Hike Northbound through Britain with Daryl May
Click for Southbound hike
DN1 777
 Days N1 - N14                                                                   English West Country
Day N1 - Land's End to Penzance
                                 Hail to the hiker                      
Day N2 
Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Time of departure: 7.15 am
Time of arrival: 12.15 pm
Place departed: Land's End, Cornwall
Place arrived: Penzance, Cornwall

Miles: 10.7
Cumulative miles: 10.7
  Percent complete: 1.2

Bed sign
 Longboat Hotel  **
That's two stars out of five by my rating, which considers amenities, cleanliness, friendliness, food if any, and cost

Cost (for bed only): 20 ($40)
  Overview of both hikes


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DN1 NatEx bus
DN1 bus ticket
To start my hike, I shed civilization in layers. I left a warm house in America without my car, my cat Johnny, and nearly all my belongings. A jet airliner took my wife Jennifer and me to London with few comforts - but it had a functioning toilet.  In London, I said goodbye to Jennifer, and jumped on the National Express long-distance bus to Penzance in Cornwall - with a toilet bowl that sloshed its contents liberally across the floor.

I overnighted at the Longboat Hotel, where I abandoned my travel clothes – chosen for that purpose – and dressed for hiking. Hoisting my backpack, I boarded the 6.25 am Bus 1a in the dark at the Penzance bus station, courtesy of the First Devon & Cornwall Bus Co. The double-decker meandered and bumped and swayed the ten miles to Land's End, and deposited me in a deserted parking lot at 7 am. I was the only passenger, and the driver surely wondered why he had anyone at all so early, let alone a hiker who could have started at a more relaxed hour.

“Good luck, mate,” said the driver. The twinkle in his eye transmitted a sardonic regard for my age. He probably expected to carry me back to Penzance later on the same day, with a sprained ankle and frostbite from the Cornish winter. In fact, we saw each other twice more that day as he plied the same route. But, right now, with diesel engine throbbing, the bus departed Land’s End without me - or any other passengers, which was probably its normal winter morning load.

I stood alone with my backpack and hiking stick, in one of the most desolate spots on the British mainland, over four thousand miles from home.  It was barely dawn, it was freezing, and it was about to hail.  And I had only myself to blame.

My early morning start was the result of pent-up enthusiasm for a hike that I had planned for at least six months - and had thought about for 50 years. It was blissfully sweet for it to finally become a reality. The two months of toil and sweat ahead weighed lightly on my mind.

So what was I embarked on? To the world at large, I was coy: “To hike from Land's End to somewhere”. My goal was actually to hike the thousand miles from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.  But, at that moment, my knees and other ailments (63 years in the making) made the destination more dream than reality. I wasn't thick-skinned enough to tell my friends about my intentions and then retire in ignominy a few days later. So, in the contemporaneous draft of this journal, my hike was an unspecific “From Land's End to somewhere”. My friends could deduce failure but hardly prove it.

Land’s End is the southwestern tip of the English mainland.  John o’ Groats is the northeastern tip of the Scottish mainland, though purists might argue that it’s actually the northeastern-most village. Duncansby Head, two miles to its east, is the physical tip, a distinction that didn't bother me. Beyond the mainland are islands – the Scilly Isles in the south and the Orkneys and Shetlands in the north. To include them in the “end-to-end” hike, as this length-of-Britain route is often called, would add little to the mileage or the challenge.

Why does a retired American make this arduous, very long walk? Hopefully the answers will emerge, even for me, as I write this journal. Certainly the word "American" needs interpretation in terms of my British origins. But much of the answer is expressed in a few humble and plaintiff words: to prove I still can.

The Land's End cliffs are a prohibited-access, conservation area, dangerously unstable even in good weather, and they were too close for comfort in the semi-dark and poor weather to try to make my way down to the water. I hung about in a tacky tourist complex until 7.15 am, in a growing gale, then decided there was no point in waiting. The tourist complex was closed at this hour. The Land’s End Hotel would have stamped a card to testify to the start of my hike so that I could pay someone for a completion certificate when I finished. But, like fellow hiker Dave Greenwood, I couldn’t be bothered. As Dave wrote in his blog, “I’m not doing this for them, I’m doing it for me”.

To depart Land’s End (LE) on this hike, one crosses a well-known “Start-Finish” line painted on the road. The word “Start” faces north-walking hikers, while “Finish” faces south-walking ones. There is a similar line at John o’ Groats (JOG) that I would see eight weeks later. The north-heading route is known as LEJOG, and the south-walking one JOGLE, the acronyms being formed from the names of the starting and finishing villages.  I was a LEJOGer.

The gale-force wind from the east packed hail with a 40 mph punch, pea-sized, lashing down at a 45-degree angle, quite hurtful and enough to carpet the streets. My instinct in these circumstances was not to take shelter, but to cover my day’s distance first. Thus I started my hike anyway, with foreboding about what first-day hail signified in terms of weather to come.
Horses, in their snug coats, could turn their backs to the wind and continue to graze.  Heading east, I could not turn my back to the wind and continue to walk. So I walked into the teeth of it.

Cornwall - county of daffodils and palms, hedgerows and gray stone cottages. Narrow lanes which go up and down nearly as much as they wind to left and right, so narrow that they make passing difficult for cars even if the hedgerows beside them do not obscure the view - which they often convincingly do. On these lanes, Hobson the hiker has a choice of being struck by a car side mirror or impaling himself on a thorn-covered hedgerow - exaggerating, but you get the idea. The hedgerows of Cornwall are littered with car mud-flaps and wheel covers!  Cornish roads are unique - and dangerous.
I took my time in the miserable conditions, sticking to the main road (A30, very minor here) especially when I saw the muddy, rough condition of one public footpath. The one rest that I took, on a roadside rock, both wet and froze my rear at the same time, a condition that I later found to be typical of roadside rests in Britain, because even if it was not raining, it surely had done so not long before. Still, the beef jerky that I munched on provided comfort. Thankfully, my clothes and footwear handled the conditions well, though my gloves seemed to provide little warmth. My pack, however, felt uncomfortably heavy.

After a morning on the road, I arrived back at Penzance in time for a pub lunch of bangers (sausages), mash, peas and a pint of Fosters, at the Star Inn downtown. Here, BT (British Telecom) was supposed to provide wifi (wireless internet) service according to their directory - but no wifi signal was to be found on my equipment, and the barmaid said they didn't have it.  It was an early taste of BT’s service – a taste that only got sourer in the days ahead.

On my way to the hotel, I bought some cheese and apples to be ready for the morrow, and topped up my cellphone account. The weather was expected to be colder, still windy and wet but without hail. I hoped to cover about 15 miles to a farmhouse B&B north of Helston. Having finished my planned distance today, I felt I could now reserve it.

Despite the short distance I had covered, my legs and back ached, and I retreated to my Longboat Hotel bed to rest them.  RICE = rest, ice, compression, elevation - at least I could do the R and E. Last night’s dinner at this same hotel, a celebration of sorts before my hike started, I ordered a steak. It turned out to be the toughest piece of animal cadaver ever known to man or beast, so I decided to eat an English breakfast for my evening meal today, which would, as a minimum, be tasty and filling.

Thus with a modest eleven-mile walk in difficult conditions, I started my British adventure.
DN1 Cornish coast northeast of Land's End
DN1 Penzance milestone DN1 Hail on road
DN1 Hail close-up DN1 Ice and puddles
                                                                   2007 and 2008 Daryl May                        Day N2