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A hiker’s library: ‘The Big Walk’ by A. Walker

“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.

18 year old Wendy Lewis was the first female home on The Big Walk. She and the second female eacgh collected £1000 prize money from Sir Billy Butlin, shown here with his wife and son at Land's End

18 year old Wendy Lewis was the first female home on The Big Walk. Wendy was a popular competitor and hundreds turned out to see her walk by. Cheered on by adults and children, she was frequently piped through towns and villages. She and Beryl Randle,the second female finisher, each collected £1000 prize money from Billy Butlin, shown here with his wife and son at 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 March, 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 route followed by competitors in the Billy Butlin Walk, from Land's End to John O'Groats in 1960

The route followed by competitors in the Billy Butlin Walk, from John O’Groats to Land’s End in 1960

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.

The kit list of a typical competitor in the 1960 endeavour makes interesting reading. Note the 'kerchief type scarf, sufficiently large enough to keep the next warm while being smart enough to wear while dining in a five star hotel

The kit list of the author of The Big Walk during his 1960 endeavour makes interesting reading. Note the ‘kerchief type scarf, sufficiently large enough to keep the neck warm while being smart enough to wear while dining in a five star hotel. For protection from the weather, he wore an ex-army gas cape. His choice of footwear proved disastrous as his feet swelled so much he couldn’t get them on. He was forced to wear a pair of Alpine boots with the tops from a pair of sandals stuffed into the sole- “this was the answer I had been looking for and was most successful”

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 is 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.

Book from my shelves:

The Big Walk, A. Walker. Prentice-Hall International, 198pp, 1961

4 replies »

  1. my father a postman did this walk and I still have his number and cut outs from the paper, his name was Albert Fox from Teignmouth Devon.


    • Martin, I found your father in the official results. A. FOX, age 44, competitor number 672, arrived at Land’s End Saturday 19th March at 22.50, in 51st place


  2. My great grandad did this walk among many others , William white , we still have the certificate from Butlins that he completed the walk


    • Hi Danny. Fantastic. I found your Great Grandad- competitor 572 finished at 14.40 on Monday 21st March in 64th position. He was aged 57.
      I would love to see a copy of the certificate. I’ll add an image to the blog if you agree.


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