Sunday, June 2, 2013

Day 21: Melvich to John o'Groats

From Melvich I passed Dounreay, site of the famous fast breeder (picture). Obviously, I wore a radiation suit for cycling. After all, can't do any harm, and cycling is DANGEROUS, and the fact that the suit split after I passed the reactor PROVES IT SAVED MY LIFE. I think radiation suits for cyclists should be compulsory. And wearing the suit stopped people seeing I don't wear a helmet.

As I was staying in Thurso tonight, I left most of my luggage as I passed through for the 40-mile round trip to John o'Groats. With a generous tailwind, the north-coast hop was delightful, with some scenic views of the craggy coast such as Dunnet, and yes, I have (picture).

So, I arrived at John o'Groats at noon (picture) - about the same time as two other End to Enders, the right types, who'd cycle-camped it. We shared a bottle of bubbly and cheese sandwiches and swopped yarns for three hours while we waited for the wind to drop, which it didn't. Hello Steve hello Keith if you're reading this.

I went to Duncansby Head to ensure I'd done the northeasterliest point, and slogged back in a two-hour headwind to Thurso. And that, ladies and gentlemen, was that. The arrival in JoG marked the...

Completion of the Scottish End-to-End
and the
Completion of Land's End to John o'Groats
and hence the
Completion of the End to End to End to End.

It's been a fabulous trip. Well done bike: no punctures, no mechanicals, no problems at all. Well done Rob: no injuries, no accidents, no existential crises. Well done tent, mostly, though having spotted the millimetre-sized hole in the groundsheet, I now know why I woke to the occasional puddle by the entrance.

And it was a wonderful cross-section of England, Scotland and Scotland, good bad and average, in three parts - the English E2E, Dunbar to Stranraer, and the Scottish E2E - with some awesome scenery and delightful personal encounters. One of the highlights of my cycling life, for sure.

Miles today: 62
Miles from Mull of Galloway to John o'Groats: 460
Miles from Land's End to John o'Groats: 1368
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1402

Punctures: 0
Midge bites: 0
Pairs of gloves lost: 0.5
Insects swallowed: 6
Nights camped: 12

Best beer: Loch Ness Dark, Loch Ness Inn, Drumnadrochit
Worst beer: Belhaven, rest of Scotland

Best scenery: Tough, but probably Glencoe, then Great Glen
Worst scenery: Dismal outskirts of Winsford, Cheshire

Total money found in road: 26p (20p used to buy campsite shower at Stranraer; 5p reinvested in wishing well outside Dunbar; 1p reinvested in wishing well in Invermoriston)

Best Sustrans cycle path: West Loch Lomond cycleway
Worst Sustrans cycle path: Paisley - full of glass

• Small ferries on Cornwall south coast • Cheddar Gorge • Severn gorge • Night at Si and Sue's • Across causeway to Holy Is • Downhill to Innerleithen • Downhill to Moffat • Wildcamp at Clatteringshaws Loch • Mull of Galloway • Wetherspoons Ayr • Wildcamp at Loch Lomond • Loch Lomond cycle path • Glencoe scenery • Great Glen scenery • Crask Inn, A836 • Arriving JoG

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Day 20: Lairg to Melvich

A wonderful day of cycling experiences, stories, and pleasant encounters - plus a panic with a happy ending.

The A836 north from Lairg (picture) is a great cycling experience: narrow tarmac, gentle gradients if any, little traffic, and going 20 miles across scenic uninhabited landscape. It's more like a Sustrans railtrail than an A road. Except for the bit about scenery.

I spent the first ten miles chatting to a friendly local cyclist out for a spin. I understood quite a lot of what he said. I think he talked about cycling.

Well, I say the landscape is 'uninhabited': there's the 'village' of Crask halfway. Which consists, precisely, of a bothy and a pub (picture: bothy left, pub right). The pub, the Crask Inn, is a must-visit gem, a glimpse into the 1930s - in the nicest way. I must cycle back here soon, I thought. Little did I know how true that was going to turn out...

While at the Crask I talked to a chap (picture, right) who was about to bag his 282nd and final Munro with his pals. To celebrate, he had made some clootie dumpling. I had assumed this was another nonsense invention of Burns, but in fact it is a fruitcake. He gave me some to have with my coffee. Mind you, when he smiled at me and said, 'fruitcake?', perhaps he was implying something else...

Anyway: the panic story. Five miles further up the A836, just after seeing this sign - evidently the sheep are flummoxed by the Germans driving on the wrong side of the single-lane road - I suddenly realised, in a cold sweat, that I had lost my wallet. Had I left it in the pub? Had I put it on top of my panniers and rode off, in which case it could have fallen off anywhere...?

Panting, I hurtled back towards the Crask Inn. It's the fastest I've ever cycled with a fully-laden touring bike. After three miles I saw a Land Rover coming towards me, driven by the landlord, smiling and waving my wallet. The man is a saint. The Crask Inn was already in my top three of Favourite Remote Pubs for Cycling To, along with Yorkshire's Tan Hill Inn and Dartmoor's Warren House Inn; now the Crask is definitely No. 1.

With a lunatic grin and occasional steam-train-like exhalations of relief, I went along the awesomely beautiful, and virtually untrafficked, B873 alongside Loch Naver and alongside the River Naver (picture) - another special cycling experience.

Untrafficked, but that doesn't mean jam-free... in Rosal I was entertainingly held up by these local farmers manoeuvring some sheep (picture). Rosal was one of the most notorious locations of the Clearances, when locals were evicted in favour of sheep. Don't these sheep have any remorse? Don't they know they have blood on their hands? (Feet? Hooves? Sub please check)

Arriving at Bettyhill (picture) meant I'd reached the northern coast, and the scenery took a different turn - as did the wind, annoyingly, which had been a tailbreeze hitherto. It drizzled all the way on up-and-down terrain to Melvich, where there was a campsite in a scenic bay in the garden of a pub with wifi. It wasn't a difficult decision as to where to spend the night.

Sadly, I couldn't find a sign that said 'To Bettyhill and John o'Groats'. If so, I would have added, '...the gift of a son'.

Miles today: 68
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 422
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1340

Friday, May 31, 2013

Day 19: Drumnadrochit to Lairg

After the scenic overload of the previous two days, today was consolidation: drizzly and grey progress, over brooding moorlands and along plains. There were two spectacular sights to thrill the heart though. The first was the semi-panorama over Dornoch Firth before the final descent to Bonar Bridge (picture); the second, the line-up of marked-down sandwiches at Beauly Co-op.

There was another Mysteriously Abandoned Small Item of Clothing on the B9176: a quality leather boot (picture). This joins other MASICs spotted so far, namely, a pair of Y-fronts on Dartmoor, a baseball cap outside Preston, and a pashmina in Galloway Forest Park. Is it another, exotically dressed, End-to-Ender, gradually shedding clothes as they go?

And I was taken by this old AA Box outside Ardgay. Sadly, it was locked. Otherwise I could have sheltered from the drizzle.

Miles today: 64
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 354
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1272

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Day 18: Glencoe to Drumnadrochit

A day of perfect weather and endlessly wonderful scenery along the Great Glen, starting with Loch Linnhe (picture). It was like cycling through a Highland Views Calendar stuck on early summer. All very well, but stopping every five minutes to take another photo plays havoc with your schedule.

After a stop in Fort William Wetherspoons to recharge my spent camera battery, I cycled up Neptune's Staircase locks to follow the Caledonian Canal (picture). The last canal I cycled for any distance was the Leeds-Liverpool, which doesn't quite match this in scenic terms.

There's a long, delightfully scenic (and totally untrafficked) forest road you can cycle alongside Loch Lochy (picture), my favourite silly Scottish toponym. It certainly is lochy.

Well, that's enough pictures of mountains, lochs and bikes, so here's a cow that I saw outside Fort Augustus (picture).

And here's an example of the sort of thing you see all over Highland roads: (picture): direction arrows, occasionally supplemented by a multilingual sign, stressing which side of the road to drive. Clearly all those German and Dutch tourists I keep seeing are liable to get a bit dazed by the awesome scenery when they stop to take a photo, and absent-mindedly default back to driving on the right when they get back on the road.

I sympathise: I'm still reeling a bit from all that scenery myself. Nothing a pint of Loch Ness Dark won't fix, though.

Miles today: 68
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 290
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1208

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Day 17: Loch Lomond to Glencoe

A day of sun and jaw-dropping scenery, which will be further concern to my NHS dentist back in York. It started with a beautiful cloudless dawn over my wildcamp on the shores of Loch Lomond (picture). The only sound was the mallards gang-mating, which made me think the jet-skiers weren't so bad after all.

There's a traffic-free cycleway all along the west side of Loch Lomond up to Tarbet, sometimes on the old road sometimes on the footway, which gave some heartbreakingly lovely scenes (picture). Typical Sustrans route: you only average 3mph, though in this case it's because I kept stopping to take pictures.

After Loch Lomond ran out, there was some hackwork, tussling with a headwind, to climb through Crianlarich and Tyndrum and Bridge of Orchy on the A82, which was full of tourist cars in a hurry to get somewhere to relax.

En route there was more outstanding scenery. I was intrigued by the sign welcoming me to the Highlands (picture), because the scenery evidently knew this was the exact point to change from being Lowland to Highland.

There was a lot of slow going against the headwind across Rannoch Moor, which tops out at 1142 feet (picture). A benefit of cycling is being in the fresh air. Well, I had a lot on Rannoch Moor, most of it trying to send me back to Loch Lomond.

I also joint-hailed about a dozen fellow End to End cyclists today, all of them going south.

Finally there was a glorious descent into Glencoe (picture). I drove this road in 1987 and didn't think the scenery was all that remarkable. Eh? It's astonishing, and Glencoe itself is awesome. See? Proof that holidaying by car messes with your mind.

Miles today: 71
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 222
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1140

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Day 16: Ayr to Loch Lomond

The pleasant Sustrans route north out of Ayr on this sunny morning took me right through a golf course in Troon. A notice (picture) warns you that you may get hit by golf balls. I didn't know that cyclist-hating golfers had such a good aim.

Following Sustrans's suggestions to get to Glasgow from Ayr was the usual mixed bag of delightful smooth tarmac railtrails, such as this bit (picture) by Lochwinnoch, and convoluted, four-sides-of-a-square detours round housing estates and light industrial areas.

There was this impressive sculpture just beyond Lochwinnoch. It's the stuff of car-crushing fantasies when you see someone parked in your cycle lane.

I neatly avoided Glasgow by cycling from Paisley (generally depressing and boarded up, but with a nice bike shop that does coffee) over the Erskine Bridge. A lovely canal-, and then river-, -side traffic-free path took me to Loch Lomond, where a mountain biker I got talking to showed me one of the few places you can wildcamp on the shore (picture).

He then spent two hours trying in vain to light me a camp fire in light drizzle. Thank goodness; I'm not in the mood for a singsong. At last, around eight, I had the entire lake to myself, just the gentle wash of the water, and territorial calls of jet-skiers.

Miles today: 64
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 151
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1069

Monday, May 27, 2013

Day 15: Stranraer to Ayr

With heavy rain forecast and time in hand - but also strong tailwinds - I wasn't sure whether to get some wet miles in, or sit out the deluge for a day. Eventually - after about five seconds actually - the prospect of 24 more hours in Stranraer, and inevitable mania in consequence, was enough to persuade me to cycle on.

I went for cheap distance by cycling up the A77. It was miserable stuff: lashing rain, HGVs hurtling past throwing sheets of puddlewater at me, and some long grinding climbs through landscapes shrouded in wet mist. At least the tailwind propelled me quickly up the coast, though you couldn't actually tell which side the sea was on, it was such vile weather.

I rode through Turnberry, where some wet golfers splodged their way through some links course (picture). I couldn't understand what they were doing, out there in the rain. No doubt they looked at me similarly.

South of Ayr, I got more free propulsion from the celebrated Electric Brae, an optical illusion that makes you think you're freewheeling uphill. Here it is (picture) as you approach from the south; it's middle bit of the line you can see running from top left to bottom right.

And here it is looking back 'down' - actually, it's downhill towards the camera. (I've blogged in more detail about this before.) It's a remarkably convincing trick for the cyclist (picture), beaten only perhaps by Sustrans mesmerising us into thinking that stretches of rocky bridleway are a 'National Cycle Route'.

I got to Ayr about half past one and decided I'd had enough of being soaked for one day. Especially when I found a single room in a budget hotel for £19 in the town centre.

With the sun out in the afternoon I could explore the town, which has at least two famous sons. Poet Robert Burns used to frequent this pub (picture) and praised Ayr for its 'honest men and bonie lasses'. Looking at the frankly incomprehensible nonsense he churned out, you can't help think most of it was written here, shortly before closing time.

And round the corner is the birthplace (picture) of John Loudon McAdam, inventor of the road. Comparing my experiences on unmade bridleways and farm tracks to tarmac roads on this trip so far, I'm afraid Burns vs McAdam is no contest.

Miles today: 54
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 87
Miles since starting at Penzance: 1005

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Day 14: (Stranraer to) Mull of Galloway to Stranraer

With most of my stuff in the tent in Stranraer, I could enjoy a single-pannier day, biking light down to the Mull of Galloway and back, to start the Scottish and final leg of the trip. Without camping stuff, clothes, Argos catalogues etc, the bike felt ever so light and twitchy.

The Mull of Galloway is the extreme southern tip of Scotland (picture). It has a lighthouse and a pleasant cafe and a great many cows, and was lively with visitors this Bank Holiday Sunday. From inside the cafe, on a clear day, you can see to the end of the queue.

It's rather more scenically impressive than Land's End, and feels more ultima-thule-ish. It's also more enjoyable, perhaps because End to End cyclists are poundshop-cheap at Land's End, but here at MoG I felt a bit of a celebrity, giving my press conference in front of the lighthouse (picture).

The official start of the final leg came about noon from the gates of the lighthouse compound (picture). From the direction you look in the photo, John o'Groat's is directly behind you.

The afternoon was gloriously sunny and the scenery was delightful - lots of this sort of thing (picture). Of course it's not exactly the Hebrides, but then, where is?

I went through Kirkmaiden (picture), the southernmost settlement pre-1707, and then the traditional counter-endpoint of Scotland to John o'Groats. According to rather dodgy old song, anyway. In fact, the southernmost post office and general store are in Drummore next door, but they were closed.

Some lovely lanes later I was in Portpatrick (picture), a touristy but pleasant harbour town west of Stranraer, vibrant enough to have a fine ruined clifftop castle, gastropubs, and pavement cafes with al fresco musical entertainment. Stranraer may be shabbier and have far less in the way of London-price ice-cream parlours, but at least it doesn't have backing-track singers doing Dexys Midnight Runners covers in the main street.

Miles today: 58
Miles since Mull of Galloway: 33
Miles since starting at Penzance: 951

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Day 13: Clatteringshaws Loch to Stranraer

Another day of beautiful biking: a blissful morning by the lake, one of Sustrans's most beautiful but rocky routes (picture), and the end of the Rhyming Coast-to-Coast leg of the journey in Stranraer. For more pictures and full details, see my Barmouth to Yarmouth, Poole to Goole blog.

Miles today: 48
Miles since Dunbar: 183
Miles since starting at Penzance: 893

Friday, May 24, 2013

Day 12: St Mary's Loch to Clatteringshaws Loch

A day of more fabulous scenery, a fine Scotch pie, the village with the shortest name in Britain (picture), and a wild-camp by a loch all to myself.

For more details and pictures, see my Barmouth to Yarmouth, Poole to Goole blog.

Miles today: 75
Miles since Dunbar: 135
Miles since starting at Penzance: 845

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Day 11: Dunbar to St Mary's Loch

A day that included one of the best downhills I've ever had in Britain, and a mad hen which wanted to get into my tent (picture) and apparently tries to board buses.

For more details and pictures, see my Barmouth to Yarmouth, Poole to Goole blog.

Miles today: 60
Miles since Dunbar: 60
Miles since starting at Penzance: 765

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Day 10: Holy Island to Berwick-upon-Tweed (to Dunbar)

I cycled the handful of miles from Holy Island to Berwick, with its characteristic rust-coloured ancient bridge over the Tweed (picture), at dawn. The ancient walled city changed hands over a dozen times between England and Scotland over the last few centuries, presumably as both sides were trying to get rid of it.

I didn't realise that LS Lowry was a fan of Berwick. One of his paintings is reproduced at Scots Gate in front of the view it depicts (picture). You can see that little has changed. It was full of boarded-up shops then too.

I was intrigued to see this sign (picture) for the Sustrans route. It's a surprise to see a destination with a mileage like a cricket innings total, rather than one that's not even a New Zealand innings total.

The completion of the English End to End came at 8am in a caravan park a few miles north of Berwick (picture) called Marshall Meadows. This is the furthest north in England you can cycle on bridleways, and is just north of where the A1 crosses the Scottish border to the east. That particular point is marked by a 'Border Viewpoint', which consists of a marker stone, flags and a burger van.

That caravan-park point therefore marks the Completion of the English End-to-End.

From there it was a long tedious day to Dunbar, for the start of Dunbar to Stranraer tomorrow. I spent hours toiling against a nasty headwind and making little progress. Having to pedal downhill (picture) doesn't seem fair. At least I was rewarded with the view of Torness nuclear power station, and what I thought was a ruined abbey to its left. It was actually Dunbar cement factory.

Miles today: 46
Miles from Land's End to Marshall Meadows
(English End-to-End):
Miles since starting at Penzance: 705

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Day 9: Haydon Bridge to Holy Island

The riverside campsite in Haydon Bridge (picture) had been the best of the trip so far. I just had to remember not to step too far out the tent when going for a wee in the night.

I spent the next eight hours hacking northwest through lumpy and muddy bits of Northumberland. The whole county needs a really good iron. I didn't realise quite how many sheep there were in this part of the world. I still don't. Every time I tried to count, I started to fall asleep.

There was a lot of this sort of thing (picture): straight-line roads with no grading that consisted solely of ups or downs. I'd lubed all my gears this morning somewhere by Hadrian's Wall. This proved a waste of time, because I only ever used the bottom one. I needed that for every climb, and the downhill bits were over before I could change up.

Lunch was in the pleasant historic town of Rothbury (picture), which is nevertheless bang up to date on things such as cafe prices.

Shortly after Wooler, the grey day turned into a glorious sunshine evening for my ride across the causeway to Holy Island (picture). The refuge is for people who get caught by the tide who then have to spend the night cramped with other people in a bare wooden box. Now they know how hostellers feel.

It was a beautiful, memorable experience, and nicely complemented my bumpy push across to St Michael's Mount on Day 1. On the island itself (picture) I did what the early monks did so enthusiastically: contemplation; a bit of scribing; and supping a couple of beers watching the sunset. Sadly, I didn't manage to get trapped by the tide in the Crown and Anchor.

Miles today: 79
Miles since Land's End: 649