I decided that I didn’t want to do the average 20-something-year-old’s beach, beer and clubbing holiday this year but wanted to do something a little different. So along with two friends we set a goal of cycling about 1,000 miles, camping rough on route, during our two weeks’ holiday.
Land’s End to John O’Groats is the most common route for this type of challenge, due to prevailing wind direction. However, we decided to travel from John O’Groats to Land’s End, believing the many jokes that it would be easier, being downhill all the way!
Getting to our starting point was a challenge in itself. Cross-country trains will only allow two bike reservations – and there were three of us. Luckily my father and a friend’s father offered to drive us the 676 miles to John O’Groats.
Sunday 26th July
We set off from John O’Groats at 10am. By 10.30 the rain had started – the first of many prolonged showers that week.
We cycled 77 miles on the first day and camped in Altnaharra – desolate land 40 miles of country road with no more than 20 houses.
On the second day, having not seen a shop for the whole day, we spotted a pub near Bettyhill and stopped there for a good fry-up. Healthy eating gone to pot for another day! The pub owners told us they had to do a fortnightly 160-mile round food trip to Inverness to their local(!) Cash & Carry.
One of my friends had been having knee problems and it was getting progressively worse, so reluctantly he decided to pull out at the end of the third day and catch the train to Manchester.
On our fourth day we cycled around Loch Ness. Our legs were aching, but I knew the fatigue would not grow as long as we ate well. Having survived our third day of cycling (which many say is the hardest day), I now felt more positive….until we reached Fort William when my front wheel buckled!
Fortunately we found a bike shop which repaired the damage for £15 and, after a black coffee with five sugars at the local café, I was re-energised. Our evening was cut short by heavy rain and bad conditions so we stopped abruptly and camped on the lay-by of a main A-road. I was the main course for the midges, despite sleeping with a three-day-worn sweaty jersey over my face.
Freewheeling down Glencoe
The two of us continued our journey through the Scottish Highlands, with gradual ascent often an hour or two at a time. I think the most memorable moment was reaching the top of Glencoe where we were surprised to find that, although it was sunny, we were getting wet simply because we were so high and we were virtually hovering in the white clouds as we passed the ski resort.
I think our most fun moment was freewheeling down the mountains at 30 mph for spells of five minutes! At Glencoe we passed another cyclist doing the same journey but he was on his own as both of his mates had dropped out. I gave him a Snickers bar to keep him going.
It was a great feeling to know that England was nearly in sight, and that we were free of the midges and the predominantly barren land. But no sooner had we reached Carlisle than we were stopped again by bad weather.
We were now 45 miles behind target and had to set off by 6.30 the next morning to get to Manchester which was to be our only scheduled rest day – and we would be reunited with friend number three.
Wetter in than out
My trusty budget £15 Argos tent finally let me down, as I woke at 6am in a soaking sleeping bag and surrounded by puddles of rain in the tent. It was debatable whether it was drier outside in the pouring rain!
Manchester was still 120 miles away and we knew we could afford no more than one hour break during the whole day if we were to reach our target. The weather was not good and we knew we had to stay warm. We climbed the Lake District and visibility was so poor that we were well into rain clouds and could only see about five metres in any direction. We were also concerned about whether the articulated lorries would be able to spot us.
By 2pm we reached Kendall and the weather was turning bright. We stopped at a café – another coffee (five sugars again!) and cake. The owner told us that he used to cycle from Kendall to Manchester every week, and assured us that it was no more than 70 miles, which we worked out would be five hours cycling plus a half-hour break. He also assured us that there were not too many hills between destinations. This was a first for us after hills and mountains for 350 miles, so we felt we were bound to pick up speed, especially after that coffee!
First wash in a week
We stopped for a while to try and straighten yet another buckling back wheel, and finally pulled into Manchester at 7.30pm (another 82 miles). We could now dry out and treat ourselves to the first wash in seven days (450 miles). We put our feet up and ate a well-deserved curry.
Looking back over the ride, we found the Shropshire hills and Hereford much harder than the Scottish highlands: hill after hill, no rhythm, extremely tiring. Dartmoor was even hillier than Shropshire; Devon and Cornwall even hillier than Dartmoor!
On this final stretch, I had also lost my weakest gear. I climbed one hill which must have been steeper than 15-18% for 30 minutes, and was so hard that I was nearly sick.
We eventually reached Penzance, and for the first time were ahead of schedule. I had battled through an ankle and knee problem as had my remaining mate. On the final morning, we reached Land’s End two hours early, where we relaxed with a beer, before having to do parade lap for our parents and friends who had come to meet us.
In total, 12 days and one hour’s cycling, one rest day. Finished Saturday 8th August at 12 noon.
Would we do it again? Not this side of Christmas!