CURIOUS TRAVELLER - OCCASIONAL STORY TELLER
Here are 14 great reasons to visit Great Britain.
Creating a list of the best places to visit in Britain is near impossible. From the wild and windswept expanse of Dartmoor, to the panache of Windsor, and the historical charm of Edinburgh, Britain teems with thousands of attractions. Some of these are natural wonders, others are man-made and a few are still relatively undiscovered.
I moved away from England in 2003, in search of a new life in Australia. Despite the fact that I now live close to the Indian Ocean I still miss quirky English pubs, salt and vinegar crisps, country walks along ancient footpaths and those long summer days.
A few years ago I was lucky enough to satisfy some of these cravings, after being invited by friends to cycle from Land’s End (south-west tip of England) to John O’Groats (north-east corner of Scotland). This was to be my second ride across Britain, having completed a similar feat 20 years earlier.
The ride was planned to take 13 days and during this period, we’d cover 1,000 miles. Those that complete this journey (by cycle, motorbike, car, walking, running, skateboard, etc.) are known as end-to-enders.
This list is dedicated to some of the places that we “discovered” during the journey across Britain.
They’re not in order of preference. Instead, they are in order of geographical location along the way.
In the following excerpts from my travel book (Slow Down and enjoy the Ride) you might see some of the names of the friends I rode with.
Here we are below. From left to right their names are, Alan, Colin, JP, Alistair (that's me), Mark, Mick and Nick (project manager/mobile mechanic and motivational speaker before each long day on the road).
Number 1: Land’s End, Cornwall
After flying half away across the world, I met up with my friends before the long drive to Cornwall. The story continues, just as we enter Land’s End.
Land’s End is the most westerly point in mainland England and it is here that all end-to-end journeys begin or end. The peninsula is a spectacular location with steep cliffs rising from the deep blue of the English Channel. Those that enjoying walking are spoiled for choice with a network of trails heading inland towards picturesque villages or along windswept ridges that lead to hidden coves and pristine beaches.
With each step, the memories of twenty years earlier flooded back. From our vantage point, it was like I’d never left. Just as before, the shimmering sea was dotted with tiny white sails, and another iconic and familiar attraction within sight was the Land’s End signpost. Since the 1950s, visitors to Land’s End have had the opportunity to have their photograph taken under the famous sign. It’s also a tradition for end-to-enders to have their photo taken by the signpost before departing on the long journey to John O’Groats, where, by good fortune, there’s another signpost.
The signpost is privately owned and therefore requires payment before you can stand underneath the pointers. Included in the small fee, is the opportunity to add your hometown onto an allocated marker, along with the distance from Land’s End. There are four locations permanently etched into a collection of arrows. These are New York (3,147 miles), John O’Groats (834 miles), the Isles of Scilly (28 miles) and the Longships Lighthouse (1.5 miles). Out of all these locations, there was just one visible from where we stood. At first glance it looks like the Longships Lighthouse has no reason to be in such a location. But even on a seemingly still day, it’s possible to see the whitecaps as water pounds the surrounding rocks.
We waited our turn as a family of four from Barcelona stood proudly under the signpost, while the photographer chatted freely and took the necessary shots. The photographer was young with an infectious smile and assured manner, and he ushered the family away while calling us forward for our turn. The letters that make up the word Barcelona were exchanged for Ampthill (for the majority of our group) and Busselton (for myself) in Australia.
Number 2: Mousehole
With the photos taken it was time for a celebratory drink while overlooking the English Channel. The story continues, just outside Land’s End.
After leaving Land’s End, we made our way inland, heading east across undulating farmland towards the next seaside town. After a series of short, sharp inclines, we were rewarded with fleeting views of the English Channel, far beyond the trees. The road then dipped sharply, leading us to the harbour village of Mousehole.
Granite cottages lined one side of a narrow road that ran parallel with the shore, each with a panoramic view of the mighty Atlantic far in the distance. The small beach was dotted with a handful of holidaymakers, their pale bodies in contrast to the golden sands as they stretched out on beach towels or played in the shallows. One family prepared a kayak by the water’s edge, while others watched boat owners go about their business.
From the roadside, the clear waters this side of the harbour wall resembled a Mediterranean cove, dotted with family size craft, moored by rope to the shore. Pride of place along the narrow roadway belonged to a granite pub, known as The Ship Inn. The windows were slightly ajar, and through numerous gaps I glimpsed patrons enjoying late afternoon drinks. A placard by the door promised Fine Ales, Fresh Seafood and Live Music during Summer Evenings.
This was the type of quintessential Britain I’d missed since moving to Australia. It wasn’t just the beers on offer, but the ambience, the setting and the views. According to Country Living, Mousehole comes in at number 8 in their top 10 fishing villages within Britain. My only regret, is that we weren’t going to visit many more during our 1,000 mile adventure.
Number 3: Saint Michael's Mount
It’s a credit to Cornwall that I can’t leave the county without adding another location to the list. Although I once lived in England for over 30 years, somehow I never made the time to visit the ancient castle located just offshore, on Saint Michaels Mount.
Imagine how I felt during day two of our ride, when I finally caught sight of the historical monument. I was alongside my friend Alan, who’d completed the ride with me 20 years earlier. This time we’d chosen a different route, spoilt for choice by the network of cycle paths that crisscross Britain.
Despite the fact that it was tantilingsly close, the aim of the day was to cycle 90 miles, so we had to keep moving. But at least for a short while, I was able to gaze across the water towards the outcrop and castle. This is how I described the encounter….
As we approached Saint Michaels Mount, Alan chatted about how enjoyable the day’s ride would be. But I found my attention waning, drawn instead towards the craggy outcrop. I could just make out the sharp features of the medieval castle on the top. It was tantalisingly close. The sea had retracted but could still be seen, glistening at the edges of the sandbar. The ebbs and flows of the tide are one of the natural traits that help make Saint Michaels Mount such a magical location. It can only be reached on foot when the tide is out, and those that stroll across the cobbled causeway must return to the mainland before the sea creeps back, or opt to pay for a crossing on one of the motorboats that service the island.
Over the centuries, the causeway has been used by thousands of people. Most have walked across in peace, such as pilgrims, monks, and Japanese tourists. In 1473, however, during the War of the Roses, rampaging soldiers tore across the cobblestones at low tide, intent on storming the castle. Now, the very place where these men, women and children had converged over the centuries was within my reach for the very first time.
For many years, I’d heard about Saint Michaels Mount and was intrigued that such a small outcrop could have such a dramatic history. The island was once in the possession of monks and during the 12th century they constructed a church and priory. These buildings still exist, although it is the 14th century castle that now dominates the landscape. Its strategic location is an ideal fortress and over the centuries it has been part of many conflicts, including the time when its cannons fired upon a Napoleonic ship, forcing it onto the nearby beach where it was subsequently captured.
I was now within reach of this unique location, but the other riders had carried on. What was I to do? Just as I contemplated changing gear in an attempt to catch them up, I instinctively braked and completed a sharp U-turn instead. I couldn’t just ride past, not without a gaze. It wasn’t in me. Returning to the intersection, I turned left along the footpath and freewheeled down to the sandy beach. A small wooden boat lay on its side, not far from the edge of the footpath, giving clues to the extent of high tide.
An elderly man sat alone, perched comfortably on a wooden bench near the end of the footpath. At his feet lay a wooden cane, and by his side sat a tea flask. He watched as I dismounted at speed, searched for my camera, and took a photo of Saint Michaels Mount.
Afterwards, I stared longingly at the cobbled causeway, longing to explore, but acutely aware that I didn’t have the time to go any further. The sand to the right of the causeway looked soft and inviting, stretching far towards the water’s edge. The left side of the causeway was protected by broken ground, made up of moss coated rocks, glistening in the early morning sun. The sea ebbed sedately at the back and sides of the outcrop, held back by the force of the moon, just visible in the bright sky.
Number 4: The King Harry Ferry
Although I didn’t get to fully experience Saint Michael’s Mount, a few hours later another opportunity arose. This one also involved water! I hope you enjoy the short excerpt.
It was on April 18th, 1888, that the King Harry Steam Company was formed to offer a ferry service between the settlements of Feock and Philleigh. In all this time, just seven boats have been used to cross back and forth at regular intervals. On the day of our arrival, numerous cars were backed up, awaiting the ferry.
JP and I joined a small group of passengers who had taken the opportunity to escape from their vehicles to admire the view. From the elevated position of the final bend, we could see the King Harry Ferry now berthed on the far bank, its hydraulic platform lowered, allowing the vehicles to disembark.
From afar, I heard the squeal of metal and the rattle of powerful chains. The ferry was heading back to our side of the river, causing a ripple of excitement as the watching children were herded into nearby cars.
As the ferry approached and we joined the rest of the group, I caught sight of a placard near the roadside and learned that the 300-metre crossing eliminates twenty-seven miles of driving between the village of St Mawes and an area known as the Roseland Peninsula. In an age where carbon statistics are becoming popular, it is also worth noting that the ferry saves approximately five million car miles from 300,000 cars per year.
The final statistic that I was able to read before the boat reached our side of the river was that it is one of only five chain ferries in the whole of England. Cables are connected to both shores and the ferry is propelled between them. With a departure every twenty minutes, seven days a week, I thought it must be one of the most reliable forms of public transport in Britain.
I counted the number of vehicles backed up on the road and figured there was about eighteen waiting to board. It was a functional boat, painted sky blue with a symmetrical shape that guided vehicles on and off in the same direction. The ramp was down now, held by two beams that jutted out to resemble a child’s transformer model. As the waiting cars started their engines, I pushed off from the wall, freewheeled down the centre of the road, took the sharp turn onto the slipway, and rode up the steel ramp.
Within minutes, we were all aboard and the ferry repeated its journey, across one of Cornwall’s deepest rivers. We were about to enter the Roseland Peninsula, a compact parcel of land that boasts twenty-six beaches, 150 miles of designated footpaths, two castles, and a sub-tropical garden. No doubt there would also be picture-perfect villages and unspoiled areas of natural beauty, waiting to be discovered by those with the time to explore.
During the short crossing, holidaymakers stood by the railings, taking selfies, panoramic photos and family snaps to post on social media. The water was sea green, with no other craft to be seen apart from a wooden dinghy moored to a timber jetty. On such a humid day, while on a river shrouded by trees and with the sun blazing down from a deep blue sky, the scene was almost Amazonian.
I looked upstream and then downstream, searching for other boats or signs of civilisation, but the water meandered in a lazy curve, giving no clue as to what lay beyond. I now understood why the Independent Newspaper had once voted the river crossing as one of the top ten in the world.
Number 5: The Strawberry Line (Somerset)
After Saint Michael’s Mount, we then headed inland, through Cornwall and Devon. These counties are renowned for their hills and wooded valleys and there is no way to escape all of them. By the time we reached mid Somerset, we’d cycled over 9,000 feet in elevation. Thankfully, the flats of mid Somerset offered us the chance to ease up and appreciate the surroundings. The story picks up partway through day three. I am riding alongside my friend Colin, an experienced cyclist …
Far in the distance, a dark shape loomed across the pathway. It was a railway tunnel, now used solely for those on foot or bike. Our path headed directly into the gloomy interior, and I slowed down in hesitation, but Colin didn’t miss a beat and rode into the void without altering speed. I followed close behind, my eyes blinking as they adjusted to the sudden change in light. In an instant, we’d moved from bright sunshine to near darkness.
For a few revolutions, I pedalled blindly and fought the urge to tap my brakes, but as my eyes adapted, a row of lights appeared on the pathway, strategically located at intervals throughout the length of the tunnel. They resembled cat’s eyes and must have been automatically switched on by a sensor when we entered. Without their soft orange glow to guide us, it would have been difficult to safely cycle to its end, 550 feet away. The exit was easy to spot. At first it resembled a globule of bright light, far in the distance, but with each revolution the orb expanded. Halfway through I let out a few yelps of joy and waited for the echoes to resonate off the damp walls. By the time we rode into harsh sunlight, I was eager to turn around and do it all over again.
For those that enjoy riding or walking along converted railway tracks, it is worth noting a man called Richard Beeching. During the 1960s, he became a household name throughout Britain, and during his short tenure as British Railways Chairman, produced a controversial report called The Reshaping of British Railways. For many years, railways had been losing revenue due to the rapid growth of motorways. In an attempt to close down unprofitable train lines, over 4,000 miles of route were stripped from the network, along with the associated stations. He was later reported as saying, “I suppose I'll always be looked upon as the axe man, but it was surgery, not mad chopping.”
Although thousands of miles of track were ripped up and the land then sold to developers, many sections were saved as public rights of way and converted into bike or walking tracks. The Cheddar Valley Railway Line, where we now cycled, once carried passengers and freight between Yatton and Witham. The company existed for nearly one hundred years, but this stretch was evidently one of the locations on Beeching’s long list. In memory of the summer trains, which transported freshly picked strawberries from the nearby fields of Cheddar, the route was named The Strawberry Line.
Number 6: Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire
During the trip I rode solo from time to time. I was slower than most (and also got lost a few times) and after many years away from England, felt eager to explore whenever possible. During day five, I found myself in the market town of Tewkesbury, searching for a canal path that would take me north, while keeping me away from traffic.
In the small town of Tewkesbury, I discovered an historic pub called Ye Olde Black Bear, which claimed to be the oldest in Gloucester. It was located on a street corner, adjacent to the River Avon, and as I parked my bike outside, the main door opened and out stepped an elderly man. He eyed the bike and said, ‘That’s a good way to avoid drinking and driving.’
‘Oh, I’m not after a beer. I’m just taking a photo of my bike against the pub.’
‘Whatever for?’ he asked.
‘Because it's old and I like the look of the wooden shutters and hanging baskets.’
‘Are you an American?’
‘No,’ I chuckled, ‘I’m English. But I live in Australia now.’
‘Good for you. So why are you in Tewkesbury?’
‘I’m on my way to John O’Groats.’
‘Good grief! Whatever for?’
He was easily surprised, it seemed.
‘Well, initially it was a challenge for charity. But as each day goes by, I’m finding it a great way to rediscover parts of Britain that I took for granted when I lived here. And to enjoy new locations, like this one.’
‘Are you riding solo?’
‘It wasn’t the plan, but it seems that way today.’
‘Well, if you’re going to discover the inside of the bear, you’d better be quick. There’s talk in the town it’ll soon be closed.’
‘How come? It looks like a pub with a lot of history.’
‘You’re right and it still has the original ceiling beams. Why don’t you take a look inside? There’s not many in there at the moment. If you ask me, drinking is too expensive these days. The other day I read that twenty-seven pubs close down every week across the UK.’
His voice then lowered a fraction. ‘It’ll be a shame if it shuts. It’s a friendly pub and they say it’s haunted too.’
‘Yes, by a little old lady dressed in black. I think she was once a landlady. Mind you, I’ve been drinking here for years and haven’t seen a thing.’
Number 7: Bewdley
Although I’d previously lived in England for many years, I was constantly surprised at the amount of beautiful villages and towns that we rode through. Some I had known about, but never visited before. Some, like Bewdley, made me realise how many secret spots are waiting to be discovered across Britain.
With clear skies, a full stomach, and a direct road ahead of me, there was little that could go wrong. And just over an hour later, I approached the outskirts of Bewdley. The name of the town is derived from the French phrase Beau Lieu, meaning beautiful place, and with every revolution of the pedals, I sensed it was going to be a gem. Mighty oak trees lined the verges, joined by evergreens and silver birches. A gradual chicane led me past a row of Victorian cottages, their slate roofs angled sharply towards small front gardens.
When the road straightened out, the River Severn came into view, splitting the town into two. A riverside walkway offered visitors the chance to enjoy the views in relative peace, with park benches positioned at regular intervals along the cobblestones. Some were in use right now, all eyes on the river as a swan glided across the water towards the far side.
Soon after, I rode across a stone bridge made up of three arches, beneath which the river ran free, far below. The bridge was designed by Thomas Telford and built in 1798 at a cost of £9,264. This was not the first bridge to be constructed at Bewdley though. The original construction was destroyed during the War of the Roses in 1459 and its replacement was partially damaged hundreds of years later during the Civil War.
To assist with the construction and maintenance of the bridge, a toll would have once been paid by those wishing to cross over. The Journals of the House of Commons, dated 1772 to 1774, are filled with details on such matters, and with regards to Bewdley Bridge, those travelling on wagons would have had to pay a toll of three pence. Carts were considerably cheaper, costing only a halfpenny.
Tolls are no longer charged, and I rode unimpeded to the other side to join the throngs of day-trippers mulling by the water’s edge. Many were seated close to the river, enjoying drinks and food from numerous cafés spread along a pedestrianised strip of land. The town square offered a selection of shops, selling ice creams, gifts, antiques, postcards and freshly baked pies.
I filled up on water and opted for a sausage roll followed by a vanilla ice-cream. Then I joined the numerous holidaymakers at the edge of the river. There was an air of tranquillity as lovers walked hand in hand along the pavement and toddlers threw breadcrumbs to disinterested ducks.
Number 8: Beetham
By day 7, we were approaching the edge of the Lake District National Park, renowned for its hills, mountains, rivers and lakes. It’s not just the scenery that draws millions of people to the lakes each year, but also the historic towns, quaint villages and down to earth people that inhabit them.
The village of Beetham proved to have an Olde World charm, complete with stone cottages and whisper-quiet roads. We rode in single file, all eyes searching for a suitable spot to enjoy lunch. A corner pub looked inviting, but the lead rider rode straight past and turned into another lane. A row of cottages graced one side, while on the other, a stone church and tower completed the scene, surrounded by an ancient graveyard.
One of the cottages to our left displayed a rack of postcards outside, plus two small, round tables and chairs. According to the inscription above the door, the building had been constructed in 1881. A placard above the arched window read, The Old Beetham Post Office. Protruding from the stone building was another sign, hanging from a hook, informing us that it was now a tea room. An open doorway led us inside, to where the owner stood, stacking shelves behind the counter.
‘Afternoon,’ he said as we studied the food on display. ‘When you know what you want, just give me a call. I’ll be down the back, unpacking vegetables.’
Woven baskets brimming with fresh lettuces, tomatoes, and broccoli graced the shelves, and in a wooden casket, red-ripened apples yearned to be picked up and smelt. The owner returned on our signal to take our orders, seemingly happy with the varied selection of sandwiches we’d chosen along with homemade apple pie. After paying, I made my way to the bathroom and discovered an alcove filled with locally made arts including paintings, prints, pickles and greeting cards.
By the time I stepped outside, Colin and Mick had moved the furniture onto the road, so we could eat in comfort and enjoy the sun. I sat alongside them, unable to make my mind up whether to face the post office or the church. As I flicked my head this way and that, I caught sight of Nick, freewheeling from the far side of the village, his face flushed from the ride from Kendal. He was just in time for lunch.
Although we were seated in the middle of a public road, there was little chance of interruption from passing traffic. I almost expected the next vehicle to be a horse and cart, and if anyone was going to appear along the laneway, it could well have been Robert Crawley, cane in hand, on his brisk morning walk from Downton Abbey. During lunch, the only other people we saw were two walkers, striding down the middle of the road, eager for a ploughman’s at the nearby pub.
After lunch, Mick strolled towards the churchyard, his camera poised for action. I followed alongside, enjoying the sun while gazing at the weathered gravestones. I couldn’t decipher any dates, but the many granite slabs protruding from the earth at strange angles told me all I needed to know. The grass around the graves had been recently cut, but unkempt clumps were left along the edges of the stones. I rested my arms on the stone wall and gazed up at St George’s flag, fluttering high up on the turret.
The church looked to be hundreds of years old, constructed from rough limestone and designed in a classical, elongated shape with a clock tower at its western end. A large crow, as black as coal, sat aloft the highest rampart of this vantage point. He watched our every move and then let out a haunting cry. It was still watching us as we returned the furniture to its original spot and straddled our bikes in preparation to leave. I swallowed two more painkillers, catching sight of the bird while I drank. It took flight from the tower, its shrill cry cutting the silence as it flew towards distant woodland.
Number 9: Shap Fell
At the end of the first week, we skirted the lakes and headed north, towards Scotland. We were now halfway through the journey and after a mishap in communication, I was riding solo again. I didn’t mind, as it gave me the chance to search for a small building that we’d cycled passed twenty years earlier. This time, I was determined to stop and knock on the door!
Up ahead, two pylons straddled the road like giant robots guarding a mountain pass. I cycled between them, listening to the crackle from the overhead wires, and set my sights for Shap Fell Bothy.
A bothy is a term used to describe a building that acts as temporary shelter for those requiring an overnight stay in a remote location. There are approximately one hundred bothies in Britain, and most of these are in Scotland because it has large tracts of wilderness and a harsher climate than England. With the assistance of a volunteer army, the Mountain Bothies Association labour hard to fulfill their vision, which is to maintain simple shelters in remote country for the use and benefit of all who love wild and lonely places.
Using a bothy doesn’t mean you are lost or desolate. Their rise in popularity actually stems from the fact you get spend the night in spectacular locations... for free! The only downfall is that you’ll need your own bedding, and that you might either be alone or with a raucous group of Norwegian backpackers. We’d ridden past Shap Fell Bothy twenty years earlier but didn’t stop to knock on the door. Instead, we continued past, cocooned in bright ponchos and surrounded by mist.
But now I was back and the sun was attempting to shine. Twenty years on, I was keen to meet whoever was staying overnight, and with each revolution, I searched for signs of the small white building. Just as the road levelled out, I recognised it immediately, positioned at the brow of the hill. Apart from electric pylons, wire fences, and the empty road it was the only other manmade object visible. My pace quickened as I rode towards the front door, hoping to find signs of life.
Number 10: Glencoe
By day 10 we were on our way to the town of Fort William, which is positioned snugly by the banks of Loch Linnhe and overlooked by Britain’s tallest mountain, Ben Nevis. The weather this far north can be as unpredictable as the roads and mountains; forever changing and often challenging. A cold front was threatening to obscure any views of the mountains we’d pass alongside and with rain imminent, we set off quickly, knowing it would probably be a long, wet day on the road.
Today was the one day I really hadn’t wanted rain. Nick had picked a route that would take us through a glacial valley towards the historic town of Glencoe. We’d ride alongside steep-sided hills and mountains, including The Three Sisters of Glen Coe — a series of steep ridges, leading to the summit of Bidean nam Bian, 3,772 feet high. Subsidiary peaks and rocky outcrops combine to create a spectacular and — at times — dangerous environment.
Scottish peaks have a naming convention and, depending on their height, are categorised into three types. Those 3,000 feet and over are known as Munros, in memory of the Scottish climber, Hugo Munro. He later became Sir Hugo Munro, primarily due to his work — measuring, listing, and naming them all. In September 1891, he published his findings in the Scottish Mountaineering Journal, and ever since, his table of 283 Munros has been the cause of debate. This is mainly due to the lack of distinction between the mountaintops and the subsidiary high points that form a part of the peak.
Over the years, the official numbers have altered slightly. One mountain, called Sgurr nan Ceannaichean, was found to be three feet short of the magical number. The official figure now stands at 282. However, despite minor technicalities, the project was deemed a major success — not only in topography terms, but also as a means of promoting the highlands of Scotland.
In a similar feat, John Rooke Corbett, a later member of the Scottish Mountaineering Club, listed another set of peaks. They were those with a height of 2,500 feet or more and less than 3,000 feet. This was mostly accomplished in the gap between the two World Wars. Unlike Munros, Corbetts must have a drop of at least 500 feet on all sides.
Finally, there are the Grahams. Initially, the hills between 2,000 and 2,499 feet were known as the lesser Corbetts, but after Fiona Torbet (nee Graham) undertook extensive research and published an accurate list in 1992, the name was changed in appreciation.
Knowing that Scotland has hundreds of Munros, Corbetts and Grahams does sound daunting. But it’s the Munros that gain most of the attention. With so many of them in remote and appealing locations, it’s inevitable that outdoor enthusiasts follow in the footsteps of Sir Hugo. The pastime of trekking to the top of each one has been termed Munro-bagging and the ultimate aim is to scale them all.
To my left, The Three Sisters dominated the landscape, and just like the car drivers, I couldn’t steal my eyes away from them. The steep-sided buttresses glistened as water cascaded down each chasm. Far above, swirling mist wafted across the craggy ridgeline, giving fleeting glances of the false summit. With so many tourists arriving by car, campervan and coach, it was inevitable I should find a parking space, so people could stretch their legs and admire the view.
In such a location, a spirited and talented entrepreneur will always succeed, and as the familiar sound of bagpipes filled the glen, I smiled in acknowledgement. I stood close to the other visitors, listening to the wail of bagpipes, and after donating a few coins, I managed to take a picture of the piper, framed perfectly in front of a faraway waterfall. I then clambered onto a nearby boulder to enjoy an apple, raided from the fridge many hours earlier.
Number 11: Loch Ness
Most of us know about Loch Ness and its fabled monster. After being invited along for the cycle ride, I decided that the opportunity to swim in the loch was too good to miss. After all, I now live in Australia and chances like these are rare. Before leaving home, my oldest son (Noah) gave me a pair of his swimming goggles, which I promised to use in the loch.
Once again, I diverted from the plan and rode solo for a few hours. My friends followed the cycle track, across a little used route on the eastern flanks of the loch. While searching for a place to swim, I was mistakenly drawn to the western side of the lake. I soon discovered that my only option was to take the plunge close to a mooring jetty, owned by a boat touring company called Jacobite. The story continues, with my quest to swim in the loch finally within reach…
(My bike was called the Bedfordshire Clanger)
I was keen to record the moment and spent valuable minutes setting up the GoPro camera. No-one looked interested in the Bedfordshire Clanger, which I leant against a nearby tree. This suited me fine, as I had no lock. Next, I focused on the task at hand to get into the water as fast as possible. Suddenly, Uncle Matt’s words came back in an instant. Slow down and enjoy the ride. But was this diversion a distraction or enjoyment? I really didn’t know anymore. As for my children, would they even care if I swam in the loch?
In truth, I was probably doing it for myself. To prove something. To prove I was still young enough to do these crazy things. To prove to the other cyclists I could ride from one end of the country to the other and still take the time to stop and explore the sights. Who was I kidding? This deviation would certainly cost me in the long run. While I was dithering around in the woods, they were cycling hard and fast across the country.
I changed into my bathers and picked up Noah’s goggles, stretching the elastic band to force them on. Within a few steps, I was out of the trees, but the scratched lenses hampered my view. As I took them off, I came face to face with an Indian man. He was wearing a dark turban; he sported a trim beard, peppered with grey; and he was standing near the water, holding a single, blood red rose. I could see other roses too, bobbing close to the water’s edge. For a few moments, we studied each other until he smiled brightly.
I waved and took another step forward. ‘Hi there. I’m just going for a quick swim to see if I can spot the monster.’
His blank expression didn’t change. But he nodded once, before facing the water and throwing the rose into the air. He then walked back to the jetty, his head low and movements slow. It seemed each of us had a very different reason for being there, although neither was less important. Months of daydreaming had led me to this moment.
My first step into the water proved difficult. The shoreline was littered with rocks and most were coated in slippery moss. My heel skidded across the first rock, and then I wedged my toes into an unseen gap. With goggles on, it was akin to walking blind across a watery minefield. So I removed them and went on slowly.
Number 12: Crask Inn, Scotland
An Austrian born philosopher by the name of Martin Buber is often cited as saying, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.”
During late afternoon, on day 13 of the ride, this insight proved true. Alone once again (please don’t ask) I found myself on a single road, riding through a wild, open landscape dominated by grassland, bog and heather. Despite the rain, hail, wind and isolation, the feeling of exhilaration was immeasurable. After fighting the wind, for what seemed like hours, I didn’t expect to find one of the most isolated pubs in Scotland.
The sky was paler, showing the faint outline of the sun, far to my left, during its evening descent. After returning my attention to the road, I spotted a slight curve up ahead. Positioned behind a cluster of trees were two buildings, either side of the road. The faint aroma of turf caught at the back of my throat; the earthy smell instantly taking me back to winters evenings in Donegal. As I cycled nearer, the building on the right grabbed my attention, due to its similarities to my Grans house. Like hers, it stood proud against the grassland and nearby hills. Even the design, with its slate roof and white exterior looked vaguely similar. One thing was different though.
It had a small car park, positioned behind an open gate. There were no cars or bikes to be seen, leaving me doubtful that the inn would be open for business. I pushed the bike along a bed of shingles, past a window and listened for the sound of music, voices or laughter, but heard nothing. The familiar aroma of burning turf grew stronger, teasing my senses and emotions. I rested the bike against the wall and tested the door handle. It opened with a satisfying click, and eased open with the help of a steady breeze.
I stepped inside, embracing the warmth and quickly closed the door behind me. Framed photos depicting Scottish landscapes hung from the walls at irregular intervals and alongside the bar, three wooden stools lined up side by side. To the left of the bar was an open plan area, surrounded by tables.
A fireplace took pride of place; its warm glow throwing lively shadows across the room. Instinctively, I made my way towards it, and noticed a border collie, spread-eagled on the floor. I knelt alongside it and stroked its matted coat. The dog lifted his head, watching with tired eyes and greeted me with a wag of its tail. I stroked its neck and whispered, ‘Good boy. Are you the only one here?’
Its tail wagged a few more times, bouncing off the flagstones, before it closed its eyes. The pub was perfect. The only thing missing were my friends and a publican.
Number 13: Altnaharrah
After leaving the pub, I made a frantic dash to our final overnight accommodation along the journey. This was to be the grandest of them all and a far cry from some of the budget hostels and bed and breakfast establishments we’d stayed in. The village of Altnaharrah is credited (along with Braemar) with once recording the coldest temperature in Britain (minus 17 degrees Fahrenheit). Luckily for me, it was mid-summer at the time of my arrival and a balmy 18 degrees. Here is what happened next …
Altnaharra couldn’t come quickly enough and after each bend in the road I searched for signs of civilisation, but apart from rundown buildings there was little else, except fields and isolated pockets of woodland. Then I passed a farmyard, and heard the bark of a dog. The road straightened and leveled, with coppiced woods to my left and a stone wall to my right.
In the distance I noticed a series of detached houses and a large white building, partially hidden behind trees. A prominent sign informed me the speed limit was down to forty miles per hour and within seconds I passed another, declaring I’d made it to the hotel.
It was set back from the road, framed by a river to one side and moorland to the other. The laneway was constructed from shingle, which meant I had to dismount in order to walk towards the entrance. Now, as I approached, I could fully appreciate the size of the hotel, remembering that Nick had already informed me it was initially a hunting lodge. The rooms upstairs would command impressive views to the distant hills and by the look of the car park, there were numerous guests staying overnight.
Our van was parked alongside a black Range Rover, its owner standing alongside the open hatch, revealing a stash of fishing equipment. The man was wide set, with a ruddy complexion, thinning hair and wore a tweed jacket, long trousers and gum boots. While walking past, I said hello, but he ignored the greeting, muttering to himself while sitting on the tailgate and wrestling with a boot.
A man approached from the lawn, walking a dog. It was only when he stepped onto the shingle that I realised it was Mick. But what was he doing with a playful Labrador? He welcomed me with a firm handshake and introduced me to his dog. Before I could ask, he pointed to a nearby window, through which I could see familiar faces, including the partners and family of some of the riders. I was still mystified about his dog being in the highlands, when the hotel door opened and JP bounded out. ‘Ali, thank goodness you made it. We were getting worried.’
Before I had time to reply he guided me to the rear of the hotel. On the way, he informed me that I had the bunkhouse to myself as the others had all paid for an upgrade. I didn’t care for additional comfort, or a bird’s eye view of the mist covered hills. All I needed was food and a bed, with a few ales if I stayed awake long enough. After a quick tour of the bunk house, he directed me to an outbuilding. ‘Your bike goes in there. I think it’s an old cow shed.’
Just as he left, Alan appeared, smiling widely and holding a menu. ‘Top man Ali. If you’d been twenty minutes later we were sending out the Scottish Mountain rescue team.’ While he spoke a sudden squall sent us cowering towards the shed. In the semi light, he handed me the menu. ‘You have to order straight away as the chef has called last orders!’
Horizontal rain lashed against the shed door as I quickly read the menu, picked the lamb cutlets then watched Alan sprint towards the hotel. It didn’t take long to shower and change and the moment I walked through the entrance, it felt as though I’d been transported onto an Agatha Christie movie set. All the intriguing elements were there. The man from the car park had replaced his waterproofs with evening wear and leather brogues. He strolled past with an air of audacity, calling to an unseen friend to meet in the whisky lounge.
Number 14: John O'Groats
All journeys have to end sometime. After reaching John O’Groats, we could finally declare ourselves end-to-enders again. Our adventure was over.
We saddled up for the final time and made our way towards a bridge, passing pedestrians darting for cover from a sudden shower sweeping in from the ocean. By the time it passed, we were far from town, our sights firmly set on John O’Groats. Twenty years earlier we’d ridden to our end destination via the town of Wick, on the east coast. This time, we enjoyed numerous glimpses of the North Atlantic and somewhere during that final approach, the body of water became the North Sea.
Signposts counted down the final miles and as we approached, the amount of small holdings increased. I was desperate to locate a landmark from my first trip, but had forgotten just how flat the land was in this part of the world. It was devoid of a single hill or rise in elevation. Even the trees had seemingly vanished.
Far to our left, I caught sight of numerous buildings, side by side, each a different colour. The first was red, then yellow, followed by green and blue. Their vibrant colours stood out against the grainy sky and I recognised them at once. I’d seen them once before, but only on a computer screen. Now the beach hut style buildings belonging to Natural Retreats were finally in view, their bold colours standing proud against the flat horizon. Alongside, I could just make out the spired rooftop now lovingly restored, along with the main building, after the original John O’Groats hotel fell into disrepair.
The road ran at right angles to the sea. It was dead straight and as level as a playing field and steered us towards the Seaview Hotel, situated on the main road. After thirteen days and over a thousand miles, the ending was approaching too fast for my liking.
End to enders
I hope you enjoyed my top 14 places to visit in Britain.
To read the whole story, click on the book cover below.
Here is the description.
Is it possible to cycle 1,000 miles across Britain in 13 days and still find the time to slow down and enjoy the ride?
Twenty years after riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats, Alistair set out with his friends to repeat the adventure and quickly discovered that times have changed. Bike computers have replaced maps and thousands of cycle paths now criss-cross Britain. It didn’t help that he now lives in Australia and spends more time on a paddle board than two wheels. With little training and a borrowed bike, he set off from Land’s End, determined to enjoy every moment.
Faced with so many natural distractions he soon began deviating from the plan. With many miles to cover, along remote tracks, these diversions came at a price and something had to break. Would it be the bike, the camaraderie or Alistair’s inquisitive nature?
Along the way he survived heatstroke in Devon, went in search of a lady called Daphne and braved wild storms in Glasgow. After a swim in Loch Ness he found time to enjoy a beer in one of the remotest pubs in Scotland. Everyone who travels across Britain has a story to tell. This is Alistair’s.
If you like travel books, you’ll enjoy this inspirational story, which shows that with luck, curiosity and perseverance, anything is possible.