Before leaving for my trip I read dozens of blogs from those who'd walked LeJog to see what I could learn. There is a wealth of invaluable information out there. Here are a few things that I learned along the way that may be useful to those thinking about undertaking the walk of a lifetime.
How did you feel about the route you picked?
I took the wonderful South West Coast Path to Barnstaple, then crossed Exmoor and the Quantock ridge to reach Glastonbury and Bath via the Somerset Levels. From Bath I followed the Cotswold Way – ignoring a couple of doglegs – then used canal towpaths to pass through Birmingham and reach Lichfield. Public footpaths and a mix of the occasionally waymarked Monarch's Way and infinitely better waymarked Limestone Way took me over the White Peak to Edale. I then spent just over a fortnight on the sociable Pennine Way, walking to its terminus at Kirk Yetholm.
Once in Scotland I used a mix of the St Cuthbert's Way, Southern Upland Way and drove roads to cross the Borders and enter the industrial belt. Here I followed towpaths along the Union Canal and Forth & Clyde Canal to reach Kirkintilloch, and then disused railways to join the West Highland Way just west of Strathblane.
I spent six amicable days on the West Highland Way, joining the Great Glen Way in Fort William and walking that, in completion, to its end point in Inverness On the final leg of my trip I used as much of the new John o'Groats Trail as was feasible, diverting onto the A9 and A99 where a stage of the Trail was not passable (usually due to summer-height bracken).
Although I loved my walk, if I did it again I would probably cross the Mendips to pick up the Offa's Dyke Path along the Welsh border. While I enjoyed the Cotswold Way, it is not overly exciting. More importantly, I didn't enjoy getting to it via the Somerset Levels, and while there was fun to be had in Stratford-upon-Avon and walking its canal, my route from Chipping Camden to Edale was laborious at times, and my overnight stay in Star City was not one I'd repeat.
Equally, while I'm pleased I've now walked the West Highland and Great Glen Ways, there's no question that you add miles and days to your route by tracking back west after arriving near the east coast of Scotland in Kirk Yetholm. There are more central routes into the Highlands, including the lovely – and quiet – Rob Roy Way.
Of the unmissable highlights of my route I would count the South West Coast Path – a challenging way to kick off, but a scenic no brainer – the Pennine Way, The Great Glen Way and the superb John o'Groats Trail. I also enjoyed crossing the Borders through hill country.
My route was definitely not the shortest it could have been; I compromised between time on the trail and what I felt would be the most scenic route.
How much did LeJog cost?
Although I didn't keep an exact record of daily costs, I spent an average of £80–100 a day. While I was able to book a lot of B&B accommodation for around £40–50 a night, some was more. Add in lunch, snacks, an evening meal and couple of pints and the daily spend hit around £70–80. Then there was the additional cost of kit (including new boots), maps and travel (buses and trains at the start, end and during the trip) which took my daily average to around £90.
Comparing my costs with other LeJogers it seems I spent more than some and less than others. You could walk LeJog for less if you booked accommodation well ahead (see below) and were happy to use a lot of shared bunk rooms in hostels (I wasn't). The biggest savings come from camping en route, cooking for yourself and shortening the length of the walk.
How did you book accommodation?
I set out with a Zen approach, expecting to find an easy-reach B&B or YHA at each day's stopping point. I abandoned that on night 2 when I wandered around St Ives on knackered feet for an hour before finding a disappointing and expensive B&B. Thereafter I booked at least a day head.
This worked fine generally until I hit the Pennine Way, when shortage of accommodation (settlements like Byrness only have one B&B) meant it was more sensible to book a few night's ahead (I made these arrangements on my rest days).
The shortage of accommodation continued – and got worse – as I walked further north and into the school summer holidays (Scottish schools break up a few weeks before their southern counterparts). I struggled so much in the Great Glen that I had to take buses to and from Inverness to reach my daily start and end points, and I was forced to combine three days into two at the end of my trip due to shortage of accommodation along Scotland's far northeast coast (many hostels and hotels in the area have closed down in recent years).
By the end of my trip I was booking up to a week ahead of myself. But I knew what I was capable of physically by then, and didn't need the flexibility I'd welcomed earlier on.
I used a mix of Booking.com, AirBnB and direct bookings to secure accommodation. B&Bs and guest houses close to major walking trails often offer pickup services to the trail for walkers. And even when a hotel or B&B didn't have space they'd often recommend nearby alternatives, some of which were not online. I enjoyed many of my AirBnB stays and would recommend them over more generic hotels and B&Bs, however much I dislike the ethics of the company. You can find my list of favourite (recommended) stopovers here.
How did you find the walking?
I averaged upwards of 16 miles a day and by the end of my walk 20 mile days across rough clifftops were well within my capabilities. That said, it took me a good 3–4 weeks to reach a high level of fitness, and I found a couple of legs along the up-and-down South West Coast Path early on to be tough. In hindsight I believe this was partly my body getting used to the new physical routine and partly because I was trying to keep up with Andy Robinson's often demanding schedule in his End to End Trail book. Nevertheless, I kept going and over time worked out what my body was capable of and planned/changed my plans accordingly. I didn't do much training before I set off from Land's End (though I am used to mountain walking and keep myself in pretty good shape) and became fit on the trail. The hardest walking for me, ironically, wasn't hilly terrain, but tarmac – along canals and roads – which began to hurt seriously when I reached Scotland. Other LeJogers, however, walk solely on roads and don't seem to mind it.
I didn't get a single blister until I had to change boots on the Pennine Way (my old boots started leaking). Then I had a litany of problems culminating in four blisters on one foot, which sapped almost all joy from the start of the West Highland Way. As a consequence the single piece of advice I would pass on to potential LeJoggers is to have a reserve pair of boots that a friend or family member can send to you if required that are already worn in (of which more below).
Other than those blisters the main physical problem I had was the soles of my feet slowly going numb during the walk, and, towards the end, my toes as well. I believe this was related to the nerves in my ankles getting compressed by the walking and my pack. (I can confirm that feeling is slowly returning to them a fortnight after finishing my walk!)
I learned the importance of listening to my body as I walked. My original schedule only had a handful of rest days in it. As I headed north it became clear that if I was going to make the distance then proper rest, particularly after demanding stretches, was going to be vital, not only to help heal my body but, critically, to catch up on home life – pay bills and the like – and book forward accommodation.
Although I'm sure I could have pushed myself harder – particularly towards the end when I was very fit – there was an ongoing balance to be found between expending physical effort and enjoying the walk. I think I got it about right most of the time for my own capabilities.
Did you get lonely?
No. On the contrary, I loved the opportunity to spend time alone. But I enjoy my own company and - particularly on the more popular trails - there were people to talk to both in the evenings and sometimes on the walk that made for some of the best times on the trail.
That said, I think it likely that walkers with a propensity for loneliness might struggle on LeJog. There are sections that are remote and bleak, and away from the more popular walking territories and established trails you can end up not passing a fellow walker in days. I found this to be one of the more surprising - and slightly depressing - lessons of the walk: too few people are making use of our wonderful footpaths.
How did you navigate?
I used the superb OS Maps app on my iPhone onto which, using a combination of online route data, paper maps and books, I'd plot my route in advance and then follow it as I walked. Given that the App warns you if you stray off course I didn't even have to use a compass.
That said, for all of the walk bar the far northeast Scottish coast I had reserve paper maps in my pack; either strip maps for long distance trails, or OS 1:25s/50s when they didn't exist. The paper maps were more for peace of mind; I didn't like the idea of relying entirely on my iPhone and worried that poor weather or lack of signal could leave me dangerously exposed. As it transpired phone coverage was good throughout the UK, I never ran out of battery and I found some nifty waterproofing methods to keep the phone dry on the rare days when it rained heavily. On all of the major long distance trails the route was impossible to lose most of the time, with clear paths and waymarks.
Was the summer a good time to walk?
I set off mid May and arrived in John o'Groats in early August.
I had the benefit of wonderful weather and spring flowers for my first magical weeks along the South West Coast Path. I was also lucky to have generally good weather throughout LeJog (not too hot, not too cold) – although I did need gloves and multiple layers both on the Cotswold and Pennine Ways. I didn't find midges to be a problem in Scotland – partly because it was unseasonably cool by the time I hit the Highlands. In addition, I never ran out of daylight. All of these factors were plus points for a summer walk.
The flip side was that I struggled to find accommodation in Scotland – and the accommodation that was available was sometimes expensive.
For that reason I think leaving Land's End in late March or early April would probably be the best time to set off. By avoiding peak season you'd also save cash on accommodation too.
What camera did you use?
I was originally going to take my Canon 5D Mark III. I abandoned this plan on the basis of weight and practicality and in hindsight the idea I could have taken it was absurd.
I replaced the 5D with my girlfriend's tiny point-and-shoot Canon IXUS170. It was a camera I knew nothing about but it was amazingly portable and, despite being just £200, took good photos in almost all light conditions.
I edited photos using Adobe Lightroom with a custom setting to complement the little Canon. I didn't process them heavily - I didn't have time - mainly reintroducing detail to highlights using a graduated filter and giving the colours a little extra pop.
Although there were times I missed my 5D, the handheld could be pulled out at any time for a quick shot and was surprisingly robust, even in poor weather.
How long did writing your blog take?
What started out as a few paragraphs each night turned into something more time consuming as I continued north, and I sometimes wondered if I had created a rod for my own back. That said, I welcomed the routine of recording my memories and now that LeJog is over I'm pleased to have this personal diary of my trip of a lifetime.
Uploading, selecting and editing photos probably took an hour a night, while writing, editing, formatting and uploading the daily blog took anything between two and four additional hours. Where B&Bs didn't have fast or stable enough wifi (or indeed, any wifi) I ended up getting behind which made me angsty. It meant I had to use rest days to catch up with myself.
Fortunately most B&Bs and all YHAs had good wifi, and I was just about able to keep on top of the blog, giving me something to do in the evenings. Ironically the hardest time was on the Pennine Way, when socialising with friends I made en route felt like a more attractive option than editing text.
Was LeJog all you hoped it would be?
Yes. And a whole lot more. Go do it!
What five things would you tell me ahead of my own trip?
1. Take a GPS-enabled smartphone. Before LeJog I owned an iPhone but only used it for calls. As I walked the phone became indispensable, not only for route finding, navigation and making calls, but also for finding accommodation and taking photos when the little Canon's battery died. On the rare occasions I got bored I could also listen to music :-)
2. Listen to your body. If you need more rest, take it. LeJog is a long distance walk, not an ultra marathon. As such you have to think long term and pace yourself accordingly. When planning add a safety net of at least one rest day for every six days walked; there's a big difference between miles on a pre-planning spreadsheet and the same miles on the ground.
3. Break in a reserve pair of boots. You may not finish the trail in the boots you set off in. If you have to change boots en route you can save yourself time, hassle and blisters by breaking in a new pair ahead of the trip that can be sent to you should you need them.
4. Take gaiters (and gloves). Gaiters were a revelation to me. One of my most hated terrains early on was wet overgrown meadows, which could soak boots and socks in minutes. Once I had gaiters those problems stopped – and so did wet feet. Be prepared also – even in the height of summer – for winter weather conditions, particularly on the Pennine Way. Gloves and multiple layers were required on several occasions in Yorkshire and Cumbria – but I also got irresponsibly cold on the Cotswold Way.
5. It's not that hard. I worried before setting out that LeJog would test my physical and emotional limits. While there were undoubtedly tough days, for the most part the walk was fantastically good fun. I'm convinced that with a sensible schedule most walkers in reasonable shape and with the right commitment, time, budget and attitude can walk – and love walking – LeJog.