Eleanor and Kev’s LEJOG Blog, September 23.

“Britain’s Best Bike Ride: the ultimate 1000 mile cycling adventure from Land’s End to John O’Groats” is the title of the book which inspired us to do this ride, and it serves as a great title for this blog, too.  It took us three weeks, and we loved every minute of it, travelling self supported, on quiet meandering roads, with a “reveal” on every corner – 1000 miles of surprises and delight.                        

Preparation:

Our Bible

Route planning.  We used the book as our starting point.  This provides route descriptions, GPX files and suggested stages, and details of accommodation and local services.  We then adapted this to accommodate a 19 day trip, which included one rest day at home en route.  We booked accommodation in advance, following a “three nights camping, one night staying indoors” pattern.  This mostly stood up to reality, but once we realised what we were (and weren’t) capable of on our heavily-loaded bikes, and if we had a poor weather forecast for the next day, we adapted our plans.  So we did some re-routing on the go, avoiding some of the bigger climbs, and changing from camping to hotels for our last few days, when the weather turned.  For navigation purposes, Kev used the book’s gpx files to create routes on Komoot, which we uploaded onto our OS app, as well as our Garmin devices for use on the bike.

Bikes and kit.  Kev prepped the bikes, which were modified cyclo-cross bikes with flat handlebars, mountain bike disc brakes and Schwalbe Marathon + tyres. 

Weight v. need v. comfort

The bikes stood up to the challenge, with no mechanicals or punctures for the entire trip, and we both benefitted from easy gear ratios (30:36) on the steeper hills, when we could just notch our effort back, but keep moving.  Thanks to Nick Butterworth for converting the bikes initially, and then for helping with final tweaking.  Kit decisions were made on a weight:need:comfort basis, so we carried lightweight camping chairs (neither of us like sitting on the ground!) and Kev carried a heavy tool bag.   We reviewed our decisions on our Northwich rest day and made a few changes. We learned to be mindful as to where we kept things: when it’s pouring down, it helps to be able to find your waterproof trousers quickly; or your power pack, when your phone battery dies.  Food wasn’t needed – we were never far from shops, and even in the more remote areas, a little pre-planning meant we could buy what we needed for the day ahead. 

Cost.  We wanted to keep costs down – using campsites as much as possible (but no, I wasn’t going to wild camp!) avoiding too many café stops, and cooking in the campsite at night (invariably some form of pasta).  But in between this frugality, we also enjoyed some hotel stays, meals out in pubs and nice warm coffee shops, so it wasn’t entirely a cheap holiday.  We learned to appreciate Co-ops and Spar shops,  which provided not just good value “meal deals”, but also toilet facilities, nice staff, and somewhere warm and dry! 

Training.  Prior to the trip we rode our bikes a lot, and tried out our bikes and kit on the Coast to Coast route from Morecambe to Bridlington, which gave us a long list of things that needed fixing sorting and buying!   

The trip

Day minus one, Northwich to Land’s End

The pre-booked one-way hire car wasn’t big enough so Kev blagged a van, with no air-conditioning, and we sweated it out in the heatwave, down to Land’s End.  On arrival it was a beautiful evening: we unloaded our bikes and gear, and were then free to enjoy the hotel food and a spectacular sunset.  The experience was sharpened by a sense of excitement (and some trepidation) at what lay ahead. 

Day one, Land’s End to Perranporth

We were excited to stand at the “iconic” sign (well we didn’t stand by the actual iconic sign, because that’s put away every evening by the commercial photographer who owns the photography concession, so we stood by a poor substitute).  It was a spectacular day of riding: views over the coast, Cornish tin mines, St. Ives (horribly busy and an unplanned 25% hill, leading to a minor marital fall out), all in warm sunshine, warm enough to get us excited about the ice cream and swim we’d have in Perranporth: but when we arrived in Perranporth, a surreal and dense sea mist put paid to that idea.  That was the last time we discussed swimming on our trip! 

Not the weather for ice cream

A horrible steep climb on a busy A road led us up to our campsite.  Our first night’s camping went fine apart from periodic downpours, which led us to shelter in the dishwashing area, which wasn’t how I’d anticipated our camping experience when planning our trip.  We also nearly went without our dinner, when seagulls attacked the packaging of our Tesco’s Finest Paella.  Despite rain and seagulls,  we enjoyed a cosy night’s sleep. 

Day two, Perranporth to Launceston

Well they told us cycling in Cornwall is hard work, and they’re right!  The roads were beautiful and quiet – the sort with moss in the middle.  But goodness, the hills are steep and frustrating, often dipping down to river crossings only to rise up again and then down again, ad infinitum.  We ran out of water in our bottles on the long climb up to Bodmin Moor, and given the remoteness of the area we despaired of finding any sort of refreshment, when on a corner on a fast descent we spotted the oasis of a pub, where we downed a litre of iced orange juice each – a big relief.  Then down and up and down and up (including one wrong turning down a particularly steep down and up) to Launceston Co-op, where we stocked up for our supper and breakfast, before the steepest hill of the lot to our campsite at Roadford Lake, which I sensibly walked but Kev doesn’t do sensible and somehow managed to ride it.  By the time I’d done my Strava post, checked my messages, washed some kit, eaten supper and looked at the route for tomorrow, the evening was gone – there wasn’t time for much else!          

Day three, Launceston to Dulverton

Probably the hardest day of the whole journey, in retrospect, despite Kevan having re-routed us to take out some of the steepest climbs.  But it all went well – we set off in the drizzle, settled into our easy gears, and rode slowly and steadily.  We stopped for a take away coffee from Hatherleigh Co-op; then a meal deal lunch from South Molton Sainsbury’s, eaten on a bench in the sunshine; and then the toughest climb again of the whole journey, up to Exmoor, 346 m.  The climb was worth it: it was stunning along the ridgeway on the top, and then a fabulous descent into Dulverton, where we sat on the kerb outside the village Co-op to stock up.  Here (also sitting on the kerb) we met two chaps also doing LEJOG, who’d had a bitter falling out over navigation, with the one chap not talking to the other.  They’d been friends for 30 years, initially meeting as bike couriers in London, so I hope my tentative attempt at relationship counselling helped!  After that, another huge climb led us up to our campsite at Wimbleball Lake, where we put the tent up in evening sunshine, and had the campsite largely to ourselves. 

Day four, Dulverton to Glastonbury

We climbed (in drizzle) from the lake up to a long undulating ridgeway, from which we gratefully descended into the flatlands of the Somerset Levels.  We discovered however that the drawback with “flat” is that “flat” can be boring, but at least we had a tailwind.   We arrived at our hotel, the amazing and ancient George and Pilgrim Inn in Glastonbury, for lunch. Kev lugged our bikes up to their first floor function room (reached by a spiral staircase: our journey was never without challenge!)  We checked into our rooms, washed our kit and hung it out to dry, charged our devices and had a snooze.  Then we pottered around Glastonbury, noting the all-pervading smell of joss sticks, and had a big meal in the hotel pub, which was very welcome after three nights of camping – as were the fluffy white towels and comfortable bed.       

Day five, Glastonbury to Tintern Abbey

Cheddar Gorge was stunning and slightly surreal – like a deserted Alpine attraction.  The rain held off until we got to the top, when a heavy downpour started, just as Kev was fixing a problem with one of my front panniers.  We then rode down the long descent to and through Chew Stoke, getting wet and cold.  It dried up enough for us to warm up and enjoy the lumpy route into Bristol, cross the dramatic Clifton Suspension Bridge, ride through the beautiful Downs area, and then an hour or so later, cycle across the new Severn Bridge. So much of interest in one day.  Then yet another big climb up to our campsite, high above

Tintern Abbey, with evening sunshine and stunning views over the Wye Valley.  Having put the tent up, we then walked in the dusk to see the view over the Abbey at Devil’s Pulpit (we felt we should, as we were missing the chance to cycle past it) and arrived back in the campsite in the dark as it started to rain again.  We ate an inadequate Tesco’s pasta salad in the little camping shelter, with two young climbers, also sheltering.  I was grumpy about needing a £1 token for four minutes of not-quite-hot-enough water in the shower…but we slept well, cosy in our warm sleeping bags. 

Day six, Tintern Abbey to Ludlow

We woke to a clear sky and a cold morning: the tent and long grass around us was wet with dew – so poor Kevan had to carry a wet tent on his bike, weighing twice as much as the dry version.  We rode to Symonds Yat which is stunning – then onto Ross on Wye, by which time the sun was out and we treated ourselves to a Costa coffee, sitting on the warm sandstone steps of the Market Hall.  Then a long stunningly beautiful undulating ride on a quiet road along the River Wye to Withington.  Here we bought lunch at a local grocery and dried the tent out on a patch of grass outside the shop, much to the amusement of passers by…followed by a four kilometre stretch along a busy A road towards Leominster,

which was one of the few busy A road stretches of our entire trip, with impatient lorries thundering past us as we toiled up long rises.  The campsite was high on a hill (again) with a stunning view of Ludlow and its castle.  We walked into town for a meal, and walking back in the dark we were rewarded with a clear view in our torchlight of an tawny owl, sitting stock still on a tree and looking directly at us. 

Day seven, Ludlow to Northwich

It was nice to be home

We packed up quickly and efficiently, in heavy rain, and headed for breakfast at Ludlow Costa (with Kev deciding on the way that this was a good time to do some wet otter watching by the river).  Stress levels were fairly high after an “I’ve lost my purse” panic (I hadn’t) and Kev crossing a busy A road, prompting a large lorry to blare his horn aggressively at him, which scared me.  The rain cleared and we relaxed as we reached the beautiful and quiet Shropshire Hills, to arrive at Attingham Park (NT) for coffee  – then more hills before Wem for lunch.  From there our speed picked up as we rode on familiar but what seemed interminable roads back to Northwich, where we arrived at 5 pm, looking forward to a rest day and two nights at home. 

Day eight, rest day in Northwich

Well I rested, but Kev didn’t.  He got up early, cleaned and serviced the bikes, and then embarked on some re-routing for our Lancashire stages, based on the weather forecast, and our acquired knowledge of what we could manage in terms of distance and elevation (less than we originally thought!).  We washed our kit, and substituted waterproof shoe covers and gloves for swimming things.  Most importantly of all, James and Jackson came round, and we had some time with our gorgeous grandson!

Day nine, Northwich to Garstang

We’d expected today to be boring, but were pleasantly surprised by the route Komoot had suggested, when we re-routed from the original book route.  The ride from Wigan to Preston was entirely off road, following canals, an old railway track and the Cuerden Valley Country Park, which delivered us right into busy Fishergate, where we ate a Greggs pasty and did some people-watching.  Then onto Garstang, and a fairly uninspiring campsite on a farm, where (rain again) we ate our tagliatelle in the camping shelter, much amused by the antics of 20 schoolboys who arrived in the darkness from their D of E canoeing/mountain biking expedition.

Day ten, Garstang to Crosby Ravensworth

Slightly delayed by Kevan having to wait for the 20 schoolboys to use the one gents’ loo, we enjoyed quiet roads to Kirkby Lonsdale, for the most expensive bacon bap we’d had all trip.  We continued on hilly roads past Killington Lake.  The much-travelled valley through the Howgills to Tebay is stunning, with the railway, canal and M6 all using the same channel – we were high up, looking down on it, in awe of the engineering involved.  We bought supplies at the old Tebay services (and used the loo: how much I learned to appreciate a civilised loo stop, compared to squatting in nettles behind a hedge) and then onwards up the fiendish Orton Scar climb to our campsite, where we’d arranged to meet clubmates Nick and Ann. 

It was dry, at least…

This was one of our weirder campsites, arranged around a huge modern house, with a fake stone circle on their drive and an old ruined Tudor farmhouse in their garden, inside which a hot tub was situated, exposed to the elements.   But they had a nice campers’ kitchen, which we appreciated.  Heavy rain and high winds were forecast overnight, and Kev did some nifty negotiation with the campsite owner, and we upgraded to the bunkhouse (a woodchip shed with two unmade wooden beds) – luxury.  We walked down to the (community run) village pub for an excellent meal with Nick and Ann, and it was lovely to see them.    

Day eleven, Crosby Ravensworth to Canonbie

We set off in heavy rain, and by the time we reached Penrith we were saturated – or at least I was, as I’d not been wearing waterproof trousers, a lesson which proved useful in future days.  We spent an hour or so in Penrith Costa (thank heavens for Costas!).  We tried to wring out our gloves, I tried to dry my shorts under the hand dryer in the loo and we left a few puddles under our table, but the staff  were remarkably nice about it.  Then off to Carlisle, thankful for clearing skies.  We ate our M and S sandwiches on a bench in Carlisle town centre (luxury), then we experienced the best and worst of cycling, with a horribly busy road out of Carlisle leading to a nice stretch of off-road singletrack leading to a few kilometres along the A7, with lorries thundering up to Scotland from Carlisle.  Welcome to Scotland! Then off into Canonbie, where we’d thankfully booked a hotel, once we’d seen the double raindrop weather forecast for the night.  We luxuriated in our small room with a primitive but hot shower, and the landlady kindly dried our wet kit for us, and we ordered a takeaway pizza to eat in her bar, as she didn’t do food.

Day twelve, Canonbie to Peebles

A cooked breakfast was welcome before a sodden 10k ride to Langholm for supplies – then the skies cleared and we enjoyed a wonderful ride along the most stunning road we’d encountered to that point, the B709, which we had largely to ourselves.  We loved our stop at the community café at Eskdalemuir – and just beyond, we passed a slightly incongruous Tibetan monastery, complete with Buddha statues and prayer flags.  We then enjoyed long gentle climbs and winding descents through moorland and forests, all on perfect tarmac.  Managing clothing was a problem for me throughout LEJOG – I sweltered on the climbs, and shivered on the descents, so I was constantly stopping to take layers off and put them back on again.  Kev doesn’t seem to have the same problem, dressing consistently in warmer clothing than me, but he was patient when I stopped.   And so into Peebles, where I chatted to an elderly lady in the street (wherever we are, people want to talk to us when they see our heavily laden bikes) who then insisted on giving us £20 to buy a drink and as a welcome to Scotland – wow!  The (Wetherspoons) hotel in Peebles was great: they let us dry our wet kit in their dryer and we had a lovely comfortable evening and night there. 

Day thirteen, Peebles to Edinburgh

One of our easier and shorter days, with beautiful open roads in the first half and lots of excitement riding through Edinburgh (right through the city centre, past all the famous attractions) in the second half.  We settled in at our campsite, chatting to a German mum and her home-schooled child, who were camping mainly to get a break from their shared tenement house in the city.  As we started walking to the local Toby Carvery (and to see the sea) – and despite the “0% chance of rain” weather forecast – the heavens opened, torrential rain ensued, and we had to shelter in the campsite information office for half an hour. 

Day fourteen, Edinburgh to Perth

A great start, riding along the coast in gorgeous morning sunshine out to Queensferry, and eating our breakfast in a café with a view of all three bridges – 19th, 20th and 21st century.  Riding over the Road Bridge was fun, but the next 30 miles or so were a slog, initially on busy roads, then through built up areas and at one point in a westerly direction into a fierce and sapping headwind, which was followed by a rainstorm.  We donned our waterproofs (a well-practised routine by now), sheltered under a tree and ate our sandwiches, dreading the next section which was a long climb through the Common of Dunning, which we didn’t fancy doing in the rain. 

But we struck lucky: the rain stopped, the sun came out, the tarmac steamed, and we climbed with the warm sun on our backs and blue sky all around us, on a quiet road along a stream edged by bracken and oak trees, with views of moorland and distant hills – magical.  And so into Perth, and another less-than-glamorous campsite, situated on the edge of an industrial estate next to the A9.  Fortunately our friends Bridget and Andy rescued us, picking us up in their car and taking us into Perth for a fabulous evening and meal at Paco’s, which was buzzing with people, such Text Box: The sun comes out...a world away from our forlorn campsite!

Day fifteen, Perth to Blair Atholl

We started the day trying to dry our tent in the campsite tumble dryer, whilst chatting to another couple, doing LEJOG on a tandem – they’d also got very wet that night and were trying to dry out their stuff.  Today’s riding was beautiful again – to Bankfoot over the hills, then along the river Tay to Dunkeld, over some lumpiness into Pitlochry (where we sheltered from yet another rainstorm in a nice cyclists’ café), and along a quiet B road to Blair Atholl. Hills held little fear for me by now: my legs had become efficient pistons and I just settled into an easy gear, a slow chatting pace, and pedalled away happily, without any weariness or undue effort.   Kev and I established a way of riding that worked for us both – sometimes separate, often together, sometimes alongside, often with me on the front (then he knows I’m choosing a pace I’m happy with) and sometimes with him on the front (generally when we need to get a move on, or we’re riding into a headwind). 

Sometimes we chatted, more often than not we didn’t. So we arrived at Blair Atholl campsite, which is particularly impressive, run by the Atholl Castle estate.  I spent any time I might have otherwise spent relaxing trying to wash our kit (£9 for tokens!) and dry it before the visitor centre closed – a bit wearying, but clean shorts mattered to me.  Then a wonderful walk to the castle, as dusk fell, and a drink in the local pub (initially arriving at their very formal restaurant, where we felt like ducks out of water, but the bar behind was much more convivial and relaxed). 

Day sixteen, Blair Atholl to Grantown on Spey

Probably the most spectacular day of the trip, which was the result of a re-route to avoid bigger hills in the Cairngorms, which we didn’t think we’d manage in such changeable weather and with such heavy bikes.  We woke to a heavy frost on our tent and bikes – but the sun came up and we climbed steadily in beautiful sunshine up to the famous Pass of Drumochter.  We rode along a combination of dedicated cycle paths and roads used only by pedestrians and bikes: all within a few metres of the A9, but that was never a problem because our minds were diverted by the stunning views of mountains and moors all around us.  We descended to Dalwhinnie for coffee, then more quiet roads to Newtonmore and Kingussie, where we ate our lunch in the local park and dried out tent out in the sunshine, chatting to a young French couple who were also cycle touring.  And so onto Grantown on Spey, through a winding forest road (and a brief off road section that allowed us to avoid dropping to Aviemore) where we found our comfortable B and B, and enjoyed a meal in a neighbouring hotel.  At this point we dumped our camping kit with the landlady, to collect on our return journey, which was a weight not just off our bikes, but also off our minds.  Given the changeable weather, camping was proving just too hard. 

Day seventeen, Grantown on Spey to Dingwall

More superb riding, through forests and moorland, towards Inverness.  We rode past “closed road” signs with some apprehension – cyclists can usually get past closures, but not always, and we feared riding for ten miles to have to then retrace our steps.  In this case a bridge had been damaged by a motorist – not a problem for us, thankfully.   We stopped at the Battle of Culloden Visitor Centre for a coffee and to look at a nondescript field, scene of such an important event in Highland history.   And so to Inverness, and the shock and noise of a city, after so much quiet countryside.  We rode over the spectacular Kessock Road Bridge, and then along a gorgeous quiet road alongside Beauly Firth.  This was followed by a 10k busy A road drag into Dingwall: I gratefully sat  on Kev’s wheel, as he ground it out.  The Dingwall hotel was a bit seedy, but we were given a warm welcome and a large ground floor room, where we could keep our bikes.   We went for a walk out to the banks of Cromarty Firth, and then enjoyed an excellent curry. 

Day eighteen, Dingwall to the Crask Inn (near Altnaharra) 

Another highlight day.  Toast and jam at the hotel, then to Tesco’s for supplies, and up the steep hill out of Dingwall – except at the top of the hill, Kev realised he’d left his helmet at Tesco’s, so he had some extra climbing to do today!  The school lollipop lady was surprised to see him three times.  We rode with stunning views of Cromarty Firth, gleaming in the morning sunshine: it was hard not to want to stop constantly to take photos, but we had a long way to ride, so we restrained ourselves.  Then a long ride through forests and hills to the viewpoint below the Struie Hill, over the Dornoch Firth – rainbows came first, then heavy rain and by the time we descended to Ardgay we were soaking wet (again).  We popped into the “Highland general stores and café”, hoping for warmth and shelter. The grumpy owner however, having sold us a bacon bap and a takeaway coffee, then asked us to take them outside as there was no seating in the shop.  A nearby bus shelter provided some cover.  Then more beautiful riding (and the sun came out) – via some unlikely offroad singletrack, and a cycle path over a railway bridge at Invershin, which involved Kevan carrying our bikes down four ridiculously steep flights of iron-grid-steps.  And then – witnessing salmon leaping at the Falls of Shin was a magical experience. 

Thanks to Paul Harding for the recommendation. Kev managed to get a great photo (whilst I distracted a proper photographer there by chatting to him, so he missed the shot, oops).  

Then onto Lairg, lunch at their kindly-provided civic covered picnic area, (complete with bike tools and pump), followed by a long and gentle climb up to the Crask Inn, on a deserted single track road with passing places, which somehow calls itself an A road. 

Amazingly, we met WVCC’s Carl Ruebotham and his mate Paul, riding in the other direction  – what a small world!  After a brief chat, the rain set in again and half an hour later we arrived, by now soaking wet, at the legendary Crask Inn: the only building for miles around, run by the Scottish Episcopal Church, and offering shelter over the centuries to weary travellers.  We were warmly welcomed, hung our waterproofs out on the antlers above the fire to dry, settled into our comfy room, and spent a convivial evening chatting,  drinking and eating. 

Day nineteen, Crask Inn to John O’Groats

We were anxious about the day because it would be our longest – but the first 40 miles or so were mostly downhill or flat, at least.  A helpful tailwind turned into a vicious headwind when we changed direction, doing almost a U turn when we approached Loch Naver.  This was our first significant headwind of the whole trip, and it stopped us in our tracks: and we realised suddenly how lucky we’d been to have benefitted from a tailwind for over two weeks.  Headwinds are not just hard, they’re also noisy and stressful!  Fortunately we soon turned North again and enjoyed the gorgeous ride along the River Naver, surrounded by hills, forests and woodland.  At Bettyhill we saw the sea properly for the first time since Cornwall – quite a moment – and we were able to find a café for coffee and some

cake.  Then the hard work started along the coast road, now often into a westerly headwind, with some tough, long hills and more traffic than we’d become used to.  The rain started at lunchtime (lunch was a particularly sorry affair: a couple of bananas and wheat scones sitting in the driving wind outside a corrugated tin general store) and by the time we got to Thurso, we were soaked.  Thank heavens for Thurso Museum café, which was still open, where we could dry out and recover enough to tackle the last 25 miles in rain and wind (and it seemed, all uphill).  After a long countdown (only 25k to go, a time trial…10k, that’s only 6 miles…5k, that’s a park run…but depending on the gradient, 5k could mean 6 minutes or 60 minutes!) we turned a corner, and there was John O’Groats.  We’d done it!  Photos at the signpost, mutual congratulations and a big hug, booking in at the Seaview Hotel, showers, and a VERY well deserved meal and drink in the pub bar…and then the best sleep ever. 

Return home and epilogue

A lovely morning – a cooked breakfast, cold sunshine and a headwind for the fairly dull 25k ride to Wick.  This involved wide and empty roads, windy moorland, coastal fields and distant views of the sea in the distance; and for the first time in our trip, the sun in our faces rather than on our backs.  At Wick we collected our hire car and started the 8 hour drive home, much of it into the teeth of Storm Agnes. 

We enjoyed retracing our route back down the A9 over the Pass of Drumochter – and we relished the sense of satisfaction, of a job complete and well done.  Our preparation had stood up to the test; we’d been pragmatic about adapting our plans when needed; our bikes had held up amazingly well; we’d stayed healthy, fit, happy and focussed; and we’d survived the vagaries of the British weather.  We’d experienced both discomfort and comfort; we’d enjoyed the joys of descent, and mastered the challenge of ascent.  We’d enjoyed each other’s company and conversation, supported each other, and we made a good team.  We’d seen countryside, villages, towns and cities we didn’t know, ridden on some stunningly beautiful roads, and we’d been met with such kindness and quirkiness along the way.    Truly, a memorable adventure.