Sunday, 8 June 2003

Land's End to John O'Groats - Post-Ride Thoughts

Having just typed up my notes from 2003, I'm struck by how clear some of the memories are. I don't look that much older to my eyes 6 years on, as long as I squint...

I'm also reminded how little preparation I'd done for the ride (and yet I seemed to do OK) and by how kind it was of Clare to drive out to meet me during the route - it must have been really boring for her a lot of the time.

It was also incredibly lucky to have only 20 minutes of rain in two weeks - particularly fortunate considering I had no back mudguard on the bike. Since then I've received at least one total soaking on every longer tour - bad luck, or climate change, I'm not sure...

And it's also sad to see pictures of my lovely Cannondale Badboy Ultra. I loved that bike! It was completely impractical for this, or probably any other, cycling duties, but it did look great in black! Depressingly it was stolen from outside Sainsbury's in Islington in 2004 on my way home from work. I suppose it was my own fault, I locked it with the same crummy cable lock you can see in the pictures, although it was all of 10 feet from the entrance, with a security guard stood outside.

It turned out that Islington police, and I assume Sainsbury's themselves, were well aware of an organised gang of bicycle thieves who targetted bikes left outside the shop. Apparently they use proper bolt cutters, apparently stolen from the local Fire Brigade. Sainsbury's don't even have a security camera and yet these people are stealing from their customers. Surely they should do something about it - and the police could help their crime figures by pouncing on them. The worst thing is my bike was probably given a terrible paint job and sold for a song...

I felt absolutely gutted as I walked the 2 miles back to Stoke Newington, the pasta and pesto I'd just bought weighing particularly heavily in my bag.

Saturday, 7 June 2003

Day 14 - Golspie to John O'Groats - 67 miles

It's the last day and though I wake with a twinge in my hip, it seems fine on the bike.

The forecast said a cloudy morning and wet pm, but the day starts very sunny. I get 15 miles on the flat before reaching Helmsdale and two consecutive steep hills, which I've been dreading for some time after reading about them in my (discarded) guidebook. The first hill is very long, but gentle. Then it's down at a vertiginous gradient (enough to need run-off gravel strips), before having to ride right back a similar hill on the other side - it's like Cornwall all over again. I spot - and hear - some kind of traditional music being played on a mound - very charming.

Highland fling in progress?

After that it's still up and down, but far easier - the last 10 miles before Wick for lunch are very easy.

So there's only 17 miles left to do after a late lunch. Sadly now is the time the weather decided to change, with a 20-minute rainstorm leaving me cold and wet. Then a wind springs up, blowing the clouds away, but also directly into my face. The last 10 miles are a real struggle, which is a shame after having such an enjoyable trip.

Make it to John O'Groats convinced I couldn't go another mile and Clare is there waiting for me with a medal and a mini bottle of champagne to celebrate! Take the card that was issued and stamped at Land's End in to the local pub and they stamp it in turn, take a picture by the post (you don't have to pay here) and head the 3 hours back to Fort William before the drive back to Birmingham tomorrow.

That's all folks!

And despite what it says, my route was 964 miles, not 874...!

Today's route:

Bike route 288569 - powered by Bikemap 

Friday, 6 June 2003

Day 13 - Fort Augustus to Golspie - 85 miles

Wake up working out how we could buy a 6-bedroom B&B next to Loch Ness, but obviously realise it's not practical.

It's the penultimate day of the ride and the longest by a considerable margin. So as Clare's pootles off for a short ride along the Caledonian Canal, I head off along the banks of Loch Ness. Perhaps that would be the solution - take a picture of 'Nessie' and retire on the proceeds!

This is the best I can do - sadly I think that's a boat...

Loch Ness Monster?

Carried on through Inverness, even if it is worth visiting, I simply don't have time today. Crossing the Cormarty Firth I see the unusual, if strangely beguiling, sight of oil platforms moored in the sea loch, which is where they are repaired, I think

Oil platforms at rest in Cromarty Firth

Stop for lunch at Alness after 55 miles. It's a delightful part of the country and the wind is behind me, which always gives everything a rather more rosy glow. Carry on over the Dornoch Firth and decide to continue to make tomorrow a shorter day and finish at Golspie up the coast, by Dunrobin Castle and wonder whether it is owned by an ex-crook...

Dornoch very sweet, you can see why Madonna and Guy Ritchie got married here last year. Walk out towards the sea, past the desolate golf course and through the dunes...

Today's route:

Bike route 288568 - powered by Bikemap 

Thursday, 5 June 2003

Day 12 - Oban to Fort Augustus - 76 miles

Another proper day ahead, so I try to get started a little earlier. Up a hill straight away, but after that it gets easier.

Today will take me along the Great Glen, a series of lochs which cut the highlands in two, running South West to North East. It marks where two tectonic plates are traveling in opposite direction - Northern Scotland is actually heading towards Norway!

Castle Stalker on the Great Glen - the kind of thing tourists love!

Crossing over some lovely bridges the wind is behind me again and means I can almost coast along. It rains for the first time on the trip, but it's only a shower. The route takes me through Fort William, where I have lunch, and past Ben Nevis.

Onwards to Fort Augustus, which is a lovely little place where the Caledonian Canal joins the southern tip of Loch Ness. You couldn't wish for a nicer place to live, if you could find a job to suit - it certainly wouldn't fit with commuting to London.

Fort Augustus - the Caledonian Canal on your doorstep

We're staying in the old bank house with the owner Joann, who bought the house for a song and has done it up beautifully.

Sadly we bump into to some rather horrible Geordies in a pub who are happy to sponsor me 'as long as the money doesn't go to Pakis'. Clare is really cross and I try to point out that MS and Motor Neurone Disease aren't great respecters of race...

Today's route:

Bike route 288566 - powered by Bikemap 

Wednesday, 4 June 2003

Day 11 - Brodick to Oban - 73 miles

I start the day with a massage, which the B&B owner does as a sideline. It's not exactly a 'sports physio' session, more whalesong and smelly oils, but it can't hurt. Funnily enough my legs feel pretty relaxed anyway.

What with that and getting into a generally lax frame of mind after the short day yesterday, I didn't leave until 11.30 to cycle across the island to Lochranza to catch the ferry to Kintyre, to the north over the Firth of Clyde. Miss the planned ferry thanks to the unexpectedly large climb across the hills - the descent into Lochranza was almost scarily fast. But it' a lovely spot, and far quieter than Brodick.

Lochranza on Arran, a pretty spot to wait for a ferry

The ferry to Claonaig is absolutely charming and drops us off on an almost deserted quay. There's another cyclist, a Ducthman called Peter, and as I faff around sorting out the bike, he's off like a rocket, even though he's got about 6 panniers on. Stick with him for about 10 miles until Tarbert.

The day gets sunny and hot and there are a couple of pretty tough hills. I find it a bit of a struggle from Kilmartin - perhaps I've gone soft with the short days and flat country. Finished off by the last hill into Oban. But once we find the B&B and tidy up I feel a lot better and we walk up to McCaig's Tower, a folly with wonderful views over the bay.

The B&B is pretty horribly decorated and has polyester sheets, which give me a really uncomfortable night's sleep.

Today's route:

Bike route 288547 - powered by Bikemap 

Tuesday, 3 June 2003

Day 10 - Sanquhar to Arran - 51 miles

An easy day today, which is a good job as I wake up with a hangover. Start off by going on a search for the post office in the village which claims - my Dad would love this - to be the oldest in Britain, dating back to 1712.

The ride up to Ardrossan feels incredibly easy and pretty flat, following a river down to the coast. I stop for lunch by a ruined castle...

Continue to Ardorssan, but I'm so ahead of schedule for the ferry to Arran that I end up having to kill time in a part of Scotland that I doubt is on the tourist map, getting my back wheel fixed, having a drink, etc

I still arrive 90 minutes early, but I'm left chewing my nails as Clare has to race against the traffic to catch the ferry with only 10 mins to spare.

But then we can relax; it's a gentle hour-long journey across to Brodick, a delightful village where we are staying for the night. After finding the B&B we head back to find somewhere to eat - fish - what else...

Today's route:

Bike route 288544 - powered by Bikemap 

Monday, 2 June 2003

Day 9 - Carlisle to Sanquhar - 66 miles

Overcast as I set off in the morning and soon reach the Scottish border - the famous Gretna Green where everyone used to run away to get married, I think it was something to do with parental consent not being required in Scotland.

Cheer up, you're in Scotland...

Then turn west towards Dumfries and into the wind, although the sun comes out. Reach Dumfries in time for lunch (a pie from Greggs to celebrate being in the land of deep-fried food). Is there any difference being north of the border? I'm not sure there is really...

Returning to my northerly route, and with the wind behind me again, my bike computer conks out and my knee begins to twinge. I also meet a chap, who I would guess is in his seventies, walking from Land's End to John O'Groats. He's doing 25 miles per day, which is pretty fair going at any age - but it's going to take him 6 weeks.

I've done most of my riding before lunch again, so there's only 25 miles to go to Sanquhar, and it feels as if I'm being pushed along it's so easy. There are a few spots of rain, but consider myself lucky as the forecast said it would pour today.

Easy Street to Sanquhar

Reach the pretty village of Sanquhar, but I'm more interested in getting some liquid refreshment and find a tiny pub in which I don't understand a word anyone is saying.

Then another few hundred yards to my hotel, where I've been given an enormous room. Stayed up late chatting in the bar to a bloke called Mark from Devon who is in the area for the fishing.

Today's route:

Bike route 288543 - powered by Bikemap 

Sunday, 1 June 2003

Day 8 - Lancaster to Carlisle - 66 miles

Wave Clare off (she's been really good driving to-and-fro to see me during the trip and I'm meeting her again in a couple of days for the Scottish end of the trip) and head out, with the weather fine.

Funnily enough my legs are feeling rejuvenated and don't mind having the panniers back on. I've driven the first 15 miles from yesterday, so no surprises there, it's as easy as expected.

I decide to ignore my planned route via Windermere. I'm finding the guide book I've been using increasingly irritating - the guy who wrote it seems, for better or worse, to have a pathological hatred of A roads, however bucolic, and will find routes of almost comical circuitousness to avoid them! I suppose we all want different things, it's just I'd prefer to finish before old age takes me...

Apart from a few sections of dual carriageway and motorbikes occasionally screaming past (you probably get them everywhere around here, especially at the weekend), the A6 is a pleasure to ride along.

After 20 miles I'm at Kendall and don't feel like stopping, so carry on. I admit that I've done what I can to avoid hills on this route, but Shap Fell is unavoidable. It runs next to my favourite section of the M6, the highest bit of motorway in the country. This is the route people had to drive up to Scotland before the coming of the motorways, which shows you that not all modernisation is a bad thing.

Shap Fell - Slow but steady

The hill is long, but steady and not too steep, and I'm at the very top before it gets too bad. Dropping down the other side, I continue to Penrith for lunch.

After that I realise that my calculations seem to be wrong and there's only 17 miles to go to Carlisle. It's getting hot, but the wind turns against me, which helps I suppose.

Relaxing in a pub for a well-earned drink I read about a chap who lost control of his car, killing a family in an oncoming car, after trying to reach for some polo mints whilst driving...

Here's a map of the day's route:

Bike route 288364 - powered by Bikemap 

Saturday, 31 May 2003

Day 7 (and a bit) - 'Day off' around Windermere - 29 miles

Spent the evening around Lancaster, possibly having too much to drink, and ended up playing pool against pub regulars - always a risky business, especially if you win.

Woke to find that the pub/B&B had been broken into (luckily the bike was missed!) and the 'statuesque' landlady had confronted the intruders starkers - a terrifying image in itself and enough to send even the most hardened burglar running...

After in the saddle, I've decided to have a day off, um, cycling with Clare around Windermere. As it's the weekend we decide to head for the quieter side of the lake. It's very beautiful, if rather hilly, and my legs are feeling a bit stiff. Hawkshead is a lovely village and I would happily stay around here. Lunch in Ambleside before we head to Windermere itself.

Cycling on the roads is impossible, there's just too much traffic, especially motorbikes. So we stick to the cycle paths, which are much better. Take the ferry across the lake - which only costs 40p - but there are some very tough hills back to the car and Clare ends up pushing her bike most of the way - I'm just enjoying not having the panniers on. And she's got a bad heat rash too boot. Good job she's driving, rather than cycling the main route!

The Lake Windermere Ferry

We head to Morecambe on the way back to look out over the bay. It's a dump and seems very down at heel. Lord only knows what it's like off-season...

Friday, 30 May 2003

Day 7 - Chester to Lancaster - 78 miles

Another lovely day, leave much earlier today and join the road north. I'm starting to find the going a little easier, especially when the road is flat. The first 15 miles through Cheshire countryside and small towns are delightful, but then I reach Runcorn and Widness and it feels like a different planet - dual carriageways, chemical plants and a very hairy river crossing.

I love the smell of Runcorn in the morning...

After Warrington things improve and I have my lunch by Wigan Pier- made famous by two Georges, Formby and Orwell. George Formby sang about it, ironically I assume, while George Orwell's Road to Wigan Pier catalogues the deprivations of the northern English poor (and it wasn't even there by the time he visited, much to his disappointment). Brighton and Clevedon it certainly isn't!

The road to Wigan Pier...

Amazingly I managed 50 miles before lunch, which means a far shorter afternoon. The last 20 miles are hilly, but still feel fine.

Arrive in Lancaster and find the pub we are staying in - don't think Clare will be impressed. Tomorrow is a day off too!

Today's route:

Bike route 288538 - powered by Bikemap 

Thursday, 29 May 2003

Day 6 - Ludlow to Chester - 69 miles

Started very late after staying overnight in Birmingham - not on the road until 12.30.

Not holding out much hope for today, but the ride turned out to be fantastic. Ignored the guidebook I've been using (which does tend to recommend rather circuitous B roads) and took the A49 towards Shrewsbury and Whitchurch, then the A41 to Chester.

The road was busy, but followed a river and train line, so avoided hills even though it passed the Long Mynd - the hills seemed to disappear as you approached them and the road threaded between.

Weather sunny, but not too hot. Stopped in Shrewsbury for a drink and chatted to a former double bass player from the CBSO (City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) which Clare and I see regularly.

A great afternoon too, feeling really good. My first visit to Chester and find it really charming, walking around the pretty half-timbered centre before heading to my B&B.

Chester's Eastgate Clock - Not hard to imagine WAGs shopping here...

Today's route:

Bike route 288528 - powered by Bikemap 

Wednesday, 28 May 2003

Day 5 - Monmouth to Ludlow - 66 miles

Started at 9.30, but needed suncream as it looks sunny. Hilly coming out of Monmouth. Although pleasant it's always annoying to slog up them only to shoot straight down again. Soon in Herefordshire, almost perfect countryside - green, lush hills, sheep and streams.

Green fields and rolling hills in Herefordshire

Take a small detour to have lunch at Hay-on-Wye with a friend from Channel 4 who's at the book festival. A lovely setting and very nice elderberry wine, although stopping early means that the afternoon is longer than I would have liked.

It's hot in the sun, but the route manages to weave between the hills - one of the reasons to ride old coaching routes, which avoid steeper gradients which would tire horses.

Unexpectedly came across a toll bridge in Whitney over the River Wye, which charges me only 5p to cross. What a sweet idea!

Meet Clare in Ludlow to have a night back in Birmingham.

Today's route:

Bike route 288519 - powered by Bikemap 

Tuesday, 27 May 2003

Day 4 - Wells to Monmouth - 68 miles

Drizzly start to the day and hills out of Wells. Then a clear run to Clevedon (which I'd never heard of) on the way to Bristol. Sadly a shard of glass gives me a puncture in Cheddar and an old chap comments on seeing me fixing my 21st Century bike in the shelter of a 15th Century market cross. Clare drives back from Cheddar Gorge with the pump.

Stop at Clevedon, which has a sweet and gossamer thin Victorian pier jutting out in the Severn estuary. Clevedon means cleft in he hill, and so it proves as the road cuts through the range of hills south of Bristol.

Pretty route through Portishead before heading through Avonmouth, a few mils downstream from Bristol, but a horrible industrial area - and almost impossible to find a cycle route through. Finally disgorged on the other side at the Severn Bridge, which is a terrific sight and has a pedestrian/cycle path separated from the traffic and a lovely view over to its companion bridge as I cross over to Wales.

The Severn Bridge with its companion in the distance

Up past Chepstow the hills feel steep, but then there is a fantastic ride down past Tintern Abbey to Monmouth.

Meet a Cross-Penine group of cyclists, also riding to John O'Groats and two of whom are in their sixties. Arrive in Monmouth - I'm staying in a pub which is a bit of a dump, although 'characterful'. Wanted to go out for a wander, but too tired.

Today's route:

Bike route 288518 - powered by Bikemap 

Monday, 26 May 2003

Day 3 - Crediton to Wells - 65 miles

Retrieve the bike and 3 spokes on the front wheel are completely loose, leaving the wheel wonky. To be honest, it's not exactly a surprise with road wheels and disc brakes, especially when they are only tensioned by machine in the factory - I think it's something to do with 'torsion', but I'm not an engineer. Manage to wobble along to find a bike shop in Crediton to sort it out.

For such a small place, there's a terrific bike shop and the mechanic sorts the wheel out for a fiver. Top man! And he tells me that there's only one more hill before the Somerset Levels. So, much happier, I head off.

There do seem to be dozens of hills, but perhaps they have a different idea of what counts down here. Lunch in Taunton with Clare, who's sticking around until tomorrow, but feeling pretty grumpy with exhaustion.

Finding facing the afternoon difficult, by it turns out to be the best yet. Speeding over the Levels to Glastonbury through beautiful villages. There is a lovely abandoned church on what must have been an island in the marshes and then Glastonbury Tor appears on the horizon, seeming to glower.

Pretty villages, and churches perched on islands, in the Somerset Levels

Cycle on to Wells, where we are staying with Clare's cousin James, who works at the cathedral school. A much needed bath to ease my aches and pains and we are treated to a great meal thanks to James's mum, Clare's Auntie Eileen!

Today's route:

Bike route 288509 - powered by Bikemap 

Sunday, 25 May 2003

Day 2 - Wadebridge to Crediton - 66 miles

Up earlier and out of Wadebridge (where we stayed last night, 5 miles from Padstow). Continuing over rolling countryside, including some biggish hills. Swinging to the east, the wind is suddenly right behind me, which makes such a huge difference - I'm shooting along at 25mph past wind farms and sheep, feeling like Lance Armstrong!

Morning break ahead of schedule at Launceston and carry on to Okehampton for lunch. Then a series of hills past Dartmoor, feeling that I'm starting to get to grips with climbing. The local stone, and the soil in the fields, is a deep, sandy red...

Rolling hills in Dartmoor

At lunchtime there are lots of cyclists around (it's Sunday and most are, sensibly, just out for a potter). Clare saw a large group leaving Land's End just after me, including a tricycle. I do hope I'm not bumping into them all the way up to John O'Groats. I'm not a huge fan of other cyclists at the best of times, and a lot of touring cyclists are nice, but can be terribly dull - and a tricycle is an even more worrying sign of 'eccentricity'...

Only 20 miles to go to Crediton and the sun comes out for the first time and the landscape is beautiful - the dark granite and bare hills of Cornwall are long gone. Devon is far more rolling, with pretty thatched cottages.  The people seem friendlier.  And there are lots of location signs for Down To Earth (the town-to-country drama starring Pauline Quirke).

Tonight we're staying in a very strange farmhouse run by a woman who seems to be completely mad and with extremely dull fellow guests - I do hope we aren't turning into them...

Today's route:

Bike route 288500 - powered by Bikemap 

Saturday, 24 May 2003

Day 1 - Land's End to Padstow - 67 miles

As usual it took a while to get going in the morning so we didn't arrive at 'The Land's End Experience' until 10.30am. What a dump! £3 to park, £10 for the (ahem) 'attractions' (a sub-Madame Tussaud's diorama of pirates) and £8 to have your picture taken by the Land's End sign! We end up taking a shot from the wrong side of the barrier, like most other people, I hope. Mixed weather forecast, hence the full sou'wester...

£8 to pose for a photo?! You're havin' a giraffe!

Set off and realised the road was a lot hillier than it looked by map or car, hugging the coast and dropping down to every inlet (and going back up the other side). And the wind is blowing right into my face - the idea of starting in the south west was to have the prevailing wind behind me. Already getting very hot in my waterproofs...

Settling into the ride I start to pass some of those classic Cornwall names - Bojewyan, Bottallack, Kelynack, Woon Gumpus Common and Boswednack.

Things going pretty well until just before lunch, when the really serious coastal hills start. There's really nothing quite as depressing on a bike as shooting downhill at 35 mph, knowing that you will have to climb up a 15% gradient on the other side any minute.

Had lunch with Clare and wonder if I've made a terrible mistake deciding to do this...

Am I there yet?

By Newquay the hills appear to be straight up and down and the town is full of 'Race To The Sun' idiots driving around in their souped-up Vauxhall Novas.

Finally made it to Padstow for a drink and fish & chips by the harbour, accompanied by Morris-style dancers with accordians and drums (no-one blacked up, thankfully).

Here's a map of today's route (which confirms the amount of climbing today - 4,000 feet is a lot for me!):

Bike route 288494 - powered by Bikemap 

Friday, 23 May 2003

Land's End to John O'Groats - Day 0 - London to St Ives

The day before I start cycling and I catch the train from London Paddington down to Penzance. It's a beautiful journey, but took 5 1/2 hours and seemed to stop at every farm after Exeter.

Clare very kindly travelled down from Birmingham with the bike and gear - she's going rendezvous with me for parts of the route. But she's slowed down by the Bank Holiday traffic, but eventually meets me at the station and we make it to a friend of a friend's cottage in St Ives. Unpack, wander around the town and watch first night of Big Brother...

Thursday, 22 May 2003

Land's End to John O'Groats - Background

I always cycled as a kid, as it was the only way to get around before I had access to a car. That stopped after I left university until I bought a bike to cycle round the canal towpaths in Birmingham where I was working. Eventually in 1999 I rode down to London on the canal towpath. I wouldn't recommend it, it's rather bumpy!

But it did give me a taste for cycling and I decided to commute to work in London - more because it was actually quicker and more reliable than getting a bus and tube.

So when a colleague at Channel 4 set off on a round Britain ride, it started me thinking about cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats - one of those classic routes you hear about people doing for charity.

After quizzing my friend on his tips, buying a book with routes and tips, and poring over maps of Britain, I decided to take the plunge.

The world record for the route (which comes in at around 950 miles, depending on which way you go) is under 2 days. For goodness sake, the record on a Penny Farthing is 5 days and 10 hours!

I won't be challenging that - my route will take 14 days, averaging around 70 miles per day. I didn't initially have the idea of doing the ride for charity, but my wife Clare persuaded me that I should use the opportunity to raise some money, so I'm doing the ride for Multiple Sclerosis and Motor Neurone Disease.

It's all new to me, so will have to see how it turns out. Here's the rough route...