'It Was Like Water Torture' | Walking Britain's Longest Straight Line - Outdoors Magic

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‘It Was Like Water Torture’ | Walking Britain’s Longest Straight Line

78.5km, 5,706 metres of ascent and one dead straight line through some of the wildest terrain in Scotland

It all started with a blog post by Ordnance Survey. Someone there, perhaps on a quiet day for cartography, had managed to identify the longest line between two roads in the whole of the United Kingdom, a 50-mile gap of wilderness in the Cairngorms running from the Pass of Drumochter to Corgarff.

Last August, spurred on by a desire for a quirky adventure on his doorstep, Calum Maclean, an Aberfeldy-based adventurer, decided to take on the route and see if it was actually possible to walk it. He recruited none other than record-breaking round the world cyclist and fellow Scot, Jenny Graham, as his co-adventurer. Not a bad person to have alongside you by any means. 

The journey took them four days, the going was as tough as expected and a neat little film was made out of it. As it goes, that film has just been made free to watch. And here it is…

We were fortunate enough to get the chance to speak to Jenny and Calum via Zoom to hear the backstory behind the challenge and the realities involved with ‘straight lining’.

How much prep went into this?

Calum: There wasn’t much planning at all. I’ve done so much backpacking and camping in Scotland, so I didn’t really think about it as anything other than another big walk. And I didn’t actually go out and do any practise walks. If I did, I think I would’ve quickly realised that it wouldn’t be that much fun and it would be quite difficult. 

Planning it, I looked at the line and I saw that there were no places that, in my mind, would be impossible, so I thought, yeah OK let’s do it.

Jenny had much shorter notice than me. I think I asked Jenny if she wanted to join about a week before the actual walk.

Jenny: Yeah it was ideal, not too much time to think about it!

And you took this on without knowing whether it was actually possible, right?

Jenny: We knew that there were some attempts that had been made but we didn’t know if there’d been anyone who’d succeeded. We’ve found out since then that there have actually been groups that have walked similar paths. 

The Cairngorms National Park has some of the wildest terrain in Scotland and a total of 55 mountains over 3000ft. Photo: Johny Cook | Instagram @johny.cook

Jenny: At the time we knew that rivers could stop us, and we made the decision that we weren’t going to carry any ropes, so if there was something we weren’t comfortable going down then we’d go around it. We came very close to some cliff edges that would’ve been impassable, but fortunately the route would pass just by them, sometimes by about 5 metres.

Calum: There were only two small fences we had to cross, but on the whole there were no problems with access, it was all just really open ground.

How disciplined were you in regards to keeping right on that straight line?

Calum: A couple of deviations did occur and it was actually when Matt and Ellie [of the film crew] were with us. We’d be walking along talking to them and not looking at the GPS device in front of us and then 30 seconds later you’d realise that the route was way over there. Jenny was more hardcore about staying on the line than me – like fully zoomed in on the GPS so if you were like a metre off, she’d notice.

Jenny: Yeah, I was obsessive. It’s funny what happens to you. That’s what we had to focus on for four days, it was like our only purpose and it becomes really important how close to that line you are. It was bizarre, like you’re toileting on the line, you’re sleeping on the line, everything is getting done on the line. That morning we deviated, it was on a flat plateau and we were just chat, chat chatting, I think we might’ve been like 20 or 30 metres out. 

Just how demanding was the experience?

Calum: I found it quite stressful at times, especially staying focussed on the GPS, because you’re not enjoying the experience of being outdoors. 

Calum and Jenny were both equipped by Exped, Lyon and Montane. The tent pictured is the Exped Mira II. Photo: Johny Cook | Instagram @johny.cook

Jenny: It was tiring because when you’re navigating all you’re saying to each other is “oh, you’re veering”, or “more to to the left”. So yeah it was definitely different. It was good to have that purpose at times but then also strange to have your head in a computer when you’re out in the hills. 

It would’ve been fascinating doing it by compass because at least you can actually lift your head up now and then and not get so obsessed by the GPS.

What was the hardest moment?

Calum: There wasn’t really one moment that was hard. It was just the constant grind. It was like water torture, grinding away up and down these little hills that you’d never choose to do.

Jenny: The first day was difficult and in our heads beforehand we’d looked at the map and thought, yeah that’s sound, we’re just gonna fly over that, and we’d had a big chat about how fast we were going to go. But it was so tough, there were these tiny little gullies that you wouldn’t pay attention to on the map and they became really difficult when you were traversing. I remember lying in the tent at the end of the first day with huge ankles and thinking please don’t let it be like this for the whole time. 

Was there anything that surprised you?

Jenny: It’s a place that the two of us know so well, and here we were on a completely different track discovering these different sides.

Photo: Johny Cook | Instagram @johny.cook

Calum: I’m a big fan of finding little places I’ve never seen. Finding little waterfalls and cool places to go for a swim, and on the route, we couldn’t actually go to them, as they’d be just off our route, but I’ve bookmarked a load of places I want to go back to. In the back of Glen Feshie, there’s a gorge that looked stunning and right at the top of Glen Derry where there were all these old pine trees. I’ve got a new appreciation of these places that I’d already known so well, you know, even just seeing places from different angles. I’d definitely go and visit parts again, but I’d take a quicker way to get into them probably!

Would you recommend people take it on?

Jenny: To take it on people need to be of a certain mindset. If they are, if it sparks something in them, then go for it. And do it your own way. Think about how you’re going to navigate, how you’re going to travel. You could ski it, you could relay it – you could have a lot of fun with it. I would recommend it, but not really just to anybody.

Calum: I think if you’re going to do it, set yourself some kind of challenge. Whether that’s the fastest time, or as totally accurate as possible. I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who wants to visit Scotland to go walking. You’ll see a lot of beautiful places doing this, but you’re not going to get as much as you could out from it.

Did the strain ever cause any friction between you? 

Calum: We didn’t have a falling out. Because it was really hard work and not really the most fun thing to do at the time, I felt a wee bit bad for having brought Jenny along. So because of that, I was making every effort that we would get along. If the weather had been bad, there’s a good chance we might’ve fallen out over something. We were sharing the same tent so we wouldn’t have wanted to have fallen out!

Photo: Johny Cook.  Instagram @johny.cook

Jenny: It was a gamble because we’d only spent about an hour and a half in each other’s company beforehand and then we had this four days in this really close proximity. But no, it went really well. 

Calum: There was only one bog I had to pull Jenny out of

Jenny: I’m surprised you didn’t just leave me to be fair.

And getting to the end… it must’ve been just a boring strip of concrete, right? Was that quite underwhelming?

Calum: Underwhelming is the word! The last mile was probably the hardest of the whole thing. It was like a plantation forest and half of which had fallen over in the wind and it was like pitch black as well. We squeezed our way through and got to the road and Johny, Matt and Ellie (of the film crew) were there at the finish.

Photo: Johny Cook.  Instagram @johny.cook

Calum: We were really tired. Getting to the end, it was just like ‘oh, that’s it then’. We didn’t really care. If someone wants to do a straight line I’d recommend planning it so that it finishes at a pub. Somewhere that makes it worthwhile to do it almost.

Jenny: Yeah, the last day is boring. All you have to do is keep one foot in front of the other. It’s not like there’s this massive hill to climb or something. You just need to keep going.  You did good because you were kissing the road and stuff. 

Calum: I had to ham it up, didn’t I?

Jenny: They were like “c’mon Jen”, trying to inject some enthusiasm. I was just so hungry. Not long after were all stood outside the garage in Aviemore with cups of tea and sandwiches at like 1 in the morning.

Calum and Jenny celebrate at the finish.

The classic interview question for you both then: what’s next?

Calum: Jenny wants to do it in winter.

Jenny: (Laughing) It would be a good winter one but stuff like that you need to leave a good five to 10 years gap so you forget about how miserable it was. I’m away this summer doing the Trans Continental bike race across Europe hopefully as part of a female pair – myself and Philippa Battye. The Longest Line has kind of inspired it; you know you can do it by yourself but working with somebody is very different, when you’re not dealing with your own thoughts and your own pain. So I’m quite interested to do a massive endurance event with another person to see whether we can keep it together to do well. Only time will tell!

Calum: I’ve not got anything coming up that compares to that. I’ve got a couple of ideas though, kind of inspired by the Longest Line. I’d like to do lots of locally based stuff. There’s stuff in Scotland like the Cairngorm 4000s running route, and I want to do that but change it so that it’s a swimrun route. There are four specific lochs in my mind, each one called Lochain Uaine. So you’d do that route but also swim across these four lochans and maybe a couple of other bodies of water. Basically I want to take some classic routes and tweak them by adding swims. 

Calum and Jenny’s challenge, as well as the documentary about it, was all made possible by the support of Exped, La Sportiva and Montane. The assets were produced by Summit Fever Media and Inverness-based photographer, Johny Cook

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