Why Land’s End to John O’Groats?

One’s destination is never a place but rather a new way of looking at things —  Henry Miller

Stephen and Sophie Holroyd

A careless suggestion about a decade ago resulted that year in an unexpected gift under the Christmas tree: the now out-of-print Cicerone Guide to the End-to-End Trail, such a dense and heavy volume (howsoever pocket-sized) that it is now available only as a digital edition.  The book gathered dust, attracting the occasional wistful look – until we figured out that if we were not forever going to regret never having made it happen, there was only one year in which we could feasibly undertake a 10-week walk which didn’t involve either catastrophying all over our children’s public exam commitments, or being so old that the condition of our knees and hips would become the first item on any risk assessment.  This one year was 2019, and it so happened that it coincided with the 25th anniversary of our getting married in the chapel of Malvern College, where we still both teach.

In looking back over the last quarter of a century wondering how to celebrate our twenty-five years together, one consistent theme seems to have been long-distance walking.  Stephen had resurrected the expedition element of the Duke of Edinburgh Gold Award at the College in the early 90s, and it became a fixed point in our Easter holiday to loom out of the cloud at pre-determined checkpoints in the Brecon Beacons, to tick off the pitifully bedraggled groups of pupils burdened with rucksacks so large and heavy that they were almost impossible to lift.

Another College waymark on the journey to the start of this End-to-End Trail was the Marathon Sponsored Walk that we organised for September 1996, when near on a thousand people – almost the entire student body of both schools – walked from the College to Tewkesbury and back to raise a massive £25,000 for the National Meningitis Trust in memory of a pupil at the school who had died of the disease ten years before.  A less ambitious marker was staffing Walking Club, a weekly 2-hr hike on the Malvern Hills above the school, low-key perhaps but which yielded memorable moments such as Brocken spectres.

The annual D of E week in the mountains walking paths far away from main roads and their cars thundering along was a slow life, a simpler life.  It seemed a kind of a gift, an opening-up of space.  And I envied the pupils’ sense of satisfaction and achievement, but felt (at the grand old age of 30 and very conscious of what now seems the risibly-relative age gap between me and the Sixth Formers) that I rather ought to out-challenge them and prove my youthful vigour to myself, one last hurrah before we settled down and started a family.

So in 1997 we stitched together four D of E Gold expedition distances and did the 214-mile Coast-to-Coast route self-supported from St Bees in Cumberland to Robin Hood’s Bay in North Yorkshire.  The highlights were stupendously high and the lowlights correspondingly troughy: Stephen recalls feeding squares of chocolate to me on the way down Honnister Pass, internally furious that my tear-stained face made him the subject of filthy looks from passers-by; seems he mentally hung a sign round my neck saying ‘I chose to do this’.

But the highlights last longer in memory than the lowlights: we reprised the route ten years later with a 6-yr-old, and a 2-year-old in a backpack, obliging parents acting as logistical support; we had learned, sapiens qui retrospicit, the value of packhorse services and walking poles.

Our thanks go to the Malvern College Council for granting us both a long-service sabbatical term in which to undertake this celebration – this challenge – this enterprise that, I am sure, will over the next few months turn out to be one of such absolute madness that we will bitterly regret having chosen to do it. Mark Moxon’s words ‘I had to dig deep’ are a constant silent refrain in my ears, and the knowledge that he had to take his first rest day on Day 2 is more than a niggling worry in the back of my mind.

It is our hope, however, that there will also be many hours of joy, one step following the other, the path unrolling before us, and that it will be a time of swallows and swifts arriving back from Africa, of watching cloud formations, of hedgerows turning from early spring to full summer, of the southern coastline slowly giving way to the northern mountains.  Of time walking together ‘between two waves of the sea’, one meeting Land’s End, the other John O’Groats.

Pebbles on shingle ridge, Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey

2 thoughts on “Why Land’s End to John O’Groats?”

    1. Thank you! That’s so kind of you to say. I think Stephen is the competent one and all I am doing is putting one foot in front of the other, narrating it all to myself.


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