Friday, 4 November 2011

John O'Groats to Land's End: Conclusion

As you might have guessed from my previous posts this hike has not been my most favourite hike. To tell the truth it has probably been the worst hike I have done since I have started this blog. But still: If you asked me if I would recommend this hike to a friend I would not say "No". I would just say that there are better hikes out there. So why has this hike been such an unpleasant experience? There are various factors that in combination with each other turned this hike into a miserable trip. Some of them are just bad luck, some are my own mistakes, but most of all I came to the conclusion that the UK is not the greatest country for long-distance hiking:

Bad luck: I started August 11th and finished October 23rd. Right from the beginning of my trip all the way to the end of September I have had bad weather. Not disastrous weather like the torrential rain I had experienced on the Florida Trail or in Australia, just colder and windier than usual weather. I had frost on my tent on August 25th!!! The constant strong wind made hiking cold and miserable and camping challenging. Bad weather can happen on any trip but in the UK it has a much higher impact on the quality of your hike than in other countries. And unfortunately, Scotland and Northern England were experiencing a very cold and rainy summer this year. End of September the weather changed all of a sudden and I was rewarded with an unexpected glorious Indian summer. But unfortunately by that time I had already been so ground down that the good weather could not boost my morale any more.

My own mistakes: For JoGLE I had used the same sort of map / guidebook setup like on my hike through Germany a couple of months earlier. I had the whole route as a track on my GPS. The GPS had only basic maps, in this case Open Street Maps. I carried guidebooks with strip maps for the marked official trails and print outs for the stretches between them. On top of all that I carried an overall guidebook for the whole route by Cicerone - something that was not available for my German hike. This set up had worked extremely well for my hike in Germany, but was absolutely insufficient for JoGLE. Why is that? Well, in Germany there was not much need to find alternate routes due to bad weather. Also German trails are very well marked. Even if you do not have great maps, you will get there by just following the trail markers. The situation in the UK is very different: Gale force winds and driving rain very often made me want to change to a lower or less exposed route - but unfortunately alternative routes were not covered by my strip maps or print outs and my basic GPS maps were too unreliable and not detailed enough for creating alternates. Following established trails was not an option either: There are far less waymarked trails in the UK than in Germany and even if there was an established trail the waymarking is usually so bad that you will get lost without a detailed map.

A second mistake has been to trust the Cicerone guidebook. Although the route given in there, the list of trail town amenities and the sketch maps were pretty good and accurate, the break down into daily stages led to several problems. The author gives 2 schedules for JoGLE: 2 months or 3 months. I had always considered myself to be an experienced hiker and therefore believed I could easily do the hike in 2 months. I planned my resupply accordingly and set off with 9 days worth of food for the first 8 day stretch - and ended up with almost no food left in the middle of the Scottish Highlands because I physically could not hike the daily mileage. I only escaped starvation by detouring to Ullapool with the map another hiker had given me. Even in hindsight it is still a mystery to me how the author can suggest a daily mileage of 40 km and more in challenging terrain like the pathless Scottish Highlands, demanding  Offa's Dyke Path or the steep South West Coast Path. I was falling more and more behind schedule and getting more and more frustrated by it.

UK is not a good country for long-distance hiking: Keep in mind that I am writing this paragraph just with respect to long-distance hiking, e.g. month long camping treks. What is tolerable for shorter trips becomes a big problem if you have to deal with day after day after day! And some problems do not arise if you are not camping but using hostels and or B&B. What made me arrive at my "not suitable" verdict?
  • No forest: As I have pointed out in earlier posts, only 5% of the UK is forested as opposed to 30% of Germany. And this leads to a serious problem for long-distance hikers: There is no shelter from the inclement weather. You are almost always directly exposed to the wind and rain. This can make hiking miserable and camping almost impossible. If you are able to find a rare patch of forest it will be fenced in and most probably completely overgrown. 
  • Bad waymarking: There are not many fully waymarked long-distance trails. Of course there are thousands of public footpaths, but finding your way on them can be challenging. Because there are no trees, blazes on trees that are used in Germany will not be found in the UK. Instead you will see signpost showing you the general direction - and then you are on your own finding your way across huge pastures full of aggressive cattle or mud pools. If you are lucky you will find foot paths signs on stiles and gates, but again they will only show the general direction. Even with a good map and/or a GPS navigation is difficult and time consuming. 
  • Difficult terrain: The combination of cattle, a lot of rain and no forest turns a huge part of British trails into one huge mud pool. Especially notorious are cattle gates: Because there is a lot of animal movement the area around them is generally one big dirt pool. But of course the gates are usually locked and you can only open it by stepping right into the deepest part of the dirt pool - yuk! Although you would assume that there aren't many steep climbs and descents because the UK does not have any high mountains. Wrong! Whenever there is a hill the trail climbs straight up the steepest slope only to drop straight down again immediately. It seemed to me that they tried to make the hills as difficult as possible in order to disguise the fact that there are no mountains. Also: Switchbacks do neither exist in British vocabulary nor on trails....
Can you spot the stile?
  • Stiles and gates: It is not a great problem to climb a stile once in a while, but if you have to climb one every 10 minutes it starts to get annoying. I encountered the highest density of stiles on Offa's Dyke with up to 80 stiles in 20 km!!!! And of course most of them are not exactly easy: I encountered loads of half or completely broken stiles, slippery rock stiles and stiles completely overgrown with stinging nettles and/or thorny blackberry bushes. 
All those factors lead to a dramatic drop of my daily mileage. I usually hike around 36 km per day, whereas I was happy to cover 30 km on my JoGLE hike. The only stretches were I could actually just hike without spending hours on navigation, climbing stiles and mastering mud pools were on canal tow paths or rail trails. 

To sum it up: I think there is much better and easier long-distance hiking in other countries than the UK. If you do not want to specifically hike in the UK for whatever reason, I would just recommend hiking somewhere else. If you insist on hiking in the UK be prepared for a low daily mileage and lots of rest days due to bad weather. Carry good rain gear and bring detailed maps for the whole trail. If I was to hike in the UK again I would chose a route along towpaths and rail trails - or cycle John O'Groats to Land's End instead of hiking it. But if you are just looking for a 1 or 2 week hiking holiday the UK offers some really unique and beautiful trails like the Pennine Way, Offa's Dyke Path or the South West Coast Path. 


Zed said...

Our maps are great! Poring over them in search of the best walking is a delight.

Face up to the challenge of that open country. eVent is a major help. Then take on the Munros in a summer, Britain's greatest backpacking trip, or explore Scotland's smallest islands. Superb walking is here to be had.

John Manning said...

Many congrats on completing your hike GT - you got through all the adversity!

Like I said, if you can hike here (and millions of us enjoy hiking in the UK) you can hike anywhere!

Enjoy the next one!

Colin Ibbotson said...

I think John makes some good points!

A lot of your negatives about UK hiking are what I particularly like about hiking here! No set routes, open pathless terrain, testing route planning and navigation with a bit of challenging weather thrown in for good measure. Fantastic!

Come back over in the summer and I will show you UK hiking at its best! I guarantee you will chance your mind...

Steve W said...

The idea of a long distance walk over towpaths or disused railways would be my idea of hell. Perhaps as a UK resident I see your disadvantages as advantages. Absence of markings I see as a plus, this island is crowded and anything that makes it seem wilder I see as a bonus.

Steve W said...

First off well done on completing. Many things you see as negatives I see as positives. This might be cultural: the UK is a crowded island, anything that makes it seem wilder (fewer signs for example) I see as a bonus.

German Tourist said...

Please keep in mind that this is a personal blog and I am just giving my personal opinion. For me personally this has not been the greatest hike, but that does not mean that others would not enjoy hiking in the UK.
I have learnt on this hike that I just want to walk. I do not want to think about navigation and bushwhacking - I want to walk and not have to think about it. But luckily we are all different!

Toby - Northern Light Blog said...

Hi Christine, as a Brit living in another country it is really interesting to see your thoughts, and I can see the logic to lots of them. British weather can be lousy - its easy to forget just how bad! If you are heading home at the end of the day, then it's no big problem, but if you are camping in a small tent night after night I can see how it would grind you down. UK maps are superb, but how you would carry the necessary number to JOGLE I have no idea. I guess these days the best GPS systems with OS maps loaded would be the way to go, but of course at great expense and the constant hassle about worrying about charging/batteries.

When I go back to my parents' - my childhood home - I do a lot of running and mountain biking. It's rural West England, and I can understand your point about stiles exactly! In winter when the nettles and bramble have died back a little they are normally fine, but by mid summer they can be totally un-reachable with out getting stung and scratched very unpleasantly! Indeed in summer you are more likely to need long trousers for running/mountain biking than you are in winter for exactly that reason!

Anyway - its a very big walk! So congrats on the achievement even if it wasn't that much fun. I think your point about the UK having some great paths but not being great everywhere is well taken.

Best wishes,
Toby, Helsinki.

Remi said...

The weather has a large influence. I walked the length of the UK in 2008 and I too had a difficult time on the Pennine Way when in February and March I was hit by one storm after another, dark overcast wet days, paths turning into brooks and fields into mud pools from the rain. In April the weather was perfect and I had a wonderful time in the Scottish Highlands, I even got sunburned one day.
Secondly, I know of a Belgian older chap, also used to walking large distances in a day (60 km no exception) who also doesn't like navigational difficulties and obstacles, so I guess it's a matter of walking style: going quick and far or slow and steady. I generally average about 23 km/day, more than 30 km being exceptional, so I am not to bothered by difficult paths or slow going.

John Hayes said...

Hi Christine

Just found your blog - it's really interesting. As someone who has walked around Europe as well as the UK it's great it get a German view of English trails. On the way-marking your absolutely 100 per cent correct, UK long distance trails are badly waymarked, even the "national trails" (although the web-site and GPS services are getting better all the time) - comparitively speaking the UK is very long-distance walker unfriendly. My favorite country is Switzerland where all routes lead to the train station. Good waymarking doesn't make the countryside "less wild" but given the number of people who walk in the Alps, it might make walking more popular.

You make a really interesting point about trees. I don't camp so I'm not dependant for shelter so hadn't really thought about them as an advantage. I find the amount of forest in France (compared to the UK) a bit of a frustration, you often walk for miles without really getting a view.

Anyway thanks for the blog - as always it's great to get another perspective.

Unknown said...

Love your experience here I can concur,

I was swimming in Loch lomond in May then 4 days later got caught in snowstorms through glenfinnan and a 5 hour hail storm in knoydart...which ended with me ditching my tent and staying in a b and b !!

I would say the West Highland Way and Cape Wrath trail are two of the best week long hiking trails in Scotland if not Europe and deserve an honourable mention here.

Thanks for your blog it's great.

Scotty in Osterreich