The day began with a nip in the air and a cold leg punishing double climb. The second part of which was a beautiful ribbon of tarmac draped up one side of a valley. Very satisfying, from the top!
As is the way of the world, what goes up must come down and the drop down into High Bentham would have been a well-earned reward for my hard work earlier had I not made the school boy error of pedaling straight over the top into the down slope without realizing I had got quiet hot and sweaty on the way up. Resulting in the cool morning air passing over me, as I accelerated away, the moisture in my jersey began to turn to ice against my skin causing me to shiver so much I almost crashed. Gary later informed me that I just needed to “man up” and get over my "Southern Fairy" complexion as the chill of the morning was nothing compared to a Scottish morning.
I dropped off the moor into a village called Hornby. I am unsure if this has anything to do with toy trains and didn’t really have much time to ponder on this thought as it was here my ride was nearly ended in a spray feathers.
As I was zipping down past a line of terrace houses, I was viciously attacked! A thug of a chicken ran out into the road and tried to push me of my bike. Luckily the aggressive poultry timed his attack badly and missed me, a lucky escape that begged the question what was a chicken doing running loose in a residential area? or even, why did the chicken cross the road??
I stopped for lunch in the town of Kendal which turns out to be quite nice even if they are responsible for in my opinion, one of the most disgusting food products of all time, Kendal Mint Cake!
In the village of Staveley a few miles north of Kendal there is a bike shop called Wheelbase which is reported to be the largest independent bike shop in the UK. An opportunity like this could not be passed up so naturally I had to spend an hour inspecting the massive range, of what can only be described as cycling pornography, packed into the massive 2 story industrial unit.
Out of Staveley it was onwards into the Lake District proper. Entering the Lake District is not a grand affair as I had to follow a very busy section of a road around lake Windermere however once I had climbed around Grasmere the route took me off the beaten path onto a beautiful flat winding section of road following the contour of a lake with beautiful views up to the top of Helvellyn culminating with a fast open drop into Keswick for a well-earned pint!
Things learned on day 8
The north might not be that grim after all
Harden the f**k up or at least dress appropriately if you’re going to be a big girls blouse
I may have to do something about my knees shortly.
What a day! Totally inspirational and not for the terrain and views.
After the obligatory first thing in the morning huge hill that has become common place for the last few days. The pain in my knees was building and I was starting to struggle. Cresting the hill and having around 10km of descending into Carlisle was sweet relief. On the run in I caught up with Alex and we decided to stop in Carlisle for a drink brake and a pharmacy pit stop as we both needed some ‘drugs’ and strapping. Arms full of paracetamol, ibuprofen and strapping we found a café where we sat outside with tea and cake and set to work patching myself up in the hope of some relief from the pain.
Setting off it became immediately apparent that the strapping was a total waste of time and money. My only hope now was that things would ease as the drugs began to kick in.
We continued to ride north, the excitement began building in us to reach the border. Strangely the feeling of excitement was almost as huge a mile stone as reaching the finish line. Gretna was to be our border crossing point and in all honestly it did our expectation proud. Riding under the M6 flyover, round a 90°bend and all of a sudden it was there. Giving us a feeling that we had discovered the border rather than simply following the track on my Garmin. We didn’t initially see the border sign until we had almost passed it, as it was hidden from view. As we crossed the border we were instantly met by the sound of pipes; sooo stereotypically Scottish! We followed the noise (some say music) into Gretna Gateway Shopping Village for our obligatory photo with the piper who was fully decked out in traditional dress of Kilt and sporran.
Riding out of Gretna we felt on top of the world! As if we had just conquered a real mile stone. Little did we know that we were about to be humbled in the nicest way? A short distance out of town we rode towards a man walking on the verge, he was wearing a sign on the back of his pack. Slowing down to read the sign it read “walking from Lands’ End to John O’Groats". We stopped to chat with seemingly mad gentleman.
Terry was walking End to End to raise money for a Cancer charity, his daughter had undergone treatment and was in remission. He had started his walk on the 1st of June exactly a month before me. At age 72 he was covering approximately 25 - 30 miles each day, camping along the way (so much for thinking that my endeavour was difficult!). That man was a real inspiration. I would like to appologise to anybody reading this as I cannot remember the address for Terry's just giving site otherwise I would attach a link here.
The remainder of the day was spent in quiet reflection about the amazing and crazy things people do and why they do them.
With a brief pause to enjoy the humor of saying the town name “Ecclefechan” as we rode through. We made really good time over the final miles to Moffat, as the B7076 that follows parallel to the A47(M) is pretty flat and virtually all but empty. Before we knew it we had arrived in Moffat with only moments to spare before the heavens opened. It seemed that this stroke of luck deserved a celebratory pint before heading out in search of my bed for the night!
It turns out that not every day can be an inspiring adventure. Today has been a bit of an off day on most counts. From the get go my legs did not feel up for it and the knee pain that has been creeping in took a strong hold.
Adding to that the rough road surfaces of the ride out of Moffat on the B7076 my mood was not the happy optimistic one that had carried me thus far.
I had decided in the morning that I would make a long stint of stage 1 and try to hit out all the way into Glasgow so that I could stop and reminisce in some of my old college haunts. This turned out to be a mistake and had to stop in a nondescript petrol station for a break long before reaching the cities outer edges.
Once in the city the clouds came over and drizzle started to roll in. I suppose the weather was quite fitting for the general tone of the day. Following the Clyde river path I found myself riding through the litter and packing up after what was probably T in the Park Festival, a very dour site that must have been a polar opposite scene not more than 24hrs before. As I rode past my old College, that is now unrecognizable as it has been completely rebuilt.
It was at this point that I realized something about the city of Glasgow. As fun and as vibrant as the city center and its suburbs are the water front is actually a pretty drab and lifeless place.
Following some very stop start cycle paths out of the city the day from hell culminated with the heavens opening. By the time I squelched into Loch Lomond I resembled a drowned rat and was very grateful for a hot shower and a warm bed!
Fingers crossed tomorrow sees the return of this being an enjoyable trip. Not every day can be epic I suppose.
After struggling with the building pain in my knees for that last couple of days I decided to do some research into the symptoms. Last night was spent huddled over the screen on my phone trying to self-diagnose. Unlike most internet health condition searches it turns out that I do not have anything quite as dramatic as the onset of Motor Neuron Disease or Dhengi Fever, so instead of amputation of my legs from the neck down have discovered that the source of my pain is likely due to the medial muscles in my legs tightening causing my Patella’s to pull and press on the rest of my knee joint while on the bike. A large amount of stretching (something I resolved to do every evening this trip and only managed for the first 3 days) has actually slightly relieved the situation this morning.
A large Scottish cooked breakfast in the B&B where the nice owner seemed surprised I have covered around 700 miles without a puncture (something my mother also mentioned on the phone last night, I wonder if that will be relevant later today?) preceded a rather cold and drab morning. The riding was largely flat for the first 25 odd miles on a cycle path that followed alongside of the A82 a very busy single lane road heading pretty much straight north. After a fair amount of stop start riding as street furniture forced cyclists to come to a halt at every road crossing I decided to throw a bit of caution to the wind and take my chances among the tourist busses and lorries of the main road. Also though not very relaxing this did allow me to start making better time and settle into a nice rhythm. That is until the inevitable happened….. Yes officially my first puncture of the trip.
“Thanks Ladies, thanks a bunch!”
As I stood on the verge pulling half a of what was probably once a bottle of Iron Bru or ”ginger” to coin the local slang, out of my back tire I was caught by Alex. We started to ride together with the aim of hitting out up the big first climb before stopping for some lunch. At the foot of the climb the day had begun to thaw a bit so we decided to stop to adjust kit next to another group of riders before the real work started. The group we stopped next to were also End to Enders, this was becoming quite a coincidence. They were doing the route over 20 days and had originally started as a group of 18 now they were only 3! The oldest of the group was expecting his 72nd birthday tomorrow. I can only wish I am able to take on things like this when I reach that age.
Todays lunch stop at the top of the climb made all the vertical well worth it. The Real Food Cafe is a little gem of a restaurant/ cafe in Crianlarich. As soon as you enter you are confronted with an impressive and massive collection of cakes arranged in a self-service style.
“Calm down Andy this could be a day ender if you’re not careful”
This became my mantra as I contemplated loading 4 slices of all equally delicious looking cake onto a plate. After a huge internal struggle common sense prevailed and I only chose one piece of red velvet cake and a slice of cheese cake. Fed, watered and impressed with my resolve it was time to head back out.
Yet more miles and climbing took us to the Loch Tulla viewpoint and our first real glimpse of the Scottish Highlands. Yet again this tiny little island impressed me with its varied beauty. We spent the next few miles riding over a rather ethereal high moorland with eerie still pools and ponds surrounded by rocks and moss. Were it not for the road cutting a black scar ahead of us, the scene would not have been out of place in Lord Of The Rings.
A short up gradient after the turning for Glencoe Mountain Resort we began the run in to Glencoe and amazing winding ribbon of tarmac gliding down between the hills. What a way to end the day. Or at least I thought so until coming out of an open left hand bend on a section of road known as The Lost Valley (amazing name!) I had the closest near miss of my life. As with these things it all happens so fast but feels like slow motion. I remember seeing the small tourist carpark as I hit the apex of the corner, my gaze was instantly drawn to the Mercedes SUV pulling up to the junction. I could see the driver was looking in my direction and straight at me but still had a sinking feeling in my stomach. “Don’t do it” I said under my breath as the fool began to pull out as I was less than 10meters from him at full speed. Gripping my breaks as hard as I could and locking the back wheel the fool realized what he had done and instead of speeding up to exit the junction faster he stopped completely blocking my lane and part of the next. In a futile attempt to ride around the car my back wheel stepped out sending me into a drift. I braced for impact but luckily had managed to slow myself enough that I only lightly bumped side on into the idiots’ front wing. Unclipping myself and stepping off my bike the rage began to build “this f~@*&**g idiot could have killed me!” now stable on my feet I threw my arms in the air and began an angry tirade of abuse at the fool causing him to panic and finally complete his ill-fated manoeuvre driving away up the road. As he disappeared from view I found myself standing in the middle of the road with a tour bus full of Asian holiday makers staring at me open jawed. In classic comedy timing it was at this point Alex who had fallen behind on the descent arrived with a face of total confusion at the scene in front of him.
Still a little shaken I took the remaining couple of miles a little easier until we reach the Clachaig Inn where it was decided a good pint was the best option to punctuate an eventful day.
Point one for the lesions learned today will be that I am no longer very well equipped for communal living! A night in a dank hostel with 3 snorers had me up, out and on the road by 05:00. This turned out to be a blessing in disguise though. I was treated to the waking of a crystal clear flat calm day as I rode along the bank of Loch Linnhe. The light and the views were so good I had to stop for a modelling shoot of my bike.
I made it into Fort William just after 08:00 and found a pleasant pub serving the full Scottish breakfast fulfilling the nostalgia quota of the Scotland section of this trip by supplying square sausage and potato scones. Tasty!
After Fort Bill I found myself turning onto a gravel path that ran along the north side of Loch Lochie (awesome name!). My apprehension about taking this path soon faded when I remembered the Datum is effectively a gravel bike and with its wider tires is actually designed to tackle this rougher terrain. With that I threw puncture caution to the wind and gave it the beans! What an amazing feeling it is taking a rigid drop bar bike over a surface that I would normally reserve for my 100mm travel 29er it feels nimble, while a little out of control, leaving you with a feeling that your being naughty by breaking the rules using the "wrong bike". All thoughts of any possible shortfalls of the bike or the fact I was weighed down with packs totally faded as I hit a rolling section with some fairly rapid descending.
All was going perfectly until I over stretched myself and tried to bunny hop a pot hole coming up a bit short on the back wheel and experiencing the second puncture of the journey. This puncture however was not as would be expected in my back wheel, my hard landing had released my water bottle into the air causing it to puncture on a rock.
After this minor setback things got even better. I came out a Lock gate and crossed into some trees where I was met with about a mile of undulating singletrack all the way into Fort Augustus. What a ride! Maybe I’ll consider giving more gravel riding and possibly cyclocross a go??
A spot of tourist people watching, accompanied with a cup of tea, cheese and pickle roll and a cake at the lock gate in Fort Augustus done, I received a message from my friend Chris who has completed this route before. The message read “you at Fort Augustus yet? Good luck for the next bit, you’ll need it!” A scan through my now rather tatty end to end bible showed to the south of Loch Ness was around 6miles and over 1000ft of climbing! starting pretty much straight out of Augustus when a riders cafe legs are still wondering what the hell is going on and where did the tea and cake go!
By this point the day had warmed up and the epic views of the Loch almost made up for the pain......... almost. I summited the climb to find an arrow straight rolling descent down to White Bridge, which put a pretty big smile on my face.
Some more pleasant riding in amazing scenery ended in another fun down into Dornes and from there a pretty uneventful pedal into Inverness itself.
Once in town a quick google search for a shop to replace my water bottle found me at a quaint little bike workshop/ cafe. Unfortunately they did not sell Fabric cage-less bottles however they did do some very nice cake! Interestingly they also rented out their workshop to the public to fix and restore their own bikes… an idea I am tempted to steel and develop myself back at ChainLine once it is fully setup.
All in all today goes down as an all-time great day on a bike.
Lessons Learned From Day 12
I am not built for communal living anymore
Gravel riding is really really good fun!
Cake is good
I really need to look into vintage bike restoration
There may be something in renting the workshop out and helping people fix their own bikes
This morning started with a chilly spin from my digs into Inverness town center in search of a hearty breakfast and some free Wi-Fi so that is could simultaneous fuel up for today’s efforts and search for a bike shop that I could replace my water bottle that that burst during the enjoyment of my gravel thrashing efforts yesterday.
Choosing the healthy porridge and a smoothie option over the cardiac arresting but so tasty large “Full Scottish” breakfast (this is much like a full English but the sausage is a funny shape and there are probably a few hundred extra artery hardening but oh so tasty calories added), I sat and quickly googled a near-by suitably large and well equipped store that would likely supply a replacement for my odd shaped cage-less bottle.
Highland Cycles did not disappoint and after a bit of a mooch (it’s a bike shop and it would be rude not to) I was on my way for my penultimate day!
The Bridge over the Beauly Firth was bitterly cold with a strong cross breeze that cut right through, riding in a straight line was a concentrated effort. I was relieved when it was over and the other side offered some great views westward down the Firth as I climbed out of North Kessock. The arrow straight run down the other side of the hill provided enough enjoyment to sustain me through the bland busy A9 riding that covered the next few miles through Dingwall and on to Evanton where it seemed like an appropriate point for a tea and cake stop before what the maps showed was a pretty substantial climb started.
Fed and watered at the Cornerstore Café that also seemed to double as a library and community center (a tasty and educational testament to multi-tasking) the sun had thawed the chill out of the wind and it was turning into a beautiful day.
Unsuspectingly and with my long sleeves and leggings removed to stay cool I settled into a steady steep climbing rhythm. I was only 1 mile into the 6 mile climb with my head down grinding out the gears that it happened.
Scratch, scratch, itch scratch,
“This is a bit strange, why am I so itchy all of a sudden?”
I look up to see black dots in front of my eyes.
I was now stuck slowly grinding my gears surrounded by a swarm of Scotland’s second most famous animal after Haggis, unlike haggis these little blighters can fly and bite! The steady climb i had planned for all of a sudden turned into a summit finish stage on the Tour De France. i jumped out of the saddle and on the pedals hard to try to get out of what was now a thick cloud of the little black menaces. I came turned a corner changing my angle to the sun so that my shadow spread out in front of me like a heavy breathing and sweaty sun dial. In that moment I could swear the mass of pests was so thick chasing me that they cast there own shadow projecting down onto the road. Le Tour levels of effort were still holding but I was not showing enough increase in pace and was still and itching like crazy. Now came the inner debate. To stop and cover up or not?
If I stopped I would be totally surrounded and molested, but I could at least cover up for the rest of the ride. If I continued I could be attacked potentially all the way to the summit, after which point I could probably speed up enough to out run them if I hadn’t blown up from this current effort. The summit was also still almost 2 miles away.
Electing to power on my attackers did relent a bit before the top of the climb. That felt like a scene from a bad horror B movie "Attack Of The Wee Black Scunners!"
I spun a very low gear trying to catch my breath over the next few miles across the top of the hill to the Cadha Mor Viewpoint where I was greeted by yet another big view and that most joyous of sights, a beautiful downhill!
I gathered pace down the straight ready to thread my way gracefully through a series of corners waiting at the bottom. I kissed the apex of the first right then into the left on the exit of the left the breaks had to go on hard as I was confronted by a huge arctic lorry carrying some large industrial machinery. It appeared to be stuck while trying to negotiate the really tight corner onto narrow stone bridge. Offering assistance I spent the next 20mins precariously balancing on a stone wall in my riding cleats waving my arms around pretending the lorry driver was taking any notice of the “expert guidance” I was offering. Job well done, I was on my way again. Checking the map it appeared that I was about to cycle off into the great nowhere! I decided to take the opportunity to take on a cup of tea in a hotel bar in Lairg, the last civilization until Thurso half way into tomorrows ride.
As expected the final miles to the Crask Inn a single piece of civilization within the wilderness was both beautiful and eerily isolated and lonely.
Were it not for the road stretching out in front of me the area would have seemed totally untamed. As I sat at the bar of the Inn checking in and having yet another well-earned pint things seemed rather surreal. I couldn’t believe tomorrow it would all be over….
My final day started with a hearty breakfast before venturing north into the grey drab drizzle towards Betty castle. The rolling road meandered its way through the grey for around 30 miles until I hit the north coast of this little island called Great Britain where upon I was informed by a very helpful sign saying that the Betty Castle store provided fine goods 8 days a week. After the panic of thinking I had cycled into a parallel world where time moved at different speed I decided here would be a good place for today's first cake stop.
Tea and a chocolate muffin later and I was back on the road with the sky clearing. It would seem that the heavens might smile on me and give me a bright and sunny finish line.
In all honesty the section between Betty Castle and Thurso passed by in a little bit of a blur and before I knew it was time for my last refuel stop before the finish line.
The final leg to my destination brought on a strange sense of almost blissful wellbeing. A calm sense of satisfaction not only that the job had been done but it had been mostly really enjoyable.
As I turned at the last junction in John O’Groats and started making my way down to the Ferry terminal and my finish post I was greeted with a long straight drag to the North Sea and the tip of this little island. The sign post area and cafe were pretty busy with people having enjoyed a nice day drive on the North West 500. Triumphantly I peddled my way across the car park and hopped up onto the lawn in front of my goal and true to the ending ritual of every day for the last 2weeks, I whipped out my phone and got myself a finish line selfie!
After pausing to take in the beautiful day and the North Sea out in front of me I made an about face and towards the cafe gift shop to claim my prize of a hot chocolate and tee shirt.
I swaggered as best as possible on a polished floor in bike cleats up to the counter ready to claim victory only to find out the cafe was out of cream to top off my beverage and only had tee shirts left in size small. Brilliant “I rode from Lands End to John O’Groats and didn't even get a lousy tee shirt!” With that I made and abrupt about face (almost over rotating full 360 from the lack of grip on my shoes) got back on my bike and rode up the street to the hotel bar for a celebratory pint instead. Much better!
I hope this has been an interesting and entertaining read to anyone who happens across it. I was debating on putting a final summary on this blog for fear it would end up looking a bit like a school report, "What I Did On My Holidays".
I have decided to do so for no other reason than because my memory is terrible! So if I ever read this blog again it will remind me of the things I found really important and that inspired me.
I set off on this journey expecting to be a challenge both physically and occasionally mentally. It started as a tick in the box on a bucket list but became a bit like therapy. An escape from the everyday hustle and bustle, trials and tribulations. All told, yes, there were brief moments of maximum effort and one or two mishaps that required a bit of mental resolve, but in retrospect it turned out to be just a lot of pleasant days out on my bike. That is winning at life in my book.
Cycle touring is an amazing pass time and one that I fully plan on doing more of. It sounds a bit cliché but if I had the time I would seriously have cancelled my transport, turned around and ridden home. With everything in our lives pulling us in all directions at once it is truly an amazing feeling to have just one thing to do in a day, and propelling yourself from A to B carrying only the essentials is a very pure way to do that in my opinion.
The biggest surprise for me over this trip has been Great Britain itself. It is not until you see the landscape develop and change so dramatically every day that you see just how diverse and varied island we live on. I am aware that I pretty much got away with murder during my trip, having so many consecutive bright sunny days and so little rain. The trip in general and especially the views could have been very different had I not have been so lucky, but this country in beautiful and I for one now want to spend more time exploring my homeland rather than defaulting to jumping on a plane every time I want a change of scenery.
Time to start planning the next trip, I’m thinking End to End Ireland or maybe grabbing a tent and my muddy bike for a spot of mountain bike packing, possibly Wales or the Lake District. Watch this space!