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One week later…

It’s a week since I finished in Scotland, so time for a few thanks and thoughts on the whole thing.

When I started there was a nagging feeling of “What am I doing?”  There I was, getting off the train in Penzance and toddling off to Land’s End to ride up the country on the bike I ride to work.  There wasn’t any group, no tour leader to tell me what to do, to carry my luggage about in a handy minibus or to be there to fix my punctures.

It was just me and the bike and the whole country to explore.  What if I’d got it all wrong?  What if it turned out I was nowhere near fit enough, what if I’d underestimated it all?

In some ways I probably had.  I had cycled hills before, I’d even cycled the hills in Cornwall before, but hadn’t found them too bad even without training.  I cycle fairly regularly, play football, that kind of thing, so thought that a few bracing rides across the Fens would see me in good enough shape to ride myself into fitness in the hills of the southwest with a few shorter days to start off.

Well as my first few posts mentioned, damn you, hills.  I knew the hills in Cornwall and Devon would be tough, but hadn’t expected them to continue in the little back lanes up through Herefordshire and Shropshire.  By Ironbridge I was beginning to think they’d never go away, and that maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

But then it all became easier.  In part this was because the land flattened out into Cheshire and Lancashire, but probably more so, it was because the first days’ riding had finally done the job and made me fitter.  After that, my legs no longer ached all that much in the evenings, and were pretty much fine the following mornings.  After that, even when the hills came back, I was fine and apart from the mechanical wobble in Dumfries, from then on I never doubted I would finish.

This is in no small part due to the weather.  It was April.  April, for God’s sake!  April, and barely any rain, barely any wind, it was absolutely perfect!  England shone in the sunshine, Scotland’s coasts looked absolutely tropical.  I really only got a taste of a day of headwinds one day, and it was hard work.  I was so, so lucky, and it made the whole thing a real pleasure.

The second big plus was the bike.  I have read other people’s blogs about doing the ride, and on the way saw others doing it on lightweight road bikes with minibus support.  A feature of these stories is how often things go wrong mechanically, particularly punctures, broken spokes, broken chains and bent wheels.  Hats off, then, to my rather unsporty Specialized Globe!  It may have weighed a ton and a half with all the luggage, and it may need to be forgiven The Dumfries Incident, but otherwise it never let me down, not even a puncture.

If anyone’s reading this who has thoughts of doing the same sort of thing, what to say?  First, do it!  It’s great!  You get to see so much of the country, at a pace where you can take it in, and it’s something to impress the other residents with once you hit nursing home age.  Do more practice than I did, and practice on terrain more like the route (i.e. with some hills), and practice with your full load of baggage.  The trip isn’t actually all that hard once you get going, but is harder if you aren’t quite fully up to speed before you set off.  And lastly, make sure your spare spokes are the right size.

Finally some thanks.  Thanks to all my sponsors!  Your money will be put to excellent use by Headway and Headway Cambridgeshire.  Please have a look at their websites.  To date, sponsorship for Headway Cambridgeshire stands at £776.10, and taking account Gift Aid and other bits and pieces, the total raised will come to a shade short of £1,000.  For national Headway sponsorship so far is £194, and with Gift Aid it works out to about £240 in total.

That really is an excellent total, so a huge thank you to everyone, however much you donated.  My Just Giving pages will remain open until the end of June, so there’s still time to donate if you prefer to pay for results!

Thank you to everyone who sent messages of support, particularly Mum and Dad for their daily telephone encouragements, to Inga for your support and for putting up with me being away for so long (and it sounded tough on those Spanish beaches!), and Adrian and Caroline for their hospitality on day 3 and the regular encouraging texts for the rest of the trip.  Thanks also to those I met en route who gave sponsorship money, even though we were complete strangers!  The generosity of guest house owners and fellow full English breakfasters is tremendous.

I’ll post some pictures of the trip (not too many, I promise).  And no, I don’t think I’d want to do it all again.

Well, maybe ask me again in a few years…

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Day 19 – Thurso to John o’ Groats

20 miles, total 1,108 miles.

Finished!

An early start for the final few miles into JOG and i was there by 11.00. The destination itself is nothing much, a couple of cafes, souvenir shops, a disused hotel and the famous sign, where i had a photo taken.

It was a bit of a low key sort of a place to go such a long way to see, but it’s all about the journey, not the arrival. I’ve spent two and a half weeks exploring the whole length of the country and it’s been great! Looking back at the diary every day has been something a bit different, and while the early days are such a long way away they seem like only yesterday.

Many thanks again to everyone who has sponsored me and sent messages of support, it has all helped get me here.

I’ll do a final entry once I’m back home and things have had a chance to sink in.

What will I do with my time now?

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Day 18 – Tongue to Thurso

48 miles.

A little reminder today of just how kind the weather has been to me, by showing what it’s like when it’s unkind. The first half of the day was a throwback to Cornwall, with lots of little valleys (and so lots of little climbs) along the coast.

It was at times stunningly picturesque too, with tropical looking beaches, and only the cool easterly headwind to deter swimming, and indeed fast cycling.

Frankly it was really hard work, and only became marginally easier when i left the hills behind at the Dounreay nuclear plant (or maybe that was just a burst of nuclear energy).

The Orkneys are on the horizon now, just 20 miles to go.

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Day 17 – Pittentrail to Tongue

50 miles.

I have reached the north coast! Not long to go now, I wonder what I’ll do with my time once it’s all over? It won’t be the same not having days of cycling in front of me.

The day started with an easy ride to Lairg, the road following the railway line meaning there were no severe climbs. Until today even these northern parts of Scotland hadn’t felt that remote, no different to any other rural parts of the country.

After Lairg, however, it began to feel like the end of the earth. It was all big country, with big open moors sprinkled with lochs, and big dark mountains off into the distance. There was a feeling that not many people come this way. Except perhaps bikers, of which there were loads.

A helpful tailwind wafted me over the moor with minimal effort, and i caught my first welcome glimpse of the north coast, an “oh wow” moment both for how pretty it is in the sun, and from the sense of having made it here. The English Channel seems a long way away now.

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Day 16 – Inverness to Pittentrail

63 miles.

Cromarty. East, backing northeast four or five, occasionally six. Good.

Apart from the good weather generally on this trip, I’ve also been lucky with the lack of wind. Today was the first time that there has been any headwind worth mentioning, and I’m glad I’ve avoided it up till now.

I left Inverness by the A9 bridge over the Moray Firth and then followed a very quiet coastal road to Dingwall. There i stopped for lunch and saw the royal wedding balcony scene, along with the highlights of earlier in the day.

Then a climb across some nice moorland from the Cromarty Firth to the Dornoch Firth (my third Firth of the day, sadly a fourth Firth and a fifth Firth eluded me).

When cycling you can reach a point when you just run out of energy. You get to a quite sudden point when although you can sit there and pedal you can’t maintain any speed, and hills and headwinds become real problems.
Having not eaten enough i got to that stage yesterday. Fortunately i was only about 10 miles from the end and had some jelly beans for a small sugar hit, which was enough to see me home. It was also enough to justify a curry and sticky toffee pudding at the pub, with a rather nice Glen Ord whisky.

Accommodation for the night was in a converted railway carriage at the back of a working station. A bit of a novelty, and pretty comfortable as well.

Wildlife update – i can add to my list of sightings a colony of seals, eider ducks and wild goats.

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Day 15 – Glen Nevis to Inverness

69 miles.

It’s never a good night’s sleep in a youth hostel dorm, especially when the chap in the next bed has perfected two tone snoring, so an early start it was.

This was no bad thing actually, as it allowed me to do half my day’s miles before lunch. From Fort William it was a quiet road alongside Loch Lochy (Scottish for Lake Lakey) with the mountains perfectly reflected in the water. Then a forest track took me to the Caledonian Canal for the towpath to Fort Augustus for lunch.

The usual way up Loch Ness is the main road along the north shore, but although it wasn’t that busy it would have been 30 miles of A road, so I went for the south side instead.

This did involve a climb and a half up the hills at the side of the loch but once up there, despite a sharp shower, it was lovely. A peaceful small loch to pass by, great views, and a good long freewheel as payback for the climbing.

A brief stop at the Falls of Foyers and then onto the shore of Loch Ness, where I saw and clearly photographed the monster.
It was a bit showery all this afternoon, and I now have a cold, but it’s close enough to the end that I can almost smell JOG. JOG must really stink.

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Day 14 – Oban to Glen Nevis

52 miles.

Another day with the sea on my left, another day of fine sunshine, another day of mountains rising out of the blue sea.

Actually to tell the truth there isn’t much to report. The day was relatively flat, with the road hugging the coast and rarely venturing inland. I saw Glencoe and a castle standing on its own island out to sea, but this was a fairly easy day with not much to stop for.

A nice dinner in Fort William of chicken stuffed with haggis to end the day, and then on to the youth hostel in Glen Nevis, a very pretty valley at the foot of Ben Nevis, with a perfectly clear river running through it (the valley, not the youth hostel).

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Day 13 – Lochgilphead to Oban

49 miles.

Another beautiful day, really for April the weather on this whole ride couldn’t have been much better.

I started out with a gentle detour along the Crinan Canal to the fishing village of Crinan. A very peaceful spot for lunch. From there the day was a series of climbs and descents towards and away from the coast to Oban, and a guest house with great views over the harbour and across to the islands.

Doing this ride in spring, I’ve not just been lucky with the weather, I’ve also been able to do my own personal Springwatch. Baby lambs have followed me the whole way (by which i mean they have been in the fields all the way, i haven’t been followed by lambs like some cycling Bo Peep). Other signs of spring to report back to Packham and Humble include loads of bluebells; chiffchaffs the whole length of England, white butterflies with orange wingtips the whole way; large birds of prey, lots in the southwest, which i will identify later; a smaller bird of prey with a forked tail in Scotland; loads of chaffinches and goldfinches; a bat out in the daytime skimming the Crinan Canal for insects; a cockerel with a sore throat; and a crow having a fight and distinctly saying “ow”.

I shall be submitting my findings to the Royal Society later.

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Day 12 – Saltcoats to Lochgilphead

44 miles.

I am writing this sitting on a bench overlooking the flat, blue water of Loch Gilp, the plovers skimming the water, the first of the sailing boats departing for a day on the sea, and the buzzards wheeling in the sapphire sky above, looking for a tasty plover or two.

I’m liking the west of Scotland! Day 12 was lovely, the morning cloud disappearing on the ferry ride from the mainland to Arran, leaving sunshine and a cool breeze off the sea. Lunch and a pint at the Arran brewery and then a little climbing to the ferry at Lochranza. Arran is beautiful, a handful of mountains dropped into the sea, and you should do all you can to in there.
Then a second ferry over to Kintyre, another climb to the opposite coast, and a final run through Tarbert (also picturesque) to the hotel just short of Lochgilphead. A splendid kind of a way to spend a day.

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Day 11 – Dumfries to Saltcoats

79 miles.

The day started with the news that the mobile bike mechanic was away supporting a race so he wouldn’t be able to fix my wheel. So rather than take the chance of a complete breakdown in the middle of nowhere I took the option of a complete new wheel from Halfords. Halfords don’t always get kind reviews from cyclists, but the man in the Dumfries shop knew his stuff, and in 20 minutes I had a fully functioning bike again. An additional benefit is that unlike the silent old one, the new wheel makes that satisfying ticking sound when freewheeling, which I know shouldn’t please a man of 36, but it does.

Today’s ride on paper was the hardest leg, 70+miles over hills, added to which sorting the bike out meant I didn’t get underway until 11.30. It was hard work, but for the first half at least the countryside was beautiful. First hills, then moors, all very Scottish.

Equally Scottish was the couple of hours of rain in the afternoon. The road down to Ayr was downhill most of the way, a pay off for all that climbing, but sadly the benefits were ruined by the worst road surface since Land’s End that made any real speed impossibly uncomfortable.

From Ayr the last stretch was along the coast, past the golf course at Troon (very scenic with the gorse flowering) and to the bed and breakfast by 9.00.

The next few days are much shorter, about time too!

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Day 10 – Glenridding to Dumfries

73 miles.

I have made it to Scotland!

I didn’t attempt the youth hostel breakfast so got food in the village and made an early start. I had time for a quick visit to Aira Force before leaving Ullswater and then across the foothills of the lake district towards Carlisle.

The way up to Carlisle, the city itself, and in fact most of the way to Dumfries are pretty dull, made bleak by the first rain since Cornwall. Before lunch it was pretty warm, but when i came out it was 10 degrees cooler and before long the waterproofs were on.

The momentous crossing of the border at Gretna took place in heavy rain, but i stopped for a picture with the welcome to Scotland sign. Just behind it is Gretna’s famous wedding venue, which rivals Las Vegas in exactly the same way the rest of Gretna does.

Until about 6 miles outside Dumfries it had been pretty uneventful, but then, with impeccable timing, i had my first mechanical failure. The failure was a broken spoke, a problem because it makes the wheel unstable and makes it more likely other spokes might break. Perfect timing in that it happened at 6.00 on Easter Saturday, just as all the bike shops in Dumfries were closing for 2 days.

I do have spare spokes, but when i came to fit the replacement it turned out to be 5mm too short. So tomorrow i have the choice of trying to contact a mobile bike repairer, or seeing if i can do 70 miles over hills on a wonky wheel.

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Day 9 – Morecambe to Glenridding

47 miles.

A really good day today. It started with a top breakfast at the Yacht Bay View Hotel in Morecambe, then a nice couple of miles along the sea front and another nice few miles along the Lancaster canal.

Then into the hills and into the lake district. It was hard work in places, but obviously the hill training in the southwest has paid off, and it wasn’t too bad.

Bowness on a hot bank holiday proved predictably crowded, but did good ice cream. From there to Windermere and across the Kirkstone Pass via Troutbeck, done without getting off and pushing (ie slowly). Fortunately someone had the foresight to put a pub at the summit.

A bit of a sting in the tail with the road up to Helvellyn youth hostel described as a bit of a climb, but actually a miners’ track a thousand miles long.

I used to go to the lakes on family holidays when i was a boy. It’s been good to see the area again when it’s not been a) the 80s, and b) raining.

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Day 8 – Northwich to Morecambe

77 miles.

I had been expecting this day to be long and boring, picking my way through the small towns between Liverpool and Manchester and getting regularly lost. Actually it was rather nice.

Not because of the scenery or anything very interesting to see, but it was flat, easy to navigate and allowed a lot of miles to be chalked off.

When reading other blogs about this trip Preston has been described as a hell hole useful only as a means of crossing the Ribble. Now i wouldn’t say it was lovely, and curiosity shouldn’t draw you to ever go there under any circumstances, but i found it to be not too bad.

It had the added bonus of getting me on the a6, a quick way of getting to Lancaster. My route map did guide me off into slow back roads again, but i ended up giving that idea the shortest of shifts and rejoined the main road north.

From Lancaster there was a handy cycle way to Morecambe, and a huge pizza and cool beer for tea.

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Day 7 – Ironbridge to Northwich

63 miles.

A very nice day’s riding in the end. I started the day really feeling the effects of the long day yesterday, and a bad fry up really didn’t help. Then i couldn’t find any useful shops in Ironbridge for supplies, and then the ride started with a long old climb out of Ironbridge gorge. I nearly passed away.

But then it all got flat, navigation was dead easy, and the rest of the day flew by. There was even time for 3 pub stops (though sadly not for beer). Nantwich was a pleasant surprise; Northwich was unlovely but i was staying in a village a couple of miles away, which was nice.

I went for a curry while the b and b owner did some laundry for me. Does life ever get better than that?

I have had many messages of support on my trip. Before, when I’ve heard people say this kind of thing makes a difference and keeps them going I’ve always thought it’s a nice thing to say, but does it really help? Well, i can now absolutely confirm that it does! It would be all too easy to give up and go home if it was just me and nobody was taking an interest, but the support, both messages and sponsorship, really do keep me going. Thank you!

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Day 6 – Symonds Yat to Ironbridge

75 miles.

When I planned this trip I thought I would be finished by about 5pm each day. A 10mph average would be plenty. So why was I not finished until after 8pm again?

Three things I think. First is the hills, even on flat days there are as many ups as downs. Second is navigation. It’s hard to get a decent speed up when you have to stop every 5 minutes to check the map. Third, despite packing very lightly for two and a half weeks, my bags weigh almost as much as my bike, making it very hard work.

This morning started with another very kind donation from a couple from Plymouth staying at the B&B. Then the morning was spent following the very pretty river Wye, before lunch at the Moon Inn – where else?

Then an afternoon hurrying through Herefodshire and along wenlock edge to Ironbridge before it got dark. A long, tiring day, but got a lot of miles done.

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Day 5 – Glastonbury to Symonds Yat

66 miles.

There’s nothing quite like a Monday morning up the Mendips. After a quick visit to Wells for supplies and to look at the cathedral, it was up into the hills again, but nothing too taxing.

Then some pleasant village hopping towards Bristol and a stop for a sausage baguette. A bit of civil engineering landmark tourism next, crossing the Clifton suspension bridge and then the Severn bridge into Wales.

A bit of a climb out of Chepstow towards the forest of dean and then some rolling countryside to the b and b near Symonds Yat. It was too late to head out to eat so a dinner of Nutrigrain bars and a satsuma – mmm, tasty.

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Day 4 – Crediton to Glastonbury

75 miles.

Well that was better. Still a few hills worthy of damnation, but the worst is over.

A quick run down to Exeter and then out towards Honiton for a late lunch at a farm shop, followed by a rhubarb ice cream (bracing but delicious). It was slow going picking my way through the villages of the otter valley, but was able to get some speed up over the last 15 miles into Glastonbury.

Daphne at the Pippin bed & breakfast was very helpful, phoning round for a pub still doing food at 9 on a Sunday night, and also giving me some sponsorship money!

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Day 3 – Polbathic to Crediton

59 miles.

Damn you, hills (part 3).

It all started so well.  A fairly gentle roll into Torpoint to catch the ferry to Plymouth, coinciding with HMS Cumberland coming into port with much ceremony on its last voyage on its way to being scrapped.  Then someone had very considerately put in the Plym cycle path heading up towards Dartmoor.  This was on an old railway line, so although its gravelly surface meant it was hard to do any speed, it was joyfully flat.

After a stop for a fortifying baked potato it was up onto Dartmoor.  I had always expected Dartmoor to be hard work, which it was, but in fairness it wasn’t so bad.  The ups were pretty long and steep, but nothing too ridiculous, and at least I could see them coming and decide whether I was going to need a rest half way up.

It’s all very pretty up there, good views, wild ponies looking picturesque, that sort of thing.  Then it gets you with false hope.

As I came down from the moor, lowlands spread out in front of me.  It was all downhill, all gentle roads from here on, easy riding from village to village all the way through Devon and out beyond.  Surely?

Well, no.

The next 15 miles were the hardest so far.  This may be because I was staying with my friends Adrian and Caroline so had to branch off the recommended route to Crediton, but the roads I chose to use were the steepest in the entire world.  The whole od Devon and Cornwall has been a succession of steep descents into villages at the bottom of valleys, and then steeper ascents out again.  On one of these I ended up not just having to get off and push going up, but also going down, such was the steepness and roughness of the road.

But here I am, I appear still to be upright, and having had a vast pasta meal (thanks Caroline!) I am once more, ready for action.

Unusual incident of the day: having a staring match with six cows who objected to me using their road.  Song going round my head for the day: the theme tune from The Littlest Hobo – one for 80s TV fans.

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Day 2 – Falmouth to Polbathic

Damn you hills (part 2)

53 miles.

A very hard day today. Due to the hills. For which they must be damned.

It all started so pleasantly as well, with a ferry ride from Falmouth to St Mawes and a fairly manageable undulating road. Then after St Austell it was hill after hill all the way to the end. Is it wrong to hate basic topography so much?

Join me again tomorrow, when I will be damning some more hills, this time in the county of Devon.

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