Chasing the County Tops

John o'Groats to Land's End via the highest point of every county
7th March - 3rd October 2017

Chasing the
County Tops

John o'Groats to Land's End
via the highest point of every county

In October 2017 I became the first person to walk from John O'Groats to Land's End via the highest point of every historic county on the British mainland. Starting in early March, I walked for 211 days, covering over 3,500 miles and climbing more than 119,000 metres to reach the highest points of 91 counties - that's equivalent to walking 1/7th of the way round the equator, and climbing 13 1/2 times the height of Everest.

Versions of this article have previously appeared in Strider, the journal of the Long Distance Walkers' Association, and Quo Vadis? the journal of the Land's End to John o'Groats Association.

See also my interactive route map and photographs.

The book about my County Tops walk, Highpoints, is available from June 2020

In my final year at university, I decided that I'd had enough of studying, and spent rather more time out walking than I perhaps should have done. During the year, I came up with various daft walking plans: the longest possible walk that didn't cross a contour line; the longest possible walk in a dead straight line (alongside the New Bedford River in East Anglia, if you're interested). A good friend felt it necessary to check whether a walk was "more conveniently represented on a road atlas than an Ordnance Survey map," before agreeing to accompany me. One day, I recall blu-tacking a map of the British Isles over the kitchen window, and starting to plot a route between the hills. This was the origin of possibly the best, possibly the worst, and almost certainly the most challenging idea I've ever had – a plan to walk between John O'Groats and Land's End, via the highest points of all of the counties …

… Nearly a decade later, I finally had the opportunity to embark upon this adventure.

Route overview
Overview of my route

When I first came up with the idea, part of the attraction was that it was something that no-one had ever done before: the concept of walking from John O'Groats to Land's End (or the other way) is familiar to many, but no-one had previously done it via the 'county tops'. In fact, only a handful of people have even visited all of the county tops. Perhaps the fact that ten years had elapsed since I came up with the idea and still no-one had done it shows what a bad idea it really was. (Co-incidentally, although I suggested to many friends that they join me for sections of the route, surprisingly few took me up on the offer.)

So, the rules of the game were as follows: I had to get from John O'Groats to Land's End, travelling on foot only (no buses, trains, bicycles), visiting the highest points of all of the historic counties in mainland Britain. There are many different lists of county tops, depending upon whether you consider current or historic (in England, this usually means pre-1974) counties, unitary authorities, London boroughs, and other administrative areas; I opted for the historic list, principally because these are the counties I believe in (plus, I had no particular desire to climb to the county top of Milton Keynes Unitary Authority).

Though many walk up the country, starting from Land's End, I decided to start in the north of Scotland, in the hope that I could escape from the Highlands before the midge season really got going. In fact, 2017 proved a particularly bad year for midges (Metro newspaper, 4th August 2017: "It's going to be the worst midge season ever,"), but I escaped the worst of them – until I reached the Galloway forest, and wasn't able to stand still for about a week.

Ben Macdui
Ben Macdui. County Top of Aberdeenshire and Banffshire

Allowing myself to exclude tops on islands (I didn't fancy swimming out to the Isle of Wight), I had 90 tops, for 91 historic counties, to visit along the way. If this maths doesn't seem to add up, it's because Ben Macdui (Aberdeenshire & Banffshire) and Broad Law (Selkirkshire & Peeblesshire) both straddle county boundaries, and are considered the highest points of the counties on either side, while Northamptonshire can't make up its mind whether Arbury Hill or Big Hill is higher (and has a third top for the Soke of Peterborough). But I didn't confine myself to climbing only county tops: plenty of other hills got in the way. For instance, I needed to climb Stob Coire na Ciche and Mam Sodhail to reach Càrn Eighe, the top of Ross & Cromarty – and then had to re-climb the first two mountains on the way back to my tent.

As a friend helpfully pointed out, my planned route was equivalent to about 1/7th of the Earth's circumference, and three-and-a-half times longer than an end-to-end walk needs to be. With a day off once every week or so, I estimated 200 days of walking. Somewhat to my surprise, I managed to stay within about half a day of my plan until I reached Dorset, where I discovered that the MOD had scheduled five days of live firing on Dartmoor around the date I'd intended to walk there. I had just over a week to get two days ahead of schedule if I wanted to climb the county top of Devon (High Willhays) without being shot. I managed it, but to say it was exhausting is something of an understatement. At no point did I get lost exactly, but I did end up crossing Loch Ken (Dumfries & Galloway) on a private viaduct. The alternative being a 14-mile detour around the loch, I climbed over an eight-foot gate garlanded with barbed wire, which the owners had helpfully greased (presumably with the intention of deterring people from doing exactly what I was trying to do).

Sunset at Loch Pattack
Sunset at Loch Pattack

One of the many high-points of my walk, in an emotional rather than topographical sense, was a night spent camping on the shores of Loch Pattack, a remote loch in the Scottish highlands. After a day of perfect weather, I was treated to a beautiful sunset and the sound of snipe calling across the water. Perhaps more than any single location, though, what I relished most about my walk was the feeling of absolute freedom. For a whole seven months, I was able to do exactly what I have always wanted to do: to walk, to climb, and to explore the landscape around me. The walk itself was gratifying in and of itself, simply for the experiences it brought: the solitude of walking alone on high moors; the sweet, buttery scent of gorse; the taste of liquorice mixed with snow.

There were, of course, times when it entirely fun. After a particularly damp night camping in West Sussex, it took 90 minutes to de-slug my clothes and equipment before I set off for the day. Then, when I stopped for lunch, I pulled off my boots to discover that I hadn't removed all of the slugs after all. There were also those times when it just didn't stop raining. After more than 48 hours of incessant rain in the Southern Uplands, I wandered into a windfarm, where a worker offered me a drink of water – I can't think what gave him the idea that I might be dehydrated.

I didn't ever find myself getting bored or lonely. There were always new things to look at, as the seasons progressed and I walked from one landscape into another. I did find the fens a little monotonous, though: walking through endless miles of nothing but cabbages is probably enough to drive even the most well-balanced walker crazy.

I reached Land's End on Tuesday 3rd October 2017, having walked 3,500 miles, climbed more than 119,000 metres, worn out 7 pairs of boots, and experienced a full year of seasons, from Scottish winter to West Country autumn. I took a few obligatory photographs, then turned back inland to await the next bus to Penzance.

Completing my walk at Land's End
Completing my walk at Land's End

Fundraising

Make a donation using Virgin Money Giving

To mark my achievement, I am fundraising for Mental Health Research UK and Mountain Rescue England and Wales. Thank you to everyone who has supported my fundraising so far: we have raised over £4,400.

Donations are still welcome, via my Virgin Money Giving page.

I am also happy to give talks to clubs/organisations, in return for a donation (however large or small) to my chosen charities. If you would be interested, please contact me by email to extravagari@mappamorris.co.uk.

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