Masters Class ~ John Hillaby

Thoughts and lessons from famous walkers

One of the books that inspired me as I began preparing for my first walk was Journey through Britain, by John Hillaby, the British travel writer, explorer, naturalist and world-class longwalker.  Born in 1917, he remained an active walker and writer until his death in 1996 at age 79.

Britain was the subject of the second of his “Journey” books, which are still admired for both their literary quality, and for the easygoing descriptions of the personalities and places he encountered along the way.  The landscape, wildlife and history evolve naturally as he spins the tale of his solo parade across the countryside of England, Wales, and Scotland from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

In his subsequent adventure, Journey through Europe, from the Hook of Holland across France to Nice, he presents his take on some of the enduring themes and counsels of ultralight backpacking.

On the dangers of a heavy pack ~

Having read that Roman soldiers trained with weapons heavier than those used in battle, Hillaby trained using a fifty pound load (he intended to carry thirty to forty pounds on his walk).  He had adjusted his pack to minimize its side-to-side swing, but overlooked the vertical movement of his load…

            “One fine morning I strode over the South Downs, feeling on top of the world.  In a brash gesture of self-confidence, I leaped over a small ditch.  The outcome was wholly unexpected and extremely painful.  I landed like a bird, but the pack slumped down hard, wrenching a wire-taut ligament in the muscles of my kneecap.  There followed anxious days of bandaging and massage and talk of cortisone injections.  The pain and the puffy flesh gradually subsided, leaving me with an occasional limp and an uneasy feeling of worse to come…”

 On feet ~

He was well known for walking all over London while preparing for a journey.

            “I walk somewhere every day and have done so for years.  But there is a world of difference in balance and muscular coordination between swinging along without a pack and trudging along carrying thirty or forty pounds.  The unencumbered walker is a digitigrade, a toe user.  He leans forward in such a way that he glides along, scarcely seeming to touch the ground.  Energy for the initial pushoff is provided by the ball of the foot and, almost immediately afterward, by the big toe.  Once you get going the power is supplemented by gravity controlled by the rhythmical movement of the legs.  The movement is a marvelous one.  Step by step the body teeters on the edge of catastrophe.  Yet the ability to stride out in an upright manner set man distinctly apart from those apelike shufflers, our earliest ancestors.

            By contrast, the gait of a burdened man is inclined to be flat-footed or plantigrade.  Until you get accustomed to the change in posture you lumber along like a cave man.  But with practice, the pack can be carried high and balanced in such a way that after a week or two of weight lifting you feel unbalanced without it.”

 And here’s his take on what to do about them ~

“…perhaps my feet were worse than I thought.

            About feet there is something that few but infantrymen and long-distance walkers know: by continuous pounding they become flattened.  They splay out, plantigrade, like the feet of a bear.  In my experience, the process becomes most evident after about two hundred miles, the distance across country from Land’s End to Bristol, where, some years ago, I thought a walk through Britain had come to a full stop.  Now it so happens I had again walked just about that distance from the sea and it was about time I took the cure.

            A simple matter: you bathe your feet.  I dangled mine in the canal for ten minutes.  You dry them carefully and put on thin socks, or none at all.  Sockless and comfortable, I walked on to Herstal and Liege…”

John Hillaby’s series of Journey books:






Journey to the Jade Sea – 1964 ~ from Northern Kenya to Lake Rudolph

Journey Through Britain – 1968 ~ from Land’s End to John O’Groats

Journey Through Europe – 1972  ~ from Hook of Holland to Nice

Journey Through Love – 1976 ~ travels in Britain and America

Journey Home – 1983 ~ from England’s Lake District to London

Journey To The Gods – 1991 ~ from Athens to Mount Olympus

Other sources:

These books are out of print and can be hard to find in America, but are generally available closer to Hillaby’s home, so you may want to check at ALIBRISicon, Powell’s Books, or Amazon-UK.

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