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.

Saturday, 18 August 2007

More Horrid than Henry

I pushed against the wind, head down into the rain. Beneath me on my left, almost obscured by mist, the river. To my right the traffic, buzzing across the Forth Bridge, wipers busy clearing torrential rain from their windscreens. Up and up we climbed, over the bridge and down into the mist, the fierce wind leaving me gasping for breath, burning my cheeks, and my face already battered by rain. Behind me Matthew bent his head for shelter while Horrid Henry played on the MP3 through his headphones. I hoped it was drowning out the wind and rain, and lifting his spirits above mine. “Why am I putting him through this?” I wondered. “It’s all so pointless.”

The truth was we had made a chain of decisions that had put us up against it in appalling weather. Ironically enough, these choices had been made with the kids in mind. Saturday is pocket money day and treat day, and after our long hard ride into Edinburgh we promised the children some down time. We stayed with friends Gareth and Emma for the night and as we packed up the bikes in the pouring rain, Emma invited us to a children’s party their son was going to. Looking out of the window at weather that didn’t seem to be about to change, we agreed. But the party and the bad weather both went on into the afternoon, longer than we’d planned to stay. Mid afternoon we togged up in full rain gear, and bumped up and down the cobbled streets of the city. It was one cobble too much for my bike and the drive chain snapped at a busy junction. After holding up a line of impatient festival traffic, I eventually wheeled my bike into a car park, humiliated and angry with myself for breaking the chain. Then drenched after the fiddly repair job, we cycled down Princes Street on the busiest day of the year. The festival street performers looked as soggy as us as they did their stuff to crowds of shoppers, undeterred by the weather. People stared at us through their unbrellas, perhaps thinking we were one of the acts. We stopped to buy maps and have coffee while we debated our next move. We couldn’t stay in Edinburgh, an internet search had thrown up nothing in the city or on the outskirts, so we had booked a Travel Inn in Kinross. But it was a long way out of town and it was already four o clock. We would have to shift it if we wanted to get there at all.

Twenty two kilometres from Kinross, over the Forth Bridge, we stopped in the rain for a family meeting in a disused garage forecourt. It was still raining persistently and we were freezing cold, with soakign feet and black moods. But we had no other options, wild camping couldn’t be done in the busy urban area, there were no campsites and we had spent our budget on an overpriced room. It was the first time in the trip we had forward booked something and we were regretting our actions.

Six kilometres from Kinross and we stopped in a bus shelter at the side of the road. It was pitch black, all three of the kids were crying. We had been wading through massive tracks and pools of water in the dark, spraying clothes and buggies with cold water. “Only a few more kilometres boys, and then we can all get into warm beds,” we tried to cheer up them and ourselves. Was John O Groats really worth all this?

“Are you warm now?” I asked Matthew, as he snuggled into my arms. He didn’t reply, he was entranced by Match Of the Day. On my tummy, Hannah giggled and squirmed, dressed only in a nappy and a warm quilt after her hot bath. Next to me, Stuart lay on the bed with Cameron in his arms, sharing the MP3 earphones, laughing out loud at the exploits of Cameron’s new favourite story. The Kinross experience had been a challenge, but obviously not as horrid as Henry. Only an hour after reaching the hotel, all thoughts of our challenging journey had been forgotten, for now.

Saturday 18th August

Today's ride, Edinburgh to Kinross. Wet, wet, wet, but still 51.4km. But never again in such conditions.

Friday, 17 August 2007

Friday 17th August

Today's ride, to Edinburgh, 74.7km

Thursday, 16 August 2007

Turning points

Hannah was bawling in the darkness. Both boys were crouching in the corner of the tent, holding their noses, clutching their sleeping bags for protection. “It stinks Dad, it really stinks,” said Matthew, “it’s making me sick. “ I sat helplessly in the middle of the tent cupping fresh vomit in my hands, praying there was no more to come for the cup was already full. “Where’s the torch?” snapped Kirstie thrusting a nappy at Hannah to catch any final emissions then fumbling about in her bar-bag for wipes. Of course they were outside in one of the trailers, as everything is when you are half naked in the tent and really need it. Traffic thundered past on the M74, a hundred yards or so away, hot sick seeped through my fingers dripping onto tracksuit and thermarest and I’d had enough. It was time to give up.

I felt we’d been doing so well, clocking up the k’s, getting back home, passing the half way point. When we left home for the second time, John O Groats still felt within grasp but somewhere north of Burton we lost our rhythm. The weather turned, our route got blocked by roadworks north of Carlisle and we suffered an infuriating series of four punctures in less than 20km. It took two days to make it across the border from Carlisle to Gretna and then we found ourselves following a cycle route next to the M74. I chose it for its directness, thought it would help us make up time, get back on track, but endless hours spent cycling to the drone of traffic gave me motorway madness. Then camping by it. Then hot sick and no baby wipes. There was no point any more.

Puncture number four

I took the boys out on a fibre glass swan pedallo the following day. We’d managed a miserable 15km in two hours and detoured to Moffat to get away from the motorway, to resupply and to find some light relief and meaning to life. The boys loved pedalling around Moffat’s boating pond, crashing into the sides but it did nothing to lift my spirits. Kirstie and I bickered over lunch about whether to carry on and decided to try and push through the depression and see how we felt when we reached Glasgow, two days up the M74. It was a stupid plan. We crawled up and up the Tweedsmuir hills out of Moffat, legs burning from the strain of continuous climbing…. 1km… 2km…. 3km. “I like this road,” said Cameron, breaking the silence as we climbed further, “it’s quieter.” 4km and we reached a turning; left and downhill for the M74 and Glasgow, right for a further another 6km of climbing and the the tourist road to Edinburgh. I stopped and waited for Kirstie. We never meant to go to Edinburgh. It was a longer, hillier route. It was festival time and impossible to find accommodation. It was out of our way and might mean giving up on John O Groats.

More pedalling in Moffat

Forty kilometres later, still full of energy, with the light fading, we pitched our tent stealthily in woodland near Drumelzier. It had been a hard ride, climbing for two hours to almost 500m, in cold windy showers, picnicking high up over the Devil’s Beef Tub, then chasing the River Tweed down, through forests and across open moor as it grew bigger and stronger, fed by burns brought to life by the days rain, and rushing towards Peebles. As we lay in absolute silence in the tent, tired but satisfied by the days exertions, I remembered how much I love the twists and turns of this way of travelling, the strange intensity of daily highs and lows which routinely outgun those of our regular lifestyle and the peculiar joy of the unpredictable nature of life.

Above the Devil's Beef Tub

Thursday 16th August

Today's ride, Dinwoodie to Drumelzier via Moffat en route to Edinburgh. Trying to get back on some kind of track but away from the A74 if not the headwind. 56.64km. A wild day and a wild camp.

Wednesday, 15 August 2007

Fortunately, unfortunately

Sometimes when cycling with the kids we have to come up with games and stories to keep us all moving. These range from the traditional I Spy to Matthew’s home made “Am I holding my nose when I say this?” game. Fortunately the fortunately/unfortunately game has also provided hours of fun. The following is, unfortunately, an account of our day.

“Fortunately Scotland is really close, Gretna’s only a few kilometres away.”
“Unfortunately heavy rain and high winds are forecast.”

“Fortunately there’s a McDonalds in Carlisle, we can get a happy meal and wait for the rain to pass.”
“Unfortunately lunch is finished…and the rain is just starting.”

“Fortunately in the next town there’s a free Roman workshop. We can spend some time with a Roman soldier, make Roman pots, and dress up in Roman clothes.”
“Unfortunately our pot has now dried, the Roman has gone home on the bus and it’s still raining.”

Romans are still in Britain

“Fortunately Gretna Green is only six kilometres away.”
“Unfortunately there are heavy roadworks on the direct route.”

“Fortunately Ed Roberts, a local, who toured from Lands End to John O groats for his honeymoon nine years ago turns up with route advice and twenty quid for our charity fund.”
“Unfortunately his new route involves an extra twenty kilometres.”

Old Groater Ed Roberts

“Fortunately we pass Ed’s house, and he runs out with a bottle of wine for us to take on our journey.”
“Unfortunately the rain gets heavier and we hear thunder in the near distance.”

“Fortunately we ignore Ed’s advice and bike along the A74, following a cycle path on the map.”
“Unfortunately the cycle path grinds to a halt half way down a narrow track at the side of the unbearably noisy road.”

“Fortunately we manage to turn the bikes around as the cars blast past.”
“Unfortunately we get a puncture.”

No through road: roadworks and puncture

“Fortunately as we stop to mend the puncture at the side of the road, a motorist stops.”
“Unfortunately he is lost and just wants directions.”

“Fortunately the security people at the deserted Iron Bridge Pub come to offer us a cup of tea.”
“Unfortunately they can’t offer a new route, only the 20 kilometer detour we were already aware of.”

“Fortunately after twenty kilometres the rain stops for long enough to buy chips.”
“Unfortunately it starts again as we eat our chips on the roadside.”

“Fortunately the curry sauce has a cling film lid.”
“Unfortunately we get two more punctures.”

“Fortunately theres a hotel opposite the chippie.”
“Unfortunately it’s still raining when we get up again.”

“But fortunately Scotland is really close….Gretna’s only a few kilometres away.”

We made it!

Wednesday 15th August

Today's ride, Longtown to Dinwoodie near Johnstonbridge. Finally made Scotland after 3 more punctures only to face a tiresome headwind to make just 42km. John O Groat's seems very far away again.

Tuesday, 14 August 2007

Tuesday 14th August

Today's ride, South Carlisle to Longtown: a short, wet day in which we were unable to leave England, despite our best efforts, just 28.5km

Monday, 13 August 2007

Charity case

Perhaps we look like a charity case. I certainly feel a bit like a tramp at the end of most days, looking dischevelled in my dirty clothes, pulling my trailer stuffed with plastic bags, surrounded by my little street urchins.

One of my street urchins

It was way back in Cornwall that people started offering us money and it’s continued in fits and starts up the country. Some coppers here, a pound there, the odd fiver. We were warned about this by Dave, an old Groater who completed the challenge ride earlier this year. “There's an assumption if you're doing LEJOG then you must be trying to raise money. I did it because I love cycling but there were a few times I felt quite uncomfortable explaining that to people who obviously wanted to give me a fiver!!”

To begin with we tried Dave’s tack of refusing money, trying to explain the intrinsic pleasure of riding without a charitable motive, but I ended up feeling selfish and the people with their hands in their pockets seemed quite dissappointed not to be able to give. So we concluded it was probably better to accept donations and find a good cause to give them to. Matthew found an old Pudsey bear money box in his rucksack of toys, I found some gaffer tape to seal it in the tool kit, Kirstie made a notice and we started accepting donations for Children in Need from anyone keen enough to offer us money.

It took a while for the kids to get the idea. “Are we children in need?” asked Cameron after one sweet old lady put several pounds of her pension into the pot. “Thanks,” said Matthew cheekily after another fellow pushed a tenner into his money box, “That will buy lots of ice creams.” And then of course the whole BBC phone-line scandal broke, rocking confidence in our chosen charity. But none of this seems to stop the committed giver from establishing our charitable status and forcing loose change upon us. We’d prefer notes though, they’re much lighter!

Anyway, to avoid any confusion and put things on a more formal footing, we’ve made the whole thing official, registered with Children In Need and set-up an online sponsorship page to collect donations. So, if you’re reading this and feel moved to support us in supporting them, then follow this link and donate to your heart’s content. Who knows, we may even get to John O Groats and finish collecting before November’s Children in Need Appeal. Now that would be something.

Seventy is the new sixty

Somewhere on this trip we went up a gear. Just a few weeks ago, forty kilometres was almost unthinkable. Some days we cycled just twenty five or so, then stopped to put up the tent, feeling we’d done quite well. But now, if I haven’t clocked up at least sixty kilometres on the milometer I feel like I’ve underachieved. It’s become addictive. And the fact that we have less than three weeks left to complete our mission, with getting on for another thousand kilometres to cycle fuels the addiction. So does the weather that’s forever threatening to break. At the beginning of the trip I thought I’d be happy to reach Edinburgh. But suddenly that would feel like failure.

Yet all around us there are people who make us feel like snails, and overshadow our best efforts. The other John O Groaters are the worst. Way back in Chepstow we met the Canelle family. Having cycled as a family for many years they were now doing a last fling trip with their two teenage sons. As our own boys trashed the café, theirs gracefully mounted their bikes and prepared to leave for Hereford. They were expecting to get there by the end of the afternoon. We were headed in the same direction but expected it would take us three days to get near the town. In the event, we gave up and went to Leominster instead. The mother of the Cannelle family seemed a little surprised to hear we had no idea where we were staying each night. But for me that’s one of the more fun aspects of the trip. Heavy planning is not my bag.

The Canelle family, Chepstow

In Church Stretton we met Julie and Colin, another couple of former John O Groaters, on bikes, out for a Sunday morning cycle. “We did Lands End to John O Groats last year,” they said, congratulating us on our progress so far.“I bet you did it quicker than us,” I joked. “Oh no, we did it really slowly,” they replied. “It took us seventeen days.”

Julie and Colin, out for a Sunday ride in Church Stretton

Today we broke the seventy kilometer barrier. It was a beautiful days riding, through the Lakes, past Derwentwater and Thirlmere, and through the busy Lakeland towns of Ambleside and Grasmere. But it was tiring and hilly and the Dunmail Raise gave way to countless smaller hills as we wound our way around to Carlisle. Evening arrived and the rain was pushing in when we arrived at a closed pub we had been aiming for. As we ate the last of our stale bread, and sat on the cold gravel, we discovered Carlisle was still seventeen kilometres away, which would take us to a total of seventy one kilometres. “Damn,” I thought, stretching knackered legs. Now seventy was the new sixty, and forty was a blast from the past. “Come on kids, just seventeen more for a new world record,” I said, with one eye on the milometer and the other on the road.

Monday 13th August

Today's ride, Ambleside to South Carlisle via Grasmere, Dunmail Raise, Thirlmere and lots of gates: a long, tiring and hilly 70.05km

Sunday, 12 August 2007

Sunday 12th August

Today's ride, Burton in Kendal to Ambleside via Windermere, 41.05km

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Home but only half way there

We finally made it home. After four weeks, four punctures, a broken chain and 1040km. The place smelt awful; damp and mouldy. Having escaped the floods around Gloucester and Tewkesbury there was no escaping the damage from an overflowing cistern. So what I imagined as a day of rest, relaxation and recuperation became a day of clearing up. And after just a few hours cleaning mildew off walls, tables and chairs I was ready to get back on my bike.

We always knew it would be strange coming home half way through. We even considered avoiding the place, taking a different route so we wouldn’t need to stop off or call in, fearing we might fall into bed and never get up again. But in the event, while it’s been nice to see the old place, it’s just as nice to think we’ve another three weeks on the road before we have to come back and face the thousand jobs that always need doing in an old property like ours. Like getting the boiler to work so we can have that hot bath we’d been so looking forward to.

Anway, putting the lack of bath aside it was great to lie-in in our own beds, read the paper over breakfast, let the kids veg in front of videos, cook a meal with more than one pan, pop down the local tearoom and say hi to a few friends. And now it’s time to hit the road again. Nice as it is, we can’t afford to hang around if we’re to make John O Groats.

When we set off from Lands End, we figured reaching O Groats was possible in six to seven weeks if we could manage to ride 25 miles a day. I thought we’d know after a fortnight whether we could hack it, whether End to End was achievable in the time available. But while we’ve managed the distance and more, I still don’t know if we can top-out in time to get back in time for school. We’ve got three weeks and while it’s still looking feasible, the far North of Scotland still looks far, far away, beyond the challenges of distilleries, deep fried mars bars, the Scottish Highlands and swarms of hungry midges. The whole journey still has an air of challenge and uncertainty about it without which life would be so much more boring. And so with the bagpipes are calling, it's time to get back to what we hope will be the open road.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Friday 10th August

Today's ride, Preston to Burton in Kendal via Glasson Dock: 65.56km

Thursday, 9 August 2007

The wobbles

Careering along the narrow cycle track towards Southport, a couple of oncoming cyclists pulled politely onto the verge to let us pass, judging (probably wisely) the momentum of tandem and trailer to be not worth arguing with. Respecting their nervousness I slowed to a stop to ensure they didn't get caught in our slipstream , and to say thanks.

“I’m just learning to ride,” said Diane, “so still a bit wobbly.” She looked to be doing alright though, getting the hang of it on nice, flat traffic free track along the grassy dunes near Southport. “Haven’t ridden in nearly 40 years,” she continued, smiling more confidently now she had stopped, “since I was just a kid. Sounds amazing what you’re doing.”

But it’s not that amazing really. Most people could cycle twenty five miles a day if they wanted to. It’s not hard, you just need to want to. Age is no barrier, nor experience. You’re never too old to ride a bike or to learn to ride one. Craig, a cycle skills trainer I met recently, told me a wonderful story about a man of 77 who had never ridden a bike before but wanted to learn because his new partner loved cycling. “We spent an afternoon together,” Craig explained, “practising balance, starting, stopping. By the end, he cycled 100 yards on his own. He was so chuffed.” And rightly so. The world needs more cyclists and it’s great to see people like Diane getting back on their bikes, enjoying the sunshine, the fresh air, the exercise and the world around them.

“You could do something like this, a trip together” I said to Diane and her partner Derek, “if you wanted to.” I thought I detected a spark of interest, imagining them riding off somewhere further afield together. “Get yourself some panniers, take off somewhere for a week, a month or more.” Diane smiled, “I think I need more practice first, I had to take my basket off because it made me fall over.” A small but not insignificant matter that I hope she overcomes.

Thursday 9th August

Today's ride, Formby to Preston via Funland (Southport); 52.67km