Thursday, 9 April 2009

About the blog.

If you like to read the last page of a book before starting on page one, just keep scrolling down.
Being a blog, this account of our trip in the summer of 2008, starts with the most recent posts first.
Much better to start at the beginning, using the archive tabs on the right - beginning with a few training runs and all the attendant niggles, doubts and worries.

The blog isn't big on maps, gradients and all the technical stuff. We followed Colin Langdon's well known Youth Hostel based route, available via the CTC website, thinking that an evening meal, a good nights sleep and a fried breakfast would be preferable to beans out of a tin and pitching a tent in a flash flood (the English Summer). We do have a few video clips by James and some cartoons by me. Hopefully, along with the posts, we've managed to capture some of the fun and adventure of this classic British tour.

Ifyou enjoyed the blog and would like to contribute to our justgiving page for Macmillan Cancer relief, we'd be grateful. There's a handy link at the right. Any comments you'd like to leave on the blog as a whole, please feel free by clicking on the comment button below. You'll need to have a googlemail account. If you can't be bothered with all that, email us at:

Thanks, Mike and James.

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

James's summing up

What a fantastic time, ok sure it hurt and yes there were times when I got fed up with being on the bike, but come on what a great adventure. I'm telling you it's like being a kid again, every day you wake up, eat scratch your head and wonder what the day holds for you, because you have no idea. OK, it might rain or not, that's about it with the weather. There could be some hills, but what goes up means you can go down. It's just down to you, your buddie, a map, your trusty bike and the unkown. That's what makes it fun and exciting.

Got to admit before I started out I was never sure I could do it, dont like bikes that much and couldn't tell you what make my brakes or gears are. So to be sitting on a bike every day for 15 days didn't sound that appealing. That very first day when you're at Lands End it becomes very real and you realise how far you have to go. Your mind is asking you 'what on earth are you doing this for? Get back on that train home!' but Mike and I had talked about this, just think one day at a time - and that's how we dealt with it. The first couple of days are the testers. That's when you need your stamina, and plenty of food and plenty of cheer, but once you get those days under your belt it begins to feel better.

Mike was a great friend on the ride, and we had some great times together. We only had one cross moment, over my change of heart about what type of soup to have for tea!!!, but we soon kissed and made up and that was on the 14 th day. Anytime before 11 in the morning Mike was quiet, and needed his time to wake up, but he soon burst into song and wit when tea and cake was on the horizon, although as the ride went on he began to cheer up much earlier. We had a great laugh every day to a point that some days we were nearly in tears and even though he took the crown of 'king of the mountains' for a couple of days off me I didnt hold it against him.
There was always the doubt with Mike if he was going to do it, with his back and his knees, and i know others doubted if he would hold out, but he did good and I'm very proud of my namby pamby friend.

So what words of advice can I give to those who want to give it a go?
1. Go for it, you will surprise your self and boy does it make you feel good.
2. If your staying in YH in a dorm get ear plugs, you'll need them - and you'll need your sleep.
3. Eat, eat and keep eating. don't wait till your hungry, and the great thing is youll be burning some 5000 calories a day so you can eat as much as you like... and you'll still be hungry. We tried those energy bars and gels, gave them up after the 3rd day, just used cereal bars and, beans, pasta, eggs etc when you can.
4. Very important: Don't drink alchohol at lunch time. Did it once, went straight to my head. took a couple of hours to wear off. Drinking at night time is ok as long as you can walk home from the pub afterwards
5. Not all YHA's do food, the English ones tend to do breakfasts but as you go up, you'll need to self cater, as we found that the hostel you're staying at is not always near a shop or town so you'll have to get stuff in on the way. Some hostels sell basic food but you will pay for it!!!! Can of beans £1 at Glencoe. Not all pubs are open on Mondays so you can't always bank on getting grub there
6. If you dont take a towel with you the hostel will provide but it will cost you from 50p to a £1. Showers are good but they don't provide saunas, closest thing being the drying room.
7. When looking at your route, study the roads with care. We took a couple of short cuts, and ended up mountain climbing up some hills!
8.We found we left most mornings at about 9 and arrived most days by 6.30, we didnt push it we took our time had plenty of breaks and enjoyed ourselves.
9.Invest in Avon 'skin so soft' Scottish midges don't like it
10. Enjoy it. Yes it's hard work and some days you seem to do a lot of climbing, but each day has a reward believe me. One day we spent 5 hours climbing to Glencoe, but when you got to the top and starrted going back down, amazing. No picture or video really captures it.
11. This is a great adventure and you will hurt, but every day you get up and you go on and each day it gets easier. What a great way to see the country, and what great stories you'll have to tell.

Would I do it again, .................. yes in the future, Mike and I talked about doing it again in 10 years time. Would I recommend it? You bet. Do I ever want to see a bike again? Yeah, it gives you a thirst to do more, next time Europe!

So what are you waiting for?.......................

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Mike's summing up.

Great to have done it - and great to be home again!

Couldn't have asked for a better partner on the long road north than old Penny. Endlessly good humoured, entertaining and upbeat, he kept my spirits up a good deal - particularly over the first two days when I was feeling so anxious about the days mileages that I could hardly eat my breakfast, or raise a smile till after 11! Filled my water bottles every morning, got the bikes out and made me more breakfasts than my wife! A top, top bloke and friend.

I'm a bit of a hypochondriac at times, but I had real concerns about my back on this trip. Happily, I didn't even have a twinge and I'm now convinced that the episode I suffered 4 weeks before we left was more down to over ambitious earthworks and fence building than the old Galaxy. Within a week of being home, I pulled a muscle in my groin walking the dog along the canal! You just never know with a body over 40. I lost half a stone, felt fitter as the trip went on and would heartily recommend it to anyone with a half-decent cardio vascular system.

I don't think either of us is what you'd call a 'keen' cyclist. We were both excited and motivated by the physical challenge and the chance to get a different perspective on the countries we passed through. We certainly got that, with days like the ride from Chester to Slaidburn, when the landscape shifting enormously as the hours went by.

It's been a brilliant, funny, knackering adventure - and we've raised a bit of money for a worthwhile cause along the way.

Here's some of the incredible wildlife we encountered - or thought we did - on the road. James very much enjoyed laughing at my mis-identifications. That was a brown trout at Carbisdale though...and I've missed out a few gazillion midges.

The long (train) ride home...

Up super early to allow time to ride 18 miles back to Thurso for the 8.42 train. Beautiful clear morning, probably the best start we'd had since Clun! Whipped along at a fair old rate, covering the distance in about 1.15.

Quick stop for provisions at Tesco essentials and a late sortie for papers by James before the train arrived. We'd booked the bikes on board so no hassle there. After an hour of looking for golden eagles and deer out of the window, we tucked into our sarnies etc. 15 days of constant cycling means you're hungry all of the time. Changes at Inverness, Perth and Glasgow and Crewe and we're nearly home. We actually talked about real stuff on the journey back - jobs, family, career etc - which was strange because serious matters just hadn't arisen really on the trip. We were just too busy keeping spirits up and getting to the next stage. Offered our fruit cake to all passengers around us at one point to receive blanket "no thankyou"s and embarrassed laughs. The sharing philosophy of the YH, which we've become accustomed to, just doesn't translate to the Virgin Pendolino.

Off at Stoke at 10.50 where we were met by  Jane and the girls  and Lauren who ran up the platform with a huge hand painted 'well done' banner, and our old chum Steve, who'd cycled with us in to Stafford at the start of the journey. After kisses, hugs and handshakes (Steve), the girls headed back to their cars and we set off for the towpath near the station. As soon as we got onto it, Steve pulled up and magicked 3 cans of Fosters from his bag. We gratefully swigged these, swapped some tales then headed home.

I returned to find a big hand drawn banner in the window, detailing some of the major landmarks and accurately showing me climbing behind James up a big hill! I think it's safe to say we were both of us glad of a bath and our own beds that night.

Day 15: Tongue to John O' Groats

Our new French biker chums,
Aldo and Pablo, outside
the YH
in Tongue.
We think we look a lot cooler.

The last and final day, the end of our journey, judgment day, day 15 0f 15, call it what you like, this was it the day we had been planning for 2 years, the day we thought would never come, it was here, and what a strange feeling. This is the day you have looked forward to but in some ways thought it would never happen.

It started in the usual way. Wake up look around to see who was still snoring, look to see if Mike was up and about, still snoring. I'm going to miss those gentle tones of slumber from my namby pamby Geordie friend. Stretch, and head downstairs for a brew and some breakfast. Back up to the dorm then fill the panniers, fill the water bottles, get the bikes out of the bike shed and prepare for the ride. Today it felt different. Mike and I really felt strange, we knew it was our last day and that made us feel really nervous. We folded the map to fit in the map sleeve, and saw the last bit of road that we would be following, along the top of the mainland to our goal.

We left the Hostel in a sombre mood and joked on what the Gods would throw at us today to stop us on our final leg. Neptune would throw the seas at us, the winds would push us back up the biggest hill in the world, we would have six punctures each, our bikes would collapse, our bodies would give up, the sun would come out and burn the road to sand, the great golden eagle would swoop down and take out our eyes. But no just a road with some hills to get the heart beating and the legs pumping. A few hours later we began to leave the final hills behind us (top speed down hill 43mph), and the road flattend out, we started to feel the need for tea and cake only to find everything shut, one for a funeral, one shut ('gone to get married back in a week'), next stop Thurso! Too far away, but luckily enough we found a pub that gave us a good lunch that was at the same time hosting the wake for the funeral, was this a sign of the end of our journey. Onto Thurso passing Dounreay nuclear site where the one headed cows grazed near by and grass grew green un affected by its surroundings. We entered Thurso and realised that this was the last town before the end, just 20 miles to go, just 20, not 200, just 20 that really hit home. Those 20 became a countdown which soon became 10 then 5 and then 4 then needles and pins kicked in, the hairs began to stick up on the back of your neck what a strange feeling almost unreal, and then that sign was in front of us, 'welcome to John O Groats' we crossed the line together, and headed down to the harbour down to the furthest point our bikes would take us. we got off or trusty steeds embraced and toasted the end of our journey with some Highland 'cyclists' whisky. We had the photos without the sign, 'gone for his tea come back tomorrow', and enjoyed the moment for a good while.We had a meal at the local inn and made our way back to the hostel with a beautiful sunset and a couple of bottles of Orkney ale to drink the night away.

John O' Groats at 6.30 and the
bloody Photographers taken
the sign home again - exactly
like LE.

Day 14: Carbisdale Castle to Tongue

Decent breakfast and off at 9.30, with a short 43 mile day ahead. Hoiked our bikes over a scaffolding covered bridge then straight into a 2 mile climb, eating our breakfasts twice!

Good mornings riding through Lairg and up onto a single track road for another 20 miles or so through some of the most open, midge infested terrain we'd seen. Had to keep riding whilst eating as the little swine were all over you in seconds if you stopped. Scottish opening times (11 - 3!) on a Sunday meant we had to dig deep into the bags for cereal bars, with peanut butter sandwiches for lunch.

Beautiful views during the ride up into the mountains and Lochs around Ben Loyal, some of the most spectacular and memorable of the trip, before we turned a final corner and saw the estuary at Tongue - and the Atlantic Ocean. Quite a feeling to know we'd made it so far.

Great and highly recommended YH run by a Danish lady called Hanna, who supplied us with free tea and big slices of home made cake at 50p a shot. having arrived early at 3.30, we then fell asleep like a pair of old codgers in the lounge, waking at 6.20 in time to race uphill to the local for
the most scanty, yet expensive fish and chips we'd ever eaten. Nouvelle cuisine in Tongue means five big chips in a little pile waving across the plate their good friend the haddock.

Mike was waylaid in the dorm by a lycra clad 72 year old who warned him about the frightening 'Bettyhill' up and down hill stretch next day, whilst towelling his back and displaying his pendulous, walnut-like wares. You don't get them in Halfords. Scarier than most of the hills we encountered next day for sure.

Good craic later that night with a mixed group of european bikers and travellers, all of whom responded in the usual way to James's opening conversational gambit of: " So.....does anybody like the English?" Pablo, pictured under day 15, tells me that the reason the English aren't keen on French rock music is because we're basically ignorant. When I ask him if he's got anyone on a par with the Beatles, the Stones or even Coldplay whom I need to be made aware of, he mutters that I'm talking too fast and can't understand the question...

Incredibly, the two ladies we bumped into so much along the way decided to finish their LEJOG today, with a 5 O'clock start, picnics provided by the YH and a distance of 110 miles! All so that they could have 'an extra day's pampering' in Edinburgh. I received a very excited call at around 11 that night to say they'd made it in one piece. Considering the problems they'd had with energy crashes, getting lost, swollen hands and dodgy bikes and dodgier knees it was really something special. We, on the other hand, are more than happy to wuss it out with a nice short 43 today followed by a 60 odd tommorow...

Day 13: Loch Ness to Carbisdale Castle

Leaving Loch Ness, Donald and daughter the folk singers, no sighting of Nessie and not much of the loch either - mostly hidden by trees - we headed out into the rain to be met with a little hill within 5 min. I have become used to this by now, and I do believe that it's good to start the day with a little climbing, just to get the old heart pumping. Mike and I decided that as hard as we tried to pedal up the hill, it would have been easier and quicker to get off and push. The idea being to conserve our energy for the day ahead! Once we got to the top a great ride over the open Scottish hills.

Later on we passed a mass of tents where a festival was going on that weekend and we did consider going to listen for a while, but no, we continued on our quest. Made our way to Alness for lunch and took a shortcut which worked great for us, and took us up to the top without hardly any panting. Fantastic downhill, which must have gone on for 3 miles, just gives you the giggles. Carry on into Ardgay and on for a few miles next to a beautiful bridge where we stopped, had a peanut butter sandwich and toasted a great days ride. And then it got even better, after a few miles, we came to our hostel for the night a 'castle' - pretty cool.
Living like kings now.

Later on we bumped into a bloke by the name of Will who was on a wee little tour of the area, nice bloke and had a good laugh over our stories. Dinner for me was a specially cooked curry - not too hot. I may be a hard biker on the road but I can't take hot curries. Then off to the quietest pub in the land,crossing the famous bonnar bridge. Considering it was a Saturday, Mike and I made up 50% of the punters. We were offered to dress up in some Scottish dresses but the beer wasn't working that quick and the landlord was not going to have his wicked way with me that night!

Back at the hostel, Mike headed off to bed and I stayed down talking to some visitors and a french lad who had a guitar with him. Asking if he was going to play, he replied he didn't play as it was just a tool to pull the girls. Some others then decided to go and get their guitars too and then there were three. After a while I picked up the strings and got them started with a few Jam numbers, then it got too noisy so I sneaked off upstairs before we were sent to bed. Unfortunately for me and my room - mates the band was playing right beneath us. Mike uttered "can you hear that ******** racket?" Nothing to do with me!

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Day 12: Glencoe to Loch ness

Leaving Glencoe YHA with a belly full of beans, pitta bread and breakfast bars to mop away last nights beers with some new French Friends. Headed along the road to Fort William where we invested in some customary tea and cake. Roads were busy as everyone was off to see Ben Nevis, but the best views came later as you drove away from it. Carried on along the A82 still a busy road and climbed up from Spean Bridge which takes up high again with some great view back to Ben Nevis, dropped down the side of Loch Lochy.

Got overtaken by a pair of lycra clad head-down pedallers on the Caledonian canal, but caught and passed them as they (pretended) to buy stamps at a post office. This helped us keep up a good pace all the way to the Loch Ness 'backpackers' hostel as we didn't want to get passed again! Thank goodness we're not the competitive types....

That night we were treated to some truly depressing musical fare in the form of a father and daughter duo from Ireland. Arriving back from the pub we found them entertaining a group of 15 or so assembled international travellers with sombre renditions of 'Bonny bonny banks', 'Skye boat song' and the like. These were interspersed with vivid descriptions of how everything everywhere was pretty rosy until the English came and screwed it all up. Donald and daughter were on pretty safe ground here, as judging by opinions elicited by James from continental folk we met on the way, the English are regarded about as well as rabid bats. They did bring a tear to Mike's eye with a rendition of 'Wild mountain thyme' but only succeeded in making James cry with laughter, 2 rooms away in the kitchen.

Donald was a bit stand-offish and grumpy with James next morning, but was happy to share his excellent Irish butter with Mike. One nil to the English!

Friday, 8 August 2008

Day 11: Loch Lomond to Glencoe

After a goods night sleep in our Mansion, we headed along the A82 really busy roads with a car crash half way along. Took the road along the lochs in the rain and had to stop within 1 hour to get a rest from the busy road and rain. After a couple of hours started to climb and climb and climb, and arived at the top, no round the corner and more climbing we must have spent the whole of the day climbing through some fantastic mountains and into the highlands and the Grampian mountains. No photo would be able to really tell how fantastic the views are. We arrived at the summit at about 5 and stopped for a bite to eat, only to find that the Scottish midge wanted to do the same to us, swarms of the little devils. Put on the recommended Avon cream recommended by the British Army! certainly did the job but those little devils always find a little place to get in and drink your blood.

The descent into Glencoe was very emotional. An incredible thing that you just have to do - and do it on a bike - you see so much, breathtaking. The effort that went into the climbs and the day as a whole was met by the exhiliration of whistling down through those auld moontins.

Quick shower, noodles and off to the local for some real ale and a pre Edinburgh performance by an irish band. Bit of bluegrass, country etc. Mike fell off his bike on the way back in the pitch dark but happily only pride injured...

Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Day 10: Wanlockhead to Loch Lomond

Day started pretty well with amazing descent (mostly) from the ultra high and mizzly YH. Equally amazingly, Mike managed to keep going up a hill longer than James for once, thus claiming the unnofficial/non-existent 'king of the mountains' crown. James refused to get off and walk all day after that early disgrace.

About twenty miles into the ride, the rain set in for the day. Got our first punctures within an hour of each other either side of the scary Erskine Bridge (the drivers), both fixed expertly by ex 'king of the mountains' Penny. The roads around Glasgow were the worst we encountered anywhere, with mega big and dangerous potholes. Pleasing and morale lifting to meet a bloke our age in Dumbarton who was also doing LEJOG - but supported over 3 weeks. "Oh, I'm not super-fit like you guys!" we had to hide our Mars bars and Hot Chocolates behind our backs after he'd said that. We ended up in Loch Lomond around 7, soaked and in need of nosh.

Amazing hostel packed with folk from all over the world, including a large party of Lithuanian bikers who thanked James for his offer of leftover Chinese food with a couple of hefty slugs of Absolut. James is no drinker, and looked a bit wobbly right away. I thought it a good idea to get him upstairs before he found himself covered in tattoos and on a ferry across the Baltic.

I still don't think it was a great idea of James's to tell one of their girlfriends that they were really " a big bunch of jessies" and that we could "take them all on", based on us travelling by pedal power and them sitting in motorised armchairs all day long.


Great manager who offered to dry our stuff in an industrial dryer and took our dorm lock apart after Mike over inserted his card/key. Hi ho. can't believe we're 10 days in and so high up.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Day 9: Carlisle to Wanlockhead

James had heard that this one ended with a tricky, long ascent. Oh boy, did it ever. Plain sailing for thirty odd miles out of Carlisle and into Scotland via Gretna, and much photo-mugging from us at the 'Welcome to Scotland' sign. Into Annan and suddenly everyone's Scottish and the scones are half price. Great! One old lady, pointing us in the dirrection of an ancients cafe told us "Ye'll get everything there from a needle tae an anchor!" Sadly, they didn't stock fruit cake of any description.

On into seagull plagued Dumfries and a couple of Subway veggie delites. the 'scene' kids and emos clustered around the shopping centre hugging each other/looking miserable are very like their English cousins.

The climb into Wanlockhead is pretty gradual for 15 miles then turns brutal for the last 6, up into hills - dotted with makeshift beehives - which look fashioned from plasticine. Mike 'bonked' a bit, so a leisurely break/wee/food stop was taken to get the motor running again.
We were soaked and cold - but ecstatic -reaching Scotlands highest village and a great welcome from Lisa, owner of the former YHA. She loaned us her laptop to update the blog and gave Mike a stockcube to jazz up his pasta.

Met a keen mountain biking big lad from Edinburgh called Willie, who gave us some good tips on what to avoid hill -wise over the next few days, and made some fine rounds of sugary tea. If we ever do anything like this again, we;ll take Willies top tip of wearing 'seal-skin' socks. Your shoes get soaked but tootsies stay dry, and all a bit more compact and tidy than our hopeless Altura overshoes.

Saddened to find that the village pub closes Mondays and Tuesdays! Bizarre meal of pizza, beans and leftover macaroni, washed down with three sugary teas. Excellent end to another knackering day.

Day 8: Slaidburn to Carlisle

Monumental day and there will be pics of us battling the elements and the hills. Slaidburn great place to say but we were told we had to be in by 11 otherwise we would be locked out. So early night sharing the dorms with a couple of Italians one snorer the other a whistler, heads over pillows and let the beer work its magic.

Left the hostel after a pub breakfast which was given for free, a first, to be fronted with a climb of about 6 miles rain and wind. Took 3 hrs to do 12 miles, long start, going to be a long day
Took the CTC route and headed for the hills to Kirby Lonsdale, busy road. Took the A683 to Sedbergh for lunch good straight road started to make some miles up. Took the CTC route to Tebay heavy going, made a big decision to make up time and head towards to Shap, to get on the A6, thought it would be quieter as everyone else would be on the motorway, good choice, at this point Mike was getting worried about dreaded hilly Shap, not a problem, gentle long climb sailed into Penrith along the A6 there by six, fuelled up with pasta, and hit 'ladies' ! day/ night out at the races Carlisle by 9. Long hard day so glad to be here. A friendly copper showed us the way to the hostel, single rooms, nice surprise, used as student accommodation in term tim, quick wash, Chinese takeaway and Newcastle brown. Time for bed and sweet dreams.

Degree of difficulty 8/10

Day 7: Chester to Slaidburn

After a great nights sleep in a B&B, we both felt homesick and missing our girls. James looked a bit crumpled for the first time on this trip.

The CTC route recommended a higgledy piggledy route throught the North West to the Trough of Bowland in Lancs, "A difficult day". We opted to ferry cross the Mersey and whizz straight up along the A59(?) to Preston. Worked a treat, heading off on flat Wirral roads before rolling straight onto the ferry where James enjoyed his tea so much he chucked it over the side.

Looking at the map ahead, I thought we might be heading straight up my (Mikes) little sisters High St in Penwortham, Preston. Popped in for tea and a chat just catching the rest of the family: Bro in lawRob, Lucas, Olivia and new baby Lexy before heading off towards hills again.

Gradual climb up from Preston and an amazingly early (6.30) finish for us. Nothing whatever to do in one pub village but go to one pub, where we nursed our drinks and sat in a bizarre family room (vaccum and chairs, jigsaws etc strewn everywhere), watching Charlie and Ewan go the 'heavily supported' way round. We'd love to have a production team with croissants following us every day.

Liz and Gina, two ladies from Somerset doing the same tour as us, limped in at 11.30, having taken Mr Langdons excellent route, doing over 30 miles more than our 70 odd. The warden at Slaidburn warned us we'd have to be back for 11 or be locked out, which seemed a tad
draconian. In most hostels the rule is: 'No staff on reception after 11.' Despite the YHA being a national organisation, each hostel has its own identity and quirks. Happily for us, if there is one village in the UK where you don't mind being treated like a naughty teenager, it's Slaidburn.

day 6: Clun to Chester

Big day today meeting the families in Chester, and friends Steve and Mark coming to Clun to ride with us for the day.

A good nights sleep, no snoring from anyone, self catered breakfast with a Danish family. Met the boys and good to see them. The ride via Shrewsbury was a bit all over the place. Following the little roads got lost a bit but then found ourselves, sound very religious?
When we got the bit done over the top out of Clun the ride was pretty good - a bit up and down and some climbs around the Long Mynd - but no getting off, just use the granny gears, and some flapjacks cooked by Steves wife Catherine

We arrived at Ellesmere for lunch at 3.30 very hot and ready for food, first mistake was to order a beer and some grub, the grub was good but the beer went straight to my head.
Said goodbye to the boys as they headed home to stone and made our way to Chester on some fast going roads covering the miles quickly, got lost when the CTC route didnt match the maps and made our own route, this happens a lot make it more of an adventure. Arrived in Chester in time to meet the family, emotional time but great to see them, had a meal lots to talk about not enough time and it would have been easy to have gone back home with them. Said our goodbyes, and headed back feeling down and up to the B&B for a good nights sleep