It's hard to think of a more perfect setting for the start of a long walk than Cornwall. England's southernmost county is a delightful place with stunning walking and friendly locals, and Devon and Somerset are no slouches either, with undulating farmland, picturesque canals and even the odd moor to hint at how tricky things are going to get further on. I might have spent most of my first few weeks worrying about my blisters, but what a place to do it in...
My first day's walk goes smoothly, and I reflect on the reasons why I'm setting off on such a blatantly uncomfortable experience. I pay my respects to the man who ran across the country in just over nine days, and meet my first local, a friendly man who used to drive trucks from Cornwall to Scotland back in the fifties.
The Helston Furry Dance, Cornwall's oldest festival, scuppers my walking plans, so I take a day off to explore the Furry Dance and find out what makes it tick (a hit single by Terry Wogan and copious home brew, it turns out).
My walk from Penzance passes the beautiful St Michael's Mount and follows the coast, where I touch the sea for the last time until Scotland. I get attacked by farm dogs but find solace in a perfect Cornish pub.
While camping in Pengoon Farm, a local nutter decides to play his dance music at full blast, and I witness a midnight argument between him and another resident of the caravan park. I spend the day walking along Cornwall's famous high-hedge lanes, and I get my first blisters, the start of an unhealthy obsession with my feet.
I get my map measurements wrong and end up walking 21 miles instead of 13.5. On the way I'm attacked by another dog, who playfully dribbles into my boots, and I take refuge in a pub that's home to an arguing couple and a fascinating collection of old children's books. As the day wears on my blisters get worse and worse, and I write about walking through the pain barrier.
Despite the pain I tackle the Camel Trail, which follows one of the oldest railway tracks in the country. I soon arrive at St Breward, a perfect Cornish village, where I take a welcome rest day.
Today I cross Bodmin Moor, hobbling to the top of Brown Willy (the highest point in Cornwall) and visiting the Jamaica Inn, which turns out to be a disastrous tourist trap. I meet my first fellow End-to-End walker and swap stories, and finally come off the moor back into the Cornish lanes.
By walking to Launceston I break the 100-mile barrier, but the rain kicks in and the walk is uneventful. Launceston turns out to be a dismal place and home to an awful B&B, a local glue-sniffer and pubs with linoleum floors. Luckily Launceston Castle turns out to be a delight, and I explore it alone in the rain.
Despite the rain I enjoy following the Two Castles Trail. I cross from Cornwall into Devon and discover the place where 'Onward Christian Soldiers' was written. I also find where King Egbert of the Saxons vanquished the Celts, and end up in a delightful pub for the evening.
Things go horribly wrong today. I follow the easy Granite Trail to Okehampton, passing over impressive viaducts and skirting a rain-soaked Dartmoor. After Okehampton I get lost on the Tarka Trail and fall into bog, and soon afterwards my right foot starts to hurt terribly. I limp into South Zeal and my tent pole snaps in the rain. I give in and take a taxi to Okehampton, the nearest place with a bed; I can't walk and my whole trek is in jeopardy.
I have two rest days in Okehampton and go through my backpack, mailing home anything I don't need (such as my camping gear). I recover in a wonderfully friendly B&B and local pub, I visit Okehampton Castle (again in the rain) and I get invited into someone's house to see their collection of jewelled swords, including the one his ex-girlfriend snapped clean in two...
My foot is better and my pack lighter, and I try out a new pair of socks with a 100% no-blister guarantee. They don't work, but the lighter weight on my back improves the walking, and I write about the differences between the landscapes Devon and Cornwall, and how I'd find it impossible to be a farmer. In Crediton I relax in a welcome bath and discover my first Wetherspoon pub.
The weather gets on my nerves (by now it's been raining for a week), but it gives me time to worry about whether I am turning into a weirdo (after all I'm a bearded, rambling, real ale drinking folkie). I follow the Exe Valley Way to Tiverton, walking past stately homes and over the bridge that inspired 'A Bridge Over Troubled Water' (and which is now a bridge under troubled traffic). In Tiverton I discover yet another Wetherspoon pub.
By the end of today's walk I find I am fantasising about Vaseline, but first I describe the walk along the Grand Western Canal. I get befriended by a dog who won't leave me alone, but soon the canal turns into an ex-canal, and the path takes me through fields where I get attacked by herds of bulls as I cross into Somerset. My pack starts to rub my skin raw – hence the Vaseline fantasy – but Taunton has a Wetherspoon pub where I find great entertainment in the letters page of the pub magazine.
This is another long day, this time through flat wetlands that are surprisingly hard going. I climb Burrow Mump, an ancient hill with a ruined church from which the views are stunning, and I stop for a pint in Middlezoy, where the local paper's headlines tell of a horrible dog attack. As I approach Street I come across the signs of a new age community; Glastonbury is not far away.
I meet Barry, whom I will meet a number of times along the way; he's a real character, walking across Britain at the ripe old age of 69. Walking through Glastonbury, I talk about the strange shops on the high street and the powerful image of Glastonbury Tor, and after some boring farmland walking I get to Midsomer Norton, which turns out to be a truly appalling place.
I wake up in a terrible mood, and the Limestone Link doesn't help matters (I get lost a number of times). Eventually I cheer myself up with a visit to a pub, and that helps me find the energy to get to Bath, where my route turns the corner and finally starts to head for John o'Groats, via the Midlands...