Manxcat does Lands End to John O Groats!
Well, Lands End to John O Groats, that Iconic cycle route.
The Route: In two parts, dunno why, ask the Garmin
I have read a lot of reports about this ride, and I suppose to many cyclists it is 'just one of those rides you HAVE to do' if you happen to cycle a lot. I have thought and thought about doing this ride for a long while. I was more than happy to plan the route, book the accommodation myself and just go out there on the road and ride it, especially after the success of my Liverpool to Lowestoft C2C last summer.
Couple of problems arose, which sort of got in the way of my original preferred plan.
Getting to the start, and getting from the end from the Isle of Man.
It's a bit of a problem as the island is sort of at the half way point. I am, as others are, limited with time off from work, and limited with funding too. Finally, the decision was made for me, as my hubby rose a point, that he would prefer me to cycle with others on such a long ride. In case of mechanicals, accident, foul weather or foul road users. So, instead of self planning my own ride, I booked it as a holiday. The holiday firm that seemed to come up a lot on Google, from its good reviews was Saddle Skedaddle. They supported our own End to End on the island last year, I had heard of them, and people I know who cycle in Europe with them recommended the company. And so, I scanned their very excellent web site, and plucked up the courage to book it.
Next choice was the 2 week or the 3 week option. It had to be taken during the summer holidays as I work in education, and so need to book my holiday time when the students are off for August. Also, the 2 week option sounded like it might be full of young, fit male cyclists. You know the kind, where the speed and the route its self was more important than the views and the hilly miles. So I opted for the 3 week option. And I am very glad I did.
Final part of decision making was shall I hire a bicycle through Saddle Skedaddle? Or shall I take the Hetchins? Initially I booked a hire bike. Then Chas and I thought long and hard about it over several weeks. I am a fussy moo when it comes to seat height, top tube length and reach. I have weak hands and shoulders which do not like an uncomfortable riding position. The bicycles on hire were mens machines, which usually fit my long legs but let me down dreadfully on the equally long reach. So instead I used the hire money to purchase a bike bag for Hettie. I got an Evoc bag on the cheap, as it was an old stock model and apart from being 'bright here I am' red colour, it did its job very well indeed, and I shall have it for any more future needs where the bicycle is bagged up for travel somewhere.
First day of the trip was simply getting Hettie back together from her dismantling into the bike bag and being introduced to the other cyclists on the trip. It was to be a very international ride, some from New Zealand, Austrialia, Canada and Great Britain and the Isle of Man.
Weather cool and damp with a thick foggy mist everywhere. It was a real shame as the day before, I had cycled to the start and had my picture taken in glorious sunshine. Today it was the opposite. But like home, the weather must change quickly in this western region of Cornwall. We had some damp pictures taken and all 15 of us set off turning the wheels of our bicycles for the first time of many over the coming miles and days of the trip.
Saddle Skedaddle were supporting us on the ride. Personally I prefer to cycle with my panniers as it's a tour, and not simply riding the distance, but I must admit it was rather nice to simply cycle without the extra weight and the need to 'save the legs for later'.
Half of our lunches were provided by Saddle Skedaddle, and they were fantastic, spread out on a table, under a taupaulin on wet days such as this.
We were all provided with Garmin GPS units fixed to our handlebars, where we simply followed a thick pink line indicating where we turned or continued. I preferred my SATMAP and each day, I manually loaded in the routes. This was done for a couple of reasons. Firstly, SATMAP uses Ordnance Survey, and as such lots of interesting things were highlighted, especially as we cycled north into Scotland. Also, I wanted to save the route in case I were ever this way again. In my bicycle bag, I had my Garmin Edge quietly recording the route we took so I could use it for my Blog on the return.
My insomnia was not good on this trip, and only when we cycled decent distances over hills was I able to keep asleep until 6am. On the Monday, I was awake and alive by 3am and had several boring hours to while away. Saddle Skedaddle did seem to get us organised into suitable pairs and I shared my digs with Alexandra. She was fab. Easy going nature with a sharp wit and sense of humour. Plus she slept heavily so I didn't disturb her too much by playing 'Scrabble' on my itouch.
Sadly, the weather meant that we did not see much of Cornwall. Shrouded as she was by thick mist, low cloud and intermittent rain fall, but it was mild. Cycling here was undulating and easy. But the roads were very busy indeed! It came to me as quite a shock. We were on A roads, and these are roads I rarely cycle on in the UK. Opting instead for quiet lanes, preferably those lanes with shaggy grass up the centre. Even B roads are only ridden on when really necessary. I would not have chosen these roads. To me they are very frightening. Sadly, as I am sure Cornwall is stunningly beautiful, I felt we missed the best parts of it. I neither found the country inspiring or friendly on the roads we cycled upon. Car drivers shouted abuse at us frequently, and this knocked my confidence. I tended to cycle alone or with another rider, but even this did not stop car drivers from left hooking us, shouting at us for no apparent reason or just driving aggressively.
The route from Tiverton to Wells was horrendous. Truly dreadful and very scary. I don't know if the route was chosen this way to be more direct, or perhaps to save cycling days. But today was a day of big A roads, sharing with huge articulated lorries, fast cars and town congestion. I was nearly giving up before the trip had even started. Horrible, horrible. In the end, I looked at my SATMAP for inspiration, and found some! So I cycled 'off piste' so to speak. Taking Hettie into the lanes of Devon, into the real countryside that I longed to see. I cycled via Cheddon, whereas the real route went through Taunton and I avoided this town, I was assured it was a market town and not busy, but the feed back from the other cyclists said otherwise and I was glad to have taken my 'mystery tour' detour.
As I approached the road into Taunton that we were supposed to travel upon, I found myself on a HUGE roundabout, with cars and traffic wedging me in. I don't drive ever in the UK, and I don't drive at home much any more either because of my nerves these traffic situations are terrifying to me. Wedged in lanes between trucks and lorries. I unclipped, and taking Hettie off the road, I dodged traffic to the safety of the footpath. Where I analysied my SATMAP and found an alternative, lovely lane. Dotting with sunshine, dappling the road between the dancing foliage of the trees. I was smelling sweet grass again, instead of diesel fumes. The SATMAP demonstrated easily, that for just a couple of extra miles I could avoid this busy intersection and my senses relaxed again as I was cycling effortlessly along beautiful lanes, with just butterflies and birds for company. I found a nice little farm along the way offering cream teas and had my first experience of clotted cream.
Outside Taunton, I rejoined the Garmin set route that Saddle Skedaddle was using.
As the days drew out we were to tackle Bristol. Oh boy… not looking nice at all.
I hated the roads up to now, and today we had to get through my first city on the trip. There was no way around it, or I would not get to the B&B in Wales. It was chucking it down outside to add to the dispair of the day ahead. My room mate was wonderful, Alexandra lived and cycled every day in London. Perfect, we changed the route slightly via the SATMAP for the first part of the day to avoid the evil A road around Chedder, and Alexandra who had already visited the Gorge on another visit to the area was fine with leading me though the evilness of Bristol City Centre. We were a good match. Alexandra hated the rain and so we deceided to set off after lunch on this occasion as we only had a short distance, and the BBC said it was to improve at noon.
We were in Wells at the time, and so as the others set off in the lashing weather, Alexandra and I took our time, and visited Wells Catherderial. It was a grand affair was this. It holds the worlds second oldest working clock inside it as well. I was unable to take a photograph of the Wells clock, but it was an inspiring bit of kit condsidering how old it was...
We still ended up doing the same distance, maybe just 4 miles or so less than the official route, but it was a dreamy ride. Lovely hills, loads of up and down. Fantastic fittening country was this. The BBC weather was correct too, we set off after a pub lunch in glorious warm sunshine for the whole afternoon. I think we went over the Mendip hills, it was fantastic! Nothing too steep, rather like parts of the Isle of Man.
As predicted Bristol was evil to cycle into. Thank goodness Alexandra was an experienced city cyclist. We stuck to the Sustrans route through the city, but had I been on my own, I would of walked through it and pushed Hettie. Instead, with Alexandra at the front, I rode on her rear wheel. Keeping my vision blinkered. By following her direction, I only had to consider our immediate safety, and at least I didn't have to keep looking at the Garmin.
I enjoyed the Seven Bridge though, that was a good experience and easy to get on and off. We entered Wales for a brief moment and stayed in Tintern.
We had had so many days of traffic, traffic, traffic, that I was soon looking ahead each day with the SATMAP for an alternative route. On the way to Northwich, I was going to ride totally alone on my own route alone from others, and alone regarding heavy traffic, cycling along lanes and quite tracks that I love. The route was totally flat and I tootled along at a nifty pace, scooping up two angry wasps into my tee shirt as I pelted along... Ouch... Twice stung. I had to strip off to get them out too, the joys of being alone.
As my route was about 8 miles longer than the official one, there were no rest breaks for me today, I grazed on fig rolls and water. I skirted past the next big town of Nantwich avoiding it almost completely. To the Harford Hotel where were staying for the night. 63 miles of terrific wonderful cycling today.
I am not even going to type about the route from Northwich up through Chorley. I have no words to describe it that haven't been used already for the big towns and cities. Lets leave it at 'I hated it' and go on from there shall we!
Soon the veil of despair was about to lift, like leaving a dream that converted from awful into one of those lovely dreams you dont want to wake up from... We cycled into the Great Fantastic North! From this point onwards, my holiday began. From this point onwards, traffic treated cyclists with more respect and left us room on the right when they passed us. They slowed down, they held back before over taking. The left hooks stopped, and a lorry driver even blew me a kiss!
Gartstang was the gateway to this Utopia. A stunning little market town with friendly locals and pretty flowers in large urns at every corner and bridge. Our guides Charlie and John even managed to get me some Garstang Cheese for our picnic lunches. They were real gentlemen and proper stars!
Best of all once entering the Great North, I knew where we were going. We were staying in Dent, and I know Dent reasonably well, as it is featured in one of the annual Audax rides (Trough of Bowland in June), that I ride in, and I have ridden my own trodden rides through to Dent when just 'out and about' in Lancashire/Yorkshire. I slept badly the night before the Great Dent Run, as I was so excited about this ride today. I knew the type of roads we were to be on, and the likely hood of traffic on them too. It was not a very long cycling day, but the route was hilly, as it took us from Garstang to Dent via Trough of Bowland, Slaidburn and up Cross of Greet, then to Dent via the Dent Dale Valley. Oh Bliss, bliss, bliss.
I loved every single minute of this day, and I shot out of the starting block in the morning, not to beat anyone to the Scones in Dent, but to find my own space and to cycle alone. I was just outside Slaidburn, standing in my pedals up a nice little number, when a cheery 'Hello, is that Mary?' was heard from behind me... I expected to find one of the group, but no... No it was Mike, Patricks cousin Mike from CycleSeven!
That was a real surprise. I had only met Mike 2 weeks previously on our Yorkshire 100 miler day out. So to see him again nearly had me off my bike! Mike lives in Lancaster, but even so, to have simply have bumped into him in the Trough of Bowland was a real coincidence indeed, one making me realise quite how small our world really is. We cycled together up to Cross O Greet, saying 'Wow, amazing for us both to be cycling the exact path?' rather a lot... Mike kindly took some pics of me on my epic journey, and then cycled away far too fast for any mere mortal to have managed... We parted company, as he continued on his loop to the River Loon, and I cycled onwards to Dent.
After Dent, the ride just got better and better. Every day, became my favourite day of the trip, even the wet days, and there were few of these, it had rained a lot in S.England, but not much, once we met the best part of the ride. Saw about 12 cars all day long and one tractor and lots of hill ponies out on the fell. We took a minor road just behind the Dalesman pub in Sedbergh. We cycled on the old Military road, and the traffic was on the opposite side of the valley, the M6, an A road (shudder) and the railway. We were just on our own. It was fabulous. We cycled on undulating landscape, the wet was messing with my brakes and I had to use my feet to stop at one point… brakes needed a service after such a long run.
At Orton we popped soaking wet, into their little chocolate shop, and had the best home made hot chocolates with marshmallows ever! We had a tail wind for the afternoon, and pootled along at a merry little pace, with warm chocolate sloshing about within. Just outside Brampton, we had a B&B sorted.
Having read Patricks review of the Paramo Quito, I had purchased one of these from Paramo's seconds site I was now going to get a chance to put it to the test and wore full rain protection all day. It was lashing down, and I am so pleased I had packed this jacket, I wasn't sure if I would be too hot in it, but I wasn't. But for sure, I was dry and cosy inside. I was one of the few warm cyclists to end that afternoon.
Soon we were on the A7, and we entered SCOTLAND! Land of the Brave. We cycled in part along the A7, but we were now up North, and although there was obvious traffic on it, it was well spaced out, and there was a big sort of hard shoulder you could cycle on and keep out of harms way. Shortly we took a turn off the A7, and suddenly we were back on friendly lanes again. It was great cycling country. It continues to pour down and the rivers were all in spate. We arrived in Innerleithin to find that Peebles the next town was cut off as a river had burst its banks.
We had a day off in Innerleithen to wash clothing (I was mighty fed up with hand washing every single day), but more importantly, I had brought with me a new set of brake pads and Hettie was in dire need of them. Her old pads had been put in place a week before this trip and they were down to the rims.
The following day we were off again and continuing up though Scotland, along part of the NCN route 1. This took us through Edinburgh City Centre. Not looking forward to it one jot, but I followed some of the other cyclists and I must admit, the NCN route 1 was quite easy to use. I wanted to take photographs of the Castle, but no one wanted to stop, and I didn't have the confidence to tackle it alone. Outside Edinburgh, we cycled though Queensferry, a very pretty little hamlet, they were having a steet party, and I managed to photograph the pipe band. Cycled over the Forth Bridge, easy access and at either side of the bridge cars gave you room, it was like cycling at home into Kinross. Ate loads today, really feeling super hungry all the time.
We cycled through Perth, and we were able to spend some time at Scone Palace (Pronounced Scoon) where the Kings of Scotland were all crowned. It was the original site of the Stone of Destiny, which, after much argument, finally rests in Edinburgh Castle having been brought home to Scotland from London where it had been stolen and taken to. It was a worthy place to stop, but they can't make scones in Scone Palace! Mine was so stale it was uneatable! Don't eat scones in Scone, they're rubbish!
A good early night, as tomorrow we have hills to cycle up!
Oh, at last, real hills to tackle! Our ride around Yorkshire will always be the MOST challenging ride of my cycling life, but now we were getting into the Cairngorms of Scotland, not mega steep hills, but they are long ascents, with miles long decents to test out those new brake pads!
The weather was perfect. Sunshine, large fluffy white clouds and just 3 mph breeze. This meant lots of photo stops. The hills we did today were the most challenging of the ride so far. (not as challenging as that Yorkshire trip tho'!). They were not steep, but they went ever upwards for miles and miles. I stopped briefly at Braemer for a tea and scone break and to take a peak at Balmoral Castle. Sadly it is not possible to photograph the Castle as it is too shrouded by trees, so a quick pic by the gates by the kindly policeman guarding it was all I was able to get. It seems the Royal family use it for the month of August, whereas for the rest of the year a lot of it is open to the public.
The biggest steepest hill of the day was at Cock Bridge. It was a 20% incline, but it was at this incline for about a mile. Very challenging. Erica and Sharon, were able to skoot up this no bother! I had to stop about 5 times for breath to stop an asthma attack, but didn't walk at least – but it was a close call!
Next town was Tomintoul, which boasts a whisky shop stocking 500 different Scottish whiskies. Popped in of course!
Then we were off to another city... yawn... Inverness this time. Weather better than expected again. 52 miles only today. We had a long pull out of the valley and a long steady climb, but after there was a fantastic decent. Great flats and I really powered along on the Hetchins today, infact I managed a nice little 17mph average all day today. Our route took us to Culloden, where I stopped for nearly 2 hours at the battlefield site and museum. My ancestors had a bit of history here.
Altnaharra – what a wonderful place! A long day of cycling today 77 miles. Best day again (they all are now!) Over another suspension bridge and we are cycling ever Northwards. Countryside all moorland and lochs, past Loch Loyal. Perfect weather conditions. Still, no wind at all, and just fluffy white clouds above. Heard an Eagle crying in the valley, it sounded prehistoric! Learnt what a Scottish midge is about today as well!
Thursday 18th August
Phonecall from home today. Beth has got her grades with better than expected marks and has got into her first choice University. We are all so proud of her, she works darn hard and its good for her to get justly awarded with solid grades. Well done chook!
Having a grand day, as Beth has really given me a good happy boost, what with the country side, the ace cycling and the lovely weather too. Feel quite delious today. We only cycled 43 miles but some how I felt a bit weak at the end of the ride. The ride up to Tongue was stunning. Then at Tongue we turned right towards the East, from now on, no more north cycling. Now we are cycling ever east wards.
Friday 19th August
Finally. Today is THE day. Today we end it , we get to John O Groats
Up nice and early , with energy to spare in my legs. Hettie was champing at the bit to get going too. Weather was again unexpectantly splendid. Lots of high cloud with sunshine, this far up North though did feel a lot cooler then I would of expected so base layers on. Saddle Skedaddle gave everyone a tee shirt to end with. Charlie and John our guides said it was the first ever ride to John O Groats that they had seen it in sunshine which was terrific. Much nicer route than yesterday, mostly flat. As it was such a grand day, I wanted to do Dunnet Head and so did a couple of others. So myself, Chris, Erica, Danny and Alexandra rode to the most northerly point in Britain. We were welcomed by the sun and got some terrific photographs you could easily see the Orkney Isles waving back to us, so close you felt you could touch them.
After Dunnet Head which I am so pleased to have done, we cycled to a meeting point where the entire group were to collect, so we could all cycle into John O Groats as a single ride. Our eldest rider on this trip was Stan, at the ripe age 83 years, he was as fit as a flea, he took the centre stage and rode us all to the finishing point, it was an emotional moment. We all did it. We all cycled LEJOG.
After photographs and a brief celebration, Alexandra and I cycled to the final of final points, we cycled to Duncansby Head lighthouse.
Success! I nearly went home at one point, but I managed the most iconic cycling ride in the United Kingdom.
Here is my YouTube video of the photos taken on the trip:
Next time, Im planning my own trip.
Mary Jane AkA ManxCat