I had been planning to do this trip for over 2 years and I had nearly sent my wife demented, incessantly talking about it. The map reading every night, the dilemmas - should I go on the main roads or keep to the quieter 'B' roads? And of course the hours spent on the telephone talking to friends, especially my good mate Dave Jonston who was crazy enough to be preparing his own pilgrimage to the most northerly point of these Isles.
Finally my plan of action was taking place. I had decided on a date to begin, it was to be Monday May 5th. I was to stay in Youth Hostels, pre-booked , and the route to be taken was the Cycling Touring Club’s Lands End to John o’Groats [the scenic way], of which more later. The trip was to take 15 days. I was doing it alone so as not to be pressured or hampered by anyone else’s pace.
The bike was in the boot of the car along with my panniers stuffed with spare clothes, maps, emergency first aid kit, Mars Bars, tool kit etc. and we were on our way to Cornwall. My wife had agreed to drive me to Land’s End and wave me ‘bon voyage’ probably hoping that I wouldn’t return home for at least the next twenty five years. We slept that night at a very nice guest house in Penzance, dining out on a fish supper and a few pints of the local ale. (Never let it be said I don’t know how to treat a woman!). The weather forecast was not good to say the least.
‘Sleet and snow’ said the weatherman on the radio.
‘ (beep) sleet and snow!’ I groaned, lying in bed.
‘But it’s May the 4th in Cornwall, it shouldn’t be snowing. Rain - yes, but.....
‘Why don’t we go home and come back next week’ suggested the wife, who was listening as the weatherman read out a ‘severe weather warning’ with advice not to cross Dartmoor till things improved. Women, they just don’t understand do they?
‘It’s May the 5th tomorrow, that’s when I said I would start, so I will, end of conversation . Goodnight dear’.
‘Goodnight you stubborn pig’ she replied.
We were woken by the seagulls. I opened the curtains expecting to see six feet of snow but was pleasantly surprised to see the sun breaking through the clouds. We dressed and went downstairs for breakfast.
‘Good morning’ said the landlady, ‘and where are you two going today?’
‘Well I’m here to start my bike ride from Lands End to John o’ Groats ’ I replied, feeling like some brave explorer about to take his first steps into the unknown, ‘but my wife will be driving back to Coventry .’
‘Oh, we have hundreds of your kind coming here to do that. Do you know, we had that Ian Botham through these parts not long ago and he was walking it. Which charity are you doing it for?’ she asked.
Well to be honest I was attempting this ride for my own benefit. The way I saw it, the last thing I wanted was the added pressure of sponsorship, and what if I didn’t make it all the way? But everyone I had spoken to had pointed out that if I was going to do something as daunting as this I really should do it for a good cause. So with barely three weeks to go I decided to ride the ‘End to End’ for the N.S.P.C.C. The pressure was on!
After a large English breakfast and feeling slightly deflated [except for my stomach] by the landlady’s remark that I wasn’t the first nutcase she had come across, we returned to our room, me to put on my lycra, the wife to pack our bags. What would I do without her for the next fifteen days?
The drive to Land’s End was only ten miles. We parked the car, the bike was taken out of the boot, panniers hooked on, and last minute checks carried out. It was at this point that it started - the tears welled up in her eyes. Was she really that happy to see me go? Had I forgotten to give her the shopping money? Was it the salt in the air? What? As it turns out she didn’t want to leave me. She nearly had me in tears!
There are two tasks that must be performed at Land’s End. The first is to have your photograph taken next to the signpost saying ‘3403 miles to New York’ and the other but most important of the two is to search out the book which all ‘End to Enders’ sign before they begin their journey. There is also a book at John o’Groats to sign if you manage to get there. Anyway, as I wheeled my bike towards the cliffs I saw it - The Sign. It read ‘£1.00 to Enter’.
‘To enter what?’ I asked the tearful one.
‘ To enter Land’s End’ she answered.
‘They can't! Do they think I’ve taken three weeks off work with no pay to do something which at the end of the day is my birthright [right to roam etc.] and then before I start they think they can charge me a pound?
As it happens, we found they let End to Enders in free, so blood pressure down we entered, and then, photo taken, book signed, wife kissed, off I peddled, the first of what was to be 1068.8miles. Hey, it was freezing cold but it wasn’t snowing.
My day’s objective was to reach the Golant where my first encounter with a Youth Hostel awaited me. The first seven miles from Land’s End to Penzance was plain sailing, then the land got steadily hillier.
There is a world of difference between riding a bike with a wicker shopping basket over the front wheel and a bike fully laden with panniers front and back. It is so heavy you have to apply the brakes all the while going downhill or you will lose control of the beast and career into the first object that dares to get in your path. Going up the steep hills I was now experiencing you simply had to get off and push, which was much harder than cycling.
Forty miles into the ride and I was feeling good. I had passed St Michael’s Mount, then turned inland through the twisting narrow lanes to Penpol where I caught the river ferry to Trelissick. The last thirty miles were hard going. I stopped at a village called Tywardreath where a May Day fete was in full swing. Thank God for the hot-dog stall - I was starving. Fifteen miles later on I finally reached Golant Youth Hostel.
Now I don’t know if I’ve told you this but I LIKE A DRINK, and a Youth Hostel being what it is, the last amenity it is likely to possess is going to be a bar. Golant Y.H. is a beautiful white Georgian mansion which sits at the top of a hill overlooking the Golant estuary and guess what, it has a bar, one of the few in Britain I believe, certainly the only Y.H. I stayed at with alcohol on the premises - legally anyway.
When you arrive at a Y.H. you are asked to sign in, they then give you a white linen sheet like a shroud that you sleep in, which you take to your allotted room. I was shown the shower and bathroom and basically left to my own devices. I had the room to myself, which was a luxury that would not repeat itself for quite some time. I showered and went downstairs for my dinner, after which I managed one pint of lager. There were only three people staying at the Y.H., myself and two girls from America. This place was more like an hotel. I was asked what I wanted in my packed lunch for tomorrow [a service only certain Y.H. give] and was safely tucked up in bed by 7.30, absolutely knackered. 14 days to go.
Distance covered - 72.6 miles.
Time taken - 7 hrs 43 mins
Average speed - 8.9 m.p.h
After breakfast I collected my packed lunch. This consisted of sandwiches, apple, orange, fruit bars, chocolate and a cake [you need to keep the calories topped up]. I loaded my bike, said goodbye to the manager and began the next day of my journey. There were two ferries to catch today, the first at Bodinnick within five miles of starting . I was soon out of Cornwall and into Devon. My legs were feeling surprisingly good but approaching the second ferry at Plymouth it started to rain. I carried on through Plymouth town centre where I had my first ‘tête-à-tête’ with cycling’s worst enemy
‘Over Dartmoor to Steps Bridge Youth Hostel near Moretonhampstead’ I replied.
‘We wouldn’t advise you to do that in this weather, or we will be sending out the search parties for you’ said the officer.
He was right - the sleet was turning to snow so I decided to take the quickest route available, the A38, a dual carriageway which in my opinion should be upgraded to a motorway as soon as possible to stop idiots like me from cycling down it. This was becoming farcical. I must have pedalled thirty miles or more as fast as my legs would take me down this God-forsaken road with the wind and snow blowing in my face, cars hooting as they went by. I was frozen to the bone. This is not what it was supposed to be like. Eventually I came to my turn-off and miraculously it stopped snowing.
The road I was on followed the Teign Valley, very pretty. This was more like it. Just before the village of Dunsford on the brow of a hill was the signpost I’d been looking for. ‘Youth Hostel this way’ it said, pointing towards some steps climbing through the woods, so I padlocked my trusty steed and climbed up through the woods to a clearing, past a large wooden shed where the pathway came to an abrupt halt. I must have taken a wrong turning somewhere, I thought to myself. I turned around and noticed smoke coming from the shed I had just passed, so I walked up to the door and knocked. It was answered by a woman in her early thirties.
‘Hello’ I said, ‘could you tell me where Steps Bridge Youth Hostel is please?’.
‘You’ve found it’ she replied. ‘Come in.’
The main room of the shed consisted of two long wooden tables with bench seats, and in the middle of the room stood a gloriously warm wood burning stove. Off one end of the room was the kitchen and at the other was what can only be described as a couple of small cells with bunks in them, one for the girls, one for the boys, oh, and a shower. The toilet was outside.
‘I’m Chloe by the way’ the woman said. ‘ I ’ve been expecting you.’
As I said earlier the hostels were pre-booked so they know who’s turning up each day. While Chloe made me a cup of tea I returned to fetch my bike.
I drank my tea, showered and changed and by then another couple of people had arrived. It was my first encounter with a strange breed of humans called HIKERS. We talked for a while but I was getting peckish. Now this was your ‘basic as you can get’ Y.H. You bring your own food and cook your own food. Now the last thing you need on a bike is the extra weight of your evening meal slowing you down and making life more difficult all day so you try to shop as near to your destination as possible. Failing that, eat out. There was no supermarket within thirty miles of this place so I was relying on some pub-grub, not to mention a few well earned pints. Luckily for me I was told there was just such an establishment in the village. It was gone six o’ clock so I cycled down to the village pub where I chatted to some of the friendly natives over several pints and an adequate meal. Some of them even sponsored me when they heard what I was doing. One of them said they’d heard that Ian Botham had passed this way not long back . ‘Really!’ I said.
I was back at the hostel around eight and it was now full. I was introduced to the other guests by Chloe and we talked about the different things we were all doing. Most of the people were here for hiking. Suddenly the guitar came out. It was sing-along time. What I thought was going to be a ‘hey nonny nonny’ folk evening turned out to be a really good laugh. Overall not a bad end to a miserable day .
Distance covered - 79.01 miles
Time taken - 8hrs 16 mins
Average speed - 9. 5 mph
Total mileage - 151.7 miles.
It takes some time to get accustomed to sleeping in a small room with seven strange men farting and snoring all night, eight if I include myself in that equation. In fact it was like being back in the Boy Scouts again. It is something I was never going to get used to and have promised myself not to repeat [sleeping in Youth Hostels that is].
There was no breakfast in the morning, basically because I hadn’t bothered to buy any the day before, so after a cup of tea I said my good-byes to the remaining inhabitants of Steps Bridge Y.H., loaded the bike and started day three of my ride. Ten miles up and down the roads and I was in Exeter. With nothing in my belly I stopped at a baker’s where I gorged myself [and I remember this well] with a couple of pasties, a cheese salad cob followed by two fresh cream cakes - ah the joys of cycling. My destination today was Street near Glastonbury, the wind was against me all the way, in fact it had been against me since I left Land’s End, and the hills were getting bigger. Nothing of note happened today apart from losing my sunglasses somewhere en-route and nearly crapping myself near a village called Dog. It must have been all that cream. I was saved by the local junior school. Have you ever tried squatting on a toilet made for a five year old?
I arrived at Street Y.H. (this hostel has now closed down, unfortunately) around three thirty. Early again! The place didn’t open until five o’clock so I sat in the garden for a while. It was a large detached house that was once owned by the Clark family of Clark’s shoes fame. The manager took pity on me a few minutes later and let me in early so I could shower and change, after which I went shopping for my tea, a loaf of bread, tin of corned beef and four cans of lager -real cyclists’ food. It really is against the Youth Hostel Association policy to allow visitors to consume any kind of alcohol on their premises but some managers will turn a blind eye to it as long as you don’t go over the top. That night the hostel was fairly full, mostly with a large group of boisterous American teenagers who were on some kind of outward bound course. The bedrooms were luxury compared to last night so it was early to bed for me. Tomorrow I would be crossing into Wales.
Distance covered - 70.6 miles
Time taken - 8hrs.31mins
Average speed - 8.2mph
Total distance - 222.3 miles
After stealing someone’s Weetabix and milk for my breakfast this morning I saddled up and headed downhill into Street in the pouring rain. The wind was even stronger than the previous days. Now all cyclists will say the wind was against them and they are probably telling the truth but when you are cycling day after day with a gale whistling around your ears it starts to send you slightly non compos mentis.
The idea of starting this ride from the south and heading north and not the other way around is because of the wind. At this time of year the wind usually blows from the west or if you’re really lucky the southwest giving you a helping hand on your way. But not for me - it was doing the opposite.
Ten minutes into the day and I was already soaked to the skin. My cycling shoes were made of suede so they absorbed the water a treat. It was like cycling with two bricks tied to my feet but by now I didn’t care, in fact I was enjoying every minute of it, although my wife would tell you how every phone call home was full of woe!
I cycled through Glastonbury, over the Mendips - they were steep - but you got a great view, over the Clifton Suspension Bridge and through Bristol. Over the Severn Bridge and I was in Wales. From Chepstow I followed the Wye Valley, which must be one of the most beautiful stretches of country in Britain. I followed the River Wye for miles, past Tintern Abbey. I was heading for Welsh Bicknor Hostel not far from Symonds Yat. The directions seemed pretty straight forward but I couldn’t find it. There is nothing worse than not finding your home for the night after a day’s cycling in the miserable conditions I had just cycled through. Half an hour later I finally found it tucked away, by the banks of the River Wye. It was in a fantastic location, standing alone in large grounds, a grand house, not a mansion but big all the same. It was heaven to get out of my wet clothes - surely it couldn’t keep raining for much longer. This Y.H. had a restaurant and as soon as the people who worked there found out what I was doing they started to feed me like there was no tomorrow. After dinner I retired to the drawing room. There was no pub nearby so I read for a while, then two Canadians turned up [much nicer than the Yanks]. They had been hiking around Europe for four months. We were rooming together that night and we talked for hours.
I was aware that my legs were aching that night - maybe it was time to take things a bit easier as I was getting to the Youth Hostels far too early in the afternoons. I decided to take some breaks during the day, which I had not been doing previously.
Distance covered - 80 miles
Time taken - 9hrs.02mins
Average speed - 8.6 m.p.h.
Total distance - 302.3. miles
Today was to be an easy day’s riding, according to the map. I only had 50 miles to cover and the wife was driving out to meet me at Clun Youth Hostel, an experience she would not forget in a hurry. There were rain showers today, which was a marked improvement on the previous days. I was now cycling along the border with Wales, this really was beautiful countryside. I met some army guys on their bikes just before Leominster who were riding from Land’s End to their base near Nottingham - God, they were in a sorry state. A couple of them were suffering from the saddle-sore blues and they had been dogged by bad luck, punctures etc. I wonder if they made it home. I arrived at Clun Y.H. early in the afternoon.
This place used to be a mill and you could see some of the old workings. It was all bare stonework inside including a flagstone floor with a great wood fire blazing away in the main room.
Maureen arrived around five, having found the place easily enough and I gave her a quick tour of the building and probably a kiss as well, but that was all she was getting (you have to conserve your energy in this kind of situation). Earlier I had struck up a relationship with a chap called Ron, a retired civil servant from Birmingham who was hiking the Long Mynd. You should have seen the size of the blisters on his feet. Why do these hikers put themselves through the pain? It’s beyond me.
Maureen and I went for a walk and when we came back to the Y.H. I introduced her to Ron. The three of us decided to go to the pub in Clun village later on that evening for a meal and of course some beer. In our absence the Y.H. had become pretty full. I particularly remember a couple of old hells angels who were biking around the country - he was ok but she stank and snored all night long according to Maureen, who found herself lucky enough to be sleeping next to her. Maureen was not too happy with the sleeping arrangements. The hostel had what they called a family room as well as the usual dorms and she had fancied her chances of getting that room for the two of us to have a romantic reunion, but it was already booked to someone else that night. PHEW that was close!
Distance covered - 59.7 miles
Time taken - 6 hrs 46 mins
Average speed - 8.7 m.p.h.
Total distance - 364.3 miles
With breakfast out of the way I said my goodbyes to everyone at Clun and was in the saddle once again. Maureen offered to follow me today and spend another night with me (or should that be near me, judging by last night), but I declined her kind offer and off she skidaddled back home. The scenery today was gorgeous again. If you ever get the chance to go to this part of England to go walking or cycling it is well worth the trip. At last the wind had changed direction and that made a massive difference. I couldn’t believe how much easier it became with the wind on your back.
I arrived at Chester Y.H. in the afternoon. This was a large Georgian building in the town, next to the racecourse and the place was packed mostly with Japanese on some sort of school tour. I was shown to my dormitory which was in a separate building at the back of the house. The first thing I try to do at the end of a day’s riding is get straight into the shower, but someone had beaten me to it. I remember sitting on my bed for almost an hour waiting for this ponce to finish preening himself. He doesn’t know to this day how close he came to death. Anyway, after finally getting showered I had something to eat in the cafe and was in bed by seven o’clock as the next day looked a bit tougher. The hills were set to rear their ugly heads again.
Distance covered - 70.8 miles
Time taken - 6 hrs 55 mins
Average speed - 10.01 m.p.h.
Total distance - 435.2 miles
Today was a hard slog round the outskirts of Manchester then through the centre of Bolton, where some guy in a Ford Sierra nearly knocked me off my bike. There was a long climb over the moors to Blackburn and after that the scenery changed from the built-up ugly-looking sprawl of the north back to the green scenery I was now accustomed to. Once again the day was not without rain. I was getting pretty fed up with it but by now I had something else to contend with. My legs were feeling like lead and also, this being a Sunday, food was a bit scarce en-route. For the first time I was starting to feel a bit down. Most of today had been a battle with cars on main roads where the previous six days I had spent were on near deserted ones. After I’d left Blackburn I found myself back on the minor roads again and the last ten miles were ridden at walking pace. I think I had what cyclists call the bonk. This happens when you don’t eat enough food to sustain your energy output and you start to feel light headed and a bit sick. It was a real struggle to keep going but I eventually made it to Slaidburn, which is in the Forest of Bowland. Goodness knows why they call it a forest - there’s not a tree in sight.
The Y.H. nestled in the heart of the village opposite the pub. It reminded me of Emmerdale and I half expected to see the Dingles in the pub that night. The hostel itself was an old cottage and I was the only one staying there that evening - luxury, a room to myself again. That night I was first in the doors of the pub, not so much for the ale but for the food they were serving. I had a three course meal and a few pints then I went back to the hostel to study my map for tomorrow. Sleep was now coming easy to me and I was once again knocked out before nine.
Distance covered - 83.5 miles
Time taken - 8hrs 05mins
Average speed - 10.2 m.p.h.
Total distance - 519.4 miles
One hundred yards after leaving Slaidburn Y.H. the road starts to rise onto the fells and continues relentlessly uphill for six miles. What a start to the day. I was now beginning to understand why this course I was following was called ‘The Scenic Route’. It was compiled by a masochist by the name of Brian Wood who originally cycled it in 1989. I must have climbed every hill in England, sometimes even going out of my way to do so. At least I had six miles freewheeling down the other side, but then I had my first sign of trouble. There was a broken spoke in my back wheel which was causing it to buckle. I managed to cycle into Kendal in the Lake District where I found a bike shop to fix the problem. They got to work on it immediately while I grabbed some sandwiches and I was soon on my way again, out of Kendal and on the next climb of the day which was Shap Fell, another six miles of hell.
I was originally due to stay at Carrock Fell Y.H. in the Lakes but it was closed on Mondays, a bit inconsiderate of them, so I peddled along the A6 all the way to Carlisle.
It was not far to Scotland now, probably about 20 miles and I was feeling pretty good today despite the long climbs, so I decided to make for Gretna Green where I could surely find bed and breakfast for the night. It was a fantastic feeling cycling past the sign which says ‘Welcome to Scotland’. At the end of every day on this trip you get the feeling you have achieved something, but the sense of achievement reaching Scotland......WOW. I desperately wanted someone to take a photograph of me invading Scotland but the only people around were speeding past in their cars.
Another first for me today was cycling over 100 miles in a day.
I should have known that getting a room for a single person in Gretna Green would not be easy, after all it’s not really a singles kind of place, is it? So after trying about ten hotels I decided to carry on to the next town which was Annan. There I had no trouble getting bed and breakfast. This was a nice hotel, a nice room, and nice owners. It was quite late by now and was already dark outside. The owners offered me dinner, which I gladly accepted. It was one of those small hotels with a tiny bar set into the corner of the room, and I was going to take full advantage of it after eating my dinner. It was a very enjoyable evening, and to cap it all I was sleeping in a wonderful double bed in my own centrally heated en-suite bedroom, funnily enough for only a couple of pounds more than it costs to stay in a youth hostel!
Distance covered - 104.5 miles
Time taken - 10hrs 24mins
Average speed - 10 m.p.h.
Total distance - 623.8 miles
After a wonderful breakfast this morning I set off once again. My destination today was the highest village in Scotland. My legs were so sore this morning I thought they were going to snap every time I turned a pedal, but because of the extra miles I had
put in yesterday I had less than fifty to do today. The roads were fairly flat until the turn-off to Wanlockhead, you then follow the Mennock Pass up to the village, a beautiful road with a stream running alongside the whole length of it. Wanlockhead itself is a strange little village of scattered houses with two museums to its name. One is a lead mining museum, the other is the Beam Engine Museum. It also has a post office and a small club which was closed on Tuesdays. Now there’s bad planning for you. I checked in at the Y.H. then went in search of supplies for my dinner.
The hostel had a few strange rules - for example, you could not use the kitchen until a certain time, 5pm I think, so I settled down in the lounge for a relaxing hour. I haven’t mentioned the rain for a while, but let me assure you - of the nine days it had taken me so far it had rained every one of them. ‘Character building, that’s what it is’, I kept telling myself. When I die I have left instructions that I want ‘Raindrops keep falling on my Head’ played at my funeral.
After I had cooked and eaten my dinner I settled back down in the lounge where I chatted to the manager and his wife, a nice couple who had previously both owned their own businesses. They had decided one day that they just wanted to get away from it all. They had certainly done that living up here. Later I played Monopoly and other board games with some of my fellow guests, nearly all of whom were hikers. I’ll tell you, they never shut up about the walks they have been on or Munro’s they have climbed. Munro’s are Scottish mountains that are over three thousand feet tall and hikers like to pick them off one by one until they have climbed them all, mad people. For someone who tries not to walk anywhere I was getting to be quite an expert on the subject.
Around nine that night we were joined by four cyclists who turned up out of the darkness. They were cycling an End to End ride as well, but the opposite way to me. Two of them were very dejected, both having problems with their knees, I don’t think they would have made it to Lands End somehow. How the hell they found this place on top of a mountain in the dark beats me. I fell asleep that night to the dulcet tones of hikers babbling on about their Munro’s.
As a postscript, I heard five days later that the manager and his wife had been killed in a head-on car crash the following day. God bless them.
Distance covered - 46miles
Time taken - 5hrs 30 mins
Average speed - 8.36
Total distance - 669.8 miles
The day started with a seven mile freewheel down from Wanlockhead. Halfway down the mountainside one of my panniers had come loose and was dragging along the road at about thirty miles an hour wearing a nice hole in the bottom of it, and by the time I’d reached the nadir of the mountain my back wheel had started to buckle again. Not a good start to the day but at least the sun was out. It was another thirty miles or so to Glasgow and the nearest bike shop to get the wheel repaired and I was worried that the wheel would totally disintegrate by then. Whatever happened I had to keep to my schedule or all of my bookings at the hostels would be a day out. The roads were fairly flat towards Glasgow so I didn’t have to put too much pressure on the bike, and I arrived in Glasgow city centre at lunch time. I left my bike in the hands of a good cycle repair shop that had been recommended to me. A couple of lads had cycled with me to show me where the shop was, very kind these Glaswegians. Then I went in search of some food. The repair had taken about an hour and the wheel was as good as new, I was assured.
On my way out of the centre of Glasgow I was joined by another cyclist who was going to meet up with some friends for an afternoon cycling around Loch Lomond. His name was Donald Thomson and he offered to show me the best way to the Loch. It was like having your own personal guide as he pointed out the local sights, such as the whiskey distilleries. He said that I had chosen the best time of year to come to the Lochs as it was peaceful at the moment, not like in the summer when it is swarming with Japanese tourists. We reached Loch Lomond in the early afternoon where we had several pictures taken of us together. Donald wished me the best of luck on the rest of my trip, shook my hand and said good-bye. I sat by the Loch side for ages just admiring the view - it was stunning - then crossed over the road to a large mansion which was Loch Lomond Youth Hostel. I checked in and headed for my room . The place was really busy, so after showering, I went back to the lochside to relax in the sun, watching the boats and taking in the view. Of the ten days it had taken me so far this was the first day without rain, no stuffing my shoes with old newspapers to dry them out tonight.
At the side of the Loch was a restaurant so later that night I tucked into a superb three course meal followed by the inevitable few sherberts to wash it down with. This was the first time I had visited Scotland. It really is a beautiful country and the natives were very friendly too! I went to bed that night really looking forward to tomorrow’s ride along the shore of the Loch and beyond.
Distance covered - 70.79 miles
Time taken - 7hrs
Average speed - 10.00 m.p.h.
Total distance - 741 miles.
I slept well last night, probably helped by the beer I’d downed in the restaurant, or maybe it was the absence of hikers in my dormitory. The good thing about these larger hostels is that they serve breakfast in the mornings and will usually do you a packed lunch to take on your way. Cycling on an empty stomach is not a good way to go about things, especially if you are doing the amount of miles I was doing .
For the next couple of days I was following the A82, yet I was surprised how quiet it was for a major road. It followed the banks of Loch Lomond for its entire length. The weather was fine again today. It’s amazing what a difference it makes to your whole being when the sun comes out. I stopped to eat my lunch at Tyndrum, and it was there that I met Geoff.
Geoff was a seventy year old one-eyed cyclist from Australia. He’d lost his eye forty years previously when he careered through the windscreen of a car during a cycle race in Melbourne. Entirely his own fault, he said. Anyhow, Geoff was born in Manchester but left for Australia nearly fifty years ago and this was the first time he’d been back. He flew his bike over with him with the intention of doing a bit of cycling. He had been due to go straight to his sister’s, but after being met at the airport by his nephew he decided to get straight on his bike and cycle around Scotland - something he had always wanted to do.
‘I’ve waited fifty years to see the family, so another couple of weeks won’t matter’ he said.
I can only hope I’m as fit as him when I get to his age [and as mad].
A further ten miles on, the road starts to rise up onto Rannoch Moor, then after a few more miles you come to the most scenic, beautiful place I’ve ever come across in Britain. It’s called the Pass of Glencoe. I just had to get off my bike and stare in awe at the wonder of it all. There was absolute silence, which gave it an eerie feeling, and after I had coasted down the pass with the mountains towering above me I just wanted to go back to the top and do it all again. You could just imagine the massacre that had taken place there in 1692 when the Macdonalds met their deaths at the hands of Captain Robert Campbell and his government troops [end of history lesson].
Glencoe Hostel was perfectly situated at the bottom of the pass, so as usual I checked in then decided to take a walk to the nearby village to buy supplies for my dinner. After that I just had to take another look at Glencoe. Its times like these that you wish you had someone with you to share the experience, but I had chosen to do this on my own, so no complaints. I was in for a rough night as the hostel was full of hikers. Talk of Munro’s was rife so I drowned the pain with a bottle of wine I’d bought earlier in the day. Like little boys, at two in the morning in their beds with their torches under their blankets, they were still talking about the different ways you could climb Garbh Bheinn. There’s nothing like enthusiasm. There’s also nothing like a good night’s sleep.
Distance covered - 69.7 miles
Time taken - 7 hrs 16mins
Average speed - 9.4 m.p.h.
Total distance - 811.7 miles
I was now well into the Highlands and the sun was shining for the third day running. Today I cycled along the banks of Lochs Linnhe and Lochy, the Caledonian Canal and finally Loch Ness. It really is a fantastic road for cycling. I stopped en-route at Fort William and called at the railway station to buy a ticket to get me from Wick down to Inverness after I had reached John o ‘Groats. From Inverness I was flying back to Luton. The ticket had to be bought a few days in advance as there was only room for two cycles on the train and I couldn’t take the chance of not getting on it and missing my flight as well. I sat in the sun for an hour or so then carried on past Ben Nevis on my way to Loch Ness Y.H. It was probably the best days cycling I’d ever had. The hostel was set on the shore of Loch Ness. If you walked out of the back door you were literally five steps away from the water ....... and Nessie. I had stopped for some food supplies about four miles down the road in Fort Augustus and when I arrived the kitchen was in full swing with people cooking on every available gas ring, so I did the sensible thing and sneaked out of the back door to sit on the shore of the Loch with a bottle of wine. As I twisted the corkscrew into the bottle it snapped off. How the hell was I going to open it now? I couldn’t ask in the hostel as no alcohol is allowed on the premises. Panic was setting in, so in desperation I smashed the neck of the bottle with a stone. I’m pleased to say I didn’t spill a drop (no mean feat!). Half way through the bottle I was joined by a couple from Oz, Rod and Jane. They had been bumming round Europe for six months picking up work here and there. They also picked up my wine and helped me finish it. They promised me some of their secret stash later on that evening, which turned out to be whisky cleverly disguised in a Irn Bru bottle. Jane made dinner that night while Rod and I kept a lookout for Nessie, but to no avail. We'd had so much whisky the monster could have crawled out of the Loch and sat next to us and we would have been none the wiser.
There were four cyclists from Inverness staying that night and they were very interested in the route I’d taken to get here. When I revealed my next day’s route they thought I was mad.
‘Why was I going over mountains when it was easier to go round them?’ they wondered.
‘Because it’s the scenic route by Brian Wood, that’s why,’ I said.
Being from this area, the four of them got their heads together and mapped another route for me to follow the next day, which they insisted would be much easier than the one I was following.
Rod and Jane were going on by bus to the same place as me, which was Carbisdale Castle, so we arranged to meet for another drink the next night.
I fell asleep to the sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore of the Loch.
Distance covered - 65.64 miles
Time taken - 7hrs.21mins
Average speed - 8.8 m.p.h.
Total distance - 877.7 miles
The weather was back to its usual self today - torrential rain soaked me to the skin within five minutes of leaving Loch Ness. There was no point in hanging around in that sort of weather, you just have to put your head down and plough your way through it. I had come to the end of the A82, gone through Inverness which is the last major town before the empty wilderness of the Highlands, over the Moray and Cromarty Firths, and now started to climb the hills of Easter Ross, when all of a sudden the fog came in from the sea. What was a dismal dark rain-filled day suddenly turned to night . The fog was one of those ‘You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face’ jobs. This truly was the day to end all days. I was now in danger of running into a sheep or deer or, even worse, cycling off the edge of the road and over a cliff. I’ve got to laugh looking back on it, but it was scary up there. The fog cleared to a mist as I came down off the hills but the rain persisted. After Culrain you take a minor road which leads straight to Carbisdale Castle. I was looking forward to this, after all its not every day you get to sleep in a castle.
Halfway up the road I met Rod and Jane. They were none to pleased about today either. The bus they were travelling on stopped more than five miles away from the castle so they had no alternative but to walk the rest of the way, but we had all made it safely. They told me they had passed me twice that day on the bus and felt for me in the rain. I can’t really explain how depressing that day’s cycling was.
Carbisdale Castle was big, what else would you expect a castle to be? I booked myself in at the reception hall and was also given a letter which had been posted to me. This really took me by surprise. Who was it from? Who knew I was here? With trepidation I opened it. It was a birthday card from the wife. I’d entirely forgotten that it was my birthday tomorrow. Oh well, another excuse to crack open a bottle! The door from the reception hall led into another larger hall filled with life-size statues, suits of armour and other things expected of a castle. I walked up two flights of stairs with Rod, who was rooming with me, to our dormitory.
Having settled in, my next thoughts were of getting my clothes washed and dried. Not every hostel has a washing machine, so when you come across one you have to make full use of it. Carbisdale had one, the trouble was finding it. I must have searched for half an hour before finding the washing room which was down in the depths of the castle. Every single item I had went into the machine apart from the shorts and T-shirt I was wearing. While it was washing I had my dinner in the restaurant upstairs, then went back to the dorm where I had part of a bottle of wine I’d sneaked in to the castle, then I went back down to retrieve my lovely clean washing. Who should I meet there but Rod and Jane, who were also waiting for their washing, accompanied by a fine bottle of Scotch! The washing room seemed to be THE place to hang out on a Saturday night in Carbisdale.
We had a few drops of the old whisky, hung out our washing to dry on the mass of hot pipe work that was surrounding us, then I went to get the rest of the wine I had left upstairs. As soon as I’d got back one of the staff walked into the room and started chatting to us. Suddenly she asked if we were drinking alcohol, which was pretty obvious. This was followed by a tirade about the rules of youth hostels and specifically those regarding alcoholic drinks, then after warning us of the consequences she waddled off to annoy somebody else. It had been useless to deny it and we carried on regardless. No finer time have I had watching my socks dry than that night in Carbisdale.
After we had drunk the wash room dry and toasted Australia, England, my thirty ninth birthday and a hundred other subjects we decided it was time for bed. But we got lost and one of the first doors we tried was to the living quarters of the staff and, guess what they were doing in their room? Yes - they were sitting there watching t.v. surrounded by packs of lager and Diamond Whites. Hypocrites!
Distance covered - 67 miles
Time taken - 6hrs.15mins
Average speed - 10.00 m.p.h.
Total Distance - 944.8 miles
I said good-bye to Rod and Jane and left Carbisdale in heavy rain and with a strong wind blowing against me. I had a choice today of going straight to John o’Groats which was around 120 miles, or the route I decided upon which was up the A836 to Tongue, then cycling across the top of Scotland the next day. I stopped to pick up some food in Lairg which was the last outpost of civilization. After that it really is desolate. The A836 is a one track road with miles of forest either side, which gave me some respite from the driving rain that was stinging my face. By now I wished that it was all over and I could go home, but at least the end was now in sight. The forest disappeared to leave the moorland with mountains jutting out of the ground either side of me.
I ran out of water and food with about 20 miles still to go before I reached my destination at Tongue, and the rain and wind was so bad I got off my bike and sat behind a dry stone wall for some shelter. You could quite easily die up here, I thought as I started to shiver with cold. If I’d stayed there any longer I probably would have done so. My spirit was finally broken today. The weather had got the better of me.
I struggled on to Tongue, which is no larger than a village, and found the Y.H. which was an old detached house. The chap who was running it was a true Scot and I could not understand a word he said. It was farcical - I had to ask him to keep repeating himself, but still I couldn’t work out what he was saying. In the end he had to write it down for me. He did know that I was wet and tired though, so he put the kettle on and lit a fire in the living room for me, but the best was yet to come. You know what they say about the Scots being a bit tight with their money? Well it’s all true. This guy was charging me 5 pence for each spoon of sugar I was having in my tea. Well, I splashed out, I had two spoons in my tea then another two on my cornflakes the next morning.
I went to the pub for a meal as I had no food with me, then came back to the hostel. There was only myself and a girl from one of the islands staying there that night. The others couldn’t afford the sugar, I suppose.
There was a fantastic view of the Kyle of Tongue from the top of the village. I imagine it would be even better with the sun shining. Oh well, one day to go.
Distance covered - 58.7 miles Time Taken - 6hrs.45mins Average speed - 8.5 m.p.h. Total distance - 1003.6 miles
It was cold last night. The room had no heating and my clothes were still wet from yesterday, which didn’t matter as it was still raining outside. I had my breakfast with my ten pence worth of sugar and set off in the rain again. I was told there was a cafe ten miles down the road where I could get a decent breakfast. There was, but unfortunately it was closed. It stopped raining after a while but the wind became so strong that it was far quicker to get off and push the bike than ride it. I was tired, wet, cold and hungry. Eventually I managed to find a shop open in Bettyhill, which alleviated my hunger. I also telephoned the wife to say that it looked like I wasn’t going to finish the ride on time because of the gale force wind, and was probably going to miss my train the next day as well. She was a bit frantic on the other end of the phone to say the least.
‘Keep pedalling!’ she ordered. ‘I want you to get home.’
Little did I know what she had planned for me on my return.
A few miles further on I passed a dark blue transit parked in a layby, with a bike leaning on the side of it. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was to be my salvation. Thirty minutes later the van came slowly past me followed by a lone cyclist. They were soldiers who were also on their last day of an End to End, I was to find out later. Very well-spoken ones at that, destined for the top of the military ladder I should think. Five of them had started, and they were now down to one who was beside me now. We talked for a few minutes, but I was holding him up. There was only 25 miles to the finish but by now I was really struggling. He asked me if I wanted to take my panniers off and put them in the back of the van and they would wait for me at John o’Groats. I gladly said yes so he signalled to the van which stopped, the back doors opened and in went my luggage. I think I’d still be there now if it wasn’t for that kind gesture. They also gave me some hot soup, then it was back to the grindstone and I was soon left behind, but without the weight of my panniers it all seemed achievable again.
The scenery along the top coast of Scotland is breathtaking. Big cliffs and large empty golden beaches apart from the Dounreay nuclear plant. I admit that I cried for the last five miles into John o’Groats - I couldn’t believe that I’d done it, and there to meet me was the other cyclist and the transit with my panniers in the back. They were driving down to Inverness so I asked them if they could fit me and my bike in as well. They said yes, but first I had to sign the book. At this stage I would have liked to sit there for a while and take it all in - I had really done it, I had ridden from one end of the country to the other - but these boys were in a hurry and the opportunity of a lift to Inverness where I would catch the flight home was too good to turn down. So in I jumped and off we sped. I slept most of the way to Inverness and we arrived at the Y.H. about two hours later. I thanked them for the lift, then I booked into my last youth hostel EVER. That night I went out for a few beers but was too tired to do anything else, and it was an early start the next morning to get to Inverness airport.
Distance covered - 65.2 miles Time taken - 7 hrs 5 mins Average speed - 8.8m.p.h. Total Distance - 1068.8 miles
Would I do it again? ....................Yes, perhaps one day. Maybe from North to South next time. I’ve still got the route if anyone’s interested. But definitely not when its raining.
The next day I cycled to the airport, yet again in the rain, checked my bike in and changed into the only dry clothes that I had, which was a T-shirt, bright orange shorts and flip-flops. I looked a fine sight! You should have seen the looks I was getting from the other passengers who were dressed more sensibly with their suits, overcoats and scarves. No one would sit anywhere near me on the plane. I can’t say I was surprised. The flight took 1 hour 15 minutes to reach Luton, where my wife was waiting to take me home. The banners were out for me in the local village pub and later, that evening when I was ‘persuaded’ to go to another pub, there was a surprise party for me. What a welcome! I must thank my wife Maureen for that.
I’ve had itchy feet ever since that ride and two years later I rode from Biarritz to Barcelona.
But that’s another story.
© COPYRIGHT 2001 Martin Prince (author)
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