Keen walker Peter Youngs had always dreamed of hiking the length of Britain, but never thought he’d have the chance. Then fate intervened, so he packed a rucksack and a roll of waterproof tape and caught a train. CHRIS OWEN reports.
Peter Youngs is doing a jig in the middle of the road. Parking is tricky in his street and he’s come out to flag me down and direct me into his drive.
The enthusiasm he displays stopping passing motorists until he finds the right one is an immediate clue to the energy of the man – a zest for life which has taken him on a remarkable journey.
I’ve hardly stepped out of the car before he’s skipping across his front lawn calling behind him: ‘Come in and see my map.’
You can’t miss it for it dominates the entrance to Peter’s home in Warfield Avenue, Waterlooville.
It’s about four feet high, two feet wide and is a map of the United Kingdom. Snaking across it are a series of orange stickers. Each one represents a key moment in his life in recent years.
For Peter, a semi-retired clerical officer in the eye department at Queen Alexandra Hospital, Cosham, is still coming down to earth after completing his lifetime’s ambition, walking from one end of the country to the other.
Two months ago he walked back into that hallway having trekked 1,535 miles from Land’s End to John o’Groats, a feat [pun intended] of which he has dreamed all his life.
It took him 107 days spread over three years and seven months and a large chunk of it he managed to achieve in day walks by catching the first train of the day from Cosham at 6.15am.
He happily admits he became obsessed by his challenge. ‘I can honestly say I’ve walked every single metre. I made sure I returned to the exact spot at which I’d finished the last leg. I couldn’t possibly have missed a bit. I would have been cheating myself.
‘I refused to take ferries across estuaries, walking inland until I could cross rivers.’
We’ve left the hallway map and moved into his sitting room. It’s impossible to sit on one of his sofas for it is covered in a sea of pink – 35 of the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps he used. There were another seven but he borrowed those from his brother.
Then there are his journals, A4 notebooks meticulously recording every moment and emotion of his life-changing journey.
He’s been a walker for about 30 years (he’s well past retirement age, but declines to reveal the exact number saying ‘people always think I’m much younger than I am so I’d rather keep it that way’), but why the greatest walking challenge in the UK, apart from the round-Britain-coastline walk?
‘All my life I’ve been fascinated by people who walked from Land’s End to John o’Groats. But I never thought I’d have the chance to do it.
‘All my life I’ve read books, such as John Hillaby’s 1968 classic Journey Through Britain, and been inspired by them.
‘And then my mother died.’
At the same time Peter had the opportunity of going into semi-retirement and he walked out of his front door one August morning in 2010 in the bid to become what is known in the business as an end-to-ender or a Lejog-er.
‘About two weeks after my mother died I read an article in The News about a guy who’d cycled the route. I had my usual reaction, ‘‘how marvellous, but I shall never do it’’.
‘But then I stopped and thought, hang on, what’s stopping me doing it? I’m not married, I no longer have any family ties and I’ve taken partial retirement.’
And so he set off for Cornwall on a circuitous route which took him to Bristol, Gloucester and Chepstow, up to Chester and on to Lancaster and Morecambe Bay.
He slogged through the Lake District and on to Carlisle, crossed the country through the Scottish border towns and into Edinburgh. On he went to Glasgow before skirting Loch Lomond and into Glencoe.
He deviated again to walk the Road to the Isles (Fort William to Mallaig) before heading north-east to Inverness and on to John o’Groats via Wick and Thurso.
The most direct route is about 870 miles, but Peter clocked up 1,535 and used various National Trails – the South West Coast Path, Offa’s Dyke Path up the Welsh/English border, the West Highland Way and Great Glen Way.
‘Some do it north to south but I always want to save the best until last. Cornwall is marvellous, but I felt the Scottish Highlands would be the jewel in the crown and I wanted the walk to get better as I went on. And it did.’
Although a driver, he was determined to use public transport whenever possible. Amazingly, he did all the sections between Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, and Knighton, Powys, on day trips.
‘You wouldn’t think it possible would you?’ he laughs. ‘But by catching that first train of the day from Cosham to Bristol and then catching other trains and buses, I proved it could be done. And it was always nice to get back home at the end of what, admittedly, were some long days.’
He averaged 15 miles a day ‘but I did a lot of 20 or more, especially in some of the more remote parts of Scotland’.
And the toughest? ‘They came at the end when I did four 18-mile days consecutively. Never have I walked such high mileages,’ adds Peter.
And his kit? He got through several pairs of boots and a couple of pairs of wellies. Yes, wellies. He produces his last pair, the soles almost bald. ‘During the winters I came across badly-flooded areas and they were ideal.’
Then he proudly exhibits his trekking pole and map case, both held together with waterproof tape. ‘The walker’s best friend. Never go anywhere without it.’
Talking of friends, did he not miss human company on those 107 walking days? ‘I thought I would, but I don’t mind my own company. In fact, having somebody else along would have been a distraction.
‘Before I started I thought I’d be lonely and get bored, but the amazing thing is that from the moment I started at Land’s End I found there was so much to think about logistically there wasn’t time to get lonely.’
Those final legs through north-east Scotland might have been arduous, but they were worth it. ‘I shall never forget when I saw the first sign for John o’Groats. It was truly wonderful.
‘I’d been telling everyone for three years and seven months what I was doing. Many thought I’d never do it.
‘Well, on March 21 this year I no longer had to tell my friends that I was still doing it.
‘I’d achieved my dream. It was a feeling of absolute elation.’