I felt surprisingly emotional when I reached John O’Groats around lunchtime today. I hadn’t expected that, especially as it’s a sort of nothing place, though with less tat than Land’s End but little to distinguish it from the rest of the coastline. Perhaps I was just tired. There is a pleasing parallel between the two: from the first you have clear views of the Scilly Isles, from the last, the Orkneys loom large and magnificent. In fact there’s a tiny ferry from John O’Groats to the Orkneys, so it isn’t even the end of anything really. I like that.
And what of the whole ride?
I am haunted by the knowledge that so much of England and Scotland is staggeringly beautiful. Perhaps particularly Scotland. It is emptier, on a larger scale and more magnificent. But much of England is stunning too. The Forest of Bowland was a particular revelation and I want to go back there as soon as possible to explore and walk it. I have been given a tip for a great hotel.
Highlights. The very top of Scotland is extraordinary. I had never been before. Sutherland and Caithness are empty. A complete wilderness – though a carefully managed one. They were much more heavily occupied before the Highland clearances – particularly brutal on the Countess of Sutherland’s estates, but now you can cycle for miles without seeing a house. That is a very exciting experience. The Cairngorms were another notable highlight.
The two highest passes in Great Britain are both in the Cairngorms. Both are remarkable because when you arrive at the top you see ski lifts rising up from below and soaring above you. They are great places to visit in summer. I am not sure they would be my first choice for skiing in winter. The wind is relentless. It must chill to the bone in February. The Scots love saying that ‘there’s nae such thing as inclement weather, only inappropriate clothing’. Even in August that is a rank lie. Still, the descents are thrilling and one can reach dangerously exciting speeds.
Cycling every day is tiring but one gets into a rhythm. Caroline gave me a tee-shirt which says Sleep. Cycle. Eat. Repeat. It really is a bit like that. It becomes hypnotic. On arriving at John O’Groats I felt slightly tempted to turn around and cycle all the way back. It is an escape from real life. And, of course cycling through the countryside rather than the cities is an escape from modernity too. One has the impression (is it an illusion?) that nothing changes much in the countryside. Certainly much more slowly. The countryside – throughout England and Scotland really does seem to be in quite good shape. It was exciting to see the harvests being taken in successively over the weeks we travelled north. The combine harvesters working late into the night in Scotland as they had been in Cornwall, Devon and throughout the Midlands. And the crops aren’t that different either. Hedges and trees are in good shape too although it is a shame that the great specimen trees of the 19th century are not being replaced. One sees many magnificent oak, ash, sycamore, beeches, copper beaches, cedars and other trees all along the way. But not so many younger trees – 10, 20, 30 years old.
Sadly the provincial towns are in much less good shape. In fact I don’t think we saw a single town – the length of the country – which is in better shape now than it would have been 50 or 100 years ago. There is not a single town without numerous charity shops and indeed empty shopfronts. And there are whole towns with almost no economic activity on the High Street at all. Part of that is down to big, out of town developments – Tescos, the Morrisons and the rest of it. They do not enhance the landscape. Part of it due to Amazon and other online retailers. But the consequences are bleak and malaise spills over from the shops to public buildings like town halls, libraries and institutes that look shabby and underfunded. Where has civic pride gone?
I had to push on ahead early for the last three days in order to be back for the Profile Wayzgoose (a Wayzgoose is a 19th century tradition borne of printing: a works outing for everybody and their family). I was sorry to leave my family behind as they had been doing so brilliantly. And particularly my dad. It was amazing helping him – cajoling, encouraging – and indeed pushing him up the two highest passes in England. Not many 89 year olds – even on an electric bike can have gone over the Lecht – the highest pass in Britain and brutally tough for anyone of any age. Using an electric bike doesn’t require great physical exertion but you are out in the wind, sun and rain all day long from 9.00am until you arrive without a break. And all the time you have to keep pedalling. And he had never been on a cycling holiday before. Over the three weeks he set, at the age of 89, his personal records of 64, 68 and 78 miles in a day. It is a pretty awesome achievement.
The worst parts of the experience were not the sore knees and bum, it wasn’t even cycling in the rain or into a headwind. The worst was thoughtless and dangerous drivers overtaking at speed on blind corners and too close. Another horror was the staggering amount of roadkill: a couple of birds of prey, foxes, hares, badgers, quite a few deer and endless game birds and rabbits. The constant litter didn’t lift the spirits either. Mostly drink and fast food packaging but plenty of other crap too. Still, the highs far outweigh the lows and – on our route anyway – the beautiful trounced the ugly every day, every hour even, (except around greater Manchester and Liverpool).
And we have hit, and exceeded our £100,000 target for the four ‘Social Action’ charities. We can’t say the exact sum because money is still coming in and we have got complicated calculations with Gift Aid. But it is really wonderful to have raised so much. Given that all the charities we are supporting are small, this will make a real difference to the effective work they can do – some of it in some of the deprived places we have passed through. I’m more pleased about this even than finishing the ride.
Would I recommend cycling LEJOG to anyone?: Yes definitely. It is one of those things that looks daunting until you think about it. It is broken up over many days, each day is manageable and each day gets a bit easier than the one before. Of course you need good weather – and we were very lucky – but with that proviso, if you can pedal in a straight line, use your brakes and enjoy the British countryside, I recommend it wholeheartedly. But I would only suggest tandeming to my enemies.
Thank you again. That’s it from me. Roger, wilco and out.