“It was as if hundreds of little devils, each with a tiny red hot pitch fork, were prodding my feet continually. I could almost see the wide grins on their ugly little faces as they danced about me… the pilgrims of old who put stones in their shoes when they walked cannot have suffered more than I did on that night alongside Loch Ness”
It is odd that the journey between two equally isolated points of mainland Great Britain continues to attract so much attention. Over the decades thousands of people have walked, run, cycled and driven between Land’s End, located on the beautiful Cornish peninsula, and the equally lonely John O’Groats in Caithness, which isn’t even the most northerly point of Britain that many believe it to be. Others have walked backwards, pushed prams, carried fridges, even utilised a newly acquired bus pass to travel the entire distance on public transport. Such is this continued interest in the journey twixt that many have taken advantage of the commercial potential.
Partly inspired by the achievements of a slightly odd woman- Dr. Barbara Moore, in February 1960, the South African born, British entrepreneur Billy Butlin, called a conference of a dozen or so of his organisation’s managers. Many of these worked on his popular and affordable holiday camps. Ever alert to the potential for self-promotion, he announced his intention to stage a race- open to all, it would be a ‘walk to end all walks’ from John O’Groats to Land’s End.
With many attracted by the £5000 prize money on offer, over 4000 applications were received, whittled down to some 1500 entrants. One of these, a Border farmer, went on to write a book of his experience. The Big Walk by ‘A Walker’ is his account of the 891 mile Butlin Walk that commenced 26th February 1960. The winning man reached Land’s End at 07.32 on 13th February, the first female arrived two days later with hundreds following in their wake over the next twelve days. Wendy Lewis was recorded as ‘being in a frightening condition; her hands and legs were swollen, her hair bedraggled about her drawn and sunken features and her black-rimmed eyes stared glassily ahead’. Many more were not counted or recorded after the closing finish date, including the 68 year old Duke of Leinster, and others that went on to finish despite having been disqualified for one reason or another.
The event caught not only the media’s attention but the public were equally fascinated. Alongside children and adults alike requesting autographs of the walkers, the author relates numerous accounts of the kindness of strangers- offers of food, accommodation, footcare and lifts. Some of his account makes for fascinating reading. The walk began in atrocious weather and entrants had to contend with three metre snow drifts on the roads in Scotland. Besides exhaustion and hypothermia, foot pain and blisters are a constant companion. Walkers wore an assortment of attire- boots, shoes, sandals, Wellington boots, some even barefoot as a result of swollen feet, they struggled on. Hundreds retired, over 170 in the first fifty miles. Many others also dropped out later, through ill-preparedness, injury, being struck by vehicles or disgust with the cheats.
With substantial prize money on offer, many cheats took advantage of lifts in cars or lorries, others had prior arranged surreptitious transport. The honest walkers and officials alike were aware of many such cheats and additional check points were promptly arranged in an attempt to catch and disqualify them. One such cheat even attempted to flag down and obtain a lift from Billy Butlin himself.
Beside the hardship and experience of the author, it is the account of other walkers that is most remarkable. They covered fifty, sixty, even seventy miles a day. One walker had a wooden leg, another was blind. The youngest finisher was aged just 16, the oldest 65. The eventual men’s winner was Jimmy Musgrave, a 38 year old glass packer from Doncaster. He collected £1000 in prize money, finishing in 14 days, 14 hours and 32 minutes. The author finished his walk six days later but was not counted amongst the finishers as he had broken down just miles from the finish. Despite having had to miss a few miles at the end, accepting a lift on medical advice, the author returned to the race just hours later. Determined to finish, he walked in to Land’s End to a muted reception, received just a lunch ticket for two Cornish Pasties and a cup of tea prior to attempting to return home on his diminished and now meagre funds. The Big Walk records his satisfaction at both reaching the end and being able to return to his beloved farm- “never have I been so glad to be going home“.
This no ‘how to’ manual, instead, it is an unadorned personal account of a fascinating race and captures well the determined mind set of amateur speed walkers in a simpler era.
The Big Walk, A. Walker. Prentice-Hall International, 198pp, 1961