John O'Groats to Lands End

The idea

Back in the summer of 2000, Gareth and I decided to cycle from John O'Groats to Lands end. It was one of those pub conversations that seem such a good idea at the time and then turn out to be a bit stupid when sober the next day.

Despite this we did actually do it and Gareth decided to keep a diary for the whole time. More to keep him sane I think than anything else. So here it is, in all it's unmodified glory! :-)

John O'Groats to Land's End

James and Gareth,

Year 2000


Day 1

Monday 4th September 2000

The Train to Thurso

Got up at 5am, regretting last night's copious amounts of alcohol and curry. (I'd finally had my 18th birthday celebration - a balloon flight and pissup the night before). James came round at half five and moaned lots because I wasn't totally ready. Unlike him of course - as we later realised he'd forgotten both the mobile phone and his cycling shorts!

The first leg of our journey was also the shortest - we cycled to High Wycombe station, just catching the 6.15 train to Banbury. We then changed trains at Banbury, got a train to Birmingham, then a Virgin train to Edinburgh. The Virgin train was delayed so by the time we got to Edinburgh we had to run to get the last train that day to Thurso - we got on without checking that there were any spaces for bikes (there weren't) or a ticket. So we were nearly chucked off - instead we had to stand with the bikes as far as Inverness. There the train stopped and most people got off. We had a 10-minute break and the front two coaches set off again northwards. It really began to feel far from home [well, far from anywhere actually], but at least there was enough space for our bikes and a seat each. By the time we reached Thurso it was 9pm. Luckily we found 'Sandra's Hostel and Chipshop' (something like that anyway) and stayed there for £8 a night including breakfast (which, incidentally, was crap, but what do you expect for eight quid?). James wanted to get to Helmsdale the next day - which he reckoned was about 65 miles...

Observation of the day: Scotland is bigger than it looks on the map [- it took us longer to get from Edinburgh to Thurso than it did to get from Wycombe to Edinburgh!]

Distance Cycled: 3.88 miles

Average speed: unknown

Total Distance: 3.88 miles

Day 2

Tuesday 5th September

Thurso to Lybster

Left at 10am in glorious sunshine. James agreed that we should visit Dunnet Head, which is the northernmost point in Britain so we could do the absolute extremities of Britain as well as John O'Groats and Land's End. Like the Lizard (the southernmost point) it took bloody ages and was much further than it looked on the map. We had the first problem with the bikes - my sprocket broke on the way up to Dunnet. We (well, James mostly) fixed it but unfortunately it broke again increasingly frequently after John O'Groats - so we managed to get to Wick (just) and got it repaired. We then discovered Helmsdale was over 40 miles away so that little plan went out the window...

We stayed at a lovely B&B in Lybster for £16 a night - double what we paid in Thurso but definitely one of the best places we stayed in. We were so shattered that I think a shed would've done!

Best place name of the day: it was a close tie between 'Slickly' and 'Wife Geo'

Distance cycled: 61.53 miles

Average speed: 12.5 mph

Total: 65.41 miles

Day 3

Wednesday 6th September

Lybster to Dornoch

We left our nice, cosy, warm B&B and plunged into howling wind and driving rain and not for the first time I wondered if there was a train we could catch...

However James was a little more dedicated and we battled on. We reached Helmsdale at lunchtime. It was one of the more memorable lunches of the trip partly because we were so wet that we had to empty our shoes of water and James put his socks on his handlebars to dry, and partly because lunch was so nice - the world's best chippy is by the quayside in Helmsdale. Fish caught this morning and big fat chipshop chips... pity it's nearer to Oslo than London!

Anyway, we continued down the A9 and reached Dornoch in the evening sunshine. Dornoch is a lovely little place, and we stayed in the nicest B&B of the whole trip there. £20 got you a marvellous room in a lovely Georgian house overlooking the cathedral. High ceilings, black pudding and oatcakes alongside your bacon and eggs for the full 'Scottish' breakfast, this was one of the nicest places we visited.

Observation of the day: "oh sh*t was need to be doing 60 miles a day to get to Land's End on time. For God's sake Gareth cycle faster!!" (James)

Best place names of the day: Evelix, Doll, Embo

Distance Cycled: 52.01 miles

Average speed: 10.6 mph

Total: 117.43 miles

Day 4

Thursday 7th September

Dornoch to Drumnadrochit

Now we realise why almost nobody lives this far north. The wind stayed at about 40 mph constantly (and constantly against us) throughout the morning as we cycled over the Dornoch Firth and along the shore of the Cromarty Firth. The 70mph gusts just added insult to injury so we decided to head inland and avoid Inverness, the coast and the blimmin' wind. The wind evidently got a bit upset at this plan - we were nearly blown off our bikes at the roundabout where the A862 for Dingwall joins the A9. It took us about ten minutes to inch our way round the roundabout and we caused a minor traffic jam of rather bemused motorists. Now we understood the joke someone had made on the train - 'People don't do ironing up here: the washing dries horizontal!' We were so relieved and tired once we got to Dingwall that we just had to have two Wimpy Classics (i.e. an American-size lunch of four burgers, a litre of coke and a mountain of fries) each.

Then we headed inland for our first taste of the Highlands. After a glorious afternoon of cycling, with nothing but sunshine and heather to look at, we arrived on the shores of Loch Ness at Drumnadrochit. The best bit (for James at least) was the 1 in 7 slope down to Drumnadrochit which equalled almost a whole afternoon cycling uphill. He managed a rather impressive 42 mph. Well, at least the wind stopped.

Observation of the day: James is a maniac (see 42 mph stint)

Distance Cycled: 58.17 miles

Average speed: 9.6 mph

Total: 175.61 miles

Day 5

Friday 8th September

Along the lochs (Alternatively "I hate Scotland")

How hilly can a lake-side road be?? Cycling along the shores of Loch Ness you might as well be cycling across the Chilterns. And Loch Lochy was horrible - the wind came back to haunt us, along with the rain. By the time we reached Spean Bridge, we had done only 44 miles, it was almost dark, we were soaked, and very tired (well I was). So I didn't agree with James's plan to cycle another 14 miles to Fort William, which had been our target destination. So we had a 'little' argument and stayed in a B&B for £15. James was beginning to get a bit worried by this stage whether we would make it at all in the time limit he'd set. I was beginning to get a bit worried that he might ditch me and go it alone and kill himself be trying to do 100 miles a day or something like that. However the events of the next few days were to prove otherwise...

Observation of the day: I think James wants to kill me.

Today's long word: "aye, I know, uh-huh, aye" (all the woman who ran the B&B could say, on loop, forever)

Distance Cycled: 44.32 miles

Average speed: 10.9 mph

Total: 219.93 miles

Day 6

Saturday 9th September

Spean Bridge to Tyndrum

A much better day, and a very dramatic one at that. We cycled to Fort William in the morning, which took so long James grudgingly accepted that doing it last night would have been a little 'uncomfortable' shall we say. I bought panniers and just about managed to persuade James to ditch the tartan box that we'd tied to my bike with bailer twine. It was over 20 years old, broken in three places and now served no useful purpose whatsoever, but James thought we should keep it because it 'might come in handy'. Who says he keeps things for the sake of it?

Just like his dad. Honestly.

Glen Coe and the Highlands were spectacular to say the least. Today we probably reached the highest point of our journey over the Glen Coe pass. I was glad we wouldn't have to do this leg of the journey later in the year as would have happened had we done the trip the 'right way round' starting at Land's End. There were loads of snow gates and warning signs that the road was frequently shut off due the weather. Luckily for us the weather was kind (see photo, taken somewhere between Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum)

Our spirits were improved by the fact we were now only 55 miles from Glasgow, which meant James's target of getting there by Monday looked do-able.

Observation of the day: "Oh bugger. We're 15 miles from anywhere so these people can charge us anything". (We ended up paying £20 each for what was basically a youth hostel with slightly better food) The next morning we found 'heated wigwams - £9 a night' a couple of miles down the road. Oh well.

Distance Cycled: 58.22 miles

Average speed: 11.7 mph

Total: 278.16 miles

Day 7

Sunday 10th September

Tyndrum to Uplawmoor or somewhere near there. Or Beith. Or Hall. Actually we don't know.

An excellent day's cycling, helped by the fact we spent the first two hours coasting downhill at about 20 mph - undoing yesterday's hard slog in a disappointingly short (but fun) way. We descended from the Highlands and cycled along almost the entire length of Loch Lomond (or Lock Lmond if you're James) which was especially enjoyable because of the stunning scenery and nice weather. However once we reached Glasgow the route became rather less 'bike friendly' and upon James's directions we cycled around 15 miles of dual carriageway. Which was nice.

Then it was over the Erskine Bridge and out into the countryside again, where we promptly got spectacularly lost and ended up in the middle of nowhere, in the rain, on a Sunday night. Oops.

Luckily we found a B&B in a scary old farmhouse which did very nicely. When we asked where the nearest place to eat was our hostess's face fell and she said 'about 8 miles away in Beith'. She saw our faces fall even further and said she might be able to rustle us up something. I don't think either of us has ever been so grateful for a meal. It was only leftover roast lamb with veg and tatties but we were famished!

Observation of the day: James is happier now (see 'distance cycled' column). Unfortunately he's thinking of trying to get to England tomorrow.

Distance Cycled: 68.25 miles

Average speed: 12.9 mph

Total: 346.41 miles

Day 8

Monday 11th September

Uplawmoor to Thornhill

Good weather and our increasing fitness meant that today's progress was faster and less tiring than before. We were also getting more used to the sort of food you get when you turn up famished in a place you've never been with about three pounds in your pocket. Lunch was at Tesco's in Auchinleck which wasn't as bad as it sounds. James reckoned his resting heart rate had fallen to 60 bpm. I didn't want to test mine however.

Thornhill was memorable for two reasons - for one it was the last place we stayed in Scotland, and two it was the worst place we stayed in. The B&B was a large Victorian townhouse which stank of decay, dogs and smoke. We had an attic room which meant climbing about 20 flights of stairs, and when we got there we found there wasn't even a door! The proprietor promptly called up 'the lads' and within 10 minutes we had a door. Which was nice. Unlike the rest of the place - an odd mixture of a bistro, offices, someone's house and a B&B, all looking like they were on the verge of collapse. So we didn't waste time in Thornhill, especially as England was now in sight.

Observation of the day: Ha ha ha! [as we were eating fish and chips in front of the TV we saw on the news that the predicted petrol crisis had actually taken hold in England and that Scotland was very rapidly running out of fuel. Brilliant!]

Best place names of the day: Windy Yet, Fail, Blairkip, Skares

Distance Cycled: 60.44 miles

Average speed: 11.7 mph

Total: 406.65 miles

Day 9

Tuesday 12th September

Thornhill to Plumpton - England!!!!

How much time does it take to shower?? About 20 minutes if you're me, but James doesn't see it that way. Really. Other irrelevant details: we bought a bumper packet of Joosters (like jelly beans but cheaper) at the Thornhill Co-op. More relevant details: we reached England and ran out of money, and Britain was on the verge of chaos as the petrol blockade really began to hit - we cycled past endless lines of stationary HGVs and slow petrol queues. Which was satisfying. Carlisle was almost at a standstill and the A6 was deserted. This was one of the more enjoyable days of the trip (with a little too much Schadenfreude from James at the plight of the motorist!) - it really began to feel like we were getting somewhere.

Observation of the day: Two wheels good, four wheels bad

Best place name of the day: Ae Village, Heck, Unthank, Holmwrangle

Distance Cycled: 68.21 miles

Average speed: 12.2 mph

Total: 475.06 miles

Day 10

Wednesday 13th September

Plumpton to Nateby. Impressive figures.

Today's journey encompassed the highest point south of Scotland which was Shap Fell where we reached about 1000 feet above sea level. The other impressive figure of the day was that we passed the 500 mile mark. According to the news the north-west is almost totally out of fuel. That would explain the record price of 98.9p a litre we saw just outside Penrith

Observation of the day: 'Wot? No petrol? We've got plenty of the 2 wheeled variety here! [in a bike shop window in Kendal]

Distance Cycled: 65.48 miles

Average speed: 11.7 mph

Total: 540.55 miles

Day 11

Thursday 14th September

Nateby to Market Drayton. Long Day

The longest day of the trip, apart from the mad dash at the end. 85 miles sounds great and we were proud of ourselves - except for the reason we cycled so far. The main fact was that we couldn't find anywhere to stay. After about 65 miles we started looking, at 70 it was becoming 'a concern' by 75 miles we started stopping random people out walking their dogs. Eventually we ended up in Market Drayton and having learnt the lesson from Thornhill that you don't take the first B&B you see, we looked around and found a really nice place (working showers, no smell etc). In James's diary he notes "...we got past one of the largest urban areas today so the rest should be plain sailing. At this rate we could be in Land's End by Tuesday! [I was a bit upset at this! ...Little did we know...] Let's not get optimistic yet! Had an apple today. Worthy of a note?"

Observation of the day: See day 4's observation

Distance Cycled: 85.29 miles

Average speed: 12.2 mph

Total: 625.85 miles

Day 12

Friday 15th September

Market Drayton to Holly Green

We left our luxury accommodation in the pouring rain - which luckily for me meant James thought we could have an 'easy day'. Even so we ended up doing over 70 miles, finishing the day's slog in a hamlet called Holly Green, not far from Upton-on-Severn, where we got a lovely grease- and monosodium glutamate-packed dinner for under a fiver each. The B&B was run by a teeny weeny old lady, so old and teeny weeny that we wondered whether she was actually going to make it through the night to get us breakfast in the morning. Luckily she did, and she put our sodden clothes on the coal aga to dry. Bless her.

Observation of the day: "Protestors to blame for fuel crisis" (a local councillor states the bleeding obvious on the front page of the local newspaper. Special report, page 3 - Grass is Green)

Best place names of the day: Howle, Weston-under-Lizard, Tong

Distance Cycled: 72.24 miles

Average speed: 12.8 mph

Total: 698.12 miles

Day 13

Saturday 16th September

Holly Green to Upper Town

First puncture of the trip. Dammit. We managed to make it to Tewkesbury and mend it at a garage and use up 40p's worth of air (where does free air go when you need it??). The local wannabe sl*t club pestered us continually to 'buy us some fags'. Those westcountry girls had remarkable persistence! Shame they were ugly, rude and about 12. Hey-ho, never mind. We met up with James's godfather Phil on the A38 and went back to his house and got a free lunch! Which was nice. We then headed towards Bristol, reaching it in the late afternoon. The city centre was crammed full of happy, slightly drunk football fans celebrating a win at home - which gave Bristol a friendly feel and made it in my opinion the nicest city we passed through. Unfortunately that night's accommodation, a grotty pub somewhere along the A38 a couple of miles outside the city was not as nice.

Observation of the day: Now kids, smoking is BAD!

Distance Cycled: 63.04 miles

Average speed: 11.4 mph

Total: 761.16 miles

Day 14

Sunday 17th September

Upper Town to Whipton

We woke up this morning with sore throats and itchy eyes because of the smoke that seemed to have been pumped into our room by the defective fans. To add insult to injury, the pub didn't do food for its overnight visitors so we had to hit the road with nothing more than a few chunks of dairy milk chocolate to sustain us. Trying to find breakfast early on a Sunday morning in the countryside off-season was, let's say, inconvenient. We cycled for miles and miles and eventually ended up in the village of Star, where, appropriately, there was a Star shop. The Star at Star, ho ho ho. So we had one of the more memorable breakfasts of the trip which consisted entirely of chocolate donuts (which James thought went rather well with a cheese and coleslaw sandwich. Oh Scotland I miss you and your black pudding with oatcakes!)

Lunch was at Sainsbury's in Taunton and we had a Chinese for dinner. Am I getting a bit obsessed with food? I suppose you notice it a bit more when you're constantly famished and the only criteria for selecting food is the maximum number of calories possible.

Well, anyway, back to food, we managed the daily pack of Joosters in a record time of five minutes. So much for maintaining energy levels throughout the day! Later, unfortunately, they got replaced by Tunes as James's record-breakingly-strong immune system succumbed to yet another infection, this time of the throat. We were now on the south coast, only a mile or so outside Exeter and our goal was tantalisingly close...

Observation of the day: mmmmmmmm... donuts... (help! - I'm turning into Homer Simpson)

Distance Cycled: 68.34 miles

Average speed: 11.9 mph

Total: 829.51 miles

Day 15

Monday 18th September

Whipton to Polperro - the bet

After cycling round Exeter about 20 times we finally found our way out and managed a rather good day's cycling - almost 75 miles. We crossed into Cornwall on the Torpoint ferry - which was very lucky because yet again we'd run out of money. The nice ferryman took pity on us and soon we were in Cornwall in the sunshine, everything rosy and happy, three days to spare. Then James, being James, had, just had to make things a little more 'interesting' - he wanted to get to Land's End tomorrow. I said "errrm... NO!", then he said it was only 80 miles or so - (which translates to about 105) to which I replied in the negative. Slightly negative - since from my point of view we'd done nothing but cycle and sleep for two weeks so we deserved a bit of R&R at the end.

James is a cunning sod, and knowing my slight 'non-dislike' of large amounts of Cadbury's chocolate, he offered me a kilo of dairy milk into the bargain. So of course I had to agree...

Observation of the day: The stomach is more powerful than the brain (when it comes to chocolate)

Distance Cycled: 74.82 miles

Average speed: 11.7 mph

Total: 904.33 miles

Day 16

Tuesday 19th September

THE END! - 100-mile day - Polperro to Land's End - the southernmost point - a kilo of dairy milk and other adventures

Our final day, also the longest. Also the most nutritionally rewarding. A whole kilo of dairy milk! Mine! Excellent Smithers.

We cycled through the lanes from Polperro to Bodinnick and crossed the Fowey estuary on the ferry. We bought lunch at Tesco's in Truro and continued down the A394 to Helston. Be warned - the road to the Lizard is long and scary. It took hours to get to Lizard Point, hours and bloody hours. Maybe it's a sort of Bermuda Triangle for time, where you go in and hours just disappear without trace. It is certainly a bit odd, with standing stones silhouetted against the giant telecommunication dishes of Goonhilly downs and Cornish nationalist graffiti on the road signs. You definitely get the feeling that Cornwall isn't just any other English county - evidence of its Celtic heritage is everywhere. In Lizard itself, which is a small windswept town of little grey buildings, even some of the street names are in Cornish, such as 'Parc-an Ifan'. Anyway, we reached Lizard Point, the southernmost tip of the British Isles and had the southernmost lunch on a cliff overlooking the 'southernmost gift shop', 'the southernmost café', the 'southernmost rock shop' etc, etc... all the southernmost peddlars of tasteless tourist junk. It was then a long hard slog back up to Helston and on to Penzance. There we stopped and found a B&B, argued for a bit, James and my stomach eventually winning the battle. So we dumped most of our stuff in our room in the stinking old fisherman's cottage overlooking the bay and set off. It was getting late, and by the time we reached our goal it was nearly dark. By the time we set off back for Penzance it was pitch black and we were cycling with only piddly little LED lights - which are fine to be seen by, but not to see by, if you get what I mean.

It was then a curry and a good night's sleep before we set off on the train early the next morning, very tired but very happy. We'd cycled over a thousand miles, the length of Britain and the furthest north and south possible. Not bad. And I got that kilo of dairy milk.

Distance Cycled: 104.97 miles

Average speed: 11.3 mph

Total: 1009.31 miles

First published on 21st April 2008 and last modified on 16th March 2011.