Twenty years after completing this trip, I am posting my diary of it on the web. I do not have my own web site so the 'The Ultimate Links List of LEJoG Cycle Trips' is kindly hosting it. I am aware that much has changed in twenty years and that some of my comments are now out of date. Some of the road numbers have changed. For example, the east-coast road south of John o'Groats used to be the A9 but is now the A99. Some (if not all) of the places I describe as unattractive, have improved dramatically, so if any reader comes from such a place, please do not take it to heart!
More importantly, bicycle technology has improved immeasurably. Mountain bikes hardly existed 20 years ago. Most people who wanted to take a bike into the mountains, took their touring bike (I have had mine on the summits of the Brecon Beacons more than once). A touring bike comprised a classic diamond frame, drop handlebars and either a five- or a six-speed block. Most only had twin chain rings. The gearing on my good bike in those days comprised 32/48 chain rings and a 14-30 block. That was a huge improvement over the bottom gear on my old machine, which comprised a 40-tooth front and 28-tooth rear.
Robert H Kletz
Late August 1981
Two weeks after walking the Pennine Way, I am still suffering sore feet. Of the 18 of us who completed that walk, I seemed to suffer the most. It was not that I was unfit; my feet had swollen to the extent that my boots were too small (or, as some people might put it, I had become too big for my boots). Many of the others went on to walk other long-distance footpaths over subsequent years but I had no desire to join them. I had no regrets about walking the Pennine Way but enough was enough.
I am invited on an impromptu cycle tour of the Dales and Cumbria with a couple of friends. It sounds like a good idea but I only have sufficient annual leave remaining, to make it a long weekend. We agree that wherever we get to after four days, I will simply leave them and catch the train back home.
I have been enjoying cycle touring since 1979 but, up to now, it has always been based on Youth Hostels. Luggage has therefore been limited to spare clothing and a sheet sleeping bag. This time, though, our bikes are laden with camping equipment, including stoves and food. We choose a route for maximum enjoyment of the scenery and minimum disturbance from traffic, rather than ease of cycling. Some of the hills prove to be pretty steep and, with the weight of luggage we are carrying, are quite a struggle. Nevertheless, I become convinced that cycle touring is a lot easier and a lot more fun than long-distance walking. Indeed, I decide to invest a considerable sum of money in a customised bike and I head in the direction of Harry Hall in Manchester
Sue Robinson suggests cycling from John o'Groats to Land's End. She has recently discovered the joys of cycle touring and fancies the challenge. I immediately agree to the trip. We end up as a team of four, the other two being Malcolm Hudson and Mick Owen. We decide that to minimise the luggage we have to carry, we will stay in youth hostels and cheap bed-and-breakfasts; for emergencies only, we will carry sleeping bags and tent fly sheets (but not the inner tents and no stove or utensils). Sue is keen to plan the route herself, so I leave her to it.
One problem that quickly becomes apparent, is how to get to the start of the route and return from the end. Sue and the others live in Yorkshire, whereas I am in Cheshire. They are considering catching the train to Wick and then another train home from Penzance. There seems little point in my making special journeys to and from Castleford, just to be with them on the train journeys, so I need to make my own arrangements. The cost of the two single train fares looks extortionate and I begin to wonder about the feasibility of cycling up to John o'Groats to meet the others and then cycling back home from Land's End.
We reckon the north-to-south journey will take us two weeks and, since Knutsford is conveniently located roughly half way along the route, it should take me about a week to get up to John o'Groats for the start, and another week to return from Land's End. Four weeks is exactly the amount of annual leave I have available. The critical question is whether I can reach John o'Groats within that first week; Knutsford is about 100 miles south of the mid point, so I have got to cover more than half the distance in half the time. Also, Knutsford is in an area of minimal hills, so there is a limit to how fit I can become beforehand.
After much thought, I decide to go for it; I will just have to use that first week to get myself fit. If I run out of time, I can always complete the journey by train. In that event, though, there would be no point in cycling home from Land's End, because the ring would already be broken; I would just have to content myself with the north-to-south trip. I cannot help looking back on 1981 and the fact that I am prepared to commit myself to cycling the double End-to-End journey but I am not prepared to walk another long-distance footpath even in a single direction.
Sue is planning the north-to-south route to avoid major roads as much as possible. My own criteria are:
· Avoid duplicating as much of Sue's route as possible (some areas, especially in Scotland simply have to be duplicated)
· Continue avoiding main roads as much as possible
· Include in my itinerary Dunnet Head (the northernmost point on the mainland) and Lizard Point (the southernmost point)
Contrary to popular belief, Land's End is not the westernmost point on the mainland. It is the westernmost point relative to Ordnance Survey Grid North but not relative to true north; that honour goes to Ardnamurchan Point, west of Fort William. I have neither the time nor the inclination to make detours to Ardnamurchan Point and Lowestoft, the easternmost point.
Sue is getting a recommended route from the Cyclists' Touring Club. Once she has given us the details of the route, I can start planning mine. Unlike the Pennine Way, there is no official route for the End-to-End. The shortest route is 800 miles or less but this uses a lot of major roads. Sue's route is about 1000 miles, which is a fairly typical distance for routes along secondary roads. Inevitably, my route works out longer; to avoid duplicating Sue's route I end up creating some impressive detours. My south-to-north route ends up as 1200 miles: 700 from Knutsford to John o'Groats (compared with 600 north to south) and 500 from Land's End to Knutsford (compared with 400).
I can afford neither the cost nor the bulk and weight of a complete set of Ordnance Survey maps to cover the journey. Instead, I spend several evenings in Altrincham library, poring over their set of the maps, making detailed notes of every road and junction along the route. In support of these notes, I tear out the relevant pages of a road atlas; by itself, the atlas is too small a scale for reliable navigation (4 miles per inch) but with the notes, it should suffice.
Cycling two miles each way to and from work each day is hardly sufficient preparation for a tour, where I need to cover 70 to 100 miles each day. I choose various alternative routes to work, slowly building up the distance. I begin my training in the last week of June, when I cycle seven miles each way
The next week sees me cycling ten miles each way to work. In the week after, I am doing 14 miles each way. In the third week of July, my last week at work, I increase it to 21 miles. However, this is taking an hour and a half in the morning to get to work and the same again to get home in the evening. By the time I reach work on the Wednesday, I have had enough of this game and I decide to give myself a couple of days' rest, before starting on my journey. I take the direct route home that evening and stay with that route for the rest of the week.
I always regretted never keeping a daily diary on the Pennine Way, so I am determined to keep one this time. I keep a notebook and pen easily accessible and, whenever I have a convenient moment, such as sitting at a café table or at the end of the day, I jot down a few notes. In expanding these notes into a proper diary, I am using many of the phrases that I originally jotted down and I am using the present tense, better to reflect my ever-changing thoughts and moods.
Friday 22 July 1983
I leave work at 15:30 promptly and go straight home. My plan is to get everything ready this evening, have an early night and set off at dawn tomorrow. I have no intention of setting off at dawn regularly but an early start tomorrow will give me some good initial progress. If I can reach Hawes by tomorrow evening, I will be well pleased with myself.
By early evening I have already got everything packed and loaded, and I have had my tea. What shall I do now? It seems a waste of good time, sitting around all evening just for the sake of sticking with my original itinerary. There are still a few hours of daylight, during which time I can get past the Lancashire industrial belt and into the Pennine foothills. I have a look at the Ordnance Survey map for a suitable spot to camp and I reckon I can just about get there before it gets dark.
I make some sandwiches from the remains of the bread that is in the house, then at 19:10 I am on my way. The scenery is far from exciting but I cannot help that. At least the sun is shining, the terrain is flat and I have got a slight tailwind, so I am making good progress (even though I am taking it easy). I take a wrong turn in Westhoughton and end up having to cycle a few miles along the A6, rather than along a minor road. At this time of the evening, though, the traffic makes very little difference. This proves to be only the first of many wrong turns and shows how essential the atlas is. With only the notes I made in the library, it would be impossible to find my way back, once I had strayed off the correct route.
The approach to Horwich is marked by a spectacular lightning storm somewhere beyond Winter Hill. There is no thunder, though, and the sky is clear. I stop for some fish and chips, to keep up my energy stocks and, by the time I have finished them, it is dusk. This has been good timing, really, as my planned camp site is only a couple of miles outside the town, so I am not in any hurry. After a blazing hot day, it is now pleasantly cool. The road is a fairly steep climb but soon I have left the town behind me. The sky is almost completely dark now but for the lightning, which is now accompanied by peels of thunder. By the time I reach Rivington, I have lost all memory of the flat terrain prior to Horwich. There are no signs identifying the gradients but I would class them as one in not-a-lot. Just after Rivington the road crosses a stream and this is my landmark. I turn off the road and follow the stream a short way, until I find a flat patch of grass, just as the map had suggested. The electrical storm continues unabated but the sky is still clear.
I toy with the idea of sleeping under the stars but I decide to play safe and erect the fly sheet. It is an Ultimate Phazor Dome which, in calm conditions, is erected with the poles first then pegged out second. I get it erected and I am just getting the pegs out of a pannier bag when, with no warning at all, the heavens open. I grab pannier bags and saddle bag, hurl them into the tent and dive in after them. The rain sounds as though it is going to drill through the fabric and a wind gets up as well. I hold onto the inside of the fly sheet as best I can and spend the next two hours praying that it does not blow away. Eventually the storm ceases and the wind dies completely but I do not feel like stepping out into the soaking wet grass to peg out the tent, so I just leave it as it is and hope that the wind does not get up again. I spread out my sleeping bag and turn in. The rest of the night does indeed remain calm but every time I wake up, it is still lightning.
Saturday 23 July 1983
I am up at 06:00 and I have a quick wash in the stream. I cannot find my towel. Well, I think to myself, I was bound to forget something. The weather is cloudy at first with occasional light showers. I would rather get a few miles behind me, before eating my sandwiches but I have an apple, while I write up yesterday's notes. By the time I have pulled down the tent and packed my panniers, it is 07:10. Considering I have not even had breakfast, that is awfully slow; I must do better than that in future.
I return to the road but after only half a mile, I turn a bend and am confronted with a 1-in-5 hill. What a start to the day. Unfortunately my fitness campaign did not include any hills. Off come my track-suit top and cycling longs (which I had put on over my shorts). I actually make it to the top with considerably less effort than I expected; I do not think it was really 1 in 5.
Somewhere near Samlesbury I take a wrong turn. The hills are pretty steep and the roads wind around all over the place, so I completely lose my sense of direction. I cannot work out where I am on the atlas, so I just have to guess which road to take. It is amazing how similar to each other the farms look around here. Only half an hour ago I passed one with an identical milking shed. Even the road junctions look the same .... Eventually I realise that I have somehow ended up going in a complete (and very large) circle, so that puts me in a really good mood.
Before making any more guesses and taking any more wrong turns, I sit down and have my breakfast. Afterwards, by a process of elimination I work out the correct route but I take another wrong turn at Mellor and reach the A59 too soon. Every cloud had a silver lining, though. By having to cycle a few miles along the A59, instead of just crossing it, I pass a Little Chef, which seems a good excuse for another bite. I order a hamburger with all the trimmings but, when it arrives, I find that I have lost my appetite and I can only pick at it. I leave most of the food but the lemon tea is nice. I am probably exerting myself too much, before my metabolism has adjusted to the new routine. I must take frequent light meals, rather than infrequent heavy ones, until I have got into the swing of things.
My progress is terribly slow. The air is very sultry and there is quite a stiff side/head wind. One way and another, I am feeling pretty depressed. It takes ages to reach Waddington but then I meet an elderly lady who is doing the Lancashire Cycleway on a really ancient bone shaker. She is taking it easy, covering about twenty miles a day and enjoying every moment of it. Her bonhomie rubs off on me and suddenly everything looks better. The weather brightens up, the wind becomes a tailwind and I am now on familiar roads. I am zipping along quite merrily and the last six miles into Settle only take twenty minutes.
In Settle a crowd of people is admiring a magnificent Humber of goodness-knows-what vintage. The bodywork is absolutely immaculate. It has got a puncture but the owner soon gets that fixed and, with half a turn of the starting handle, the engine fires and he is off. I call into the Naked Man café and order poached eggs on toast and a large pot of tea. After this morning's fiasco at the Little Chef, the poached eggs are just fine. The teapot, though, is huge and, to my considerable disgust, I am unable to drink it all.
It is a thirsty climb out of Settle and, despite my considerable liquid intake in Settle, I stop at Horton Post Office for an ice cream and a lemonade. It is a long pull to Hawes and I pause along the way for a short rest but time is marching on and so must I. I buy a towel in Hawes and then visit the Black Bull Café for some of their rather good home-made steak pie and another pot of tea. I had deliberately waited until Hawes, before buying a towel, to save the extra weight as long as possible. In reality, of course, it does not make the slightest difference but psychologically it made today's ride fractionally easier.
It is still only 17:00 and I reckon I can get as far as Kirkby Stephen by this evening. A telephone call secures a place at the Youth Hostel, so it does not matter if I am late. Rather than taking the direct route to Kirkby Stephen, I prefer to go via Thwaite. I had fancied going via Tan Hill as well, but that is too much of a detour. The climb out of Hawes gets steeper and steeper. A Swedish jogger overtakes me then passes me a few minutes later going back downhill. As soon as he is out of sight, I give up the struggle and I get off and walk for a hundred yards or so.
I hurtle through the Butter Tubs like a bat out of hell and all the tourists scatter when they see me bearing down on them. I only just manage to negotiate the chicane but my momentum gets me up the 1 in 4 on the other side, without having to get off and walk. There then follows a lovely long swoop to Thwaite.
In Thwaite I meet an Austrian cyclist, who has been touring England and Scotland for three weeks. Like me, he has a decent machine with plenty of gears but he is resting exhausted by the roadside, cursing the road between Kirkby Stephen and Thwaite. It strikes me as strange that he should be so upset, coming from a country with much bigger mountains than Britain. However, when we part company, my route takes me over the road from which he has just come and I soon have sympathy for him.
It is not too bad in my direction (a couple of short walking stretches) but it must have been awful for him. All my uphill sections are full of hairpins (so he would have had to brake all the time) but my downhill sections are all long, fairly straight swoops: two 1-in-5s, a 1-in-6 and a 1-in-7. This is what cycling is all about! I cannot see where I am going half the time, because my eyes are watering so much.
It is 21:00 and dusk, when I reach the Youth Hostel. On unpacking, I find my old towel! I have a shower, wash my clothes, have a bite to eat and collapse into bed.
Sunday 24 July 1983
Although it means a later start, I indulge in a hostel breakfast and, once I am on my way, I am very glad of that decision. It had rained overnight but it is now sunny and hot. It is a very pleasant B road to Warcop, followed by a steep climb over the Army firing range. I did not know about this range, so I am lucky that the road is open at the moment. I take advantage of the glorious weather by stripping off to the waist, then I crouch over the handlebars as I plod away up the steep climb. The views are extensive but not very inspiring.
The road drops down to Hilton and then on to Dufton. The view of High Cup is very poor because of the heat haze. Dufton is a delightful village and is worth a stop, just to admire it. Better still, the Post Office is open, so I buy some chocolate and a drink. I get chatting to three people who are walking the Pennine Way; they are in pretty good spirits but they say they will be glad when it is over.
There are more pleasant lanes to Melmerby but I am then faced with a 1900 foot climb on the main road to Alston. It is four and a half miles of bottom gear with frequent pauses for rest but no walking. What a wonderful sight greets me at the summit: a café; I have a salad sandwich and a cup of tea. It is at this point that I realise I left my packed lunch at the hostel; well, I am certainly not going back for it now. Setting off again, I have four and a half miles of top gear down to Alston. Again, I have difficulty seeing, because my eyes are streaming so much. I have a brief stroll around Alston and buy some fruit. In view of the steep cobbled streets, strolling is both easier and safer than cycling.
I want to take the back road to Slaggyford but I am not sure of the way at one junction and I flag down a farmer in a tractor. He gives me a long and detailed story about various routes and a bridge that has been demolished and he advises me to go back into Alston and take the main road instead. I decide that this junction is the side road I want and I am prepared to take a risk with the bridge over the South Tyne. As soon as the farmer has chugged off out of sight, I set off up this road but it becomes unbelievably steep. Not only can I not cycle it, I can hardly push the bike. I am seriously considering unloading the bike and carrying the luggage separately but I persevere. The bridge in question is just before Slaggyford and has just been rebuilt, so I do not need to wade the river.
Somewhere beyond Knarsdale I take a wrong turn and end up in Haltwhistle. This is not a huge detour but it means a couple of extra miles along the busy main road. At Greenhead I stop at the tea room that we visited two years ago on the Pennine Way. It still offers excellent value, with as much tea as I can consume. The same lady is serving and she is even more loquacious than I remembered. She says she was very active in her youth, travelling all over Europe by various means of transport.
The first 15 miles out of Greenhead are quite pleasant, with uphills that are not too steep and long, swooping downhills. At one junction where, again, I want a back-road alternative to the main road (though a B road this time, not an A road as at Alston), I ask a local for directions. Like the farmer at Alston, he insists on directing me the way I do not want to go. By some curious means, our conversation develops into a discussion about religion and it is ages before I can escape. Not wanting to offend my good Samaritan, when I do manage to continue on my way, I follow his directions, rather than my own instinct. It does not really matter; it is two sides round a rectangle and there is precious little traffic around.
The route through Kershope Forest becomes steeper. I find I am struggling more on the uphills and having to use my brakes more on the downhills. There is a lot of loose gravel on the road, which does not inspire me to go as fast as I might. At the same time, though, the scenery becomes more nondescript. Somewhere along this road I cross into Scotland but there is no border sign.
I reach Newcastleton, ready for a meal but there is none to be had until later in the evening. All the pub can offer me at the moment is a sandwich and a drink, so I have those and set off again. The twenty miles to Hawick are bleak and miserable; the scenery is boring, the road is rough and bumpy (and I am saddle sore) and there are no villages. The uphills are a drag and even the downhills are not much fun. I am constantly on the lookout for a bed-and-breakfast or a café but there is absolutely nothing.
It is 21:00 when I reach Hawick and, when I find a café that is still open, I make that my first priority. It means I will not be able to reach the Youth Hostel six miles away before closing time at 22:00 but that cannot be helped. This army needs more marching material in its stomach.
As I head out of town, I pass a park, which looks as though it might have possibilities. It will be contrary to lots of bylaws, I am sure, but who cares? I will be setting off early, so no-one will know. I am looking for some trees or bushes that will hide my tent from the eyes of any late-night strollers but I find something much better: an old pavilion. It has clearly seen better times and is now derelict but the door is unlocked and that is good enough for me. The floor is covered with lots of old birds' nests but I kick a few out of the way and spread out my Karrimat and sleeping bag. No sooner do I get into my sleeping bag, than it starts to rain and continues for most of the night. It is not the noise of the rain that keeps me awake, though, but my sore back from the sunburn I got this morning, when I took off my shirt.
Monday 25 July 1983
I must have fallen asleep eventually, because the sound of birds wakes me up at 05:00. At 05:30 I give up trying to go back to sleep and I get up. In the daylight I am able to see just how lucky I was in my choice of sleeping quarters. The roof has a gaping hole at the far end and more than half the floor is wet or damp but at my end everything is bone dry.
I wash as best I can, using my water bottle and some impregnated tissues. I have a Crunchy bar and my last apple for breakfast and bring my diary up to date, then set off at 06:50. It has stopped raining but it is horribly humid and cool. It is diabolical cycling weather; I sweat like mad going uphill and nearly freeze to death going downhill. I am forever stopping to put clothes on or take them off again.
There are swarms of rabbits wherever I look. They have no road sense at all and it is no wonder that so many of them get run over. I also see a few hares and, at one point, I catch a brief glimpse of a deer in the woods.
Not surprisingly, I am starving but there are no towns or villages anywhere. As I pass a cluster of houses, I notice that one has a B&B sign. I wonder if they will supply the second B without the first; there is only one way to find out, so I knock on the door. The landlady is doing the housework (after all, it is past ten o'clock by now) and she has no desire to stop her work, just to feed a passing stranger. She tells me, though, that there is a hotel a few miles down the road. I find the hotel at a cross-roads in the middle of nowhere; it is quite a nice-looking place, without being posh. They serve me some cheese rolls and a pot of tea. It is not cheap, although neither is it unduly expensive, and at least the rolls are filling.
At Cappercleuch I take a minor road towards Tweedsmuir. After a steep uphill climb I see a dam in its final stages of construction for the creation of Megget Reservoir. Shortly afterwards, though, the only important thing in my life is hanging onto both brake levers as hard as I can, as I descend to Talla Reservoir. My fingers are aching like mad but I cannot afford to relax my grip for an instant. If that Austrian cyclist did not like the road from Kirkby Stephen to Thwaite, he would have gone spare over this one.
A few miles beyond Tweedsmuir, I call into a pub for lunch. When I come back out, the sun is shining and it is once again very hot. Before long, though, some really filthy-looking clouds roll in. Just after Broughton a hefty flash of lightning gives me a real fright and the accompanying peel of thunder nearly blows me over. Then the heavens open: three hours of continuous torrential rain, followed by another two hours of heavy showers. From what little I can see of Biggar through my steamed-up spectacles, it looks quite a nice place and I stop and buy some chocolate.
Up to now, the scenery has been excellent but after Carnwath it deteriorates rapidly, as I enter the Edinburgh-Glasgow industrial belt. The main industry is mining and the countryside is littered with slag heaps. In some places the local authorities are planting trees, so I guess that in a few years' time it should look a lot better. The villages are equally unattractive but the people are friendly enough; I get very helpful directions in Fauldhouse, when I cannot find the road I want. In Harthill I stop for some fish and chips.
The weather brightens up, as I approach Falkirk and there is still plenty of daylight left but I have had enough. I am cold, soaking wet, tired, hungry and miserable. On top of all that, for the last few hours my left Achilles tendon has become swollen and painful and I have no intention of going any further.
The police station gives me directions to what appears to be the only bed-and-breakfast in the town. The landlord is a collector of ancient Fiats and he has three Fiat 500s in various states of repair in the garage and garden. Both he and his wife are very friendly.
When I come to wash a few clothes, I find that I left my tub of soap powder at Kirkby Stephen. That hostel has done pretty well out of me; I wonder if they have eaten my packed lunch yet. The landlady puts all my wet clothes (including my cycling shoes) on an old-fashioned kitchen clothes rack and assures me they will be dry by morning.
I feel a bit better having washed and changed into clean, dry clothes. I feel even better, when I check my mileage and see that I have already covered over 320 miles. This is excellent progress; at this rate it looks as though I will reach John o'Groats by Friday. I toy with the idea of spending Saturday in the Orkneys but there is clearly no point in counting chickens at this stage.
I feel better still, when the landlady serves tea and home-made cakes. This is an extra that I was not expecting. She and her husband are fascinated about my holiday but they think I am just a little bit crazy. No disagreements there, then!
Tuesday 26 July 1983 It rained again last night but the weather is fine this morning. After breakfast I retrieve all my belongings from the kitchen; they are indeed completely dry. My shoes are a bit crispy-crunchy from such rapid drying but that is definitely preferable to having them still wet. The landlord gives me directions to Kincardine Bridge, without having to go back through the town centre.
The approach to the bridge is very heavy with traffic, most of which is very heavy. Fortunately, some of the roads have separate cycle tracks. The bridge itself, a road-only crossing of the Forth (no railway) is very narrow and I feel terribly vulnerable with so many juggernauts thundering past just a few inches away. Their associated exhausts do not exactly give a sense of being in the fresh air, either. I had been wondering whether I would be able to see the Forth Bridge from this bridge or whether the bend in the river would obstruct the view. I still do not know, because there is a thick mist hanging above the river.
Four miles beyond Kincardine I am able to revert to the back roads but that means steep hills, one after another. At least it is peaceful and scenic. My ankle is still very sore, so I call into a pharmacist in Dollar for something to put on it. They have countless different creams, sprays and lotions, none of which mean anything to me. I ask their advice and they give me an aerosol. I spray some straight away and then and go in search of a café.
I find a very nice café that serves real bread, oat cakes and such like plus the inevitable gallon of tea. The lady who serves me, tells me that in Scotland one always has cheese on oat cakes, so I try them that way: excellent, I approve.
I continue on my way but my ankle is just the same. I lower the saddle a fraction and this eases the pain slightly but it still hurts a lot, so I start pedalling less and freewheeling more. This is obviously going to reduce my average speed but that is just too bad.
Skirting round the west side of Perth, I stop again for food and drink in Methven. It is not a very smart place and the only café I can find, looks a bit scruffy but the lady behind the counter is friendly enough and has an endless supply of tea. She does not want her milk to go off, by giving me a full jug and having it lying around. Instead she just pours a bit in my cup and puts the bottle back in the refrigerator. Every time I am ready for another cup, she fishes the bottle out again. I get a bit bored with this game after the third cup, so I leave it at that.
I cannot avoid using a couple of miles of the A9 north of Perth. Goodness me, this is one very fast road and I am glad when I am off it again. Continuing along the back roads towards Blairgowrie, I start to feel tired. I prop myself up against a tree by the roadside and tip my hat over my eyes, to keep out the sun. I cannot doze, though, so after about ten minutes I give up and set off again.
It is 18:00 when I reach Blairgowrie and I go chippy hunting again (this is becoming a habit). Just as I prop the bike up outside one, I hear a hissing noise. Naturally it is the back wheel, not the front, so I can be sure that my hands will get filthy from the chain, etc. On that basis, I decide to have the fish and chips first, while my hands are still clean.
Fish and chips eaten, I tackle the puncture. I should have just fitted my spare inner tube and repaired the punctured one later but I decide to effect the repair now. First time round, I forget to roughen the tube, so the patch does not stick properly but, of course, I do not discover this, until I am pumping up the reassembled wheel. What an idiot! I have no option but to dismantle the wheel again and this time do the job properly.
By the time I am mobile again, it is 20:00 and probably too late to reach Glenisla Youth Hostel, which had been my target for today but which I reckon is still two hours away. I look for a bed and breakfast on the road out of Blairgowrie. The first one does not answer (Hawick all over again?) but I find a second one. It is run by a young couple, who have a baby that likes crawling around everywhere and getting under everybody's feet. The couple are very friendly and it is a nice room that they give me.
The wife offers to put my washed clothes in her spin dryer. It is one of these brand new ultrahigh-speed machines and, when my clothes come out, they are almost ready for wearing. She suggests that I hang them on the line outside overnight but I reckon it will rain again, so I just keep them indoors (my usual method of drying my clothes is to drape them over my baggage as I ride along; they dry out pretty quickly that way). Sure enough, half an hour later, it starts to rain. The couple make me some late evening tea and biscuits and then I head for bed.
Wednesday 27 July 1983
It is no longer raining but there are filthy-looking clouds in all directions. The rabbit population is out in force again. These creatures must breed like, well, rabbits. On the back road to Glenisla I pass several raspberry fields with scores of people picking the fruit. The smell is gorgeous and I am tempted to do a bit of picking myself but I do not have the time. Since I am not now going to the Youth Hostel, I decide to stick to the minor roads, rather than the B road. The hills are desperately steep but the scenery is fantastic and I am certainly glad I came this way, although I suspect the B road may be equally beautiful. After a while the clouds break up and it becomes sunny and hot.
Beyond Cray I have no option but to use the main A93. The traffic is not too heavy and the scenery is unbelievable. In good weather the Grampians must surely be one of the most beautiful places on earth. After a quick lunch at the Spittal of Glenshee, I negotiate the long pull up to the summit. It is fairly steep right from the start and I am soon down to bottom gear. The road then gets steeper and steeper and I go slower and slower. Car-loads of tourists grin and wave as they pass me but I ignore them. Just as I feel my energy is running out, I find I am at the summit. The large sign on the Perthshire-Aberdeenshire border tells me that I am at a height of 2187 feet. As I rest for a few minutes, a council workman looks at my red, sweating face and says, "Bet you're glad that's over." "Too right!"
The descent to Braemar is not as I was expecting. The vertical drop is not as great as the climb from Blairgowrie and there is a slight headwind. I find that I need to pedal virtually the whole way. I miss the junction for taking the back road into Braemar but it is no great tragedy; the main road is not exactly unpleasant.
I have tea in Braemar but the town gives me the impression of being a tourist trap and so I only fill up with the bare essentials. The road to Balmoral is fairly flat, as it follows the river Dee and, with the wind now behind me, I am zipping along quite merrily. After Balmoral, though, it is back to the killer hills and no mistake. Up to now, I have been grading each uphill by the number of Dextrosol glucose tablets I need, to get to the top. Although I have not actually been keeping a record, I think the most I have needed for any single hill is three. At this point, though, I think my grading system needs recalibrating to the number of packets I need for each hill!
At one point a car overtakes me, just as I come to a stretch of road that is straight for several hundred yards. I take no notice of the car and so, with my head bent over the handlebars, I do not see it disappear from view. I am reminded of its existence a few moments later by an almighty crash and rattle and I have visions of having to negotiate bits of engine and gearbox in the middle of the road. A few seconds later, though, I see the car continuing up the hill and I realise that there is a dip in the road, that I had not previously seen. At the bottom of the dip is a rather loose cattle grid. All is explained.
I finally reach the summit and then it is time for another session of seeing if my brakes actually glow red. At the bottom of the hill is a hotel called Gairnshiel Lodge, well and truly in the middle of nowhere. Beyond it I can see the road rising steeply and the hill does not look any kinder than the last one. That is a good enough excuse for me to stop for some food. Besides, it is now late afternoon and I am in country where eating places are few and far between. I have caught the proprietor at an awkward time; he is no longer serving tea and it is too early for dinner but he offers to make me a cheese and pineapple salad. I am no salad fan but I decide to have it anyway and it proves to be an excellent decision, definitely the best salad I have ever had. Not only is it delicious in its own right but there is plenty of bread and butter and tea to go with it.
The proprietor looks just the part, dressed in his kilt and other attire. He has a few minutes to spare and he stays to chat with me. "Are you travelling north or south?" he asks. "North," I reply. "Ah! Ye'll enjoy it. The scenery gets better all the time. Ye'll have a nice walk." "Actually I'm cycling." "Yes, I know. Ye'll have a nice walk." He explains that there are three hills between here and Tomintoul and clearly doubts that a mere Sassenach is able to cope with them. I thank him for the food and his advice and set off again.
The proprietor's description of these hills has depressed me somewhat but once I get going, I look on them as a challenge. The first hill is entirely within sight of the hotel and is steep, alright, but my pride is at stake; I am determined to show him I can get up it without getting off. It would probably be quicker to walk but that is no longer the point. I can feel the proprietor's eyes watching my progress. I struggle heroically and am just on the point of admitting defeat, when a car overtakes me. I can hear its engine working really hard but within a couple of seconds the engine note increases rapidly, indicating that the car has just passed the summit. With an extra heave, I then reach the summit myself.
The descent and the next rise are not particularly steep and I am over the second summit in no time. Another easy descent shows that the terrain is getting easier all the time. Before long I find myself in a virtually flat valley: two miles of a beautiful meandering road; I have obviously left the killer hills behind. Not only did that old fool underestimate my ability, he could not even count. There have been only two hills since the hotel; he must have been thinking of the one before the hotel as the third.
At Cock Bridge I come round a bend and see the road snaking upwards. The combination of incline and distance is utterly appalling and, after taking one look at it, I stop off at the pub. I have a couple of cheese sandwiches and a lemonade but there is a coach-load of pensioners in the pub with the sole purpose of getting a skin-full each. They are pushing and shoving to get to the bar and are clearly anxious to get thoroughly drunk before the coach leaves. It is bad enough when younger people behave like that but seeing these old folks, sickens me. Fortunately they leave after a few minutes and there is peace and quiet but a few minutes later some nutcase comes in, shouting and singing and slapping his hands on the tables. Maybe the landlord will throw him out. No chance; they seem to be bosom pals. I finish my snack as quickly as I can and I get out of the place.
It is getting late, now, and there is not much traffic, so I make full use of the road, weaving back and forth across the full width, to make the hill a little easier. Before long, though, I run out of energy and I have to start walking. There is an observation point on a bend and I have to admit that the proprietor at Gairnshiel Lodge was right about the scenery (as well as the hills). A couple have stopped in their car to admire the view. They say they were here this morning but it was pouring with rain. That is amazing; apart from the dirty clouds first thing this morning, I have had blazing sunshine all day.
I try pedalling a bit more but I soon have to get off again. Eventually the summit looms up, so I get back on again for the last bit. When I reach the summit, I am horrified to observe that it is not the summit at all. There is a very steep drop of several hundred feet but, compared with the mountain as a whole, it is no more than a small dip. The real summit is way above me, about a mile away. I zoom down the dip, building up as much speed as I can, to carry me up the other side but it is soon back to the foot work.
At long last I am at the Lecht summit, a small ski area in winter. Beyond that, what a descent. It starts as 1 in 10 and then steepens to 1 in 5 and it is dead straight: head down, crouch over the handlebars and fly! The road surface is a bit bumpy and one of my panniers comes loose. It is still hanging on by one clip but I am not taking any chances. I stop as quickly as I can (in a couple of hundred yards, I guess) and put it back on. There is still plenty of hill to pick up speed again.
At the foot of the hill is a sharp left bend with a lovely patch of grass and a stream near the road. I stop and toy with the idea of camping here but I decide to continue. There are already several people on this patch and, besides, I would like to reach Tomintoul, because my mileage these last two days has been well below average. I suddenly realise how cold the air has become, now that the sun has set, and I put on a pullover.
The rest of the ride to Tomintoul is relatively flat, although it seems never ending. I pass several bed-and-breakfasts and each time I am tempted to stop but I force myself to keep going. A young lad comes zooming out of a farm on his bike just in front of me. There is no traffic around and I easily move over and overtake him. The next thing, he is passing me, out of the saddle, legs going nineteen to the dozen. Not surprisingly he soon runs out of steam and I pass him again but he stays on my tail. Just before reaching Tomintoul he overtakes me again and then nips into another farm and that is the last I see of him.
I call into a hotel in Tomintoul but they have long since stopped serving food. They make me a couple of cheese sandwiches, though, which are of fairly generous dimensions. It is dark by the time I leave and I decide to look for the first bit of flat ground once I am out of the town. As I pass down the main street, I see a sign for the Youth Hostel. I had completely forgotten that there was one here and I am now doubly glad that I did not stop before Tomintoul.
What a lovely hostel it turns out to be: very small and very basic but with a really friendly warden. The place is not full but there are quite a number of people here, mostly cyclists, including some Germans. I bag a bunk, then go out to put my bike in the shed. I have timed things perfectly again; it has just started to rain.
I have a chat with the warden and tell him where I am going. I express my concern at my poor progress over the last couple of days and that I am now badly behind schedule. Being just a basic hostel, not only does it not serve meals, it does not even have a store selling provisions for breakfast. Obviously all the shops in town shut hours ago. This means no breakfast tomorrow morning until I reach Grantown on Spey, 14 miles away. "No problem," says the warden. "Tomintoul is the highest town in the Highlands. It's all downhill from here."
Thursday 28 July 1983
The rain stops, just as I am ready to set off but I have got a strong headwind. I also discover very quickly that whilst it might be an average of downhill to Grantown, it most certainly is not downhill all the way. The warden conveniently forgot to mention the endless line of monster hills. This is the most interminable 14 miles I have ever cycled! Tackling this sort of terrain with no food inside me is not very clever but the options were rather limited.
When I finally reach Grantown, I dive into the first café I find and order a cheese omelette and chips. It is very tasty but it does not do much to fill the cavern, so I have beans on toast for dessert. After that I continue on my way but I call into a shop as I head out of town, for a bar of chocolate. This gives me sufficient energy to reach Dulnain Bridge (about a mile away), where I buy some fruit.
Fortified at last, I set off into the teeth of the wind and travel nine miles non stop to Carrbridge. I celebrate this feat by calling into a café for tea and a cheese roll. I meet a couple there, who are heading for John o'Groats on a tandem. They have travelled up the A9, which is certainly easier than my route but not as pleasant.
I follow the old A9 to Slochd. It is a gentle uphill all the way but, with the headwind, my progress is terribly slow. Now that all the traffic uses the new road, it is quite a pleasant meandering road. Also, the headwind might not be much fun but at least it is bringing brighter weather. At Slochd I have to join the main road, which runs right alongside the railway. Strangely, though, the two summits are about half a mile apart; I pass the railway summit quite some time before the road summit. Immediately after the road summit, I am able to revert to the old road.
At Findhorn Bridge I leave the A9 completely and take some devious but very pretty back roads. One of the roads is rather awkward. Every mile or so there is a gate across the road. These gates are always on the steep bits, never on the flat. Trying to keep hold of a heavily laden bicycle, while opening a gate on a hill, is not the easiest task. My folly in loading all my luggage at the rear of the bike, instead of distributing some at the front, becomes apparent. Holding the bike still on the slopes is impossible; it just swings round. On one occasion it swings round before I have even got off it. The chain ring digs into my leg and gives me three greasy scratches exactly half an inch apart. The whole lot then collapses and a lump of handlebar padding is ripped off by the gravel. I have several words to say on the subject but the cows in the field ignore me completely.
I find a nice café in Inverness near to the castle. It has been 30 miles since I last had anything to eat and I need food: lots of it. I order soup, an Angus steak (being the cheapest steak on the menu), apple pie and a pot of tea. It would have been nice to stop at Inverness Youth Hostel but it is still only early evening and I am now badly behind schedule, this being the third day of low mileages. Never mind my reaching John o'Groats tomorrow and spending Saturday in the Orkneys; it is beginning to look doubtful whether I can reach John o'Groats by Saturday. Reluctantly, I decide to press on and see where I can get to.
I get completely lost trying to leave Inverness, partly through my own incompetence and partly through that of a milkman whom I ask for directions. When I eventually find the right road, I realise that it is only just round the corner from the café. I cross the River Ness and the Caledonian Canal and head westwards along the old A9. At Beauly I stop for an ice cream. Half the population is lining the streets, cheering and supporting the other half in a cross-country race.
My intention was to continue along the old A9 to Dingwall but at Muir of Ord I see a sign for Strathpeffer. There is a Youth Hostel there and I reckon it will be pretty late by the time I get there, so I follow the signs and pray that the place is not full (otherwise the detour will have wasted precious time). There are some really dirty clouds ahead of me, so I push the pace a bit, to try and reach the hostel before they do. After a while, though, they break up and disperse.
The hostel does indeed have some space left. It is a large one with plenty of amenities. Practically everyone else in my dormitory is German; this part of the world certainly seems to attract them. I am too late to order breakfast, so I get some provisions from the store, including some spare tea bags. The store sells them singly; it might be expensive but it is very convenient. It is always worth carrying just a few spare; one never knows when they might come in handy. Last night at Tomintoul, for instance, a couple of tea bags would have been most welcome.
Before going to bed I have a cup of tea and study the map. The latter is a bad move; I suddenly feel depressed as I realise how far I still have to go. I want to reach John o'Groats at a reasonable hour on Saturday, which makes it essential that I reach the north coast by tomorrow night, and the hills are far from over. At this stage, though, I am determined to complete the journey. If anything should delay me, I will telephone the others at the hostel and tell them to leave on Sunday without me and hopefully I will be able to catch them up. I have not come all this way, just to chicken out and catch the train for the last bit.
Friday 29 July 1983
There was no rain last night and the usual early-morning dirty clouds soon disperse. The wind has increased to gale force and is bitterly cold, although in sheltered spots the sunshine is very hot. At first the wind is behind me and I soon reach Dingwall, where I stop at a café for a couple of cheese rolls and a pot of tea. Unfortunately the tea is not very nice and I leave some of it.
I take the back road out of Dingwall, parallel with the main road but higher up the valley. This road gives me a commanding view at times of the Cromarty Firth and the bridge that carries the new A9 from Inverness to join the old road. There is hardly a soul about. I have no option but to join the main road at Evanton but I leave it again just before Alness, to take the short cut to Bonar Bridge.
I am now heading between north and north west and the wind is either from the side or a headwind. The former is arguably the worse, because the gusts blow me all over the road and there is now quite a lot of traffic; the headwind just about grinds me to a halt. The road does change direction sometimes, though. At one point I am heading almost due east and I am blown up a 1-in-8 hill. I actually have to apply the brakes for a cattle grid.
I rejoin the A9 for the last four miles to Bonar Bridge. Dirty clouds start to roll in, giving me the exciting prospect of pouring rain as well as a strong headwind. This calls for desperate measures: a lunch stop. The town’s eating establishments comprise two hotels. One of them has a bar menu that looks reasonable, so I go in. No sooner do I sit down, than it sounds as though the rain is coming down in stair rods. I take my time over my meal and I have a dessert as well. In the end, I cannot leave it any longer and I venture outside, to find the ground completely dry and the bunting making a frightful noise in the wind. That was a sneaky ploy by the tourist authority; I would not have spent so much time or money, if I had realised the weather was still dry.
I set off and it immediately starts to rain! It looks like staying this way the a long while, so I stop to put on my waterproofs. However, it is only a drizzle, which peters out after a quarter of an hour.
I continue my personal feud with the wind and I reach Lairg mid afternoon. I am not really hungry again yet (rather surprisingly) but this is probably the last outpost of civilisation before Thurso, so I stock up both stomach and saddlebag. The latter is because I am certain to be camping in the middle of nowhere tonight and I do not relish another day of setting off with no breakfast. I have no cooking facilities, so I just get some fruit, fruit juice and chocolate biscuits.
For the first 15 miles the headwind makes the climb out of Lairg worse than ever and my feelings towards the rest of the world reach a new low. The scenery is fantastic but utterly desolate. There are no sheep or rabbits here; even they have gone somewhere less lonely. The only bit of life I see at all, is a couple of birds facing the same way as me but being blown backwards. The wind is howling constantly in the telegraph wires and the noise is driving me to distraction.
Eventually the road bends just sufficiently east, for the valley to funnel the wind into a tailwind. The last five miles to Altnaharra are mostly downhill as well, so I have some small compensation for all my preceding struggles, and life now looks a bit more cheerful. A couple of cyclists are pitching their tent in a sheltered spot by the roadside. It is very tempting to join them but there are still several hours of daylight yet and I must press on.
A sign outside the Altnaharra Hotel mentions bar food. It is a rather smart establishment, catering mainly for the fishing fraternity but I am not averse to lowering the tone of the place and a cheese roll or something would not go amiss, so I march in. Although it is now eight o’clock, dinner is only just being served and the bar staff are evidently doubling as waiters, so they have no interest in a smelly scruff like me. After a quarter of an hour of standing around, I decide to admit defeat, so I fill up my water bottles and leave.
Loch Naver is really beautiful and serene with no end of idyllic camping spots but, again, I resist the temptation to stop. It is essential that I reach the north coast tonight. The loch is several miles long and by the time I reach the far end, the sun is setting. Suddenly I become very glad that I did not stop here, because the midges and mosquitoes rise up in swarms. It is not easy riding a heavily laden bike along a hilly and twisty single-track road, while both hands are fully employed scratching and slapping various parts of one’s anatomy. I get beyond the loch as quickly as I can.
A further ten miles of tailwind and five miles of headwind bring me at last to the north coast. There is very little daylight left, now, and for the last few miles before the coast I have had my lights on. After a couple more miles, just beyond Bettyhill, I find a nice flat patch of grass that is sheltered from the wind. It is actually a little picnic area in front of the tourist information office. That is alright; my breakfast in the morning will be a picnic. By the time I have erected the tent between the tables and benches, it is too dark to see much and I feel quite pleased with myself at having timed things so nicely.
Saturday 30 July 1983
There was no rain last night, so I do not have any problems packing away a wet tent. I am really glad of the bit of breakfast that I bought in Lairg. It is very tasty, although I could have done with a lot more. The wind of the last two days is now entirely behind me but unfortunately it has now moderated considerably.
The hills are relatively gentle but every time the road crosses one of the numerous streams, it drops steeply on both sides. It is not long, therefore, before I have burned up my bit of breakfast and I revert to my normal state of starvation. There is one food source in abundance around here: rabbits. The area is simply teeming with them.
It is 08:00 when I pass through Melvich. A sign outside the hotel says “Open to non residents”. I wonder if that includes breakfasts but everywhere is locked up, so that is that. It seems as though meal times in this part of the country are two hours later than everywhere else. I am just getting back on my bike, when a cleaning lady comes running out after me. I explain my requirements and she says she will go and ask. I think she must have had to wake up someone, because for several minutes the only sound is a ticking clock. Another lady, looking to be a bit more in authority, appears and I repeat my story. It is obviously the first time anyone has ever asked for breakfast without the bed but she agrees to serve me. While I am waiting, I have a quick wash in the Gents. The breakfast proves to be excellent; I am given the works including oat cakes and my state of well-being improves no end.
It starts to drizzle on the way to Thurso but it does not become heavy until I reach there. I should have put on my waterproofs earlier, as I have let my clothes get wet. I do a bit of essential shopping in Thurso (Dextrosol, crunchy bars and camera film) and then find a café for an early lunch. The rain is still heavy when I leave and remains so until evening.
I visit Dunnet Head, which is the northernmost point on the mainland, but it is a bit of a nonentity. There is no café or any form of tourist trap and the lighthouse is out of bounds to the public. I take a photograph of myself by the sign for the lighthouse, just to show that I have been here, then beat a hasty retreat. On my return to Dunnet village, I call into the pub for a couple of cheese sandwiches.
I assume that the Youth Hostel does not open its doors until five o’clock, so I go to John o’ Groats, to kill a bit of time. This is much more of a tourist trap, though not excessively so. I take another photograph of myself and then shelter in the café for an hour with a cheese roll and a cup of tea. It occurs to me that perhaps too much cheese is bad for me but it also occurs to me that it is still an awful lot better than starving to death.
A French cyclist is also sheltering in the café, waiting for the next ferry to the Orkneys. I am certainly glad, now, that I did not go there today. If I had arrived yesterday, as I had begun to expect at the beginning of this week, I would have gone, because the weather was fine this morning, but it would have been a complete washout.
The couple on the tandem that I met in Carrbridge, turn up. They had stayed with the A9, so we are able to swap another load of stories. They say that for the last couple of days they have been leapfrogging a guy from Sheffield. “He’s a sort of hippie, a bit weird,” is their description of him. A few minutes later, in he comes, dripping wet and I see what they mean. We all chat for a few minutes more but it is now 17:00, so I head off to the Youth Hostel.
Malcolm greets me as I arrive. Sue and Mick are still asleep, recovering from the journey. They have actually been in the hostel all day, so I could have arrived any time. They had decided that the train fare to Wick was too expensive, so they hired a transit van for just 24 hours. Neil and a friend took turns driving continuously all the way to John o’Groats, with Sue, Mick and Malcolm and the bikes in the back. As soon as they arrived at six o’clock this morning, they immediately drove back home again, leaving Sue, Mick and Malcolm to knock up the warden.
It turns out that the warden comes from Dewsbury, Sue’s home town. He is amiable enough, but what a character. He can only just write, he cannot spell and he cannot talk at anything less than full volume. He tell us that there is a local saying for people cycling from here to Land’s End: if it is wet at John o’ Groats, it will be fine for the rest of journey.
Malcolm shows me his brand new Woodrup bike. It is very smart with Campagnolo everything but I do not think his gear ratios are appropriate for steep terrain. Still, each to his own and if those gears suit him, the quality cannot be faulted. Otherwise the specification of his bike is remarkably similar to my own.
The weather clears up in the evening and we walk down to the John o’ Groats Hotel for an evening meal. We call at the local taxi company, to arrange a lift back later to the hostel. Why the others do not want to cycle there and back, I do not know. I would certainly have preferred to cycle, because my Achilles tendons are hurting again and walking is quite painful. Both tendons are hurting now, not just the left one. Fortunately they have not been having too detrimental effect on my cycling.
The John o’ Groats Hotel is no longer serving meals, so we walk the quarter of a mile back up the road to the Sea View Hotel. They only have sandwiches, so we clean them out and return to the John o’ Groats Hotel, where we had arranged to be picked up by the taxi.
Sunday 31 July 1983
It is bright and sunny but with a cold wind. We are heading south west, so naturally it is a headwind. It is several miles before I warm up but eventually I start to peel off layers of clothing. The A9 is just wide enough for all four of us to ride abreast. There cannot be many parts of the Great North Road where one can do that! After a while the road becomes busy (that is, a car every few minutes), so we take up a bit less space.
After breakfast in Wick we continue along the A9 down the east coast, into the teeth of the gale, which seems to have got stronger again. Mick and Malcolm pull ahead of us, being clearly a lot fitter than Sue, who is really struggling with the wind. We agree to meet for our next meal break at Helmsdale. I could probably keep up with them but I am happy to continue at Sue’s pace, because last night’s walking seems to have done my ankles a power of no good.
As the road follows the coast, we can see several oil or gas platforms on the horizon. I did not realise that any of them were so close to land. After some time Sue’s pace deteriorates and so I go on ahead to report to the others (they are probably wondering what has happened to us).
I am overtaken by a middle-aged man whose superb level of fitness makes me want to pack up and go home. A short while later another cyclist, about my age, catches me up and we ride together for a while. He is from London and is doing the round-Britain coastal route, a distance of 5000 miles. He intends to do it in 50 days and, having already completed 3000 miles, he is currently on target. He previously spent a few minutes chatting with Sue and gave her a helping push up one of the hills, before continuing at his own pace. He, too, was overtaken by the middle-aged man. After a few minutes we part and he goes on ahead.
I hunt around every side street in Helmsdale but I can find no sign of the others, so I sit around and wait for Sue. It is a long wait. When she does arrive and I tell her that we have become split up, she is furious; what a brilliant start to the trip. Still, we are not going any further without food, so we have a meal in a hotel. The others are probably heading for the Youth Hostel near Bonar Bridge, so we telephone there and leave a message that we will meet them in town for breakfast. There is no chance of our reaching there tonight.
We stop for another quick nibble and a drink in Brora. The wind has dropped considerably and the hills are less steep now, and Sue’s progress has improved accordingly. It is dusk, when we reach Golspie, so there is no question of going any further. It is an amazingly popular place. Virtually every B&B (and there are plenty of them) is full. Just as we find one that has some space left, who should we see weaving their erratic way down the street but Mick and Malcolm on their way back from the pub. They take us to the B&B where they are staying, saying that they had no desire to push on to Bonar Bridge. The B&B is one of those that we passed by, because the sign said they were full. However Mick and Malcolm are in a three-bedded room, so I take the third bed and the landlady lets Sue spread her sleeping bag on the living room settee.
Mick and Malcolm say that there was nowhere open when they reached Helmsdale, so they continued to Brora, before having a meal. Malcolm did not have to get off and walk up any of the hills. He must have legs like steam engines; I could not have done it with his gears. He is determined not to walk any hill on the trip so, for the southward journey, I resolve to do the same. If he can do it on his bike, I certainly ought to be able to do it on mine.
Monday 1 August 1983
We are served a mammoth breakfast and we try our best to eat everything but we have to leave a few morsels. It is a beautiful day with a deep blue sky and is very warm in the sunshine although, again, the breeze is remarkably cold. Fortunately the breeze is mostly a tailwind or, at worst, a side wind, so it does not present much of a problem.
Mick and Malcolm immediately leave us behind again. I can understand them wanting to travel at a faster pace than Sue can manage but I think it is very unfair that they do not regularly allow us to regroup.
Today is the first day of the change in vehicle registrations from suffix to prefix and we see no end of brand-new A-registered cars. What phenomenal levels of vanity all these owners must have. They could buy their cars any day of the year but they feel it is imperative that everyone else sees that their car is brand new. Morons!
It took a lot of effort to plan and navigate my northward route, so I am happy to relax and let Sue do the southward navigation. However, this soon proves to be a mistake. I do not know if she is expecting me to navigate or what, but I suddenly realise that we passed the cross-country road to Bonar Bridge several miles back. It is hardly worth back-tracking all that way, so we continue on the A9. I am annoyed, because it looked a beautiful road on the map and I had been looking forward to going along it, ever since first planning my route. Fortunately there is not much traffic on the main road and it is undoubtedly less hilly and therefore easier for Sue.
At Spinningdale I leave Sue to continue along the main road, while I head up into the hills, to join the last couple of miles of the route we should have taken. I pass Loch Migdale, which is beautiful and then swoop down into Bonar Bridge, to meet Sue. There is no sign of the others, so we decide to have a meal on our own. Since I have already eaten in one of the hotels here, we take a look at the other but it is closed, so back we go to the first one.
We follow the same route out of Bonar Bridge as I took going north. This time the wind is mostly behind us. As soon as the big hill starts, Sue gets off to walk but I am still determined to pedal all the way and I tell her I will wait at the top. I catch up a middle-aged man who is struggling a bit, because his gears are not as low as mine, but he is obviously superbly fit and he still has enough breath to chat as we go along. We part company, when we come to a superb observation point just below the top of the hill; he carries on, while I wait for Sue.
A motorcyclist travelling northward pulls in, to admire the view and to dry out. He is travelling from Edinburgh to Thurso and says the weather was atrocious further south. Now, though, the sun and wind are doing an excellent job of drying him out and after a few minutes he continues on his way.
Once we are over the summit, we fly along as the wind teams up with gravity. Shortly after the cattle grid for which I had to brake, while going uphill the other way, we stop at a tea wagon. The wind is still cold and we have to dress up while we are stationary. We stop again briefly at a café, shortly before rejoining the A9.
Just after rejoining the A9, we meet another cyclist, who is heading for Inverness. He seems unsure about the route, so I explain the alternatives: either the pretty route that I took northward or the new direct route that we are taking now. He decides to join us and he and Sue take the lead, while I bring up the rear. In the next instant a sudden gust of headwind whips both Sue’s and my hats off our heads. I almost manage to catch Sue’s hat as it passes me but my reactions are a shade too slow. I pick up hers and then make a sprint back up the road for my own.
The new A9 is an uninteresting modern highway that cuts across the Cromarty Firth, the Black Isle and the Moray Firth. However, it cuts 16 miles off the distance to Inverness, which is a useful time saver. I am happy to come this way, because I took the interesting route going north, so I do not feel cheated. Half way across the Black Isle our companion, who comes from north Manchester, decides to push on at a faster pace, so we bid each other farewell.
Shortly afterwards it starts to rain. We are right on the edge of the rain belt; half the sky is blue and the other half is a disgusting grey. The wind direction suggests that we will only catch a few minutes of the rain, before running out of it, so we do not bother to put on our waterproofs. Ten minutes later we are both soaked to the skin but the sky is still half and half and the wind direction still suggests that we are about to run out of it, so we stay as we are and anticipate drying out when the sun reappears.
A few minutes later Sue gets a puncture and, by this time, the sky has clouded over completely and the rain is as heavy as ever. I can only assume that the wind direction at the altitude of the clouds is completely different from that at ground level. Sue has got some foam for injecting into the tyre, so that saves having to do a full repair in the rain. We set off again but I quickly stop, because I am frozen. I put on my waterproofs more to act as a windproof layer. Sue carries on, unaware that I have stopped and it is several miles before I catch her up. I cannot believe how far ahead she has got. I keep wondering if she has stopped for some reason and I have gone sailing past without noticing. Even when I do catch her up, she continues at an amazing pace.
The rain ceases as we reach the Moray Firth but we are too cold, wet and miserable to appreciate it. We reach Inverness like two drowned rats and I lead the way straight to the café that I had visited on my way north.
There is no chance of reaching Carrbridge (which is where the others probably are) tonight, so we head for the Youth Hostel. It is full, so we try a B&B. It is too expensive for our tastes, so we move on. After all, there is plenty of choice in a city of this size. Goodness me, we try every other B&B for miles around and they are all full. Eventually the penny drops; today is August Bank Holiday in Scotland and it is peak tourist season. Neither of us had thought of that. In retrospect we should have aimed for a village or small town, rather than a city, but it is too late now. We ask at a pub on the river bank if they provide accommodation. They do not but they recommend a small hotel just along the riverbank road. This hotel is also full but they suggest that if we cruise round the local streets, we will probably find something but, if we cannot find anything, they will see what they can do. We continue our roaming. We have been searching now for two hours; it is getting dark and we are both pretty fed up.
We try one B&B that does not have a “No Vacancies” sign displayed. The landlady takes pity on us. She has got one single room, which Sue takes, and she digs a camp bed out of the garage and sets it up in her private lounge. We are immeasurably grateful. The landlady will not let me help her set up the camp bed. She suggests that while she is setting it up, I go and join Sue. I am a bit reluctant, because I know Sue wants to have a wash. The landlady does not understand my reluctance. She has seen Sue’s wedding ring and draws the natural conclusion. It takes quite a long time to explain that although Sue is married, it is not to me! Sue solves the problem by waiting a while before washing.
I comment to Sue on her incredible progress across the Black Isle and she tells me she had taken a caffeine tablet, which acted as an energy booster. I cannot say that I approve of pepping up oneself with drugs, however legal they may be, but anything that helps her progress is okay by me. Our progress so far has been very poor and I am worried about reaching Land’s End on time. I am also worried about getting in touch with Mick and Malcolm; Sue’s tent is only a solo and Mick has got my fly sheet, so we have lost the option of camping as a last resort. Still, worrying will not change anything, so we will just have to take things as they come. On unpacking I realise that I left my water bottle at the café.
Tuesday 2 August 1983
After another excellent breakfast and further profuse thanks, we head into town. I retrieve my water bottle from the café and look for a bank for some cash. The patently obvious finally dawns on me. Scotland has different banks from England and my service card is useless. I had decided to save weight by not bringing my cheque book but on reflection this was not a clever move. I have no choice but to get cash on my credit card; it is an expensive option but that is just too bad.
The first bank I enter is the Bank of Scotland but it only takes Visa and I only have an Access card. The cashier tells me that I need either the Royal Bank of Scotland or the Clydesdale Bank. I cannot find the former and the latter has a huge queue of customers, so I decide to leave it until later in the day.
We work our way back to the main road and head south. Inevitably the main road is not much fun and so we follow the sign-posted scenic routes along the old A9. On the first such detour at Moy we discover that the “old” A9 was actually a road improvement itself, cutting a relatively straight line through the meandering course of the original road. The original road could have been used as a series of lay-byes but it has been completely fenced off.
Our next detour takes us through Tomatin, where we stop for lunch. Tomatin consists of a pub, a garage and not a lot else. After Findhorn Bridge we use the same route as I used before. The climb up to Slochd is not as strenuous as I anticipated, helped no doubt by the tailwind, then from Slochd down to Carrbridge we really get a move on.
Some dirty weather is moving in behind us. I just manage to stay ahead of it but Sue is dropping behind. I wait for her a couple of miles from Carrbridge and the drizzle catches me up just a few second before she does. Nevertheless we reach the café more or less dry.
It has stopped raining, when we come back out, although the atmosphere still feels damp. We have another attempt at looking for a bank but Carrbridge seems to be a bank-free zone, likewise Boat of Garten and Nethy Bridge. Sue tells me not to worry, as she has got some cash that she can lend me.
The final climb from Nethy Bridge to the Tomintoul-Grantown road is the worst killer that we have yet had to face on the southward journey. I almost give up and walk it but I just manage to keep going, turning the cranks round about once every three seconds. Needless to say, Sue walks it. We are back in familiar territory for me and I know what is in store. Sue is blissfully unaware: poor Sue!
Last week I had the impression that there was more uphill than downhill, when going from Tomintoul to Grantown. Since I knew that Tomintoul was higher, I put the impression down to uphills always seeming longer than downhills. Travelling in the other direction now, though, I still have the curious impression that it is an average downhill to Tomintoul. Maybe the effect is due to the direction (and strength) of the prevailing wind; I cannot think of any other explanation. Sue, on the other hand, has no doubts about the uphill direction of the road. By the time we reach Tomintoul, she is exhausted.
There is still some daylight left and I want to continue further (we have only covered 50 miles today) but Sue cannot decide what to do. In particular she cannot decide whether to continue to plod on as we have been doing, to continue on her own (so as not to hold me back) or to pack in the ride. She tries to telephone Neil for advice but there is no reply. Before long, the decision as far as today is concerned, is made for us, because it is now too late to go any further, so we book into the Youth Hostel.
We guess that Mick and Malcolm are at Braemar, so we telephone the hostel, only to learn that they left a message, saying they intend covering another twenty miles or so. That puts them a whole day ahead of us. Sue then informs me that they always wanted to shoot on ahead and spend a day in the Dales. Compared with her reaction on Sunday, when I told her at Helmsdale that they had not waited for us, she is very calm and matter-of-fact in her manner. However, this is news to me and whilst on the surface I also am calm and matter-of-fact, inside I am very annoyed. We are no longer a team of four but two groups of two with no lines of communication. What was the point of joining this trip if they just wanted to do their own thing? Also, since Mick has still got my fly sheet, our accommodation options are permanently limited. My mention of Mick reminds Sue that she lent him £10 and, having now also lent me some money, she is getting short herself. What a pathetic state of affairs. We console ourselves with a meal and a drink in the hotel I visited before.
It is a lonely-looking town is Tomintoul. Much as I love the Scottish highlands, I would not want to live here. Sue’s view is the same.
When we get back to the hostel, Sue goes straight to bed but I chat for a while with the warden. I tell him of my adventures since last Thursday and he relates a few stories in turn. I mutter about our progress being slow and how I had hoped to have been further south by now. Only afterwards do I realise that I had been complaining about exactly the same thing last week. I wonder what he thinks of me! I also mention Sue’s and my view about Tomintoul being lonely and he says that the roads get blocked quite frequently in winter.
Wednesday 3 August 1983
After some very heavy rain at daybreak, the weather is cloudy and dull but dry. We have a bar of chocolate each and a cup of black tea for breakfast; those tea bags were useful after all.
The first few miles are easy going but then we reach the sharp right bend. It is the one at the foot of the long 1-in-5 hill, where one of my panniers nearly fell off, with the unofficial camp site by the stream. Sue is in front and I know exactly what her reaction is going to be. Sure enough, as she sees what lies ahead, I hear the unmistakable sound of “Oh, sh*t!” I cannot help smiling because, if I had not already known what was there, that would have been exactly my reaction.
We adopt our usual approach to hills. Sue gets off and walks, while I pump away at the pedals, agreeing to wait for her at the top. Although in this direction the hill starts as 1 in 5 and then eases to 1 in 10, the latter is actually more difficult, because we come out of the shelter of the steep-sided valley and into the teeth of a surprisingly strong headwind. I nevertheless manage to reach the summit non stop and feel extremely pleased with myself, having got my revenge on the mountain.
The café is open, so I treat myself to a cheese roll and a cup of tea, while I wait for Sue. When she arrives, we both have a proper breakfast of baked beans and eggs on toast.
The headwind is stronger than ever (stronger even than last Friday north of Lairg) and blasts us most enthusiastically as we descent the Lecht. Part of the time it is a side wind and utterly lethal. I am being blown all over the place, while Sue sensibly walks down. A caravan lies at the side of the road, smashed to smithereens; it is obviously a recent accident, because it was not there last week.
It remains a direct headwind up and down the next two hills. The 1-in-5 descent to Gairnshiel Lodge is ridiculous; I hardly have to touch the brakes at all. Also, I am feeling pretty rough; I am cold and I have got a headache. I am looking forward to a return visit to Gairnshiel Lodge but they are not serving any meals. I am sure the proprietor would have served us something. After all, it was outside meal times when I called in last week, but he does not seem to be around at the moment. I do not feel like arguing, so we turn away dejectedly. It is another 13 miles to Braemar with another wicked hill, with more wicked headwind. Somehow we make it.
We meet a couple of other cyclists, who had passed us while we were eating at the Lecht café. They reached Braemar an hour ago, their day’s end. Lucky them. Even Sue agrees that we must push on further today. The only bank I can find is a Bank of Scotland, which is no use at all. This is becoming silly.
We take the back road out of Braemar, which joins the main road after about three miles. Before we reach the main road, it starts to rain and Sue decides she is not going to get soaked again, the way we both did on the Black Isle. She only has a cagoule and so she proceeds to concoct the most amazing over-trousers I have ever seen. Take two plastic dustbin liners, six elastic bands and a warped sense of humour!
I put my waterproofs on as well; they are a bit more sophisticated than Sue’s, albeit a lot more expensive! The rain becomes heavier and the climb up Glenshee becomes positively miserable. There is still a headwind, although the climb is not too difficult, probably because it is less steep than the preceding hills. The rain stops as I reach the café but the wind is very cold. The café is closed, so I just finish my chocolate stock, while I wait for Sue. By the time she arrives, I am quite shivery.
We continue southwards. The initial steep drop is exhilarating but after that the headwind makes it hard work. We make another pit stop at the Spittal of Glenshee and persuade them to rustle up some sandwiches. By the time we have eaten those, we realise it is too late to reach any other form of civilisation. We therefore have to take the cheapest rooms that the hotel has, which are still rather expensive. At least we can indulge in showers and a session of clothes washing. We do not have enough cash between us but fortunately the hotel takes Access. Sue lends me another £10 and is now down to her last £10 herself.
I finish off my can of ankle spray. Useless it was; it did precisely no good at all. Some days my tendons have not been too bad but other days they have been very painful and I have simply got used to the pain. Actually the pain is not too bad while cycling but it is sheer agony when walking. Climbing and descending stairs requires holding onto banisters for dear life. For the last several days I have been using the spray every morning and evening not in the hope that it would do any good but just to use it up. At least I no longer have to carry the can around. I am to find that after another few days the pain gradually eases of its own accord.
The barman and the kitchen hand are a couple of students on vacation from Stirling University. What a pair of characters. They have no end of hilarious anecdotes. They tell us that they had stopped serving food a long time ago and if any ordinary tourists had asked for anything, they would have told them to get stuffed, but they took pity on us. The hotel has a 24-hour licence for residents, so the bar stays open as long as anyone wants it. Around midnight we switch from beer to Cona coffee, of which there is a limitless free supply. Sue goes to bed shortly afterwards but I end up chatting until 01:15. No doubt I will regret it tomorrow but it has been a while since I have had so many laughs.
Thursday 4 August 1983
The weather is cloudy but dry. We make good progress to Blairgowrie where, at long last, I am able to get some cash. We celebrate by having some elevenses. While taking a couple of photographs, we bump into the Spittal hotel manager and he wishes us good luck.
I decide that we had better take the direct route to Edinburgh, straight through Perth. It will not, I am sure, be as interesting as the planned route but it will help our progress. I am getting ever more concerned about our lack of progress. Sue can afford to take longer than planned, to reach Land’s End and I have still got over two weeks’ leave, so there is no question about failing to get there. I am not prepared to leave her to her own devices, so the only effect of a further delay is to put the completion of my return trip into jeopardy.
I am really annoyed about Mick and Malcolm having decided deliberately to abandon the idea of us being a team of four. With all of us together, we could probably have redistributed the luggage, so that Sue had to carry as little as possible. With just the two of us, it is impossible. It is clear that Sue’s enthusiasm for cycle touring has exceeded her ability but I cannot complain too much; if it was not for her suggestion in the first place, I would not be doing this trip. Also, the aim of the trip is to cycle from John o’Groats to Land’s End, not to do the return journey.
The clouds disappear and it becomes hot again. It has been several days since I have been able to cycle without my shirt on. We have lunch in Perth. It is an attractive city but we have no time to explore. Following the old A90 to Edinburgh is no easy task. Not only is it no longer the A90 but the road number changes at practically every junction. At least there is very little traffic around.
We have afternoon tea in a hotel in Milnathort. Looking at the map, Edinburgh is about 30 miles away. I reckon we can just about make it, if the Youth Hostel still has some vacancies but it is not worth the effort, if the hostel is full, as everywhere else will be expensive. We telephone from Kinross and they say that although they are full, there is an overflow hostel that will have vacancies.
The Forth Road Bridge has a separate toll-free cycle lane, which is much appreciated. The sun is setting as we cross it and we have still got another ten miles to go. Fortunately the wind is now behind us and we make good progress. It is pretty dark, though, by the time we reach Princes Street. Sue does not have a rear light, so I am covering her from behind. However, although she has a front light, she will not use it. She will not say why not; in fact she has hardly spoken a word since the Forth Bridge. To show oncoming traffic that there is at least one cyclist approaching them, I have to keep well out from the kerb. We have done really well today, having covered well over 80 miles and Sue has actually put on quite a pace at times but she is now whacked and is operating in automaton mode.
After Princes Street Sue refuses to cycle any further and she gets off to walk. I do the same. It is further than I realised to the hostel and we have a bit of difficulty finding it. By the time we do find it (at about 22:50), my tendons are giving me hell. I tell Sue that we will just have to cycle to the spare hostel, whether she likes it or not.
The hostel gives us a pathetically useless map with instructions to get to the spare hostel. It would normally only take five to ten minutes by bike but we get completely lost. Twice we have to ask passers by for directions. Amazingly, both of them are locals and can actually help. Sue is on the verge of tears, because our chances of finding the place before they lock up, are uncomfortably close to nil and it is awfully late to start looking for a B&B. I am getting a bit concerned myself but panicking is not going to do any good, so we continue to cruise the streets, while I silently consider the options. If the hostel and all the B&Bs are closed, we have a choice between an expensive hotel or a bus shelter. I am not going to suggest these options to Sue, though, until or unless I have to.
We pass a policeman, who gives us a very dirty look regarding our lack of lights but he does not say anything. My own front light is reduced to a useless glimmer. We find ourselves in a really sleazy cul-de-sac, which looks like prime mugging territory. A couple of men are leaning outside a doorway. “Are you looking for the hostel?” one of them asks. “Yes.” “Step right in,” he invites. They have to point out the sign, before we really believe them. It is now 23:15 but fortunately this place is not too strict about time keeping.
Sue goes straight to bed but the caretaker promptly befriends me and, after helping me to carry my bags down to the dormitory, he takes me round to the local chippy. He points out a corner shop, run by a friend of his, where I can get provisions in the morning. Lights out, instead of the usual 23:00 prompt, it about 00:15.
Friday 5 August 1983
There is no sign of Sue when I get up, so I go to the local shop and buy some bread rolls and a pint of milk. The sky is cloudless and it is already very hot. There is still no sign of her when I get back to the hostel, so I have all the rolls and milk myself. The rolls are a bit dry on their own but I got plenty of milk in anticipation of that. Afterwards I find her sitting outside in the sunshine in no great hurry to go. She is still very surly.
We return to the city centre to do a bit of shopping and to get some breakfast (or a second one in my case). We are not too successful with the latter. The best we can get is fruit juice, bread rolls (with butter, jam, etc this time), Danish pastries and tea. After a few quick photographs we finally set off – at 11:00.
There are some long climbs out of Edinburgh and Sue’s progress seems to be worse than ever. I think today’s mileage is likely to be a record low, completely undoing all the good progress of yesterday. My frustration returns accordingly. We pass the Hillend ski slope, which I have never seen it before. It looks really impressive.
At Leadburn, after just 13 miles, we stop at a pub for lunch. The weather turns cloudy and much cooler but it is still fit for staying outside. I have an excellent toasted steak sandwich, while Sue has two whiskies. Apparently those late-night capers did her a power of no good and she is still strung up. She unwinds a bit after the second whisky but still does not want any food. It is patently obvious that food is what she needs but what can I do? I am her companion, not her guardian. She tries to telephone Neil again, to arrange where we will meet tomorrow and to ask for cash, fresh clothes, etc, but she still cannot get through.
The next ten miles to Peebles are quite a bit easier with more downhill than uphill. Sue has another attempt at telephoning Neil but still no luck. We console ourselves with some afternoon tea.
Our route crosses the road that I took northwards. I recognise the cross roads, because the hotel on the corner is where I had breakfast on the Monday after leaving Hawick. We call in again and I have some more of their excellent cheese rolls and we both have tea. Sue finally manages to contact Neil and arranges for us to meet at Langholm tomorrow lunchtime.
We stop again at the Tushielaw Inn for a drink. We are both feeling a bit tired by now and we enquire about accommodation. They have none spare but the barman suggests a guest house at Buccleuch, three miles down the Hawick road. It is not the road we want, so we will have to backtrack to Tushielaw in the morning. Still, three miles is not very far and there is precious little civilisation marked on the atlas between here and Langholm, so we decide to try it.
It is a fairly expensive place but there is not much daylight left and even I do not feel like going any further. The landlord catches our mood with regard to the price and knocks a bit off. It is a deal. He sticks a couple of pizzas in the microwave oven for us and they go down very nicely.
Saturday 6 August 1983
There is not a cloud in the sky. It is cool at first but as soon as the sun appears, it becomes blazing hot. Once again I indulge in the luxury of stripping to the waste but unfortunately Sue refrains. As we return to Tushielaw, Sue is a few yards ahead of me. A sheep is quite happily munching grass at the side of the road and there is plenty of room for everyone but the brainless creature just has to run across the road right in front of her. She wobbles like mad and I expect to have to help to pick her up but she manages to regain her balance. The sheep is now happily munching grass again on the other side of the road. I know exactly what is going to happen next and I take my feet out of the toe clips in readiness. Sure enough, when I am level with it, the demented creature runs across the road again. Even though I was expecting it, I am still caught by surprise and I nearly fall off. I swing my foot in the direction of its backside but alas it is too quick.
For the next 30 miles to Langholm we do not pass a single B&B, so our little detour was a good move. The first person we meet in Langholm is Malcolm; a few moments later Neil appears. Neil stayed in the Dales last night and Malcolm came up with him on his motorbike just for the ride. We go to where Neil has left his bike and we spend a few minutes lounging on the riverside grass, swapping stories and having a few laughs. Sue sorts out with Neil what she does and does not want for the rest of the trip and, since my tent poles and pegs are not much use on their own, I give those to Neil.
During a leisurely pub lunch we plan our future strategy. Malcolm’s knee is giving him quite a bit of bother and it is more logical if he stays with Sue and I go with Mick. We agree to meet tomorrow lunchtime in High Bentham.
After lunch Neil and Malcolm return to the Dales, while Sue and I continue on our way. We cross into England at the River Esk and then take a highly dubious, very steep and extremely narrow road towards Brampton. I have seen better farm tracks than this but it improves after a while and does indeed turn out to be the right road. Once again, between Langholm and Brampton there is a complete lack of pit-stop facilities.
It is early evening when we reach Brampton. One café is just closing and the nearby hotel is not serving meals for another half hour. A quick look at the atlas tells us that we are unlikely to find anywhere else, so we stay at the hotel and wait. Sue orders a pizza and I order plaice and chips. When the food arrives, Sue’s eyes nearly pop out of her head. It is the biggest pizza either of us has ever seen. There is hardly any space left on the table for my fish and chips. Sue struggles through three quarters of it and calls it a day.
The difference between English and Scottish licensing laws has suddenly become very apparent. For most of the last fortnight, I have been able to walk into a Scottish inn or hotel at any time of the morning, afternoon or evening and be served food and drink. Now that we are in England, there are huge parts of every day when it is impossible to get anything. The weary traveller simply has no right to expect food, drink and a rest.
The sky looks terribly threatening when we leave the hotel, although it stays dry (and warm) and it brightens up again towards sunset. The sunset itself is quite spectacular.
It is quite dark by the time we find a B&B in Lazonby. We spend a while in the pub but they have no food, not even any bar snacks, much to my disgust. The night remains very warm and I have a phenomenal menagerie of insects in my bedroom.
Sunday 7 August 1983
Breakfast at 07:30 is early by B&B standards and we are off by 08:30. Although the weather is still warm, it is cloudy and hazy with not a very good view of Cross Fell or its Pennine Way neighbours. The antennae of the air traffic control station on Great Dun Fell are only just visible.
We stop at a hotel in Temple Sowerby for mid-morning tea. Afterwards the cloud and haze clear and it becomes blazing again but my back and shoulders are a bit sore from yesterday, so I keep my shirt on.
The scenery improves as we get into the foothills of the Cumbrian fells (not that it was bad before but it was mostly agricultural). Unfortunately good scenery means poor progress. Malcolm forgot to tell us about this! It is after midday when we reach Tebay and, since we have no chance of reaching High Bentham before closing time, we look for a pub for lunch. Before we find one, some children on bikes take great delight in overtaking us on the uphills, making comments about our slow speed. Needless to say, they are not carrying any luggage. We find a lovely pub but the weather is so hot, we decide to stay inside rather than sit outside.
The scenery between Tebay and Kirkby Lonsdale becomes more and more magnificent, which means the hills become more and more diabolical. Sue is sick to death of them and I am pretty fed up as well. I am not feeling at all bright this afternoon. I have got a sore throat and I reckon I am catching a cold. Even after Kirkby Lonsdale the hills continue to be real swines. We stop briefly at Casterton for an ice cream but time is marching on and so must we.
We reach High Bentham at five o’clock but there is no sign of the others. They knew how far we had to come from Langholm and what the terrain was like. Surely they could not have been surprised, when we did not arrive by two o’clock. They simply could not wait three hours more. Nearly in tears, Sue telephones Neil. He is as mad as anything. He says he will try and find out some news and she should call back in an hour.
We have some tea in a café and then set off for Slaidburn. More bl**dy hills. Sue is completely whacked and by now I am feeling terrible as well. This is familiar territory for me and I do my best to offer encouragement to Sue. The hills are not really interminable; they just seem that way.
What a superb place Slaidburn Youth Hostel proves to be. It is only Simple Grade but it is spacious and has a very friendly warden who is a true artist with food. Despite the fact that the official meal time was two hours ago, he offers to make us something. Sue does not want anything and goes across the road to the pub. I am hungry, though, so I accept his offer. He prepares some wonderful home-made soup with thick slabs of wholemeal bread, shepherd’s pie with vegetables, raspberry pie with ice cream and a huge pot of tea. The quality is A1 and the quantity is in the gut-bursting category. This warden is only a temporary replacement for the regular warden. Not wishing to be disrespectful to the regular warden, I cannot imagine him being better than this guy.
Afterwards I go across the road to join Sue. While I was eating dinner, she telephoned Neil again. He could get no information about the others but he telephoned his boss and told him he was taking a week off work. He is going to borrow a bicycle and meet us tomorrow evening at my house in Knutsford. He and Sue will then continue at a slow pace, keeping to the main roads, while I can push on a bit to make up for lost time. Sue is obviously delighted at this news; I am equally delighted although, the way I am feeling at the moment, I have difficulty working up much excitement.
We spend the rest of the evening in the pub and a bit later on the warden comes in and joins us. By closing time it is clear that Sue has been very busy drowning her previous sorrows and celebrating the good news; she is distinctly unsteady on her feet. The warden does not actually say anything but he gives me a look as though to say, “You should keep better control of your wife.” I say nothing either; I just shrug my shoulders and smile thinly. I am getting a bit tired of trying to convince people that we are not married. Although the confusion at the B&B in Inverness was the first occasion that I was mistaken for her husband, there have been several other occasions since then, when a landlord or landlady has been perplexed by our requests for separate rooms.
Monday 8 August 1983
What an awful night I had. My sore throat kept me awake until dawn, so I did not get much sleep before breakfast at 07:00. The weather is cloudy, dull and hazy. I also find it cold but maybe that is just me, because Sue is happy enough in shorts. My throat is still sore and my nose is alternately bunged up and streaming.
The CTC route to Whalley bypasses Clitheroe. It is still infested with endless killer hills but at least it makes a change from the route I know so well. Near Bashall Eaves we stop at a cottage advertising teas. It is only 09:30 and they are not yet open but Sue displays admirable initiative and rings the bell. Not wanting to turn away good business, they open up.
From Whalley we take the main road to Blackburn, which strikes me as a horrible, filthy town with an all-pervading stench of diesel fumes. We stop at a pub just before Tockholes for lunch. We finish off the meal with coffees, for the simple reason that the philistines do not serve tea.
Very gradually, the hills become less severe. We bypass Bolton as much by luck as by judgement, as some of the roads look very dubious. Nevertheless we keep on the correct route. Considering that Bolton is a much nicer town than Blackburn and that we could have bypassed Blackburn just as easily, I cannot imagine why the route had to go through Blackburn. That was definitely not CTC’s cleverest idea.
By the time we reach Leigh, the terrain has become flat. We stop at a café for tea, where the lady serves us two small pots each. I naturally assume that one contains tea and the other contains hot water but when I try topping up the teapot, I find that I am simply pouring tea from one pot to the other! It turns out that she does not have any larger pots. We quickly discover that four pots is insufficient and we order another two.
We stop in Culcheth for some provisions for breakfast tomorrow and then we head straight for Knutsford. It is open countryside again now and completely familiar territory to me, so I know exactly where every short cut is.
Just as we finish unloading our luggage and I coax some life into the central heating boiler, Neil arrives on Mick Britton’s bike. He had actually arrived a couple of hours ago but he did not fancy just sitting around on the lawn, so he pottered around. I notice his rear tyre is rather flat, so I get out my track pump. In pumping up the tyre, I nearly lift it right off the rim. There is obviously a fault somewhere, because the pressure in the tyre is not particularly high. I remove the tyre and inner tube to look for the problem and find that the rim has no tape on it and several of the spokes jut beyond the nipples. I file down the spokes but I do not have a spare rim tape, so I use some insulating tape. I then discover that the brakes are loose, the front wheel cones are loose, the freewheel is loose and the gearing is designed for sprinting, not touring. I convince Neil that by far the best solution is to leave Mick’s bike in my garage and to take my old Peugeot instead.
After washing bodies and clothes, we stroll round to one of Knutsford’s numerous real ale pubs for a couple of drinks and then visit the chippy. Sue tries to tell Neil about what she regards as my excessive appetite but Neil interrupts her.
“I’ve seen [Mick] Gavigan eat and nobody can be worse than him.”
“Oh, Bob’s much worse than Gavigan.”
“In that case, I don’t want to know!” Thanks, mate!
Neil asks that if I should catch up with Mick and Malcolm, I say nothing about him joining Sue. That is fine by me but by now I do not anticipate catching them up at all.
Tuesday 9 August 1983
I make scrambled eggs on toast for everybody for breakfast. Sue and Neil leave at 08:30 but I want to sort out all my gear and decide what I need for the rest of the journey and what I can leave behind. After a bit of shopping I set off at 09:15. My cold is half in my nose and half on my chest but I do not feel too bad today. I keep a packet of toilet paper handy, though, for regular nose blowing.
The sky is cloudless and it is hot in the sunshine but the air is cool, so I wear my track suit top over my shirt. However, when I stop at a café in Nantwich for some tea and the inevitable cheese roll, both garments are wringing wet from perspiration. When I set off again, I drape the jacket over my saddle bag to dry. After 100 yards or so, I stop again; it is blazing hot now and I take off my shirt as well.
Shortly after Aston I stop to check the route. Just as I set off again I hear a shout and along come Sue and Neil. I wait for them and then we continue together. At one point I suddenly see a view that I want to photograph. Forgetting that Neil is right behind me, I slam on the brakes. With a colourful curse on his lips, Neil wobbles into the ditch.
It is lunchtime when we reach Market Drayton, so we dive into the first pub we find. Sue and Neil do not have complete map coverage of this area and do not want to risk getting lost on the back roads. They therefore decide to follow the main road to Shrewsbury and then on to Ludlow, hopefully staying at the Youth Hostel there. I still intend to follow the CTC route, so while they stay for a second drink, we wish each other farewell and I set off.
It is no easy task finding the right road out of the town. My map is not very clear and I end up asking directions at a newsagent. Some of these roads are really poor quality. One in particular has only just been tarred and gritted and all the grit is still loose. It is a pain in the backside for motorists and positively lethal for cyclists. There is a narrow strip on the other side of the road that has not been tarred, so I ride there. Fortunately there is not a lot of traffic on this road. Further on the road has been tarred completely and I do not like it one bit.
The road quality improves as I approach Wellington but I then suffer the same problem that I always suffer in this area. The ever-changing road system and the incredibly pathetic signposts are guaranteed to get one completely lost. Actually I do fairly well this time; I only take one wrong turn and realise it after less than a mile.
After hardly a hill since Leigh, they start again, long and steep, leading to Little Wenlock. At Coalbrookdale I stop for an ice cream and then drop down into the Severn valley at Ironbridge. Neil had been telling me about the red cooling towers of the power station here. He is right; they are quite distinctive. After that there is the inevitable steep climb back out of the valley but then the worst is over as I approach Much Wenlock. The scenery along Wenlock Edge is not unduly inspiring, though.
Since there is virtually no traffic on the B road, I decide to stay on that to Ludlow, rather than navigate the rather tortuous CTC route on the other side of the valley. I start feeling hungry around 17:30 but of course it is not opening time yet. Once 18:00 has passed, I start looking for pubs. I call at two but they are both closed; I do not understand it. The first establishment that I find in Ludlow is a Routiers restaurant. Routiers usually means good value, so I enter. It is quite a smart place but I soon lower the tone of the place. The duck à l’orange is so filling that I do not bother having a dessert.
I could stop at the Youth Hostel but I would rather carry on to Leominster. It is already dusk as I leave Ludlow and I realise that it will be completely dark before long. I therefore decide that if there is a B&B en route, I will try that. I find one after a few miles but apart from a television on in one room, the cottage seems deserted (shades of Hawick). I continue along the road and before long I find another one, a farmhouse. After I have had a clean-up, the landlady makes an evening drink and I chat with a couple of Dutch girls who are also on bikes and who are pottering around the local area. On unpacking, I cannot find my comb. Remembering my performance with the towels, I have a thorough search through everything but to no avail.
Wednesday 10 August 1983
I am served a gargantuan breakfast with three enormous deep yellow scrambled eggs. I actually have to leave one slice of toast. The weather is cloudy, dull, hazy and cool. In Leominster I buy a comb and an apple. I eat half of the latter immediately but then accidentally drop the remainder in the gutter.
Just before Mordiford I collect another puncture (in the rear wheel, naturally). On pulling out my tool kit, I find my old comb. Meet the only long-distance cyclist who saves weight by leaving his brain at home! It turns out not to be a puncture but a small split in the tube seam. It is exactly midday when I reach Mordiford, so I stop at the only pub in the village and have a ploughman’s lunch. By the time I come back out, the weather has turned sunny and hot.
The back tyre is losing air very slowly. Maybe I did not stick the patch on properly but maybe the tube has perished. There is not much life in the tyre either, so I will try to get one of each in Ross on Wye. Unfortunately it is early afternoon when I reach Ross and today is half-day closing. I console myself with some afternoon tea, which I feel is well deserved, after all the hills since Leominster.
There are more of the same hills to Chepstow. The road follows the River Wye for only part of the time; for the rest of the time it can best be described as having its ups and downs. At least the Forest of Dean provides a pleasant environment. In Chepstow I have some fish and chips; they are piping hot and very tasty, which is a bit of a pleasant surprise, because the shop looked a bit seedy.
I cross the Severn Bridge which, like the Forth Bridge, has a separate toll-free track for cyclists: much appreciated. After a quick pit stop at Aust Services, I continue along the back roads towards Bristol. As I climb a hill just beyond Easter Compton, who should I catch up but Sue and Neil; we are all astounded! Sticking to the main roads has certainly been paying dividends for them; the hills are less steep and they do not need constantly to stop and check the map. At this rate, they could well reach Land’s End before me. They tell me that on the A49 south of Hereford they found a note stuck to a signpost from Mick to Malcolm. This showed that they, too, were no longer sticking to the CTC route and also that they have split up, probably because of Malcolm’s knee.
We continue to Bristol together. Sue and Neil do not fancy going right into the city to the Youth Hostel, so we look for hotels on the outskirts. It takes a while but eventually we find a place whose prices are not too disgusting. When we have cleaned ourselves up, we stroll around and end up in a Chinese restaurant. By the time we get back to the hotel, it is too dark to do anything about my rear tyre. Besides, all the bikes are tied together with everybody’s locks and it is not worth messing around getting Sue’s and Neil’s keys, so I will leave it until tomorrow.
Thursday 11 August 1983
I am ready to leave before Sue and Neil and, since my rear tyre is only partially down, I just pump it back up and set off. It is sunny and hot again. The Clifton suspension bridge is an impressive structure offering equally impressive views but it is minute compared with the Forth and Severn bridges. On that basis, I feel that the 2p charge for cyclists is positively extortionate!
I make a stop at West Harptree for a Crunchy bar and a pear. By the time I am 10% of the way up the hill leading out of the village, I am glad I made that stop but by 20% I am hungry again; it is another classic killer. Once I am on the Mendip plateau, I am pushed along by a stiff breeze and then I come to the lethal descent of Cheddar Gorge. There is a sign that advises cyclists to dismount. With decent brakes it is not really necessary, although with the load that I am carrying, it is a close call. Fortunately nothing is coming the other way.
I stop in Cheddar for tea and cheese rolls (Cheddar cheese, naturally) but, on leaving, I take the wrong road and get thoroughly lost in the country lanes. Eventually I get back onto the route and stop at a pub in Watchfield for another ploughman’s lunch. This comprises home-baked bread, local farm cheese and home-made pickle. I know all about Mendip farm cheese; sometimes it is quite mild, but it can also be like rocket fuel, so I am prepared for that. What I am not prepared for is the pickle. I cannot decide whether to grade it by degrees proof or an octane rating! At any rate it powers me through Bridgwater (with just a brief stop at a sweet shop for some chocolate) and up into the Quantock Hills.
These hills are steep but not quite as steep as the Mendips. I stop for a thankful rest in a nice shaded café at the top. When I set off again, though, I soon realise that it is nowhere near the top. My atlas is very deceptive and what I thought were the Quantocks are really only the foothills. In fact the hills get worse and worse. In Scotland the roads follow the valleys and skirt round the mountains but not here. These roads do not merely go over the tops of every hill, they actually follow the ridges so that every point is at maximum altitude.
Most of the time there are 20-foot hedges obliterating the view. When a view can be seen, it is naturally very extensive but the scenery is totally uninspiring, being just cultivated fields. One way and another I am heartily sick of these hills.
I become completely lost for a while. No junction resembles anything on my atlas and I have not got a clue where I am. Suddenly I come across a junction with a signpost and by sheer chance I am on the right road. Progress has been terribly slow since Bridgwater. It is after 19:30 when I pass through Brompton Regis, a village sufficiently large to have a pub (it is a hotel really). I am starving and I order a meal.
I cause a bit of amusement when I butt into someone else’s conversation with the barman. A couple of miles before the pub (but nearly half an hour earlier in time), I passed a recently built and quite attractive artificial lake, clearly a local tourist attraction. This person is asking the barman how far away it is and I mutter “About 100 miles.” Someone else asks where it is and I reply “Downhill.”
“Are you walking?” I am asked. “Cycling,” I reply, “but on second thoughts, yes, I am walking.” That is not true, because I have held my resolve to cycle all the way (apart from strolling around some of the streets of Edinburgh in the dark). However, I cannot help remembering my conversation with the proprietor of the Gairnshiel Lodge. Besides, it describes my opinion of these hills without having to resort to bad language and I have been using enough of that today. As for staying on the bike, I think walking would have been quicker at times but that would break the challenge.
By the time I have finished my meal, there is very little daylight left and I have no enthusiasm for going any further. The landlord says that he is fully booked and that there is no other accommodation for quite some distance. I can certainly believe the latter from what I have seen or, rather, not seen around these parts. However, the landlord says that one booking is questionable and if the person does not arrive by 21:00, I can have the room. I suddenly become very religious, praying that this other person does not turn up. Hooray, 21:00 finally arrives and the landlord says the room is mine.
The pub is a very old building and the staircase is a real duck-or-grouse affair. The bathroom is magnificent and I make full use of the facilities.
Friday 12 August 1983
After a superb night’s sleep, breakfast is served in the bar but the choice of liquid does not extend to beer. For the second time in three days it is gargantuan, more like breakfast and lunch combined. For starters there is a mountain of Alpen (large even by my standards) and a croissant. The main course comprises fried egg, fried bread, sauté potatoes, mushrooms, tomato and baked beans (thank goodness I asked them not to give me any bacon or sausages). This is then followed by toast, marmalade and tea. Again I am forced to leave some of the toast.
I comment to the landlord about the roads always going over the hill tops. He replies that the reason is that the roads follow the old land boundaries. It is logical, I suppose, but I still prefer the Scottish system of trying to make it easy for the traveller. These roads remind me of the way Hadrian’s Wall follows the hill tops; that stretch of the Pennine Way was pretty exasperating, as well.
The weather continues to be sunny and hot. My rear tyre is down again but it holds its air when I pump it back up, so I still cannot be bothered to repair it. I am faced with more unrecognisable junctions and I take a wrong turn almost immediately. I end up in Dulverton, which is quite a pleasant village, before climbing back up onto Exmoor. With such a weight in my stomach, I try to take the hills gently but it is no easy task around here. The scenery is a lot more interesting now; it is open and fairly wild. The weather turns cloudy and cool with a bit of a headwind but nothing too bad.
I rejoin the planned route and then go screaming down a very long, straight and steep hill into North Molton. After a short steep climb back out, I follow the Mole valley down to South Molton, where I stop for lunch. Despite the breakfast, I can still find room for three courses and a pot of tea. Afterwards the weather brightens up again but remains cool, except when I am in the shelter of the breeze. The hills are short, sharp and plentiful. By Atherington I am gasping with thirst and I call into the village store but they cannot be bothered to keep any of their soft drinks in a refrigerator. An unchilled drink would do no good at all so, despite my thirst, I just walk out again.
I approach an uphill marked as1 in 4, the first such grade I have tackled. This is a B road and, whilst it is not exactly teeming with traffic, there are sufficient vehicles around that I cannot adopt my usual tactic on steep hills of weaving back and forth across the road. All in all, I am approaching this with some trepidation. In the end, though, I conquer it with relative ease and I become convinced that many of the unmarked hills (particularly in Cumbria and Lancashire) were at least as steep as this one. Because those hills were unmarked, I had assumed that they were no steeper than 1 in 5 but maybe some of them were as much as 1 in 3.
I stop for tea in Great Torrington and then plod on against a slight headwind to Stratton. Finding an open café, I stop for another meal and study the map. The CTC route along the coast looks like a navigator’s nightmare, so I decide to follow the A39 instead.
I telephone Tintagel Youth Hostel but it is full. I try Boscastle but it is engaged. I stop at various telephone boxes along the road but each time it is still engaged. During this period I am playing leapfrog with a tractor towing a combine harvester. It is chugging along slowly, merrily holding up the traffic and I have no trouble overtaking them and it. Every time I stop at a telephone box, the tractor passes by and then I overtake it again. It overtakes me on one particularly steep hill but I soon get my revenge.
It occurs to me that since it is now the weekend, accommodation might be a bit scarce. I do not want to risk waiting until sunset before I start looking for somewhere, so I make 20:30 my deadline for telephoning Boscastle; after that I will stop at any B&B I find on the road. The Youth Hostel is still engaged at the fourth attempt at 20:30, so I give up with that one. At Wainhouse Corner I call at a B&B. They are full but they suggest another one in the village, which turns out to be another farmhouse.
The farmer tells me that if I had followed the CTC route, I would have had to negotiate a 1-in-3 drop and rise at Millook. I am glad, now, that I took the main road although, with my revised estimates of the gradients of some of the hills in Cumbria and Lancashire, maybe I would have coped. It would certainly have been an achievement to conquer a marked 1 in 3. If I had got time to spare, I might have attempted it without any luggage but I am not exactly heartbroken that I do not have any spare time.
The farmer’s wife gives me tea and cake and we all watch a fascinating World About Us programme about a Kenyan game reserve and how they look after orphaned animals and try to catch poachers.
Saturday 13 August 1983
After the usual pumping session on my rear tyre, I am ready to depart. The weather is hotter than ever. It is still fairly early with not much traffic on the main road, so I decide to stay with it for the time being. I make good progress to Wadebridge but then disaster strikes. The approach to the town is slightly downhill and I am travelling at the same speed as the rest of the traffic. The traffic lights at a junction are green and we all sweep through. The place is teeming with pedestrians, though, so I give myself a bit more space behind the car in front. This proves to be my undoing, because no sooner has the car in front gone through the lights, than several dozen people spill onto the road and start to cross. They clearly do not realise that I am approaching at rather more than walking pace.
It slowly dawns on them that maybe they ought to get out of my way and they make a gap just wide enough for me to get through. Just as I breathe a sigh of relief, some miserable apology of a brainless child steps into the gap. I yell at him to shift but the pathetic moron just stands there, staring at me. My only options are to swerve into the crowd and hit half a dozen people or hit the child. I hit the child, fair and square. He goes one way, I go another, and the bike goes a third. Unfortunately he is not badly hurt and after bawling for his mother for a few minutes, the obnoxious wart picks himself up and runs off. With any luck his next argument will be with a bus.
The crowd allows him make his escape but otherwise ignores him. However, several people including a traffic warden come over to see how I am. I am rather shaken, but otherwise in one piece. Unfortunately, the bike is a bit sick. The front wheel now resembles a banana and 36 strands of spaghetti.
Someone gives me directions to a bicycle shop in the town (thank goodness the town is sufficiently large that there is a shop). The hub appears to be undamaged and, since it is good quality, I cut out the spokes and keep it. I buy a cheap-and-cheerful replacement wheel, with the intention that when I return home, I will have my hub built into another good quality wheel. If I reckon that the wheel I am buying now is better quality than the front wheel on my Peugeot, I can then swap it over.
The replacement has different sized cones and nuts from my old wheel and it takes a bit of swapping of components, before I can get it to it in the forks. By the time I have sorted all that out, it is past midday, so I go in search of food.
The first pub has a pricey menu and the second one assaults my ears with several hundred decibels of juke-box output. In my current mood, that is the last thing I want. I find a café with a rubbish menu but it is peaceful and not too expensive. It is only when I come to pay, though, that I realise how short of cash I really am. I have only a few pence on me now and all the banks, building societies, etc are closed. I have already withdrawn my weekly limit on my service card and, again in the interest of saving weight, I have still not brought my cheque book (being in England, now, I reckoned my service card would suffice). Like the bicycle shop, the café does not take credit cards. One way and another I seem to be in a real pickle.
The front wheel is still not right and the bicycle shop has a better selection of tools than I have, so I need to return there but I cannot leave the café until I have paid for my lunch and I have not got the money for my lunch! I give the café proprietor my wristwatch as deposit and return to the shop. While I am there, I explain the situation and persuade them to give me back the cash I paid for the wheel in exchange for an IOU; I will then post them a cheque when I get back home in about ten days’ time.
With my wheel fixed and my financial wheeling and dealing complete, I return to the café to pay for my lunch and retrieve my watch. I do feel slightly more comfortable now, with a few pounds to my name but it is only a few pounds; the wheel was only £14. I am going to have to be extremely careful for the rest of the weekend and pay for all food and accommodation with my flexible friend.
My itinerary was to reach Land’s End today but I have no chance of getting there now. I therefore decide to enjoy myself, messing around on the back roads. I follow the CTC route fairly closely to Gummow’s Shop but it is the old story of 20 foot hedgerows everywhere, so I compromise by taking some of the less important A roads to Truro.
I am not even going to be able to reach Penzance Youth Hostel tonight, so I telephone Falmouth but the miserable sod I speak to, insists that telephoned bookings must be paid for by 18:00. It is nearly that now and Falmouth is at least an hour away. He says there are only a few places left and they are likely to go pretty quickly. Falmouth is several miles off my route, so there is no point in taking the risk. Besides, if he cannot be bothered to be helpful, why should I take my custom there? He is the antithesis of the warden at Slaidburn. I will simply look for a B&B and I hope he ends up with some empty bunks.
I have a quick stroll around Truro to see the sights and to look for an eating parlour that takes Access. By 18:30 I have not found anywhere suitable, so I hit the road again. In fact, the city is surprisingly devoid of life. There are virtually no other tourists and everywhere looks as though it closed at least half an hour ago. Just as I am looking for the right road, I see a wine and food bar that opens at 18:45. It is called Bustopher Jones and has a large sign outside containing T S Elliot’s poem. “Bustopher Jones is not skin and bones, in fact he’s remarkably fat ….” I persuade the proprietor to let me in early, so I can have a wash while I am waiting. Since I am having to use my credit card and since I have had a traumatic day, I decide to treat myself to a smart meal: smoked mackerel, lamb provençal with a glass of wine, apple crumble and tea. Excellent and definitely the high point of an otherwise rotten day. If I am in Truro again, I know where to go for a meal.
It is a long uphill out of Truro but it leads to a magnificent view over the city. After a few miles I start to get disturbed about the surprisingly frequent signs to Redruth. I stop to look at to the atlas and then turn round and head back down the long hill into Truro! This time I head south west out of the city (instead of west), partly on the A39 and partly on the back roads.
There are no B&Bs to be seen anywhere, until I come across an inn at Perranarworthal. It is pretty dark by now and there is not much prospect of finding anything else for some distance. The outside of the inn looks fairly smart but not unduly posh, so I venture inside. Oh my word, if the outside had been as posh as the inside, I would have kept going and slept under a hedge if necessary. In fact I am surprised they let me in at all. The place is doing a roaring trade as a restaurant and is packed with smartly dressed people tucking into food that looks and smells gorgeous. I can certainly understand why this place is so popular and I am tempted to sit down for another meal myself but I resist the temptation, if only out of embarrassment. Ever since I walked in, I have been the number-one attraction; scores of people are sitting, staring at me. I am not sticking out like a sore thumb; sore thumbs are simply not in the same league.
The landlord offers me a room and leads me upstairs; all eyes follow me until I am hidden from view. There is another (empty) eating area on the landing and the landlord explains that this is where breakfast will be served. He shows me the bathroom to the right of the landing and my bedroom to the left. The room is a bit pricey but reasonable considering the facilities. There is even a portable television, although reception on its loop aerial is chronic. There is nothing interesting on anyway, so I switch it off again. The bathroom holds much greater attractions. It is a huge room with a magnificent old-fashioned bath tub in the middle. There is no shower but I do not care; what I need is a good, long soak to ease away the day’s troubles.
I strip off, throw a towel round my waist, pad off to the bathroom and do indeed have a long, hot soak. In fact I have a very long soak. What the landlord forgot to tell me is that when the downstairs fills up on a Saturday night, the landing is used as a spill-over. I eventually emerge from the bathroom with my hair sticking up at all angles and with the towel only casually wrapped round my waist, to find another two dozen smartly dressed people well into the middle stages of their meals. They appear somewhat astonished, as this half-naked apparition squeezes between them, smiling meekly and muttering apologies, and disappears into a bedroom. Maybe I should have wished them all good evening and bon appetit.
My room overlooks the car park (which is well illuminated) and the main road, and it occurs to me that I may not be able to get to sleep very early. Fortunately, no sooner does my head hit the pillow than I am fast asleep. Unfortunately, it is not a lot later when I wake up again due to a call of nature. I put my ear to the bedroom door and, sure enough, there are still plenty of people out there on the landing. No way am I venturing out there; I will just have to sit tight. It is past midnight before the majority of cars have left the car park and I can hear no noise from the landing. I open my door a crack; thankfully the coast is clear. The rest of the night is undisturbed.
Sunday 14 August 1983
Breakfast is at 07:00, an unusually early hour, especially for a Sunday, but it gives me a chance to make the most of the day. It is an average breakfast which is to say it is reasonable but I have no difficulty putting it all away. After pumping up my rear tyre again, I hit the road shortly after eight. The sky is still cloudless and it is already hot.
There is hardly any traffic on the main road, so I follow that as far as Helston. I could continue on the main road to Penzance but my return route to the Lizard will use the main road between Marazion and Helston so, for the sake of variety, I cut across to the CTC route. Shortly after Godolphin Cross I stop to take a photograph of a derelict tin mine. Suddenly a phenomenal cacophony reaches my ears and an incredibly ancient but beautifully preserved steam traction engine trundles into view. The driver must surely be stone deaf to survive more than a few seconds of that.
I stop at Marazion for a photograph of St Michael’s Mount and decide that it will be worth returning on my way back from Land’s End, to get a different view with the changing sun and tide. After a quick snack at a café in Penzance, I follow the coast road through Newlyn and Mousehole. A lot of the sights and names round these parts are still familiar from childhood, when we had several (five I think) family holidays in Marazion – happy memories. A few miles after Lamorna I find a hotel which has some decent food at reasonable prices and which takes Access.
All the remaining unclassified roads are dead ends, so I follow the B road to Land’s End, arriving there at about 14:00. There is a queue of cars, where they have to pay the attendant, so I just sail past them all. As I pass the attendant, I call out to ask him if I am alright just cycling straight in without paying. Strictly speaking I am supposed to pay like everyone else (it is private land, nowadays, after all) but I have no wish to do so and the attendant is too busy coping with all the motorists, so he just waves me on. I take a photograph of myself by the café and then spend a while strolling round the place.
On my return I try to take a short cut to St Buryan but I miss the correct road. Not only does this mean cycling an extra couple of miles but I end up climbing an almighty steep hill which, when I came down it shortly after lunch, I was glad not to be coming back this way! I get back on the St Buryan road and then join the A30. I stop at a tea shop just before Penzance, where they have a lovely selection of home-made goodies. I pass through Penzance (without stopping this time) and on to Marazion. St Michael’s Mount does indeed look very different from this morning.
I suddenly discover my notebook is missing. Not only has it got all my jottings of the last three weeks, which are indispensable if I am going to write a proper diary afterwards, but the name and address of the cycle shop in Wadebridge that has my IOU. I try to recollect where I last used the notebook and draw the depressing conclusion that it was at Land’s End. I have not got the time to cycle back there and I cannot afford a taxi or a hire car. I will just have to manage without it.
There is a lot of traffic on the main road to Helston. What had been a tailwind this morning is, of course, now a headwind. By the time I reach Helston, I am pretty hungry but I cannot afford to stop; time is marching on and I want a bit of sunshine left for the fourth and last of the obligatory photographs of myself. The headwind becomes worse, as I veer southwards after Helston. The road to the Lizard is really long and tedious but I eventually arrive about 19:00.
Well, I managed it; I completed my north-to-south route from Dunnet Head via John o’Groats and Land’s End without any walking. Hooray! Since my south-to-north route has already involved some walking, there is no point in trying to do any more heroics. Indeed, my walking starts straight away, as I return to Lizard village from the Point. If I tried to cycle this, I would roll backwards straight into the sea!
There is still an hour or so of daylight but I decide to stay at a B&B in Lizard village and sort out my tyres. The rear tyre has needed pumping up several times today and is obviously getting worse. Also it is almost bald, so I ought to swap the tyres round. I am careless in removing the rear inner tube and it ends up as a write-off, so I fit my spare.
The B&B is not the world’s smartest establishment but there is certainly nothing wrong with it and it is nice and cheap for a change. On unpacking my bags to have a wash, I find my notebook. In a moment’s mental blockage at Land’s End I had packed it in a different place from usual. The proprietor recommends the chippy as being better value for money than the hotel. I am sure he is right and the chippy smells like a good one but I need something more substantial, so I head for the hotel. It is already dusk and I am struck by how much earlier it gets dark down here compared with the north of Scotland. It is something like three hours earlier, although part of that difference is obviously due to it now being two weeks later in the year.
The hotel is very crowded and it is some time before my meal arrives but I do it justice when it does come. Afterwards I return to the B&B and watch the television for a few minutes but the programme is nothing interesting, so I hit the sack.
Monday 15 August 1983
How pleasant: I do not have to pump up my tyre before setting off. The weather starts sunny but quickly clouds over with just the occasional sunny interval. The sunny intervals are very hot but otherwise the breeze keeps it quite cool. Fortunately the breeze is mostly behind me.
I head north via Goonhilly Downs and the satellite station. Except for the occasional photograph I make it non-stop to Truro, where I do some essential shopping (bank, film, crunchy bars and a new spare inner tube). By this time it is past 12:00 and my stomach calls. I do not really fancy any of the exotic stuff at Bustopher Jones right now but there is a café very near to where I tied up my bike, so I go in there. The set menu proves to be excellent value for money: another place worth remembering.
I bypass St Austell to the south and then head back inland, to reach Lostwithiel around 17:00. As usual I am starving and could easily put away another three-course meal but at first I cannot find anywhere open. “What a dump,” I think to myself when, lo and behold, I find a café-cum-restaurant (it operates as a café during the day and as a restaurant in the evening). It is a “real food” place; everything is home made from wholesome ingredients. They are not serving evening meals yet, so I have to put up with a few bits and bats. They do not look much on the plate but when I get up to go out, I can hardly move. Real solid food and no pretence: yet another good find.
My route bypasses Liskeard but at St Keyne I take a wrong turn and end up doing one of my celebrated loops. It is dusk by now and since Liskeard is the only place likely to offer B&B, I give up trying to find the correct back road and I take the B road. I find a B&B just as I enter the town. It is reasonably cheap again and offers an early breakfast (the landlady promises to wake me up at seven o’clock). There is a Teasmade in my room with a few biscuits on the tray. I suddenly feel terribly tired and I cannot be bothered to go into town in search of food. I just have a brew-up and eat the biscuits, have a wash and go straight to bed.
Tuesday 16 August 1983
Oh dear, what a night. I spent more time in the bathroom than in bed. Every time I returned to bed, I would lie there for only a few minutes, before making another dash back to the bathroom. Fortunately the wash basin was right next to the toilet, so I could hang my head over the former, whilst sitting on the latter. The consequences otherwise would have been most unpleasant. It was five o’clock before I managed to doze off.
At 07:00 the landlady dutifully knocks on the door. I call out that I have changed my mind about an early breakfast and I want to sleep a bit longer. I wake up again at 11:00 and make another mad dash to the bathroom. Afterwards, I cannot face anything to eat for breakfast and I just have a single cup of tea.
I am clearly in no fit state to go anywhere today. What I need is a visit to the doctor and to stay here another night. Alas, the landlady is not blessed with much sympathy. She says she is fully booked for tonight and she wants me out of the house as soon as possible. By midday I am loaded up and ready to leave. I am too weak to ride my bike, so I just walk with it very slowly. The weather is cloudy with sunny intervals.
After half a mile I find another guest house, knock on the door and explain my situation. At first the landlady is not very keen on letting me in. It is hardly surprising, really. What respectable person would be looking for a bed in the middle of the day? I probably look like a tramp who has just picked himself out of the gutter. Anyway, she takes pity on me and gives me a room. It is cheap again, so that is good enough for me.
The landlady tells me where the local doctor is and I stroll there slowly. The earliest appointment they can give me is 17:00, so I stroll back to the guest house. On the way back, I pass a greengrocer’s shop with some lovely-looking pears in the window. I buy one and I enjoy it so much, that I call into a café and order a banana split. This turns out to be more than I bargained for, though, and I have to leave half of it.
I spend most of the afternoon dozing in bed, before returning to the surgery. By now I am feeling a bit better but I reckon it is still worth visiting the doctor. He reckons I have had food poisoning, which disgusts me, because the last place at which I had something to eat yesterday, was that “real food” café in Lostwithiel. Oh well, I suppose anyone can be careless with hygiene. The doctor gives me a prescription but he suggests that I wait until tomorrow, before going to a pharmacy, as I will probably not need it.
Back at the guest house, the landlady asks me how I am, what the doctor said, etc. She is definitely more sympathetic than the other landlady. I go to bed at 19:30.
Wednesday 17 August 1983
Apart from attending to one call of nature during the night, I sleep soundly until 07:30. I feel considerably better this morning, though I am still very weak. I cannot really afford to take any more time to rest but if I take things easy, I should be alright. Having made that decision, I get up at 08:00, have a leisurely breakfast and throw the prescription in the bin.
To minimise hill-climbing effort, I take the main road to Tavistock, rather than my planned route, and I set off at a nice slow pace. I am using bottom gear on the gentlest of hills and getting off and walking on anything steeper; progress is inevitably much slower than normal. It is clear that I am going to be slow for the next several days, putting my time scale into jeopardy.
The weather continues to be cloudy with sunny internals. It is hot work going uphill when the sun is out but otherwise it is cool. I stop for a cup of tea at a roadside café at Callington but I do not bother with anything to eat.
It is lunchtime when I reach Tavistock. Since the Eleventh Commandment says, “When near Tavistock during licensing hours, visit the Peter Tavy Inn”, I naturally head in that direction. However, I have forgotten the way and the road that I thought led to Peter Tavy village degenerates into a cart track. Furthermore, I am in no mood for drinking beer (one of the reasons for visiting this inn) and I am not exactly ravenous (their food is the other reason), so it does not seem worth the time and effort looking for the place. I return to Tavistock and have lunch in a café.
The climb up onto Dartmoor is just as bad as I remembered from 1979. If I had any intelligence, I would conserve my energy and walk up the hills. However, my pride is at stake. Last time I walked the whole way, taking ages to reach the top, so this time I have simply got to stay in the saddle. At the expense of exhausting myself completely, I succeed. The scenery is beautiful but not the sort that can be easily photographed. There are a lot of other cyclists around, many of whom are walking. One of them asks me how I manage to keep pedalling but, since I am not sure myself, I just grunt in reply.
The famous Dartmoor ponies are out and about. One of them looks just like a Thelwell cartoon but, just as I am about to photograph it, a gust of wind ruffles its mane and completely alters its appearance. I wait for a couple of minutes, in case it reverts to its former comical appearance, but it does not, so I plod on. I stop at Postbridge for an ice cream and an apple juice. It is quite pleasant round here but crawling with tourists. Nevertheless I stay and have a good rest, because I can see from here what the next couple of miles has to offer. Eventually I muster enough enthusiasm and set off again. Near the top of the hill I meet another group of cyclists. I stay with them for a few minutes but when they want to stop at a tea wagon, I keep going.
In Moretonhampstead I meet some Dutch cyclists on their heavily laden sit-up-and-beg machines. They are naturally struggling somewhat but they have all got smiles on their faces, they love the scenery and they regard each hill as a challenge: what a contrast to that Austrian I met in Thwaite.
I telephone my boss at work, to explain the situation and to ask for a couple of days’ sick leave. Fortunately he provisionally agrees, otherwise I would have to abandon the journey and catch a train home, because there is now insufficient time to cycle, before I am due back at work. Not only would I have failed to complete the challenge on this occasion but I would never complete it. It would be meaningless to come back some other time, just to finish the last leg; the challenge is to do the whole lot in one go and, having done so much of the journey already, I will never repeat this trip. Like the Pennine Way two years ago, I have no regrets at having undertaken this venture (indeed I am very glad I undertook it) but I have no wish to repeat it.
It is still only late afternoon but I have had quite enough exercise for one day and I head towards Steps Bridge Youth Hostel. The hostel is only simple grade with just cold water in outside wash rooms. It is just the sort of hostel I like but it is marred by a plague of enormous ants. There are already quite a lot of bikes in the shed including a tandem.
Some time after I have finished washing myself and my clothes, the cyclists that I met just after Postbridge, arrive. They were in no hurry, having booked in advance. We all sit down to the evening meal, which is another gut burster. Afterwards I want to retrieve the front light from my bike, in case I need it as a torch, but when I reach the cycle shed, it is like a metal jungle. I cannot even see my bike, never mind reach it. I hope everyone else does not want to lie in late tomorrow.
Thursday 18 August 1983
I am feeling pretty rough again today and I have to leave some of my breakfast. The day starts cloudy and cool and I have no energy at all. Exeter is only a few miles away and yet the road seems never ending. I feel terrible by the time I reach the city and I crawl into a café near the cathedral. Afterwards I spend a few minutes strolling around with the camera, before continuing on my wearisome way.
I have no desire for another dose of the Quantocks, so I take the A38 to Bridgwater. This turns out to be no simple matter, because the A38 no longer exists in these parts; it has been renumbered, to encourage long-distance traffic to use the M5. It is all very confusing (and exasperating because I cannot even find the road I want out of Exeter). When I do get onto the right road, I find that everybody else seems to be equally confused, as there is very little traffic.
The hills have become much gentler now and I am able to plod away quite comfortably in bottom gear. The road runs roughly parallel with (and occasionally crosses) the motorway but for most of the time it is sufficiently far away to be peaceful. The clouds break up late morning and it become very hot. The wind is very variable, though, coming at me from all directions.
A few miles before Cullompton I pass ‘The pub with the shortest name’ – ‘X’. I stop to take a photograph of it and decide that since it is lunchtime, I might as well call in. The home-made soup goes down well but by the time I have had that, I can hardly face the toasted cheese sandwich that I also ordered. My appetite today seems to be worse than yesterday. Irrespective of my appetite, though, these are not the greatest toasted sandwiches I have ever had. Maybe their extortionate price reflects the fact that the army could easily use them as bullet-proof vests.
A few miles after Cullompton I stop at a roadside café for some tea. I neither fancy it nor enjoy it (the ultimate sign that there is something wrong with me!) but at least it is liquid refreshment. The café is very close to the junction with the Tiverton road (the A38 proper) and there is now considerably more traffic. A lorry has jack-knifed at the junction and succeeded in blocking all but a cyclist’s width of the road. Presumably he half-missed the junction, then tried to turn too late. I squeeze through the gap and leave the confusion behind me.
At Taunton I am feeling thirsty again but I still do not fancy any tea. After a flash of inspiration I get a small carton of orange juice – delicious. There is no point in going to Bridgwater, so I head towards Street. If I want to, I can revert to my original route near there.
At Burrow Bridge I pass a rather interesting fortress called Burrow Mump. It dates back to King Alfred’s time and was in use until the 18th century. After a while I begin to feel slightly peckish, so I stop at a Routiers café. At first they do not seem very keen on serving me. I am not sure if they are just closing for the day or if they are just opening for the evening and are not yet ready. Nevertheless I persuade them to rustle up some cheese sandwiches and a pot of tea.
By now the hills have petered out altogether into the Somerset Flats, the dead flat plains south of the Mendips. I decide that I will revert to my original route, so I leave the main road at Greinton and head towards Shapwick. There are two reasons for this decision. I am getting a bit fed up with the main road, especially as it has been much busier since Taunton. Also, the main road completely bypasses the Mendips. This road is not as interesting as the route I took southwards but I guess I cannot get it right every time. The sky clouds over again but this does not stop the insects from roaming the countryside. At times I seem to be passing through solid blocks of them. I keep my mouth tightly closed!
I find a B&B at Easton, which lies right at the foot of the Mendips. I open the garden gate, which is always an awkward manoeuvre when holding on to a heavily laden bike, but before I can complete the action, I am accosted by a huge ferocious-looking black labrador. I have visions of being dragged along and being added to his food bowl but after a few seconds I realise that his attentions are purely friendly. He is simply glad of a new playmate for the evening.
The husband is stone deaf. If we face each other and I talk slowly, he can lip read; also he can speak but only very softly. Conversation is therefore a bit laborious and when his wife appears a few minutes later, she does most of the talking.
Friday 19 August 1983
I oversleep and am eventually awoken at 08:40 by the dog barking. I manage to annihilate a pretty hefty breakfast. The weather is sunny but with a lot of thin cloud and a fairly strong headwind. As I stagger uphill towards Priddy, the cloud thins out and it becomes even hotter than yesterday. I do not seem to have much energy and I walk up several of the hills. I stop at a pub in Pensford for lunch. I have a bowl of soup with a massive hunk of crusty bread and a sandwich. I manage to eat it all but not without a struggle.
For the rest of the day either the hills or I (perhaps both) are worse than ever and I find that I am having to walk practically every one. I reach Keynsham dying for a cup of tea but can I find a café? I cannot even get a chilled drink. What a dump! At Bitton I find a newsagent who (unusually) actually makes the effort to chill the drinks he offers for sale, so I buy a lemonade.
At the cross roads with the A420 I find an ice cream van parked on a picnic site. I quite fancy an ice cream but that will only make me more thirsty, so I settle for another chilled drink. It tastes awful but I need the liquid, so I finish it. The headwind freshens and it becomes cloudy again but still very warm and humid. The water in my drinking bottle is revoltingly tepid but I drink it anyway.
Just after crossing the M5 a light shower suddenly starts. It surprises me, because the cloud cover is still only thin with no dirty patches. It peters out again after a couple of minutes. A short while later I hear a few rumbles of thunder but nothing materialises.
I reach Tetbury just as it is getting dark and I have some difficulty finding a B&B. The first two are both full but the landlady in the second one directs me to a third. I do not know if her directions were rubbish or if my brain has become detached but it takes me ages to find this place. I must have explored every street in the town. It is a very smart town with no shortage of posh hotels. It is completely dark by the time I find the third B&B. Although I am hungry, I am too tired to go out for a meal. The landlord offers me cheese and biscuits and a pot of tea; both are delicious. He lets me help myself to the cheese and biscuits, so I have a fair old feast. I am kept awake most of the night by a pretty hefty thunder storm.
Saturday 20 August 1983
It is no longer raining but it is cloudy, dull and still very humid. The rain must have only recently stopped, because the ground is still wet. I am given another good breakfast, which goes down okay. It is prepared by the husband, not the wife; they came to the conclusion a long time ago that he can prepare better breakfasts than she can.
I spend a short while strolling round the town, taking photographs, before heading off into the Cotswolds. The hills are mostly easy going and I seem to be coping better today with the few that are steep. The wind has reverted to a tailwind and is still fairly strong, so that is obviously helping me along.
I make a quick stop at North Cerney for a bar of chocolate and then continue on to Andoversford. It is lunchtime and I just fancy some soup but the pub that I stop at does not have any, so I make do with a ploughman’s lunch.
The last hill in the Cotswolds, Cleeve Hill, is a swine. Two miles of bottom gear along the busy A46. At the summit I leave the main road and descend an horrendous 1-in-4 that consists entirely of potholes and loose gravel – absolutely lethal. However, the view over the Vale of Gloucester is sensational. I have an ice cream in Bishop’s Cleeve to celebrate getting down that hill without falling off!
At Tewkesbury I have afternoon tea in a converted mill by the River Severn. The wooden beams and the water wheel have been retained and the whole place is very attractive. Afterwards I spend a while taking photos but a temporary halt is called for by a short downpour. I manage to find shelter during the worst of it and I reflect on my own stupidity. I had seen the dirty clouds building up before having tea and I should have taken the photos first and then had tea. Anyway, the rain soon clears up and when the sun comes back out, it is incredibly humid for a while, although it becomes fresher later. The cloud formations are interesting: huge mountains, many of them anvil shaped. “More dirty stuff for someone,” I think to myself. Fortunately they are downwind, so it is not me.
It is very flat terrain up to the Malvern Hills, then wham! What a struggle but, again, some lovely views. I hear a couple of peels of thunder but nothing further. I go over the west side of the Malverns; it proves to be not as interesting as the east side, through Great Malvern, but you don’t know if you don’t try. I stop for an evening meal at a pub-cum-hotel at Knightsford Bridge. All their accommodation is taken but they recommend a B&B a mile or so down the road towards Bromyard. Although it is in the wrong direction, I decide to try it, as it is getting late and the pub does not know of anywhere else.
After about a mile along the main road I see a sign “B&B 1 mile” pointing up a minor road. What a mile: on and on the road goes. It is almost completely dark by now, certainly too dark to read my mileometer. I have absolutely no concept of distance; have I come half a mile or five miles? I have certainly been up and down several hills. I pass numerous farms and houses. Was one of them the B&B but I missed the sign? After all, my front light is great for being seen but is useless for picking out anything for me to see. I am convinced I have come too far and I am cursing and swearing.
I decide to try the next building and if that is not it, I will look for a barn. Lo and behold, it is the place. As soon as I walk in, I smell baking and I feel hungry again. The wife makes me a pot of tea and gives me some of the freshly made buns. They are still slightly warm: mmm! A couple of elderly ladies are also staying here. They say they had trouble finding the place in daylight.
The place was built in 1655, a really solid affair abounding with wooden beams. The walls are two or three feet thick. The builders were not too hot on right angles, though. The walls are out by up to 20º and the floors and ceilings by up to 10º. It is the most strange sensation walking (or rather staggering) around and I feel as though I am drunk. It is the sort of place an estate agent would describe as “having lots of character”. The farmer and his wife are used to these floors, of course, and can walk upright but the difficulties of their guests provide them with endless amusement.
No sooner do I go up to bed, than I am treated to the less-than-dulcet tones of a large-scale cats’ chorus. Fortunately, after a few minutes a fierce argument develops, resulting in a walkout. The only other sound is the hooting of several owls.
Sunday 21 August 1983
I wake up to the sound of bleating sheep. I cannot help wondering that if I stay a bit longer, what other animals I might come across. It is cloudy and dull and it starts to drizzle during the predictably large breakfast. It occurs to me that so far, not once on this trip has it been raining when I have set off. This has no doubt helped my general enjoyment of the holiday; a wet start is a miserable start.
The farmer regales me with tales of gloom and doom about the hill immediately after Knightsford Bridge. I glanced at it last night and I did not like the look of it then. Apparently the Milk Race goes over this road. Some years ago a local lad in the race collapsed at the top of the hill and died. Everyone tells me to take it easy. It is only 1 in 6, a mere pimple to a conqueror of 1-in-4s (if not 1-in-3s) like me. Just lately, though, I have been walking up everything steeper than about 1 in 10. Well, I will just have to take it as it comes.
The drizzle has stopped by the time I am ready to leave. Hooray, my record remains unbroken. On setting off, I forget to note the distance to the main road but it seems like nothing at all. I have a tailwind for a while, for which I am very thankful; I need all the assistance possible, if I am to get all the way home today. I had not originally planned on trying to get home from around here in one day but the idea suddenly seems very appealing. Now that my journey is almost over, I am getting fed up with it.
The big hill is a struggle but I get up non stop. I treat myself to a few minutes’ rest at the top but when I set off again, I find that I was not quite at the top. It is a double-peak hill and, of course, the second peak is the higher but the extra bit of climbing is negligible.
There follows a never-ending series of ups and downs: 25 miles of them. They are not useful, interesting hills, just thoroughly miserable things, most of which are a struggle. These hills are nearly as bad as the Quantocks and I am utterly sick of them. Every time another hill appears, I utter the same collection of expletives.
I misread the name sign on entering the village of Pensax. For a moment I think someone is advertising cameras! The village store is open, so I stop for an ice cream. I ask for a wafer (my usual choice) but they have sold out of the individually wrapped ones, so the proprietor cuts me a huge piece from a large block. It must be nearly twice the normal size but he only charges me the regular price.
Up to Cleobury Mortimer I have been using B roads. My planned route beyond there is on minor roads but I abandon that route, because the hills on the minor roads are bound to be worse. Instead I decide to continue on the B roads to Bridgnorth and from there I will take the main road to Shrewsbury. It is still another dozen or so miles to Bridgnorth, up and down, up and down.
None of the pubs before Bridgnorth serve any food, at least not on Sundays, but I find a wine bar in the town centre. It is nothing like as good a place as Bustopher Jones in Truro and it has appalling ‘music’ blasting out at an obscene volume but the food is reasonable and filling. In fact I eat too much. I am full at the end of the main course but I fancy something else besides coffee (they do not even serve tea), so I have a hunk of very sticky and very sweet apple strudel and cream. A bowl of lead shot would probably weigh less on my stomach.
When I come back out, I meet a couple of fellow cycle tourists. He is on a Harry Hall. They have both recently done clever things with their gearing: 32-52 triple front and 14-34 rear. That should get them up most things!. As we part and go our separate ways, it starts to rain and becomes quite heavy. I should have learnt my lesson in Tewkesbury but once again I eat first and then have difficulty taking photos in the rain. The sky is a uniform grey and it looks as though the rain has come to stay, so I put on my waterproofs. By the time I reach the edge of town, though, it is already brightening up in the south and a few miles later it clears up, to become very warm and humid. Off come the waterproofs.
There are more lousy hills on the Shrewsbury road, although they become less severe once I am past Wenlock Edge. I stop at a tea van just before Shrewsbury and spend a few minutes chatting with the lady who runs it. A cuppa is all I need, as I can still taste (and I am still feeling full from) the apple strudel. Shrewsbury turns out to be a very attractive city but I do not see any cafés open anywhere, so it is just as well that I stopped at the tea van. I stroll around for a while, taking photographs, and I meet another couple of cycle tourists, who are heading for the Youth Hostel. He has got a Harry Hall racing frame on order. They think I am crazy, trying to reach Knutsford tonight. So do I but I have had enough of this holiday and I just want to get home as soon as possible.
Knutsford is another 50 miles away but I reckon I can get there tonight, if I stick to the main roads. The terrain is relatively flat after Shrewsbury and gradually becomes flatter, as I travel north. The remaining distance is split into five almost equal sections by Wem, Whitchurch, Nantwich and Middlewich and this makes it easier psychologically. I do not regard it as another 50 miles to go; I simply set the next town as my target, knowing that ten miles is nothing at all. With the improvement in terrain, my desire to get home and the tail wind, the miles fly by. I am pushing the pace a bit but it is still a pace that I can maintain indefinitely. My backside is as sore as hell but my legs are in fine shape (I have had little trouble with my Achilles tendons this last week).
I pass through Wem without stopping and my only stop in Whitchurch is at a petrol station, where I buy a bar of chocolate. Shortly after Whitchurch I pass the Cheshire sign. I am still some way from home but that sign is a welcome sight nevertheless. I get completely lost in Nantwich, thanks to (a) several roads closed by road works, (b) the one-way system and (c) a complete lack of signs for Middlewich. After ending up at the same roundabout three times, I decide to take a short cut through the pedestrian precinct. In the precinct I come across a cheap restaurant serving real Tetley’s ale, so I obey the summons.
Filled once more with food and drink, I stagger back out. It is pretty dark by now and, on switching on my lights, I discover that the front does not have much life left in it. Marvellous! These Wonderlights are certainly heavy on juice. I do not think I have used it so much since Edinburgh; maybe it is an old battery. Anyway, this calls for conservation measures. Once on the open road I keep my rear light on but I switch the front one off and only switch it back on again, whenever a vehicle approaches. Fortunately there is still sufficient light to see where I am going. Ground mist is forming in the fields but remains clear of the road. It is too dark to be able to see either the mileometer or my watch and I have no idea of my progress. The road seems interminable but all of a sudden I am in Middlewich, having done ten miles in 40 minutes.
By the time I am past Middlewich, it is completely dark. There is almost a full moon but it is very low and even when not obscured by cloud, it casts very little light. I start being a bit more generous with my front light; I do not want to end up in a ditch at this stage of the holiday! The mist is quite thick now and sometimes on the road as well. The few motorists around are travelling at very modest speeds. I suspect I have got better vision than they have, as I am higher up and I do not have much front-light glare (something to do with not having much front light).
Thirty days and two thousand miles after setting off, I reach Knutsford and home. What a welcome sight my front door is! I refrain from shouting my delight; at 22:30 the neighbours might not understand. I have enjoyed the holiday but it is wonderful to be home. I have just topped 100 miles today, the only time I have ever done so. Although it was diabolical up to Bridgnorth and still bad up to Shrewsbury, overall it was fairly easy. It was certainly considerably easier than some of the other much shorter days of the holiday. It is nice to end with a personal record and I celebrate by putting on the kettle! I still have no regrets that I did not make a quarter-mile detour, when I reached Hawick, just to take that day’s mileage over 100.
Mid September 1983
Three weeks after the end of my holiday, my metabolism has returned to normal and I have regained the 3kg that I lost. Final Thoughts
What a superb holiday. I cannot pretend that enjoyed every minute of it but it is a wonderful feeling to have completed the challenge. I am also glad I did trip in both directions. Whilst I am certain I will never repeat this trip, I am equally certain I will undertake further cycle touring holidays. Physically I fared much better than I did on the Pennine Way and I had fewer spells of depression. There is no doubt that for me 2000 miles on a bike is much easier than 200 miles on foot.
It was a remarkably expensive holiday. As Sue and the others discovered, the train fares are expensive, if only cycling one way. If one is doing the return trip, the cost of food and accommodation mounts up at an alarming rate. Maybe I should have kept my tent and sleeping bag and used them more, but then breakfasts would have become quite a problem.
My route notes were very useful, though not infallible, but I knew that from previous experience. It was certainly essential that I took the atlas as well. I was not very impressed with the CTC’s recommended route. Whilst some sections of my route turned out not to be brilliant, I reckon I could nevertheless have produced a much better one-way route than the CTC’s.
Apart from two punctures and my accident in Wadebridge (none of which were Harry Hall’s fault), the bike performed faultlessly. The brakes struggled on some of the steepest downhills but I never lost control. The brakes sometimes screeched (they always have done) but otherwise no untoward noises came from the bike, though plenty came from me, particularly on steep hills and in bad weather! I never had any problems changing front or rear gears. The wheels remained perfectly true and not a single spoke failed. The tyres I was using were a bit light-weight for the task but, by swapping them round in Cornwall, I was able to make them last the whole trip. It was not a cheap bike but, as with most things in life, you get what you pay for.
Members of team
Neil Robinson (Knutsford to Land’s End)
- 100 mpg of tea
- 50 mpg overall
|Date||Destination||Daily Mileage||From John o’Groats||From Home / Land’s End||Total||Daily Average *|
|Fri 22 Jul||Rivington||33.0||-||33.0||33.0||-|
|Sat 23 Jul||Kirkby Stephen||96.2||-||129.2||129.2||96.2|
|Sun 24 Jul||Hawick||99.8||-||229.0||229.0||98.0|
|Mon 25 Jul||Falkirk||93.2||-||322.2||322.2||96.4|
|Tue 26 Jul||Blairgowrie||65.5||-||387.7||387.7||88.7|
|Wed 27 Jul||Tomintoul||74.1||-||461.8||461.8||85.8|
|Thu 28 Jul||Strathpeffer||79.4||-||541.2||541.2||84.7|
|Fri 29 Jul||Bettyhill||89.2||-||630.4||630.4||85.3|
|Sat 30 Jul||John o’Groats||64.1||3.0||691.5||694.5||82.7|
|Sun 31 Jul||Golspie||72.9||75.9||-||767.4||81.6|
|Mon 1 Aug||Inverness||59.8||135.7||-||827.2||79.4|
|Tue 2 Aug||Tomintoul||50.0||185.7||-||877.2||76.7|
|Wed 3 Aug||Spittal of Glenshee||47.2||232.9||-||924.4||74.3|
|Thu 4 Aug||Edinburgh||84.1||317.0||-||1008.5||75.0|
|Fri 5 Aug||Buccleuch||49.3||366.3||-||1057.8||73.2|
|Sat 6 Aug||Lazonby||69.9||436.2||-||1127.7||73.0|
|Sun 7 Aug||Slaidburn||67.0||503.2||-||1194.7||72.6|
|Mon 8 Aug||Knutsford||64.2||567.4||-||1258.9||72.1|
|Tue 9 Aug||Ludlow||92.9||660.3||-||1351.8||73.3|
|Wed 10 Aug||Bristol||80.9||741.2||-||1432.7||73.7|
|Thu 11 Aug||Brompton Regis||78.2||819.4||-||1510.9||73.9|
|Fri 12 Aug||Wainhouse Corner||76.8||896.2||-||1587.7||74.0|
|Sat 13 Aug||Perranarworthal||48.6||944.8||-||1636.3||72.9|
|Sun 14 Aug||Lizard||81.7||989.5||37.0||1718.0||73.3|
|Mon 15 Aug||Liskeard||75.9||-||112.9||1793.9||73.4|
|Tue 16 Aug||Liskeard||<0.6||-||113.5||1794.5||73.4|
|Wed 17 Aug||Steps Bridge||49.5||-||163.0||1844.0||72.4|
|Thu 18 Aug||Easton||70.6||-||233.6||1914.6||72.3|
|Fri 19 Aug||Tetbury||55.4||-||289.0||1970.0||71.7|
|Sat 20 Aug||Knightsford Bridge||76.8||-||365.8||2046.8||71.9|
|Sun 21 Aug||Knutsford||100.3||-||466.1||2147.1||72.9|
|-||-||-||-||-||-||* Excluding 22 Jul and 16 Aug|
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