Bodmin Moor has an image problem. There aren't many places ending in 'Moor' that keep the cockles warm, but Bodmin Moor is one of those whose very name conjures up images of beasts, ancient legends and desolate inns in the middle of nowhere. In the sunshine, though, Bodmin Moor is a pussy cat, and luckily I had sunshine all day today. True, there was a savage north wind that whistled through the rock stacks and made my ears throb, but given the unpredictability of Bodmin's weather, I got off lightly.
The moor is split in half by the thundering A30 as it cuts from the northeast corner of the moor to the southwest, and when it comes to tourist attractions the northern half most definitely pulls the short straw. The southern half boasts the most impressive rock stacks (the Cheesewring and Stowe's Hill); the best legends (Dozmary Pool is the lake where the Lady of the Arthurian Lake reputedly handed over Excalibur); the best folk story (the Hurlers, a rock formation near the village of Minions, is apparently all that remains of a team of men who were frozen in granite for the heinous crime of playing sport on a Sunday); the best hermit story (Daniel Gumb, a self-taught mathematical hermit, lived in the Cheesewring, where he carved his name and Euclid's 47th theorem into the granite); and the best religious story (in the 1930s the lonely and obviously loopy Reverend Densham of Warleggan Church preached to a congregation that was made out of cardboard).
But the northern half is home to both the highest point in Cornwall and the most ridiculous name for such a landmark, and this more than makes up for playing second fiddle in the tourism stakes. Creating titters among trekkers and tourists alike, Cornwall's highest point is a gently sloping 421m-high hill called Brown Willy, and as the most logical route for the End-to-End walker is through the moor's northern half, I just had to tackle the summit.
My blisters healed slightly overnight, and after a fruitful session with lots of surgical tape, blister plasters and painkillers, walking into Bodmin Moor proved relatively pain-free. The springy grass of the moor helped considerably, and although the climb to the summit of Brown Willy was quite a struggle, the views were worth it. The mid-morning sun caught me at the top, gazing over Cornwall from the sea in the north to the bright reflections in Colliford Lake to the south. The wind might have been howling from the neighbouring hill of Roughtor (where the 'rough' part is pronounced to rhyme with 'plough') but it's moments like this that are worth all the painful walking in the world.
Besides, I'm now able to say with my hand on my heart and a perfectly straight face that I've not only enjoyed the company of Cornwall's Indian Queens, I've also sat on top of Brown Willy and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, despite all the sweat and the pain. And that's quite enough double entendres for one day; this isn't supposed to be Carry on Cornwall.
Murder Most Foul
Brown Willy might not be a tourist trap, but the next place I came to most definitely is. From the summit of Cornwall I headed south along field boundaries until I bumped into the A30, and for the next hour I was lucky enough to experience exactly what happens when great stories and great locations get bastardised by the tourist industry. The End-to-End route is littered with utterly isolated and unknown gems, but every now and then it wanders past a tourist Mecca, and the Jamaica Inn is one of the crappiest.
I guess it's not the Jamaica Inn's fault. Bolventor, the little village in which the Jamaica Inn struts its stuff, is right next to the A30, which is inevitable considering that the whole point of the inn is that it was the main coach stop on the way across lonely Bodmin Moor. The downside is that the place has effectively morphed from an atmospheric and legendary inn into a motorway service station. Made famous by Daphne du Maurier in her novel Jamaica Inn, the inn is a good example of why marketing executives should never be allowed to play around with history.
I was rather looking forward to supping a pint in an atmospheric smugglers' inn, but instead I wandered into a disaster of modern catering. From the heavy South African accent behind the bar to the self-service cafeteria-style food system, the Jamaica Inn felt like a theme restaurant, with the theme being that of a moor-side literary inn. It didn't feel genuine; it felt like a parody of itself.
But I needed to eat, so I queued beside the glass-fronted food warmers and bought a pasty and chips, wolfing it down with little ceremony and even less enjoyment. I didn't hang around to soak up the lack of atmosphere, and on the way out I paused only briefly to admire the Daphne du Maurier Museum and the entrance to Mr Potter's Museum of Curiosity, which was apparently founded in 1861 at Bramber and perhaps should have stayed there. For £2.50 I could visit either attraction, and if I really wanted to push the boat out I could get a combined ticket for a bargain £4, but I declined and instead slapped on my pack and tried not to wince as I walked past the Union Jack, the Stars and Stripes, and the Skull and Crossbones that fluttered atop the inn's flagpoles.
As it says above the door to the cafeteria, 'Through these premises passed smugglers, wreckers, villains and murderers. But rest easy... 'Twas many years ago.'
Dispirited by the Jamaica Inn I bounced back north across the moor, padding over the springy moorland grass in the general direction of Launceston, my destination at the end of tomorrow's walk. As I prepared to slip into a long bout of walking meditation I saw another walker coming towards me, and there in his hand was a familiar sight; distinctive with its red and blue banded cover was The Land's End to John o'Groats Walk by Andrew McCloy, the same guidebook that I've been consulting every day for the last week. At last I'd found another End-to-End walker, and he evidently recognised the same in me.
'Are you doing the End-to-End walk too?' he asked, and I gleefully nodded.
'Bloody hard work, isn't it?' he said, and introduced himself as Howard. It turns out that Howard is walking from Land's End to John o'Groats in aid of a cancer charity, and like an incredibly sensible man he's got a friend and a camper van carrying all his gear while he enjoys pleasant day walks with a small daypack and far fewer blisters than me. None, in fact.
'I haven't had one blister yet,' he confided. 'I did a bit of training for this walk – well, one 12-mile hike – and I got two awful blisters on the side of my feet, but they healed and I've been right as rain since. Then again, I'm not carrying a pack like yours – I'm a bit old for that.'
'Yeah, the pack's a sod,' I agreed.
'I've been there before, though,' said Howard. 'A couple of years ago I walked about 500 miles through the Scottish highlands with a full pack, but I couldn't do it now. Still, you're a young chap, eh! You'll be fine.'
'I hope so,' I said, meaning it. I've never walked this sort of distance with a pack this heavy before; when the blisters bite, I wonder if I ever will.
Back Over the Moor
The guidebook's suggested route packs a whopping 22.5 miles into the walk over Bodmin Moor, finishing a long way east in Launceston, but with my blisters there was no way I was going to attempt that. Instead Peta helped me track down a farmhouse B&B just past the edge of the moor.
It was bliss, then, to finally slip off the edge of the moor and into the more traditional lanes and flowery hedgerows of Cornwall, and not just because it meant I was close to the end; after hours on the moor, normal Cornwall feels like paradise. Moorland walking is an exercise in high winds, desolation and a constant worry that if the weather comes down and things get nasty, then you could be in real trouble; Cornish lanes, however, are safe, sheltered and practically impossible to get lost in, and going from one environment to the other is like kicking off the walking boots and putting on the slippers.
I enjoyed the moor, but I enjoyed the short walk to the farm even more. Sometimes the best part of a walk is looking back on it from the warmth of a local pub, and even in the finest weather, the conquering of Brown Willy and Bodmin Moor is something to be savoured, but not necessarily repeated.