Saturday, 1 September 2007

The morning after

I awake with a headache, perhaps like a hangover at the end of a party. The tent is a peculiar shape, the wind pushing the guy ropes to their limits. I put on layer upon layer before even venturing to the toilet. The wind blows me back, but I walk on, out to strange collection of buildings that form this tiny but famous place. The gothic hotel that has been closed for ten years is backed by a dark squally sea. The two oceans meeting, clashing and retreating, like the Scots and the English over the years. The sign is still missing; the photographer yet to arrive, but cyclists are already rolling in, and the first coach of the day has disgorged its passengers. The burger van is frying bacon, it’s carried on the wind and I long for hot coffee as I stand on the deserted cliff and breath deeply as the wind pushes my hair into my face.

As we dismantle the tent Hannah is almost blown away, Stuart practises being a human windsock, scarf on head, and Cameron chases a flyaway plastic bag along the clifftop. We have camped at what seems like the very end of the world to mark the end of our journey and the end of the summer. It ‘s the first day of September yet winter has come early to John O Groats.

“I heard you were coming on the grapevine,” says the photographer. “Sorry I wasn’t here last night. Trade was bad yesterday and the boss told me to pack up early.”
“Well if you can get the kids to smile, then you’re doing better than the guy at the other end,” I tell him, thinking back to the identical picture, seven weeks ago at Lands End. We had agreed to be photographed by the Sunday Express for a feature on adventurous families, and by the time the anxious photographer had finished his shoot, the kids were both whingeing and refusing to smile, and the official photographer was getting annoyed with the paparazzi clogging up his pitch.

But this time everyone grins; it is the end of the ‘end to end.’ We are all groated out and hungry for home, but not too tired to smile and shout ‘cheese.’ Back at that Lands End sign, what seemed like so long ago, I inwardly resolved to give this journey my best shot. And here we are.

Saturday 1st September

. It's official. Three young Groater's are born, A long and challenging delivery of 49 days and 2000km. Mother, father and children are all doing well.

Friday, 31 August 2007

Stumped but not out

It was another wild day and I felt grateful it was almost over. The wind was strong, gusting but thankfully behind us, the sky a patchwork of greys, the air laced with drizzle, road damp, the occasional car spraying a fine mist on us as they sped past to the edge of the world.
Our progress was slower, as it ever was, despite finally swapping the see-saw climbs of Sutherland for the rolling pastures of Caithness. But this was not a ride to savour, more a job to be completed, the last leg on our last legs, the final 30 kilometres. We needed a photo to match the one we had from Lands End.

Our arrival was magical; it was the perfect picture at the end of a miserable day, the finish of a long, long ride. The sun came out casting evening shadows down towards the harbour, a rainbow appeared in the squall driving white horses across Gills Bay, the day trippers dissappeared on the last bus home and we all felt the excitement of finally reaching the signpost at the other end. But it was after five o clock and the official photographer had gone home, taking the John O Groats sign with him, leaving only the stump. But it didn’t matter, we knew we’d made it. After 2000km and 49 days riding, we were finally eligible to join the club and I took a photo of the kids at the white wooden post-stump to prove it.

‘End to Enders. Please register your arrival/departure at the Groats Inn,’ said one sign, so we made our way to the Inn. The sign at the Groats Inn told another story; ‘End to Enders. Please check-in/check-out at The Last House in Scotland ’. But the Last House was closed, its’ last customers gone home. Back at the Groats Inn, a sign on the door warned us off, ‘No Children in the Bar.’ “Don’t worry,” said the barmen when I poked my head around the door to ask about registering, “that’s to frighten the tourists off. Groaters of all ages are welcome.”

We ordered a round of drinks to celebrate; orange squash, coke, and irn bru. “Is that it?” asked the barman. I looked at Kirstie, Matthew, Cameron and Hannah, all dressed up in their waterproofs, bedraggled, tired and smiling. “Give us two pints of lager, two packets of crisps and a pizza too.” It was party time.

“Can you stamp our record cards?” Kirstie asked the barmen. “If you sign my end to enders book,” he replied handing over a thick leafed bound book, pages filled with the handwritten testaments of hundreds of others who’ve tested themselves across the length of Britain, on foot, bike, stilts, motorbike and bio-diesel powered tractor, singing, drumming and humming their way through their own personal end to end challenge.

So what to write? How do you sum it up? Capture something of the essence of the journey, the sense of personal achievement, the pride I feel not so much at what Kirstie and I have done, for dozens of others complete the end to end ride every week, but more at what we have achieved together as a family and particularly what the boys have achieved, pedalling along on the tandems every mile of the way, in all weathers and mostly in the best of spirits. So, what to write? I was stumped.

“Can I write something in the book?” asked Matthew, after finishing his coke. He took the book and pen and scribbled away for a few minutes, then handed it back. There in his neatest handwriting he summed it up nicely: “It was a bit hard at times But……. we still had great fun!” Signed, Matthew, 6. I couldn’t have put it better or wished for more.

Back in the tent, we lay in our sleeping bags, chatting about the trip, trying to recall highlights and lowlights over the noise of the gale force winds battering nylon and straining on guy ropes. “Has anyone ever pogo-sticked from Lands End to John O Groats?” asked Matthew idly on his way to sleep. Now there’s an idea for another time.

Friday 31st August

Today's ride, Thurso to John O Groats to sign the Book of Old Groaters,,37.3km. Mission Accomplished. Now, how do we get back in time for school?

Thursday, 30 August 2007

Thursday 30th August

Today's ride, Bettyhill to Thurso, another wet, wild day but at least the wind was on our back, 48.75km

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Bettered by Bettyhill

Today we took half a day off. So close to our destination yet still so far. This morning’s journey ended in Bettyhill at lunchtime, just a few kilometres further on from our startpoint, Tongue. We hadn’t intended to rest here, but the wind and rain and relentless hills were just too much. Even the bed in the luxury Youth Hostel last night hadn’t renewed our energy.

Viewpoint, Bettyhill (Weather permitting)

On the phone to my mother I had tried and failed to explain why we were doing this. “Why John O Groats? You’ve got to the top, why not just go home?” she pushed me. Even the kids are curious about why we can’t let it go. “If that’s the end and there’s nothing out there except the North Pole then it must be John O Groats now Mummy,” said Cameron this morning as I made him dismount and walk, something I haven’t done since Devon and Cornwall. But the simple truth is we now have to get there out of sheer bloodymindedness. If I have to crawl there, in the rain, dragging the buggy behind me, powered only by a winegum I will, and I’m pretty sure Stuart feels the same. After seven weeks, and nearly two thousand kilometres, we’re not about to be beaten back by a bit of Scottish weather.

“It’s not going to be like the Kinross experience is it Mum?” asks Matthew as we peel off our sodden coats, leaving a puddle of water in the bar. The ride out of Edinburgh has become labelled the Kinross experience and everything else is being compared to it. Perhaps everything always will.

Wednesday 29th August

Today's ride, Tongue to Bettyhill, just 24.1km in the wind, rain and midges. Holed up to waiting for a break in the weather for the final few days ride. Or should we just go home?

Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Tuesday 28th August

Today's ride, Lairg to Tongue, a ride through the wilds of Sutherland to the North coast of Scotland, 64.3km

Monday, 27 August 2007

Monday 27th August

Today's ride, Tain to Lairg via Ardgay and Shin Falls, 51.8km

Sunday, 26 August 2007

Sunday 26th August

Today's ride, Kessock to wild camp near Tain, 65.2km

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Saturday 25th August

Today's ride, Daviot to Kessock via Inverness, 33.29km. John O Groats on the sign but further than it says by bike, of course.

Friday, 24 August 2007

Highlands and Lowlands

“These are the guest quarters.” The lady pointed to three slatted box beds draped with rough looking tartan blankets. “Youse are lucky to have the tartans but if you’re not warm enough, you can get a wee warm-up round the fire.” We trailed behind her across the mud floor into another cold dark room where smoke from a peat fire struggled to escape the gloom through a small hole in the heather thatch. “I was going to make some soup but we’ve no barley or meat left so it’ll have to be porridge for breakfast,” she said stirring a sludgy mixture around the blackened cauldron hanging in the smoke above the fire. Do youse waynes like porridge?” She looked at the boys. Matthew and Cameron looked back bemused. “I saw you grinding the oats outside so I’m sure they’ll be enough oatmeal.”

Outside, escaping the gloom and enjoying a rare moment of highland sunshine, another villager sat in the shade of a Scots pine, tartan blanket over her knees, drawing off wool onto bobbins. “We don’t get many days like this,” she said. “It’s so miserable usually, stuck inside in the smoke and dark, huddled round the peat fire, eating gruel. Lot of people think it’s a great job, dressing up, telling folk about the old highland townships but it’s quite bleak really, like it was back then I suppose.”

Three hours in Newtonmore’s eighteenth century living history township was enough for me, as perhaps three hours doing what we’ve been doing might be for many others. Many people have expressed such a sentiment to us when they say something along the lines of “I admire what you’re doing but I don’t envy you in the least.”

It’s hard to explain the complex and contrasting experience that this journey has become. The intensity of living 24/7 as a family, the routines of the cycling, eating and camping; the perpetual stimulus of an ever changing backdrop of landscape, people, places; the peaks of achievement, of interest, fun and laughter; and the demoralising tantrums, set-backs, mishaps and arguments. It’s hard to explain how one morning you can want to give the whole thing up only to find that a few hours later you’re laughing out loud, huddled together in sleeping bags, camping out in the wild, trying to keep quiet, thrilled at saving a camp-fee and knocked out by the distance you’ve covered, experiences you’ve had and memories you’ve made in 42 days on the road.

“Are you gypsies?” asked a group of young boys on bikes who stopped us back in Carlisle. I didn’t know quite what to say to them. “Do we look like gypsies?” I asked. They nodded. Well, we probably did. “Do you have a home?” they asked, not wanting to let the matter drop. I nodded. “So you’re like temporary gypsies, then,” they concluded. It’s probably a fair description, although we haven’t yet acquired the audacity to free camp as publicly as some of the travellers we’ve met. But our status is temporary, even if it feels long-lived. Seven weeks is a long time to live like this, moving on everyday, but we know it will come to an end when the routines of school and work return and the luxuries of home, heating and hot-water are reinstated. And for that we are fortunate for never was it so for those who experienced the hardships of life in the Highland townships, who scratched a meagre living crofting in these wild places, whose homes were destroyed to make room for sheep in the Highland clearances, whose culture was stamped upon after the Jacobite uprising. The beauty and serenity of the highlands has many a sad story to tell, for those with the time to listen.

Friday 24th August

Today's ride, Boat of Garten to Daviot, 33.57km. Well, it was uphill and against the wind.

Thursday 23rd August

Here's how you make flour, Highland Folk Living Museum, Newtonmore

Today's ride, Newtonmore to Boat of Garten via Highland Folk Museum and Ruthven Barracks, 43.2km

Thursday, 23 August 2007


“There’s good news and bad news,” said Stuart, popping back into the tent for a moment after unlocking the bikes. “What’s the good news?” asked Matthew. “The good news is there’s a midge party out there,” his Dad replied. “What’s the bad news?” asked Cameron. “The bad news is we’re the buffet,” Stuart said, wrapping a tea towel around his head for protection. “Extra sweeties for anyone who volunteers to be on tent duty.” Unusually we were on the bikes before nine.

My night time fears of steep gravel track and spinning wheels proved to be unfounded as we cruised down and pedalled up a shingle track with the sun on our backs. Around us the royal purple of the heather and thistles merged into the shady green of the treeless Cairngorms as we cycled up the Drumochter Pass, summitting at just under five hundred metres. The night before a sign had warned all cyclists to beware. No facilities, food or shelter for thirty kilometres.

At a lunch stop in the long grass, thankfully midge free, we enjoyed our stockpile of supplies as a couple cycled past on a tandem, a woman at the helm. They were Belgian cyclists Heikki and Sandi, doing a loop of the north of Scotland, and despite shattering part of his knee, Heikki was determined to finish their cycle back to Edinburgh. “I sit on the back so I’m higher up for taking photographs,” he explained pointing out their bike specially made to cater for the unusual dynamics of this touring partnership. “Hey are you the guys who went to New Zealand? I recognise that bike,” he cried suddenly, coming to have a closer look. “You are those guys! I was following you on your website. I can’t believe I’ve met you in real life.” They told us of their plans to take a year out and cycle Australia, if the knee holds up. As we bid them goodbye, an overweight cyclist puffed into view, his face covered in white cream, like a ghost on a bike. “These hills are awful aren’t they?” he wailed. “And I think it’s another five miles to Dalwhinnie. Oh God.” He puffed on as we gathered up the picnic bag and Heikki limped onto the stoker’s seat of his tandem.

At the entrance to the settlement of Dalwhinnie there was a huge sign. “Dalwhinnie- eat drink and relax.” But I watched in horror as Stuart flew past the café advertising ‘open all hours.’ I was desperate for caffeine and there appeared to be few other houses in this tiny place. We came to the end of the village. “Oh,” said Stuart. “When it said eat drink and relax I assumed there’d be a parade of cafes and bars to choose from. “ For once we went against our principles and cycled back up the hill. But as we entered the café bar we knew immediately it wasn’t a good choice for us; expensive and full of businessmen having lunch. So we made a quick exit and spread our picnic out under a tree while I found a garage to source some coffee. At the garage the puffing cyclist was still huffing around, complaining to the assistant about the terrain in her vicinity. I wondered if his face paint, now streaked with sweat, might melt into his hot drink.

It would have been a relaxing picnic under the shady tree, had we not lost Cameron. At first I wasn’t too worried; he was sure to be pottering nearby. But when I called him, there was no reply. Five minutes later and I was frantic. I’d been over to the river, through the restaurant twice, and back over to the garage, but there was no sign of our five year old and it wasn’t like him to wander off. Soon I had Stuart running around the perimeter of the hotel and its grounds, and the restaurant staff scouring the river bank, and double checking all the toilets. As I ran outside the restaurant for the third time, my heart banging, I noticed the town sign, ‘Dalwhinnie, twinned with Las Vegas.’ Someone here had a sense of humour. Then, “Kirstie, stop. He’s here,” called Stuart, pointing towards the bikes. There, under the shade of the buggy, lay Cameron, rolled up into a ball, fast asleep with his helmet still attached to his head, and his nose pushed into the grass. We gently woke him and gathered together our stuff and our family. While I figured it was probably the most exciting incident to happen in this Las Vegas for a while, I could tell from Stuart’s face he was feeling the same mixture of relief and guilt as I was. Cameron was only doing what we’d all like to do, given the chance, and a sleep under a tree would be good for us all. But had we been pushing the children too hard? In six weeks of riding we’d only had one rest day, and we were all more tired than we recognised, with no hope of another day off if we were to get to John O Groats on schedule.

“Right guys, we’ve been into town and we’ve got to go to the Waltzing Waters, it’s ‘the most spectacular display of water and light in the world’. We’ll have to visit in the morning,” said Stuart excitedly after he’d taken Matthew off for an evening exploration while the rest of us relaxed in the tent, after having had a brief conversatioon with puffing man who’d reached the campsite before us. His face was now just speckled with flecks of white, some of which had lodged themselves in his beard. It now looked like he’d merely been painting his flat for the day, rather than taking on a mammoth climb. Having stayed in Aladdins Palace Hotel which looked out on the famous fountain display in Las Vegas I was sceptical of Stuart’s claim that this small Scottish Village in the Highlands would provide the world’s leading water entertainment. But nevertheless we reached ‘Waltazing Waters’ as soon as it opened for the day.

As we entered the auditorium having handed over a large portion of the day’s budget, the smell of damp reminded me of our cellar. Inside the small auditorium four other people took their seats in front of a stage area empty but for a few sparse arrangements of white plastic flowers and pebbles. As the lights went down, the tinny speakers on the walls blasted out some classical music, and the fountains started. Swish, sway, spurt and splat, they threw their towers of water into the air, to a background of coloured lights and triumphant band music. Swirl, swash, splat, spit, the kids sat, entranced for about three minutes, before realising this was all they were going to get in the way of entertainment. For the next forty five minutes we were assaulted with a Celine Dion montage, a Disney arrangment, a collection of Beatles music and a selection of scottish songs, as well as bright green and red light and the swoosh spash of the fountains. I struggled to keep a straight face and not look Stuart in the eye, but when the recorded voice over started to read poetry that visitors had composed about the experience, I lost it. With my head in my knees I struggled to compose myself and control the laughter that was threatening to be louder than the poetry of ‘water lighter than Angels Wings.’ When the swishing of angels wings finally stopped, and we escaped into morning light, I looked around for the ghostly presence of puffing man but he had gone. Processing this unexpectedly Vegas Experience, we cycled on North towards Inverness.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Wednesday 22nd August

Today's ride. Drumochter Pass to Newtonmore for our own Highland games, 40.96km

Tuesday 21st August

Nightriders, Drumochter Pass

Today's ride, into Pitlochry then via the Pass of Killikrankie and Blair Atholl to a wild camp on Drumochter Pass, 39.4km

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

The Glorious Twelfth

“Are you teachers?” It’s the second most popular question we get asked, after ”Are you doing it for charity?’’ What people really mean is ‘how come you can get seven weeks off work to do something like this?’ Well, it’s one of the advantages of self employment, the ability to stop trading, stop earning money and go spend it instead. But if we think we have it good, some people have it even better.

We met Gerard on our way up the Drumochter Pass. He was sheltering from the midges in his top of the range Range Rover, doing business on his mobile when we crawled past and interrupted his day. “I used to race,” he said as he stopped us to tell us about himself, “got a Scottish National medal you know. Still cycle to work sometimes now, 19 miles each way.” He didn’t look much of a cyclist now, dressed in green barbour waistcoat and knee length laced hunting boots, more portly country gentleman.

He was waiting to join a local keeper on the Dalncardoch Estate, for a day out with a German party, heading out for six hours grouse beating and shooting in the highland heather. He smiled and motioned to the yapping in his 4x4, “Like to get out and train my twelve dogs in the thick of the hunt, the young ones forget everything I’ve taught them and go wild when they get the scent of game in their noses.” A bit like our boys when they spot a playground.

“Hunting’s my passion now but not my business ,” he explained, “I have a young MD to run that for me, especially around the Glorious Twelfth.” The date had passed me by, as things do after four of five weeks on the road, one day blending into another, days and dates becoming meaningless markers in an alternative world in which everything is marked in miles and mealtimes. “Ay, ask anyone in Scotland about CJ Smiths and they’ll know me,” he continued, “….glazing and conservatories for over 30 years.” For all his talking Gerard was not your typical double glazing salesman, more a self-made lad come Laird and I envied his ability to take time out to pursue his passion while others earnt his money, a skill we have yet to acquire. Still, I was grateful for the large note he stuffed into our charity collection tin.

Monday, 20 August 2007

Monday 20th August

Today's ride, Perth to a wild woodland near Pitlochry, via Dunkeld, 45.29km. Highlands here we come.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Sunday 19th August

Today's ride, from Kinross to Perth, a thankfully dry and easier 37km and the forecast is brighter for us all.