LEJOG Summer 2005 : The ‘Ring’ Road - Jonathan LewisSo, 36, an IT worker, and inbetween contracts in summer 2005 with some time to kill. I'd been up and done the Coast-to-Coast in June and enjoyed that greatly, and started to wonder about doing the End-to-End itself. Did I have time? Yes. Had I done any real training? No. Did I plan it? Not really. I hoped that I could find mostly hostel accommodation, and only made the decision to go on the Friday beforehand, when I saw there was going to be fair weather in the south-west for the first couple of days. This End-To-End turned out to be a real enjoyable trip. The opening 10 days of weather were nothing short of stunning, strong warm sun and little fluffy clouds, and I eventually returned from the flatlands of Caithness with the most marvellous cyclist's tan. It stopped halfway up my legs, and the tips of my fingers glowed bronze, compared to the pallid white of the back of my hands, hidden behind my fingerless gloves. I couldn't say an out-of-this-world trip, as nothing truly amazing took place, but still, I had a great time. Read on. The mileages are all very approx as I had no cyclo-computer, but must be there or thereabouts. 16 days, 1175 miles of pure cranking pleasure.
Day 1 – Sunday 31st July (60 miles)
Lands End – B3228 – St Buryan – A30 – Penzance – Marazion – B3280 and B3297 – Redruth – back lanes via Twelveheads – Truro – B3275 - Probus
London Paddington down to Penzance, arriving about 2pm. The bike ( a Surly Long Haul Trucker, 2 front panniers and 1 left rear) shared the luggage van with 2 cheap and shabby mountain bikes and at least 5 surfboards of different shapes and sizes, the latter going down for the summer surf scene in Newquay. The first task was to cycle away from Penzance station and stash a heavy plastic container full of homemade penne arrabiatta in a hedge near the Youth Hostel. To be picked up later. Then it was onto rolling hills via St Buryan for the 10m to Lands End, which felt bad as I knew I was actually cycling away from the final destination of John O’Groats. LE = as tacky as you can imagine. Didn’t feel like an ice-cream, picked up the LEJOG form (which I ended up losing somewhere near Dumfries) and rolled out about 4pm. Underway. Back to Penzance, retrieve the pasta, and head alongside railway to Marazion and St Michael’s Mount. Ran into the annual Marazion carnival procession, which was entertainingly colourful. Highlight was the family of 4 dressed up as the Incredibles, with the wife’s stockinged legs stealing the show. Away from the coast, towards Redruth, passing a wee house selling home-made marmalade and pickled onions. Redruth was the pits – full of youths who were either drunk or burning rubber in their Toyotas. Or both. I went into what I thought was a fish and chip shop but turned out to be a burger shop, and ordered veggie burger and chips. The guy forget to ask me for money, so I hummed and hawwed and in the end left without paying. The ‘chips’ were French fries, and the meal as a whole was just about worth what I paid for it i.e nothing. It lay heavy as I cycled onto Truro in the twilight, and got into town about 10pm. As I was feeling chipper, first day and all, I eschewed the charade of a Cornish B&B in high summer season, preferring to cycle dangerously on in the dark ( no lights) before finding a field with gate and a bit of grass near Probus. No-one around to bother me, and so this became the overnight uncovered bivi : ate the pasta, tuned into some Radio 3, then got maybe 3 or 4 hours sleep curled up under the dark cloudy skies. Fairly uncomfortable, but I’ve done worse.
Day 2 – Monday 1st August (75 miles)
Probus – B3275 – cross A30 – Indian Queens – Fort – Belowda – B3274 – A30 - Retire – Tremore – Bodmin – Fletchersbridge – Mount – St. Neot – Hurlers Stone Circle – too many small lanes to Horsebridge – Sydenham Damerel – more small lanes – Chillaton – Foxcombe – A386 and into Okehampton.
Waited for what seemed an eternity for it to turn light enough to cycle, then off to the north, accompanied by a very light dawn drizzle that soon rained itself out. Crossed the A30, a motorway in all but name, and up onto the higher land on the far side. Had plenty of energy this early, so checked out the Castle-an-Dinas fort, commanding great views over the surrounding countryside.Rolled on towards Bodmin, which included a few ups and downs and an unavoidable 100m along the A30. Waited for Bodmin town centre to get moving, still pre-9am, picked up some disappointing Cornish pasties, then out of town. Feeling good. Fletchersbridge was where the fun really started, a tough climb upto to the flankside of Bodmin Moor and down and up again to Mount. Then down and up once more to St. Neot, 2004 village of the year and lying on the old coach road to London. It is a pretty place, and well worth a look. From the church notice-board Legolas, an albino ferret, was apparently missing and at loose in the village. There then followed the Mordor of all Hills out of the village up through Draynes. Lunch was finally taken in hot sunshine on the Hurlers Stone Circle, very pleasantly. Had good views of Dartmoor in the distance, and Okehampton, the day’s destination, somewhere not too far beyond. A rapid descent ensued towards and across the A388, with some more searing descents and vertical valley climbs. Crossed into Devon at Horsebridge, and the climb out from there (to Sydenham Damerel) sticks vividly in the memory - toiling up in hot 3pm sun, with sweat dripping freely and flies buzzing. By this time, it had become a BIG day. I’d like to say the roads just west of Dartmoor are flat, but they are not. So up and down several times moor, and by the time I got to Okehampton evening was starting to fall, and I was starting to bonk. Shared the ride into town with 2 other E2E-ers, young guys who were doing the A-roads in 9 days all the way. By the time I’d bitched up the hill to the Okehampton Youth Hostel, checked in and walked back down again, there was scarcely time to get a take-out biryiani and eat it in the park, before nightfall. Then a long tramp back up to the YHA overlooking the town. Note – there is by all accounts a great cycle path from this YHA south all the way to Lydford, I wish I’d known about it before I reached Okehampton. (The Granite Way, I am told).
Day 3 – Tuesday 2nd August (80 miles)
Okehampton – B3215 – North Tawton – West Leigh – Lapford – Filleigh – B3042 – B3137 – Tiverton – Grand Western Canal– Wellington – Taunton – Canal – A361 – Othery – Pedwell – Shapwick – B3151 - Cheddar
Heavy in the legs and hurting in the knees this morning – undulated slowly to breakfast in North Tawton, then a bit of cross country. Tried to navigate via West Leigh on my map (which for this trip were pages ripped from an AA motoring atlas, scale 3 miles to an inch – I wouldn’t have wanted to go any smaller) though no-one seemed to have heard or thought to signpost it. No wonder, turned out to comprise of just the one farm and some out-buildings. A steep hill up to Lapford, and then it was a rolling ride eastwards to Tiverton, the town that turned out to have the best looking girls on the whole trip. More pasties for lunch, and then found out that the Grand Western Canal headed out of town in roughly my direction. The great thing about canal towpaths are that they are, by nature, flat, with the exception of those exciting steep little slopes by the locks, and this was just what I needed. The hills of Cornwall and Devon had begun to take their toll. So chilled and rolled for about 10 miles alongside barges and herons, not dismounting as instructed before each bridge. I tried to imagine what would happen if I was forced into the water by an oncoming cycle maniac or rabid labrador, and figured that I would just about be able to uncleat before settling in the mud at the bottom. Surfaced from the canal somewhere near Wellington, and into Taunton for an ice-cream. No time to waste – back onto another canal (the Taunton and Bridgewater) until it crossed the A361. Ducked right alongside Baltmoor Wall – a flood prevention scheme, and then past the hump of Barrow Mump and onto the Somerset Levels leading to Cheddar. Levels you devils. I found them quite beguiling in the low evening sun, I was often the only person on long straight roads. A beautiful part of the country that I’d never seen before, Shapwick Heath Nature Reserve, elverers, riding through the fields and rhynes. Made Cheddar YHA by 8pm, and with no time to cook it was another curry in town. Back at the hostel that night I shared with some retired Aussie who was having a panic attack about driving through the narrow English lanes.I asked him what he had done before he stopped work. "Drove a big truck, mate", was his response. Spoke to a fellow cyclist who was sadly obsessed with gearing ratios and not much else, and bed. But not before I had called home only to be told by my tearful wife, Jo, that she had lost her wedding ring on her way to work.
Day 4 – Wednesday 3rd August (60 miles)
Cheddar – Cheddar Gorge – B3371 – Ridge – B3114 – Chew Valley Lake – B3130 – B3129 – Failand – Easton-in-Gordano – M5 Avonmouth Bridge – A403 – back roads via Pilning – Olveston – M48 Severn Bridge – Chepstow – B4228 – St. Briavels – Coleford – B4432 - Symonds Yat – Goodrich – Welsh Bicknor
Day 4 and the eagerly anticipated Cheddar Gorge. The beauty didn’t disappoint, but the gradient did. There was only one hairpin bend where it got a bit steep – the rest was a piece of cake, and before I knew it I was passing The Big Green Gathering Festival atop the Mendips, smelling some early morning marijuana smoke wafting over the fence from a yellowing teepee. Hideously narrow and steep off the Mendips via Ridge, and then around Chew Valley Lake, to a very vicious climb up to Failand. Half thought about getting off – knee pain was getting worse. But persisted, and gained a view of the Severn estuary, and before I knew I was in Easton, hunting for the not-that-easy-to-find route to the cycle path over the Avon alongside the M5. More persistence, and I was finally up there along with the car and lorries, then down into the industrial hinterland of the A403. Found a cycle path (the NR42?) that eventually got me off that road, leading me through a maze of dual carriageways and motorways up onto the windy ( of course ) Severn Bridge. I arrived in Chepstow nursing a worsening bout of left knee tendonitis, brought on by the day 2 exertions. It quickly stiffened up, and mindful of Sean Kelly's advice just a week or two earlier (on Le Tour de France), I exposed it to warm sunshine (of which there was, thankfully, plenty) and rested up for a couple of hours. Going much further today was out of the question, and I toodled up the Welsh hills of the B4228. Got passed by a large man huffing on a mountain bike, which helped with the knee pain no end, as I was able to use him as a focus and reel him in over the next few miles to St. Briavels. Here I performed my one and only cleated fall of the trip. I was trying to dismount outside the YHA Castle, and got unbalanced by a ridge of gravel as I unclipped the right shoe, leading to a slow rigid fall onto my left hand side, right in front of the local vicar. He bounded up, expressing concern for my well-being, but of course only my pride was damaged. After this encounter, I reasoned I couldn’t comfortably stay the night here, and booked into Welsh Bicknor YHA just up the road. This was reached in jagged sunshine via the climb to, and the stunning views from, the vantage point of the weirdly named Symonds Yat. Lovely remote hostel, one to return to, I feel. Although hopefully next time without the snoring, tossing and turning I had to endure all night from the young Thanet man in the bunk below.
Day 5 – Thursday 4th August (40 miles)
Welsh Bicknor – B4234 – Ross-on-Wye – back roads to Dymock – B4216 – Ledbury – back roads again – B4218 – Upper Wyche – bridleways – Malvern Wells
Today was the day the trip changed in aspect and direction. Instead of Telford and Chester, I arranged to meet my wife in Birmingham. The Malvern Hills YHA had beds, so I booked in there and this made for a very short day. Pushed the bike out across the river Wye bridge, and then up to Ross-on-Wye. From here, it was gently onto Ledbury, still nursing my knee and trying to put as little pressure on it as poss. Ledbury is a quaint market town that knows it, and I had morris dancing and old Ford T cars to boot. Bought a sandwich, and then climbed out of town and into view of the Malverns. The ascent to Upper Wyche was Ok, and then I rode some bridlepaths down through the Hills, coming out into Malvern Wells itself and right by one of the fresh and free springs that emerges from the bedrock. So I quenched my thirst - wonderful water. A quick visit to the Elgar graves in a nearby churchyard, then checked in at the YHA for 5pm. Two other E2E-ers there, who had set off the day before me, and also a couple riding on a 7-day tandem tour. Plenty of time to kill, so went into town for some shopping and cooked a huge repast of pasta before an early night.
Day 6 – Friday 5th August (55 miles)
Malvern Wells – Great Malvern – A449 – Worcester – Birmingham and Worcester Canal – Barnt Green - B4120 – Longbridge – Rea Valley – Birmingham and Worcester Canal – Birmingham City Centre – another canal - Spaghetti Junction – Sutton Coldfield – A5127 – Shenstone – Lichfield – back roads - Fradley.
Kicked off with a sharp downpour as I left the hostel. Didn’t last long - after 2 miles I had ridden out of it and was repacking my mac, looking back to the dark cloud hovering over the Malvern Hills. Local weather for local people. Into Worcester with the commuter traffic, and out of Worcester on the decidedly less busy Birmingham and Worcester Canal. This started off really nicely graded, and I rolled along effortlessly, though I soon ran into a section of many many locks. Finally, the canal itself defeated me, running into a tunnel, and I failed to locate where it exited. So I took the roads into the outskirts of Birmingham, past the Longbridge car factory, and picked up the canal again just after the Rea Valley cycle path. Then it was an urban but peaceful run straight into the city centre itself, via Bournville and Edgaston and the Gas Basin. Jo was waiting at 1pm, as arranged, outside City Hall, and together we walked down to the Jewellery Quarter. Here, I damaged my credit card for another several hundred pounds ( a replica wedding ring ), with Jo being very sorrowful and apologetic about the whole affair. I put her on a train to Lichfield, and then I cycled on an unnamed canal to just past Spaghetti Junction, and then very familiar roads from my childhood, through Sutton Coldfield, Four Oaks, Shenstone and onto Lichfield. My parents live just north of there, in Fradley, and this was tonight’s stop, with the guarantee of great food and a night’s sleep with my wife instead of sharing with 7 other strange males.
Day 7 – Saturday 6th August (90 miles)
Fradley – back lanes – B5014 – Handsacre – B5014 – Abotts Bromley – B5013 – Bramshall – back lanes cross A50 to Lower Tean – A522 – Cheadle – A522 – A52 – Armshead – Bagnall – cross A53 – Brown Edge – cross A527 – Mow Cop – A34 – A54 – Holmes Chapel – A50 – B5082 – Lach Dennis – Wincham – A559 – M56 jct 10 – A49 – Warrington – M62 jct 9 – A573 – Golborne – Abram – Platt Bridge - Wigan
A late and long goodbye to my folks and Jo, and I headed away from Fradley and the parental yard on yet more very familiar roads. The previous 2 short days had worked wonders, and the tendonitis had gone. In fact, today, day 7, was where I started to come into my own. In Tour parlance, where Lewis really started to find his legs. Lots of weekend cyclists around for company, and before long I was up north of Stoke, and then found myself getting bogged down in the hills and ridges around Brown Edge, with a NW headwind. Felt I had to break out of this terrain, and made a sudden and spirited ascent up to the folly on Mow Cop, and was rewarded with stunning views of the flat Cheshire Plain stretching away in glorious late afternoon sun. I do declare, it’s laid out just like a chessboard, said Alice. The view inspired me, and I raced on down and through the Cheshire countryside. My only regret is not stopping at the Chocolate Café (?) or similar, on the A559 just near Frandley (?).The name and location are vague now, but I remember thinking it looked a great cake stop. It was 8pm at Warrington, but there was nothing to keep me here, and my mother’s hometown, Wigan, seemed to be in reach. My grandmother and uncle had both lived and died there, and it is a northern town I know well. Would never have imagined that I would one day cycle from Fradley to Wigan ( a journey done many a time by car ) but by nightfall I was burning through my ma’s home turf of Platt Bridge and through red-brick terraces into Wigan itself. Being Saturday night, the local slappers were out in force and abuse directed towards my lycra clad form was not long in coming. Some fat arsed lass called out "You don't know how stupid you look!". I fired back with "And you need a haircut, love", which precipitated a volley of swearing that I can't repeat. After yet another curry (very mediocre) I braved the town centre drinking crowds once more and just managed to find a hotel to check into, Aalton Court. It was nearly 11pm by now, and it had been a big day. Secured the Surly in a back shed, and slept deeply.
Day 8 – Sunday 7th August (80 miles)
Wigan – Shevington – M6 jct 27 – B5250 – Eccleston – B5253 – Leyland – A582 – Preston – B6241 – lanes to Cuddy Hill – Bilsborrow – A6 – B6430 – Garstang – B5272 – A588 – river Lune cycle path – Lancaster – Lancaster Canal – back and forth across the M6 – Crooklands – A65 – Kendal
As it turned out, a good day to be riding this stretch. Quite urban for the first bit, but this wasn’t a problem being Sunday. First I had to get out of Aalton Court, whose big and burly proprietor, Wigan born and bred, was soon leaving for retirement on the Isle of Man. He had nothing much good to say for his home town any more ("Druggies, the lot of ‘em. If they’re on E, not too bad. E, alcohol, pot and speed, not too bad. But alcohol, pot and speed, forget it. They’ll kill yer."), but over my breakfast he recounted several tales of how in his youth he had taken on the local criminal fraternity. "He came at me, and so I battered him, good’n’proper, split his face up like a tomato. Then t’bobbies came down, and took him away. It were magic <sigh>." The roads between Wigan and Preston were semi-rural and peaceful enough, although at one point I got further abuse from one of a pair of Sunday cyclists, as I studied my route ahead. "What does he need a bloody map for round here? Idiot." Charming. Made me glad I was actually born in Yorkshire. The A road into Preston was quite busy, but had a nice marked cycle path, and skirting the town, I was quickly out on the Lancashire cycle route and over the M55. The weather was fair, and I made good progress, riding into Lancaster itself via the river Lune cycle path, picking it up at Conder Green. Lancaster saw a major refuel – 4 almond tarts from Sainsbury’s followed by a large pasta salad from the Whale Tail Café just before they closed at 3pm. Picked up another canal leaving town – this time the Lancaster canal. Very beautiful, did this for 5 or 6 mile. The canal was distinct from the others that I’d ridden in that the bridges were not numbered, and there were cyclist speed bumps by the bridges in place of dismount signs. It was somewhere along here that I broke out the marijuana and pipe and got stoned for the first time. I felt I was far enough north to have earned a smoke. Saw some canalside swan tagging by an environmental group, and then left to zigzag by road, crossing the M6 more times than I probably needed to, before finishing up on a tasty downhill ride down in the market town of Kendal. Checked into the YHA (nice attic room, best YHA room of the trip) and cooked more pasta, more courgettes and more mushrooms.
Day 9 – Monday 8th August (105 miles)
Kendal – A6 – Shap – Penrith – A6 – Carlisle – back roads via Rockcliffe – A74 ( !!!) – Gretna – B721 – Annan – B724 - Cummertrees – Mouswald – Greenlea – A75 – A780 – Dumfries – A76 – B729 – Dunscore – A702 – Moniaive – B729 – B7000 – Kendoon SYHA
Stay at Kendal YHA and you get breakfast as well, but there was some incident in that the morning chef had me marked down as a non-payer from the night before. Managed to persuade him to at least let me eat ( it seemed to be against his better judgement) and we could then resolve the payment issue later. I knew I had paid though, so just slipped out of the hostel when he wasn’t looking. And onto the A6. The weather still held very fair, which was just great. At Lands End I’d have given my right arm to have a rain, wind and fog free passage over Shap Pass, but that’s just what I got. The climb was smooth, and I was strengthened by bakery goods from the Lake’s premier cyclist cakeshop, Café d’Espresso in Kendal (kind of near the market place). Try their pasties, they are top drawer. I was up too early for pasties, so had to settle for the apricot crumble and the date cake. On the descent from Shap I was joined by an E2E-er, on a fully wife-supported trip without panniers. He had had some eye problems in the last few years, and was doing this ride in aid of the RNIB. We rode together down to Penrith, making the miles go faster, but I let him go on from there, prefering to drop my speed a little. Onto Carlisle through chequered green fields, and a very disappointing choice of lunch goods. This was despite, or perhaps because of, Carlisle being the home of Greggs Bakers. I then messed up on the next section – although I took minor roads along to the junction with the A74 just after Rockcliffe, I decided against the long cycle route detour through Westlinton, A7, Longtown and onto Gretna. Instead, I looked down onto the hideously busy A74 and figured I could ride in that hard shoulder bit (lol). So on with the cycle helmet, and onto the road. It turned out that although you could ride in the hard shoulder bit, there was a lot of debris littering the way, and then there were 2 bridges over rivers where the path disappeared completely. There was no way I was going to cycle with the rumbling ex-M6 traffic, so I had to push through knee-high grass for a few hundred metres. It wasn’t good, and the turn-off to Gretna couldn’t come soon enough. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT CYCLING ANY PART OF THE A74 HERE. There, can’t make it any clearer. I noted the Welcome to Scotland sign, and also the marked detioration in the quality of bakery products that also signifies you have crossed the border. The Scottish Meat Council, in their healthy way, were exhorting the Scottish public to "Say aye tae a pie" this summer. Had some kind of dead and limp cheese pasty, then applied a thick layer of sun-cream and headed west. The wind was up, coming in off the Solway Firth, and it made the road through Annan and Cummertrees (what a great name for a village) a tough one. Get your head down and crank those pedals. Once in Dumfries, 6pm, I called Kendoon SYHA and booked a bed, bought another load of pasta and sauce from Spar, and pressed on. The B729 to Dunscore rose up through the valley, the air was pure and cows were lowing. It became a wondrous journey, a glorious evening on an isolated road, dead quiet, and only one more small village (Moniaive, 2 apples and water, thank-you local shop for being open at 7.30pm), before we wound up into the Southern Uplands. There, I surprised badger, fox and deer before arriving at Kendoon, the sweetest of rustic hostels, staffed by a wee lass from Stirling called Sam, who took it upon herself to relieve me of bike, then bike bags, and then go on to make me a nice cup of tea. A reet good lass. This was probably the best day I had, just stunning weather and scenery in all respects.
Day 10 – Tuesday 9th August (65 miles)
Kendoon – B7000 – B729 – Carsphairn – A713 – Dalmellington – Patna – Ayr – coastal cycle path, Prestwick, Troon, Irvine, Stevenson, Saltcoats, Ardrossan – Ferry to Arran – Brodrick – A841 north - Lochranza
Had a late start – soaking up the views and the fresh air. Goodbye to Sam, retrace my route of yesterday a little and upto the top of the 300m pass just above Mossdale. Stop at road to Loch Doon, home of the Arctic Char, but then the further down the A713 I got, the grimmer got the road. I was under the illusion that it might be all downhill to Ayr, and the fact that it was actually heavily rolling just added to my misery. Once at Ayr, I weaved through the throngs of pale Glaswegian holiday-makers and took the coastal cycle path alongside a grey and choppy sea. I dallied on the edge of Royal Troon for a late lunch, and was delighted to observe a clean-cut youngish American in creased slacks, plus his hired local caddy, doing a round. The clear summer air carried his words crisply across the 10th green to where I stood on the nearby railway bridge. "Ok, Ok, lets make a par here. A little uphill, left to right". His caddy kindly cleans his ball for him and replaces it for the 12 foot putt, but to no avail. The ball is short by a good foot and he bemoans the fact : "Everytime my line is good ...." The caddy remains silent on the matter, and I stay around only long enough to watch the Yank's hooked drive from the 11th, and he has to hit another from the tee - "Well, just for fun". As if. Taking the cycle path added on some time as I rode around Irvine Bay, and at Stevenson I realised I was running a little late. So I hit top-speed, oh at least 20mph, and made the last Arran ferry of the day with 10 minutes to spare. A close call, as I really didn’t want to overnight on the mainland. This Arran route idea I got from a previous LEJOG journal, and I love the way it takes both Glasgow and the hilly Borders out of the equation. The crossing was calm, I stayed above deck but to my disappointment saw no large marine animals, and soon I was shopping in the Co-op at Brodrick. I remember the road north as being either mossy (under the trees) or sandy (by the shore), until it kicked inshore and up Glen Chalmadale. This pass advertised itself from a long way off as not being for the faint-hearted, and I had to put some effort in to get over the top. Once it crosses the river, it really kicks up. Light was fading as I whizzed down the otherside, but I was upon the SYHA almost immediately. Then the usual crammed routine of choose top bunk, unpack, shower, cook, eat, phone home, lights out. Almost as exhausting as being on the bike. In all, a bit frantic today, despite my best intentions to have an easy one.
Day 11 – Wednesday 10th August (50 miles)
Lochranza – ferry to Claonaig – B8001 – A83 – Tarbert – A83 – Lochgilphead – A83 – Inveraray
First ferry of the day (9.30) to Mull of Kintyre, after first booking ahead for Inveraray SYHA. Two German tourers, heavily laden, on boat with me. I give them a mile head-start at Claonaig ( I have to change into my lycra and smoke some drugs) and then pass them as we climb up through a band of low cloud and into mist and rain on the featureless B8001. Well, I couldn’t see anything anyway. This was the first dose of bad weather. It was quite cold up in the mist, and again I regretted not having a rear light with me, Still, soon down and out of the gloom, and into Tarbert, by which time I’d dried off. Bought lunch, and saw the intriguing sight of a local woman behind the wheel of a 4x4, puffing away on a large pipe of tobacco. Then away and into the Scotland of wide A roads, conifers, heather and loch views. It’s always good to be up here, and especially so when the sun has come back out and the weather is warm. Coast up the coast to the Crinan Canal, then buy tonight’s dinner from Lochgilphead Co-op. Stop a little further down A83 near Lochgair (Ardcastle forest park), and chill-out in forest car park in the cool shade. I am caught by a passing camper van submerging my soya-milk Tetrapak carton in a stream, and the poor lady thinks I am desperate for water, and offers me a litre of her own supply. Real kind, but no, just chilling my milk, that’s all. In the afternoon heat, roll down to Furnace, and then around and over the final climb of the day, past the Auchindrain Township, to Inveraray. Marvel from the outside at Inveraray Jail, Inveraray Castle, and Inveraray Bell Tower before checking in to the hostel. Eat early, and wander into town and get a bag of delicious chips from the chippie ( they should bring that fast-food guy from Redruth up here and teach him the difference between chips and fries). Darkness finally falls on the town and Loch Fyne, and I retreat to the austere and single storey hostel.
Day 12 – Thursday 11th August (100 miles)
Inveraray – A819 – Glen Aray – A85 east – B8074 – Glen Orchy – Bridge of Orchy – A82 – Rannoch Moor – Glencoe – Corran – Fort William – B8004 – Gairlochy – B8004 – A82 – Loch Lochy
Am sharing a room with 2 brutish Czechs, who decide to make an early start at 6am, loudly packing and rustling numerous plastic bags, until I am forced up and out of bed. Eat breakfast next to them (and their ugly wives) in an irritated silence, but at least I’m on the road early. Glen Aray is a new road to me, and a nice long climb, which warms me up and gets me into the spirit of things. The weather is cloudy but dry, and I freewheel down to Loch Awe and then turn right at its head. Do a bit of the A85, but soon turn off onto Glen Orchy, another new road, and a top road to take. It climbs gently most of the way to Bridge of Orchy, but does so in that nice way, so that you can set a good cadence and don’t really feel you’re putting too much effort in. Along the way, Bailey Bridge is picturesque (although tragically a kid had drowned not a month previous), in fact it’s a very beautiful glen as a whole. Very little trafffic as well – which is nice. Join the A-road at Bridge of Orchy, and then into a straight fight with the trucks, campervans and rental cars up and over Rannoch Moor. I’d been thinking about this road all trip, as I know how miserable and dangerous it can be, but thankfully I am given dry but cloudy weather, even across the top. I made the climb well, pumping out a steady gear and drawing some admiration from passing foreign campervans (not many British can relate to cyclists, it takes the French and the Italians to recognise the effort that you’re putting in). Thoroughly enjoyed the dismount near the summit lochans, strolling along the edge of the tarmaced A-road and taking in the scene. It still feels remote, even with your back to a wall of constant traffic. On the gradual descent before Glencoe, I dismounted to take a breather as the headwind was quite strong, and suddenly a fellow tourer appeared around the distant corner, coming in the opposite direction. She was a nice looking Belgian girl, with a pair of perfectly toned bronzed legs and appealingly proud hams. We chatted for a while, but it wasn’t the right road or time, and she was racing for her Glasgow bound train at Bridge of Orchy. The much anticipated descent off the moor into Glencoe was a disappointment, as there were extensive roadworks halfway down, and large traffic queues. In fact, I nearly lost the front wheel at speed, crossing a temporary metal road as we went through the roadworks . Luckily for me the tyre caught the surface again just in time, but I felt the movement and for a split second I feared a big fall. This was the nearest I came to an accident on the trip.
At Cannich the Gods finally decided ( and not before time) that I’d had enough good weather, and unleashed a heavy shower on me. For the last 8 miles into Fort William I got a damn good drenching. Picked up some dried fruit and a large bag of jelly babies in town, and left town on the B8004. I think the Caledonian Canal is cyclable between Neptune’s Staircase and Gairlochy, but I didn’t realise this at the time and took the road. Also not sure about whether the cycle track on the west coast of Loch Lochy ( past Clunes) would have taken a semi-loaded tourer, and didn’t have the time to find out. So it was a stiff climb across to the Commando Monument, and then a long push along the A82 to the SYHA at the top of Loch Lochy, where I cooked dinner, fighting it out for kitchen space with a posse of gesturing Italians.
Day 13 – Friday 12th August (85 miles)
Loch Lochy – A82 – Caledonian Canal – Fort Augustus – Great Glen cycle route – Invermoriston – A82 – Drumnadrochit – A831 – Milton – A833 – Beauly – A862 – Muir of Ord – Dingwall – cycle route back roads to Evanton – B817 – B9176 – Struie Hill – A836 – Ardgay – Bonar Bridge
More fine weather dawns, and a nice and early 8am departure. Quickly down to Invergarry, and then a scenic Caledonian Canal section away from traffic. I stopped for a leak, and quite by chance found myself next to a wild raspberry bush – the only one I saw on the stretch. The berries were small but succulent. On arrival in Fort Augustus, the road bridge was swung open to let a yacht through, and then I took the forestry roads (part of the Great Glen cycle route) for about 7 miles up to Invermoriston. Track was rough in parts, but nothing a good tourer couldn’t handle. The map I had for the cycle route had the next section up to Drumnadrochit marked as Severe, so I believed it and went back onto tarmac. This was a long 13 miles of dips and rises, and it was lunchtime when I got to Drum. In hindsight I over-ate here (4 large cheese and tomato baps) and / or moved on too soon. Head westwards towards Strath Glass, and turn right onto the A833 heading towards Beauly. It was marked on the map with one of those nasty black chevrons, so I knew I was in for a climb. It rose up early to a 1 in 6, then settled back down to maybe 10%. Hard-going. And then came the hill’s final flourish – a second 1 in 6 section (16%). This was the closest I came to dismounting on an ascent during the whole trip, I felt like death, too full of food, and I had a slight mechanical, not being able to get fully into the granniest gear. As the summit neared, I was wildly out of the saddle, weaving over the road. I got to the top, I did not get off, but had to have a serious lie down in the lovely bucolic surroundings of the next valley. The upside (once I’d recovered - 40 min lying on my back in the roadside verge) was a wonderful descent down to Beauly. It was my intention, in Dingwall, to make a reservation for the bike on a Scotrail train back from Thurso, but the note on the station door said that it closes everyday at precisely 14.44. I looked at the clocktower behind me – it was a quarter to three. I tried the door – already locked. Ridiculous. A local bakers on the high street redeemed the town by selling some excellent girdle scones, which I backed up with a huge chunk of Orkney Cheddar and the first of many packets of oatcakes. Then out of town, following the cycle route left and up the hill to gain the local roads running parallel to but high and above the A-roads. Worth making the effort for this. Just before Alness I was still feeling good for the day, so decided to embark on the cross-country B9176. The climb to the Aultnamain Inn was not too bad, and it turned out to be a top road, quite lovely and empty of cars. Great views of the Dornoch Firth from the Struie Hill viewpoint, and even Ben More 30 miles away. Then sharply down to sea-level again and into Ardgay. I phoned the Carbisdale Castle SYHA again, even though they'd already told me they were full. They were still full, so it was into Bonar Bridge and a B&B to the east of town : Kyle House. Pretty good second choice, though no castle, and it was backed up by an excellent home-made pizza and a pint of 80 schilling in the Dunroamin’ (believe the name) Hotel on the other side of town. Men in tweeds were casting long lines in the shallows of the Firth as twilight fell.
Day 14 – Saturday 13th August (70 miles)
Bonar Bridge – A836 – Falls of Shin and back to A837 – Oykel Bridge – Ledmore Junction – A835 – Knockan – minor road past Stac Pollaidh – minor road north to Lochinver – A837 – B869 – minor road Achmelvich Beach
I tried again to book my bike onto a Scotrail train at Invershin, but the station was unstaffed, and the Scotrail staff on the end of the free customer care line were anything but helpful. Called home and asked Jo to try and sort this out for me, as this would be the last train station I’d pass before Thurso itself in a few days time. I stopped off at the Falls of Shin in light drizzle, seeing no leaping salmon, but having a nice chat to a retired American on a coach tour of the Highlands, who had spent most of his working life on the US run section of the Panama Canal, before retiring back to Texas. Then I headed back down the valley, and turned into Glen Oykel. This is a favourite of mine, I like the tranquility of the road and the way it connects East to West. I had to dodge a couple of heavy rain showers, but things improved a little (to dull grey and no rain) after Oykel Bridge, and I raced over the top of the watershed, and down towards Ledmore Junction. Passed 3 tourers coming the other way, but didn’t stop and chat. Swung a left at Ledmore, and through Elphin, where everything, including the tea-house, was closed. Unusual, for a Saturday in high season. Lunch ( more cheese and oatcakes) was taken just at the start of the road to the Summer Isles, and the midges were finally so out in force that I had to don my waterproofs just to eat in relative peace. I then took them off to continue, which was a mistake, because in the rain shadow of Stac Pollaidh I ran into some drizzle, which became a shower, which became a diluvian downpour. Before I knew it, I was freewheeling through rivers of water on the roads, rain hammering down and boucning off the tarmac, and was absolutely and utterly soaked. Drowned rat. Although I dried out a little just down the road, it was a damp cyclist that made his way up the single track road towards Lochinver. I’d only ever seem this terrain from the top of Stac Pollaidh and it had looked fairly flat, gazing down from 612m. It wasn’t flat – it was a monster of a road and just like Bodmin Moor all over again, only with gnarled mossy oaks, dubh lochans and black water streams. It took some effort to get to Lochinver, where I caught part of the second half of the local team’s home match. Their no. 10 was getting exasperated at the lack of service, as he made another run down the wing and a perfect but fruitless cross – " Who was in the f*****g centre, you lazy c***s ! ". Also got the good news from Jo in that she had managed, somehow, by phone, to get me a Scotrail bike reservation. So I was all set for the final phase. As I left town (with more oatcakes) I realised I had a slow flat, and had to pump it up twice on the way to Achmelvich Beach. Checked into the wee hostel, ate, changed the inner tube (in a fierce swarm of midges) then, with the sun dipping wondrously across the bay's white sands, I walked barefoot across the machair to sit on the headland and watch the sun set, and then a blood red half-moon rise from the south.
Day 15 – Sunday 14th August (60 miles)
Achmelvich Beach – B869 south – A837 – A894 – Unapool – Scourie – Laxford Bridge – A838 – Durness – Smoo
Achmelvich – another place to return to. Beautiful beach and bay. I know the route from Bonar Bridge onwards has been a bit weird, but I had always fancied riding upto Durness and along the top – it appealed to me much more than the straight slug up the A9 through Helmsdale. Plus I got to ride Glen Oykel again. Enough apologies, out from Assynt Coigach the easiest way, by the A837. What I hadn’t figured on was the climb on the A894 up to the saddle by Quinag and Sail Ghorm, a right old tester. Sunny weather had returned though, thankfully, which meant that I had the pleasure of applying a gooey layer of sun-cream. There was a small Italian flag stuck in the banks of one of the streams at the top, although they needn't have bothered, as the nearby discarded Coca-Cola Italia can advertised their presence just as well. From here onwards, I'd say 80% of the traffic on the road was tourist, and most of that campervans. By now, I had grown to hate the Italian summer tourist. Loud, posturing, ill-mannered. Perhaps I just met the wrong sort up there. Anyhow .... Kylesku, this was all new country for me, Scourie ( with a local Mace open on a Sunday morning, thank the Lord, or I’d have been stuck for food) and greviously up and down through wild country until Laxford Bridge. This was a perfect lunchspot, lounging in sunshine and shade amogst the wild chantarelles and trees down below the bridge itself. Laxford Bridge can’t get many better or hotter days all year than the one I had there. Must have been high 70s. I tried to picture it on a wet January day, but just couldn't, it was too beautiful. As I clambered back onto the road I met 2 tourers, young Scots guys, coming the other way. One of them pedalling in heavy 3 season walking boots, claiming that it "wasnae too bad". They recommended that I go check out Kinlochbervie (B801) but I knew I just didn’t have the energy. There was a final climb to the top of Strath Dionard, and a perfect straight descent under clear blue skies down to Durness, Smoo and the hostel. Checked out Smoo Cave in the gloaming, and then back home to cook another pasta dinner. It was a rather wonderfully eclectic hostel, decked out with more than a hint of The Ancient Mariner, and run by the enigmatically dour but very kind hearted Cameron McEwan. Not a man to mess with, mind. I'm sure he had plenty of similarly dour bald Durnessians to call upon, and you'd soon find yourself being dumped down one of the Smoo Cave swallow-holes if you put too much of a foot wrong.
Day 16 – Monday 15th August (100 miles)
Smoo – A838 – Tongue – A836 – Bettyhill – Melvich – Thurso – Castletown – back roads to Canisbay via Greenland and Inkstack – A836 – John O’Groats
I was crossing my fingers for one final day of good weather, but day 16 dawned wet and very windy. Birds flew up from the hedgerows as I passed, and once they got above hedge height, the wind just blew them right away horizontally. That kind of day, with driving rain. If the first mile was bad, the retracing of that mile to pick up my forgotten water bottle, and then having to cycle it once again, was worse. I had an awful first 8 miles, heading SW along the remotest of the remote lochs, Loch Eribol, into a vicious headwind. But once I turned the head of the loch, and started heading in a more easterly direction, I got the wind behind me. This pushed me onwards and upwards, over the hill between Loch Hope and the Kyle of Tongue. Freewheeling joyously halfway down, I saw the speck of a labouring fully loaded tourer coming up towards me. He must have been feeling it real bad, not even a third up the climb, with what I knew was a bitch of a headwind to contend with. Still, when he pointedly ignored my wave and greeting, I rejoined with an evil cackle of laughter as I zipped past. No matter how bad things are, you have to acknowledge your fellow tourers, and he failed to do so. We’re a rarish breed, after all. Sped over the Tongue causeway and the white sand, and poked my nose in at the decaying SYHA. No sign of renovation there. Then more hills to the east, until I passed through Bettyhill and on to Elizabeth’s Café, where I refuelled with a baked potato and coffee, and took time out in the Strathnavar museum, devoted to the clearances. "You live in a Black House. Your family raise Black Cattle for sale to the drover." By the time I left there, with 30 miles still to go to Thurso, a thick wet sea fog had rolled in from the north, that even the strong sou-westerly was unable to drive off the land. So I saw literally nothing for 25 miles, but rolling hills, headlamps, taillamps and a thick hanging drizzle. I got very wet, but not that disheartened, as I knew I was driving closer and closer to Caithness. And finally I was there, and the cloud lifted as I approached Thurso. Where there seemed to be bugger all to do, and bugger all to shop for. Not even a girdle scone. I did my best for provisions from the local Co-op, and then off I went. The final miles of flat Caithness were quite surreal. Huge flocks of black birds, numbering in the high hundreds, reeled across the sky in acrobatic swoops and turns. The roads are almost perfectly straight and flat, the tree-less fields guarded by low fences. Not that disimilar to the Home Counties, but ... just wilder. It was like riding the world's longest finishing straight. John O'Groats drew nearer and nearer, and suddenly I was through Canisbay, past the SYHA, and onto the A-road. Sped round a few twists and turns and I was there, enjoying the expected anti-climax. A steel grey sky and sea, a few windswept couples eyeing up the next day’s boat trips, and a pale local girl getting ready for closing time, dragging the postcards racks back into the Tourist shop. All done !!
Tuesday 16th August
John O’Groats – Duncansby Head – Dunnet Head - Thurso
The next day I went up to Dunscanby Head in rain and cloud and saw nothing. I then went west and up to Dunnet Head on the way back to Thurso, by which time the cloud had scudded away. Dunnet Head, I feel, is much more spectacular and soulful than JOG itself, and that should be the rightful end point for any end-to-ender. Top views of the Orkneys and Scapa Flow, and you’re missing out if you don’t make the effort when you’re up here – it’s the most northerly part of the mainland and all. Then it was back to Thurso, bike readily accepted, sharing with one other, and all the way back to Inverness on the 16:20. Then a quick change of trains, and the sleeper back to London (on my own in a 2 bed cabin, mind, with nae other kant tae bother me). There you have it, a fun 16 days jaunt, and once which I doubt I’ll be repeating again in this incarnation.
Footnote - 2 months later, my wife found the ‘lost’ wedding ring between the bed base and the mattress. She is now wearing two identical rings on her finger.