Because There's Nothing On Telly....

Stuart Mackenzie's Land End to John O'Groats - July 2002

 

Why...?

The World Cup had pinned me to a couch for long enough to do serious damage to my fitness. Something had to be done. I wrote to FIFA asking them to bring the next one forward 3.5 years. They said that for my own good, they would consider it only if I cycled the length of my country. Right, if that's the way they want to play it.

 

Day O - July 13th:

Train from Glasgow to Penzance. http://www.thetrainline.com is a good way to book. A beautiful sunny day the whole way, depressingly enough. I'd hoped the sky would get the rain out of its system before I got under way. B&B in Penzance. I'd booked all my accommodation in advance - I'm willing to suffer, but only if I know before I set off that there'll be a hot bath waiting at the end of the day.

 

Day 1 - July 14th:

Penzance to Lands End to Bodmin: Not an encouraging start on the route-finding front, when I paid an unintentional visit to Mousehole before finding the back road (B3315) to Lands End, but no harm done. Lovely morning, and still away up the A30 from Lands End before 10am. Left at the same time as 2 Germans, who were carrying enough baggage for 20 Germans and planned to take 3 weeks. If they made it past Devon, I salute them. There's some useful back roads and cycle paths after Penzance, but often taking a back road means a plunge down to a hump back bridge followed by a steep climb back up, all the while looking across at the nearby A30 sweeping smoothly across the valley on 100 foot legs. Little option but to take the A30 in places, but it can be shockingly narrow for such a major artery, apart from the seemingly random spots of dual carriageway.
My hamstrings fell out with me for the last 15 miles of the day, and the climb up into Bodmin was a slow process, made possible only by the knowledge that a bath awaited. Or so I thought; the B&B proprietor was opposed to such frivolous use of water, and by the time I'd made do with my shower, she'd gone out without saying, leaving me to answer the door to the rest of the evening's guests. Bizarre.

 

Day 2 - July 15th

Bodmin to Tiverton: The hottest day, the slowest day, and the day when it occurred to me that the theory that doing the trip south to north gives you the prevailing wind wasn't working out. Bodmin Moor first thing is hard work, with no option but to brave the A30 for much of it, and though the A30's predecessor usefully parallels the A30 between Launceston and Okehampton, said predecessor seems to make a point of seeking out every little knoll along the way. I'm told there's more climbing required in Cornwall and Devon than in Scotland on these trips, and I believe it. Okehampton to Crediton was slightly easier, but Crediton to Tiverton was really tough, until the last 4 miles. Getting to Tiverton, I dug out my B&B map, and discovered it was a farmhouse up a 1:6 slope. What idiot booked that? Forgave myself when I discovered that I'd booked dinner, which was a bonus, especially since it was served in a grand dining room with half the antlers of Dartmoor on the wall. This was also the day my left knee started to hurt, a pain that was here to stay.

 

Day 3 - July 16th

Tiverton to Bath: Decided to protect the knee by staying on the flat, which meant sticking to canal paths initially. Possibly counterproductive - some of them are very bumpy, and after a morning of these, my 3rd fingers and little fingers on both hands were numb, and that's the way they stayed. Still made fairly good progress through Taunton and up to Bridgewater, but slow thereafter when Paracetemol became essential to keep me going. Several options hereabouts, but rather than the Cheddar Gorge I decided to go by Glastonbury and Wells, to take in the latter's cathedral. This is a good choice, as there are flat minor roads that parallel much of the A39. Impressive cathedral at Wells, much more so than the town's tea shops, the first 3 of which found excuses not to serve me. Climbed out of Wells like an elephant up a tree, but sugar intake eventually kicked in as I turned onto the B3115, and the downhill on the A367 into Bath is a pleasant way to finish the day.

 

Day 4 - July 17th

Day off: I'd never seen Bath, so this was a good opportunity. Well worth a day of anyone's time. Look out for the free 2-hour walking tours, starting outside the Roman baths. The day off came at just the right time for my knee as well.

 

Day 5 - July 18th

Bath to Great Malvern: Another tough climb out of Bath initially, and then along the A46 through what was marked as the Cotswolds on my map. Thankfully much less hilly than I feared. In fact, that climb out of Bath was about the last serious hill until Shap Fell in Cumbria, I had never realized just how flat England is! Cool and drizzly, but the sun came out in time for Gloucester, which is also worth a visit. The docks have been pleasantly sanitized for the tourists, and Gloucester is one of the nicest cathedrals I've seen. Thereafter, 2 hours up the Severn along the A417 and B4128 to Malvern by 5:00; nice to finish at a civilized time. Many thanks to Jenny Douglas and Chris Russell, plus Amy and the bump, for the hospitality.

 

Day 6 - July 19th

Great Malvern to Halebarns: I knew this would be the longest day, so got away before 8 for the first and only time. Fortunately, it's also the flattest. Great Malvern (A449) to Worcester (A443, B4196 & A451) to Kidderminster (A449 again) to Wolverhampton to Stafford, where I joined the A34 for the rest of the day. Grey and pretty unremarkable for the most part, and I was getting very blasé about dual carriageways. A headwind kicked in at Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the rain joined in while I took a break at a supermarket coffee shop in Kidsgrove. Suppose I should be glad that I'd covered over 300 miles before my first soaking, but what a soaking! It got heavier and heavier throughout the 20 miles up the A34, which for a minor road carries far too much traffic hereabouts, especially through Alderney Edge. Finally made my cousins at 8:30pm, and informed them that "It's grim oop North". Thank God for Chinese food and good beer. Many thanks to David and Carolanne Mackenzie, plus Ella and Alec for the hospitality, which I paid for by not laughing at David's new hair and raising the saddles of the kids' bikes. Both long overdue, David!

 

Day 7 - July 20th

Halebarns to Broughton: A short day from one set of cousins to another, so I didn't start til mid afternoon. An easy ride through Altrincham and Sale into Manchester, and finding the A6 proved less of a struggle than I feared, despite a few ventures onto triple carriageways. My first trip to Manchester; better than I feared; a lot of money has gone into the Dockland area, and it's been well spent. The towns along the A6 have less to commend them, and neither did the headwind that reappeared as I headed out of the city. Rather later through Preston and into Broughton than planned, in time for a barbecue and urgent demands to play football and demonstrate my cartwheeling skills. Many thanks to Ian and Kathy Mackenzie, plus Fiona, Sally and John for the hospitality and chocolate.

 

Day 8 - July 21st

Broughton to Penrith: Original plan was to visit my Mum and a friend who were to be running a café in Mosedale that week, but learned while in Halebarns that this had fallen through. Parents booked me into a Penrith guest house, but no one told me about Shap Fell. 1400 feet up from Kendal, at the end of a long day, of which Lancaster was the only previous highlight. Fortunately, the weather was ideal, clear and cool with views in all directions, and a tailwind kicked in here for about the first time on the trip. The downhill to Shap also helped make it worthwhile. I ate my evening meal here, prior to finishing for the day for the only time on the trip. However, the last few miles to Penrith were tough, for reasons I wasn't to discover until tomorrow.

 

Day 9 - July 22nd

Penrith to Melrose: The journey to the family home began badly. On the 16 miles up the A6 to Carlisle, I just couldn't seem to get going. On flat stretches where I'd once been cruising along at 25kph, I couldn't seem to get above 17kph comfortably, and I assumed this was down to my knee, which was getting sore again. I bought 2 knee supports in Carlisle, and tried again; less pain but no more speed. Finally in Longtown it occurred to me to look at the bike, and discover that the back brake had somehow got out of alignment and was dragging on the wheel. In hindsight, I'm sure this was the case the previous evening as well, though surely not prior to Shap Fell, which would have been much harder with the bike as it was subsequently.

The repair proved beyond me, and returning to Carlisle didn't appeal, so I disconnected the back brake and lived on the edge with only a front brake for the remainder of the day. This is safer when you're on a road with no traffic. The B6357 and B6399 from Canonbie to Hawick fits the bill; this is one of my favourites, a quiet attractive road which doesn't seem to crop up in many LEJOG accounts. Give it a try. The A7 is nearly as long, often narrow, and full of menacing lorries with no motorway alternatives.

Finished the day with the B6359 from Hawick to Melrose, which concludes with one of the more exhilarating downhill sprints in the country. There's no place like home! Thanks to Mum and Dad for the hospitality.

 

Day 10 - July 23rd

Melrose to Dalgety Bay: Should have been one of the easiest days. North of Galashiels, the A7 to Edinburgh is usually a much more attractive proposition than it is further south (less hilly, and lorries take the A68), but brake repairs meant I didn't get off until after 11:30, which gave a nasty storm time to establish itself either side of Middleton Moor. Rain slightly less heavy than in Cheshire, but much windier and in my face. However, this was the last soaking of the trip; 2 in 13 days isn't bad.

There are directions for cyclists heading west round Edinburgh, but road maintenance here is about the worst in the country, and there are no signposts to get cyclists to the Forth Bridge. Head along the old A9 to Ratho, then follow signs for Kirkliston, after which the bridge is visible and easy to find. By now, weather was better, but the last few miles to Dalgety Bay were complicated by being directed onto the Fife coastal path, which is definitely not yet ready for cyclists, especially after a day of rain. Pleasant beachside B&B, within earshot of a seal colony, was sufficient to compensate.

 

Day 11 - July 24th

Dalgety Bay to Pitlochry: When you leave a shoreline, it's bound to be uphill, and the first 10 miles of the day along B roads paralleling the M90 were a bit of a slog through some unattractive wee towns. Things perk up on the descent to Kinross, and especially thereafter as industrial Scotland is left behind. The climb from Milnathort over to Glenfarg via Middleton has some fine views, and the B996 down to Strathearn thereafter is an exhilarating twisty plunge through the trees. The sun came out for the last few miles to my lunch-stop in Perth, and stayed with me the rest of the day.

I'd been told there was a cycle route all the way from Perth to Inverness, but I didn't spot it until I got to Dunkeld, which meant a few miles on the A9 until I veered off along the B9099 and A984 for a few very peaceful miles, apart from a dog attack in Stanley. Dunkeld was the last cake stop of the day. At this point, can I say a word for Scotland's teashops, which are far better and more plentiful than in England, where their job seems to have been taken over by huge unwelcoming chain pubs. Perthshire has some of the best. The final few miles, mostly along remnants of the old A9, were a pleasure, and gaining access to my Uncle's house an interesting challenge to someone unfamiliar with his security system. Thanks to Hugh Mackenzie for the hospitality, and for the subsequent shield commemorating the ride.

 

Day 12 - June 25th

Pitlochry to Tomatin: I'd confidently predicted this to be the hardest day, because it took me over the highest point of the journey, Drumochter Pass at 1528 feet. I had a few flat drizzly miles up the Tummel valley to break me in before the climb began. A purpose built cycle track for the most part, and much less intimidating than feared, because it's so regular. It's easy to get into a rhythm, unlike Shap Fell which has a series of short sharp rises. The real pleasure kicked in at the top, where the first strong tailwind of the trip appeared and propelled me down to Kingussie at what must have been about a 22mph average. A bit more of a steady pace afterwards along the B9152 to Aviemore and Carrbridge, and an unwelcome surprise climb up to the Slochd Pass before finishing the day winding my way up farm tracks to the country's oddest shaped house and most hyperactive kids! Thanks to Duncan and Michelle Bryden plus Hector and Donal for the hospitality; hopefully Paddy will be at home as well next time I look in.

 

Day 13 - June 26th

Tomatin to Dornoch: Another relatively easy day in excellent weather. The B9154 provides the latest alternative to the A9, but the latter is the best option for the last few miles to Inverness, as the cycle route takes a long detour towards Culloden. Inverness sacrifices itself so the rest of the Highlands can be beautiful, but has its moments, especially what must be about the biggest 2nd hand bookshop I've seen, occupying an entire church! After crossing the Kessock Bridge, I decided to head through the Black Isle (on the A832, for the most part). Flat apart from a bracing climb out of my lunch-stop at Fortrose, followed by a sprint down into Cromarty, where theUK's smallest regular car ferry dodges the oil rigs as it heads across to Nigg. Friends have since argued that use of this ferry invalidates the trip - this is a family web-site, so I'll not mention my response. Finished the day with a few more flat miles to a B&B next to Dornoch Cathedral and time to walk over the heavenly Royal Dornoch Golf Course.

This wasn't all bliss. I'd assumed saddle soreness would be worst after 3-4 days, then ease off as my bum calluses hardened. In fact I was fine until I got to Scotland, but the afternoons were pretty uncomfortable thereafter.

 

Day 14 - July 27th

Dornoch to John O'Groats: The cycle network doesn't recommend the A9, but the alternative adds a lot of distance, and I had to finish today if I was to get to work on Monday. A gentle start to the day, but I'd been advised that the trouble started at Helmsdale, and sure enough, this is a tough climb, and is followed by several almost as bad in the subsequent 20 miles, including the awesome plunge down to Berriedale Braes, (complete with sandpit run-offs if your brakes fail), all into the wind. Having tested me this one last time, nature took pity and the wind did a 180 and propelled me from Lybster to Wick at a cracking speed, to the extent that I ended up recording my fastest average speed on this final day. My parents caught up with me in Wick for coffee at the Caithness Glass Visitor Centre, then hurried on to set up the banners as I set off on the last 17 mile stretch. One last hill with 2 miles to go, and I came over the brow on a fantastic clear sunny evening to views of the Orkneys and one last mile of freewheeling. Exhilarating, well, until you get to the impossibly tacky "John O'Groats Novelty House", that is. Still, I didn't let this, or the famously taciturn welcome at the John O'Groats hotel, put me off. Just time to pose for the last few photos before I had to head back up the hill into the strongest wind of the entire trip to reach the final B&B before they stopped serving dinner for the evening.

 

Final Thoughts

There's a real sense of achievement to this trip, but it's a trip that I think most moderately fit people could manage. You don't need that much stuff, especially if you use B&B's, and I found all of them fairly welcoming. You get used to the main roads, and you can often avoid them. You can get lost, but I never did. And if you follow my route (except in the Borders), you are nearly always close to a station and can give up, get on a train and head back home if all else fails. I wouldn't have chosen to do it alone if I hadn't had friends and relatives to visit along the way, but company isn't essential, though a mobile phone is (the trip finally forced me to buy one). And it could be a stepping-stone to bigger things. On the train back from Thurso to Glasgow, I met Frauke from Germany, who was doing the North Sea Cycle route - 3,750 miles encompassing Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Germany Holland, England, Scotland, Orkney and Shetland! Maybe next year. Or in the next life.

For the statisticians among you, full details of the trip are below. Feel free to e-mail me any comments or queries.

Stuart Mackenzie (stuart.mackenzie5@btinternet.com)

 

Day Hours Minutes Seconds Kilometres Average KPH Miles MPH
1 Lands End - Bodmin 5 0 50 98.5 19.65 61.56 12.28
2 Bodmin - Tiverton 7 23 16 125.38 16.97 78.36 10.61
3 Tiverton - Bath 7 19 59 138.64 18.91 86.65 11.82
4 Bath - Malvern 5 16 35 101.84 19.3 63.65 12.02
5 Malvern - Halebarns 8 27 14 174.95 20.69 109.34 12.93
6 Halebarns - Broughton 3 47 53 73.75 19.42 46.09 12.14
7 Broughton - Penrith 6 23 55 116.44 18.2 72.78 11.37
8 Penrith - Melrose 6 39 5 128 19.24 80 12.03
9 Melrose - Dalgety Bay 5 20 35 92.50 17.31 57.81 10.82
10 Dalgety Bay - Pitlochry 5 30 27 107.01 19.43 66.88 12.14
11 Pitlochry - Tomatin 6 22 16 127.47 20.01 79.67 12.50
12 Tomatin - Dornoch 5 0 27 100.75 20.12 62.97 12.57
13 Dornoch - John O'Groats 6 33 11 137.10 20.92 85.69 13.08
               
  Hours Minutes Seconds Kilometres Average KPH Miles MPH
Total 79 5 43 1522.33 19.25 951.46 12.03

Notes

(1)The calculator on the bike let me down on day 8, so I used an approximate mileage and assumed that I did the average speed for the journey on that day. (2) I took a day off between days 3 & 4. (3) My bike calculator is maybe a bit generous on the miles front!

© COPYRIGHT 2002 Stuart Mackenzie (author)

 

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