This is about how I cycled from Nottingham to John O’Groats in May 2009 to buy a mug. Fifteen Years ago I did the complete Lands End to John O’Groats trip and bought a souvenir mug at each end. I dropped the one from Scottland and have often thought about getting another one.
The ride was such a physical experience that its hard to write about, but these grainy clips convey something of the roadkill, wind, sheep and potholes that preoccupied me for the week.
With three small children to help look after , another long bike trip was not sensible. Then a few weeks ago, without even any prompting, she said do it. I was a bit taken aback at the prospect of a journey without the family but started planning to start the following week.
View Cycling from Nottingham to John O’Groats in a larger map
This was not to be a sight seeing trip, my aim was to get to the top in eight days and back again. Last time, in 1994, I took the overnight sleeper to Inverness and on by train to Thurso. This time I decided to save the exciting part (going into the mug shop) until the end, so I booked a single flight from Inverness to Nottingham with Ryan Air (£67 including bike) and started planning backwards from that date.
I thought about camping, but in the end the extra weight of tent and sleeping bag would probably have been uncomfortable to haul up some of the hills, so I oped for B&Bs and a Youth Hostel.
For piece of mind I booked a couple of nights in advance, York and Barnard Castle. After that I used my IPod Touch together with free Wifi in pubs to book onwards accommodation. This also gave me an excuse to drink high energy beer.
I used a couple of old panniers each holding about 4Kg of stuff, although on most days I had 2L of water with me which added a couple of Kg to the load.
I used a map instead of a GPS although I used my Garmin Forerunner as a logger and a watch. The folded map hung from the crossbar in a waterproof case (£1 from Halfords!) and was ultra convenient. I used 1:250,000 and 1:400,000 scale maps with contours. Touring cyclists quickly become very interested in the hills in front of them.
I didn’t bother with any Lands End to John O’Groats guides, its my country (well one of them is) and I know the way !
To keep the weight down I only took a couple of spanners, a single allan key, pump, spare inner tube, puncture repair kit and my swiss army knife. These were enough to fix the single puncture I had and to take the bike to bits before embarking on the return flight.
One ordinary Tuesday morning the children got ready for school as normal and I put on my cycling clothes and hauled my panniers out to the garage to load up. I should really have rehearsed this because something might not have fitted when the bike was first loaded.
I was swept along in the rush to get them off to school and before I knew it was posing with them for a picture, kissing goodbye and off down the road. Except that I had forgotten my cycle hat so had to turn around a minute later.
Day 1 – Nottm to York (Leaving the Shire)
Felt a bit odd to be cycling away from my family on a school day. After stripping a pie shop in Southwell I meandered through the villages to Retford where my brother had made lunch for me. In fact I got there early and being worried about the distance ahead, left a note to say that I was pressing on. Also bought a spare inner tube in Retford where the black and blue bike shop owner regaled me of his recent crash. Made mental note not to crash and set off for Selby.
I made York in good time but felt a bit befudled in the rush hour traffic, probably because I had not had enough to eat during the 95 mile leg. But a quick snack soon filled my blood with sugar. The B&B wa being renovated so I shared it with some builders.
Day 2 – York to Barnard Castle
I left York and wiggled through to miles of lanes and villages towards Allerton. I ate a bag full of sandwiches there and went to the railway station to make a cycle reservation and buy a ticket from Wick to Inverness next week. Just asking for the ticket felt a bit odd, Wick was still 500 miles away and who knows what would happen to me and the bike in the mean time. Went on past Scotch Corner where mistakenly cycled up a massive hill only to find that the only roads off the roundabout where duel carriageways.
After stopping to look at the remains of a Roman bridge at Piercebridge I turned West and got a taste of the Westerly wind that was to dog me for days. The last 15 miles to Barnard Castle were a slog, but the B&B was a delight. They even let me park the bike in their idylic courtyard garden.
Day 3 – Barnard Castle to Keilder Water
Left Barnard Castle feeling like I had not properly looked around. Set off for a couple of big climbs to Stanhope. The sun shone but the wind blew, it was hard to stand up on the moor top. Down steeply into Stanhope, and then off the bike to push up a steep hill. The wind became wild again and wobbled snow poles at the roadside. After a couple more big climbs I reached Hexham where I ate all their food and rushed on Northwards.
The road turned into a footpath, and just as I was thinking about the hawthorne hedge cuttings, the rear tyre punctured with a loud bang. Its always hawthornes ! The repair only took about ten minutes and I was on my way to Keilder. Except that now the wind was head on, and howled in my ears for the next couple of hours. Past Hadrian’s wall and just got my head down to do the hard work.
Day 4 – Keilder Water to Edinburgh
Rain lashed against the third story window of Keilder Youth Hostel. Children were arriving at the small school next door as I loaded my bags onto the bike. I felt a bit wistful for my own little ones but had enough to think about with the torrential rain.
Cycling Westwards from Kielder I noticed that the waves in the stream next to me were going up hill, driven by the a gale. The sheep watched from their hiding places as I slogged down towards the “Welcome to Scotland” sign. It occurred to me that a stranded cyclist could suffer from exposure up here in the cold rain. A few minutes later I turned north and with the wind at my back, pushed on towards Hawick.
One of the compensations of doing these distances is that you have to eat everything in sight, so I tucked into fish and chips with extra chips at a supermarket.
This border country was definitely the hardest part of the trip, each river valley meant a steep descent and climb up again, without even the compensation of a good view.
I cycled alongside the beautiful river Tweed from Selkirk to Peebles, and although the wind was a constant menace on this westerly stretch, I knew that I would soon be turning North and out of the wind. A massive baguette in Peebles helped me whiz along to Edinburgh. I arrived at about six O’Clock in the evening after nine hours, but still had about 18 miles to run. The road surface going into Edinburgh was awful, dangerous for bikes I would say. I found the inner ring road (the main ring road is not for cycles) and stopped to ring the rain water out of my socks. I remember a spectacular rainbow welcoming me to the town.
I muddled through towards the sea, it was thrilling to see the Forth Bridge in the evening sun. I once read an Iain Banks book called The Bridge about a man who lives in a city built on a bridge, except that he is really in a coma after a car crash. I heard once that the Forth Rail bridge was over engineered because the public were mindful of the earlier Tay Bridge disaster.
The Forth Road bridge on the other hand is slowly snapping, the wire stands that hold it up are rusting and popping one by one! I hurried across to Dunfermline and arrived at the B&B after dark.
I probably used more calories on this day than on any other in my life. But I found that if I just kept eating, I could go on and on.
Day 5 – Edinburgh to Pitlochry
After a full breakfast I cycled north on a Saturday morning past the Scottish Gliding Centre at Port Moak. The Bishop was hidden by low scudding cloud that promised to wet me. There is a great video of some young ruffians flying from Port Moak here.
Then it rained. I pressed on to Perth and noticed that it was not just my hands that were cold, but my arms; even though I was cycling hard, the wind and rain were chilling me. By the time I got into a coffee shop in Perth I was shaking with cold. I bought an over priced Panini and opened my paniers in the shop to put another layer of clothes on. My baggage dripped all over the floor and I was definitely the odd one out among the weekend time shoppers.
There was no option but to take the A9 dual carriageway out of Perth, and hope that each puddle did not hide a deep pothole. Cars splashed past at motorway speeds and for ten miles I was aware of how vulnerable I was to a careless driver. At Bankfoot I got onto minor roads for the rest of the day.
Wherever possible I avoided busy roads, but many cycle paths are badly surfaced and covered in rubbish. I wonder if the people who plan them actually use them.
Cycle paths often have mysterious numbers instead of place names, which makes it hard to navigate with out a cycle map.
And another thing, cycle paths tend to go off up stupidly steep hills instead of following the course of the main road. The scenery was better but I couldn’t help looking jealously at the A9 below going more directly and more flatly to Pitlochry.
Anyway I met another cyclist going the same way and we had a matey grumble about cycle paths and the world in general.
The rather nice B&B in Pitlochry was at the top of a big hill. After fish, chips and beer, I walked down to the salmon ladder where a huge fish waited in the top pool, after a harder day than I had had.
Day 6 – Pitlochry to Inverness
On a sunny morning I rolled down out of Pitlochry on the road parallel to the A9. I was apprehensive about the day because of the distance, the Caingorms and the busy road to come. A bloke cycled up alongside me and started to chat. He was an ex policeman from Yorkshire out for a belt around the hills on his racing bike, and best of all he went at my pace. Over the next hour he told me loads and loads of stuff, safe in the knowledge that I had no idea who he was. It was a brilliant distraction from the climbing we were doing. You have to admire somebody who cuts down trees to make the planks for the house he lives in ! He left me at Dalnacardoch Lodge and set off for the rest of his Sunday morning ride (60 miles before lunch).
The A9 was not as busy as I had thought, perhaps because it was the weekend. Each lay by was numbered, starting at the one I passed just North of Perth.
The climb was nice and steady and the wind did not interfere. After a couple of hours I was in among the snow covered mountains with most of the climbing behind me. At Dalwhinnie I left the A9 for a flat side road. Sunshine, no traffic, no gradient. At Kingussie I ate a big portion of fish and chips and apple pie before pushing on towards Aviemore.
But I saw a glider. I asked the way to the airfield and left the A9 on a detour to the Caingorm Gliding Club at Feshie Bridge.
I watched a few aerotows and wondered what the snow capped hills would look like from the air. A local pilot told me that if I ever flew there I would be in for a ‘Feshie Scare’ sooner or later. He meant that there are not many safe places to land other than the airfield, so if a rope breaks or a pilot can’t get back, he has to land amongst tree stumps or rocks. Hmmmmm.
Elated by the site of all this I cycled on to Aviemore for a few more sandwiches and then through Carrbridge. The ride mostly avoided the busy A9 and the track down to Tomatin was especially quiet and lovely.
The traffic in Inverness was a bit of a shock, I muddled through across the river to an over priced B&B; my fault for only booking it on the day.
Day 7 – Inverness to Brora
As the Cromarty ferry was not running, I cycled to Dingwall via Kirkhill. This was gratuitous wiggling, a much more direct route along the A9 woudl have cut miles off the days ride, but I was fed up of that road. The countryside reminded me of England, lots of cows and trees. At Invergordon three huge old oil rigs shuffled about just off shore as tugs hauled them around. These wonderful old monsters get hired out around the world to drill for the fuel with which we are ruining ourselves.
This was the seventh day of cycling and I was beginning to get a bit tired. Somebody asked me afterwards if I ever thought of giving up, and I was surprised because barring injury or damage to the bike, it never occurred to me that anything else would stop the journey.
At Dornoch it was tea time so I had a lovely cup of tea and belted on along some fantastic coastline (seals) to Brora.
The accomodation at Inverbrora farm was perfect in every way. I was shattered when I got there !
In the evening I cycled off to the pub and had beer and lots of food.
Day 8 – Brora to John O’Groats
The last day was mostly into a North Easterly wind. I knew from last time I cycled up here (in 1994) that there were some big climbs ahead and sure enough nobody had flattened them out.
The biggest was at Berriedale and I was pleased to cycle the whole hill without stopping, even with panniers. The rest of the morning turned into a bit of a slog into wind, and the landscape was just stone walls and small crofts by the roadside. Although the sea was never far away on the right and looked just gorgeous.
At Wick I stopped at a cake shop to fill up and phone home to find out what everybody had been up to while I’d been swearing my way up and down ten dozen hills.
There was once a riot in Wick, it lasted for days and was started by an argument over an Orange. There is an audio account of it at Moray Firth Radio. I love the thought of that.
I passed a stone that commemorated the famous people who have made the long trip up to Wick. George Borrow was on the list. He wrote Wild Wales which is the story of him wandering around Wales, creeping up on Welsh people and surprising them with the fact that he, an Englishman, has learnt to speak Welsh. Its a lovely book.
From Wick it was only an hour or so to John O’Groats.