent-looking bridleway on the map took me on a seven-hundred-and-fifty-foot climb up a bracken-covered, sixty-degree slope and cost two-and-a-half hours with only one third of a mile distance gained. I thoroughly enjoyable the experience, but from my journey’s point of view it was clearly impractical.

DSCN0405D

The road surfaces of Borrow’s day would have been relatively foot-friendly, being compacted dirt and gravel and probably well-vegetated in places, not unlike some of today’s National Trails. Excessive distances on modern metalled roads are a different matter, the constant pounding of the feet on the hard surface leading to painfully aching soles and ankles. There is also the matter of the traffic. So many drivers make minimal effort to give pedestrians adequate berth – on one country road I had to bury myself deep in a hedge when a van and lorry chose to pass each other parallel to me with complete disregard for my welfare.

Another advantage enjoyed by Borrow was the availability of accommodation. In that era of travel by foot, horse, carriage and rail, hostelries appear to have been plentiful. I live in a small town in the centre of England which once happened to be a hub of the stage coach network. When I was little there were still nine pubs in the town which had a population of only two thousand, a relic of that former trade. Some premises still retained the wide, arched yard entrances characteristic of such places.

These days accommodation is relatively sparse and often prohibitively expensive, and needs planning and booking well ahead to avoid disappointment. Last year [2016] I walked across part of southern England, assuming I would find places to stay along the way. There were none. I spent two nights walking in the dark and cat-napping in long grass, hoping that no other night-time wanderers or curious livestock would either bother or be bothered by me.

DSCN0405M

To good roads and accommodation, the evident hardiness of the Victorian foot can be added. Borrow was, after all, a hard-working farmer living in a world of mainly pedestrian travel. No hopping in the car or even on a bicycle to get somewhere. I once met a French farmer’s son who told me how, in the summer, he rarely wore shoes. The consequence was that the soles of his feet would become as thick and as tough as leather and even sharp stones would not bother him too much. When he put shoes on again in the winter this layer would peel off like a snake shedding its skin. I imagine the soles of Borrow’s feet, and possibly pretty much everyone else in Victorian Britain, were of a similarly tough nature, not the soft, pampered appendages of today.

Of great importance, of course, were his boots, hob-nailed leather affairs. Borrow mentions needing them re-soled a couple of times during his Llangollen-to-Chepstow walk and on another occasion how sharp stones on a mountain track were cutting through them and hurting his feet, but little else. There were no alternatives, of course, which may have disinclined him to comment further, assuming his readers would be well-familiar with such issues. Perhaps walking on the relatively well-drained road surfaces and luck with the weather meant that for him moisture problems were not such an issue and his treasured worsted stockings seem to have done their job well.

DSCN0405N

Not so with me, having to plough through tall, wet, lush vegetation on regular occasions. My boot problems were a mixture of bad luck and bad judgement. Bought especially for the purpose, they had proved comfortable on trial walks, but I realised later that I had never tested them in seriously wet conditions. They were desperately inadequate at minimising water ingress. Blisters or damaged skin in dry boots can be treated or tolerated, but long miles in permanently damp footwear eventually caused my skin to weaken and break. After three days of this, I had a rest day with my feet up and my boots drying, and the next day took a short walk to test things out. The skin, however, was damaged beyond immediate repair and the walk had to terminate.

I should add that I go on such walks knowing there will be difficulties, indeed looking forward to them, and I enjoyed every footstep of my journey. I’ll look back and recall with great pleasure such things as ‘the battle of bracken hill’, the hedgehogs patrolling the woodlands behind Rhoose in the dark, the many trickling streams, helping a farmer lift a ‘weed topper’ on to blocks so he could work on it, the countless bleating sheep, chatting with the occupants of the house at Pont-y-Meibion, and above all the unique, quiet beauty of the Welsh landscape with its subdued greys, greens, browns.

DSCN0406C

I’d like to say that I had as many interesting human encounters as Borrow did in his book, but this was not really the case. Walking years ago I would find myself sharing chocolate bars and cups of coffee with complete strangers in the middle of nowhere, chatting in depth about paths, the qualities of different brands of backpack, the weather and numerous other subjects, but this is no longer so easily accomplished. So many people wander silently by, earphones firmly inserted and shuffling through the tracks on their iPhones, often with a frustrated look on their face, barely acknowledging others.

Thankfully, at the one Youth Hostel I utilised, people were more sociable – there was a woman who was walking the Beacons Way, another who invited me to join a holiday club, and a vegan, yoga-practising man who was reading a book about aliens secretly taking over the planet. We shared food, studied maps, made cups of tea for each other and chatted about the weather, past adventures and the gradual dissolution of the YHA. It was all very pleasant. Then we said our good-byes and went our respective ways.

After my three days and eighty-six miles, I took a few short walks to look at the scenery around Llandeusant and then made my way back to Warwickshire by public transport, then returned to Wales by car to explore some of the places l’d intended to travel through on foot. The most moving was Huw Morris’s grave at Liansilin. Having been impressed by Wild Wales at a young age, to actually be crouching at the same spot as the author thirty years after first reading the book was surprisingly affecting.

DSCN0406B

I still have many questions for Borrow. How did he cope with the cold, wind and rain during his late-autumn walk and at a time when the climate had not yet completely recovered from what historians call ‘The Little Ice Age’? Was he just lucky with the weather? Did he really carry nothing other than an umbrella, a spare pair of stockings, a shirt, a razor and a prayer-book? What about food? He mentions hearty meals in some places, but how did he manage the majority of the time? Did he walk all day on last night’s supper? Had I really met him on my descent from the hillside above Merthyr, I would have dearly loved to study his boots and ask him that question most burning in my mind, “Excuse me, Mr Borrow, how are your feet today?” [2]

DSCN0406A

Notes:

[1] Dr Ann Soutter FRSA (who authored under the name Dr A. M. Ridler), founder of the George Borrow Society in 1991. She also founded in the Lavengro Press in 2014 to publish rare or previously unpublished writings by Borrow. I had contacted the society regarding my walk and Ann encouraged me to write the article and also sent me a copy of some unpublished notes of Borrow’s she had transcribed. It was with great sadness that I learned of Ann’s death in 2018.

[2] Dr Soutter commented that in other writings Borrow described having generous breakfasts and also occasionally complained of sore feet.