After an RV in Penzance with Scott Thomson (son of the late Mark Thompson), we cycled to Land End before setting off to John O’Groats following a scenic route of around 1200 miles. We chose to wild camp along the way and looking at the size of his panniers, I immediately guessed that I’d brought too much stuff! Problem was that it all had to be hauled up every hill along the way – and in Cornwall, there was a hill at every turn. We managed to drag ourselves to Perranporth for our first camp and sat outside the Coop shop having a well earned cool beer. Walking past us a young boy remarked to his mum – “mummy are those two men homeless”. I think that summed up our appearance and state of cleanliness. Cornwall was rugged, tough and above all steep and made no easier by constant rain and fog. We were either riding quickly downhill or struggling uphill. We stopped in Padstow and devoured a “chough” Cornish Pastie that didn’t even touch the sides. Unfortunately, Devon was very much the same, but Somerset has been my favourite county so far. We rode through the beautiful Somerset Levels and stopped in Glastonbury. On our fourth day when riding from Barnstable towards Bath, we met our first real challenges. One of my cycle shoes gave up the ghost and the sole fell off, leaving me struggling. Scott on the other hand suffered 3 broken spokes and a rear cassette issue. Although I managed to fix the spokes it required a call to the nearest bike shop to sort out the cassette as the tool we carried was not working properly. The town of Taunton was a godsend – I managed to post home 3 kg of kit that I hoped I could do without and Scott got his bike up and running due to brilliant customer services of the “Bicyclechain” shop in Taunton – thank you guys. We arrived in Bath today for our first “admin day” at the YMCA Hostel. I am tired-out and have eaten more food than I can ever remember. But planning for the worst whilst hoping for the best, our next “admin day” will be at home in Darley near Harrogate at the weekend (if all works out of course).
I did intend to give more details including places visited, the terrain, routes followed etc. But in truth, I am too knackered. Scott is outside reproofing his tent and I am about to make short work of a beef burger. We look forward to turning the pedals once more and to move on to the next town along our route. Watch this space!
After a gruelling 87 mile ride, we arrived for our second stopover in Darley in North Yorkshire. We had actually decided to camp near Otley but the lure of a hot bath and a decent drink was overwhelming and we arrived home shortly before 11 o’clock.
Looking back over the last 5 days or so we appear to have come along way – metaphorically speaking. YMCA Bath was a great place to catch a breath and the ride Westwards coincided with some torrential rain which stayed around for most of the day. Crossing the River Severn Bridge (North) was a great feeling, allowing us to focus on moving Northwards at best speed. I suggested having a brew at Chepstow to celebrate (and to get out of the rain). But the climb back to our route was steep and a mile-long – when we were back on track I reflected upon a daft decision to stop at all. We headed towards Tintern and more in particular Tintern Abbey, which Scott told me was the place which inspired William Wordsworth to pen one of his most famous works. When we arrived all I saw was an old church with no roof, so I was a little disappointed. It was at this point that Scott’s bike suffered from another broken spoke. It was starting to look like his rear wheel could become the only reason to end his ride! But we sorted out the problem and one of the local onlookers (an elderly cyclist) suggested a much flatter and quicker ride to our next stop in Monmouth – where I enjoyed a takeaway Chinese meal and chose the chicken chow-mein and it was absolutely the right choice. were able to follow the River Wye right along the Valley.
We stopped in Goodrich to Camp but with another lure in the form of a country pub, we had a couple of pints first to cap off the days riding. When we came outside it was nearly dark and when erecting my tent I managed to break one of the fibre-glass poles supporting my new tent. Whether it was the drink, the wind or rain or me just being knackered – it shouldn’t have happened. But with Scott’s help, we managed to carry out a bodged repair. Next day we pushed on to Ross on Wye, Ledbury and Worcester and followed Mercian Way, a public cycleway. Usually, the cycleway network was brilliant, but on this occasion, it was only rideable on a robust mountain bike and not a touring bike with about 20 kg of equipment. We pushed our bikes for long periods. We eventually rode through Telford where we stopped for coffee and cake and we met a lady doing the same ride as ourselves. But she was riding ultra-light and her equipment was less than half the weight as our own – all credit to her. But riding alone she was not wild camping but staying at authorised campsites.
Our stopover location was at Congleton where we enjoyed the best fish and chips since leaving Lands End in Cornwall. Phil’s Famous Fish and Chips were outstanding and I thought that the craft of frying fish had died-out long ago – no such thing here in Congleton. We actually camped next to a local TA Centre, but they must have had a faulty fire alarm system as through the night they had five separate fire alarm calls. Each time the alarm rang on for at least 15 minutes and our sleep was badly interrupted – dammed inconsiderate. Consequently, we were both knackered for our ride the next morning. After a chat with the park dustman at around 6.30 am we headed off to Macclesfield, our first way-point. We then skirted around Hyde and Staylebridge (Manchester) before heading Westward toward Saddleworth Moor and Huddersfield beyond that. That stage included a 5 mile climb to the summit via the village of Upper Mill and a 6 mile descent afterwards to Marsden. For me personally it was the stage of our ride so far. If I was to put it into words I would say it was both beautiful and brutal and would stay in my mind for a long time. I recommend it to any local cyclists and had not heard of it before.
For our final stretch, we headed through Bradford, which had the best town cycle-routes we had encountered anywhere. Then on to Otley whereupon it had got dark. We made sure that we had all the necessary lights to be seen and made the decision not to camp, but to ride on to my house at Darley in the North of the County. It was a ride that will also stay longer in the memory as it included some of the toughest climbs we had encountered anywhere. Thankfully traffic was mostly non-existent as the torrential rain had put paid to most people stepping outside of the house. But to arrive shortly before midnight on a Saturday night seemed almost perfect. All to start again on Monday morning – this time heading for Scotland!
We did it – we arrived at John O’Groats (JOG) on our bikes at around 3pm on Sunday afternoon. The weather was warm and sunny and couldn’t have contrasted more with the wet and miserable Lands End which we left just a couple of weeks ago.
Our admin day spent in Darley was long overdue and I had missed coffee at in Harrogate. As well as showers and baths Lorna had the washing machine and drier working overtime. I rebuild Scott’s rear wheel to try and prevent the constant breaking of spokes which had hampered the ride to date. He helped me out with the repair of my tent-poles and the manufacturers repair splint gave my tent a realistic chance of making it to JOG. I took the decision to ditch my big “bouncing bomb” sleeping bag in favour of my lightweight sleeping bag which would save another couple of kilograms. So we set off from Darley on Monday morning full of enthusiasm that we could get the job done. Despite the sunny start it soon reverted to type by raining heavily well before we had left North Yorkshire. We pressed on at best speed Northwards and cycled over all types of terrain to gain the best advantage. We stopped off to make a brew while there had been a brief break in the weather and we chose the Market Square in Thirsk where hundreds of people were enjoying market day. Later we rode through Yarm where the Yorkshire Artist Lucy Pittaway has a small gallery. She produces painting and artworks which highlight farm animals and road cycling with the backdrop being North Yorkshire country-life. If you have never seen her work it is well worth checking out. We continued to head North and rode for over 15 miles along a disused railway line utilising the Sustrans Cycle Network until we came to the City of Sunderland. It was here that we sat in a bus shelter and made a cup of hot chocolate away from the driving rain. An elderly guy called John walked in to wait for his bus and offer some cheery Geordie chat, then insisted on giving us £10 to buy a drink for when we got to JOG. “If you don’t take it or it ends up in a charity tin I’ll be annoyed he said. It’s to get you both a drink when you get to where you are going and that will give me real pleasure” – so we took his tenner and thanked him profusely. Day 11 and 106 miles completed – a record for us in one day. It just shows that having a day off from riding the bike can be good for your performance.
The next day seemed to be same as before – it was still driving rain but the strong wind was right at our backs and almost driving us along. The North-East Coast route and more, in particular, the Northumberland coast was beautiful and for me was totally unexpected. Most “End-to-Enders” favour the Western route running adjacent to the M6, but this route was largely flat and as scenic as anywhere on our travels – more importantly, we were flying along again. We started by riding under the River Tyne in Newcastle, using the Tyne Cycle Tunnel which was a strange and eerie experience being under a river. We cycled in pouring rain through Blythe and Whitley Bay and saw where the conquering Vikings first landed on the huge flat beach near Lindisfarne. Then on towards an awe-inspiring Bamburgh Castle – it’s outline dominating the skyline for miles before we reached it. 94 miles had been pedalled when we crossed the River Tweed. Berwick upon Tweed is only 3 miles from the Scottish Border and they play football in the Scottish Professional League so in my mind they are Scottish, but in truth, they are very much English. But without any hesitation whatsoever I can declare that the town was the most unfriendly, unwelcoming town we have visited so far. Not only was every shop or takeaway closed, when we did stumble upon an open chippie; the guy couldn’t be bothered to serve us. So being very tired and hungry, we chose to erect our tents on a green patch of land close to the River Tweed in the centre of town. We packed our belongings and left for Scotland at first light with a “thought to self” to never return.
Next morning was a new day and we crossed the border into Scotland and headed for Edinburgh, where we had a booking for a hostel. It wasn’t in the leafiest part of the City and there wasn’t any of the “capital flair”. But more importantly, there was a hot shower, launderette for sorting out our cycling gear and a welcome a mile-wide when I walked into Leith for a takeaway. All in all the Edinburgh experience was a positive one and everyone we spoke to showed a great interest in our bikes and where we were both heading. Although we both failed to understand the lady carrying out the assisted washes in our launderette so the best policy was to just nod and smile. Our trip to Darley had been long and laborious, but now with my increased personal fitness and less weight in my panniers. I felt I was able to contribute to the metronomic pace set by Scott. So was that a chink of light I could see at the end of the tunnel? Sadly too early for that – we still had the Highlands to negotiate and they promised to be our sternest test. Perth was our next headline destination which was the home of a very good friend of mine from the Black Watch Regiment. He told me he was from “Poth” or that was how he made it sound. The roads to Perth were undulating and quite heavy, but nothing as daunting as Cornwall or even the East side of Manchester. But the terrain was building in steepness and in overall height above sea-level as we approached the Highlands. Worryingly I had started to feel cold at night ever since we had arrived at Berwick and the night-time temperatures could drop further I supposed. We bypassed Perth and in the early evening cycled into Aviemore, which is the UK’s top ski resort. We decided the time was right to make our camp when we had arrived at the nearby town of Dunkeld, right on the banks of the beautiful River Tay. We had a couple of drinks at a nearby hotel and sat right in front of the log fire which made me want to stay awhile. This lovely town had an array of shops, restaurants and hotels and was clearly host to many foreign tourists. I recall that the late Queen Mother was a fan of this place and used to fly-fish the local river. We had the best fish and chips since we had left Phil’s Famous Fish and Chips in Congleton at the Dunkeld Fish Bar. In truth, they were of the same exquisite standard so it’s fair to say we have seen the best fish and chips our two countries have to offer. After a cold nights sleep I was glad to get riding again, but first our morning ablutions. There were some quality conveniences at the end of the street which were cared for by Bob, a very witty senior citizen. He had served a full career in the Royal Navy and told me that as a young man he had tried to enlist into the Scots Guards. Only to find that at only 5ft 4 inches tall he was not the man they were looking for. If there were a prize for the best cared for toilets on our journey, then Bob would have won it hands down for the public conveniences in Dunkeld. Footnote – the last time I had been so cold in my sleeping bag was when I went to Afghanistan on a recce in 2007. I had stupidly packed my lightweight sleeping bag, expecting temperatures to be similar to those I had experienced in Iraq – why am I making the same mistake again?
We were constantly putting in days of between 80 and 95 miles by now and we did this in 3 blocks each day. Block one was normally from around 8.30 – 12 o’clock when we would have some food and a cup of tea. The afternoon block would finish around 4, when we would eat our main meal for the day and the most productive for me at least was the final block. We set out again until around 8 or 8.30 in the evening when we would stop to camp. I would find that during the evening session I was stronger than I had been all day. So we would put in around 10 hours of cycling each day and there were days when my backside was hurting. Schoolboy error number 2 was purchasing a new saddle for my bike a few weeks before we set off. Anyhow the final night before we left the Highlands we camped in the lovely village of Tomatin, where I drew on all my experience at keeping warm by imitating the Michelin Man when in my sleeping bag – I wore most of my spare clothes. The following morning we quickly cycled the final 20 miles into Inverness, which is a very Northern Scottish City. The City had a very positive edge and we were both drawn to its hardy people. We sat down in a greasy spoon café for a £5 breakfast which tasted fabulous. You know the thing – egg, bacon, sausage and beans, with toast and unlimited coffee included. There was the usual banter and curious locals eyeing up our bikes and wondering who are these ill shaven Englishmen and what are they doing. I could have stayed for hours, but we needed to keep moving. I knew in my heart of hearts that we were entering the hardest part of our ride and any thoughts that we are nearly there were dangerous ones.
So we were now heading into the top bit of Scotland, which was referred to as Caithness on all the local signposts. Although it was no longer mountainous it was still very hilly. What struck me was the remoteness and strangely enough, it felt warmer and more temperate than at any stage since we had left Edinburgh. By now we had stopped riding on byways and bridleways to avoid the roads. The road hugging the Eastern Coastline was very quiet anyway and that was our main axis. It was a beautiful way to ride your bike – along a quiet undulating road with a calm sea on your right-hand side at all times. I’ve always found cycling through woodland to have a calming effect, the same can be said about the looking and smelling the sea. Having completed another 87 miles we camped that night in Brora, a quaint little village overlooking the sea. Perhaps what I should have made clear earlier was that wild camping in Scotland is perfectly legal and acceptable by all. In England local bylaws prohibit all forms of wild camping, consequently finding a good place to camp in Scotland is a good deal less hassle and a less stressful experience. The good day’s mileage the previous day left only 65 miles between us and JOG. I’d like to say that it was easy to cover that distance, but the first half was as tough as anything we had completed so far. Then with only 30 miles to JOG the terrain levelled off considerably and it became even more sparsely populated. By now cars flashed their lights at us and gave a huge thumbs up – they knew that we were about to finish the End-to-End ride. The sun was shining down on what was the sunniest day since we had set off from Lands End. As I rode into JOG I thought to myself – wow, that was a lot tougher than I ever expected. But I suppose if it were easy then everybody would want to do it.
A few reflections from my time in the saddle.
- Don’t buy new kit just before the ride – like my new comfy saddle that wasn’t remotely comfy.
- Be realistic about what you really need to carry and not what might come in handy.
- Carry food that is simple and high in carbohydrates such as porridge.
- Carry spare parts for the bike which could get you out of trouble – such as spare spokes.
- Favourite County for cycling – Yorkshire, but there are many great rides right across the country.
- Friendliest place – without any doubt whatsoever it was Taunton in Somerset. It was made extra special by the very kind staff at the Bicycle Chain Store who went the extra mile.
- Unfriendliest place – perhaps we caught Berwick on Tweed on a bad night?
- Best Fish and Chips – in England was Phil’s Famous Chippy and in Scotland was the Dunkeld Fish Bar.
- Place you should visit – its Dunkeld. Best cared for Public Conveniences we came across and much more besides.
- Most surprising County – the Northumberland Coast as it’s beautiful.
- Whether you camp or stay in only the best accommodation the LEJOG ride should be on anyone’s “to-do list”.
Thank you for taking the time to read all my ramblings.