John Sutcliffe Cape to Cape - by Ali Hull
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John Sutcliffe Cape to Cape - by Ali Hull

John Sutcliffe Cape to Cape - by Ali Hull

Facing his fast-approaching 70th birthday and retirement, John Sutcliffe wanted to do “something rather special” – and in his case, that meant planning a walk of more than 1,000 miles, to take him from the foot of the UK, at Cape Cornwall, to the top, at Cape Wrath. John comments: “As a lover of the outdoors, a long walk through Britain would fit the bill and help me reconnect with Britain and the British hills after a lifetime of working abroad.”


The idea, he says, came from a friend of his, who had read a book by someone who had done the same thing. But John was keen to avoid the usual route – Land’s End to John O’Groats, or vice versa. “I am a Far From the Madding Crowd sort of bloke which sort of rules out both Lands’ End and John O’Groats.” He believes that Cape Cornwall has far more to offer than Lands’ End: “It  is a lovely unspoilt spot conserved initially by H. J. Heinz,  who then bequeathed the land to the National Trust. The rugged Cape of gnarled and twisted rocks is underlain by ancient tin workings that extend far out under the seabed –  an extra plus for a minerals exploration geologist like myself.”


Geological concerns were high on John’s agenda, and feature a lot in the book, Cape to Cape, that he wrote about his journey. John O’Groats, he says, is also not as wild and interesting as the alternative he chose. “John O’Groats  is underlain by Caithness sandstones that give rise to a flat and rather dreary waterlogged landscape. Cape Wrath is an isolated spot and to get there I would cross the remote and stunningly beautiful North West Highlands. It’s not the most northerly point of mainland Britain, but then, for that matter, neither is John O’Groats.”


While he met with reasonable weather, he couldn’t hope to traverse these islands without meeting some of what they have to offer: “I had a good dousing in gale-force storms crossing Dartmoor which I almost enjoyed, shouting back at the howling wind at the top of my voice until I came across another half-drowned soldier. The real weather challenge, and one I will never forget, started with the onset of Storm Bertha on afternoon of 10th August at Kinloch Hourn. It quickly rose to hurricane status with, I later learned, 100mph winds on the higher ground. I took shelter in a tiny stalkers hut next to a stream. By next morning, it was a raging torrent, impossible to cross. This weather system would plague me for the next 10 days.”


While John did stop overnight in the odd bed and breakfast, he chose to wild camp a lot of the time, picking up supplies and water as he went. How hard was this, particularly towards the end of the walk? “Wild camping was easier than I had anticipated,  and except for two occasions, I had no problem in finding a good wild campsite. Wild camping is the only practicable way to cross large tracts of wilderness area, and the tent on your back gives you the freedom to halt the day where your fancy takes you, free of any timetable. Getting supplies was never a problem in England and southern Scotland. For the Highlands, I posted off three food parcels to hotels and a garage, collecting them as I passed by.”

It wasn’t always easy, he says. “Water was occasionally a problem in the southern counties with many streams draining agricultural land and therefore possibly containing pesticide and animal contamination that a water filter will not remove. In these areas I obtained water from pubs, farms and private dwellings. To avoid carrying the extra weight, I tried to leave the task of securing the night’s water as late as possible, which was always a subjective judgement call. The Highlands are well endowed with clear uncontaminated streams.”


He clearly enjoyed the experience, and lists the highlights as: “Discovering and savouring some of Britain’s remaining wild places, making new friends along the way, and the kindness some showed, including permission to camp in a pub garden, being invited into a family’s home, having cups of tea in people’s gardens, receiving offers of lifts – when I didn’t need them.”


Apart from the weather, the biggest problems were equipment, and the scourge of any walker in Scotland in the summer – the midges. “I had aching shoulders and painful feet to contend with, especially on the first part of the walk. When I reached Bath, I changed both rucksack and boots, and that helped a lot.”


John is a keen rambler, and goes out for long walks up and down the glories of the Yorkshire Dales, on a regular basis. So he didn’t spring up from a sedentary lifestyle to tackle the walk. But having said that, to do 1,253 miles, as he did, over 106 days (he had a break to celebrate his mother’s 100th birthday) is still a huge undertaking. What training did he need, and what would he advise anyone else, wanting to literally follow in his footsteps?


“It might sound obvious but walking with a heavy pack is very different to walking with a day pack, especially in mountainous terrain. I would recommend, especially for an older person, a shorter trial walk of, say, 100 miles, carrying the intended equipment over similar terrain. In 2013 I walked from the Yorkshire Dales, through the Lake District to Carlisle, before finally committing to this walk. Being reasonably fit is a big help, but ‘mountain fitness’ will develop along the way. I had allowed several weeks to reach my target of 20km (13.5 miles) per day, so my training was essentially ‘on the job’.”


Did he mind sleeping in the woods on his own? “No. Woods are far safer than our towns. I would have appreciated company from time to time, as this helps reduce the load by sharing common bits of equipment like cooking gear and tent. You just have to remain friends for 99 days!”


What about the dreaded midges? “These are the scourge of the Highlands from July to early September, and they can be truly horrendous. Fortunately there was a good sprinkling of bothies in the Highlands – these are wonderful midge-free basic shelters, free for anyone to use. I think the midges kept people away from the North West Highlands in August, so I had the whole vast area and the bothies almost entirely to myself.”