The life of the long-distance walker

​The benefits of a good brisk walk are well understood and particularly so in a modern society where sedentary lifestyles are more the norm.
Welcome home party: Valerie's extended family meet her at the Stornoway ferry terminal.Welcome home party: Valerie's extended family meet her at the Stornoway ferry terminal.
Welcome home party: Valerie's extended family meet her at the Stornoway ferry terminal.

​From an exercise perspective it’s ideal, being something most people can accomplish fairly easily, while the fresh air and being at one with nature is good for our mental health, so important in this day and age, particularly after Covid.

But walking from Land’s End to John O’ Groats, a distance of over 600 miles? That’s on another scale all together and unfathomable for ordinary mortals. But it’s a challenge that Ranish resident Valerie Hamilton took in her stride, quite literally.

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She returned from her 83-day adventure on the Tuesday evening of last week off the Stornoway to Ullapool ferry to be greeted by a welcoming party and banner, much to her own embarrassment and bemusement.

Camping for the night beside a loch.Camping for the night beside a loch.
Camping for the night beside a loch.

As far as she was concerned, it was much ado about nothing. Any notion of her escapades being particularly impressive is met with a shrug of the shoulders. But this, as the saying goes, was not her first rodeo.

“I cycled it in 1984 the other way, from John O’ Groats to Land’s End,” she said. “I remember then seeing someone walking it and I thought to myself when I get to 60 I’m going to walk it.

“The year before last I did a long walk and the year before that I did Ramsgate in Kent to Ranish, but I had to stop on the West Highland Way cause I had a stress fracture. So this time I wanted to do it all in one.”

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The broken bone on a previous challenge meant a delay of a few months for that particular adventure, but it was completed in due course, the determination to finish a challenge so evident.

The finishing line: Arriving at John O' Groats after 83 days.The finishing line: Arriving at John O' Groats after 83 days.
The finishing line: Arriving at John O' Groats after 83 days.

For this latest one, Valerie set off in the depths of winter, which seems an odd time of year, but she insists it’s not as illogical as you might first assume.

“We have a market garden so I’m busy all summer,” she said. “The winter up here is a bit depressing anyway. When you go down to Cornwall you gain about two hours of daylight. It’s in the morning you notice it more. It also means it’s easier to camp, cause there’s not so many people around.”

That last nugget illuminates another fascinating aspect to this challenge. This was not a case of having nice, warm accommodation, a luxurious hot bath to soothe the aching muscles and throbbing feet and a reinvigorating hot meal at the end of every day. This was a case of pitch your tent wherever you can and make do.

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“I would start about 8am every morning and finish by 3pm roughly, cause it would start getting cold. It depends on how cold it was, but ideally you would walk for a couple of hours, have a rest, then another couple of hours and so on. I’d try not to do more than 14 miles a day.”

The Slochd Summit just south of Inverness, the finish line hones into view.The Slochd Summit just south of Inverness, the finish line hones into view.
The Slochd Summit just south of Inverness, the finish line hones into view.

That still sounds quite more than enough to suffer from the obvious pitfalls of aches and pains and blistered feet.

“Funnily enough on Ramsgate to Ranish I had lots of problems, but this walk I had insoles for my shoes, which were running ones, and I only got a blister in the first week and it was healed by week two, but apart from that absolutely no problems with my feet at all.

“I didn’t actually camp the whole time. I camped probably about 70 per cent of the time. I stayed with friends and family some of the time.

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“I also got given free accommodation. It was really bad weather in Cornwall, really wild. It was midday and so wet and windy. I got to this village and there was a community growing place with a semi-derelict caravan. I knocked on the door of the house and said could I stay in the caravan. It was great. The guy whose house it was gave my dinner as well.”

Counter-intuitively perhaps, for those of us with an in-built bias towards this part of the world, she said the worst part of all was the walk north from Inverness.

“I was going to go west over Bonar Bridge, but there is the John O Groats Trail so I thought: I know I’m going to follow that. It was awful. They’ll argue it’s completed, but it’s not. You’re not on the A9 but you have to go on to the A9 to cross the bridges at the Black Isle, at the Cromarty Firth and Dornoch Firth. It really wasn’t very good.

“Further north, the trail is on the edge of cliffs - and very much on the edge of crumbling cliffs at that. So I ended up a lot of the time on the A9. Not ideal at all.”

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Valerie also dismisses the notion that the lot of the long-distance walker is a lonely one, a pastime only for those who embrace solitude and self-reflection.

“Oh no,” she says, getting somewhat animated. “You get to see a lot. I mean there are times. Between Glastonbury and Wales there is a long straight road about five miles and you can see right the way down. That got a bit boring. But you know if you just keep going, you’ll get to your destination.

“I met so many people. I met some crazy people as well. I met this guy, I think he was clinically insane. I was going to go through the Cairngorms from Blair Atholl but I changed my route as there had been heavy rain and the rivers would have been full. So I walked up the cycle route of the A9.

“It’s actually really nice and most of the time not near the traffic. Anyway I was coming up to the Drumochter Summit this guy was coming towards me with a lady’s bike and a massive trailer. He stopped. He was French and called Bruno. He’d been cycling for 14 years. He had just gone through Sweden, Norway and everywhere else. Probably certifiably mad. He’d been in Britain a long time and his aim was to go to America and pick up a nugget of gold worth $700,000. This is what he was going to do. It was a bit of a mad conversation, but I took a photo of him.

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“But people are kind. I’ve camped in all sorts of places and I’ve never had anyone complain. And the thing is if you’re walking by yourself people will talk to you; they’ll stop and ask you questions. Most days I would be talking to someone.”

The odd encounter with Mad Frenchmen, crumbling cliffs and wild weather aside, it was clearly a three-month highly enjoyable expedition for Valerie. Now her sights for the summer are set closer to home and the family’s horticulture venture.

“It’s my son’s croft at 44 Ranish and we produce lots of vegetables and potatoes which we sell to the market stall in Stornoway on a Friday morning and we also do veg boxes,” she said. “It’s my son’s business but I do a lot of the work. We’re trying to develop it more and try to encourage people to eat more healthy locally grown vegetables.”

She also has a book to start based on her experiences walking the length of the UK which will be a sequel to the self-published account of her Ramsgate to Ranish adventure just after lockdown was lifted.

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Initially, she hadn’t intended to do any fund-raising for charity, but an encounter early on her travels persuaded her otherwise.

“I wasn’t going to be sponsored,” she said. “The previous one I was but no-one really asked me if I was going to do it for charity this time so I wasn’t going to bother. But then into the second week in January it was really, really cold, like minus four, minus five. That night I was given a free AirBnB for the night. I had been walking along a cycling track and this couple started asking questions and the guy just said: ‘We’ve got a free accommodation you can have for the night’.

“The following morning I went into Oakhampton and there was a homeless person sitting in the street. I thought: How are they surviving? Nobody should be sleeping out and I felt bad because I didn't know what to do. And then I thought: "I know I’ll raise money because a few people have been asking.”

The organisation chosen is Crisis, the UK’s national homelessness charity, offering year-round education, employment, housing and well-being services. As the UK’s homelessness crisis worsens, they find they are being swamped.

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So what next for Valerie? She says she doesn’t really know at this stage, but unlikely she’ll be putting these walking shoes away for too long. The life of the long-distance walker just holds too much appeal.

“Before I was even finishing this one I was thinking: What am I going to do next? I’m not sure yet, maybe Great Yarmouth to Arnamurchan, the most easterly point in the UK to the most westerly. That’ll take me through counties I’ve not walked through before. We’ll see.”

To donate to Crisis visit Ranish to Ramsgate Facebook or Justgiving. For copies of “Ramsgate to Ranish” contact Valerie direct.