Avoiding those thin blue lines

Malcolm Wylie recently became the latest in an occasional line of people to have walked a version of the UK and/or Scottish watershed. It took him 14 summers, in chunks of nine or ten days at a time. Here are a few of his recollections…

“JOHN O’GROATS to Land’s End without passing water…”. This is how Ann, landlady of the Mosspaul Hotel beside the A7, explained our venture to her bemused customers as my nephew Jonny and I were tucking into a generous supper in the summer of 2000. Our sodden map, socks and so-called waterproofs were monopolising the radiators around the bar. Ann had understood the general approach, but I usually explained it as “without crossing flowing water”, rather than making extravagant claims for the capacity of my bladder.

I’m 60, married, with two grown-up kids and a grandson. Having retired from my job as an IT manager at Cambridge city council, I now do part-time consultancy. Between 1996 and 2009, a week-and-a-half at a time, I walked the length of the British watershed. The account given here is really just a taster: a lot happened during those 14 summers and 1800 miles.

The idea

My father (still going strong at 96) introduced me to camping in my childhood, and he took up long-distance walking in retirement. My own backpacking experience started with a trek across Mull to Iona as a student, but I really got the bug in 1985 when my then-employer IBM sent me on an Outward Bound expedition. I started annual trips, normally with my son Tim — who shocked me, when he was aged 14, by completely out-walking me on our way up to Striding Edge.

The seed of the watershed idea was sown in 1989 when I saw a wonderful fictional film on the BBC, First and Last, starring Joss Ackland as a recently retired man who decided to walk from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Hilarious and moving. Some of you may remember it. A couple of years later, I walked the Pennine Way, and the seed started to germinate when I read Alfred Wainwright’s explanation of “watershed” in the introduction to his excellent Pennine Way Companion:

“The main watershed of northern England is the line that divides the west-flowing streams (Irish Sea) and the east-flowing streams (North Sea) […] It is not an arbitrary or imaginary line; obviously it exists although not marked on maps and not often clearly defined on the ground. […] A walk of this nature, keeping strictly to the main watershed, would be extremely arduous […] This would be an undertaking only for the toughest and most resolute of he-men carrying food and shelter on their backs.”

A couple of years later I was considering (very) early retirement, and the idea — the full British watershed — emerged fully formed. My wife, Chris, dissuaded me from trying it in one go, so I decided to break it down into annual sections, completing on my 60th birthday, 9 June 2009. This dovetailed the British watershed with my own life watershed: it would be a journey through mid-life as well as through mid-Britain. (In the end, I aimed for 20 June, a Saturday: easier to have a party.)

The feasibility study

I decided to do the walk north–south, on the basis that I fancied some excitement at the beginning and I might not be up to the difficulties of the Highlands when approaching 60. Maps were pored over, one of the joys of the exercise. It was surprisingly easy to plot the route, although I found a river apparently flowing both ways in Caithness, at ND277677 on Landranger 12. I decided that my rule would be: if it’s a thin blue line on the Landranger, and it’s flowing, then I wouldn’t cross it. Canals had to be crossed at their highest section.

This turned out to be a rather strict definition, one that took me through some pretty inhospitable places, particularly forestry plantations. ND277677, when I got there, was a dry ditch.

The pilot episode

So 10:30am on 9 July 1996 saw me posing for photos with Tim at Duncansby Head before setting off southward along the cliff to the cries of the birds on the stacks — and soon being divebombed on the moor by an annoyed skua.

Caithness is said to include the largest area of blanket peat bog in Europe, and the watershed passes through it, so we had fun plotting and leaping our way though the maze of interconnected lochans.

We picked up food dropped off in Forsinard, and had been hoping for a top-up at the Crask Inn, but it was closed when we got there. (Now, in 2009, I’m glad to see that it’s thriving.) Bog eventually gave way to hills, and the days spent on Ben Hee (an airy ascent up the correct side of a waterfall) and the horseshoe to Loch Merkland were magical: blue skies, plenty of deer.

The shock — then the start of the full series

After the success of this trial section, I started thinking about the watershed in earnest. One day I was surfing the web and discovered that Dave Hewitt, TAC’s Ed, had published a book, Walking the Watershed, in 1994. I admit, a little shamefacedly, that the prospect of being the first person to complete this journey had taken a bit of a grip, and I was shocked that someone had had the idea before me.

It came as a relief that the Ed had decided to restrict his efforts to Scotland, as “…the thought of what awaited below Sheffield was enough to make even the most hardened walker blanch. Dodging bicycles on the campus of Keele University…” — I crossed this during the summer vacation; it was eerily deserted and on first approach I thought it was a prison — “…meandering endlessly through the Acacia Avenues and Laburnum Crescents of Birmingham housing estates…” — I was in a 30mph limit for 24 hours through the West Midlands conurbation but failed to spot these particular landmarks — “…being blown sky-high by land mines on Wiltshire firing ranges…” — the watershed just manages to skirt the Salisbury Plain MOD land, but Warcop Fell is another matter.

I managed to track down the Ed via the internet, which is how I became a TAC reader. In practice, I found his book, as well as being a terrific read (shucks — Ed.), an encouragement in that he had managed to complete the Highlands without ropes.

The rest of Scotland (19972000)

A few highlights from the following four years, as Tim and I walked the rest of the Scottish watershed…

The first Munro, Conival, with our first sight of the Atlantic.

Scrabble played by natural light until midnight on Seana Bhraigh.

Successful hitch-hiking to and from the watershed, courtesy of lifts provided by a marathon champion, Mr Guide Dogs for the Blind for northern Scotland, and Ms Victoria Wine of Aviemore (“Excuse the shite state of the car”).

The ascent of Bidein a’Choire Sheasgaich along a glistening mica-speckled bagger’s path.

Sgurr a’Bhealaich Dheirg, climbed in thick cloud. Based on Walking the Watershed, I’d written “Narrow but OK” on the map beforehand. When I looked at it the following day, Tim has changed it to “Narrow but OKrikey!”

Various characters met and observed in pubs, including the Major (as in Fawlty Towers) at the Moor of Rannoch Hotel, and Rab C Nesbitt and friends at the Swan in High Banton in Lanarkshire.

Meeting a couple of Munrobaggers in 1998 on Carn Dearg south of Loch Ossian; they were planning to complete on Ben Lomond that autumn. (A coincidence: it appears that these were Joan Sherry and Peter Birbeck from Carlisle, whom I also bumped into while covering Ian Botham’s 1999 JoGLE for the Scotsman — Ed.)

Worriedly trespassing through someone’s garden east of Drymen only to find I’d been talking with them after church four hours earlier!

Meeting up with the Ed and TAC’s proofreader on Whitehope Heights in the Southern Uplands, July 2000.

Finding a place called Wylie’s Craigs (Landranger 80, NT639010) on the border near Peel Fell.

And so to England (20012008)

As 2001 was foot-and-mouth year, I couldn’t do the planned northern-Pennine section — so I walked the Cotswolds section instead and picked up the Pennines again in 2002. The Pennines were remote enough for wild camping, but south of Buxton I usually asked for — and got — permission from farmers, or at pubs with beer gardens. The highlights included…

For a short section, above Oughtershaw Side (Landranger 98, SD826834), the watershed coincides with the Pennine Way — but going the wrong way!

My grandson Rufus became one of the proud owners of the limited edition Wylie’s Watershed Way T-shirts, having been carried up Kinder Downfall aged three months.

I bent the watershed rules by walking through Netherton Tunnel on the outskirts of Dudley (nearly two miles long and dead straight), underneath some flowing water.

A man was trying to gas himself in his car at a remote spot near the M42/M40 junction. He didn’t appreciate my intervention — but he did drive off.

After Buxton, there was a lot of road-walking. There was always something of interest, but it was a relief to get back on to open moorland on Exmoor in 2007.

The penultimate section, in 2008, took me across Dartmoor in a storm with an unsuspecting older friend. I’d noticed from the map a “Letterbox” in the middle of the moor, at SX603858. We found this with the help of a GPS and it contained, along with the inkpad and unique stamp beloved of the letterboxing community, a bottle half-full of straw-coloured liquid. Would it be whisky, or the other thing? Whisky, we were pleased and relieved to discover.

I needed to round the head of the Tamar where no road or path was marked, so I asked permission of the farmer, who agreed but said I’d never make it without crossing flowing water. I did, but without a machete it took over an hour to get through 100 metres of overgrown swamp.

After this, I needed to hitch to Bude, in a very bedraggled state. No one in their right mind would pick me up, but eventually someone did. He was rather strange and refused my attempts at conversation, then dived off the main road at great speed. Was I being abducted? To my relief he was merely taking a short-cut, and dropped me near the bus stop. Don’t judge a book by its cover

Coming in to land (2009)

The fourteenth and final section was duly completed on 20 June 2009, and I was again joined by Tim, who had abandoned me halfway down the Pennines when it looked as though the walking was going to get too tame for him.

The final push started in Kilkhampton near Bude and covered the full length of Cornwall. Of necessity, there was a lot of road-walking. A large part of the A30 roughly follows the watershed, and we spent one particularly unhappy afternoon walking along a single-carriageway stretch in the pouring rain, being splashed and nearly mown down by incessant traffic. Tim started to regret his decision. After that, we avoided the A30 where we could, and by and large it was an enjoyable week.

The high point geographically was Brown Willy (420m) on Bodmin Moor, and the low point was actually sea-level — and I don’t mean at Land’s End, which is atop a cliff. When planning this section, I noticed that the watershed through Cornwall passes very close to the coast at three points — the Tamar tributaries rising in the north, the Hayle rising in the south, then the Penzance rivers rising in the north. Imagine the space shuttle losing speed by banking left and right on re-entry and you’ll get the idea.






So I stretched a point (but not to the point of transgression), and the penultimate day became simultaneously a watershed walk and a coast-to-coast effort from Praa Sands on the south coast to Bosigran on the north coast. Having lived with the watershed for 13 years, this gave considerable pleasure!

Other highlights included consecutive nights of wild camping in ancient settings (a bronze age cairn on Brockabarrow Common and in an iron age hill fort at Castle-an-Dinas), and walking past the china clay mountains near St Austell.

I accreted relations as the week progressed, with nine of us on the final day, and 19 for the last mile (a few of them desperate to qualify for the last two sweatshirts). Those of you who have been to Land’s End in the last 20 years will know that it’s become a rather tacky theme park, and I didn’t want that to be my last memory. So for the final mile I rather mischievously devised a “taster” for those relations who joined me. There’s a path from the entrance to the car park out northwards towards the coastal path — but it doesn’t join it before crossing a stream. So I had the whole party (some in party frocks and best shoes) follow me through 300 yards of bog-hopping, bramble-coping and wall-climbing. Only then was it a lovely easy walk along the cliffs to the official end at the Land’s End signpost, followed by a party at the hotel overlooking the Atlantic, the Longships rocks and the setting sun.

Looking back, the watershed has provided a wonderful stimulus over a long time, a store of great memories and experiences — some shared, some solo. As to the original idea of it being a journey through mid-Britain and through mid-life, I’m relieved to say that being aged 60 doesn’t at all feel over-the-hill — perhaps just a bit more grown-up.


Ed. — I know of five people who have done versions of this over the years: my own effort, the border to Cape Wrath in a single push, April–June 1987; the late Mike Allen, Land’s End to Cape Wrath in numerous mainly short sections, April 1988–October 1994 (he crossed the border on 24/5/92); Martin Prouse, Rowardennan to Ben Hope in one go, July–August 1994; Peter Wright, the border to Duncansby Head in eight sections, Jan–Aug 2005, see www.watershedepic.org.uk; and Malcolm Wylie’s 131-day traverse, in 14 sections. There may, of course, have been more.

For my money, the two most notable achievements are without doubt the full-length efforts by Messrs Allen and Wylie: not only were they massive in physical terms (Malcolm Wylie reckons 67700m of ascent and 2900km in distance), but the sustained nature of the logistics and the psychological stickability, if I can call it that, were mightily impressive in both cases.