Lands End to John O'Groats, May 1997
The Classic End to End Cycle Ride
On taking early retirement from HMSO some more cycling was one of my ambitions, so in 1997 I set off with a friend, Dennis, now sadly no longer with us. We decided to follow a quiet route of some 1050 miles and to book accommodation as we went, to give us some flexibility. We both carried sets of front and rear panniers and I used a bar bag as a mobile handbag.
Day 1: We travelled from Norwich to Liverpool Street, crossed London to Paddington and then by train to Penzance, where we stayed at the Youth Hostel.
Day 2: We had an easy ride of 10 miles to Lands End for the necessary stamping of our trip record sheets and the posing for the signpost photographs. The wind was very strong at Lands End, blowing from the east, which was why our outward trip was so easy! Leaving Lands End up hill and into the wind was quite a struggle but soon we had hedgerows and hills to deflect the wind and made it to Marazion, with its wonderful views of St. Michaels Mount, for a lunch stop. Pretty lanes with an abundance of wild flowers took us on to the outskirts of Truro, where we found a B&B very close to the city centre. That evening we found an excellent pub to eat at, with live trad jazz and a palatable local brew, Tinners Ale.
Day 3: The wind was still against us as we crossed Cornwall via Wadebridge, where lots of cyclists following the Camel Trail passed us as we sampled a Cornish pasty at a table by the roadside. Carried on to visit the huge man made hole in the ground at Delabole Slate Quarry. Over 500 feet deep. On to Tintagel, very tacky, and decided that Boscastle would be a better bet for the night. Boscastle was everything that Tintagel was not and after knocking on a few doors found a bed for the night. It was really sad to see the devastation caused by the floods a few years later.
Day 4: Still windy, but bright and sunny. We pushed up the long hill out of Boscastle and rode across hilltops to Bude for coffee and shopping for the makings of an al fresco lunch, which we ate just as we entered Devon, on a wide and sheltered verge. Our target was Great Torrington and the last 10 miles were open to the east wind and very hilly. They build their roads straight over the hills in this part of the world. We finally reached Great Torrington and realised where the Tor in the name came from. Every road in was up! (Except one, as we found out the next day). We stayed at a pub, The Globe. It didn't look too promising, but the room was comfortable, the bath hot, and the leather clad lady rock musicians left us alone.
Day 5: It dawned hot and sunny but the strong easterly was still telling as we left Great Torrington going up hill. South Molton for an early coffee was planned but I punctured, rear wheel of course, and my first new tube was unusable due to a faulty seam joint. On to North Molton for a super ploughman's at the Poltimore Arms and then up and up onto Exmoor. The pub at Withypool closed its doors as we arrived parched so it was on, and generally downhill, to Winsford for refreshments at the tea shop. After crossing the River Exe it was up again onto the Brendon Hills where we had a wonderful ride along the crest, catching sight of the Bristol Channel to the north. Arriving at Crowcombe Heathfield YH we found only one other hosteller staying, so had a quiet night.
Day 6: We left the hostel and immediately faced a climb up the west side of the Quantocks to Lydeard Hill (1261'). The view to the north was spectacular, with Hinckley Point power station showing very clearly. Down to the plain around Bridgewater, where the wind seemed even stronger. We decided that our target of Bath was rather optimistic and agreed that we would stop at Chew Stoke, where Dennis knew of a good B & B. We stopped for tea in Cheddar, then up the gorge with the wind gusting quite fearfully, giving us a good excuse to push. Quite a hard slog across the Mendips before the vista of Chew Valley Lake signalled a downhill to the stop for the night.
Day 7: We joined the Avon Cycleway in Chew Magna and had a hilly ride up and down the sides of several river valleys before reaching the Bath—Bristol Railway cycle path at Saltford. A fine surface for a few miles around the Bristol suburbs and then dreary roads to Pucklechurch. A good ploughman's at the Lamb Inn at Iron Acton helped us on our way to the Severn Bridge. We didn't think much of the signs to the cycle path — almost found ourselves on the motorway, the wrong way! Stopped at Chepstow for tea and a raid on a cash machine. A good ride up the A466 through the Wye Valley, passing Tintern Abbey and on to St Briavels Castle YH. We were in the Prison Dormitory, but they did let us out for dinner. [About quarter distance, 279 miles, an average of 46.5 miles a day.]
Day 8: It dawned cloudy and cool so we decided that we would try and make Ludlow or beyond. My map reading took us on an unplanned diversion to Symonds Yat. Making the best of the mis-routing we visited Goodrich Castle before calling at Ross on Wye for coffee, food for a picnic lunch, which we ate east of Hereford and then it was relatively flat as we reached Leominster, where we had tea, and on to Ludlow, with its magnificent half timbered buildings. The Ludlow TIO was about to close but still found us an excellent B&B in Aston Munslow, giving us another 10 miles to ride. Our B&B, 'Chatstone' was quite luxurious, and we had all our laundry washed and dried for us — quite a bonus. The village pub, The Swan, did us a satisfying dinner.
Day 9: Mist all around hid the hills from us, but we couldn't blame the mist for missing the Ironbridge turning off the Much Wenlock—Telford road. We found ourselves on a new dual carriageway with the road we should have been on passing within 50 feet, unfortunately it was above us on a bridge and inaccessible. It's an ill wind however, as we soon found a roadside coffee stall, and an information map put us on a quiet road to Wellington and back on our route. Lanes that seemed familiar led us to Market Drayton and a pub for beer and sandwiches. Looking at the map over lunch I realised that my 1995 canal towpath ride used some of the same lanes to get between B&B's and the canal towpaths. On to Nantwich, a very pretty town. A very helpful lady in the TIO booked us into a farmhouse at Church Minshull for the night and also spent some time finding us accommodation for the following evening. Higher Elms Farm was comfortable, but a bit ramshackle, all the staff being on holiday so the children of the family looked after us. The Badger Inn also looked a little worse for wear but we ate well.
Day 10: We were away from the farm by 08.30 and reached Middlewich in the rush hour - not a good move. A B road took us to Knutsford and then we followed the edge of Tatton Hall Park before passing under the Bridgewater Canal and then over the Manchester Ship Canal. It was quite pretty and peaceful when viewed from the toll bridge (free to cyclists). Pretty rural lanes took us towards Leigh and then it was very urban. We stopped at a local in Hindley Green where the publican had us take our bikes through the bar into the garden for safety. Chatting to the locals, they thought we were mad. We managed to get lost on the new Bolton by-pass — good thing I had a compass on my bar bag. A friendly Boltonian put us pointing in the right direction. We skirted Winter Hill and found a farmhouse serving teas. By late afternoon we reached the village of Belmont and installed ourselves at the Black Dog Hotel. En suite luxury and the bikes locked away with the beer. We ate well to the accompaniment of "Whistling Rufus", the landlord, who gave his own version of anything that was playing on the classical muzac system.
Day 11: Up and down to Blackburn where we stocked up with fruit and then a fast main road ride to Clitheroe for coffee. Then it was up on to the moors, with one good climb before we reached Slaidburn for lunch. The village pub served the largest filled jacket potatoes we ever came across, plus plenty of salad. We then took 2 hours over the 12 miles to High Bentham. It may have been the lunch, but there was one long steady climb of over 3 miles. We called at the TIO which was volunteer manned, and got them to book us a bed at Sedbergh. With about 20 minutes to go it rained. The B&B was basic, over a camping shop — plenty of room to dry our waterproofs and buy some survival bars in case of emergency. A good dinner in the Bull Hotel. [Just about half way, having ridden a total to 519 miles, and the average daily distance up to 51.9miles] .
Day 12: From Sedbergh the road followed an old railway line and then climbed to join the Kendal — Kirkby Stephen road. A smooth 2 mile downhill straight clocked me a maximum for the whole ride of 38.5 mph. Crossing the M6 and the railway main line took us into Tebay, a rather uninteresting village. Onwards northwards, passing several Irish cyclists going south, to Kings Mearburn, where we lunched at the White Horse before heading for Brampton and finding a very good B&B. There are several pubs to choose from in Brampton but after a look at most of them we chose the White Lion and were not disappointed.
Day 13: An undulating ride from Brampton took us into Scotland at Liddelwater. Pastoral scenes accompanied us to Langholm where the lady at the TIO made us coffee whilst finding accommodation. We then faced 13 hilly miles through the Esk Valley and Castleover Forest to reach the only lunch spot on our road, The Hunt Hotel at Eskdalemuir. I had a traditional Scottish lunch of Mexican enchiladas. The day was dry and the next sixteen miles to Tushilaw were ridden with the wind on our backs. Luxury, we hardly noticed the hills. The rest of the day was good riding but the weather had turned cool. The farmhouse accommodation was roomy, and the lady of the house drove us the 3 miles to and from the village pub so we could eat.
Day 14: Got to Selkirk just as the TIO opened and asked them to find us accommodation south of Edinburgh. We took the A7 to Galashiels and found it very quiet so we opted to stay on it until we reached the Edinburgh suburbs. It was a very scenic ride following the Tweed and Gaia Water valleys. We lunched a cafe in the village of Stow on bread and a good selection of cheeses. On the outskirts of Edinburgh we followed the Edinburgh Cycle Campaign road map and had a relatively quiet ride to the Gladstone Guest House.
Day 15: We used the cycle/bus lanes to reach Princes Street and Queensferry. We then followed cycle routes on old railway lines, not always well signposted (the compass proved it's worth again), to Cramond Bridge and on past the airport to South Queensferry. This ride gave us some excellent views of the Forth Bridges. Access to the cycle lane on the Forth Road Bridge was well signed. The ride across was spectacular, fortunately not as gusty as it was when we crossed the Severn. A quiet B road took us into Cowdenbeath where we found a new food bar in a pub at the bottom of the High Street. Excellent value, with advice from some local ladies on which beer to drink. Onwards using quiet lanes, over the M90 and cross country to Glendevon. The YH was simple, two huge dorms, no showers, but it was only £4.40 per night. We walked to the Tormalkin Arms for dinner in drizzly rain. Food was good but rather pricy, the hotel being close to Gleneagles.
Day 16: We left Glendevon in drizzle but soon had to stop and put on full waterproofs as we neared Gleneagles. Some of the golfers in sweaters and slacks looked like drowned rats. We stopped at the town of Auchterarder to get a picnic lunch and more cash before climbing towards Glen Almond in drizzle. Riding eastwards along the edge of the Glen we saw oystercatchers and curlews a plenty, and our first sighting of deer. We stopped for our bread and cheese lunch at Moneydie before crossing the A9 where it began to rain steadily. A gloomy ride on to Blairgowrie, crossing the River Tay. The TIO staff were very good. Faced with two dripping wet cyclists they found us a warm and friendly house just a few hundred yards away where we quickly made ourselves civilised once again. It's amazing what a hot cup of coffee and a shower can do for you. We ate locally at the Brig O' Blair Hotel, I sampled the haggis, local salmon and Clootie Dumpling (a local speciality made of suet. fruit and oatmeal, steamed — it was OK, but I wouldn't rush back for another). [782 miles covered, a good three quarters distance and the daily average now up to 52.1 miles] .
Day 17: A damp, threatening morning greeted us as we set off to climb out of Blairgowrie on the A93 towards Bridge of Cally. As we climbed the drizzle stopped but the temperature fell. We stopped for coffee at the Blacklunans Hotel and then on, generally up, to the Spittal of Glenshee. We now faced a long steady climb of 4 to 5 miles, round the Devils Elbow to the summit near The Cairnwell (3059 feet) and stopped for lunch at the Glenshee ski centre. The cloud base was only a few hundred feet above us but it was dry, although still cold. An easy descent into Braemar, using the old road along the Clunie Water for the last three miles. Shopped and had tea in Braemar before backtracking a few hundred yards to the YH. A hot shower and a change before we walked to the Fife Hotel for a filling bar meal.
Day 18: Our route took us along the River Dee towards Balmoral Castle, which was well hidden in the forest. Leaving the river valley we climbed up the foothills of the Grampian Mountains., which afforded us our first sight of snow pockets near the summits. After another 2.5 mile climb we chanced upon a coffee shop at Corgaff which provided us with sustenance for the long and very steep climb up the Lecht Road. 3 hills of 1 in 5 or 1 in 6 in 3 miles. The summit was at 2009 feet, where we lunched at the ski centre cafe. After lunch we found we really were cycling in the clouds — cold and quite wet! We had a short break at the Peat Digging Museum in Tomintoul before climbing back up into the clouds for a ride along the tops of the Hills of Cromdale, before a long descent to cross the River Spey and enter Grantown where we B&B'd at a large house over a bank, right on the High Street. We ate at the Tyree Arms Hotel close by.
Day 19: After breakfast in front of a coal fire we set off into the mist and soon reached heather clad moorland with plenty of small lochs scattered around. As the sun came through the mist the scene was very attractive. We crossed the Findhorn River time and time again, the character of the landscape changing noticeably. At Dulsie Bridge the river crashed through a rocky gorge some 100 feet below the road. We saw a young deer and a polecat as we rode through lichen encrusted woodlands. Emerging from the woodlands the Moray Forth was clear to the north and we soon entered Inverness. The TIO found us a central B&B, which we used as a base to sight see, visiting the Castle and the River Ness.
Day 20: Early in the morning I woke to find that Dennis was very unwell — something he had eaten. The local doctor ordered rest and lots to drink because of the dehydration and we arranged for Dennis's stay at the B&B to be extended. Leaving Dennis in good hands I left Inverness on the A9 over the new Kessock Bridge. Country lanes took me across the Black Isle and I briefly rejoined the A9 to cross the causeway bridge over the Cromarty Firth. Turning inland I climbed up until I had a wonderful panoramic view of the Dornoch Firth. During the climb I chatted with two local cyclists from Dingwall, out for the weekend. After a lunch at Ardgay I crossed the Kyle of Sutherland at Bonar Bridge and followed the Kyle inland towards the River Shin. There was a superb view of Carbisdale Castle. I took a minor road to view The Falls of Shin. A cold beer and a cake at the visitors centre set me up for the last few miles into Lairg, where my B&B window overlooked the 'little' loch. The 'Nip Inn' sounded like fast food but in fact the restaurant was very good.
Day 21: A fast ride on deserted roads to Bettyhill on the north coast of Scotland. 47 miles in 3 hours 10 minutes. I only saw three cars apart from those parked at a campsite on the shores of Loch Naver. It was clear that German tourists visit the are as the roadside signs put up to warn of lambs on the road read 'Achtung Lamben' After a picnic lunch I cycled on to Melvich, a good farmhouse B & B.I booked in to the farmhouse, showered, changed and strolled to the beach. Very warm, very clean and very deserted. I phoned Dennis who was much better and had booked himself and his bike on the following day's midday train to Thurso. The Croft Inn opposite the farmhouse provided an adequate meal at a reasonable cost.
Day 22: With Thurso only 20 miles away I had a leisurely breakfast, sat out a rain shower and cycled to Dounreay, the now decommissioned nuclear power station. I passed an interesting hour at the visitors centre leaning how the business of decommissioning is carried out. I rode on to Thurso via Scrabster, where I watched the Orkney Ferry depart. Calling at the TIO I booked a room at the most northerly B&B on the British mainland, the Dunnet Head Tea Rooms. Leaving my cycle at the station, I had 3 hours to explore Thurso before meeting Dennis. We rode out of Thurso and around Dunnet Bay to visit the nature centre where the Dunnet Head wardens are based. Shortly after that we booked in to the B&B, unloaded our cycles and rode right out to the Lighthouse at the most northerly point of the headland. We were allowed to ride along the last few hundred yards of the road, despite them being private, just to say we had got as far north as was possible. The view point above the lighthouse gave wonderful views out to the Orkneys. Back at the B&B we showered, changed and had a fine meal.
Day 23: We left Dunnet Head into a strong easterly! A reasonably flat and quite uninteresting road got us to John O' Groats at 11.15. Highlight of the ride was seeing the Endeavour sail past with most of her sails set. She looked very impressive. We had our photo's taken, congratulated ourselves, had a hot coffee and shopped for souvenirs. We then decided to lunch at the John O' Groats Inn before setting off for home. [12 miles to reach our objective, John O' Groats, bringing my total for the End to End to 1064 miles] . Was it worth it? Emphatically yes! We quite enjoyed the 17 miles back to Wick along the A9. A last visit to a TIO found us a B&B with a harbour view and a hotel that served an excellent dinner nearby.
Getting Home: As we were booked on the 15.45 out of Wick we had plenty of time after breakfast to explore the town and harbour. We had our dinner al fresco on the train, having shopped at Wick's one and only supermarket. Arriving in Inverness just before 20.00 we went back to the B&B we had stayed at on our earlier visit and had a lazy evening. I actually watched some television. Up early we caught 07.50 'Highland Chieftain' out of Inverness for Peterborough. It was a long journey so we broke the monotony with Luncheon in the dining car — very posh! Back in Norwich at 16.37 on Friday, June 20th, we took a few photographs of our arrival and then it was back home, a total of 1105 miles since leaving, to a welcome reunion with Gill, a hot bath and lots and lots to talk about.