I find it hard to believe that John Hillaby’s classic walking book Journey Through Britain was first published fifty years ago.
It’s an important book for me, though I only read it a couple of years after it came out. So important, it was one of the reasons I gave up a secure job in the Post Office, at the age of twenty, taking to the road for a life of tramping and writing.
John Hillaby’s book is an account of the long walk he took from Land’s End to John O’Groats in the mid-Sixties. More than half a century ago, so his walk is now an exploration of a fascinating point in British history – Britain in the Sixties was a very different country to the one we had now. There was still industrial infrastructure, and people were, I think, kinder and more compassionate. For all Britain’s faults – and there were many – it was a more hopeful time than now.
John Hillaby was a particularly fine writer, and Journey Through Britain was his masterpiece. He had other walking adventures and several more books, but none work quite as well for me.
Hillaby had intended to walk the length of the country just following our ancient trackways, a wonderful network of footpaths and bridleways, but this proved impossible. Many were blocked by overgrowth, were unwaymarked or deliberately obstructed. Those of us who were path campaigners at the time know that those were dark days in the history of access. So Hillaby was forced to take to roads and lanes from time to time, though there are plenty of accounts of path and wild walking too.
And what a route Hillaby took – along the Cornish coast, across Dartmoor, through the Somerset Levels to Aust Ferry on the Bristol Channel (the Severn Bridge hadn’t been completed.) Then up through the Black Mountains and Offa’s Dyke, through the Midland to the start of the then-fledgling Pennine Way. Across the Scottish borders and through the Highlands to the lonely lands of the far north.
Every chapter is fascinating to read, for Hillaby is very good at giving pen-portraits of the people he met along the way – poachers and transport-cafe waitresses, an itinerant and whisky-loving bagpiper, policemen and folk who were suspicious of walkers. He’s modest too – he often admits to losing his way, comes a cropper around Cranmere Pool on Dartmoor, has to make weary detours, finds the then new Pennine Way a bit of a trial. He walks through fine weather and foul, but every step shows a great love for this remarkable landscape.
Interestingly, John Hillably thought that he was going to be one of the last in a long line of literary tramps. He says that his book might be the ‘lay of one of the last’. He was wrong, of course; many have walked that long walk since and several more writers have written worthy books – I commend to you those by Chris Townsend and Hamish Brown. Journey Through Britain was not only a best-seller, but an inspiration to so many other walkers.
I planned to do that long walk across our land myself. I never did – though I’ve wandered through most of the places John Hillaby described on my own walks.
So if you want a beautiful armchair ramble, do sit down with Journey Through Britain, and relive John Hillaby’s own expedition through the spring and early summer of a year in the 1960s – across an England, Wales and Scotland that are still much the same, but in many ways so very different.