The visitor centre car park at Land’s End was almost empty and ghostly silent. It was just after 10 am on a chilly May morning. The sun was up there somewhere, trying to find its way through a thin layer of hazy clouds. I parked my Royal Enfield motorcycle and switched the engine off. Standing beside the bike, I was quietly surveying the surrounding scene before dashing into a souvenir shop to get a tacky sticker to put on my bike’s windscreen. I’m not a big fan of what to me has become a distasteful blot on an otherwise beautiful Cornish landscape – but needs must, and a guy has to have a tacky sticker.
An unkempt silver Volvo estate car rattled its way towards me, disturbing the stillness of the morning as it scrunched across the gravel. Despite having the choice of what looked like at least a hundred empty spaces to choose from, it ended up right next to me. Why do people do that?
I witnessed an emergency escape drill. The car doors exploded open and Mum, Dad and three hyperactive offspring burst out into what had been a peaceful car park. The kids were in the five- to eight-year-old age range, and they ran around like they’d overdosed on high-caffeine energy drinks. Dad managed a brief nod in my direction, but in a flash the family had slammed the doors shut again and raced off towards the Land’s End sensory cinema experience.
What’s wrong with those guys? Why can’t they take a walk along the clifftops and soak up the natural peace and beauty of the place?
Anyway, in the few seconds while their car doors were open, a musical blast had escaped, to further shatter the serenity of the morning – Pink Floyd, on maximum volume, and with cash register accompaniment, blasting out a few lines of ‘Money’. An excellent choice – maybe I’ll let them off. The tension I sensed as the Volvo first parked next to me fell away. I had to smile as I caught that brief burst of iconic music greatness. I smiled inwardly; it was going to be a good day.
My internal jukebox took over; that song would now be on a continuous loop for several hours. As Dave Gilmour resumed the vocals in my head, my thoughts skipped quickly from how ‘it’s a gas’ seemed such an outdated thing to say, to the rarity of a 7/4 time signature in popular music. I didn’t dwell on it. Standing there quietly amused, I watched the thrill-seekers disappear in search of stimulation before uttering a quiet ‘fair play’ under my breath in admiration of Mum and Dad’s good taste in music.
How appropriate those ‘Money’ lyrics seemed for the Land’s End pleasure park. I began to compose headlines for the day’s travel blog (which sadly no longer exists) in my head. ‘The Last Resort’, ‘Land’s Spend’ and ‘Unhappy End’ were all contenders. I had no problem thinking of colourful words to describe how that magnificent headland had been turned into what I saw as an over-commercialised tourist trap.
But then I thought, wait a second – if I was an eight-year-old Wallace & Gromit fan, or a parent looking for something to hold a kid’s attention for an hour, I might see things differently. You pays your money…
Anyway, I was there now; I just had to dash in, buy that sticker and get on my way. Pink Floyd’s ‘Money’ continued to play in my head. It was enough of a distraction to avoid thinking about the irony of my trinket raid. I undoubtedly was in the right.
That song took me back in time, the way songs do, to when I first heard it. I was a nineteen-year-old again, at college in Kent in 1973. All flares and denim.
It’s magic, isn’t it? You catch part of a song or tune from the past, and you’re spirited back to that first time. If I hear ‘Happy Talk’ from South Pacific, I can still see the old Bush stereogram in our 1960s lounge, when I was about eight. The Beatle’s ‘She’s Leaving Home’ whisks me back to a steam-driven fairground as a thirteen-year-old, and The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ is a sweltering day on the beach at Newquay as a teenager. I can sense the warm sand under my feet, squeezing between my toes. I only have to hear a handful of notes from ‘I’m Not In Love’ by 10cc, and I’m twenty again, in my first car, a little lime-green Mini, pulled over to the side of the road in Moseley, Birmingham, with the radio turned up to the max. I’m there… it’s May 1975 and I’ve just left home to live in a strange unknown city. I can smell the mustiness of the damp gutters that loosely held the car’s sliding windows. I’ve got that nervous excitement of leaving home, starting a fresh job, with places to go, things to do, girls to meet… and I wasn’t in love.
Everyone knows that feeling of being transported back in time. You’re thinking of your examples right now. The phenomenon even has a scientific acronym – MEAM, or Music Evoked Autobiographical Memory. As our neural networks develop, they somehow associate life experiences with the music of the moment. You hear the music and retrieve the associated memory. There must be some evolutionary explanation, but I don’t know what it is. And it’s not just music. Fond memories and feelings come flooding back when I catch a whiff of mown grass or two-stroke engine exhaust. The memories associated with the smell of baby sick are more mixed.
Book quotes can have the same effect. No really, stay with me on this. It’s known as Literary Evoked Autobiographical Memory – LEAM. Well, it is now because I just made it up. I can read a few lines from a book and I’m transported to when I first read them, to the time, the place and my feelings.
The opening lines of John Hillaby’s Journey through Britain, published in 1968, describe an incident that happened a few weeks into his epic walk. He’s in a forest somewhere along the border between England and Wales… and he’s lost. Whenever I read the opening lines, I’m a fifteen-year-old lad in Kent, reading the book for the first time, shortly after it had been published. Our family had moved to a new house, I was attending my third secondary school in four years, and to put it mildly, I wasn’t very happy about it.
John Hillaby was a travel writer and naturalist who was once described as ‘the most celebrated pedestrian in England’. He wrote a series of books describing his long-distance walks in Africa and Europe. Journey through Britain was published to critical acclaim, with one reviewer stating that it ‘may prove to be a classic in travel literature’. The book told the story of John Hillaby’s 1,100-mile walk from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, and it captured my imagination. It was my escape – just what I needed. For me, at that moment, the book was perfect. As I read it, I walked every step with John; I happily took the blisters for a few hours of release from my real-world anxieties. The text jumped with effortless dexterity from factual description to social commentary to amusing anecdote. By today’s standards, the style seems a little formal and dated, and it is. The book is fifty years old, but it has a gentle flow and reading a chapter or two always brings a smile to my face. For those of you interested to read more about John, I’ve included a short biography at the end of this book.
I picked up Journey through Britain again in 2010 after undertaking a similar journey myself. When I say similar, in reality it was nothing like it. I didn’t even walk. I rode a comfortable touring bicycle and had the luxury of a motorhome to sleep in most nights. As I went through the book a second time, it intrigued me how much some things had changed since John Hillaby’s days, while other things hadn’t altered at all. The pre-history and geology aren’t any different, but many of the places and much of the culture he described have changed dramatically in fifty years. I enjoyed reading, for example, how he came across the M4 being constructed across the Severn Estuary. That scene is hard to imagine now after fifty years of bridge tolls and being able to dash eastwards along the M4 to escape the Welsh rain. The changes in social attitudes are even more striking. By today’s social norms, it’s amusing to read about the ‘beatniks’ in Newquay and the local fisherman’s indignation at seeing a young girl bathing naked at dusk. If there are any fishermen left in Newquay today their small talk over net-mending duties is more likely to involve the town’s ban on stag parties and blow-up sex toys, and the effect on tourist numbers.
I read the book again in 2018, as I was entering semi-retirement. Bits and pieces of work allowed me to keep scratching my travel itch, but the proportion of my time spent working was falling away. After over forty years of work, I was lifting my head to see what was happening around me. Retirement was looming. Now what? It occurred to me that it would be a bit of a wheeze to repeat John Hillaby’s journey, looking out for the things he wrote about in his original book. I could see how today’s Britain differed from the country he observed fifty years ago. Do those rich local dialects, so colourfully described by the author, still exist, and are they so regionally defined? How has the economic landscape changed, and how have people’s attitudes changed? Do the public houses still exist in the same numbers, and would I still find such colourful characters in them? Brilliant; I’d be able to visit as many pubs as I wanted to, and it would be research!
Social media is a mixed blessing. The more time I had to engage with it, the more I came across sad stories of ex-work colleagues suffering from serious illnesses, or even worse. It made me think. Without being morbid, I needed to make the most of whatever time I’d got left. As with many of the baby boomer generation, I was fortunate to have some time, and the means, to do something other than work. More family time was a big bonus but retracing the footsteps of John Hillaby and observing the changes along his route was just the excuse I needed for an adventure. As a bonus, I could postpone that list of jobs around the house a while longer.
I started my planning. Asking my wife for a three-month pass to traipse the length of Britain seemed unreasonable. That was an honourable way out, because I don’t suppose I could manage the walk, anyway. Maybe I could do it by bicycle over six leisurely weeks? I’d need time to get to the start and get home again though, so it could end up taking the best part of two months. I didn’t have that much time either. Looking for a solution, I next considered doing the trip by motorbike. Yes! That would be just as much fun and I could do it all in three weeks. At a nice slow pace, I’d still be able to smell the fields and be immersed in the landscape. Not as much as John Hillaby, because he stuck to the footpaths and tracks for his route, but close enough. OK then, it seemed a reasonable compromise; time to get back to the planning.
The outline for an adventure was taking shape. It would be a three-week motorcycle ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats, sticking as closely as possible to the original 1966 route. I’d take it easy and note the changes that had occurred throughout Great Britain in fifty years. I made my choice of mount – a Royal Enfield Classic 500. The design of the bike is straight out of the 1950s. It wouldn’t have been out of place in the landscape that John Hillaby passed through on his epic walk. Even at that early stage of planning, the possibility of a book came to mind, and I started thinking of titles. As I would be setting off from Cornwall, I flirted, but for less than a second, with the title ‘Zennor and the art of motorcycle maintenance’.
I felt a bit of a fraud. I was tackling a repeat of an epic walking journey by motorbike. It still seemed like a wonderful excuse for an adventure though. I thought of my expedition as being a motorcycling version of Michael Portillo’s review of the 1866 Bradshaw’s Railway Guide – but without the pastel jackets – or the trains.
By using a motorcycle, there was a danger that I’d go past everything too quickly; a walker has time to observe so much more. To mitigate this, I’d limit my rides to around a hundred miles a day and make a point of frequent stops and diversions. I would slow my pace of travel right down and take time to explore places, see the things that define each region I passed through, and meet its people. By taking my time over the journey, I reckoned I could pace my schedule to cover one of the original Journey through Britain chapters each day – around 15 days for my version, with a few days extra to get there and back. My only real constraint was not being able to follow the paths, but I’d keep my route as close as possible to the original one and go to most of the same places, taking the occasional walk along those same paths.
Land’s End to John o’ Groats (often referred to as LeJog) is an iconic journey, done so many times and in so many ways. In some respects, it’s a bit of a marketing coup, or at least a terrific bit of opportunism by the people living in those two places. The terminals are neither the most southerly nor the most northerly points on the British mainland. Those are the Lizard and Dunnet Head. Although Land’s End can claim to be the most south-westerly extremity, the opposite diagonal corner is near to Duncansby Head, a further five miles north-east from John o’ Groats. One definition of the Land’s End to John o’ Groats route is that it’s the longest journey between two inhabited points on the British mainland, traditionally accepted as being 874 miles. Whatever – the route has now become established and thousands of people attempt it each year. It’s been done on a motorbike in a face-melting and barely believable time of just over 11 hours. You name it, and someone has completed the journey with it – skateboard, wheelchair, bed, JCB digger, lawnmower, unicycle, bus and many other means.
In writing about my trip, I’ve kept to the same overall structure as the original book. I follow this opening introductory chapter with sections of the journey that broadly match those used by John Hillaby. In each chapter, I have described my journey and the things that occurred along the way. I’ve also looked at aspects of modern culture and society and tried to make some comparisons over time.
It would be impossible to follow John Hillaby’s exact route all the way, but within the restrictions already mentioned, the tracks of our two journeys are very similar. After surfing up the north coast of Cornwall, my route headed eastwards and inland to squelch across Dartmoor. It then crossed the Somerset lowlands, headed for Bristol and turned the corner into Wales shortly after crossing the Severn Estuary. The route then sheepishly skirted the Welsh/English border for a while before turning further inland towards Stoke and the Potteries. The Peak District provided the departure point from the Midlands and the beginning of the northern section, via the Pennines and the Yorkshire Dales. The route through Scotland swirled through the border country, before climbing towards Fort William and the glorious Highlands. It meandered along the west coast before taking a final swing to the north-east, across the sparse Sutherland moorland. The route concludes with a final flurry of bagpipe music, tartan and Irn-Bru at the finishing line in John o’ Groats.
An open road is just a story waiting to be told. Find your own story on a Royal Enfield motorcycle today.
Well, that’s how the marketing strapline goes, and it must have worked because I bought one. I bought my shiny new Classic 500 in March 2017. It looked like a restored original from the 1950s, and that’s most people’s first impression. The appearance of the bike has developed at geological pace since the 1950s and what you get now, from the factory in India, is a retro-looking bike with classic looks but with modern electronics and ABS disc-braking. It remains a simple machine, with a single-cylinder four-stroke engine that boasts, or rather timidly admits to, twenty-seven brake horsepower. That simplicity is also an endearing trait and a great positive, however. It means you can perform most mechanical repairs with an adjustable spanner, a big hammer and a roll of duct tape. It’s an old-fashioned thumper of a motorbike. Aficionados will tell you that the distinctive vibration experienced if anyone is crazy enough to try speeds above fifty mph comes about because the piston remains still while the rest of the bike goes up and down. The only ‘extras’ added to the factory specifications of my motorcycle were a windscreen (for attaching tacky tourist stickers), a satnav mount and a custom-built rear rack courtesy of Bill, my engineer big brother. The rack was used to support twin (bicycle) pannier bags which, along with a small tank bag, carried all my belongings for the whole trip.
I understand from someone he met on the way that John Hillaby undertook his classic walk in 1966. Although the precise details aren’t revealed, his journey was around 1,100 miles long, took three months to complete, and he set off in the second week of April. He doesn’t say as much, but I assume two significant planning constraints dictated his timing. First, having to avoid the Scottish mid-summer midge season, and second, the need to be back for the 1966 World Cup finals in July. It was much the same for me, because 2018 was also a World Cup year. There were to be two significant cup final differences for me: being able to watch the finals in colour – and the outcome.
For his planning and preparations before his great walk, John Hillaby spent months reading and note-taking in the British Library. His preparations were thorough and an essential element of his successful writing formula. Nowadays we have it so easy – the world is available on our laptop screens through a simple search on the World Wide Web. I also tried to prepare for my trip thoroughly. I had the Internet to help with my research and a considerable library of maps and travel books. My story would develop as I journeyed through Great Britain, but before I left, I needed to plot my route as close as possible to that of John Hillaby’s and to identify other places of interest to visit along the way. I did my homework, got my Royal Enfield serviced, charged my laptop and packed my bags. For the rest, to paraphrase the great man – I shall try to relate what I saw when I set off from Land’s End in the fourth week of May 2018.