James Link is a volunteer both with Shropshire Archives and Ludlow Museum Resource Centre.
While going through archival photographs of the village of Hodnet near Market Drayton, I stumbled across a set of pictures of a mysterious yet charismatic woman in a headscarf and white mac greeting the locals, circa 1960. It soon transpired that this was a record of a forgotten celebrity of the mid-20th century, who not only presaged the dietary fads of recent decades but also many of the dubious beliefs that have accompanied them.
Dr. Barbara Moore was a dietician and vegetarian activist who, in 1960, walked from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in just 23 days, stopping en route in the sleepy Shropshire village of Hodnet. She apparently believed that “neither energy nor body heat come from food” and gradually reduced her diet to nothing more than lemon juice and water, though her epic hikes were fuelled by nuts, honey, raw fruit and vegetables. Born Anya Cherkasova in Russia in 1903, she trained as an engineer after the revolution, and was the 1932 long-distance motorcycling champion of the Soviet Union (according to one obituary).
Following her journey through Britain via Shropshire, she crossed the United States from New York to LA, becoming the first woman to do so, in an equally remarkable 86 days, despite being struck by a car in Indiana. She made other trans- American journeys, such as from Key West, Florida to Boston, where she misplaced her wallet 6 miles south of Miami and insisted on walking back, disgruntled, to recover it. She set multiple world records for walking throughout the 1950s and ‘60s.
The views she developed on nutrition could be charitably described as unorthodox. She claimed that older people’s bodies were more harmed than helped by eating due to ‘impure’ foods, and to be free of disease as her body lacked ‘toxins’. People could live to be 200 if they gave up smoking, drinking and sex, and she planned on being pregnant at 100 and living to 150 herself. Onlookers remarked how youthful she looked as she undertook her walks in her late 50s, appearing at least 20 years younger.
She successfully sued the Daily Mail in 1961 after it ran advertisements suggesting that her feats of endurance were solely for financial gain. In 1964, she fought Surrey council when it threatened to build a road across the back garden of her home in Camberley, comparing it to the sort of ‘violation’ of her rights she would expect in her country of birth. This and other lawsuits over both neighbourly disputes and encroachment by local government (leading to spells in prison due to contempt of court) evidently impacted on both her physical and financial health. In 1969, bankruptcy proceedings brought against her were delayed when she was allegedly attacked by a leopard in Barcelona during a charity event. She passed away in a London hospital in 1977, aged 73, after a life seemingly furnished by a wealth of colourful stories.