Post-journey reflections

Firstly, our overall statistics:

Total distance: 1045.52 miles (includes the ten miles from Penzance to Land’s End)
Average speed: 11.7 mph
Hours in the saddle: 89 hours and 28 minutes (which is 3 days, 17 hours and 28 minutes). For reference, the time taken by last year’s winner of the Tour de France was 91 hours and 26 seconds. OK, maybe he was slightly faster than us, but he wasn’t carrying panniers…!

Ten days have passed now since we stood at the signpost at John o’Groats, and we still can’t quite believe we did it. The vast majority of the trip was really enjoyable, and we have great memories of many parts of the country we hadn’t seen before, and some we already knew and loved. In fact, even the sections which were hard graft at the time are good memories now, with the benefit of knowing it was all ultimately fine. In a way, you tend only to have experiences like those tough days when you do a long tour, because you have to ride the whole route, including sections you wouldn’t necessarily choose for a single day ride. You also have to ride in the prevailing weather conditions, whatever they may be, and that gives you a different experience. The days of battling into a fierce Scottish headwind were hard, but it’s ultimately very satisfying to find that you can face that challenge without cracking.

It’s very definitely an ‘eating an elephant’ challenge (!), cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats – you have to take it a little bit at a time, rather than thinking about the entirety of what you are trying to achieve. It’s obviously a big physical challenge, but if you’ve trained enough then it’s the mental element which could make or break your attempt. Getting up each day, donning the cycle-wear and doing the miles seemed to be as much about attitude as it was about legs. Staying cheerful when it’s raining, or when the riding is hard, or when you suddenly find you have 8 more miles to cycle than you thought, or when you find yourself wishing your saddle was made of something considerably softer is really important!

You need a good dollop of luck, of course. So many people said “You’re nearly there now” as we progressed through Scotland, but we were very aware that one silly slip in the shower, or a nasty fall on the road and it could all have been over. There are always going to be events beyond your control, and the prospect of encountering such an event is worrying, especially when you’re nearing the end. All you can do is plan for as many potential problems as you can, and try to cope with whatever comes up.

Many people have asked us since we finished whether we would do it again, and the answer for us is definitely not. Not because we didn’t enjoy it, but, strangely, because we did. We’ve acquired a taste for tandem touring now, and knowing that we are strong enough to complete a long journey opens up lots of new possibilities for future rides. There’s undoubtedly a significant challenge in cycling LEJoG. Can we do it? Are we strong enough? Will we last the distance? We know now that we are, and doing it again, even perhaps doing it in reverse, wouldn’t add anything to that. Which isn’t to say that we would now want to go longer, or higher, or more extreme in any way, just to see if we could succeed. We enjoyed the challenge of trying to finish something big, but it was just one aspect of the trip. Doing it again would also inevitably involve re-treading some of the same ground, and while there are definitely areas to which we’d like to return (including Glencoe, preferably on a clear day!), there were also parts of the country where we wouldn’t choose to cycle again.

So what next? The tandem is also home now, and incredibly shiny and clean after a serious service and some TLC from JD Cycles in Ilkley, without whom we would never have become so enthusiastic about tandem-riding in the first place, and whose help and advice was invaluable along the way. And now the sun is shining again, we are starting to feel the urge to turn those wheels. So to start with, perhaps just a Kettlewell and back. After all, that’s just Golspie to Helmsdale…..

And now some lists, mainly for the benefit of others planning a LEJoG of their own…

Things which worked well:

Doing lots of planning – the route, knowing where bike shops were, having a list of B&Bs, knowing the ‘height’ profile of each day. The BikeRouteToaster website (strange name, useful site) was particularly helpful in producing gpx files which could be loaded directly onto the Garmin GPS unit.

Trying to stay off A-roads as far as possible. We cycled along some fantastic traffic-free little lanes, and although it meant we did over 1000 miles instead of the more direct 874-mile route, it was very much worth it for the relaxing ride and great scenery. If we were planning with the benefit of hindsight we’d try harder to avoid the A38 between Wellington and Taunton, which we used to avoid a lengthy detour on minor roads. The A9 between Alness and Golspie was also an uncomfortable ride, because of a high volume of traffic. This could perhaps be avoided by taking the B9176 to Bonar Bridge, then the minor road between Bonar Bridge and Golspie via Loch Buidhe. Note that this detour would add a few climbs, so use your own judgement here!

Training hard, especially the deliberately tough weekend to Kirkby Stephen and back around a month before departure. Nothing we faced on LEJoG was even close to the rigours of those two days, and knowing you have successfully completed two hard days with lots of climbing is mentally very helpful when you’re facing the ups and downs of Devon and Cornwall or Glencoe. For the last two weeks before departure, we deliberately reduced the training. This was also a good move, as it meant we were fresh and raring to go when we started.

Taking our time over the trip, and being flexible about where we stopped each day. Taking three weeks and not having any accommodation booked in advance isn’t for everyone, but it worked really well for us, and meant we could adjust our days according to how we were feeling, whether we were meeting friends or relatives, whether we liked a particular town or not.

Using local knowledge – we had some great route tips from people who knew the local area, and the local history related to us by our host at Carlisle really enhanced our day as we cycled through the areas he had described.

Travelling light. They say you should lay out everything you want to take, and then ask yourself for each item whether it’s really worth hauling it 1000 miles. When you’re unsupported, every ounce you take really matters. We reckon we got this about right, despite not sawing the handles off our toothbrushes!

Having some milestones along the way (on the ‘eating an elephant’ principle). It gives you something smaller to aim for if you know you’re meeting someone on day four, or crossing a border on day eleven.

Having Gary the Garmin Edge 605 GPS along for the ride. He always knew where we were, which was helpful, and had a full map of the roads of the UK.

Things which could have worked better:

Gary, frankly. He had freezing and crashing problems, some of which we believe are sorted out by a software patch now. The route recalculation algorithm is really dire though, and we had to keep an eagle eye out for the ‘Calculating’ message appearing, as our carefully planned route had always gone out of the window after a re-calculation. We’ll be passing some specific examples along to Garmin, which should help them to improve things in this area.

The wind. It was supposed to be south-westerly. It wasn’t. Not even once! It was frequently blowing from the north… Not much you can do, though, just have to get your head down and keep the wheels turning as best you can.

Getting onto Scottish cycle-paths. Scotland has lots of very good cycle-paths, well-signed once you’re on them, but we found them difficult to locate initially (see entries for Coylton to Balloch and Balloch to Tyndrum). Maybe we should have known they were there. Or maybe there should be more signposts. Why isn’t there a sign-post at the end of the cycleway on Erskine Bridge directing you to the canal cycleway, which starts only a few hundred yards away?

The ‘sheep’ project. Clare decided to record in photographs the way the country changes from bottom to top, including houses (from stone cottages in Cornwall, thatched cottages in Devon, through red brick in Lancashire to rendered bungalows in the Highlands), beer (from Tribute in Devon and Cornwall, through Thwaites ‘Wainwright’ in Cumbria, to Belhaven Best in Fort William) and sheep. As it turns out, though, sheep are the same the country over. Oh, except in the Lakes, where there are huge numbers of different breeds. Rest of the country, though – all entirely the same….!

Things we learned:

It’s a big country. Especially Scotland. On crossing the border into Scotland you soon realise there’s still a long way to go – almost 50% of the journey, in fact.

The hills in Devon and Cornwall are as tough as everyone says, short but sharp gradients and plenty of them, but if you can get through them, it does get much easier.

Scotland is a country of big mountains, but the passes between them are usually comfortably low, and the climbs are long but gentle. Spectacular scenery, too, of course. Midges only seem to catch up with you when you stop to repair the bike. So in the event of a breakdown of some kind, stop, then apply anti-midge measures, then fix the problem, in that order!

The motorists of Great Britain are (for the most part) patient and considerate. There’s a very uneasy relationship between cyclists and motorists in this country (the blame for which frankly belongs on both sides), but on our trip we felt safe and were given a wide berth, particularly by lorry-drivers on the thankfully rare times we had to ride along A-roads. There were only a couple of occasions on the whole trip when the Captain felt moved to shout ‘Oi!’. There was only a single occasion on which we used more colourful language – congratulations to the white van driver who tried to emerge from a side-road onto a main road without once looking left….

The people of Great Britain are (for the most part) really lovely. So many people came to chat to us, encouraged us with waves and toots on the horn as they passed in the car, and gave us donations for Macmillan. It was hugely morale-boosting and really made us feel we were doing something worthwhile.

Places we particularly enjoyed staying:

Thorneyfield Guest House on Compston Road in Ambleside
Spean Lodge in Spean Bridge
The Bridge Hotel in Helmsdale

People we’d like to thank:

The Edge Cycle Works in Chester, who replaced the middle chain-ring on a busy Saturday morning, despite the fact that they were right in the middle of moving premises.

Calvin at Ghyllside Cycles in Ambleside, who helped us understand and sort out our hub problem.

The inestimable JD Cycles in Ilkley, who are always so incredibly supportive and helpful. We have no links with this shop or its staff other than as customers, but we really can’t recommend them highly enough. Their advice is always unbiased and spot-on, and there is a fantastic culture of creative problem solving when it’s needed. Thanks to everyone, especially John and Ruth, Jamie, Mitch, Joe and Dan.

Emma and Rob in Bath, and Phil, Claire, Kate and John in Bispham Green, who fed and watered us, and washed all our kit. And Sue at Spean Lodge, who was unfazed by our horrible shoes.

And of course all our sponsors, online and off, and all the people who gave us donations and encouragement along the way. Your support was fantastic!

Resources for other similarly minded cyclists…

We’ve uploaded a file containing the following resources, for use by anyone else attempting a similar journey:

  • A list of bike shops along our route
  • A list of Tourist Information Centres
  • A list of Bed and Breakfast establishments
  • The entire route as a Google Earth file
  • A set of Garmin-compatible GPX files, one for each day of the route.

To download the zip-file containing the above, click here. You will need WinZip to open the file.

Good luck!

Clare and Jonathan

Day 20: Thurso to John o’Groats

Distance: 32.12 miles
Time: 2 hours 40 minutes
Average speed: 11.8 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 1035.49 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 0 miles
Number of islands cycled from bottom to top: 1
Number of happy tandemists: 2

The outskirts of Thurso were a little unpromising but the centre was better, and after recuperative showers we loaded up on carbohydrates at a simple but good Chinese restaurant. We didn’t dare open the fortune cookies, though – finishing on Friday 13th felt inauspicious enough already. Once again the lights were out good and early, although this far north the daylight continues to stream through the curtains well into the early hours.

A peep through said curtains this morning revealed a similar day, fairly cloudy with yet another northerly wind. Today, however, we were cycling east (mostly). We set off at 8.30 wearing our arm-warmers and, although it was cold, we were warmed by the prospect of arriving at our final destination. The first visual highlight of the day arrived fairly swiftly, as we turned a corner and Dunnet Bay was revealed. The wide sandy beach is sheltered by Dunnet Head, the most northerly point of the British mainland, and our first destination today. The strong wind was piling rolling waves onto the shore as we turned northwards into the wind and started to work our way up the Dunnet Head peninsula. By this time we were already receiving numerous toots of support and thumbs-up signs from passing motorists.

Cycling into the wind should perhaps have felt as hard as it did yesterday, but we knew it was four short miles to the viewpoint, and we made good progress. Passing a field full of highland cattle we stopped to take photographs, as we saw very few of them in the Highlands proper. The headland was covered in yellow gorse bushes, and as the road joined the coastline we started to get good views of Duncansby Head to the East. Apparently when the weather is good the view extends to Cape Wrath, the north-western tip of Britain, but low clouds, looking increasingly threatening, hampered our view.

The road to the viewpoint was uphill, but fairly gently so, and, passed by a succession of motor-homes, we made our way to the lighthouse. Here we paused to take a look at some lofty cliffs, but the wind-chill made standing still rather uncomfortable, so we soon hopped back on the tandem for the return journey down the peninsula. A very sharp gust of wind nearly knocked us over halfway down. On our way down we passed a couple of solo cyclists bent on visiting the same headland, and shouted encouragement to them.

The dark clouds were approaching rapidly from the north, and we quickly stopped to don rainwear, only just in time as a sharp shower began. Someone has clearly forgotten to program in the instructions for summer around here! With the wind now almost behind us though (for the first time in our journey) we dropped rapidly down from Dunnet Head and turned towards John o’Groats. As we headed past Castle of Mey in the distance the shower stopped. Determined to arrive proudly displaying our shirts we took off the rainwear.

Our progress along the coast was rapid, and the distance to John o’Groats diminished quickly. Finally, we arrived at a sign pointing left, giving a distance of a quarter of a mile to our destination. Shunning the sign’s instruction we turned right, determined to reach the true north-eastern tip of the mainland at Duncansby Head before returning to the bright lights (!) of John o’Groats. A two mile, slightly up-hill road took us up to our second lighthouse of the day. Again we were forced to don our rainwear as a second torrential shower hit the coast, this one featuring stingingly cold rain. On reaching the lighthouse we paused only briefly, cold now, and turned around for the return to John o’Groats. We cycled fairly slowly, savouring the moment, and soon enough we arrived at the famous signpost. “Back in ten minutes”, it read! We stood there anyway and hugged, it was a special moment.

After taking refreshment in the coffee shop we returned to have our picture taken at the signpost, trying to look as though our teeth weren’t chattering in the bitter cold. It’s June, for goodness sake! We returned to the coffee shop for warmth, and after a few minutes the photographer, spotting a marginal improvement in the weather, kindly sought us out for a second, more successful attempt.

Before too long Alex from Great Glen Travel arrived, we loaded the tandem securely into his trailer and we set off for Inverness. On reaching Helmsdale we were re-tracing our route, albeit in the opposite direction, and there were many cyclists heading in a northerly direction, looking cold but determined.

We dropped the tandem off at Square Wheels Cycles in Strathpeffer – they are shipping it home for us. After that we continued to Inverness where, with Alex’s kind assistance we bought rail tickets for tomorrow, and found accommodation for the night, alongside the River Ness.

So that’s it, we’ve done it! It hasn’t completely sunk in yet, but feels very good. In a week or so we’ll post some general impressions, and some advice for others planning the same trip. After that we will draw a line under this blog, as we’ll have said all we want to say…

….except perhaps about a future trip the length of France, already hatching in our long-term plans. It’s warm in France…!

Day 19: Helmsdale to Thurso

Distance: 54.51 miles
Time: 5 hours 10 minutes
Average speed: 10.5 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 1003.37 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 28.09 miles
Number of deer we’ve seen today, with antlers and everything: lots
Number of punctures: 1

If there was one day on this trip after which we needed a bit of luxury, it was yesterday, after slogging our way nearly 70 miles from Beauly into the wind. And if there was anywhere in Helmsdale better than the Bridge Hotel, we’d be astonished. What a fantastic place, a really lovely hotel, with beautifully decorated rooms, wonderful lounges and a great restaurant. It was admittedly a bit more expensive than we’d been used to, but since we’d walked in on spec at 5pm we got a generous discount. And it had a bath, which was wonderful for soaking tired muscles.

The restaurant had a really good menu, including lots of game and seafood from the surrounding hills and shores, and it was all beautifully presented and served. Our hostess, originally from Iran but a long-time resident in Scotland and very passionate about its wonderful resources and ingredients, told us that they had refurbished the hotel, upgrading it from a forty room hotel with just two bathrooms. The queues must have been quite something in the mornings!

After an excellent meal, we retired with a dram of Clynelish whisky each, from a local distillery we’d passed during the day. Gary hadn’t been bothered about visiting that one, but it was a good dram, very light but enjoyable.

Breakfast the following morning was very convivial, taken around a big communal table with other guests of the hotel. What an interesting set of people, including a couple whose nineteenth-century ancestors had once owned the hotel, a lady whose grandmother had honeymooned there, and two very entertaining Belgian couples, one of whom owned the oldest antique shop in Bruges. In fact in the hunting lodge setting and surrounded by people with such tales to tell, we started to feel like characters in an Agatha Christie plot. Fortunately though there was no sign of Hercule Poirot, and at no point were we all summoned to the library by the police.

We’d successfully patched the inner tube with the split last night, and also discovered that the first inner tube to fail was punctured in pretty much the same spot, so we patched that too. That’s usually an indication that there’s still something sharp caught in the tyre, or a problem with the wheel rim. Although we’d checked carefully when putting in the most recent tube, we decided to take the opportunity to have the tyre off for a recheck in the calm sheltered courtyard of the hotel, but still found nothing significant. That successfully done, we left around 10am, with a generous donation for Macmillan from our hostess and very good memories of our stay.

It was cool but sunny as we left on the Forsinard road which would take us through the ‘Flow Country’, and it was so good to be riding through quiet countryside on a single-track road – so much of the Scottish leg of the trip so far had necessarily been on A-roads. Up ahead, though, after only a few miles, we saw sheets of rain heading in our direction, and we just managed to get our rain-jackets on before the shower hit us. The wind had got up too, and once again we found ourselves battling against a strong headwind. We knew that the day began with a long steady climb to 600 feet at Forsinard, which was 24 miles away, and with the fierce wind directly in our faces it was really hard graft. After about 12 miles there was an ominous rhythmic thumping from the back wheel – another puncture.

This was starting to get serious – we just couldn’t understand why it kept happening, we were still well in excess of 40 miles from the nearest bike shop at Thurso, and those 40 miles were over some of the remotest and most uninhabited terrain we’d faced so far. It was also so cold in the wind and the rain, and there was nowhere in sight we could get to shelter to sort out the problem.

So with Scotland throwing everything it could at us, we levered the tyre off again by the side of the road, and found that the puncture was unrelated to the previous problem. This time the problem had been caused by some shredding of the inner wall of the tyre itself, which had obviously rubbed the inner tube and holed it. The tyre had done in excess of 1500 miles, almost 1000 of those fully laden on this trip alone, and had clearly had enough. But what to do?

Fortunately the Captain had posed just this question on a Cycle touring web forum before we left, and had been advised to carry “tyre boots” – strong smooth adhesive patches which can be stuck over the failed inner part of a tyre to allow you to make it to somewhere where you can get a replacement tyre. Some respondents said that they had continued for hundreds of miles with a boot in place. Fantastic advice, and we were glad we’d followed it as we dug out a boot, fixed it in place and reinflated the tyre.

It was still pretty worrying, though – would it hold until Thurso? With some anxiety, we pushed on in the wilderness, into the wind, and up the hill. If it sounds like we weren’t having fun at this point, it’s because we really weren’t. We were barely averaging 9 mph into the wind, and there were still 12 miles to Forsinard, the end of the climb and the only place where we thought there was a chance we could get lunch.

Sometimes you just have to focus on keeping the legs moving and the wheels turning, and that’s what we did, and sure enough the miles passed, we crested the climb, and Forsinard appeared, complete with a hotel from which food smells were emitting. We were offered soup and a sandwich, which were perfect for warming us up, and after just half an hour in the warm dining room we were feeling warm and a little more cheerful. The tyre seemed to be holding too.

After lunch we set off down towards the very northern coast of Scotland, where we would turn east towards Reay and Thurso (and the bike shop). It was cold, and we had to pedal hard even to descend into the wind, but that was probably a good thing as it kept us warm. We kept seeing signs for Thurso which showed it as being about 7 miles further than Gary thought it was, which was a little worrying. After 13 long miles we spotted the sea and reached the turn onto the Thurso road. Still 16 miles to Thurso according to the sign, and then also according to Gary too, once he’d come to his senses, which was annoying. It was turning out to be a ‘just get through it’ day.

The miles to Thurso gradually reduced, and there were things to see, including the faint outline of the Orkneys, and the site of the decommissioned Dounreay nuclear establishment. We also started to get lots of encouraging hoots and waves from passing motorists – although our shirts were covered by our rain jackets and so our destination wasn’t being advertised, there can’t be many other reasons than the ‘End-to-End’ to be on a fully laden bike around here. That was morale-lifting, and the sight of Thurso appearing at the end of a long easy glide, out of the wind now, lifted our spirits. We sailed through to the bike shop on our mega-list, the aptly-named “The Bike Shop”, where they replaced the booted tyre, supplied a new inner tube, and pumped up both tyres to full pressure. What a relief. The shop owner told us he’d stay open for another ten minutes, just in case we found any more problems when we got back on the bike, and even recommended a B&B for us, which saved a lot of time.

So after a very long, very hot shower (each!), we are now restored to normality, and ready to face the final day tomorrow. From Thurso we will go to Dunnet Head, then on to Duncansby Head and John o’Groats itself. We’ll have everything crossed though – fingers, toes, eyes…

Day 18: Beauly to Helmsdale

Distance: 68.91 miles
Time: 5 hours 40 minutes
Average speed: 12.1 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 948.86 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 82.6 miles
Number of Firths crossed today: 3 (Beauly, Cromarty, Dornoch)
Number of punctures: 2

As predicted yesterday we ate in the Priory Restaurant, and enjoyed our meal, washed down with a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. Red sandstone houses seemed to be prevalent in Beauly, a small, attractive place with a ruined priory we didn’t quite have time to seek out! Our evenings seem to end earlier each day – all the fresh air and exercise we’re getting means we flake out about 9.30 now.

We planned for an early start this morning for two reasons: firstly we knew we had nearly 70 miles to cycle today, and secondly we wanted to visit the bike shop in Dingwall to check our replacement spoke was tightened correctly. An early breakfast allowed us to be on the road by 8.30am.

It was obviously still rush-hour in the area, and the roads were busy on our way to Dingwall. A small boy, crossing a bridge near Beauly on his bike, called out “Wow” as he spotted us on our tandem – obviously we’re a rare sight in these parts…

We were heading down a long straight road when we heard a distinctive “crump” behind us. A car directly behind our tandem had slowed down sensibly before attempting to pass us. The car behind that was obviously being driven by someone who wasn’t paying attention, and had run into the back of the car behind us. It had all happened some way behind us, and as we hadn’t actually seen the accident we decided to cycle on and leave them to sort it out for themselves.

We soon arrived in Dingwall and found Dryburgh Cycles. They were very helpful indeed and offered to “true” the rear wheel while we had a coffee in town. Sure enough, when we arrived back at the shop twenty minutes later the wheel was back on the bike and we were able to move on.

So move on we did, onto the A9, expecting a nice quiet road as there really isn’t much of Scotland left north of here. We were wrong, the A9 was extremely busy, with many coaches and lorries. Worse still, we were cycling (once again) into a fierce headwind, and the going was tough. After Alness and the Dalmore distillery we turned off the main road with a sense of some relief towards Invergordon. A jack-up oil rig was anchored just offshore, a source of some nostalgia for the Captain, who used to work as a geologist on such rigs in the distant past. We were enjoying the quieter road, but knew that after ten miles or so we would have to return to the main road south of Tain.

The next ten or fifteen miles towards Dornoch were hard labour, cycling into the wind. Fortunately after Tain the level of traffic seemed to diminish, and a cycle lane of sorts was provided beside the road. Gary the Garmin tried his best to persuade us to take the road into the Glenmorangie distillery and, on a shorter journey we’d have been tempted to follow his advice for once, but time was moving on and therefore so did we. The approach to the bridge over Dornoch Firth was slow and painful, mainly because of the conditions. As we turned onto the bridge we spotted our first sign for John o’Groats, and duly stopped to take a picture. Fantastic, we thought! Two hundred yards later the Stoker reported a puncture in the rear tyre. It seemed to be a slow puncture, and we attempted to pump up the tyre to see if we could at least get across the bridge before fixing it. Sadly, this temporary remedy was unsuccessful – the puncture was not as slow as we had thought.

We stopped in a layby at the side of the bridge in the cold wind to sort out the repair. We’ve had plenty of practice at this, and we checked the tyre for sharp objects, but the problem seemed to be with the inner tube valve. No problem, we had two spares in the bag, so we replaced the inner tube, put the tyre back on and pumped it up. All was going well until the tube was almost inflated, when there was a sudden escape of all the air. Strange, we thought, (amongst other less printable thoughts) and removed the “new” tube to discover a small diagonal slit in it. We checked and re-checked the tyre for sharp objects but still found nothing, so had no choice but to fit our only remaining spare inner tube. Happily it inflated successfully. We have plenty of patches in our repair kit, so we will patch the slit in the tube before tomorrow, just in case.

We were cold by this time, had used up a good half-hour on the repair, and the time was approaching 1.30pm. The town of Dornoch was nearby, but would involve a diversion of some miles off-route, so we decided to take pot-luck and stop at the first road-side eatery we passed. Soon enough we found a restaurant attached to a petrol station, and were able to warm up and restore energy reserves. We still had nearly thirty miles to negotiate after lunch – we could have stopped short in either Golspie or Brora, but we felt strong enough, and were keen to ensure that we would have a shorter day tomorrow to Thurso. It was still, however, a long slog into the wind until we turned north east on the approach to Golspie and received some respite from the weather. The sun was also making periodic appearances from behind the clouds in the afternoon, and the day became more about enjoyment than endurance as we followed the coast through Golspie and Brora, before starting the final twelve miles to Helmsdale. There were great views of the coast and sea, including what looked like a couple of North Sea production platforms out to sea on the horizon. We kept ourselves going by measuring the remaining miles against rides at home: an Ilkley, just over a Grassington, a Burnsall…

After a long day then, we arrived in lovely Helmsdale and located a very pleasant room at the Bridge Hotel. All we know of Helmsdale is that it is the home town of Edwyn Collins, singer and former front-man of the band “Orange Juice”. He suffered a serious stroke last year, and we recently saw a genuinely moving TV programme about his slow but successful road to recovery. We will report on anything else we discover about this very scenic town tomorrow, though observations may be limited to the quality of the restaurants!

Tomorrow our target is Thurso – we’re heading directly north across the “Flow Country” on a very quiet road, before turning east and cycling past the former nuclear establishment at Dounreay. If all goes well that will leave about thirty-five miles remaining for our final day.

Day 17: Spean Bridge to Beauly

Distance: 56.3 miles
Time: 4 hours 27 minutes
Average speed: 12.5 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 879.95 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 151.51 miles
Number of monsters spotted at Loch Ness: 0
Number of days we’ve been on the A82: 2.5
Number of times Gary still managed to get it wrong: at least 3

Spean Bridge was lovely – a small place, but with several very pleasant-looking B&Bs and a good choice of eating places. The restaurant at the Smiddy is famed throughout Lochaber, but we had chosen the less formal Old Station restaurant, and we weren’t disappointed. It was a short menu, but all fresh locally-sourced food, beautifully cooked and presented. The new owners have only been in post for a month, but it’s clearly going well already. The restaurant has a view of the platform at the station, and at 8:10, bang on time, the Caledonian Sleeper came through, picking up passengers for the night train to London.

After conking out at 9:45pm, possibly our earliest yet, we slept well and long, and came down to a great breakfast, including haggis, which Jonathan enjoyed very much. A couple from New Zealand chatted away to us, but we were very restrained and managed not to mention the Kiwis’ recent defeat at the hands of the English cricket team.

Sue had done some washing for us, and had even spirited away our toxic shoes to the drying room for the night (which was definitely above and beyond the call of duty), as they were really wet after our soaking in Glencoe yesterday. Spean Lodge was a really good choice, Glen and Sue were so friendly and welcoming, and had some good tips for our evening in Beauly tonight.

We hit the road about 10am, straight over Thomas Telford’s stone bridge over the River Spean, and paused briefly to visit the Commando memorial. It’s a striking monument, marking the training of soldiers in this area during the Second World War, and is in a great position, high up and with a 360 degree panorama of all the surrounding hills.

The road then took us down to Loch Lochy, which, judging by its name, must be the quintessence of loch-ness. Or maybe they just ran out of names here. It was very pretty, anyway, a long loch stretching north-westwards, marking out the Great Glen in a line with Loch Oich and Loch Ness to come. We caught and passed two Spanish cyclists weighed down with camping gear and wearing great flowing rain capes. They told us they were going to Inverness and back over four days.

Between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich we crossed the Caledonian Canal via the swing bridge at Laggan, and rode on up the Great Glen, with the water now to the right of us. At the top of Loch Oich we came across the second swing bridge, this second one at Bridge of Oich open though, to let a yacht and a large catamaran from Helsinki through. It was very efficiently done, and we were soon on our way, through a brief loch-less section up to Fort Augustus. There was an amazing flight of several locks on the canal at Fort Augustus, and we stopped briefly to watch the lock-keepers in action.

Leaving Fort Augustus we hit Loch Ness at last. Glen at Spean Lodge had advised us to be a little cautious on this stretch of road, as people can be a little distracted by monster-spotting as they drive along the loch! As we rode along, there was an ominous CRACK from the back of the tandem, and we decided to stop in the driveway of a cottage to check it out. Sure enough, a spoke in the back wheel had broken, not an uncommon event. Thankfully this was one incident we’d prepared for, and we were able to put in a new spoke from our spares collection. Not having done it before, though, we were a bit slow, and the time we spent on it put paid to our plan to lunch at Drumnadrochit, still about 12 miles away. Word soon spread amongst the local midge population, though, who came down in their droves to lunch on us. We’d stocked up on repellent in Carlisle, so we weren’t too badly munched once we’d dug that out.

Once the tandem was all back together again, we rode on to Invermoriston, where we found a good little cafe, a hundred yards down the Kyle of Lochalsh road. Whilst we had lunch, Gary recalculated our route to Drumnadrochit, switching us from just 12 miles directly into Drumnadrochit on the A82 to a 126 mile route via Kyle of Lochalsh and various other places he fancied calling at. We were speechless!

Ignoring his pleas, and after a mildly comic search for Jonathan’s missing glove involving several other guests in the cafe (one of whom spotted it as we left, attached to the underside of our top bag via its velcro fastening, much to our embarrassment), we headed out on the A82 along Loch Ness once more.

Loch Ness is huge, at least half a mile wide and very long, but we knew we were turning off about halfway along its length. The going was a little slower than our speedy ride along Loch Linnhe yesterday, much more up and down, but we made good time, and were soon passing the ruins of Urquhart Castle and turning for Drumnadrochit.

We knew that there was a tough climb beyond Drumnadrochit, the last time we would climb to 900 feet on our planned route. As we turned onto the Beauly road, the sign said 15% for three quarters of a mile, and it was every bit of that. It was the steepest hill we’ve been up for many days, and unremittingly steep too, climbing to 600 feet with barely a let-up in the gradient. We made it though, and the last 300 feet were at a much gentler gradient, taking us up to a wild, craggy plateau. We had several cheery waves from drivers up on the plateau, and thereafter enjoyed an almost unbroken glide down to Beauly.

Our rain jackets have been on and off all day today, but it’s a sunny evening now, and we’re settled in to a large room in a B&B near the centre. There are various options for dinner – Glen recommended the Priory, although we’ll have to see what they think of our elegant zip-off trouser arrangements.

Tomorrow could be a long day – we plan to pop into the bike shop in Dingwall, right on route, to see if they can check the tension on our replaced spoke for us. Then we’re aiming for either Golspie, Brora or at best Helmsdale, but a lot will depend on the going and the time. Helmsdale is nearly 70 miles from here, but would give us a shorter day through the Flow Country to Thurso the following day.

Thurso! We can’t quite believe how far we’ve come. And how close to the end we’re getting. The tension is building!

Day 16: Tyndrum to Spean Bridge

Distance: 56.9 miles
Time: 4 hours 19 minutes
Average speed: 13.1 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 823.65 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 207.81 miles
Number of minutes for which we had a tail-wind: 5
Number of minutes we cycled without rainwear: 15

Yesterday evening was sunny with clear blue skies, and the evening sun bathed the hillsides around Tyndrum. The midges were out in battalions, and we spotted a family of four wearing matching full-head midge nets. Our B&B for the night was at Dalkell Cottages, it was very comfortable and set back from the busy main road. Tyndrum is a strange place, more of a railway halt and shopping stop than a genuine village. That said, the surrounding hills are magnificent and we enjoyed our evening.

“Afternoon rain” was the forecast for today. Well, all we have to say about that is that the afternoon must begin very early in Scotland. We set off at about 9am, arm-warmers already on. Within minutes we stopped to don our rainwear. The rain was fairly gentle, at least to begin with, and we climbed swiftly to the top of the first 1000 foot hill of the day. Parallel to the road we spotted a series of walkers on the West Highland Way, already starting to look somewhat bedraggled. After the climb came a long gentle descent towards Bridge of Orchy. The road was fairly busy, with quite a few coaches, but we were given plenty of room.

A word about wind (oh stop sniggering at the back Tomkins)! Conventional wisdom based on centuries of weather observations is that the prevailing wind in this country is a south-westerly. It is for this reason that most people choose to do this journey from South West to North East, because having the wind at your back as a cyclist is hugely helpful. Number of times we’ve encountered a south-westerly wind so far: 0. To be fair, on most days the wind has been relatively light, even when it has been blowing straight into our faces. Today, however, as we started the second 1000 foot hill of the day at Am Monadh Dubh the wind started to increase. From a northerly direction… The ascent itself was steady and relatively painless, and as we emerged onto Rannoch Moor the weather was still tolerable, even if the visibility was dreadful.

The appearance of Rannoch Moor has often been described as a moonscape. That would be accurate if the moon were wet and boggy. It’s a curious landscape, certainly, boulder strewn and wind-blasted, we half expected an appearance from the weird sisters described in Macbeth. Cotton grass and gorse were growing everywhere, the former being a particularly reliable indicator of soggy ground. We reached the summit at 1142 feet and turned towards Glencoe, and directly into the wind and rain. We descended gently, and once past the incredibly remote Kings House Hotel we had to climb once more to 1000 feet. It was a painful process, not on account of the gradient, which once again was perfectly manageable. No, it was the sand-blasting we were receiving from the wind and rain which made the climb seem endless.

Eventually we dropped into the top of Glencoe. Glencoe is magnificent, we’re told. We’re unable to confirm this as we couldn’t see very much, although occasionally the clouds lifted briefly to reveal a shapely crag or two. We passed the Glencoe ski-lift, indeed there was still some snow on the upper slopes of the surrounding hills. It must be a fairly bleak ski-destination, perhaps we’ll stick to Cervinia.

There was a perverse pleasure to be had in fighting the elements – the wind was by now blowing straight up the valley, and though we were descending we had to pedal hard to maintain any momentum. We passed a couple of cyclists coming up the other way – at least they had the wind behind them, but they were as wet and wind-blown as we were. We stopped a couple of times to take photographs but didn’t linger as there was no shelter. Eventually we spotted signs for the Glencoe Visitor Centre, and decided to stop for coffee and cake.

Glencoe Visitor Centre was busy, despite the weather. We sat, dripping gently, and drank coffee and tea. The chocolate caramel tray-bake looked calorific in the extreme, but we were sure we’d earned it. Soon we decided it was time to move on – we knew that after Ballachulish we would turn east and out of the wind. Passing Loch Leven to our right, and with increasingly beautiful vistas across Loch Linnhe to our left, we crossed the Ballachulish Bridge and cycled on towards Corran Narrows.

We’re not sure what they put in the tray-bake, but we seemed to step up several gears at this point. By now it was approaching 1pm, and there were 13 miles to go before we would reach Fort William. We decided that if we pushed hard we could be there in time for lunch. With the wind no longer in our faces and the climbing now behind us we averaged more than 16mph en-route to Fort William, and thus arrived in plenty of time for lunch.

Knowing that we only had ten miles remaining to our destination at Spean Bridge we had a leisurely lunch at the Drover’s Inn, overlooking Loch Linnhe. Once again we set a cracking pace, and were only slowed by the convoy system through the resurfacing works just a couple of miles before Spean Bridge. As we cycled in the convoy through the partially resurfaced road we hit a section of newly laid tarmac, and could feel the heat coming up off it in waves. We soon arrived at Spean Bridge, a quiet spot where we secured very pleasant accommodation for the night and booked ourselves into the Old Station Restaurant for our evening meal. It is still raining, though the forecast for tomorrow is better.

Tomorrow we continue along the Great Glen, and pass Loch Ness (we will report any sightings of Nessie) before turning North at Drumnadrochit, where we will encounter a steep 800 foot climb. We’re heading for Beauly, about which we know nothing, but we’re told it’s a lovely place.

Day 15: Balloch to Tyndrum

Distance: 39.35 miles
Time: 3 hours 24 minutes
Average speed: 11.5 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 766.75 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 264.71 miles
Number of afternoons off today: 1!
Number of different pronounciations of Tyndrum there seem to be: at least 2

At first last night we thought our B&B’s location just outside the centre of Balloch was a disadvantage, but our host showed us a path we could take down through the grounds of Balloch Castle to the shores of Loch Lomond, and it was a lovely stroll in the evening sunshine. Balloch Castle was an odd place, an impressive grey stone building with crenellated turrets, but seemingly derelict and unused, with boarded up windows on the ground floor. The grounds and the lochside were full of people picnicking and enjoying the weather, and there were boats out on the water and midges in the air.

Clare came to Balloch once as a child when her uncle was married here, but didn’t recognise it when we arrived yesterday. Apparently then it was just a hotel and a little wooden jetty sticking out into the water. Now there are several hotels and restaurants, lots of guest-houses, and a huge marina.

We had a curry for tea, less chaotic but not quite as good as the one in Okehampton, and took a taxi back up to our digs to save our legs. We were both quite tired, after two days of over 60 miles.

We’d always planned that today should be a shorter day, a sort of rest-day, but having had an enforced day off in Ambleside we felt fine to push on a little further than we’d originally planned. We spotted Tyndrum as a possible destination, just under 40 miles from Balloch, but thought we’d better check it was somewhere we could stay. The Tourist Information Centre found us a B&B in Tyndrum, and told us they’d still been working at 6:40 last night, but they had managed to find somewhere to stay for everybody, which was quite an achievement. They’re supposed to close at 5:30!

We left Balloch on the A82, which follows Loch Lomond from Balloch right to the top at Ardlui and beyond. It’s a busy road, and a little disappointing, in that you’d think there would be great views of the Loch, but there aren’t. There was a good track beyond the white line at the left of the carriageway, so we stuck in that and everyone gave us plenty of room.

After about 10 miles there was a bend in the road, and we stopped to take some pictures. Clare crossed the road, stepped over the armco, and discovered she was on the West Loch Lomond cycleway, which had come right from Balloch, right next to the Loch! We’d seen no signs for it as we left Balloch, so we hadn’t known it was there. Still, now we’d found it we were delighted to be off the main road, and enjoyed the little track away from the traffic and close to the water. At some points it became obvious that it had once been the main Loch Lomond road, as there were still cats-eyes on it. After 6 or 7 miles the cycleway ended, and we were back onto the A82, a little less busy now as some traffic had turned off, probably for Oban.

We stopped at the Bonnie Braes cafe (silly name, great views over the loch), where we provided a considerable talking point for a coach party who were just leaving. You do see lots of tandems around our way, but we do forget that they are seemingly much rarer in other parts of the country. We had our first portions of ‘tray-bake’ – in this case a biscuit base topped with toffee topped with chocolate, very wicked but delicious, and perfect for keeping the cyclist’s energy levels up. It’s a good excuse, anyway.

We continued on around the loch, marvelling at the number of motorbikes there were. Some were obviously touring, like us, laden with panniers, taking it steady and enjoying the scenery. Others, though, were obviously just out to test themselves against the road – not great for any of the other road users including us.

Loch Lomond is very long, with several bends and kinks, and the views out across the water changed constantly as we made our way around. After 24 miles we reached Ardlui at the top of the Loch, and headed on towards Crianlarich. We knew this would involve climbing, but we didn’t know how high we would go before we reached Tyndrum. The climb was steady but pretty relentless, and by the time we reached Crianlarich were we up at over 600 feet.

We stopped in the station tea-room for a lunchtime sandwich, where we learned that Crianlarich, or A’Chrion Laraich, means ‘the withered site’, which doesn’t do it justice really. The fells on either side were spectacular, and we’d seen lots of walkers on the West Highland Way, which, like us tomorrow, goes up to 1100 feet over Rannoch Moor and down through Glen Coe into Fort William. We’ll be doing it on the A82, though, and in fact we’re going to be on the A82 for days now, so perhaps even Gary can’t mess that up. Or can he…?!

We arrived in Tyndrum just after lunchtime, so early in fact that our room was not quite ready, so we were forced to wander to the nearest bar and drink beer. After a leisurely pint we checked in, and, having lugged the Sunday papers all the way up today’s climb, we can now lounge around and read them at our leisure. Tomorrow we plan to cycle to Spean Bridge, seven or eight miles beyond Fort William.

Day 14: Coylton to Balloch

Distance: 63.41 miles
Time: 5 hours 25 minutes
Average speed: 11.5 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 727.40 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 292.60 miles
Number of men in kilts spotted today: 2
Number of annoyed blasts on the horn from the motorists of the busy Glasgow and Paisley roads: 0

Our choice of accommodation last night was spot on – Woodside Farmhouse at Coylton was peaceful, surrounded by green fields and run by Alastair and Wendy, who were very helpful indeed. Alastair even offered to run us to the local pub, The Coylton Arms, where we had a good meal. Before long, however, we were feeling weary and headed back for a good night’s sleep.

This morning we awoke to blue skies, and after a good breakfast and a little routine maintenance for the bike we set off. The surroundings were gradually changing from mining country to farmland and, though the Ayrshire road surfaces were somewhat rough, we enjoyed the first few miles on quiet lanes. We paused briefly to watch a heron at a picturesque bridge, then continued through Tarbolton to Kilmaurs on a rolling B-road.

At Kilmaurs we spotted Walkers Cycle shop and, needing to replenish some supplies, decided to go in. Noticing the shirts the proprietor struck up conversation, and asked us our plans for getting over the Clyde. Mindful of the busy roads we thought we’d planned this bit carefully, but he advised us to scrap our plans, as we’d be cycling through a tunnel, where the cycle lane was always full of glass and the fumes were terrible. He suggested instead to head through Paisley to the Erskine Bridge, before taking a cycle path up to Loch Lomond. We decided to take the benefit of his local knowledge.

We were aware that an 800 foot climb was awaiting us at some point today, though we were not sure exactly when! It materialised after Stewarton, and wasn’t too bad – in fact we were up at about 500 feet before we realised we were on it. Near the top we again spotted a large bird of prey, as we stopped to take a picture of the “Welcome to Renfrewshire” sign. It was really close to where we had stopped, sitting on an implausibly flimsy branch staring at us, but sadly it flew off before we could get the camera out.

Over the summit of the climb we enjoyed a long descent towards Netherplace. We were enjoying it so much we failed to notice that Gary the Garmin had decided to re-calculate our route. He does this fairly frequently if he thinks we’ve missed a turning, or sometimes when he thinks we’re enjoying ourselves too much. By the time we’d noticed we were a few miles off route. Bad, bad Gary.

A helpful cyclist spotted us huddled at the side of the road with our map, and gave us useful instructions for getting to the Erskine Bridge. We set off. It was a very busy road, with many roundabouts and sets of traffic lights. We felt safe though, and the motorists were very patient and gave us plenty of room. By now it was 1.30 so we stopped at a roadside pub for lunch. The staff were friendly and helpful, the food and drink very average – another corporate triumph for Whitbread, unfortunately (see entry for Taunton)!

We still had around ten miles to go to the Erskine Bridge on busy roads, a cause of some apprehension. We needn’t have worried, again the motorists were considerate and before long we were cycling past Glasgow Airport and to the start of the Erskine Bridge. A cycle-lane was provided, keeping the traffic well away from us behind a metal barrier, and we were able to stop at the apex of the suspension bridge and enjoy spectacular views down the Clyde in both directions, particularly downstream.

After crossing the bridge it took us a little while to find the start of the cycle path. This was to take us all ten of our remaining miles to Balloch. Starting alongside the canal, it weaved its merry way through Old Kilpatrick and Dumbarton. The pleasure of riding on a traffic-free path was marred slightly by the quantities of broken glass strewn across parts of the cycle-way by helpful youths. Our tyres are made of stern stuff (well Kevlar, actually) and we suffered no punctures.

The cycle-way continued (and so did we) along the side of the River Leven. Our unintended detour earlier had added some miles to our route and we were tiring a little as we arrived at Balloch. As usual we headed for the Tourist Information Office, who helped us to find accommodation – a little way out of town, as a large wedding party has monopolised the B&B establishments in town. It’s a lovely evening, though, and apparently we can walk via the Loch back into town for our evening meal.

It felt good to leave our last city and arrive at Loch Lomond, the start of a very scenic part of our journey. We’re going to consult locally before deciding on our destination tomorrow, as there are few towns between here and Fort William. We may aim for Crianlarich, or possibly Tyndrum. Either way it will be a shorter day, but with some significant climbs.

Day 13: Dumfries to Coylton

Distance: 59.55 miles
Time: 4 hours 52 minutes
Average speed: 11.6 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 663.99 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 356.01 miles
Number of Scottish counties we cycled in today: 2 (Dumfries and Galloway, Ayrshire)
Number of cattle grids successfully negotiated: 3

We had a lovely room last night, at a B&B just a little way out of the centre of Dumfries. A huge bed, an excellent shower, and more cushions than we knew what to do with. The owners had not long been in Dumfries, having previously farmed at Lockerbie, but the new wood-burning power station there had made them decide to move on. The power station had originally been designed to burn willow grown by local farmers, but with wheat and barley prices now sky-rocketing, it was apparently proving difficult to find people willing to grow willow instead.

We had an enjoyable meal at Bruno’s, a short walk from the B&B, although it was quite a muggy evening and the restaurant was warm. Our poor waiter looked like he was melting. By the time we came out, the evening had cooled off a little, though, and we slept really well in the enormous bed.

We’d always been a little concerned about today, even during the planning stages, as our route would take us out of Dumfries via the Nith Valley, and there didn’t look to be many options for places to stay without our having to do an enormous mileage. We’d settled on Dalmellington as our destination, but yesterday several people who asked about our route on into Scotland looked quite dubious at the idea of anyone staying there. The more furrowing of brows and sucking of teeth we saw, the more worried we became! So we decided to get an early start, to give ourselves as many options as possible, and at 9am we were out of the starting blocks and onto the bypass.

At Newbridge we switched onto the quieter roads, and started up the first of the day’s three climbs. It was long and unrelenting, but not a tough gradient, and we ground our way up slowly, happy enough in the middle gear ring. After a drink at the top, and now sporting our arm-warmers in the cooler temperatures, we coasted down the other side, and along a flatter section to Moniaive and beyond. The second climb started as we rode through the first forest of the day, a natural forest with a canopy which cut out almost all of the sun and a lot of light, making it feel pretty cool. All we could hear was birdsong and the sound of our own breathing as we gradually gained height.

After the natural woodland we hit Auchenstroan Forest, a huge managed pine forest, with the road winding through sections of trees in various stages of maturity. In some places, where the trees had clearly been harvested in recent years, it looked as though the replanting was a more natural mixture of trees, but there were also great swathes of tiny pine trees. We eventually came through the area where the current logging is taking place, and it was a scene of some devastation, almost like the aftermath of a forest fire. The great piles of logs were striking, though, and the smell was lovely.

We ‘topped out’ at over 1000 feet, for the first time since the third day (between Wadebridge and Okehampton). After a break for biscuits, we started down, a glorious gentle descent which went on for several miles, and brought us out of the forest. We saw a bird of prey circling above at one point, with a wingspan which must have been several feet across, and crossed the Southern Upland Way, a long distance walking route.

We stopped for lunch at a tea-room in Carsphairn, wondering where all the pubs are in Scotland. There just don’t seem to be rural pubs serving food in the little villages so far. Perhaps it’s just this area. Fortified by toasted sandwiches, we headed out, and onto the third climb of the day. We hadn’t lost all the height we’d gained on the second climb, so although we went up and over 1000 feet again, it wasn’t a hard climb. As we went over the top, we had a lovely view of Loch Doon, and then crossed into Ayrshire.

It had been a day of climbing so far, which was a big contrast to the last several days. You might think that would be less enjoyable, but we reckoned that without the climbing, you just don’t get the views, and of course you certainly don’t get the lovely gliding descents. Yesterday, the scenery along the Solway Firth was beautiful, but without gaining any height all day, we didn’t get any spectacular views of it, really.

We were also starting to think that all the people who cast doubt on our staying around here were wrong. The hills and lochs made a great panorama, and even though the forests were pretty much all man-made, the surroundings were lovely to look at. As we descended towards Dalmellington, though, on a truly dreadful road surface, we caught sight of the open-cast coal mine, and the very utilitarian housing, which presumably was built to house the mine-workers. We passed Dalmellington, planning just to carry on on tomorrow’s route until we hit somewhere we liked the look of. It was only 2:30, so our early start had paid off. We rode on towards Drongan (at whose mention there had been an awful lot of brow-furrowing), and, looking over towards the coast at Ayr, were amazed to see the sea, and behind it what must have been the mountains of Arran.

Drongan was much like Dalmellington, and after a brief chat with a lady at the cemetery, we homed in on Coylton as a possibility. We already had a number for a farmhouse B&B in Coylton, and having phoned ahead, we turned off-route to find it.

It was a good decision. We’re probably a couple of miles off-route, but it’s a beautiful peaceful spot, and the room is lovely. We’ve also now developed a new technique of isolating our shoes in the wardrobe, which seems to be working well!

Tomorrow we have the exciting prospect of arriving at the foot of Loch Lomond (we’re aiming for Balloch). This of course means that we first have to negotiate Glasgow and cross the River Clyde.

Day 12: Carlisle to Dumfries

Distance: 45.52 miles
Time: 3 hours 10 minutes
Average speed: 14.0 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 604.44 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 415.56 miles
Number of international borders crossed: 1 (hurrah!)
Kind donation from the custodian of the TSB museum, Ruthwell: £5

We liked Carlisle: it is a handsome town with a fine red sandstone castle and cathedral, and some elegant terraces. We met Peggy (Jonathan’s mum) last night for a good Italian meal and some convivial chat over a bottle of Barbera. A good time was had by all, and it will be the last time we are able to meet friends and family on this trip, so we really appreciated Peggy driving over to see us.

Once again we awoke to blue skies, and our host described to us the delights of Carlisle, the Solway Heritage Coast, the life of Robert Burns and the history of this part of the world. When he moved onto the iniquities of wind farms we made our excuses and left. Seriously though, we were well looked after, and the bacon sandwiches this morning were first-rate.

Before leaving Carlisle we paused to take pictures of the Cathedral and Castle. The original route we had planned was a circuitous one, designed to avoid A-roads, but the A7 looked quiet enough, and we set off towards Longtown at a cracking pace. Today was the only day in our itinerary which was almost completely flat – no hills above 100 feet, so we were able to maintain a good pace all day.

At Longtown we turned left towards Gretna, and four miles later we reached the Scottish Border. We had been polishing our appalling comedy Scottish accents in preparation, and now deployed them to good effect. Loud cries of “Ye’ll have had yer tea” rang round the neighbourhood (apologies to our Scottish readers)! It was though, a good moment, it felt to us that we’d already travelled a long way and this was a major milestone. We didn’t stop to celebrate for too long, as a look at the map reminded us that Scotland is a big country.

From Gretna we continued west towards Eastriggs, home of a major munitions factory during the First World War, set up as an emergency measure when the troops at the Somme began to run out of ammunition. A roadside sign advertised the “Devil’s Porridge Museum”, the porridge being a combination of TNT and cotton waste used to fill the ammunition shells. We rode on to Annan where, thirsty in the warm temperatures, we stopped for a tea break, but chose not to try the deep-fried pizza offered on the menu…

A few miles after Annan we reached Ruthwell, an interesting place. Here the small church contained a massive Anglo-Saxon cross, so tall it had to occupy a hole in the ground. The other side of the B721 had a museum marking the spot where in 1810, the Reverend Henry Duncan set up a bank to help his poorest parishioners save for times of hardship. This later became the Trustee Savings Bank, now Lloyds TSB. Finally, on the outskirts of the town was the Brow Well, a rather murky spring-fed well. Here the dying Robert Burns drank the water in an attempt to cure his illness, then immersed himself in the cold waters of the Solway Firth. This rather unsuccessful cure for rheumatic fever led to his death a few days later.

Culturally refreshed but seeking refreshment of a more tangible kind we moved on. A right turn at Bankend would have taken us swiftly to Dumfries, but we knew a small detour south would take us to Caerlaverock Castle. We have to confess that we were attracted initially by the castle’s tea room, but what a place! A magnificent moat-encircled red sandstone castle, with a history of almost repelling English sieges (sorry again, Scottish readers). After taking refreshment at the excellent tea room (great scones!) we spent a good hour looking around in the sunshine. There was a huge and impressive trebuchet, and in the video room a very young-looking Tony Robinson told the story of the castle.

We were delighted, being fans of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” to find that this was the second castle in the neighbourhood. The first one was built on a swamp. Like “Swamp Castle” in the aforementioned film, it fell down and sank into the swamp… Well, what the sign actually said was that there “was evidence that the ground was damp and boggy, and the buildings gradually collapsed”. That’s good enough for us!

As we left, we had a good chat with a local couple, whose advice was to ensure we had plenty of midge-cream for the remainder of our journey. Fortunately we stocked up this morning, to protect ourselves against the fearsome Scottish midges. Or is it midgies? We’ll let you know on that one.

Our journey continued around the peninsula and alongside the spectacular Nith Estuary, where we once again turned north towards Dumfries. Again we set a fast pace (by our standards) and soon arrived at the water-front Tourist Information office in Dumfries, where we secured accommodation for the night as a few raindrops started to fall.

Tomorrow’s destination has yet to be decided – there’s a fair amount of uphill to negotiate, so we may stop in Dalmellington or, if we’re not too tired, we may push on towards Ayr.

Day 11: Ambleside to Carlisle

Distance: 41.39 miles
Time: 3 hours 20 minutes
Average speed: 12.2 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 558.92 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 461.08 miles
Number of gates we had to open: 8
Number of Scottish bank notes received: 1

Once we knew the tandem was back in one piece and operational again last night we managed to relax, and we enjoyed dinner at Sheila’s Cottage, and a very good bottle of Zinfandel, so the Captain’s birthday hadn’t gone entirely uncelebrated!

We knew we didn’t have a long day today, so we hadn’t planned an early start, but we woke before the alarm this morning, and summoned by delicious bacon smells, found ourselves in the breakfast room before 8:30. After breakfast and the usual paranoid check for anything we might have left behind, we bid goodbye to Marcel, the big black and white house cat at Thorneyfield, who looks you straight in the eye with a spooky air of extra-terrestrial intelligence. We had been very comfortable at this guest house, with the fluffiest towels we’d encountered since Land’s End, and a genuinely warm welcome from the owners.

We left Ambleside on the Rydal road, with the early morning sun hidden now by slightly ominous clouds. As we passed Rydal Water it began to rain, but we were so glad just to be on the move again that it didn’t seem to matter a bit, and we donned our rain jackets and carried on. Rydal Water soon gave way to Grasmere, and the brief shower stopped. We could see Helms Crag now, better known as the Lion and the Lamb, on the other side of the valley.

Also looming up ahead was our first serious climb for days, Dunmail Raise – a long steady grind up to 800 feet. We’d been up Dunmail Raise in January, but it was cold, wet and misty then, so it was not surprising that it seemed much easier today. We must be fitter than we were in January, and when all your energy can go into getting you up the hill, rather than also having to keep you warm, it makes a difference. We stopped at the top to take pictures, a great view back down towards Grasmere.

After the climb, it was a good coast down to the southern end of Thirlmere, and we really enjoyed a lovely quiet section around the western side of the lake. There’s forestry and logging around Thirlmere, but no boats and very few people. Noisy jets there are, though, and we saw several hurtle past in the airspace above the lake, between the high fells on either side. It’s always been a feature of the Lakes that the idyllic peace of the countryside can be shattered by the ear-splitting scream of a jet passing at high speed overhead. It happens in the Dales too, and if you see the jet first you can sometimes get your fingers in your ears in time, as the sound follows behind the aircraft.

As we rode up to the top of the lake, a huge skein of geese (is that right?) flew overhead in V formation, honking away to each other. We turned right across the top of the dam, and took the marked cycleway through to the Threlkeld road. At Threlkeld our route coincided for a while with the official Coast to Coast cycle route, and there was a marked CTC cycle path, which we followed, avoiding the busy A66. The route took us through lots of gates, each of which we had to stop and open, but it was worth it for the wonderful traffic free cycling, as we contoured around the foot of Blencathra. A second hooting formation of geese flew over, or perhaps it was the first lot again, having problems with their GPS.

After the last gate we stopped for a water break, and were caught up by three Coast-to-Coasters who were raising money for a domestic violence refuge in their home town of Bolton. They stopped and we chatted and exchanged road stories for a while, before they headed off, having much further to go today than we did.

At Mungrisdale we rejoined the road, but it was just a tiny ribbon of tarmac threading around the foothills of Blencathra, and the views were spectacular. On each side of the road the gorse was in full bloom, and in the sunshine now the yellow flowers were almost sunflower coloured. We’d planned to stop at the pub in Hesket Newmarket for lunch, as Calvin at Ghyllside Cycles had recommended it heartily for its beers, but when we arrived we found that it doesn’t open at lunchtime during the week, unfortunately. We fortified ourselves with oat shortbread biscuits from Thorneyfield (strange combination, but very tasty), and pushed on to Sour Nook. The Inn there was open, and we had lunch, and a chat with a man rebuilding a motorhome in the grounds. He told us that a lady walking the End-to-End had come through a week before. Now that’s serious! She was doing around 10 miles a day, and taking three months over the trip. Like us, she’d be well over half way now.

After lunch in the sun in the beer garden we set off for our last ten miles into Carlisle. Strange to think that Ambleside and Carlisle are so close, when one is in the heart of the Lakes, and the other sounds like it’s nearly in Scotland. It was pretty much downhill all the way, with the Pennines just becoming visible on the horizon to the east. We located a B&B easily, mildly eccentric but perfectly good, and were quickly settled in for our evening routine.

This will be our last night in England – tomorrow we cross the border, and start the tartan leg of the trip. Hoots, etc!

An enforced day of leisure…

Distance: 0 miles
Time: 0 hours 0 minutes
Average speed: 0 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 517.53 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 502.47 miles
Number of bike shops visited: 3

The excitement of reaching the half-way point fizzled rapidly away this morning. We spent a pleasant evening in Ambleside last night, but were worried about the nature of the problem with the tandem’s freewheel hub, so had an early night so that we could be at the door of the bike shop when they opened.

Optimistically we had donned our cycling togs, but as soon as Calvin of Ghyllside Cycles pronounced the verdict we realised we would be going nowhere today. Contained in his verdict were the words “catastrophic failure of the free-wheel hub”. Oh dear. He dismantled the hub, to find a broken spring and badly damaged pawls therein. It got worse. The hub is a rare tandem-specific one, for which he did not stock spares. Gamely he tried to find appropriate components in order to effect a temporary repair, while we visited another bike shop in Ambleside in search of the necessary parts. Neither venture was successful, and telephone calls to Kendal bike shops were similarly fruitless.

We were quite worried at this stage – our prospects for moving on were poor, so we checked back in to the B&B. Desperate for a solution we rang J.D. Cycles in Ilkley. After a tense hour or so they worked out a solution whereby they could lend us an entire spare wheel (with working hub, naturally)! All we had to do, of course, was take our old wheel to Ilkley so that they could replace the necessary bits…

We’d resolved not to travel by car on this trip, but these circumstances dictated a brief re-think of this policy. We grabbed a taxi to Kendal, and hired a car! It felt quite strange heading back into Yorkshire this prematurely. After an hour or so we arrived at J.D., and within quarter of an hour we were leaving the shop with a fully-functioning wheel. We wondered whether we would be spotted by anyone we know, and joked about starting rumours that we’d just been lying low rather than cycling up the country!

By 3.30 p.m. we were back in Kendal. The eye-watering cost of the taxi from Ambleside to Kendal persuaded us that, now that things were not quite so urgent, we should take the bus back. The car-hire people generously drove us to the bus station, and we headed back to Ambleside. Calvin and Pete at Ghyllside greeted us, and got straight to work fitting the wheel, and giving the tandem a thorough once-over. All is now well, and tomorrow we move on, thankfully.

What a way to spend the Captain’s birthday! Still, we’re restored to mobility and the weather forecast for tomorrow is better. So on to Carlisle we go. Grateful thanks are due to the good people at Ghyllside Cycles, Ambleside and J.D. Cycles, Ilkley. Onwards and Northwards!

Day 10: Bispham Green to Ambleside

Distance: 71.78 miles
Time: 5 hours 25 minutes
Average speed: 13.2 m.p.h.
Distance from Lands End: 517.53 miles
Distance to John o’Groats: 502.47 miles
Number of times we were captured by police speed-guns today: 2
Number of convictions for speeding: 0

Halfway! We now have fewer miles to do than we’ve already done, which feels like a good milestone to pass.

We had a fantastically relaxing rest day at Phil and Claire’s, chatting, reading the paper, and enjoying the feeling of legs not in motion (thanks, folks!). So it wasn’t surprising that with fresh legs and a lovely flat route out of Bispham Green we covered a huge 15 miles in the first hour, with Phil alongside, under overcast skies. We managed to negotiate our way around Preston (more or less), passing our first police speed-gun, and three amused policemen, on the way. Phil stayed with us to Woodplumpton, where we stopped by the church to say goodbye. It was a good tip to pop into the churchyard, which is famous as the burial place of ‘Old Meg’, supposedly a local witch – a strange inhabitant to find in a graveyard, although she was apparently buried vertically, with her head downwards. A round stone marks the spot.

Alone now, we managed to maintain the pace we’d kept with Phil, and headed towards Lancaster, shadowing the M6 and the A6, and crossing over the Lancaster Canal numerous times. The riding was fast on the flat terrain, and we maintained an average speed of well over 14 m.p.h., past Lancaster, and right past the hospice where Jonathan’s Dad was so well looked after, and which helped to provide the inspiration for this trip.

We had the briefest glimpse of the sea then, the first time we’d seen it since Cornwall, which seems like such a long time ago now. The miles were just flashing past, and at 1pm we were so nearly at 50 miles we decided to push on to clock up a new ‘morning mileage’ record.

We stopped eventually with the magic 50 miles on the clock, at the Wheatsheaf in Beetham. The lunch was very good, with Wainwright beer for the Captain, and a confirmation that we were now in Cumbria. The sun had come out now, and after lunch we managed to dodge the Daily Mail, who were interviewing people about the proposed closure of the village Post Office, and glided down to Milnthorpe, where a herd of deer were milling about by the river.

A short section on the dual carriageway took us officially into the Lake District National Park, and onto some lovely lanes, although here in the South Lakes the landscape is really more like the Dales. The drystone walls are of rounder grey granite stones, rather than the flat slate stones which are such a feature in some Lake District towns and villages. We heard curlews today too – a real sound of home, which made us feel we were getting properly ‘up north’ now.

We started to see fells appearing on the horizon as we got closer to Bowness, but we knew we didn’t have to tackle any of them today, so we could enjoy the scenery! Our only significant climb of the day wound up through leafy lanes, and as we crested the ridge, we started to look out for the lake at Windermere. Passing Bowell Cottage (Clare: “Errgh, don’t think we should stay there”, Jonathan: “No, not Bowell, Bowfell….”), we caught just a glimpse of the water shimmering in the sun, but it wasn’t until we hit the road next to the lake that we could really see the lake properly.

Windermere was absolutely heaving, but we had already decided to push on to Ambleside today. The bike is having some attention there tomorrow morning at Ghyllside Cycles, so it made sense to do the short run from Windermere today. As we left Windermere we went through our second police speed-trap. Pointing her gun as we passed, the policewoman cheerfully called ’17!’ after us as we coasted down towards Ambleside.

Ambleside was much quieter, and we popped briefly into the bike shop to see if it was any more convenient for them to look at the bike tonight. We’ve been experiencing some strange occasional free-wheeling behaviour, which sounds like it could be important to sort out sooner rather than later, so we’ll see how that goes tomorrow.

We soon found a room in a guest-house close to the centre of Ambleside, a lovely light room with plenty of space. Sadly, though, we are now once again in the same room as our shoes – they were quite rightly banished to the shed with the tandem at Phil and Claire’s!