July 2017: End2End, Lands End to John o’Groats cycle trip

The three Score Year and Ten tour!

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Thanks to Nick Mitchell and his superb book ‘The End to End Cycle Route’ for this illustration

 

big thank you to everyone who have so generously sponsored Mark and Clive to cycle this journey in aid of The Sunflower Trust.

If you are inspired and would  like to support us in this, there may be still time to add your contribution at https://mydonate.bt.com/events/sunflowerbikeride/436142

Thank you.

Abstract: In case you have no time for the full-blown, ‘long read’ story below, here it is in a nutshell.

Four old codgers set out on a mad cycle ride. Kind people take pity on two of them and give them some money for a children’s charity. They climb some hills, get wet, bond and arrive at the other end of the country. Then they go home and try to explain why they did it to mystified friends. The End.

 

 

The Long Read.

Last Morning reflections

We had been cycling for a while since our normal 6.30am start at Altnaharra on our final, fourteenth, cycling day since we left Land’s End.

 

The hard, hot, hills of Cornwall that, under the intense heat, were a shock as we started out, seemed a long, long time ago after five days of cold winds and rain in Scotland.

 

 

 

 

 

On each turn of this, small, quiet road we are sharing only with the occasional sheep, another magical vista opens up along the deep, dark, mirror waters of the magnificent Loch Naver

 

 

 

A reverent awe settles over us as we cycle through this intense, silent beauty. The summer northern sun, already high in the sky at this early hour, touches everything with glory, yet the morning freshness and hope of a new day has not left the landscape.

We are silenced by the gravity of nature in her harsh magnificence and newness as the sun brings warmth to the cold damp shadows we roll through. We enjoy the downward gradient of the tiny road as it then follows the rattling stones of the River Naver, imagining the unknown pleasures to be had by our other hotel guests we met last night, some of whom, no doubt, enjoy standing in this running water, fly-fishing.

With, for once, few hills to climb and the end of our long adventure almost in sight, we all have time to silently contemplate what we have done in cycling the length of the country from Lands End to John o ‘Groats.

This was an adventure we had been focusing on and training spasmodically for, over months beforehand, none of us four, Mark, Lee, David or Clive quite knowing how it would be to cycle 55-85 miles a day, over all terrain, for two weeks, at our three-score-year-and-ten, age.

Of course when you get to the end and meet others doing the same it seems a fairly common-place thing to do, and we know that each year hundreds of slightly mad adventurers do it, some even older than us, doing it sometimes in even fewer days, often like us, unsupported by back up vans, carrying all their stuff.

However as we silently slip through the northern landscape I suspect all of us are feeling a sense of mild wonder that we too have actually, almost, done the trip.

There were days when we might well have wondered why we thought it was a good idea to attempt this trip. Yet, thanks  to the camaraderie of the team we four naturally became,  we came through in good spirits.

As so often, it is the human connections and loyalties, built up under hardship and duress, that holds one to the challenge, that pulls from ones legs one more push up a seemingly impossible hill, and keeps one peddling when the cold, harsh, wet mountain weather seems against one even surviving to cycle another day.

 

 

Perhaps it is to, once again, test ourselves against the temptation of giving up in the face of inevitable pain and hardship, that was part of the motivation for us to attempt this rather clichéd, but never the less, challenging journey.

To face our suffering and be indifferent to it. To see just what we could pull out from ourselves voluntarily, knowing full well how life will often ambush us with challenge and suffering. These are part of what drives us on.

It may well be those who have prepared and faced hardship in such voluntary increments, who could be best able to face the involuntary and inevitable, suffering that life entails.

While this is a predominately, but by no means exclusive, male way of facing these things, it is often in overcoming the unambiguous entreaties of ones own raw, physical hardship, that one can prepair at least in part, to come against those other often more complex and sometiems abstract, nuanced challenges that can face us, in our modern world.

Soon we would be facing the last few demanding hills that switch back from Sutherland to Caithness and, after lunch in Thurso, the more gentle ride to our final joyful arrival at John o’ Groats. But for now, we could still enjoy the gradient down to Bettyhill on the northern coast deep in our separate thoughts reflecting back over our 900 mile journey.

The South West: the journey begins

If we were fully aware of what lay ahead would we had set off so jauntily? Perhaps not, and yet, at least for myself, a certain trepidation characterised that early morning ride from the western tip of Cornwall to Penzance along the beach past the serenity and beauty of St. Michael’s Mount, from where the real test began.

At our first stop at a village post office the owner set the tone for things to come. Generous and friendly, he told of two, self-described, ‘fat ladies,’ who had dropped in, like us and later sent him a card from John o’Groats on their arrival. Like green, new boys at school, we were as yet, all promise and little to show for it, but heartened, never-the-less, to hear of others who, however improbably, did make it to the end.

Cornwall and Devon are looking their best under an intensely bright and hot sun, great for the beach but less useful when climbing those endless rollercoaster  hills that mark the south-west.

We drink endlessly and sweat even more. Early morning crossings of chain link ferries, wolfing down Cornish pasties and, while visiting one of a country-wide string of helpful and friendly bike shops as we wait to cross to Plymouth at Torpoint, Mark re-appears and saves the day with a delicious bag of juicy fruit to placate our thirst.

Rolling down another Devon hill, my ambitious plans for ‘on-the-go’ reporting to our generous sponsors for our chosen charity, the Sunflower Trust, are dashed as my phone slips to the ground after another jolt over a pot hole and, before I can save it, is crushed by a following camper van!

So often on our trip it has been the kindness and friendliness of strangers that has boosted our way forward. One such was the guy in the bike shop in, an otherwise noisy and less than beatific Plymouth, who saved our weary way by redirecting us up the old Plym Valley Way, a wonderfully gradual run up the old railway track, now a cycle route, that lifts one, via old bridges and a curving tunnel which was cut through solid rock by the Great Western’s legendary engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Thankfully we swapped the ugly roar of the furious A-road, east out of Plymouth, for the dappled shade afforded us onto the foothills of Dartmoor at Yelverton, 35 miles into our 55 mile journey from Fowey to Moretonhampstead.

It might have been this day when we realised that the number of miles each day were no guide to the time nor arduousness of the day, which was much more related to the twin horrors of endless, seemingly vertical, hills and urban speed-ways, of monster metal lumps slicing past us at frightening speeds and proximity.

It is possible that some of those indecipherable cries uttered by young male passengers in need of ego boosts, were simply jolly encouragements, but we will never know, as they were lost on the wind.

It was while sweat-soaked we were struggling pushing our bikes up over the cattle grids onto Dartmoor proper that Clive’s wife Kerstin, and Devon friend Helen, appeared, like angels out of the blue. We had planned to meet that evening at Mortenhampstead but were more than happy to see them earlier under the circumstances. As we discovered later, at a tea stop at Two Bridges in the middle of the Moor, they were to save the day when Lee suffered a chain tangle and was able to put bike and himself into Helen’s little car and get a ride over the moor to our destination, saving the day.

For Clive the chance to off-load all those useful, but not absolutely essential things he had packed came with the meeting up in Devon. Like a sailor throwing out anything that might stop the ship from sinking, a big jettisoning occurred at the characterful Mortenhampstead Back-Packers Hostel. The previous heat and weight up all those endless hills required a reassessment of what we had taken on as well as what it was taking out of us after only a couple of days. All but essentials, and as it turned out, in wintry wet Scotland, some of those as well, had to go.

With Devon left behind we are over the Blackdown Hills and sidestepping Taunton we are bowling along the not so level Somerset Levels to end our day as the sole guests at the unique Street Youth Hostel.

Early on day 4 as we roll along the National Cycle route 3 towards Wells we first catch a glimpse of the stately Glastonbury Tor standing high out of the flat lands and later of the tent city that is the Glastonbury Music Festival before we are in Wells for breakfast and a short look at the Cathedral and Vicars’ Close as Clive goes down memory lane to his school days at the Cathedral School, noting wryly the novel changes, less apparent in his day: food, girls and education!

After another welcome refuelling a stop in Bristol near Brunel’s magnificent suspension bridge in a big old tobacco warehouse turned arts centre and cafe, we endure the unending industrial landscape of Avonmouth before the windswept struggle to stay upright just pushing our bikes crossing the huge Seven Road Bridge into Wales. Cycling up the beautiful Wye valley past Tintern Abbey took us to Monmouth and a good meal and meeting with Andy, Marks old friend.

Turning Northward

Now we were heading due north through the Hereford countryside, the weather was easier and we were, by day 5, more used to the daily routine.

Up at 5.45 and after a swift re-pack we are often on the way by 6.30am for a couple of hours ride to get some useful miles under our belt before a stop for a welcome breakfast. On the few times we did take the often proffered B&B breakfast, it was, at least for some of us, hard to fully enjoy, knowing that the road ahead that day awaited to do with us what it willed.

Often after a few hours in the saddle and some hills conquered, things seemed less daunting and it was easier to swallow those giant, classic English Breakfasts. After more hours cycling the routine search for fuel and respite was reactivated once or twice before that magic hour.

This started when our night’s destination was reached, cycle cast off for the night, sweat, heat or cold placated by the joys of a shower and change out of our sweat-soaked cycling clothes and the promise of another necessary meal before a welcome bed. Even there, to start with, rest did not always come easily as, the body stilled, the mind was still rushing down hills and breaking to avoid pot holes of our imagination, before the balm of sleep over-took us for another night.

On our weary arrival down over the misty wet hills into Clun, north of Kington, on the Welsh boarders, we were first slightly aghast to find that the farm-house we were staying at was not in Clun but a further five miles away.

Once the brain has turned to rest time for the night it is mighty hard to switch it back to ‘battle stations’ to take on more hill climbing and the pain that goes with that. However all was not lost as, with a phone call, we were back on our way along the valley to Matt and Susan’s family farm.

Far from the cold shower-less hovel our imaginations may have feared, it was a delightfully and richly appointed farm with a spectacular garden kept by Matt’s mother, the normal incumbent. It turned out that Matt and his wife lived over the hills in Bishops Castle where, to our delight, we were duly driven to find a meal in the local hotel and, next morning, after a splendid stay, Matt , gave us a hearty breakfast and kindly drove us, and our bikes in his commodious van onto the road, so avoiding the steep and endless hills that we needed to traverse to be back on our path. Thanks Matt!

After the hills of the Border Country and another welcome meal in Shrewsbury we luxuriate in a high-speed 1000 ft downward run through the beautiful Hope Valley, often hitting 15-25mph, (not much for you car drivers, surrounded by metal, but try it on a bike, on indifferent road surfaces) down off the high ground to start the challenging navigation of the industrial landscape around Runcorn and Warrington.

Here after much to-ing and fro-ing, to keep the threesome team together, we ended up in two different places for the night, it’s a long story, suffice to say Mark excelled himself when the cycle path on a vicious A-road gave out and, carrying his bike over many obstacles, was rewarded (is that the correct word) by finally making the delights of Runcorn and a rather dodgy B&B where Lee found him, after some persistent and judicious map reading.

Like  George Orwell in his historic Road to Wigan Pier, his pre-war exploration of the life for the poor, cycling through Industrial Lancashire and the outskirts of Glasgow, Leigh and Larkhall come to mind respectively, were salutary reminders of the often dismal physical surroundings that many people have to overcome each day. And,judging by the warmth and cheerfulness we were often greeted with by loving ladies serving us in ‘greasy spoon’ cafes, overcome they do. But it is sad to see the blighted physical ugliness that surrounds their lives in towns that the metropolitan world of globalization appears to have forgotten and passed by.

But onward we go, never stopping long enough to do anything but refuel, note, thank others for their kindness, be moved and then cycle on. The ever-present imperative of the road driving us.

And Now we are Four

By the time we had negotiated our way round Bolton and over the top down into Blackburn we had once again lost Mark. Or he us. We arranged to meet up at the bike shop and Lee and Clive spent a happy hour having our tyre pressure checked and ogling the electric bikes with fantasies of effort-free hill climbing, when Mark, the mechanic in the shop, gave us a cup of tea and Lee, always skilled in snatching sleep, took a snooze on their staircase, until ‘our Mark’ was back on track with us ready to take on the tough climb past Clitheroe to Slaidburn in theForest of Bowland. As we finally rolled into this small hilltop village to the youth hostel our rendezvous with our fourth member of the team, David, we heard that if we wanted to eat supper in the pub, the only food option, we had less than twenty minutes to shower and get in there!

Now we are four and Dave joins us for some difficult and wet terrain as we set off next day over the 1300ft Cross of Greet, all steep mountain roads horizontal wind and rain. Often too steep to ride, pushing bikes into the rain-sharp wind, now it was every man for himself  As Lee jotted in his contemporaneous notes;

“The earlier drizzle turned to serious rain and cold. Breath visible. There are four of us now.When three reached the summit we could not wait for Clive because we would freeze.A terrifying rapid descent over several miles on wet road and little visibility due to rain fog and clouded glasses. Body cold and wet. Hands frozen and cramped from braking. Concentration waning when needed most. Quickly found cafe on arrival in High Bentham. Stripped clothes and poured in hot drinks.”

As hot as Cornwall was, so this was equally cold. It was with considerable relief we arrived in High Bentham the small hill town, and Lee came out to call to Clive as he cycled by looking for the team, into the relative warmth and relief of a small, basic, but welcome cafe, for food and coffee. One of many welcome havens along the way now we felt we had left summer behind and were back in winter, Narnia and the North!

 

 

 

 

At this point we temporarily diverged from the excellent route we had so far been following in the well researched and compendious book that remained our bible for much of the journey, Cycling the End to End Cycle Route by the indefatigable Nick Mitchell. Ever the optimist, the routes were labeled Easy/Moderate/Hard. however we soon learnt that for ordinary, older, mortals like us, no days were ever what we would call Easy!

A Day of Rest

After a welcome break and feed in the charming town of Kendal at the start of the Lake District, Dave took us on a detour to his Butterwick home south of Penrith. Here we were to have a much-needed day off, but before such unimaginable luxury we had to negotiate the long climb up the A6 to Shap. At 1400 ft, until the completion of the M6 in 1970, this was the busy and hazardous main road linking the industrial north-west with Scotland and its hight and notorious weather conditions often proved a severe challenge for drivers going north/south.

Shap marks a crossing point for Clive where his south to north cycle ride of 2017 crosses the path of his Coast to Coast West to East walk of 2010. see: https://helixhouse.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/walking-wainwrights-coast-to-coast/

Wet and tired we were overjoyed and, almost in disbelief, that we did not intend to travel on the next day but rather could regroup and rest and not exert ourselves all day. If you want to know how all this feels you can do it at home by banging your head against the wall for 12 hours and then stop, it truly is delightful. Perhaps I slightly over state it, but you get a flavour of our joys at sleeping, meditating and listening to music, shopping for good food in the delightful small Northern chain Booths in Penrith, followed later by good home cooked food and beer.

The meritocracy of the road soon sorts the riders. Mark was always our strongest rider, undaunted by any but the most vertical of ascents, he was less strong on navigation, sometimes disappearing off ahead, missing a vital turning, only later appearing after some hasty back tracking. Lee who was also quite a strong hill rider, had occasional challenges with staying on the bike due to the modern clip-in shoe style of high-speed road bikes. While Clive, surprisingly good on the flat with the wind behind him, would soon lose ground on the hills, his heavy bike and load and, presumably, smaller heart and pumping capacity, soon putting him at the end of the team, even when Dave joined us, with a couple of years more on his ‘clock’, still an impressive cyclist, disinclined to take any cheek from hills.

Into Scotland

The next day we were off again in the rain cycling the 3 1/2 hours to Carlisle for another mammoth breakfast where the kind women running the little cafe put up with these four wet, shivering cyclists dripping all over their cafe floor. Nonchalantly mopping up the floor at our table as we left.

The journey into Scotland up past Lockerbie to Moffat and then on to Glasgow was notable both for the noise of the nearby M6, the slow steady climb, that was do-able but not particularly inspiring along the way. However we make good progress and just put our head down into the rain and plunge on, stopping at one point at a special truck stop off the road. Here a tough, no-nonsense woman, hardened perhaps by years of cooking for truckers, gruffly allowed us into this truckers sanctuary and served us, amongst the ketchup and tabloid paper detritus of a normally ‘truckers only’ pit stop. We were just glad to come in out of the cold.

Glasgow

Our biggest urban challenge turned out to be quite benign once we had found our way onto the brilliant National Cycle Network 75 that runs from Cambuslang along the north side of the Clyde for almost 30 miles along to Dumbarton where we branched north for our overnight stay in Ballock on the southern tip of Lock Lomond. While the only place any of us got a puncture, it was a great ride through the city and beyond.

The Highlands

Our Saturday morning riding the cycle path along the sunlit Lock Lomond could have given us a false sense of security but, by this time, we were hard-bitten End to Enders and knew that sunshine and flat running in the morning would not necessary mean a similar afternoon. And here in the highlands, nowhere was this more significant.

After lunch at the busy Green Welly cafe at Tyndrum surrounded by large, bulky motor bikers out in packs enjoying the fast run over the mountains in ways we could not, the rain set in and the climb to Bridge of Orchy and up again to the Lock Tulla viewpoint pushed us hard and we were glad of refreshments and a welcome breather at a tea-stand on the road side, high in the mountains.

From here on we lost touch with each other and each had to battle on alone. However in the high ground of Glencoe the cold and the wet side-winds buffeting us about was combined more worryingly by the sheer volume of tourist motor traffic that made the whole process that much more frightening as they swish past, sometimes with a hostile honk of the horn, far too close for comfort.

Eventually we find ourselves having to cycle hard down hill against the wind. It was with a huge sigh of relief we arrive at the Glencoe Youth Hostel.

From Glencoe, the next morning, we shiver with cold and a little dread, cycling very slowly with great effort into a westerly wind that seemed to want to push us back to Cornwall, as the road heads west for a few miles crosses the bridge at Ballachulish. But with the turn north-east up the great glen at Inchree the pressure of the wind gives up and there follows a fine, satisfying run along the Loch to Fort William for Sunday breakfast amongst the walkers of the West Highland Way.

Each activity totally changes the profile of its participants. We cyclists are the more delicate of creatures, all yellow rain jackets and long legs, while walkers are slightly bulkier and heavier shod with big rucksacks expanding their backs, but it is the bulk of black clad, ballooning motor cyclists, appearing as impersonal storm troopers from outer space, in their helmets, belaying their friendliness under their forbidding exterior, that almost suggests, erroneously, we have selected our chosen travel style based on our body type.

Around Achnacarry Castle we are off-road along a forest track for some miles free from the noise and fear of motor traffic enjoying the views of the long Lock Ness, remembering the young men from many allied armies who trained so vigorously here during World War 2 undergoing fearsome commando training before going into battle.

After the trials of Glencoe the day before, Lee and I choose to chance our arm with the traffic on the busier, but lower road along Lock Ness, while, undaunted by the journey’s fiercest hill yet, Mark and Dave take the high road out of Fort Augusta up to Lock Tarff on the spectacular General Wade’s Military road. By this time some of us had decided that, however spectacular, the endless climb was sufficient disincentive!

After the homely youth hostels of the south Inverness hostel was vast and a bit of an institution, but we were glad to arrive there and to our surprise both our two split teams ended up arriving together.

Inverness

 

The capital of the Highlands Inverness has managed to retain its character and attractions with a fine river front dotted with church towers and friendly, northern long, twilight summer evenings. it was with some pleasure, after our usual wash and brush up, we found the recommended Black Isle Pub with it fine array of highland beers and excellent pizzas. With the cool beards and beer, we were suddenly out of rural Scotland and could have been in East London’s fashionable Shoreditch! We had just sat down to our beers, with the bartender taking a photo of our happy team, only at that very second, for Dave to spot old friends from the south.

 

 

Narnia and the Far North

Out of Inverness through its industrial district our first challenge of our penultimate day was to cross the high, windswept Kessock bridge. While the vast Seven Road Bridge was so heavily windswept it was unsafe to cycle, at least it was so big one felt somewhat insulated from the drop below. This slightly smaller version allowed only a meter or so for the cycle path with the wind pushing one sideways and the long drop all too visible. So those of us with vertigo tendencies were mightily relieved to get off on the north shore and be away.

As we headed further north the small town of Dingwell was a welcome breakfast stop. Four wet weather clad cyclists seemed out-of-place amongst the gentile ‘Miss Marple’ atmosphere of the provincial hotel. Ever hungry we splashed out on a breakfast with the quiet spoken hotel guests and could only guess at the journey to this small northern Scottish town of the East European waitress who kindly served these rough-looking bikers who ate so much, with such gusto.

Later, as any opportunity for  rest stops become few and far between, we stop in the northern village of Lairg at the Spar shop and clutter up the isles of cola bottles trying to get warm drinking hot chocolate and luxuriating in the delights of succulent peaches attempting to gain some rest perching on upturned shopping baskets.

The further we go north the wilder and emptier the Sutherlandlandscape becomes. Fields of barley wave in the light sunlight waiting to be turned into fine scotch whiskey and yellow fields of  what looked like rape seed remind us of the couple of months difference between farming seasons in southern England and the very north of Scotland.

The rain has stopped and we ride north into largely treeless country. Eventually after another long day of riding we arrive at the famously isolated, Crask Inn. We had been told it was closed but in the snug warmth of the parlour, by the fire over scones and tea, we learn that it has been left to the Scottish Episcopal Church and is up and running again.

Our New Zealand End to Ender friends arrive to stay but we, un-booked at the Crask, reluctantly leave the cosy welcome of the hearth and head on the last glorious eight miles of stunning country up, over and down to the tiny village of Altnaharra.

This magnificent country under the shadow of Ben Kilbreck stills us with its birds of prey, deer and great beauty. Sitting in this wild northern landscape The Altnaharra hotel is a classic hunting, shooting and fishing hotel.

Somewhat out-of-place amongst the expensive Range Rovers with their fishing rods cleverly attached to the windscreens and hoods, we wheel out bikes to the shed out back and later, rather incongruously, eat amongst the well-healed fishermen from England and Germany, who are drinking expensive wines discussing the day’s catch surrounded by the tartan settees and on the walls lengthy stuffed trout in  glass cases, in the cosy opulence of the hotel dining room.

John o ‘Groats

Later the next day our magic morning past and the long high rolling hills of the northern coast climbed and whizzed down as fast as we dare, amongst the occasional incongruous roar of the motor bikers doing the northern 500 route, and the subsequent silence of the northern coast as it looks north to the Orkney and Shetland Islands out to sea, we pass Dounreay Atomic Power Station undergoing its long years of decommissioning. We stop for a last lunch in a rather sad Thurso and finally, there we are at our nominal target, the sign post at John o ‘Groats.

Our journey’s end.

Stunned and feeling the full impact of our fatigue we drink a toast to our friendship and achievement. Every year hundreds of mad cyclists put themselves through this strange journey of endurance and self discovery.

Over the subsequent days each one of us tries to slot this experience into our tired brains and, as others ask us what we enjoyed and why we would undertake such an arduous journey, we try to answer them as best we can.

For some there is absolutely no temptation to even consider such a rigorous fortnight. For others with that particular sense of adventure and desire to test themselves against distance, gravity and the elements, the temptation may surface when they least expect it and, one day, they too may find themselves setting out to test their metal against it all, possibly, as Mark and I did, partly with the desire to inspire others to support them for a charity of their choice, such as The Sunflower Trust.

Whatever their reasons, when all those sore legs and backsides have settled down and all that fitness is gradually slipping back to the normal state of modern flab, they will be that little bit changed, for ever, by the experience.

For those brave stalwarts who have read this far, beware, it looks as if you may be the sort with just that kind of the sticking power to undertake such a curious, challenging and ultimately satisfying ride.

Don’t say we didn’t warn you!

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