Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

Following on from our recent The Geographer magazine on Active Travel, our Writer-in-Residence has produced three blogs about explorers who favoured human-powered adventures...

“On a sunlit day of March I set out from my home near Edinburgh to walk to London…” So began Isobel Wylie Hutchison, writing of her ambitious walk down the length of Britain which she embarked upon in 1948. 

She called it a ‘stroll’, and when you look at the amazing things she’d already achieved in her lifetime, you can see her point. This is the same woman who, in 1928, spent a whole winter in Greenland, getting to know and love the Inuit people. A few years later she was trekking solo across Alaska and Arctic Canada, roughing it on a trading vessel as it dodged icebergs in the Bering Strait, sleeping in igloos and clinging onto a dog sled as it glided across the frozen sea. Now aged 59, smartly but sensibly clad in a tweed skirt and brogues, she was more than capable of finding her way from Carlowrie Castle to London without mishap.

Isobel intended to walk over the moors to Gretna, continue down through the Pennines and then, after passing through Lichfield, Nuneaton and Stratford, follow the course of the Thames all the way to the capital. True to form, she was planning on taking lots of detours to visit as many interesting places as possible, especially those connected with famous writers or other historical figures. And she had a healthy disrespect for the rules. At Thomas Carlyle’s birthplace in Ecclefechan, a visitor attraction managed by the National Trust for Scotland, she noticed two of the great man’s wide-brimmed hats laid out as exhibits. “Seizing a moment when the attendant’s back was turned, I put on the black one and wished a wish. It seemed the right thing to do.”

At Housesteads Fort, Isobel stood atop Hadrian’s Wall and gazed across the rolling landscape to the south; between Cumberland and Durham hail showers “swept the high tops like veils, chased by bursts of sun.” She kept to the quiet paths as much as possible, relishing as ever the solitude and the freedom. The limestone crags of the Pennines played havoc with her shoes, and in Derbyshire she waited patiently as a cobbler at Chapel-en-le-Frith fitted new heels. With great interest, she watched the ancient ceremony of well-dressing in the local villages, whereby natural springs were adorned with flowers and leaves; and she descended into the famous Blue John mine, noting that that Romans were thought to have discovered this rare mineral in Castleton, and had prized it so much that two jars of it had been found in the ruins of Pompeii.

As always, Isobel took people as she found them, without judgement but with a dash of humour. No one recognised her, and she was not the kind of person to brag about her Arctic adventures. Even in 1948, a woman who had chosen to travel 570 miles alone and on foot was enough of a curiosity to arouse friendly concern, and she couldn’t help but be amused. “The Derbyshire folk showed gratifying surprise when they heard that I had walked from Edinburgh, but one woman looked at me in consternation and cried, ‘Whatever did ye do that for, dear? Did ye miss t’ boos?’”

Quotes from ‘A Stroll to London’, pub. National Geographic 1950, original transcript in RSGS archives.

Part 1 Part 2