Lands End to John o' Groats With a Dog and a Sketchbook Interview

© Bob Mahon

When artist and keen hiker Jos Mahon set out in 2015 with husband Bob and dog Barney on a 1300-mile journey, she carried paints and sketchbooks along with the usual backpacking gear. The idea was simple: Walk the length of Britain off-road, wild camping in the hills and painting a landscape every day.

But a family crisis put it all in jeopardy. Would they make it to the finish?

An Teallach  © Jos Mahon
An Teallach
© Jos Mahon

An exhibition, End to End, captures the walk in a series of pictures produced along the way - this month in Allendale, and from mid July in Kingussie (details at the end of the article).

A tough hilly start on the South West Coast Path   © Bob Mahon
A tough hilly start on the South West Coast Path
© Bob Mahon

"It was Bob's idea to walk the length of Britain" Jos says "inspired by a couple of books and blogs of others who'd done it. When he first brought it up I wasn't interested as I didn't want to go south until we had completed the Munros. I just love Scottish mountains. Well we completed them in 2012, by which point we'd done a lot of backpacking and had over the years learned about what was too heavy, and gradually invested in more lightweight gear."

Neither were keen on road walking, something many backpackers resort to on the long haul from Lands End to John o' Groats, but a guidebook detailing a largely off-road route, Walking the End to End Trail (Cicerone), gave them something to get enthused about.

When walking you get in the moment, observing the sea, the light, the birds, and with the way ahead all new to us. Yet always in our minds were our family far away, their lives turned upside down

Jos, Bob and Barney  © Bob Mahon
Jos, Bob and Barney
© Bob Mahon

"Bob had read books by others who had done the walk, but many left out the South West Coast Path at the start, as it's strenuous and risks injury, and went inland instead. And at the end, nearly everyone walked on the A9."

Always preferring the wilder parts of the country, they wanted to do something a bit different and a lot more scenic.

"Following Andy's example we walked the South West Coast, Exmoor, the Quantocks, the Mendip hills, up Offas Dyke through the English-Welsh border country, across Wenlock Edge, and then all sorts of ways, tracks, and canal sides through the agricultural midlands, avoiding all built up areas" recalls Jos.

Higher Sharpnose Point  © Jos Mahon
Higher Sharpnose Point
© Jos Mahon

"Cannock chase, Uttoxeter, then hooray, hills, and stone walls, curlews, Derbyshire. We followed the Pennine Way north back to home country in Northumberland (half way, by the way, is Horton in Ribblesdale)."

Finally they reached their beloved Scotland.

"From our home in the south of Northumberland it took 10 days to cross the border and get to the Pentlands overlooking Edinburgh" she remembers.

"Following canals through the Central Belt was so peaceful, yet motorways, houses and industry were just a stone's throw away. Since we'd done the West Highland Way before, we made up our own route from Drymen to Fort William, via Aberfoyle, Glen Finglas (at last highlands again), Balquhiddher, Killin, Glen Lochay, Glen Lyon, over hills and bogs to Rannoch Moor; Loch Treig, Glen Nevis then Fort William."

Black Mountains  © Jos Mahon
Black Mountains
© Jos Mahon

From there northwards the country takes on a wilder edge.

"What a journey!" says Jos "Wild camping all the way to Ullapool - from Loch Arkaig over to Glen Garry; no room at the Cluanie Inn; then Glen Affric, Elchaig, Maol Bhuidhe bothy (damn another dog overnighting, so tent again); Torridon; Kinlochewe (hooray a SHOP - our supply parcel); Loch an Nid. In Ullapool - phew, a washing machine, showers, shops, coffee, treats."

Following the Pennine Way north  © Bob Mahon
Following the Pennine Way north
© Bob Mahon

"Then more wet and wild to Knockdamph bothy, the River Oykel, then veering northeast at last under Ben More Assynt to boggy Glen Cassley, Loch Shin, Fiag Bridge (a bit of tarmac!). Megabog to the Crask Inn - yey, a bunk house, pub food and beer. Off again along Loch Choire, Kinbrace, Knockfinn Heights (hell), the River Thurso, across the A9 to Watten and minor roads for first time to Sea. Sinclairs bay, a paddle, delighted dog, camp on dunes at Keiss before a final day hugging a coastline of fences, cliffs, stacks. At Duncansby Head you can finally stop going north; turn left and there's John o' Groats and journey's end."

Daily distance varied according to the terrain, how the team felt, and whether there was a particular destination in mind.

When you look intensely, your eye roving round the features, hand rapidly putting down marks, it's amazing how you get to know a piece of landscape

"Sometimes we'd do 8-10 miles, but longer days would be just over 20 miles" says Jos. "We always aimed to stop and pitch by 6pm, though earlier was a treat."

Pen-y-ghent  © Jos Mahon
© Jos Mahon

Bob did the forward planning, making a note of campsites along the way, and posting supply parcels ahead to various points the couple planned to visit en route. These contained dehydrated meals, dog food, pages of maps, torn out guides, and crucially new sketchbooks for Jos:

"I had large sheets of water colour paper cut up into panoramic format. I used a piece of board and a rubber band or two to create 'books' of these sheets, stored in a plastic bag rammed down the back of my rucksack (extra padding). I also carried a minimal painting kit, one fat brush, a few water based pencils and pieces of conte to draw into the wet paint, a piece of wax candle to resist paint, a small paint box of eight pans of colour. Whenever I finished a book, we posted it home."

Eildons  © Jos Mahon
© Jos Mahon

Including stuff for painting, her base weight was around 10kg, nudging up to around 14kg with the addition of food. In the Highlands they were going four or five days between resupplying.

Between leaving Lands End in late March, and finishing at John o' Groats in early August, the pair had over 100 walking days.

"During the walk we had an unplanned very welcome six days with Dorset friends whilst recovering from bad blisters" she says "and when we walked via home in Northumberland we stopped for 10 days recovering from colds, and sending supply parcels ahead for our next stages. Occasional rest days were taken up washing clothes, festering in the tent reading (bliss), or me painting."

Despite a few days when she couldn't paint due to very wet weather, or when they had a longer stage to walk, Jos managed to produce regular paintings in the field, often tucked into available shelter when having a break from the wind and rain, while Bob took the chance to have a snack and the dog napped.

Glen Lochay  © Jos Mahon
Glen Lochay
© Jos Mahon

While she formerly worked in the studio on paintings first sketched outside, Jos nowadays prefers painting outdoors as much as possible.

"I've always packed a sketchbook on walks" she says "so it didn't feel a must do task, just a natural way of taking in the surroundings when we stopped for a break. I often had a sandwich in one hand and brush in the other. When you look, your eye roving round the features, hand rapidly putting down marks, it's amazing how you get to know a piece of land, even in a short time of intense looking. When I revisit somewhere, or see a photo in a book, I think 'I recognise that rock, that shape, it's gone into my memory bank'. More so than snapping a photo I find.

"Landscape has always inspired me" Jos says. "Mountains, hills, coasts, islands; I love the way the weather interacts, racing clouds, shafts of light, storms passing, waves crashing. I love to get the weather into the painting and am more excited the more dramatic it is. I'm not a calm blue skies painter!"

Lands End to John o' Groats - I'd love to do it all again

Veils of rain, Glen Shiel  © Jos Mahon
Veils of rain, Glen Shiel
© Jos Mahon

"Sometimes the weather does physically get in the painting, when the paper is splattered by raindrops or snow marks. I painted in a blizzard once, sheltering behind rocks on Muck looking to the Rum hills. Freezing temperatures make interesting effects on watercolour, whether that's painting Kanchenjunga from base camp (using hot water from a bottle stuffed inside my duvet jacket, which instantly froze on the page), or in Scotland on many a freezing winter mountain walk and a stop for a quick paint.

"On the walk, I was less inspired in the flat fields of Midlands, and making myself paint a canal bridge or a copse was a discipline. But, oh , once up in Scotland - the mountains, the places we wild camped, longer days, and a chance to paint what I really love - I was in my element."

On home ground, the hills of northern England  © Bob Mahon
On home ground, the hills of northern England
© Bob Mahon

Living with Bob in an old farmhouse high in the North Pennines, Jos, now 70, has been keen on mountains since falling in love with Wales on family holidays as a teen. Studying fine art at Newcastle University in the 1970s, she joined the climbing club, where she and Bob met.

"Eventually we married and had four children" she says, "and when big mountain days were finally back on the agenda we began to enjoy more Munros, backpacking rounds like the Black Mount, Fisherfield, Strathfarrar, Mullardoch and Affric. We backpacked North to the Cape and Barney joined us for the 3rd stage, Torridon to Cape Wrath. He was nearly two, from a rescue home, and very lively. He soon got used to it. Another great experience was the 4000ers, backpacking from the Cairngorms through to the Ben. He grew into a proper mountain dog!"

Bealach an Sgairne  © Jos Mahon
Bealach an Sgairne
© Jos Mahon

Barney, aged eight at the time of the Lands End to John o' Groats epic, was a fit dog well used to long walks, and carrying his own (dry) food in dog panniers.

"He knew to rest at breaks" says Jos, "and would sleep as soon as he saw painting kit coming out. He ended up raising money for Guide Dogs. We knew that people would stop and talk if he was wearing his panniers, and we were often asked what he was carrying. The Guide Dogs charity were delighted and we met up with various staff and dogs on the way."

Even in the more populous south they camped as much as possible, with the occasional night indoors as a treat, whether at a pub or staying with friends. Travelling so light, they took every opportunity to wash clothes.

Jos in her element, the wide open spaces of northern Scotland  © Bob Mahon
Jos in her element, the wide open spaces of northern Scotland
© Bob Mahon

"We never booked campsites ahead" says Jos, "we just saw how we got on along the way. We wild camped a few times in southern England, on cliff tops where a stream was handy.

"But we had a memorable lack of water on Exmoor, when a stream marked on a map proved to be bone dry. We came off the moor at a lane near a country house. Bob was crippled with bloody blisters after a tarmac hike, so I walked down to ask for water. However a large Beware of Dogs sign put me off, as I didn't want a chunk taken out of my ankle. I climbed a wall and flagged down a tractor to ask where we might find water nearby. A very surprised worker said in broad West Country, that house you been to is Ranulph Fiennes', but he's away in the desert. We set off on the two miles towards the next house, and lo and behold heard the sound of trickling water in a culvert under the road. Relieved, we filled up, did the filter thing and dived into the nearest stubble field to pitch for the night. I painted a glorious Exmoor sunset later."

Morven  © Jos Mahon
© Jos Mahon

Once up in the highlands, places to camp and sources of water were no problem.

"We find wild camping so rewarding" explains Jos,"because we love listening to nature around, the sound of water running, birds calling, and just us. In our tent we'd be in our own world. I'd write my diary, Bob would do a blog if he had signal, and we both used Kindles to read." 

Heading towards the endless bogs of the Flow Country  © Bob Mahon
Heading towards the endless bogs of the Flow Country
© Bob Mahon

The weather, of course, was a mixed bag throughout.

"We had gales and rain to start" says Jos. "That was exciting on the clifftop walking, and I got blown over once. We were well used to wind, but not the subsequent heatwave and it was hard walking on all the ups and downs of the coastal path. Our first blisters - practically ever - were the result of that hot tarmac cycle path leading into Exmoor. These led to a definite sense of humour failure, and because Bob's feet were worse he found Exmoor's hills particularly gruelling. Friends came to the rescue in a car, and whisked us to Dorset to recover.

"In the uplands there was a lot of rain, especially in Wales and Scotland; and we even had sleet on June 21st crossing Cheviot country. We just got used to pulling on 'wet gear' for the day and then leaving it in the tent vestibules (we had a model with two entrances) overnight."

At least the showers kept the Scottish midges down a bit, she says.

"But all the way, we didn't know how long we would be able to keep walking" recalls Jos.

"On a Cornish cliff on only day four or five, my phone rang and we learned that our youngest Grandson Archie out in Australia had possible cancer. He wasn't even two. That was very hard news to take in. Did our son Dan and his partner Sal want us out to help with the older two, 3 and 5 years? We carried on walking, with regular contact, waiting for test results, the diagnosis of a rare cancer, and treatment options. There was nothing we could do until they said they needed help. Perhaps we'd have to stop the walk at Bristol. We said we'd go out as soon as needed."

Duncansby Stacks  © Jos Mahon
Duncansby Stacks
© Jos Mahon

"It was good to keep walking as you get in the moment, observing the sea, the light, the birds, and with the way ahead all new to us. Yet always in our minds were our family far away, their lives turned upside down.

"It wasn't until we reached the Pentland Hills that we learned that Sal's mum was going over for a month. We were relieved as that meant we could walk through Scotland, the landscape we had so looked forward to, and the finish. I'll always remember a poignant moment, walking behind Bob on the single track Loch Shin road, after a remote boggy camp in Glen Cassley. Dan rang to discuss with his Dad the pros and cons of whether Archie should have radiotherapy next (on his face)."

Made it! But how far to Melbourne?  © Robert MacDonald, Northern Studios, Wick
Made it! But how far to Melbourne?
© Robert MacDonald, Northern Studios, Wick

After the walk there was no time to stop and take the journey all in, as they flew straight out to Australia. 

"We stayed three months. Eventually Archie was in remission, but the next year it came again and he had gruelling radiotherapy. Great news is he survived and is now coming up on eight. Certainly puts things in perspective!"

"Though we've done shorter backpacking routes since then, such as the Skye Trail, and the Sutherland Trail, I would love to walk Lands End to John o' Groats again. My favourite areas are still in Scotland, but I'd love to revisit the South West Coast too."

End to End exhibition

  • Forge Studios, Market Place, Allendale until 30 June
  • Chapel House Arts, Kingussie 14 July - 29 August

15 Jun, 2022

What a marvellous adventure!

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