This is a short story of my Dover to Cape Wrath walk. I walked over 1,100 miles in 52 days and wild camping every single night. I walked it between Covid-19 lockdowns in the summer of 2020, using mostly resupply packages and no accommodation. This way I would limit my contact with other people and lower the risk of spreading the virus. You can read about my preparations for the walk here. I’ve also written a full review of the gear used on the walk here and my full gear list here.
2020 was not the easiest year to do this walk, Covid-19 changed things a lot. Many places I could have stopped in to eat or resupply were not open and I needed to stay as self-sufficient as possible to avoid spreading the virus. As a result I needed resupplying regularly, so my wife (now ex-wife) met up with me every week or two. This did mean that I was able to take the minimum amount of gear and change things as I went. I knew I only had a week or so to wait if something failed or the weather changed.
The main issue I had especially down south was water, I had long stretches without any at all. This meant on occasions I was carrying up to 3kgs of water, as well as a weeks food and all my camping gear making for a very heavy pack. On a normal year it would have been possible to resupply more easily and carry a lot less weight most of the time.
The previous year I had walked from Lands End to John O’Groats so knew this walk would be more a mental challenge than a physical one. That walk had been a challenge to walk the length of the country and now having done that, this walk didn’t have that incentive – I’d done it. I knew I would need the satisfaction of getting up the country fairly quickly before my mind and body started telling me why am I doing this and having the chance to pull out. Once I’d covered a fair bit of distance I knew I would have the incentive to carry on.
So I devised a route that got me to the Pennine Way and the start of the remote walking as fast as possible. This route was perfect and looking back I wouldn’t change a thing. I followed national trails and canals knowing these would be well walked, making them easy to follow and quick to walk.
Setting off – Dover to Guildford
Day 1 saw me setting off from Dover following the North Downs Way. It turned out to be a more interesting and remote walk than expected. The North Downs Way is 153 miles long, following a path above the white cliffs of Dover, then heads north passing through two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, the Surrey Hills and the Kent Downs.
It was very enjoyable considering how close I came to London, and was a lot more scenic than expected. This took me to join the River Wey and the Wey Navigation Path at Guildford. This was a lovely walk beside the National Trust river.
Being so close to habitation and people made me feel a bit uneasy for my safety at night. But there was no real cause for this as it’s nice to be able to say that I never had a single issue. This also made wild camping a little bit difficult and I often had to walk further than intended to find a pitch for the night until I got past London.
The Rivers and Canals
I loved walking by the canals so much that the following year I purchased the Striding Edge Narrow Boat and a year later sold my house and moved to live on it (unfortunately not the lovely old traditional narrow boat pictured below).
The relatively flat tow paths made for easy walking and I liked the friendly people. The wild camping was relatively easy too and I rarely struggled to find a place to put my tent.
I left the lovely Wey Navigation Path and joined the Thames Path at Weybridge. The River Thames is a big river at the point I joined it and there were some pretty big boats along this stretch. A really enjoyable walk and the miles past by quickly, with nice countryside and interesting boats of all shapes and sizes to look at. I followed the River Thames for about 10 miles crossing over to join the Grand Union Canal through Slough.
Blisworth to Braunston
Day 6 – The Grand Union Canal was a lot smaller than the Thames but equally interesting, it’s surprising how ingenious people can be. There were some fascinating alterations made to some boats and I was surprised to see how many people are actually living on the boats.
In the days walking the Grand Union Canal I really started to feel I was getting somewhere. The relatively straight and flat towpaths meant I was covering quite high mileages each day. Mostly they are in good condition and only occasionally a little overgrown or uneven. This is rare and usually in the remoter and lesser walked areas well away from the towns.
It’s nice to be able to walk for hours with my own thoughts, not worried about navigation. Saying that it does pay to keep an eye on your location as the canals do join others and a couple of times I did nearly follow the wrong one. The canals have plenty of pubs well-positioned along them, so there always seems to be one when you need meal or a pint. They also pass through numerous towns, so resupplying is easy.
The wild camping started to become easier from this point too, being remoter with fewer towns and people. I was now starting to feel that I was going to be able to wild camp all the way and that I might make it to Scotland. This all meant I was relaxing and enjoying the walking more.
Oxford and Coventry Canals
Days 11 and 12 saw me walking the Oxford and Coventry Canals. These are older canals and follow the contours of the land, so they twist and turn more than the Grand Union canal. They are also smaller and prettier; more like rivers. I was getting pretty fit by this point and found myself walking 30 miles some days. This took me past Birmingham and I really did feel that I was getting somewhere. I was surprised how fast I’d got this far up the country. It’s a good feeling knowing I’m well ahead of the rough schedule I’d thought of prior to starting (a good reason to underestimate your own abilities and allow plenty of time for long distance hikes).
These older canals tend to have more locks and history around them, which I found interesting. I spent many hours impressed by how they built them and managed to move so much material. Especially as they didn’t have the machinery to do all the heavy work that we have now, it was all done by hand.
2 weeks done – Leaving the canals
I had enjoyed the canals and could have continued north using them, but fancied a change. So I decided to leave the Trent and Mersey at Rugeley to cut cross country on the Staffordshire Way and then the Limestone Way. This route gave me the chance to walk through Dove Dale and Monk’s Dale, so I could then join the Pennine Way at the start in Edale.
This was a nice change and a good way to ease myself into the hills of the Pennine’s after the flat walking of the canals.
The Pennine Way
I’ve walked the Pennine Way twice before but I was still looking forward to walking it again, it’s a great route. It’s quite remote and can be challenging if the weather is against you and can feel pretty bleak. The only issue was that I needed to walk it a lot faster than I had previously, due to timings for resupply and meeting to hike with my daughter.
I’d been away from my family for quite a while now and was feeling it, so was extremely pleased when my son arrived to start the Pennine Way with me. And then later in the walk my daughter spent a week with me, walking from Horton in Ribblesdale to Greenhead. This is a lovely section of the walk through some varied scenery – walking by rivers and waterfalls to high remote fells.
It’s then onto the undulating Hadrian’s Wall, bleak Kielder Forest and the remoteness of the Cheviots. I missed my daughter’s company and was in the wrong place for feeling lonely. This is a remote area of emptiness that could easily make you feel like giving up. Luckily, I don’t mind my own company and love these challenges so much, I could put the feelings to one side and carry on. I just remember it’s been great to see my kids growing up and now with their own lives. I just appreciate the times I do spend with them and remember the great times we have had hiking when they were younger.
I had a full mixture of weather during the 2 weeks walking the Pennine Way, from clear sky’s and sunshine to wind, being soaked through and wading through knee-deep bog. I still loved it and would happily walk it again. It finishes at the Border Hotel in Kirk Yetholm, which is also the start of the Scottish National Trail.
The Scottish National Trail has been on my wish list since it was devised by Cameron McNeish, with the book published in 2012. It is a very interesting, challenging and often remote trail. Read my full story of my Scottish National Trail walk here.
The route is fairly hilly from the start but is mostly on good paths, until you join the fantastic Cape Wrath Trail. Then it gets really good but more difficult, often being very remote and with a number of pathless sections. You need to be experienced in being self sufficient for this section of the walk. It is remote and has few resupply or accommodation options. It will require you to carry camping gear and numerous days rations.
Scotland is well known for the dreaded midges and don’t underestimate how bad they can be, they nearly ended my walk. If you’re lucky to have good weather and light winds then they’ll probably make it hell. There were many days that I just had to keep moving, I couldn’t stop and rest or eat lunch. A number of days I had to just get inside the inner tent and zip it up to cook and eat.
4 weeks done – Into Scotland
Day 28 – The start of the Scottish National Trail was more undulating and often remoter than expected. It also passes through some lovely towns and villages, where I was able to buy supplies and eat out regularly. I enjoyed some lovely meals in hotels and cafés, it was a nice break from all the dehydrated meals I’d been eating lately.
The scenery was forever changing and kept my spirits up as I never knew what was around the corner. I walked through golf courses, past historic buildings and over hills into remote valleys. I was enjoying the variety of the Scottish National Trail.
I reached Edinburgh and joined the Union Canal. The path beside the canal is also a popular cycle route. There were very few people walking on the path, I think possibly because you take your life into your hands walking here. The cyclists just ride flat out straight at you expecting you to get out of the way. I didn’t enjoy walking along the canal because of this, I had to keep stopping and couldn’t keep a consistent walking pace.
The Falkirk Wheel is impressive but I couldn’t get over the massive cost of it, with very few boats seeming to use it. Here I joined the Forth and Clyde Canal and this took me all the way to Glasgow.
From Glasgow it’s only a few miles north to Milngavie and the start of the very popular West Highland Way. I don’t like crowds and making busy paths even busier. I was pleased that the Scottish National Trail doesn’t follow it for long. The route soon had me back into the peace and quiet of my own walk following the Rob Roy Way. I was walking through deserted forests and remote empty Glens, really feeling the remoteness here.
Week 5 – Entering the Cairngorms
Day 38 – It was sinking in that I had been walking and wild camping for over a month none stop and I was over half way. I had now arrived at Blair Atholl and was entering the Cairngorms National Park. I had walked passed here before on my TGO Challenge in 2018, but hadn’t made time for the short walk into the town. So it was good to be here and have time to look around, I also stocked up with 4 days supplies for this next section. From Blair Atholl there is a good track for most of the way up the lovely Glen Tilt. This is a special place and it was good to be back here again.
Eventually you leave the track for a path which passes the pretty Falls of Taff and a few miles further on the path ends at a river. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to wade through it to join another path. Or if you’re unlucky and it’s in spate you’ll have to put your tent up and wait for the water level to drop or turn around and spend a day walking back to Blair Atholl.
This is a vast empty and remote area, you turn west and after a few miles start descending into the pretty Glen Feshie. I was unlucky with the weather and had drizzle all the way through, so didn’t get to really appreciate it. I also walked too far and missed all the best camping spots, so didn’t get to appreciate camping in such a stunning glen either.
I left the Cairngorms with better weather heading for Kingussie, Newtonmore and General Wade’s Military Road. This took me through some more remote and peaceful Glens, with good wild camping spots – like that pictured above.
Joining the Cape Wrath Trail
The Scottish National Trail is fairly challenging with some rough and remote sections. But when the route joins the Cape Wrath Trail it takes a whole step up. The mountains get bigger and the route now has pathless, rough sections where you need good navigation and hiking skills. There are fewer resupply options and you are often a lot further away from civilisation. The route can be more dangerous, especially if you get heavy rain and/or high winds – I love it for that. It’s a special feeling to know you’re so far from the comforts of modern life and help, reliant on your own skills to survive.
There are a lot more river crossings in this section. You have the feeling that bad weather will have a big affect on the walk and its successful completion or not.
The walking may have gotten harder but the scenery is spectacular and more than makes up for the harder work, especially if you’re lucky with the weather. Even the challenges with the route finding and carrying the correct supplies has its own feeling of satisfaction, if successful.
There’s a number of days when the route follows the coast giving pretty special views of the mountains together with the sea. I was extremely lucky to have clear skies and got some amazing views towards the end of the walk. They really made the whole walk, carrying a heavy pack and suffering the midges worthwhile.
The mental challenges of long distance walking
Day 51- The mental challenges continued to the end. I had run out of food when I reached Loch Inchard and the penultimate day. My body needed a proper meal and I became pretty depressed when I arrived at Rhiconich Hotel for lunch, only to find it shut. I knew I could resupply and eat in Kinlochbervie but this was another 5 miles of road walking away. I was not too happy as I struggled to keep motivated walking along the road. There were lovely views over the Loch as I walked, but I’ve done it before and all I could think about was food. This just goes to show how moods can suddenly change, as I came across a new café that had opened in Badcall. I stopped for a beer and fish n chips, which also shows how important food is on a long distance hike. My mood totally changed and I was enjoying the walk again. This was improved further when an hour later in Kinlochbervie I ate a large cooked breakfast too!
It was a lovely evening and I camped on the beach at Sandwood Bay. But it got extremely windy in the early hours, so I was up and walking the last 9 miles towards the lighthouse long before it got light. Then the rain started as well and battling the wind, I felt my safety was at risk. Because I hike alone I’m extremely careful what risks I take and this one was too much, I had been to the Cape Wrath lighthouse before and didn’t need to risk my life getting there again. So I turned around and headed for Strathchailleach bothy to take shelter. I felt exhausted when I arrived there and stripped off my wet clothes. Once warm and having had a coffee and something to eat I felt better.
Cape Wrath Lighthouse – Finished
LEJOG versus my Cape Wrath walk
Cape Wrath is a fitting end to the challenges of the Scottish National Trail and walking the length of the UK. I much prefer this as a finish, more than my Lands End to John O’Groats walk last year. Cape Wrath is a desolate place and hard to get to, especially in bad weather. There is said to be a mini bus and ferry service running to and from the Cape Wrath Light house for tourists. But I’ve been there 3 times now and not once has it been running, it just seems to run when there’s good weather and a lot of tourists about. I have heard that if you phone them up they will often do a special trip if there’s enough hikers at the lighthouse to make the trip worthwhile. I like to walk off the Cape Wrath peninsular to have a last camp at Sandwood Bay and then it’s a relatively short walk to Kinlochbervie to have a meal in the friendly café and wait for transport home.
Wild camping and no fixed schedule
Wild camping every night was the cheapest and most flexible way to do the walk. I liked the freedom of walking as far as I wanted to each day and not be fixed to a schedule. This way I never felt pressured and I could adjust the distance walked each day to the weather and what my mind or body could handle. On long distance walks I find that some days I feel like walking all day and others it’s nice to spend an hour or two resting in a pub or laying in the sun. This way I often cover more mileage overall and never feel pressured. For me long distance walks are a mind game more than how fit I am.
The wild camping was easier than expected early in the walk and harder in Scotland. Down south there were usually people about so I mostly had to hide the tent and camp late/leave early. The Pennine Way was easier to find somewhere but when I reached Scotland it became more difficult again. This was not due to people but the rough ground, it was often difficult to find a flat area that wasn’t rough or overgrown.
I found the main negative with wild camping every night was washing my clothes and myself. Mostly I washed in rivers which was okay from the Pennine Way onwards. I did find it difficult prior to this and was grateful for the resupplies and changing to clean clothes. Antibacterial wet wipes were essential for keeping myself and my sleeping gear clean and were used throughout the walk. You could make the walk easier by not restricting yourself to wild camp every night and use camp sites or accommodation once or twice a week.
The walk cost less than £1000, which was mostly spent on consumables like food and drink. I was lucky to have all the hiking gear prior to the walk, so didn’t need to buy anything. There was wear and tear costs like the footwear which you could add £200 or so. But this is still a pretty cheap holiday if you think that I was away for 2 months and walked the length of the country. If I hadn’t wild camped every night and mostly used accommodation then you could easily add another £3000 or more, depending on how often and the type of accommodation used.
My Dover to Cape Wrath walk worked out really well and the route was perfect. It was very enjoyable – varied enough to keep my interest and motivation to finish the walk. The canals were a good fast way to cover the miles quickly and then the Pennines and Scotland were great to challenge myself.
I was pretty lucky with the weather but being in Scotland in the summer does leave you to the mercy of dreaded midges. Don’t underestimate them, they nearly ended my walk. I had many amazing days that I will never forget and these more than made up for the few bad days that I had.
I loved wild camping every night, it left me free to walk as far as I felt like each day and camp in some amazing places. Yes some nights it was a little difficult finding somewhere out of the way and safe to camp but it was well worth the effort.
Sandwood Bay and the Cape Wrath lighthouse are pretty remote and a great finish point for the walk. I loved the route and wouldn’t change a thing about it. I enjoyed this walk a lot more than the route I used the previous year on my Lands End to John O’Groats and 3-Peaks walk.
Gear used on the walk
Navigation and Photography
I mainly used my waterproof tough phone for navigation to save carrying lots of heavy maps. I did print off a few map sections of the more difficult areas for safety and took the Harvey’s maps North and South for the Cape Wrath Trail. The phone was also used for all my photography.
A warning for those hiking in Scotland between May and October
Midges made life very difficult, it was hard doing anything. Many days I couldn’t stop for lunch without them eating me alive. Smidge spray helps but doesn’t solve the problem enough to be able to stop moving, a physical barrier is the only solution – my Smidge Head Net was indispensable.
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