End to End
I rarely cycle long distances. But when I do, each seems to last 1000 miles! Both times have been from Land's End to John O'Groats, from one end of Britain to another.
This is how my first journey began....
The first attempt was undertaken with little planning, resulting in a thirteen day wayward adventure across Britain, with two friends, Alan and Nick.
The journey helped change my life for the better and also shaped Alan's future in a way he never envisaged!
This is why I decided to tell the story!
Brothers have their uses. Take my oldest brother, Dave, for example. He is dependable, logical, knowledgeable and hard working. More importantly, in 1996 he had a bike, which was something I was in urgent need of at the time. At 30 years of age, I was lodging with Dave and should have been capable of affording my own bike. But for six years I had struggled with our mum’s death, after her long illness with cancer. This emotional event subsequently sent me into a spiral of failed relationships, missed mortgage payments, and lager-induced weekends. For many years after her death I was in a constant state of change, eager to please others, but restless with myself.
I worked feverishly to fuel an appetite for adventure travel, but was too afraid to leave my day job. I spent three weeks per year on overseas trips, resulting in a smorgasbord of mini-adventures, including camping in the African wilderness, boating along the Mekong Delta, and learning to ice-climb in the Alps. Weekends would alternate between three extremes: working overtime, nightclubbing and hill-walking.
I survived on my sister’s home-cooked dinners. I was also infatuated with the idea of moving to another country, which meant that relationships rarely lasted more than three or four months. After another abrupt ending, due to an argument over the distance and isolation of living in New Zealand, I found myself alone once more.
Weeks later, during a stag weekend in Blackpool, I was asked to join 2 friends, Alan and Nick in their quest to cycle across Britain.
I jumped at the chance, travelled home the next day and went looking in the garage for my brothers bike.
This is how I describe that moment in my book....
"It was hidden under a dusty tarpaulin, and as I pulled the cover away, my heart raced in anticipation. As the canvas fell to the floor I reached out and touched the frame, before running my fingers across each gnarled tyre.
It looked to be in pristine condition, but as I lifted it from the floor, it became apparent that it was designed for comfort, not speed. It wasn’t all bad news. The racing-green colour scheme gave it a classical look, and the wide handlebars were decorated with a chrome bell that rang with a crisp sound as I pinged the lever.
With a soft gel saddle, ultra-long mudguards and ten gears to choose from, it looked perfect for cycling to the shops, or to country pubs on warm summer’s evenings. Was it capable of getting me from one end of Britain to the other? The answer had to be yes."
How to get from Cheddar to Hereford.
With little planning and an out of date map, we often sought advice from locals. One such moment went like this.
‘Delicious,’ Nick exclaimed as the landlady offered more bacon and topped up his teacup.
‘Try the marmalade, dear. I make my own you know. If you don’t mind me asking, where exactly are you cycling to?’
‘John O’Groats,’ he replied proudly.
‘That’s a long way for one day!’ she exclaimed.
‘Oh, no, that’s our final destination,’ he explained. ‘Today we’re heading to Wales via the Severn Bridge, then onto Hereford.’
She looked over at her husband, who was sitting nearby, engrossed in a crossword puzzle. ‘We know a shortcut to the bridge, don’t we, Ernie?’
He looked up and asked, ‘What’s that, my dear?’
‘A shortcut to the bridge. We know one, don’t we?’
‘If you say so dear,’ he replied quietly, before reaching for his pen.
Nick was all ears and scurried off in search of his map.
‘You won’t be needing that!’ she declared as he walked into the dining room holding one of the folded pages. ‘This is a local road. You won’t find it in one of those things.’
How a sealed road would fail to make it onto a comprehensive AA map intrigued me, unless of course it was constructed after 1975. I was beginning to have reservations on the credibility of her claim, but Nick was keen to learn more and seemed animated by the possibility of a shortcut. While she brewed more tea and offered fresh pancakes, there was no disputing that she was a relaxing alternative to our YHA experience.
‘The shortcut is easy to find,’ she declared. ‘Just cycle out of the gate and keep left past the farm. But you don’t want to take the road with the signpost. That’s what the tourists use. Keep going a bit further, past Albert’s piggery, and then turn left at the phone box. The lane is a bit steep, but we drive it most weeks, don’t we, Ernie?’
Discovering the Black Isle
Just like the Wye Valley, the Black Isle had been a location I never knew existed before our bike ride. In many ways it reminded me of the west coast of Ireland, with a vast sky that seemed to last forever. During the ride I caught the faint smell of peat, coming from the fireplaces of the cottages we passed on the way. Drivers that approached gave us a high five from behind their steering wheels, and more than once, we gained waves from those tending their front gardens.
The sea was rarely far from our sights, as the road continually weaved through the small communities and farms. Birds swooped low, in search of insects and the clouds that had threatened us all morning had somehow dispersed, replaced by a welcome blue. It was as though the area had its own unique microclimate. A day earlier, we were fighting fatigue and hypothermia. Further north, and we were basking in late summer sunshine.
According to the signpost, the village of Cromarty is twinned with Brigadoon. I had always thought Brigadoon to be a mythical Scottish village, hidden in the mist. Cromarty itself had a mystical appeal, with its petite harbour and panoramic views of the Moray Firth, which lapped against the base of distant hills.
We followed signposts for the ferry and found ourselves on a small quayside. Built in the 18th century, the working harbour is in constant use by local fishermen, but the ferry only runs for part of the year, due to inclement weather and a lack of visitors in the depths of winter.
We cycled off the quayside, along a slip ramp, and found ourselves at the end of the road. King James IV regularly crossed these waters as part of his pilgrimages to the shrine of St. Duthac at Tain in the late 1400’s. The mediaeval craft that would have transported him safely to the other side of the wide inlet would have been far different to the boat that was now bobbing towards us.