For most cyclists in the UK, one of the ultimate challenges is to ride the length of the country from the farthest southwesterly point to the extreme northeast, or "end-to-end" as it's known.

It's often said that setting the date is the hardest part so towards the end of May 2003 I decided to give myself 2 weeks notice and just go!

To add to the challenge the ride was to be undertaken as quickly as possible, solo and unsupported, using cycle paths (especially those of the National Cycle Network), byways and B-roads wherever possible.

From experience I knew that travelling light was of the utmost importance. There is always something one wishes one had brought, but too often so many superfluous items are carried, adding fatigue and unsettling the bike’s handling characteristics.

I used a 1:190,000 Ordnance Survey road atlas that was big enough to show the minor roads but not so small in scale that I would need to carry dozens of pages. Only the pages I’d need were cut out of the atlas, and even these were trimmed down to within a 20-mile radius of the planned route in case of diversions. It also showed the approximate route of the National Cycle Network – quiet lanes, tracks and disused roads dedicated to cyclists.

I had three criteria for the route:

1. To avoid major roads.

2. To pass through places of historical interest or scenic beauty.

3. To clock up at least 1,000 miles within one week.

So after many hours poring over maps and double-checking distances I set my course

Land's End - John O'Groats
116 miles, 14 mph average6 June 03Day 1
Cornwall & Devon

I am fortunate enough to live just an hour’s drive from Land’s End and so I was able to have a good night’s sleep and eat a hearty breakfast before being chauffeur driven to Cornwall’s most remote corner for a mid morning start.

Whilst unpacking the car I noticed a very professional looking group of riders doing likewise and the conversation revealed that they were part of a racing club from Brighton aiming for the same destination as me but taking a faster route with a support vehicle. My offer of guidance out of Cornwall was declined and they (somewhat bizarrely to my way of thinking) set off up the dual carriageway A30!

After the obligatory photo at the First & Last Signpost 1 I set off on a familiar route that took me along the rugged north coast 2 & 3, out towards Padstow 4, and east into Devon.
I couldn’t believe my luck as I had cool sunny weather all day with an appreciable tailwind.

Land's End - John O'Groats
82 miles, 14 mph average7 June 03Day 2
Dartmoor, Exmoor & the Somerset Levels

I felt as though the adventure proper began here as from now on I’d have to concentrate on navigation and every turn would bring new sights. My route on the B3227 weaved between the two high moors 7 & 8 but always gave splendid views of the hills on the horizon; the heather changing through hues of green, blue and purple in the sunlight. The lush river valleys and back lanes 9 made for plenty of interesting but challenging riding as on one long steep descent I topped 54 mph – I won’t say what the speed fell to climbing up the other side!

The run down to Taunton 10 was accompanied by a good tail wind once more that continued to push me along the Bridgewater Canal towpath 11 and on to Highbridge 12 where I’d arranged to stop over with an old friend. The wind had been so kind to me I arrived at 4:00pm, a good 4 hours ahead of schedule.

Land's End - John O'Groats
139 miles, 13 mph average8 June 03Day 3
Welsh Borders

I got rolling at first light aiming to pass through Bristol before any traffic picked up, and made it under Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge 14 and along the cycle-route NCN 4 which follows the gorge to near the mouth of the River Avon before 7 am. An hour later I was ready to cross the elder of the two Severn Bridges 15 on NCN 4 into Chepstow.

My route into Wales took me along the Wye Valley on NCN 44 past Tintern Abbey founded in 1131 by Cistercian Monks and, after Monmouth 16, up the Golden Valley to the east of the Brecon Beacons and The Black Mountains, remaining close to Offa’s Dyke path. During a sudden shower I dived for cover under a yew tree in a graveyard and whilst waiting for the rain to subside, I noticed that I’d been sitting on the grave of no less a mortal than Tom Jones!

Near Hay on Wye 17 I crossed the Wye again over an ancient bridge, which to my amazement charged a whole 5-penny toll! Unfortunately the climb out of the valley took its toll on my right knee and I struggled on to Bishop’s Castle 20 for the night.

Land's End - John O'Groats
173 miles, 14 mph average9 June 03Day 4
North Wales, Lancashire & The Lake District

Starting at the crack of dawn I’d hoped a night’s rest would cure my knee but within the first 10 miles of rolling Shropshire countryside it was hurting again. I had planned to ride through Radnor Forest towards Snowdonia but the pain made me change my mind and divert the route to eastwards through Oswestry 24. Gradually the road started to flatten, the painkillers set in and a gentle tail wind picked up. By Chester 25 the tail wind was pushing me along at over 20 mph, lifting my spirits and strengthening my resolve.

One part of the journey I had been worrying about was Liverpool 26. It’s always easier to navigate in rural areas I find and the prospect of battling the traffic, one-way systems and dodgy back streets hadn’t exactly filled me with joy. As I was pondering my route a shock of grey hair shot past me laughing and a rich scouse accent called out “Come on lad, whatcher waitin’ for!” Flash git, I thought; probably just left home. I explained that I’d already ridden over 70 miles but John put me firmly I my place by pointing out that he’d already ridden over 100 and was now on his way home for lunch having been for a spin to Anglesey and back! Well, this wiry septuagenarian turned out to be a real blessing. I was able to slipstream him as he guided me to the Birkenhead rail tunnel 27 and pointed me in the right direction out of the city from Liverpool New Street station towards Preston 28 on the NCN 62 cycle-route that ran alongside the main road.

Onwards through Lancashire 30 I rode though meandering lanes, then west towards the coastal cycle path (part of NCN 6) along Morecambe Bay. With the wind in my back I pressed on into the Lake District north of Lancaster 31, and began the gradual climb into the hills and vales. Gorgeous empty
lanes overhung with trees greeted me over Cartmel Fell 32 and I freewheeled down the other side to see my first glimpse of Lake Windermere 33 and find a B&B for the night.

Land's End - John O'Groats
152 miles, 13 mph average10 June 03Day 5
Cumbria, Scottish Borders & Southern Uplands

I woke to the sound of rain. Of course the Lakes are famous for persistent rain so I tuned into the weather forecast and hoped in vain for good news. After a few hours it became clear that I was going to get wet so I wrapped up and set off towards Troutbeck through the Kirkstone Pass under the shadow of Helvellyn. I soon found part of the coast-to-coast cycle-route NCN 71 and climbed up following it along tiny unused lanes to Caldbeck 34 to look back at the Cumbrian Mountains now to the south of me.

A long straight decline into Carlisle 35 left me with a dilemma; should I make a quick sprint up the A74 dual carriageway or detour an extra 5 miles north to avoid the main road. I figured there would be a hard shoulder to ride in – I figured wrong. The traffic was horrendous flying past at breakneck speeds and the narrow shoulder was full of nails and broken glass. This short section of road joins the end of the M6 in England with the start of the Scottish M74 but of course the traffic sees no distinction as it funnels from three lanes to two. Just as I thought it could not get any worse the lanes narrowed to cross the River Lyne just as two juggernauts filled both lanes. I leapt off my bike and clambered onto the crash barrier as the lorries flew by with just a hair’s breadth between them and me. To top things off nicely I got a puncture on the slip road into Scotland at Gretna Green. Just as I was passing the landmark feeling particularly sorry for myself a group of lads came by who were riding to the Western Isles. A great fillip to my spirits as we swapped stories of our adventures so far.

Whilst the map might look as though I rode on the motorway to Glasgow, my route was in fact on a cycle-route – the NCN 74 - using the old A-road (now known as the B7076) adjacent to the motorway. This 80-mile stretch took me through ghostly towns that seem to have had the life sucked out of them since the motorway had by-passed them. The first 50 miles climbed steadily into the Southern Uplands and Lowther Hills; a cold, barren empty moorland, but at least it had its own cycle-path (still the NCN 74). It was on this track that I came across an odd character parked in a caravan. I’d not seen a living soul for a few hours so I just had to make enquiries. It turned out he spent his life travelling the country collecting Ordnance Survey grid reference squares – i.e. ticking them off a list as he went along, hence to get to this somewhat remote corner he’d had to tow his van along the cycle path!

It was all downhill into the Clyde Valley and north to Kilsyth 38. The Trossachs up ahead glowered in low black clouds so I made some investigations about accommodation in the hills. The first Scot I asked turned out to be a Glaswegian stereotype; “Och, ye’ll ne’er make it laddie, it’s a c*** of a climb!” he warned me, repeating that there would be nowhere to stay and I’d probably meet a grizzly fate up there. I scarpered off to seek refuge in the nearest Travel-lodge!

Land's End - John O'Groats
174 miles, 14 mph average11 June 03Day 6
The Trossachs, the Cairngorms & the Highlands

The c*** of a climb turned out to be quite mild in comparison to the killer gradients of Devon & Cornwall and I was soon high in the mountains, passing delightful wayside inns with welcoming log fires that I could have been warming my toes in front of the night before. At Callander 40 I picked up another cycle-route (NCN7 running all the way from Callander to Inverness) that took me through some stunning scenery but somewhat lacked a rideable surface (for a road bike anyway), so at Loch Earn I look the main A84 up Glen Ogle towards Loch Tay, but much to my disgust I could see the route continued on a tarmac surface across the valley on a disused railway line!

The ride along the banks of Loch Tay rolled through leafy lanes and has to be 15 or so of the most enjoyable miles I’ve ever ridden such was the glory of the scenery. I made a quick stop for a pub lunch at Kenmore 42 and then along the Tay Valley to Pitlochry 43 famous for its whisky distilleries, then turned west into a fierce headwind and the start of the climb into the magnificent Grampian Mountains. The gravel cycle-path followed the railway and the A9 up to the highest point for any major road in the UK at the Drumochter Pass (1484 feet above sea level) where snow still lay on the surrounding Munroe peaks and blizzards are not unknown at this time of year.

Finally, turning back east I could enjoy the tailwind over the spectacular Cairngorms as I made my way in bright sunshine towards the resort town of Aviemore. I didn’t think I’d be able to make Inverness 45 before dark and was worried about finding accommodation in between so I stopped for the night at Carrbridge. I didn’t realise that this far north it hardly gets dark at all in June.

I’ve heard several well-travelled folk say that the scenery in New Zealand is incredible and in fact is just like Scotland. Makes you wonder why they don’t just go to Scotland doesn’t it? The views defy all superlatives and the quiet roads, cyclepaths and long daylight hours make it a cyclists dream …well, when its sunny anyway.

Land's End - John O'Groats
158 miles, 14 mph average12 June 03Day 7
North East Scottish Coast

If there hadn’t been the prospect of finishing on this day I would have stayed in bed. Outside it was raining heavily and the temperature was struggling to make 8 degrees C. I only had lightweight summer gear, so within a few miles I was soaked through. The road descended all the way to Inverness so the faster I went the colder and wetter I became and by the time I’d reached the famous battle site at Culloden Moor I was shaking uncontrollably and had lost all sensation in my hands and feet. At the first shop I reached I bought two pairs of women’s tights (the only items of clothing on sale) and changed into them in their storeroom without any explanation – much to the amusement of the two elderly lady shopkeepers! The difference those tights made to my body temperature and morale was incredible (you can just see I was still wearing them in the photo at Duncansby Head below).

The busy bridge over the Moray Firth thankfully had a cycle lane, but no apparent means of getting to it other than down the main road! Onwards I pushed north over the Black Isle (which is neither an island nor black!), over the Cromarty Firth, past the Glenmorangie distillery on the banks of the Dornoch Firth at Tain 46 and then out along the north east coast.

With the end in my sights I didn’t stop to eat but munched snacks on the move. The coastal scenery especially around Berriedale 47 was remarkably reminiscent of my home in Cornwall. I spent the afternoon chasing away from the rain clouds that seemed to follow the glens to the coast, and after Wick the ground flattened out and before I knew it the Orkneys came into view and I was in John O’Groats 48 well before tea time. In case you’re wondering, this photo was taken the following day by the Brighton Racing Club who turned up a day later after struggling along the nation’s main roads! The journey didn’t end there however, as John O’Groats is not the most north easterly point, which is at Duncansby Head two miles east, and the most northern point is a further ten miles west at Dunnet Head – so only when I’d reached this point could I truly say I’d dunnet!

The final 20 or so miles were clocked up riding back to Thurso for the train to Inverness from where I flew home (although I still had to ride between Luton and Stanstead airports).

If you are thinking of riding the end-to-end, stop thinking and get riding!

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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