British explorer camps wild in Devon as part of 1,250-mile trek for his 70th birthday
- Credit: Archant
British explorer John Sutcliffe tells FLORENCE KNIGHT about backpacking through Devon as part of a 1,250-mile trek across Britain to celebrate his 70th birthday
After a lifetime working abroad as a minerals exploration geologist, John Sutcliffe returned to the UK in 2013 and set about making a 40-year-old dream to walk the length of Britain a reality.
The following April, to celebrate his 70th year and his intended retirement, John started out from Cape Cornwall on an epic 1,250-mile backpacking trek that would end 90 days later in Cape Wrath on the north westerly tip of Scotland.
In Devon his route took him across the remote moor country of Dartmoor and Exmoor, and he recalls how on day 14, with 13 miles to complete, the unforgiving nature of the British weather joined forces with the challenging terrain to slow his progress to a snail’s pace.
John explains: “My route across Dartmoor took me just to the north of Brat Tor. It was a grand morning, with no indication of the foul weather that was to land on me a short while later in the day.
“The track petered out somewhere near the headwaters of Rattle Brook just beyond the ruins of Bleak House. Here I struck a bearing across pathless moors and into the Okehampton Firing Range, taking my chances with the notorious quaking bogs.
“The OS map warns walkers to call an 0800 number to check the status of the range before crossing, but as it was a public holiday I figured I would be fairly safe. I made slow progress, testing the boggier ground with my poles and tripping over the wobbly tussocks, some as big as footballs.
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“The wind got up, bringing with it black clouds, and it started to rain. I estimated I was covering no more than one mile per hour and, starting to tire, began to wonder if I would clear the moor before nightfall. This would not be a problem, carrying a home on my back and surrounded everywhere by marshy but drinkable water.”
To add to John’s woes, by mid-afternoon the wind had steadily increased to reach somewhere close to gale-force strength and his Satmap stopped working.
John says: “The driving rain stung my face and the back of my jacket rucked up under the pack letting in the rain, and my boots eventually filled with peat bog.
“I no longer bothered to avoid the really boggy sections and the Satmap’s screen started to flicker, either through the penetration of moisture or as an indication of a battery about to expire.
“Either way, in that weather changing the rechargeable batteries was completely out of the question - it is a fiddly job at the best of times.
“I reached the Boundary Rock by the Gartaven Ford at 6.30pm. I had about another mile to reach Gidleigh on the eastern edge of the moor and it was mostly downhill, a blessing as I was rapidly running out of steam after a ten-hour slog on half a bag of nuts.”
The kindness of strangers John met along the way more than made up for the tougher times and he fondly recalls two local folk in particular.
“Coming down off the exposed moor, I found a sheltered place to camp in woodland near a place called South Creaber. I had just dropped my pack ready to get cracking with the tent when a dog came by, followed a few minutes later by its owner.
He said he couldn’t believe I had crossed the moor on a day like this, and then showed me a better place to camp, closer to a small stream – and further away from his septic tank. The next morning he dropped by to see how I was faring.
“Walking from Witheridge to Anstey Common, Exmoor, a friendly lady said hello as I passed Badlake Cottage. She was a carer of children with special needs and, with a kind look, gave me two freshly laid eggs in an egg box, offering more had I wanted them. She appeared to have a good eye for people in need I thought!”
John would love to think that his experience can inspire others – young or old – to explore the wild, unspoiled parts of our country, sleeping under canvas in the company of rustling creatures of the night – all of which he describes as an eye-opening experience!
John completed the walk in 99 walking days, averaging 12.6 miles per day and mostly wild camped, i.e. not at a designated campsite. He had no fixed timetable, seldom knowing in advance where he would spend the night, the uncertainty adding to the adventure as the evening wore on and the shadows closed in around him.
“If I came across a cosy woodland glade with a rushing stream a little earlier in the day, I would gratefully drop my pack with a ‘This’ll do’.
“This is the essence of wild camping: the freedom to roam off the beaten track, exploring special places and overnighting where, within reason, the fancy takes you. Believe me it is worth it!” enthuses John.