I never intended to get caught up in something as blatantly uncomfortable as walking across Britain, but back on the sandy beaches of Ghana it had seemed like an excellent idea. That's absolutely the last time I make a life-changing decision when I've enjoyed one too many cold beers in the sun.
Personally I blame West Africa. In October last year I flew out to Senegal for what was supposed to be a year-long trip across Africa, but after three months things were going downhill rapidly; the malaria pills were frying my brain, the travelling was really hard going, I kept getting distressingly ill, I missed my partner Peta terribly, and beneath the brave face I kept putting on, I just knew I had to go home. I'd spent four years planning that trip and giving up wasn't easy, but inspiration struck on the beach. 'I know,' I thought. 'Instead of travelling across Africa, why don't I walk from one end of Britain to the other?'
So I returned to England in January and spent the next three months accumulating too much gear and not enough practice. This morning I set out from Land's End, and finally all those weeks of planning have turned into something real, something that's more tangible than vague itineraries, weather predictions and anecdotes from the irritatingly chipper veterans who populate trekking literature. Today's walk might have been a relatively easy 11 miles over gently undulating terrain, but at last I've wandered into the cliché that a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.
Talking of clichés, I made sure I got my photograph taken by the cheesy mileage signpost at Land's End, and I'm glad I did. The booth by the signpost is peppered with photos of sleek Lycra fetishists posing with bicycles and bearded ramblers groaning under heavy backpacks, but tacked onto the front of the booth in prime position is a picture of Andrew Rivett, who arrived in Land's End last year (2002) on 13 May. He looks knackered in the photo, and it's no surprise considering he'd just jogged from John o'Groats to Land's End in an amazing 9 days, 2 hours and 26 minutes. That means he ran an average of 95 miles per day, taking between 18 and 22 hours each day and covering the 875-mile journey in a time that has yet to be beaten1.
In comparison I'm planning to take three months to cover a slightly longer route of 1111 miles. Incredibly, this makes me the sane one...
Today I floated along, which is no mean feat when you're carrying a 17kg pack on your back. I still can't believe that I've actually set out on this ridiculous walk, and instead of concentrating on the lush countryside of west Cornwall, I spent most of the day thinking about something that I read on a website a few days ago. 'Take an empty pint bottle,' it said, 'and add one-and-a-half teaspoons of water to the bottle each day; when the bottle is full, then that's how long it takes to walk from Land's End to John o'Groats.' I don't know if I'm going to have the patience, but if it's all as pleasant as today's 11-mile hop, I'm in for a treat.
There are two routes from Land's End to Penzance, and I chose the easy one. The hard one follows the Southwest Coastal Path along the wiggly coastline between Land's End and Penzance, but the last thing I fancied for my first day was a strenuous up-and-down struggle along the coast, so I decided to walk to Penzance in a relatively straight line. It turned out to be a good idea; I just sat down with my Ordnance Survey map and chose the most pleasant route I could find.
Not much happened today, for which I should be grateful. I saw one wrecked ship, the RMS Mülheim, being battered by the sea; I climbed to the top of Chapel Carn Brea, which at 198m above sea-level is the westernmost hill in England; I fell in love with the prehistoric remains of Carn Euny, an ancient village where you can walk through a fougou, a 20m-long underground tunnel that would have been trodden by British natives in the years before Christ; and I bumped into my first friendly local in Sancreed, a small village a mile or so from Carn Euny. I'd taken the opportunity to collapse onto an inviting bench outside the village church, and as I peeled off my socks and gasped with pleasure as the cold air hit my toes, an old man popped up out of nowhere, smiling with his eyes.
'Hello,' he said. 'Are you enjoying your rest?'
'I most certainly am,' I replied. 'It's a lovely spot here.'
'It is,' he said. 'Are you walking far?'
'I hope so,' I said. 'It's the first day of my walk from Land's End to John o'Groats.'
'Ooh,' he said, with a look that spoke volumes. 'I've driven it a number of times, but you wouldn't catch me walking it. It's a hell of a long way.'
'Tell me about it,' I said. 'How come you've driven it so much, then?'
'I used to be a long-distance lorry driver,' he said. 'It was back in the fifties, before all these motorways came along. I used to do it in three stages: 11 hours to Tewkesbury, then another 11 hours to Carlisle, and then the final day to Glasgow, where we'd arrive about dinnertime. It's a bit quicker now, though.'
'Not by foot,' I said. 'So did you sleep in your cab?'
'Oh no,' he said. 'We didn't sleep in the lorries, we slept in digs. We'd ring up ahead to make sure we got a bed and some food – that's the most important thing.'
'That hasn't changed,' I said. 'Thank goodness for mobile phones and the great British bed and breakfast, eh?'
'Yeah,' he chuckled, and shook my hand. 'Best of luck, and give my regards to Scotland.'
'I will,' I said. 'At least, I hope I will.'
And with that he disappeared back into the churchyard, leaving me to negotiate the final few fields to Penzance Youth Hostel. It's been a quiet and decidedly uneventful start; that's 11 miles done, 1100 to go.
1 For more details see the Guinness World Records site. Meanwhile, the fastest woman to run from Land's End to John o'Groats is Marina Anderson, who ran it in 12 days, 15 hours and 46 minutes in (which you can also see on the Guinness World Records site).