Dr Hadwen Trust
Lands End to John O'Groats Bike Ride
David Hembrow and Terry Clark
Lands End to John O'Groats, it's a legendary trip, the full length of the British mainland from bottom left to top right. We set off together on 1st July 2006 and finished separately just under two weeks later.
Lands End John O'Groats
The trip's become famous in itself and the stream of travellers supports a few businesses at both ends. But why these two places after all? Lands End isn't the most Southerly point of the British Isles, and John O'Groats is not the most northerly. The fame seems to be that Lands End and John O'Groats are the two named places furthest apart on the British mainland. When you're starting off at Lands End there's no place further away from you on the British Mainland than John O'Groats.
The shortest route is something like 874 miles, but any practical cycling route will be quite a bit further. Our routes were just over 1000 miles.
Most people go from South to North, as we did. The theory is that the prevailing wind is South Westerly, so if you start off at Lands End you're more likely to have the wind behind you and you won't have the sun in your eyes.
1 July – Penzance to Lands End 10 km (6 miles)We travelled by train to Penzance with our bikes. Not without some worries because at each station there was often a lot of banging about from the guard's van near where we were sitting as various mountain bikers and BMX riders moved bikes in and out, often not very gently. Still our bikes survived undamaged.
We got off the train in Penzance in the early afternoon and rode to Lands End to get the obligatory signpost picture. It was a glorious sunny day riding through Newlyn, Mousehole, and stopping off to see the Merry Maidens stone circle. It felt like being on holiday. We also got our first taste of just how hilly Cornwall is, having to both push our bikes uphill for the first time in many years. The next few days would see us doing a lot more of this.
End was quite quiet, we bought a
souvenir photo (discounted for charity end-to-enders), signed the book
and set off for our B&B, Wisteria Cottage in St. Buryan. It was
just a short journey away, the intention
to start properly the next day. It seemed exciting and rather epic to
be setting off on such a long trip, but there was also the feeling that
it was an awful long way to go and we wanted to get under way as soon
2 July – Penzance to Bodmin 130 km (81 miles)Our first proper day was the hardest of the entire trip.
We set off early from our B&B just outside Penzance, and followed a fine cycle path along the seafront at Penzance. Trying to follow the Sustrans NCN 1 route seemed like a good plan to avoid the A30, but it got us lost and after several long detours we settled for just following minor roads on the map.
Still the weather was wonderful. Rather too wonderful, we were told afterwards that this was 'the hottest day of the year.' We drank lots of water and fear of running out led us to carry rather too much water which is not the best thing in such hilly areas. We both got better at judging this later on.
From Truro to Okehampton, this ride became very hard due to hilly terrain and very hot weather. Everyone who rides Lands End to John O'Groats says that Cornwall is the worst. It's difficult to really believe this until you've done it. But it's true, 10 miles in Cornwall is harder than 20 miles on flat ground.
20% and greater gradients are not at all uncommon, and many of them are long and give you no chance of a run up. Some of the descents are steep enough to be frightening. Plus we got lost a few times in the lanes and climbed several huge hills only to meet dead ends and have to turn back later. One of our dead ends was to a quarry near St. Stephen which looked like a moonscape.
As a respite from indirect, badly signposted and very hilly small roads, we tried the A30 from Bodmin. This turned out to be a lethal dual carriageway and easily the most scary road of the entire journey. We were being passed by trucks and cars travelling parallel in both lanes, with no hard shoulder for us to pull onto. And the A30 is not exactly free of hills either.
At least this showed us what we were (not) missing and so we were happy to head back onto the lanes again.
(Note: The A30 not only feels dangerous, it is dangerous. There have been fatalities of Land's End to John o'Groats cyclists on this road.)
We got as far as we could before nightfall and then camped wild at the top of Bodmin Moor, which was excellent. Odd noises were heard in the night, but luckily no sign of the "Beast of Bodmin".
Despite the prevailing
wind supposedly being from the south west, we had
had a headwind all day.
The distance of 81 miles doesn't sound a lot, but it
we had done double that distance.
3 July – Bodmin to Taunton 160 km (99 miles)
First we had to ride off the Moor which seemed as much
work as getting onto it. However, we finally escaped the worst
of the hills.
Today we seemed to see a lot of that most useless kind
of cycle route sign which consists of a picture of a bike and
and an arrow with no indication of why a cyclist would follow it, where
it would lead to and how far away that place was. We ignored these.
David had several
flats early in the day due to having patched
tubes with slime in them. This stuff is supposed to prevent punctures
sloshing around inside the tube and sealing holes as they happen. In
fact it did the opposite, by dissolving the glue that holds the patches
on. Braking on the steep descents in Cornwall seemed to be the trigger
by providing enough heat to make the patches fall right off, the tyre
would go flat and the patches
completely off the tubes and floating around in a
mess of slime inside the tyre.
Our idea to do much of the trip on Sustrans NCN routes
looking less practical. Attempting
to use the NCN route from
Tiverton to Taunton along the
canal was a disaster. It's a gravel towpath, bumpy and slippery that
slows progress to a crawl and throws grit off the front wheel straight
into the chain and covers the
bike and rider in muck. Back on the roads progress went better.
eventually led, after 7 pm, to an almost
empty A38 on which we could make excellent
progress, making it into Taunton and staying at Terry's Mum's house. It
had been another very tiring day.
4 July – Taunton to Chepstow 140 km (87 miles)
headed North from Taunton across the
Quantocks, the quite substantial climb of Bunkham hill seeming like
nothing to us now after Cornwall. It was a glorious morning with gentle
sunshine, and we were making good progress on the lanes of Somerset and
feeling much more optimistic with the big hills behind us.
Unfortunately on the first downhill
stretch David had another flat tyre caused by the same problem as
yesterday, so he made a quick repair and rode on to Bridgwater to buy
replacement tubes. The Slime filled tubes went into the bin and that
was the last flat he had in the entire ride.
we visited David's parents in
Burnham-on-Sea for a late lunch (which without the flats would
have been elevenses), and had some moral support from David's
rode with us for a few miles towards Brean. We went on through Weston
Mare and Clifton (a long climb and detour which
can be avoided). Our route took us over both the
Bristol Suspension bridge and the Severn Bridge,
then on to Chepstow. Both of these toll bridges are free for
NCN 4 from Bristol to
Chepstow was quite decent – once we found
it! First we got lost in Bristol, seemingly for hours. On
the Severn bridge you ride on the
maintenance track which works very well. We were running late, so we
gave up on making it to our intended
campsite and stopped 10 miles short, staying at
the luxurious Chepstow Hotel, the most upmarket
accommodation of the trip, where they made us
grubby cyclists very welcome, especially when they heard we were on a
5 July – Chepstow to Long Mynd 153 km (95 miles)
fifth day took us from Chepstow to the
Bridges Long Mynd Youth
Hostel. Although this route along the Welsh border is quite hilly,
again it was nothing compared to what we'd been through in Cornwall. A
really beautiful part of the country and there are some lovely towns
along the route such as Ross-on-Wye (pictured).
We got separated at Coleford and headed on independently
most of the rest of the day. David had his worst mechanical
problem: Despite having checked everything thoroughly before
leaving, a bolt had worked loose and the rack fell off his bike. The
rack was re-attached with wire and zip ties and then he
rode slowly to Leominster where it took an hour to
find an excellent hardware store selling suitable bolts to fix
the problem. If not for the two hour's total of delay he might not
have got drenched in the
storm which hit for the last 20 km of the day.
took a more easterly route which
avoided the rain, but got lost many times, wasting several hours
wandering around twisty hilly lanes and ended up on the wrong side of
the Long Mynd from where the youth hostel was. With darkness
approaching the direct route over the top seemed a reasonable idea.
After 40 minutes of pushing a loaded bike up a steep mountainside it
didn't seem such a good idea, but by then it was too late to stop.
had a warm welcome at the Bridges Long Mynd
Youth Hostel which is literally in the middle of nowhere - a
very beautiful middle of nowhere, mind you. Warm soup, veggie curry, crumble and
lots of tea was just what we needed.
In areas like this there isn't always an obvious best
take, especially if your map doesn't have contour lines. Choosing the
wrong route can cost many hours.
6 July – 130 km (81 miles) - Long
Mynd to Liverpool
route took is repeatedly into Wales and back out again, into Chester
then on to Birkenhead
where we took the
'ferry 'cross the Mersey' into
had been planned as a short day in the
middle of the ride. Luckily in fact, because we both found ourselves
with laundry to do the previous night and couldn't dry it due to the
hostel facilities being broken. In the morning we went to the
remarkably helpful launderette,
where the lady on duty kept putting in extra coins in for us because
she thought the dryer was giving poor value. Excellent service!
We got separated on the way out of Liverpool, David took the long way around the coast, riding north-west from Liverpool, directly towards Southport, on the bumpy ex-railway NCN path, and then discovered that there is an excellent, almost Dutch quality, smooth path along a bit of Southport sea front towards the villages before Preston.
Terry tried to follow a canal side cycle path out of
for a bit, but soon gave up, finding it too bumpy and slow and rode
mostly on the main roads towards Preston.
to Preston itself had better than average cycling
facilities which were a pleasant alternative to
the dual carriageway.Then we both went around the
coast through Lytham St. Annes into Blackpool.
We stayed in Blackpool at the only veggie
B&B in the town (The Wildlife Hotel).
We separated on the morning of the eighth day,
riding apart for most of the remaining way to John O'Groats. One of the
things that we both learnt from
this trip is the difficulty of accommodating
different people's speeds and preferences. On such a long ride these
things become very noticeable.
Perhaps such a trip is better done on your own. However,
quite likely neither of us
would have bothered to make the trip at all on our own, so it's
just as well we started off together.
This part of the ride took us through some beautiful
countryside of Lancashire and Cumbria, some of the most scenic parts of
David:- I rode east from Blackpool, taking a small toll bridge (10p for bikes) at Great Eccleton then a bit more flat before going over some marvellous hills, Garstang, Brow Top. Somewhere around here I bumped into Alan Lindsay who'd just returned from his End to End a couple of weeks before. He stuck with me for quite a few miles, tempted I think to take on the adventure again. Then I went through the amazing biker hang out of Kirkby Lonsdale .
Next through Kendal (I didn't see where my mint cake came from), over the magnificent Shap Fell and along the A6 to camp just north of Penrith at Town End Cottage Caravan Site which was basic (for cycle campers) but where they kindly gave a donation. Beautiful countryside all around here.
It started raining at 4 pm at the top of Shap Fell and continued for the rest of the day.
:- I headed
North from Blackpool, following country
lanes and keeping close to the motorway which seemed to be the least
hilly route. Lunch was in Kirkby Lonsdale (church pictured), and then
through the Lake
District towards Shap which was a strenuous climb not helped by the
rain. I was hoping to make Carlisle that day, but stopped about 5 miles
short at a roadside B&B.
is an amazing cycle path leading
most of the way from
the Scottish border
to Glasgow in the Southern Uplands. It is one of the best cycle
faclities in the UK, as well as one of the most isolated and windswept,
and in a place where one would least expect to find it. This apparently
came about due to a previously dualled A74 being cut in half
when the motorway was built. Riding though
here on a bicycle was very memorable. Very long climbs taking us into
the clouds were followed by very long and rewarding descents, but never
unpleasant gradients like those in Cornwall.
David:- I started the day by getting up rather slowly and packing the wet tent away. A fabulous day in which we made a lot of progress. That A82 path is especially memorable as probably the highest, longest, coldest, dampest stretch in the UK, but wonderfully scenic. I stopped at a B&B in Larkhill, just short of Glasgow. 180 km today.
Terry:- I was only intending to get halfway from Carlisle to Glasgow this day, but progress was going well so I carried on. Suddenly nightfall was approaching with nowhere to stay, and there was little accomodation to be found in such an isolated spot. I was grateful to find a cheap room at a truck stop in Lesmahagow, where they weren't used to seeing cyclists but were very welcoming, allowing me to store my bike safely in their office. The truckers were amazed to hear I'd come from Carlisle that day, one of them said "I'd want an engine for that trip". I had to agree.
Glasgow to Balloch (Terry)
Glasgow to Tyndrum (David)
I got up fairly late again and set off for
Glasgow. I took busy roads into Glasgow but left
on an NCN route towards Loch Lomond.
This was largely along an old railway track and surface quality varied from quite good to awful. The A82 itself was horrible from Glasgow so I stuck to the NCN path. From Balloch to Tarbet this route varied from bits of the old road through bits of specially made path (the photo shows a good bit) to very inadequate shared use, but I persisted with the varied quality until I suddenly hit a completely undropped kerb at speed. This could have injured me or broken the bicycle. So much for a usable path. By then the traffic had dropped so I switched to the road.
From Tarbet it poured with rain again, I stopped somewhere on the A82 for a truly excellent pizza at the well named "Stagger Inn" cooked by an enthusiastic Aussie chef called Steve. After that it was yet another opportunity to get soaked on the bike and to ride on.
After 130 km, I put the tent up in the rain at a relatively expensive camp-site which turned out to have few facilities and also charged extra for a shower. The shower room had a sticker which claimed there was a water shortage. This seemed rather unlikely given the weather outside ! 10°C. Brrr. And so much hard rain that my bike computer was half full of water (though it still worked).
Tyndrum to Fort William (David)
Balloch to Fort William (Terry)
:- I made an early start from Balloch along the scenic shores of Loch
Lomond - truly a beautiful part of the country. There is a cycle path
which makes a reasonable alternative to the A82 for about 15 miles
North of Balloch. After that there's no alternative to the main
road. Before the ride we were a bit worried by reading
reports that the A82 is one of the most dangerous roads in Britain.
Actually it wasn't too bad.
road surface on the A82 can be quite
broken in places, I guess because of the freezing weather up there, and
it is quite narrow and can be busy. Generally the drivers are
considerate, so it's not as bad as one might expect.
Also there are many trucks. That might not seem like a good thing for cyclists, but believe me on roads like this trucks are your friends. Truckers are generally very considerate, passing bikes with plenty of room to spare, and all the other traffic is bunched up behind the trucks. So you tend to get passed by a truck and about 10 other vehicles in one go, and then nothing for a long while afterwards.
through Glen Coe was one of the
hardest parts, the wind was extremely strong, sometimes with gusts
blowing me across the road or off onto the gravel. On the hills going
constantly upward I consoled
myself with the thought that at least it'd be easy on the way down.
Well it was a nice thought but the headwind was so strong that I had to
pedal in lowest gear to go
downhill and even with all my warmest clothes on it was freezing. It
there was any compensation it was the
scenery, rugged and spectacular. On the final descent towards Fort
William the weather cleared. By this time my rear tyre was looking very
worn and I'd had quite a few punctures, I was wondering if it would
last the trip. By bizarre co-incidence I found a brand new 700C tyre
(the right size) by the side of the road, still in its
paper wrapping, it must have literally dropped off a lorry or a car. It
made my day.
:- I didn't have much distance to cover today (just 80 km) so I again
started late, hoping for the rain to stop. It didn't, so I had to take the tent
down in the rain. I rode on towards Glencoe.
Amazing weather. Very cold, very wet, and if I
didn't pedal down hill, the headwind
stopped me. Lots of hills to go up too. I reached
Fort William by 2 pm, found the very welcoming "Rhu Ban"
unpacked my boots and warm clothes which I'd posted there in advance. I
the bottom of Ben Nevis by 4 pm and went up and back down again by a little after 8.30, then had a curry which I enjoyed very much. An amazing climb,
but very cold at the top. Snow in July. The mist
at the top meant it was fairly difficult to see
one cairn from another. The spring water coming
out of the mountain tasted great (I only took it
above the line where the sheep were!). Sadly, the batteries I bought for my camera on the way into Fort William turned out to be flat, so no photos except
from the 'phone.
12 July –
Fort William to Carbisdale (David)
Fort William to Inverness (Terry)
A short word about the A82. Between Tarbet and Inverness there is rarely any alternative at all to the A82. For most of the distance this is a narrow two lane road with no hard shoulder and in busy traffic it can be unpleasant. It is a shame there is not a usable quieter route for cyclists through this part of the world. I managed to avoid using it at the busiest times, and found most drivers were considerate. The views from the road are amazing.Terry :- I decided to take a route to the South of Loch Ness to avoid the busy A82. This meant that my route would be a bit longer, but I still had 3 days to reach John O'Groats and so it meant a mere 50-60 miles a day.
13 July -
Carbisdale to John O'Groats (David)
Inverness to Helmsdale (Terry)
David:- I left quite early, wanting to finish today. This was the day when taking the scenic route paid off. The scenery was as spectacular as the traffic was light for most of this day. You have to turn the pedals a few more times, but it's worth it. Continuing up the A836, past Dalchork it turned into a single lane with passing places. This felt very remote, I saw no cars at all for the first half hour. It was just as well that I'd picked up some snacks on the way out of Lairg as there was nothing else for miles. I turned onto an even smaller road along the side of Loch Naver and eventually reached the northern coast at Bettyhill.
Now along the top of the country, and at last there was a tail wind!
I stopped for food
and drinks and also to take a photo of Dounreay, "white heat of technology".
For much of this part of the ride I made quite
good time. I got to John o'Groats a few minutes
before 5 pm and found myself behind a queue
of motorcyclists from London waiting for
photos. Much the same distance as yesterday, 176 km or 110 miles.
The road was quite busy out of Inverness so I tried to
route through Black Isle. For a while this was OK but it kept sending
me onto hilly and indirect detours so I ended up back on the A9 before
It was a busy road but fairly wide, giving the traffic
pass safely, and best of all there was a powerful tailwind helping me
to cruise at around 40kph, so I made very good time. Arriving at the
pretty harbour village of Helmsdale I decided to stop the night and
found a welcoming B&B, knowing that tomorrow's ride to John
O'Groats was a manageable 55 miles.
The return journey started the next morning with the 6.22 train to Inverness and then I found I was stuck due to bike spaces on trains being booked up for days. If I had pre-booked perhaps I'd have been OK, but I didn't necessarily know when I'd need the train. I ended up with a one way hire car back to Cambridge, this costing £3 less than the train ticket and I got four seats rather than not even a guarantee of one (it did also cost £50 for petrol). The drive was tiring and I'd rather not have done it, but I also didn't want to spend days waiting for a train.Terry :- I rode the 20 miles from John O'Groats to Thurso where I found a room for the night, the next available train to Inverness with bike spaces being the next day. It was strange how a 20 mile ride now felt like just going around the corner.
It seems that a year later we both have similar views of the ride. We're both glad we did it, but we can now see the considerable danger presented by traffic at quite frequent intervals during the trip. Cycling infrastructure in other countries, such as the Netherlands, is far superior to that in the UK and long cycle trips are a lot safer as a result.
A friend of ours was recently hit by a car on his LEJOG trip. Take care out there.