Every Pub in the Yorkshire Dales National Park

It’s been a couple months since I finished my hike to all the pubs in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I’m now back home in hot hot Arizona, reflecting on my 350 mile, four-week walk. I hiked to 89 pubs (a number that does not include the score of pubs visited in the towns just outside the bounds of the national park). I’ve been trying to work out which variables make a great country pub. Not such an easy task.

Over the last few years, I’ve hiked somewhere north of 3,000 miles in the UK. Every hike was planned with pubs in mind. For me a good walk is hiking and pubs in nearly equal measure. As a result, I’ve seen my fair share of country pubs. Not all of them are winners. Most are solid, and a scant few are exceptional. 

But how do I measure the virtue of a country pub? Initially, I’d venture that a good country pub needs two essential ingredients: good beer and an atmosphere with some measure of bucolic aesthetic. Put these two factors together in almost any measure, I’m satisfied. But what takes a good solid country pub into exceptional territory? Great beer and/or great atmosphere? Yes, of course. But I think the true greatness variable is more difficult to measure than the other two. It’s about the people. People make a good pub great, even a mediocre pub great. 

Warmth, friendliness, hospitality. A pub can’t be great without it. Just the name “public house” invokes this truth. It’s a place for community, everyone is welcome.

Every pub I’ve truly loved included meaningful interaction with people. When I walked from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, my favorite pub was a crossroads country pub in Somerset called the Halfway House (Pitney). The pub boasted an impressive array of well-kept local craft-forward real ales. I was absolutely tickled that they served the beer from a back room via gravity pours, the method employed before the advent of the bar (which was first introduced via Gin Palaces) and the beer engine). I asked the publican to pick beers for me, and he happily and competently obliged. It was a wonderful experience. 

When I think back to the Halfway House though, the first memory that comes to mind is not just of the beer. It includes a group of locals that invited me to their table and one particular local who later took me out in his beat-up vintage convertible that broke down when we went uphill. I had a beautiful evening of skittles and laughter while pushing a tiny broken convertible uphill. Good to great.

Halfway House

When I was trying to come up with ideas for a walk this summer, I did my best to muster interest in places I’ve never been: Wales, East Anglia, Cape Wrath. But my daydreams always come back to the Yorkshire Dales. I can’t quite put my finger on the draw. A thought struck me that maybe I could hike to every pub in the park, which would also have the bonus effect of getting me to the small recesses I would otherwise never visit. 

After a few days of furious googling and planning, I developed a workable meandering route. And then, just as suddenly as the idea came, I put it on the backburner while COVID uncertainty raged. While I had a ticket on hold for months, it wasn’t until the day before departure that I decided to actually go through with the trip. I finally revisited the hastily made route while sitting in quarantine in Halifax. I opted to embrace the adventure and just go without more planning.

And so, after receiving my all clear to end quarantine at 9pm the night before, I emerged on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park with a profound hangover, dubiously staring at a pint at the Elm Tree Inn in Embassy. With effort, I finished the first official pint and quickly found myself in the familiar grassy bucolic expanse of the Dales.

Fortunately, another hiker was navigating the footpath ahead of me. My head still aching and spinning, I was in no condition to figure out the apparently seldomly traversed trail myself.

A few hours later, I entered the well-manicured outskirts of Hetton, home to the famous Angel Inn and Hetton brewing, which brews a couple of beers I really like. As I approached the Angel Inn, it became apparent something was off. A slew of Porsches and Range Rovers sat conspicuously in the very clean (sterile?) facade of what was once the Angel Inn but now “The Angel At Hetton,” adorned with a large Michelin star plaque. I could feel the side glances as I approached. A minute later, I had been politely turned away from The Angel At Hetton, as beer was apparently reserved for guests of the establishment.

Approach into Hetton

This blog is not the place to fully articulate my disdain for that recently “reimagined” pomp factory. It was no longer a pub. In fact, it had become the antithesis of a pub. I shook the dust off my feet, slightly relieved the obligation of another queasily choked-down pint had been postponed.

The wonderful Craven Arms

Thusly, my hike began. Pubs came and went. A wedding at the Craven Arms in Appletreewick (one of my favorite pubs for years) brought a bus load of posh sounding Londoners who, after a few drinks, played a role in a night of a parade of pints of Old Peculiar from wooden casks as well as deep conversations. Earlier in the day, the relatively new publican up the road at the New Inn reluctantly showed me the cellar for his astonishing 14 beer engine rural pub. I still don’t know how he can go through that much beer.

The New Inn

It quickly became obvious that the covid staff shortages would result in a number of pubs with limited hours. So I came to terms with the fact that I would have to settle for a picture of a pub when I couldn’t get in. Fortunately, while this wasn’t an infrequent occurrence, there were only a couple pubs I was disappointed not to get into.

On the way to Upper Wharfdale

At the wonderful Fountaine Inn in Linton, I got into a conversation with the publican about all the other characters I was bound to encounter on my trip. I was impressed by the Fountaune’s house beer, a surprisingly flavorful amber. A day later, after enduring a deluge in Grassington and being shushed by a grumpy English dickhead (who chose, in a empty and caverness pub, a table next to me and another patron talking tables apart), I came back to a poorly pitched tent with a gallon of rain water in it. Thankfully, my friendly campsite neighbor, a sweet man with a pet baby ferret, helped me get sorted enough to enjoy a dry night’s sleep.

Fountaine Amber

One pub I was sad to not get into was the profoundly rural Thwaite Arms in Horsehouse. Later that night, I found myself gently informing the publicans of a fully booked pub that if they didn’t feed me, I’d go without for the night. In no time, I was presented with an enormous piping hot plate of sausage and mash. The rest of the night was a blur of pints of Hetton Dark Horse and hilarious banter between the husband and wife team behind the community owned Foresters Arms in Carlton in Coverdale. I pitched my tent in the 10pm dusk on the top of Melmerby Moor just as the rain started, full, tipsy and content. From a good pub to a great one.

Foresters Arms

The next day, I happened to catch an AM pint in the Fox and Hounds in West Witton on the very last day of a quarter century tenure of the husband and wife landlords. Between the conversations with the furniture movers, the soon to be retirees doled out goodbye chatter with the locals.

Camping on the moors

I passed through Aysgath and shot up into Bishopsdale. At another Fox and Hounds (no relation) in West Burton, I had another curry meal at an unremarkable pub. Unremarkable except for the fact that the pub seemed a fixture of the community, as much as the village green where I watched kids play soccer over my curry and pints. Later that night at the Street Head Inn in Newbiggin, I reluctantly returned a pint that had turned (a pint bought for me by a couple that saw me at the previously mentioned Fox and Hounds) and walked away with two complimentary fresh pints. Three pints for the price of none.

Fox and Hounds, the latter

The next day I returned to Wharfdale. I had two pints in one of the loveliest places on earth: the George Inn in Hubberholme. The George Inn has a storied past. It was famously the favorite place of the author J.B. Priestly who described, and by extension the small pub at the George Inn, as the “smallest, pleasantest place in the world.” I don’t disagree. The George Inn exudes all the tangible and intangible bucolic virtues of the perfect country pub. The jack russell “George” found curled up on a victorian looking tufted footstool in front of the cast iron fire. The publican “Ed” with a quick wit, incredible memory and fastidious observances of the traditions that make the George special, i.e. a burning candle on the bar that used to indicate the local vicar was available. After alternating conversations with the affable landlord and a part time cricket umpire, full time history professor, I reluctantly ambled away from the fully booked inn to the next village.

George, The George Inn

My wife and I have a self explanatory tradition we call tequila Friday. It being Friday, I found myself in Starbotton at yet another Fox and Hounds (no relation) staring at a generously poured dram of Don Julio, which was a nice surprise as most tequila I find (especially in the countryside) is absolutely terrible. He seemed very proud when I told him that I was impressed with his tequila.

Fox and Hounds, III

On Saturday, I had a couple pints and fun conversation at the wonderful Falcon Inn in Arncliffe, where I set off for a beautiful walk into Malham. I was disappointed with the two pubs in Malham. Just before dark I walked a mile down to Malham Kirkby and had a great time with some locals at The Victoria.

On the way to Malham

From Malham, I hiked to depressing Long Preston and then to sleepy Settle, where I booked a hotel for a few nights. Settle is technically outside the bounds of the national park, which of course, didn’t stop me from going to all the pubs. I ended up at the Talbot Arms on multiple occasions. I intended to hike a circular route to Austick and Clapam from Settle without my backpack. I was having so much fun that I just kept going to Ingleton. In Ingleton, I had a pint and caught the bus back to Settle. It wasn’t until after the whole hike was over I discovered that in my hasty planning I had missed at least one pub. While Ingleton is not in the bounds of the park, the area just outside is. The Marton Arms, less than a mile from where I picked up the bus, sits just inside the bounds of the park. Poor planning on my part.

After a rest day, I set off north. It was too early for lunch when I reached the Craven Heifer in Stainforth. I had a half pint of Thwaites IPA and then was convinced (I didn’t need much convincing) to have another by the publican. This was one pub I really wished I had hit at night. A couple of restored penny slot machines, a game room, dance floor disco lights tastefully tucked away, all set against handsome wood paneling. The banter of the young staff. The easy demeanor of the publican. I suspect this was a pub in which I could have an exceptionally fun night.

Craven Heifer

The hiking highlight of my trip occurred in Ribblesdale two days later. I chose a trail along the ridge of Park Fell. Snaking through limestone outcrops, I came into view of the peak of Ingleborough and Ribblehead Viaduct simultaneously. I’ve come close to the viaduct a few times but never actually seen it. Up close, the viaduct is thrilling, even with the 100s of parked cars of fellow tourists.

Ribblesdale, Pen-y-ghent in the distance

Although it was my second time to Dentdale, I was enchanted anew with the cobblestone streets and whitewashed buildings of Dent. The two pubs sit in view of each other, I assume, as they have for hundreds of years. There’s a supposed vampire in the graveyard. A still visible brass rod driven through the coffin assures me he is securely asleep.

Dent

Through Barbondale, it rained and rained. I had a solid pint and delicious roast beef sandwich at the handsome and friendly Barbon Inn before setting off towards Kirby Lonsdale. It was during this stretch I became aware of a fact that would affect my next few days: Appleby Horse Fair was about to start and the travellers were on their way. At first, I was smitten by the horse drawn caravans but soon, the more sinister aspects of the travellers emerged.

Travelers

First, in Kirkby Lonsdale camping became an issue. The campsite I was headed towards closed, ostensibly to discourage travellers from trying to camp there. This forced me to a post covid pop up campsite at the rugby pitch, which charged an extortionate £25 for a rocky pitch with a locked porta potty. Normally, I would just wild camp but with Kirkby Lonsdale overrun with tourists and the travellers about, I didn’t feel comfortable. Nevertheless, I sat for a long time staring at Ruskin’s View and then managed a fun tequila Friday.

Ruskin’s View

I took a couple days off in Kendal, the only place I could find an available hotel room. I met a friendly young local at Fell Brewing who let me sit with him at the otherwise fully booked bar. He took me to the heaving 18-20 year olds’ dance party pub where I smoked a couple cigars, anonymous and old in a throng of covid oblivious and horny young adults. I stumbled through the empty glistening streets just before 3am.

The campground in Sedbergh was full so I ended up at another post covid popup campground, this time with a view worth the price of admission. After a 5pm scramble to find a meal, I landed at the only pub with a table left. As I ate and drank, I watched as the pub turned away over 30 people in the ensuing hours. 

I set off north along the alluring river Lune to Orton, an exceptionally friendly little village. I booked a £40 room at the George Hotel, checked in, changed clothes and posted up at the bar. On its face, there’s nothing overly remarkable about the George Hotel. It boasts a handsome old coaching house exterior, a warm bar, wholesome food, mediocre beer. But it was one of the friendliest pubs on my walk. Not only were the husband and wife landlords sweet and attentive, the local farmers — older men — were a fucking hoot. They came in and one by one had little conversations with me in between friendly verbal jabs at each other. One local, a bit of an academic (besides showing off his new Cambridge greek tomes, there was peppering of “30 years” “cambridge” and “physics” in our conversation) saw me smoking a pipe outside and wanted to talk pipes. He invited me over to his table later and we talked pipes and language until closing time. 

Lune Valley

Crosby Ravensworth is 5 short miles from Orton. My timing was intentional. Having arrived in Orton on a Tuesday, I was really just waiting for the community owned Butcher’s Arms in Crosby Ravensworth (closed Monday and Tuesday) to open on Wednesday. On my way out of Orton, I climbed up onto the moors to find the heather exploding with purple in the early throws of bloom. The path through the moors followed a gully flanked in every direction by violent plumes of violet. It felt like I was walking through a set of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Unsurprisingly, I arrived in Crosby Ravensworth with time to spare. After arranging a pitch for the night, I set out into the rain to explore the village. The church in the village boasts three virtues: 1) the approach to the church, over a cobblestone bridge, through a victorian cast iron gate, is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful, 2) the remnants of a medieval cross (the horizontal arms broken by Cromwell’s men) in the yard, and more practically in the cell signal-less valley, 3) wifi.

I arrived at the Butcher’s Arms just as they opened at 5. I ate, retired to a recently installed outdoor covid awning to smoke and watch the rain. It wasn’t until nearly 10 that I decided to come inside. I sat up at the bar and was promptly engaged in conversation with the locals. After trading pints with a local farmer, I peppered the publican about the specific challenges of running a community owned pub. The Butcher’s Arms was only the 6th British pub to be saved by its community. Midnight, after 8 pints, I staggered back to my tent, overly drunk and content.

Late night at the Butchers Arms

Not surprisingly, the 17 mile hike to Kirkby Stephen was unnecessarily difficult, made all the worse by the unexpected closure of the Three Greyhounds in Great Asby. Despite the locals blocking off nearly every open area, the travellers had taken over the village. Untethered, horses sauntered through the streets, gypsy horse drawn caravans gathered around open fires rigged with suspended cast iron cookware. I was really looking forward to a meal at the Greyhounds. I was running on fumes. As luck would have it, someone came out of the locked pub as I stood dumbly staring at the closed notice. She was very apologetic and gave me a can of coke. Just what I needed to soldier on. 

Kirkby Stephen was near apocalyptic. All the good pubs were closed. The two that were open were only serving out of plastic cups. One pub had a sign in the window informing ne’er-do-wells that the pub was closed and no money or stock was on premises. I checked into my campsite and just about cried when I discovered the site had a food truck selling tacos that night.

The campsite was so wonderful that I decided I would try to stay two more nights. The next day, I ditched the backpack and headed out on a jaunty circular route. It was one of the few sunny days of the trip. I hiked the Coast to Coast years ago and, while on my way to Ravenstonedale, was pleasantly surprised when I descended into a valley I instantly recognized as part of the C2C. Ravenstonedale was a delight. Much posher than your average Dales village, I lunched on crab risotto at the Black Swan and felt like a 19th century aristocrat returning from a fox hunt.

It was Friday, and I have my traditions and travellers were racing down the mostly shut high street in Kirkby Stephen. I took a hasty shot of tequila out of a plastic shot glass in a traveller packed pub, had a hard time finding a meal and decided it was time to put some distance between me and the Appleby Horse Fair.

I made 18 miles for Hawes the next morning. At the Moorcock Inn, after amusing myself with as many jokes as my hunger would permit, I inquired whether there were any vacancies. There were not, which was really no big deal. I must have looked especially haggard because my enquiry sent the sweet barmaid into a near panicked flurry to find me lodging for the night. She seemed dubious of my claims that my tent would be adequate.

Moorcock Inn

In Hawes, I set up camp at a small working farm campsite and dipped into town for dinner. On my way back, I discovered another backpacker, clearly exhausted, standing awkwardly at the driveway into the farm. He was another American, the first I had encountered on the trail this trip.

George Bernard Shaw once mused, “The British and the Americans are two great peoples divided by a common tongue.” This is a truth I often experience after a few weeks alone in England. I find that I’m much more careful about my slang and perform exhausting linguistic acrobatics to make sure I am not misunderstood by my English counterparts. Three sentences into a conversation with another American and my guard is down. It is such a relief.

Charlie, a fantasy author from Maine, was out on a summer long ramble through the UK. He was unsure of where to go next and was very grateful for suggestions. Over dinner, I suggested he hike into Swaledale and hike the rest of the Coast to Coast to Robinhood’s Bay. The next day I set off to Askrigg.

Askrigg

A few years ago while leading a group of Americans through the Dales on a 100 mile pub hike, we made some friends in the Crown Inn in Askrigg. It was nearly 11pm and we were all sufficiently socially lubricated. With a glint in his eyes, one of the older chaps, after learning of our interest in pubs, began to tell of a pub a mile away. “Have you heard of the Victoria Arms in Worton? You don’t want to go there. Well maybe you do. If you do, don’t drink the beer or sit under the fox’s arse.”

A few minutes later, we found ourselves stumbling headlong into the pitch black country lanes towards Worton. We had no idea of the circus that was in store for us. When we arrived, the ramshackle pub looked closed but a little jiggle of door revealed a dimly lit and smoke filled old pub. Neil, the publican, is infamous in the Dales. He took over the pub when his father died years past. He is a part time farmer and full time renegade. The Victoria Arms stands in defiance to all modern pub trends and, for that matter, health codes. “I wear me wellies in the pub,” drunkenly sweeping his arms towards his footwear in a flourish “because of all the dog shite in the pub.” The rest of that night was a blur of pouring our own drinks and parlour tricks (which included getting wet from a suspect liquid ejected out of a stuffed fox’s hindquarters). It was one of the best times I’ve ever spent in a pub. 

Back in 2021, I waited for the sun to set. Truth be told, I was reluctant to go back to the Victoria. I had too much fun the first time and I worried that another visit would mar the pub’s fabled reputation I built up in my mind. After an enchanting dusk walk through the picture perfect sheep fields of Wensleydale, I arrived at a now dark Victoria Arms.

Monday night. Chances were slim this sleepy little pub was open. I heard music but barely saw any light. The door was locked so I gave it a knock. Moments later, a visibly less drunk Neil opened the door. “Can I get beer?” “Yes, come in.”

The first thing I noticed was a missing settle. A settle is an old English style of high backed wooden bench often found in older pubs. On my last visit I was enamored with the settle because of a mouse carved out of the arm rest. Not just any mouse, a genuine Mouseman of Kilburn mouse. These wooden mice can be found in the odd corners of North Yorkshire, the remnant of a whimsical long dead local artist. Neil explained that he sold the settle to the coal man to whom he owed money for said coal.

The second thing I noticed in the Victoria was a stack of porn DVDs sitting on a stool.

And here it is. We have the essence of what makes the Victoria Arms such a special place. Neil is the steward of a shrine. An unintentional museum of a nearly disappeared pub culture. Of course, porn dvds are not any part of pub culture but Neil’s unrepentant bucking of the system, his pure sovereignty over his domain and his unwillingness to give into making the Victoria Arms anything other than what it’s been for the last 100 years, couldn’t be further from the crass commercialism of the PubCos.

Neil

On one of the old white plaster walls hangs a painting of Neil’s father. The father lounges in his chair in front of a roaring fireplace. A lamb asleep on a blanket warming by the fire. The absolute pure picture of 19th century bucolic Yorkshire. Now step back and look. It’s nearly all there. Unmoved, untouched, probably undusted. His father’s chair. The fireplace, complete with nearly every single piece of ancient iron cookware. The taxidermied heads of animals, still in the same order. The lamb is gone but the publican – the mirror image of his predecessor- sits. Neil and I talk for nearly three hours. I encourage him to archive his memories of the pubs and his wonderfully entertaining misdeeds. He is sad about the settle and so I am.

It was midnight. I took the long way back to Askrigg, a mixture of elation and melancholy broadcast my gravely crunching staccato steps through the chilly August night.

Swaledale

The next morning I set off for Swaledale. I made my way to Punchbowl Inn and then the Kings Arms. Both of which I expected to be closed on Tuesdays. To my surprise, they were open and packed. Poor planning resulted in missing lunch, so I set off along the Swale Way from Gunnerside to Muker with a belly devoid of food but full of Old Peculier.

I love Swaledale. I love the Swale. The narrow emerald grass pastures that flank the river. I hiked barefoot, something I’ve done along the Swale for years but nowhere else. If Yorkshire is God’s own county, the Dales is his temple and Swaledale is the holy of holies. I feel more me along that river than anywhere else in the world.

And my favorite village in Swaledale is Muker. Entering Muker, I made a beeline for the Farmers Arms, hoping to catch an early meal or at least get a table booked. Unfortunately, the pub was closed due to a health emergency. Even more unfortunate, there wasn’t a restaurant open on a Tuesday for a few miles.

With the prospect of missing out on lunch and dinner, I made my way to the campsite in Muker, relieved to discover they had a little camp store with enough provisions to make a respectable meal. In addition to the food, I decided to treat myself to a campfire. I bought some wood and a fire pit, pitched my tent by the river and watched the sun slowly – ever so slowly – set behind Kisdon hill. Just before the light completely faded, I was delighted to see American Charlie walking into the campsite.

Charlie and I had a nice night around the fire. He expressed interest in joining me up at Tan Hill the following night. However, while packing our tents in the morning, Charlie was worried about the wind forecast and camping on the exposed moor. Fortunately, I had already booked a room with two beds.

I tend to hike pretty fast, so I left Charlie back in Muker as I made my way to Keld and then up to Tan Hill. Tan Hill is the only building on an otherwise completely desolate moor. At one time the inn boasted it was the highest pub by altitude in the world but I’ve noticed they’ve since toned down the claim to highest inn in Britain.

Tan Hill

Tan Hill is a good pub. A very nice beer selection set in an exceptional rustic and old stone building, complete with fires. Exceptional hearty food. The weather is nearly always bleak, which makes the interior of the pub all the more inviting. The magic of Tan Hill is the fact that by 10pm all the people still in the pub are staying at the inn or in a caravan park outside. The result is a crowd of individuals that came to an isolated pub precisely to stay up and drink late. By 10pm a predictable ritual begins to play out. People start talking to others sitting at neighboring tables. Someone picks up a guitar or plunks out a twanging tune on the profoundly out-of-tune piano.

And so it was this night. After checking in, I came down into the pub to see a familiar face. The academic from Orton sat with two other academics. I went over and said hi. Charlie showed up and we had dinner. After dinner, the dance began. I started up a conversation with some hikers. We talked about the Pennine Way and LeJog. Before I knew it, a career army chap sat down. He was about to retire after 26 years. And then, the academics joined in.

And in a blur, before I knew it, we were all swept up into another room where a guest had found a guitar and was leading the rest of the bar in a 2-hour sing-along. Two young homeless looking 20-year-olds who were on the C2C sat down at the piano and pecked out songs from a dogeared pop music songbook. It was not very good but it was all fun and often hilarious. We banged our pints on the table, yelled out lyrics and were eventually told it was time to be quiet.

This was my third time to Tan Hill and I’m convinced a version of this plays out more nights than not. Tan Hill is a great pub because of it.

On OS map, there is a footpath from Tan Hill over the moors towards Reeth. The last time I was there, I was leading a group and fully intended to find the footpath but the weather was too miserable to subject the whole group to a muddy slog so we opted for the road. This time I was determined to find the footpath. Charlie was going to go a different route to Reeth. The two hobo 20 year olds said they were going to try the same path as me.

I set out first, and followed a track until it was clear that I was getting away from the footpath. Trusting my GPS, I set off over the rough in search of the footpath. Occasionally, I found something that might be considered a trail but for the most part, I was traversing open country: bogs, full grown heather, ravines. It was a mess. My feet were drenched immediately.

At one point I found a segment of the trail and just as quickly as I found it, it melted away. After an hour and half of rough slogging, I came to a track that led out of the moor. I took it, convinced the footpath was long gone. Changed my socks and walked on the road towards Reeth. I will never try to find that path again.

After a few hours and a couple pubs, I landed in Reeth. I’ve been to Reeth many times. Truth be told, up until that night I didn’t really like the town. I’ve never been able to find a good time there. The locals seemed distant and cold, perhaps exhausted by the never-ending parade of Coast to Coast hikers that stream through.

I pitched my tent, walked to nearby Grinton for an early meal at the Bridge Inn. I recently discovered that I have an ancestor from Grinton, so after dinner, I meandered through the church graveyard to say hi to my people.

I met Charlie. He needed to eat so we tried Reeth. There are three pubs in Reeth. One was completely shut due to staff shortages and the other two, next door to each other, were fully booked. The Black Bull, however, was offering a simple pie meal to anyone who needed a meal and was willing to eat in the bar. This impressed me. In the well over 80 pubs I’d been to on this trip, this was the first one that found a way to accommodate people who could not book a table for one reason or another. It was simple food but hot and hearty.

As Charlie was finishing up. The hobos stumbled in looking worse for wear. It turns out they had endured the nonexistent moor footpath further than I. As a result, they spent the entire day on the moor. When they finally found a way out, a couple of farmers took pity on them and drove them to the Black Bull. I bought a round.

The Black Bull’s famous upside down sign

The young hobos’ names are Hector and Felix. They were not homeless, just road weary. Both were very intelligent, kind and curious. One was in his third year of medical school. They love music and impressed me with the breadth of their musical tastes and knowledge.

The Black Bull is a solid pub. It’s the only place in Reeth that has tequila. On previous trips to the pub, I was amused by the overly terse woman behind the bar. A truly sour person. The caricature of some old barmaid. She was not there that night but when I asked the bartender about the grumpy bartender, he blurted out her name before I finished my sentence. We both laughed.

Charlie

Besides tequila, the Black Bull has another rare pub delight: a game room with a jukebox. I feel like at this point that I can say with authority, it’s the only jukebox in a Yorkshire Dales National Park pub.

We played pool and fed quid into the jukebox. It was raining and about midnight, Hector and Felix began to talk about where they were going to camp. Young as they were, they didn’t have the funds for a campground let alone a room anywhere. At Tan Hill, I found them huddled under a rock face in the morning. After the shitty day they had, they were not looking forward to finding a campsite. The landlady had recently joined us and mentioned they had a room. I worked out a deal that if she could convince them the room was free, Charlie and I would pay for it on the sly. And so it was.

The immediate effect of the arrangement was to endear me to the landlady and her husband. The poor couple had bought into the pub three weeks before covid hit. They’ve had a hell of a time. After they discovered what I was doing, they wanted to know how the Black Bull stacked up. I told them how impressed I was with the pies and that no other pub was being so hospitable. The landlady beamed. It was her idea. She told me no less than three times.

Last tequila Friday of the trip. Charlie and the Hobos.

I woke up on my last day ready to be done. On a whim, I made for a pub that appeared to be just outside the park boundaries. The Bolton Arms in Downholme. When I arrived, I realized the pub was actually on the opposite side of the street and within the park boundary. I had probably the best sandwich of the trip: wonderfully crafted cumberland sausage and caramelized onions on a fresh baguette.

During my last three miles, I found my pace quickening to my favorite pub in the world. The George and Dragon in Hudswell is one of the friendliest pubs I’ve visited. It’s community owned and it shows in the locals’ love for the place. Their real ale selection is not just large, it’s very thoughtful. All the pulls are from smaller, more crafty local breweries. Always a couple darks. When I was there, a mild, a brown and a porter. That’s just not common. The food is simple and delicious. Music plays from records. A well tended coal fire.

The beer garden overlooks the last bit of the Yorkshire Dales. To the east, you see the valley dissolve into flat farmland. You face north but in summer you can watch the slow motion sunset behind the emerald green dale. It’s perfect.

Good beer? Check. Exceptional even. Vibe? Pure bucolic. Based on these two criteria, it is an exceptional pub. I’ve been to a number of community owned pubs. Usually, there’s a much warmer atmosphere. The George and Dragon excels in warmth.


Despite the try-hard craft beer offerings, there’s no air of pretension. The publican is a soft spoken, jovial and hard working dude. I almost bumped into him as I crossed the threshold. “It is you! I saw the name Kevin on the booking sheet and asked if it was the American!” We laughed. He sat with me and Charlie (who met me in Richmond) for a pleasant chat. “We were sorry to miss you last summer.” “Not as much as I missed being here, Stu.”

The pub. It’s my favorite thing about England. All the things I love about a pub seem to be distilled in Yorkshire: tradition, love for real ale, community. I’ve hiked to all but one pub in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. I’ve traipsed through damn near every small and secret place. My brain tells me that I should move on to fresher adventures but I dream of the Dales. I can’t wait to go back. Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.

My top 5:

George and Dragon, Hudswell
George Inn, Hubberholme
Craven Arms, Appletreewick
Victoria Arms, Worton
Tan Hill

Rough sketches of my route

The Walker’s Guide to LeJog

A walk from Land’s End to John o’ Groats (“LeJog”) is one of Great Britain’s most ambitious thru-hikes. Unlike other thru-hikes, LeJog has no set trail; the walker must make their own way between Land’s End on the most south-western tip of the island in Cornwall, to the most north-eastern tip at John o’ Groats in Scotland.

Preparing for such a long walk can be daunting. It requires quite a bit of time and careful planning. Below, I outline how I planned my walk, what worked and the unforeseen obstacles I encountered along the way.

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Route

Background

In order to discuss how to walk for Land’s End to John o’ Groats, it is necessary to address the legal infrastructure of walking in the UK. The laws regarding walking in the UK are very different from other countries. Because the vast majority of British land is privately owned, walking any appreciable distance in the country requires the walker to walk through privately owned land.

The right to walk through private land did not become an issue until the industrial revolution when much of the population moved from agrarian villages to cramped and polluted industrial cities. Workers, who a generation previous, lived in and freely walked through the countryside, now found themselves drawn back to the countryside for a respite from the filthy reality of the industrial revolution.

The aristocracy initially tried to block city dwellers from walking through their estates. Where there once existed an ancient right of way through moor, wood or wheat field, now stood a stone wall, a thorny hedge and/or the threat of sanctioned violence or incarceration. Huge swaths of land were off limits to everyone except the landowner. Following decades of populous organization and civil disobedience, the English government relented and passed laws that codified the ancient tradition of Rights of Way. Consequently, in England and Wales, a walker may walk along any legally recognized footpath, even when that footpath cuts through a wealthy person’s land. Scotland took the notion a step further and codified the Freedom to Roam, which grants the walking traveler the right to walk through any land (subject to certain exceptions) in Scotland, as long as the walker obeys basic etiquette.

As a result, the British countryside is honeycombed with an enormous network of footpaths. A brief glance at Ordnance Survey Explorer map reveals a dizzying labyrinth of dotted green lines, each of which indicates a footpath. Over the last few decades, a number of long-distance footpaths have been developed, largely by stitching together already existing footpaths.

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Traditionally, the distance between Land’s End and John o’ Groats by road is 874 miles. While there are many walkers who opt to walk the road route, most walkers, who prefer freedom, natural beauty and soft terrain, favor the footpath. There is no set footpath route between the two points, however, most walking routes end up around 1,200 miles.

LeJog: A Challenge, Not a path

One of the main reasons I was drawn to LeJog was the ability to change my route on the fly. I wanted to ramble; something difficult to accomplish on other long-distance trails with static routes. And it was so. With so many footpaths available, the ability to head a different direction presented itself almost hourly. There were many mornings I woke up and did not know where I would be later that day, often changing my planned path on a whim. Early on, when I realized I was ahead of schedule, I took a 20-mile detour south to visit a small village of one of my literary heroes. It wasn’t until the morning I started walking south that I had decided on the detour.

My goal was to be intentionally unintentional. Go where the wind blew, as long as that wind was generally blowing north. And generally, I felt like I was being spontaneous. However, the truth is that I stuck to my mapped out route 2/3rds of the time. And much of the time that I was not on that route, I was on an alternative path that I had mapped out long before I started walking.

Initial Planning Questions

Before you get down to the specifics of your route you’ll need to answer a few preliminary questions:

  1. How much time do you have? A typical LeJog footpath heavy route can be accomplished by a fairly competent walker in two to three months, and often less if you are a glutton for punishment and stick to the shortest routes possible. Some people choose to meander the whole country and take as much as five or six months. It took me 12 weeks. The walking season in the UK starts in early Spring and runs into October.
  2. Do you plan to camp or stay in BnBs? The British countryside is strewn with campsites. It should be noted that wild camping in England is generally illegal (exceptions include Exmoor and Dartmoor) but is generally tolerated in wilder areas in the north. In Scotland, wild camping is legal (exceptions include managed areas such as Loch Lomond) as long as the camper is being respectful. On my journey, I stayed at campsites most of the time and wild camped when there was no other option. I prefer to camp at a campsite simply because I like to finish my mileage by the late afternoon, relax and spend the night in a pub without feeling like I need to worry about my gear or finding a wild camp spot. Some campsites can get very busy during the caravanning season. Often, even when a campsite is full, they will make room for solitary walkers. While I never made reservations, there were a handful of times a campsite warden wrung their hands in frustration before finding me a spot.
  3. The cost of a campsite generally reflects a) how busy the site is and/or b) the campsite’s facilities. The cost on my trip ranged from as little as £5 and up to a whopping and indefensible £20 (on a slanted pitch in Peebles at Rosetta Holiday Park). Here is a link to a .gpx file will all the campsites I could find along my route (and some notable pubs). It is not exhaustive and I can’t promise all the information is still accurate. More campsite information can be found at https://www.ukcampsite.co.uk/.
  4. Of course, some people wild camp the entire journey, which is much cheaper.
  5. Staying in accommodations the entire trip is doable. It requires a lot of money and significant planning. Staying at accommodations every night generally requires you to book in advance, especially in the summer, which has the effect of making your walk completely inflexible. Should you get hurt, desire to walk more or less than your previously planned or take a detour, you’ll have to juggle your reservations. Finding accommodations on the trail can be tricky. As a result, you may find that your route will take you into more populated areas much more often than if you camped. As you move north and start walking on more popular long-distance trails, you should find it easier to find accommodations on the trail, often with an option of baggage transfer.
  6. Are there any areas you particularly want to see or avoid? Do you want to walk through Wales? Do you love coastal walking or prefer to slosh through the moors?  Do you want to be alone or meander in and out of villages, towns and cities? Many ambitious walkers incorporate a National Three Peaks Challenge in their walk. Consider any special points of interest as you plan your route.
  7. Which direction do you want to walk? Most “end to end” walkers choose to walk south to north but some walk north to south, aka JogLe. Many of the long-distance footpaths employed by LeJog walkers are typically walked south to north.  If you walk north to south, you will greatly reduce your chances of camaraderie on the trail, as most walkers will be headed in the opposite direction.Keep in mind that the southern counties of the island can get very hot in June and July and the temperature will cool off the more north you go. The day I left nuclear hot Arizona a heat wave started in the UK, which lasted weeks and resulted in the hottest summer in England’s recorded history. If the heat really bothers you, and you want to start in June or July, consider starting in the cooler north. By the time you get south, the hottest part of the summer will have passed.

Planning Methods

Planning for a roughly 1,200-mile journey is daunting. It took me months to iron out all the details. It can be a bit complicated but also a lot of fun. While there are few trails in which virtually all walkers gravitate, there are many, many alternatives along the way

It should be no surprise that planning begins with a good map. I know no better map than the Ordnance Survey Explorer Series Maps (“OS Map”). At a 1:25k ratio, OS Maps have incredible detail, including, most (if not all) public footpaths (including national trails), permissive footpaths, and bike routes.

Random Map

Buying a digital OS Map is not cheap. I shelled out around $200 for the entire island – a very large file that I downloaded to my PC through a program called Memory Maps. Memory Maps on PC is a very powerful tool for planning walks and navigating while walking. Benefits include being able to draw routes over and adding points of interest to the OS Map. Once on your phone, you can access your OS Map with all your routes offline. When I walk, I turn on airplane mode, pop open my map and use my phone’s GPS to show me my location on the map within a few meters.

The program is not without a few glaring issues: 1) as far as I could tell, it’s not possible to draw routes from only your phone, which means you must have your whole route planned out before you set out, 2) the Apple computer version is next to useless (although iPhone app is ok) and 3) the app, as far as I could tell, has no way to measure the distance to your next point along your route – which makes planning on the fly a guessing game. Note: while the applications are free, besides the map (which you can download on up to five devices), there are a few other fees for cloud storage of your route information.

A much cheaper option is a monthly or annual subscription to the OS Maps through the OS company itself. This is a very popular option among walkers. Unfortunately, I don’t know if you can draw out routes over or add points of interest to the maps.

The second powerful planning tool I used was the GPS information found in the member’s section of the Long Distance Walker’s Association website. An annual membership to the LDWA will set you back £15-£18, which is well worth the cost. The LDWA has an archive of 1000s of long-distance footpaths, many of which are not signposted or indicated on the OS Maps. When planning your routes, these small connecting routes are extremely helpful in linking up with other routes.

Their path searching tool is extremely powerful. In the planning stage, I would search all known paths in a given area radius. Open the link to the path and download the GPS data directly into Memory Maps. After a few clicks, it was obvious whether there were any connecting routes. Where there were no obvious connecting routes or if I wanted to take a more direct route, I would simply draw out a new route over footpath markings on the OS Map.

With the OS Map overlaid with GPS path data found on LDWA, I was able to plan the bulk of my LeJog route, complete with alternate routes. It turned out, however, that I vastly overestimated the accessibility of random footpaths and some long distance trails in the LDWA database. Let’s talk specifics.

Here is a .gpx file with my walking GPS log for the entire walk. This is for reference only. Even though I made it through some of these sections, it was often not without unnecessary toil.

Cornwall – A Rambler’s Nightmare

From Land’s End the LeJog footpath walker has two options: 1) The South West Coast Path (the “SWCP”) or 2) a network of questionable inland footpaths. As far as I know, there are no well established long-distance trails north other than the SWCP. As such, many walkers opt to strike north and west on the SWCP. However, many walkers, and I mean almost everyone I talked to that started out on the SWCP, greatly underestimated how difficult backpacking on the SWCP can be. It’s a rugged undulating path that will immediately test the limits of your fitness. I know of a few experienced hikers who ended up with joint injuries in their first couple weeks. Secondly, the SWCP is very indirect; 10 miles of northernly progress may take you 20 miles of walking on the SWCP because it dips in and out of every tiny geographic feature of the coast.

LeJoG Route #1

I don’t particularly care for coastal walking. I get bored with the one-note scenery and I knew that the SWCP would be more of a physical challenge than I wanted to start out with. So I chose to walk inland. At the last minute and against my better judgment, I changed my route to include a 10-mile walk along the SWCP headed east and north to Penzance. Granted I was I was tired from my 22 hours of traveling the day before, but that bit of the SWCP reinforced my decision to go inland. It was a rough start, which hit bottom on a washed out part of the trail that took me over a slippery boulder field. I spent an hour and a half in that boulder field, falling twice and twisting an ankle. It wasn’t until I met up with another bewildered walker that a local eventually showed us the trail, requiring a scramble up a little cliff with absolutely no signage. By the time I finally got off the SWCP, I was exhausted, sore and nearly out of water.

My inland route was basically along a path I found in the LDWA database called the Land’s End Trail. After a few days, it became clear that much of the Land’s End Trail had not been walked in many years. In the course of three days, I had to bushwack through no fewer than half a dozen overgrown woods. One so dense I resolved to keep pushing forward because I was sure I could not get back the way I had come. I was covered in thorns, the last one of which finally popped out of my knee 14 weeks later.

The other issue with this route was the landowners. Gates were locked. Barbed wire installed. Guard dogs on the path. A giant earthen mound at the end of one overgrown tree tunnel. I even had a landowner 1) tell me there was never a footpath on his property, 2) when I referred him to my map he said my map was old 3) when I told him it was the most current map he told me the footpath was gone but the map maker would only take it off the map for an extortionate fee. Every day, I was presented with another set of physical obstacles.

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Overwhelmed and a bit defeated, I opted to walk a few days along the dangerously narrow Cornish country lanes until I could hook up with a traversable path.

In Bodmin Moor, I decided to cut across the moor to shorten my route. I did not follow a footpath and, predictably, found myself calf deep in the moor. It was at this point that I learned that you cannot trust google maps to help you navigate on foot. The app suggested I walk along the A30. That was not possible.

While I had a hard time walking in Cornwall, I found the Camel Trail bicycle path a very welcomed obstacle free day. The Camel Trail runs along a decommissioned railway. It was the first of many decommissioned railways, which are often (but not always) accessible on foot.

Alternative routes:

  • South West Coast Path:
    • Pros: signposted, designated on the OS Maps, great villages and obstacle free.
    • Cons: Longer, redundant scenery, difficult at times.
  • Mary Michael Pilgrim’s Way
    • Pros: Occasionally signposted. Fewer obstacles.
    • Cons: Very few signposts. Not designated on the OS Map, Not well traversed. Meandering, leading to a much longer path.

Devon and Somerset: Finding a Rhythm

Once I crossed into Devon, life became much easier. The footpaths were generally accessible except for the odd wheat or corn field where a footpath was not maintained.

I walked a good bit on the National Bicycle Route 27/Granite Way into Okehampton. Easy, quick walking. Along the Devonshire Heartland Way into Crediton then into Devon following random footpaths through the Culm Valley. I blazed my own trail through southern Devon so I could visit a famous pub in Spreyton (the Tom Cobley Tavern). A last minute 20-mile detour to Odcombe to see the hometown of a literary hero. Through the Levels to what turned out to be my favorite pub (Halfway House in Pitney) of the whole trip. More random footpaths, blowing through Glastonbury and into Wells, where walking became much easier.

LeJoG Route #2

In Wells I picked up the West Mendip Way, the first regularly signposted and maintained long distance footpath of the trip. Up and over the Cheddar Gorge, and along the Limestone Link into Bath. Both of those footpaths were fantastic.

Alternative routes I considered:

  • South West Coast Path:
    • Pros: signposted, designated on the OS Maps, great villages and obstacle free. However, many people complain about the landowners in Somerset as they come off the SWCP. I did not have the same issues on my route.
    • Cons: Longer, redundant, difficult at times.
  • Mary Michael Pilgrim’s Way
    • Pros: Fewer obstacles.
    • Cons: Very few signposts. Not designated on the OS Map, Not well traversed. Meandering, leading to a much longer path.

Midlands and Peak District: Easy Miles

LeJoG Route #3

In Bath, I met up with some friends from the States. We walked along a portion of the Macmillan Way known as the Cross Cotswolds Pathway. This easy section runs east and parallel to the annoyingly hilly Cotswolds Way (which I had walked a few years prior). We followed the path, occasionally bouncing over to the Monarchs Way up to Burton on the Water. The Macmillan Way is a much longer trail. Assuming the rest of the trail is like the portion we walked, I can recommend it heartily. It was varied, interesting and well signposted, albeit with tiny white stickers.

From Bourton on the Water, we followed the 100 mile Heart of England Way, a very pleasant but often boring trail. We made two detours from the Heart of England Way, one into the tourist honeypot of Stratford Upon Avon and finishing in Burton Upon Trent, where we were treated to a spontaneous lock-in by a very generous and fun-loving publican.

I said goodbye to my friends and bounded north in a two-day 65-mile dash up the canals, through Derby, and then along two great trails: the Derwent Valley Heritage Way and the Limestone Way, both of which I would love to revisit. I landed in Edale, exhausted with a mysterious and increasingly annoying shin injury.

Alternative routes I considered:

  • Cotswold Way:
    • Pros: Signposted. Designated on the OS Map. Great villages and obstacle free.
    • Cons: Annoyingly hilly.
  • Severn Way
    • Pros: Signposted. Designated on the OS Map.
    • Cons: Often extremely muddy.
  • Offa’s Dyke Path
    • Pros: Signposted. Designated on the Os Map.
    • Cons: Often isolated.
  • Monarch’s Way
    • Pros: Signposted. Designated on the Os Map
    • Cons: The portion I walked was a bit more overgrown than the Macmillian Way.

The Pennine Way: Remote Desolation

I intended to take a day off in Edale before setting on the hardest portion of my entire walk: the Pennine Way (the “PW”). When I woke up the next morning I convinced myself I was well enough to start the hard slog up Jacob’s Ladder.

By the time I was at the top, after cursing the youth and vigor of a group of recent university grads, I was in serious pain. There was simply nowhere to stop. I had enough provision for two days but I wanted to stop somewhere I could relax for a couple days, like a chill village with a cafe or pub. I’ve done enough walking in the UK to know that I can wing it. I know that at the end of the day on a long distance path, there’s almost always somewhere to stop and relax, restock and rest. Unbeknownst to me, the trailblazers of PW wanted a path that specifically avoided such comforts in favor of a wilderness experience or as much as a wilderness experience as possible in England. So it was with a little annoyance I found myself in an isolated campsite that afternoon, eating dinner out of my backpack. The one silver lining was that I managed to beat the university grads, who got lost and shuffled grim-faced into the camp a few hours later.

I had to come off the trail after a few days to restock. At that point, I cast quite a pathetic site. Bearded, exhausted and limping in intense pain. It was a bout of shin splints – something I have never had to deal with.

LeJoG Route #4

But I pushed on. On day 4 of the PW, I came slightly off the path to stop in Hebden Bridge. Once I arrive, and reading reports of a huge two to three-day storm on the way, I decided to rent a room for a couple nights. It turned out to be a wise decision. While the storm was not quite as intense as planned, it drove most of the mulish walkers off the trail for two days. Also, I had a great time in Hebden Bridge, a place I plan to revisit this summer.

After two days off I set off to rejoin the PW, this time with an Austrian backpacker I met at my BnB. I was still in a lot of pain but every day I was a little better. With Klaus’ company, the lack of stabbing pain and a much more approachable section of the PW, I was in much better spirits.

Klauss and I dutifully followed the PW except for a minor detour here and there until Alston. A quick note about Alston. The one campsite in town was very sketchy but very cheap. The facilities, accessed from a dark tunnel with no door, were in the basement of an old government building and looked like the set of a post-apocalyptic horror film, complete with “I killed my self here” graffiti on a bathroom stall door. From Alston, I picked up the mostly boring but very efficient South Tyne Trail, over the picturesque Lambley Viaduct and into Haltwhistle, where I booked a BnB and spent two days in one of the local pubs.

Klauss was exhausted and tired of the tedious PW so he quit, which is not uncommon among many PW walkers at that point. North of Hadrian’s Wall is the most demanding and remote section the trail.

I set off into the wilderness alone. I skirted a few miles of annoyingly hilly section of the PW that runs along Hadrian’s Wall. When I finally cut north, feeling I was entering the loneliest portion of my walk I met another lone backpacker from Nottingham, Adam. We walked the rest of the PW together. The last 75 miles of the PW was tough. A lot of staring at your feet while walking. Outside of Bellingham, no services until the end of the trail in Kirk Yethom. We slogged on, taking advantage of one of the rescue huts in the Cheviots.

The last day of the PW was the wettest day of my walk. In many ways, because it had been so dry and I managed to miss what little rain had fallen, I felt like I was somehow cheating. The PW is supposed to a boggy, muddy slog. Up until the last day, it was pretty dry with very little mud. That last day in the Cheviots was wet and slippery and I felt like I was finally on the PW.

Alternative Routes I Considered:

  • The Pennine Bridleway
    • Pros: Signposted. Quite a bit easier than the Pennine Way.
    • Cons: It appears to me it’s not quite finished and it meanders quite a bit. Potentially a good bit of road walking.

Getting to Glasgow: Decisions, Decisions

Now into Scotland, I had two choices. I seriously considered cutting east along St. Cuthbert’s Way to the Holy Island but I was not too excited about the prospect of walking along the eastern shore up to Edinburgh. I was also interested in exploring the border towns. I decided a couple slow and easy days through the border towns would be more enjoyable.

LeJoG Route #5

So I set off west along St. Cuthbert’s Way to Jedburgh. Then onto the delightfully easy Border Abbeys Way to Kelso and Melrose. If there is one campsite to call ahead for, it’s the campsite in Melrose. From Melrose I opted for some light road walking along the picturesque National Cycle Route 1 to Innerleithen and then along the Tweed to Peebles.

From Peebles I had another choice. I initially intended to cut west for Glasgow but I had some extra time so I opted to go north. I picked up the unwaymarked and apparently largely untraversed St. Wilfred’s Way, which was challenging in parts, all the into Edinburgh. After a couple days of Fringe Festival, I set out on the easy, very uneventful John Muir Way, which consisted of gentle level coastal paths and miles and miles along the Union Canal. I passed J.K Rowling mansion, wild camped in an old growth forest and spent a day exploring sleepy Falkirk. From Falkirk, it was an easy 25 miles into Glasgow where I stayed with a cousin until my wife arrived.

Glasgow to John o’ Groats: Go North, Quickly

Most modern LeJog walkers end up in Glasgow. The West Highland Way and the connecting Great Glen Way offer a beautiful, well-traversed, well-signposted, well-provisioned, unobstructed route to Inverness. In earlier years, many more walkers chose to brave the wilderness of the western highlands up to Cape Wrath from Fort William. I’d venture that the vast majority of modern LeJog walkers are not equipt to walk the Cape Wrath Trail. It requires a good amount of fitness, real navigation skills and a willingness to enter the wilderness for prolonged periods. At this point in your LeJog walk, you’ll finally be able to imagine finishing and the prospect of the path of less resistance is too strong (more on that below) to ignore.

LeJoG Route #6

My wife and I set off up the West Highland Way. I saw more walkers and backpackers in almost any given hour than I saw during all my previous days combined walking LeJog. It was a bit overwhelming to be sharing the trail with so many people. It was a great walk. Not too challenging and conclusively the most picturesque portion of my entire walk. But also the most touristy.

After spending a few days with my wife’s family in Fort William, I set off by myself up the Great Glen Way. At this point, I was getting anxious to finish so I set off on Tuesday late in the afternoon and cruised into Inverness, 80 or so miles away, on Thursday afternoon, barely stopping to take in the scenery.

This seems to be a very common feeling for LeJog walkers. The closer I came to John o’ Groats, the more I pushed myself.

From Inverness, there are two options to get to John o’ Groats: walking the busy A9 motorway for about 100 miles or walking the not quite finished coastal John o’ Groats Trail for 150 miles. I fully intended to walk the JoGT but I could not check my impulse to move as quickly as possible, so I set off up the motorway, occasionally following discrete sections of the JoGT. It should be noted that almost everyone I know who tried to walk the JoGT eventually ended up on the A9. The path is largely untraversable from July to October due to the growing season.

So it was about 100 miles on the asphalt. Shambling into John o’ Groats was one of the most bittersweet moments of my life. A very unceremonious asphalt laden end to an otherwise fantastic walk.

Alternative Routes I Considered:

  • The John o’ Groats TrailPros:
    • Much more scenic than the alternative A9.
    • Cons: Sparsely signposted. An additional 50 miles longer than the A9. Much of it is untraversable in the late summer/early autumn
  • Cape Wrath Trail
    • Pros: Very scenic. True wilderness.
    • Cons: Technically challenging. Very remote.

A Word About Mileage

When planning, you must be honest with yourself about the number of miles you can walk in a day. The best way to gauge your ability is to get out and hike. Be aware that just because you can bag 25 miles a day on a weekend hike, it doesn’t mean you will be able to hike 25 miles day after day. One of the most difficult physical obstacles to long distance walking is the cumulative effect that walking a lot of miles every day for weeks has on your body. I was able to train up to 17 miles a day, so I started out with a soft goal of 17 miles a day.

On paper, my route, as planned, was around 1175 miles but my actual walking route was 1,322 miles. Many of those additional miles were from detours but more of them just were the result of underestimated mileage. Those first days, it took me close to 24 miles of actual miles to finish up my 17 “map miles.” While the map is a very good indication of how many miles there are from point A to point B, it’s always been my experience that, whether on a meticulously mapped National Trail or just winging it on a random footpath, it takes more miles to actually walk the route than planned. On a well developed long-distance trail, I’d say it’s usually of a factor of about 10%, meaning, if the map says it’s 10 miles, I should count on walking 11 on my gps tracker. On random footpaths, that factor can be as high as 25%, often solely because there are more obstacles on less traversed footpath.

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When planning how many miles you think you can manage a day, be sure to account for all these extra miles. Also note, that my 1,322 represents miles backpacked and does not include the extra miles I put in every night to get to and from meals.

Rest Days

I took 16 rest days with 65 walking days. I could have easily lived with half as many rest days but because I had friends joining me on specific dates, I’d often force myself to slow down or spend a few days somewhere before they arrived.

Plan for rest days. Sometimes you just need to rest. You’ll very likely be injured to some degree or another and a couple of rest days could have a significant impact on how much you enjoy yourself and your ability to continue.

Fitness

I highly encourage anyone considering LeJog to train. The best training is hiking, specifically with your gear. Get out there, find some hills and get under your backpack. Learn your gear and make adjustments accordingly. If you don’t have your backpack and shoes worked out before you start, you are inviting trouble.

I put in 500 miles over the course of a few months, 300 in the last 6 weeks. That may have been a bit of overkill but on day 1, I was putting away many more miles than anyone walking LeJog that I talked to. Try to work up to what you intend for a daily average on the trail. Be sure to give yourself a week of rest before you hit the trail.

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If you can’t hit the trail that much, get a plyo box for step ups and put in as much time as you can at home. Again, in your gear, if you can. These step ups will allow you to train your negative strength, which you can’t get from machines like a stair climber.

Gear

Gear is highly personal. It’s all about finding what works for you. There is a ton of information out there for anyone wishing to really geek out. The maxim to heed is: the lighter, the better but not stupid light. My pack weighed about 8kg (roughly 18 pounds) without water and food. That’s pretty light for someone camping and was the result of spending a good deal of time stripping down to essentials and spending money on ultralight gear. I probably could have dropped another 2kg but I would have sacrificed a good deal of comfort. When you find yourself trying to drop a few more ounces by sacrificing crucial warmth or waterproofing, you’re stumbling into stupid light territory.

Getting your weight down requires a lot of thinking and arguing with yourself. First, make a spreadsheet and list every item you want to bring, including the weight to the fraction of an ounce. Unless you are very experienced, you’ll find your pack reaching into the 15kg range, if not more. Nothing will put an end to you LeJog adventure faster than a pack that is too heavy. It will wreak havoc on your joints and slow you down. You must -MUST- have a frank discussion with yourself about every single item in your pack. There are times when a few extra ounces are worth the extra comfort but most of the time if it’s not absolutely necessary, you should lose it.

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Here is a list of my equipment. It took me months to strip away many of the items I wanted to bring:

  • Zpacks Arc Zip Backpack, with chest and hip pockets. Ultralight, highly customizable backpack
  • Zpacks Duplex Tent with lightweight stakes. A very light two-man waterproof tent. Perfect for an extremely tall man and all my gear.
  • Walking poles. I am a firm believer in walking poles. I have bad ankles and they keep me balanced. I can walk faster with the poles. And lastly, they hold up my tent so I don’t need any other tent supports. Multipurpose items are almost always a good idea.
  • Zpacks 40F (4.5c) sleeping bag. An ultralight down sleeping bag. Temperature ratings on sleeping bags are a bit misleading. Some people may find a 4c bag way to hot or not warm enough.
  • Thermarest Neo Air (large, I’m very tall) with pump sack (I fully endorse the pump sack). This was a splurge item which added at least 4 ounces to my pack. I could have probably got by with the regular size. But I was much more comfortable, and for me, the comfort was worth the extra weight.
  • Dry Bag Pillow. Stuff clothes in it and use it as a pillow.
  • One pair of hiking pants.
  • One pair of wool lightweight baselayer pants. Mostly for sleeping.
  • One pair of hiking shorts.
  • Two pair Exoffcio briefs. Great underwear for hiking.
  • One synthetic collared, long sleeve, sunproof hiking shirt.
  • One synthetic technical long-sleeved t-shirt. 90% of the time, my sleeping shirt.
  • One wool t-shirt. A town shirt.
  • Midlayer fleece.
  • Two pairs of wool hiking socks.
  • Lightweight semi waterproof gloves. In the summer you will rarely need gloves. But when you do, you’ll really need them.
  • Very light waterproof jacket.
  • Various rain gear: backpack cover, rain gaiters, rain kilt
  • Beanie.
  • Electrical bag: a 6000mah battery to keep devices charged. Headlamp. Various cords for charging. Type G adapter with usb ports. Stock ear pods.
  • Toiletries: toothbrush, toothpaste, travel size deodorant, anti-chafe balm (highly highly recommended), comb, floss, facial razor, small amount of laundry detergent, small pocket knife w/ scissors, small lightweight towel.
  • Medical: small stock medical kit (band-aids etc), Kinesio tape, knee straps (highly recommended), hiking foot salve, a handful of painkillers and sleeping pills
  • Bag of random items: whistle, sewing kit, various repair items, lighter, spoon and fork, eyemask (really helped on those early light mornings).
  • Poo bag: lightweight trowel, toilet paper, small container of Purell. You’re going to need it.
  • Notebook and pen.
  • Hiking umbrella. This was intended to keep the rain off, which it did, but also was very useful on hot sunny days. I attached it to my backpack for handsfree use.
  • Small Sawyer Squeeze water filter and bag.
  • Two 1.5 liter disposable plastic water bottles.
  • Wide mouth neoprene canteen. I can’t recommend this one enough. Use it so you don’t have to exit your tent to relieve yourself at night.

Shoes. Your footwear will mostly depend on your personal preference. I used to hike in “waterproof” hiking boots but decided on light mesh trail runners this time. My chief concern with trail runners was lack of ankle support, which I remedied by always using poles, and wet feet. My feet were often wet, but they dried fairly quickly. My experience with boots was that they could stay dry most of the time but could not hold up to wet grass and brush. In the UK, that’s a problem. On the Coast to Coast, my boots became soaked through and heavy and did not dry completely for many days. The trail runners worked well for me. I have no intention of returning to boots for summer hiking any time soon. Do your research and pick what works for you. Make sure you settle on something you can easily replace on the trail.

The most useful bit of gear I carried was a smartphone with a full OS Map of the island, internet connectivity and GPS. For American folks reading this, getting cell service in the UK is easy and cheap. Make sure your phone is unlocked. Purchase a UK service sim card, which can be purchased online or on just about every block in London or any other city. I used Vodaphone, which worked 95% of the time. £30 buys you a month of service with domestic minutes (use your data to call outside the country using various messaging apps) and generous data allowance.

Get your gear dialed in. Train with it as much as possible. I spent a lot of time working out how to make items accessible without taking my pack off. I strapped my poles to the front of my pack for quick access and stowage, filled hip pockets with my most used items and made full use of my chest pouch. I could don nearly all my rain gear quickly without taking the pack off. Water, umbrella, everything within reach.

Food and Water

Yes, you can cook all your own food. But be aware that many campsites do not allow open flames and ban barbeques. I never cooked my own food. I really enjoy unwinding in a dark corner of a pub at night with a few beers and a hearty meal. The downside to not carrying cooking gear is that morning coffee can be often hard to find.

One aspect that sets walking in the UK apart from hiking in most of the rest of the world is that you are never far from a village, and more times than not, your footpath is intended to take you to the next village, town or city. Most communities will have some provision for food. I managed 177 pubs in my 80+ days on the trail. There was only a couple of days where I couldn’t get into a pub.

For the nonEnglish, it’s important to know that pubs in England can have weird food hours. Some pubs open for a short period for lunch, close and reopen for dinner. Some have no lunch. Many pubs, don’t serve food on certain days or don’t serve much food at all. In rural pubs, you may find that a pub has a limited Sunday menu. Then there is the issue of “booking” a seat. I’ve been turned away because a pub is fully booked, which merely means that every table has been booked for the night and you can’t get service even if the booking is hours away. I can’t speak to Wales but in Scotland, pubs generally keep consistent food hours.

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Finding the pubs and working out their unique hours can be maddening. Fortunately, I have a tip and it may be the most useful tip in this whole post: use The CAMRA Good Beer Guide App. CAMRA is an organization dedicated to preserving England’s traditional method of serving beer, known as real ale. If you are not familiar with real ale, see my post here. A few decades ago, real ale was on the brink of extinction. CAMRA brought back the tradition in a big way. As part of their efforts, they published a guide to advertising pubs which served real ale. CAMRA recently built a new app that allows users to access info and ratings regarding, not just pubs in the “Good Beer Guide” but any pub that serves real ale. These days, real ale is served in almost every pub and the result is an extremely robust location-based app which is rich in information important to a hungry rambler. The app boasts 40,000 entries. In the app, you will find easy to understand hours and food service times. Always call before if you are going to rely on a single pub for a meal. You must purchase a subscription for the app, which will set you back, £1-£5.

Most villages will also have a village store (often also the Post Office), Co-Op, Spar or gas station convenience store. These are great for cheap and light meals. Often they have a great deal for a premade sandwich, soda, and chips. This was a popular lunch option for me. Also a great source of fruit and granola bars, which was my morning staple. Grab enough for 3 or 4 days.

On the rare occasions in which I knew I would not have somewhere to stop for dinner, I kept a store of tuna, chips, maybe some bread.

Water is easy to come by in the UK. Every campsite has a clean water source. All water from a spigot on the island is potable. I carried three liters and never ran out and had to use my filter. I’d bring a filter anyway.

Resources

As noted above, I believe your best resource is the OS Map and the LDWA website’s database of paths.

One popular book resource is the Cicerone End to End Trail Guide . I did not find the guide particularly useful. It was published over a decade ago, in an age of no smartphones and fewer maintained long-distance footpaths. EDIT: It was updated in 2019. The new version maybe worth a look.

The Lands End to John o’ Groats Association website has a good bit of information on in concerning routes and walkers’ accounts. For a few pounds, they will send you a guide (although I didn’t find it very helpful) and put you in contact to talk to someone about your route.

Need inspiration? Read John Hillaby’s fantastic account of his 1960s LeJog adventure.

A blogger named Mark Moxon also has a helpful guide to walking LeJog.

Loch Lomond