Land’s End to John o’Groats

This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 69.

Sometimes it seems this newsletter is full of campaigning but with little evidence that anyone actually ever rides their bike. Sometimes we do. This year I celebrated my 40th birthday and, back in January, it seemed a very good idea to mark this occasion with a decent bike ride. Continued discussion with my friend Terry, who is also turning 40 this year, eventually resulted in Land’s End to John o’Groats being the required distance to mark the occasion. It was also suggested that if we went via Fort William, a climb of Ben Nevis might be fun too. People kept asking who we were raising money for, so eventually we decided we both supported the Dr Hadwen Trust. I’m sure they’d still be grateful for any donations.

1 July – 10 km (6 miles)

Land’s End.
Image as described adjacent

We got off the train in Penzance in the early afternoon with the intention of riding to Land’s End, getting photos and stopping at a pre-booked B&B. We would then set off properly the next day. As a result we’d ridden a fair way, but only 10 km in the right direction, before we stopped. It turned out that the B&B was run by someone who’d recently escaped a computer company here in Cambridge.

2 July – 130 km (81 miles)

Cornish road sign which I only saw after getting to the top (23% is nearly 1 in 4).
Image as described adjacent

Our first proper day was the hardest of the entire trip. We were told afterwards that this was ‘the hottest day of the year.’ Sunburn seemed assured. We drank lots of water. Cornwall is far from flat and here our bikes were pushed for the first time in many years. 20% and greater gradients are not at all uncommon, and many of them are long and give you no chance of a run up. As a respite from indirect and badly signposted small roads, we tried the A30 from Bodmin. This turned out to be a lethal dual carriageway and easily the most scary road of the entire journey. Being passed by trucks travelling parallel in both lanes, them unable to pull over and us with no hard shoulder to use, was far from enjoyable. Avoid this road. We were soon on the lanes again. We camped wild at the top of Bodmin Moor, which was excellent. Despite the prevailing wind supposedly being from the south west, we had a headwind all day.

3 July – 160 km (99 miles)

First we had to ride off the Moor but, finally, we escaped the hills. It was about 35°C by mid morning, but we encountered pouring rain, accompanied by thunder, twice in the early afternoon. Headwind again! Small lanes eventually led, after 7 pm, to an almost empty A38 on which we could make excellent progress, making it into Taunton and staying with Terry’s mum. On this day I had several flats early in the day due to having patched tubes with slime in them. What seems to happen is that the glue melts a little going down hills and the slime eats the glue. My patches were completely off the tubes and floating around in a mess of slime inside the tyre. Avoid “slime”!

4 July – 140 km (87 miles)

The flats continued, and I limped into Bridgwater to buy replacement tubes and bin those containing slime. Then to my parents in Burnham-on-Sea for lunch (which was supposed to have been elevenses) and through Weston Super Mare and Clifton (a long climb and detour which can be avoided). Our route took us over both the Bristol Suspension bridge and the Severn Bridge, then on to Chepstow. Both bridges are free for cyclists. On the Severn bridge you ride on the maintenance track. The NCN 4 from Bristol to Chepstow was quite decent – once we found it! We were running late and ended up staying at the Chepstow Hotel, the most upmarket accommodation of the trip, where they made us grubby cyclists very welcome. Perhaps ‘credit card touring’ has something to recommend it?

5 July – 153 km (95 miles)

The fifth day took us to the Long Mynd Youth Hostel. A beautiful part of the country that is well worth visiting. I had my worst mechanical problem: the rack fell off my bike. I’d checked all bolts etc. for tightness before leaving home but some had worked loose. I had a two hour delay finding somewhere that could sell me a bolt, and then got seriously drenched in a storm which continued for the last 20 km of the day.

6 July – 130 km (81 miles)

Ferry ‘cross the Mersey.
Image as described adjacent

We rode to Birkenhead and took the ‘ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ into Liverpool.

7 July – 100 km (62 miles)

Flat, smooth, fast cycle path at Southport, Lancs.
Image as described adjacent

This had been planned as a short day in the middle of the ride, but I felt fine so took the long way around the coast. I rode north-west from Liverpool, directly towards Southport, on the bumpy ex-railway NCN path, and then discovered that there is an excellent, almost Dutch quality, smooth path along a bit of Southport sea front towards the villages before Preston. The approach to Preston itself had better than average cycling facilities which were a pleasant alternative to the dual carriageway, then I went around the coast through Lytham St. Annes into Blackpool.

We stayed in Blackpool at the only veggie B&B in the town (The Wildlife Hotel).

8 July – 156 km (97 miles)

We separated on the morning of the eighth day, riding apart for most of the rest of the distance. One of the things that I learnt from this trip is the difficulty of accommodating different people’s speeds and preferences. Perhaps such a trip is better done on your own. However, as it’s quite likely neither of us would have bothered at all on our own, it’s just as well we started off together.

Lancashire
Image as described adjacent

I rode east from Blackpool, went over some marvellous hills, Garstang, Brow Top, through the amazing biker hang out Kirkby Lonsdale, through Kendal, over the magnificent Shap Fell and carried on along the A6 to camp just north of Penrith. Beautiful countryside all around here. It started raining at 4 pm at the top of Shap Fell and continued for the rest of the day.

9 July – 180 km (112 miles)

Probably the highest cycle path in the UK, in the southern uplands.
Image as described adjacent

On the ninth day I woke up to more rain, so I stayed in my sack. Eventually it stopped and I got going. I caught up with Terry at Carlisle and we rode together into Scotland. Gretna is a bit tacky, but the scenery is amazing. Before becoming the M74, the A74 had been a dual carriageway, part of which has now been converted to a single carriageway plus a really decent cycle path. Probably the highest, longest, coldest, dampest stretch in the UK, but wonderfully scenic. I stopped at a B&B in Larkhill, just short of Glasgow.

10 July – 130 km (81 miles)

Best bit of National Cycle Route out of Glasgow.
Image as described adjacent

I got up fairly late again and set off for Glasgow. I took busy roads into Glasgow but left on an NCN route towards Loch Lomond. This was largely along an old railway track and surface quality varied from quite good to awful. The A82 was horrible from Glasgow so I stuck to the NCN path. From Balloch to Tarbet this route varied from bits of the old road through bits of specially made path to very inadequate shared use, but I persisted until suddenly I hit a completely undropped kerb at speed. So much for a usable path. By then the traffic had dropped so I used the road. From Tarbet to my camp site at Tyndrum it poured with rain again, yet another opportunity to get soaked and to put the tent up in the rain. 10°C. Brrr. So much hard rain that my bike computer was half full of water (though it still worked).

11 July 86 km (53 miles) cycled + a walk

I again started late and had to take the tent down in the rain. Rode on towards Glencoe. Amazing weather. Very cold, very wet, and if I didn’t pedal down hill, the headwind stopped me. Lots of hills to go up too. I reached Fort William by 2 pm, found the B&B and unpacked my boots and warm clothes. I walked to Ben Nevis by 4 pm and was down again by just after 8.30, then had a curry. An amazing climb, but very cold at the top. Snow in July. The mist at the top meant it was fairly difficult to see one cairn from another. The spring water coming out of the mountain tasted great (I only took it above the line where the sheep were!).

12 July – 176 km (109 miles)

Carbisdale Castle Youth Hostel.
Image as described adjacent

I got up fairly early to find the town submerged in mist, so I took my time packing my stuff back in the box and labelling it for home. On the B&B owner’s recommendation I didn’t leave before 10 am, by which time the mist had cleared. I posted my parcel then rode out of town. My legs were quite weary as a result of yesterday’s climb. I’d been tempted by the Great Glen Cycle Route north of Loch Lochy as an alternative to the A82. As far as Gairlochy it was a fairly bumpy tow path, a bit better than the river Cam path used to be but not as good as it is now. From Clunes on to Kilfinnan it was awful. Not at all suitable for any reasonable touring bike. Having got to the start of this stretch, I rode along it, but it was slow, dangerous and unpleasant. At Kilfinnan I escaped onto what was by then the much more attractive alternative of the A82, my speed went up and I rode through Fort Augustus and along the side of Loch Ness. No sign of Nessie, unless you count the miniatures sold in the shops. All very nice, but the road was a bit busy so at Drumnadochit I turned north for a scenic route to Beauly, Dingwall, and then found myself on the highly unpleasant A9 for a short stretch. I left this just before Alness to take a scenic route over Struie hill and met a sign saying that it was a 15% hill for 3/4 mile. I managed about half of this before deciding it’d be easier to push – the first time I’d done that since Cornwall and the last for the ride. Continuing through Bonar Bridge I found a pub at a sensible mealtime of 6.30 pm or so, followed by Carbisdale Castle youth hostel – a spectacular place, one of two Scottish hostels which are actual castles.

A short word about the A82. Between Tarbet and Inverness there is rarely any alternative at all to the A82. For most of the distance this is a narrow two lane road with no hard shoulder and in busy traffic it can be unpleasant. It is a shame there is not a quieter route for cyclists through this part of the world. I managed to avoid using it at the busiest times, and found most drivers were considerate. The views from the road are amazing.

13 July – 175 km (109 miles)

‘White heat of technology’: Dounreay.
Image as described adjacent

I left quite early, wanting to finish today. Continuing up the A836, past Dalchork it turned into a single lane with passing places. This felt very remote, I saw no cars at all for the first half hour. It was just as well that I’d picked up some snacks on the way out of Lairg as there was nothing else for miles. I turned onto an even smaller road along the side of Loch Naver and eventually reached the northern coast at Bettyhill. Now along the top of the country, and at last there was a tail wind! I stopped for food and drinks and also to take a photo of Dounreay. For much of this part of the ride I made quite good time. I got to John o’Groats a few minutes before 5 pm and found myself behind a queue of motorcyclists from London waiting for photos.

John O’Groats
Image as described adjacent

Now the feeling of not knowing quite what to do next. It was very cold, 10°C or so and plenty of wind chill too. Luckily a coach turned up and offered to take me and bike to Wick for a mere £2.35.

Afterwards

The return journey started the next morning with the 6.22 train to Inverness and then I found I was stuck due to bike spaces on trains being booked up for days. I ended up with a one way hire car back to Cambridge, this costing £3 less than the train ticket and I got four seats rather than not even a guarantee of one (it did also cost £50 for petrol).

Terry finished the next day having had a stop in Inverness, also making good time.

So, was it worth it? Yes! It’s a wonderful way of seeing the country, and a great adventure, however it is done.

Equipment

  • My well worn Pashley PDQ recumbent bike – very comfortable & nothing went wrong.
  • Bike computer with thermometer (cheap from Aldi!).
  • Vredestein Monte-Carlo tyres. No punctures at all, which is as good a reason to recommend them that I can think of. They did look a bit worn by the end, though.
  • 1:301000 scale maps. My growing collection of Landrangers was obviously not going to work. I looked a long while to find something compact enough that I could carry the entire country, and eventually found bargain maps for motorcyclists in Aldi. They are thin and lack contour lines, but are light, compact, fold out and have camp sites marked.
  • Tent – 2 man, weighed 3.7 kg. A lighter tent would not be a bad idea.
  • Camping roll, Sleeping bag.
  • Several changes of clothes.
  • Food. As I’m a vegan I had to carry some things that I couldn’t rely on finding on the way. Typically I had about a litre of soya milk so that tea, breakfast cereal etc. were more palatable.
  • Water. This can be overdone. At the start I was carrying rather too much, but eventually I settled on carrying two half litre bottles and asking for a refill at pubs, cafés etc. on the route.
  • Book – which unfortunately I’d finished by the tenth day.
  • Walking boots / warm clothes etc. Posted to the B&B in Fort William for the climb and then posted back on the morning of the next day.

David Hembrow