2017-08-27 15.58.27

Day 18 – Andrew – End to Ended

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.

Andrew

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Day 15 – Andrew

I want to thank you again for your support and bring you up to date.  Knowing about everybody’s extraordinary generosity has made all the difference, and when the thought of hopping on a bus or getting into the support van has seemed overwhelmingly tempting, it has prevented me from doing so.

We are now north of Edinburgh and, as you might expect the country has opened up, becomes expansive, grander, wilder, emptier and, frankly even more beautiful.

Why is it LEJOG (Land’s End to John O’Groats) and not the other way around, JOGLE?  Four reasons.  First, it is easier this way.  The prevailing wind in Great Britain is south-west so if you are lucky, you have a tail wind.  We have been broadly lucky and sometimes felt the wind pushing us up hill. There have been strong westerly cross winds a couple of days and that is bearable but a headwind is brutal thing. Even worse than heavy rain.  Second, when you are cycling it always feels as if you are going uphill.  The ground is never level and the downhills – inevitably – take much less time than the uphills.  So going uphill – northwards – makes sense.  Third, I thought that the country couldn’t be more beautiful than Devon and Cornwall.  I was wrong.  It definitely gets better as one goes northwards.  Lancashire, the brief corner of Yorkshire that we traversed through, and Cumbria were magnificent, spectacular and much emptier than anything further south.  And now Scotland is well, a different country.  It is much emptier, the great aristocratic estates are on the whole well looked after with magnificent mature trees, good stone walls and plenty of animals in the landscape.  And then there is the open moorland.  It is immensely rewarding.  It would probably be rather dispiriting to go in the other direction.

One of the great pleasures of this trip has been – perhaps improbably – some of the bridges.  There have been lots of beautiful bridges, eighteenth and nineteenth century, and some twentieth, over small rivers as well as some superb railway viaducts.  The first great bridge we crossed was Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s Clifton suspension bridge.  Recently restored, it is the most magnificent sight with spectacular views across the Avon.  Definitely worth the detour.  And to then to cross the old M4 bridge over the River Severn into Wales is a great treat for one day.  The fourteenth (or possibly even thirteenth?) century Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby Lonsdale is a miracle.  Delinquent youths have probably been throwing themselves off it into the river Lune for six or seven hundred years.  I tried to stop just such a set of youths.  Inevitably I failed, perhaps like many before me. I didn’t hang around to see them break their necks.

The best bridges, however are those over the Forth, the Forth rail bridge of 1884, the road bridge of 1964, which we crossed on bikes, and the new 2017 road bridge which opens next week.  As it says in South Queensferry, this is the home of single, double and triple-span bridges.  What a great collection.  House building may be a crap enterprise now without flair or imagination, but bridge building is magnificent and the new bridge is a sight worth beholding.

Crossing Edinburgh, the first huge city we had been through since Manchester, was strange.  It is a city that no one can fail to adore and it was at its best with the Festival.  With all the buzz; the crowds and a startling number of dogs, the traffic lights, the endless stopping and starting, it was an incongruous experience on a long bike ride through the countryside.  It was a reminder of how very different it is living in the countryside from the city.  Another reminder was that throughout this journey we have seen far too many English flags and Union Jacks.  They are not welcome to my eyes: almost certainly marking the homes of at best Brexitreers and at worst UKIP supporters.  A depressing sight.  None of that in the big cities.

Finally now that we are in Scotland I can confirm that the weather is no worse up here than down south.  But the real enemy of the cyclist is not rain anyway; it is those headwinds headwind.

I’m not sure I would recommend consenting adults to go on holiday with siblings or aged parents (children, of course are never given any choice).  There are reasons why one doesn’t often see large extended family groups on holiday.  But watching my dad contending with 50, 60 or 70 miles a day every day at the age of 89 is pretty amazing.  I’m more impressed than I want to admit.  And we are all getting on very happily.

One last report to come from John O’Groats.  Thank you again for your support, encouragement and most generous donations.

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Day 10 – Andrew summary

We are now more than halfway between Land’s End and John O’Groats and I thought you would like an update.  That is, we have cycled 560 miles through Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Bristol (is that still Avon?), Monmouthshire (Wales), Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Lancashire and now God’s Own County as Sam insists we must call Yorkshire.  We have cycled between something over 40 and 70 miles a day and how tough it is depends on the wind and the hills.  As we move north it is getting hillier, though Devon and Cornwall were hardly flat.  The cycling adage that each day’s cycling is training for the next day is sort of true.  Sadly the last three days have been on a bicycle.  Caroline fulfilled her threat and left after seven days at Ironbridge to finish her book.  Actually a bicycle is livelier, friskier, more responsive and altogether easier to cycle than a tandem.  But I liked the companionship of a stoker. Norman is doing astonishingly well and, powered with his electric bike is always first up the hills.  Absent a disaster, he is definitely going to complete the ride on two wheels.  The rest of us too.

And what have we seen?  The hedgerows and trees look to be in pretty good shape throughout the country but there are far too many cars on the roads.  Some drivers are slow and patient, some are careless and aggressive.  It has been impossible to discern a pattern except that shiny, fast, expensive cars tend to be the worst.  Lorries, vans and old beaten up cars can be patient and courteous or cruel.  There is also a depressing amount of litter along the sides of the busier roads.

Cycling north I am struck by what staggering builders the Victorians were.  Every village and provincial town is, at heart, now Victorian and what great things they did.  There is also an amazing amount of building going on now.  But almost all the building is for ‘prestigious, exclusive, unique or luxury’ housing.  Often little pockets of 10 to 20 buildings on prime land at the edge of villages or towns.  Suburban creep.  We have seen absolutely no social housing and precious few attempts at reviving some of the poorer and more dispiriting places we have cycled through.  These new developments are imposing great homogeneity on the landscape.  Much of England is still staggeringly beautiful.  Achingly so often.  There are incredible views, beautiful gardens – though far too many garden centres which turn out to be something of a misnomer.  They have useful loos but are really just a way of spreading out of town gift shopping developments.  One of the enduring pleasures of the ride has been the smell of fresh-cut grass.  All the usual farming smells too. And it is true that as you move north the country becomes more beautiful, and outside the nineteenth century industrial and mining centres, less ravaged too.  The real north and Scotland comes now.

John Ruskin described this as ‘probably the most beautiful view in England. And therefore the world’.  Perhaps he wasn’t much of a traveller.

 

 

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Day 3 – Andrew

Thank you so much for your generous support.  It means everything.  I believe we are going to hit our target of £100,000 spread between the four linked charities.  This really will make a difference.

Three days in I can tell you that Britain – or at least the south west tip, is a very hilly country.  Cornwall is very hilly indeed.  Short, sharp hills.  Shockingly hard work.  Devon is a county of hills.  Long and slow.  Also shockingly hard work.  But it is also very beautiful country.  Perhaps when we die and go to heaven, it will look a bit like Cornwall.  Or Devon.

Thank you again for your support.

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Last days of training

After all of August’s allowance of rain falling on London yesterday, there should be none left for the rest of the month and we should be set for fair weather all the way from Land’s End to John O’Groats.  But perhaps it doesn’t work like that.

Preparations are almost complete and all that silly gear for MAMILs (Middle Aged Men in Lycra) is laundered and packed.

Much more significantly, the level of support for the four charities that make up ‘Social Action’ has been amazing and we should definitely make our target – that is the most exciting thing of all and heartfelt thanks to all our incredibly generous supporters.  You have been extraordinary!

On the other hand Land’s End to John O’Groats looks feeble compared to what Mark Beaumont is doing – going around the world on a bicycle in 80 days.  To do that, he is cycling 240 miles a day, in an average of 17 hours cycling a day.  That’s next year for the Franklins.  Or perhaps he is insane and we will simply have more fun – and definitely raise much more for charity.

Two pictures of cheery cyclists in training.

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Beanstalk

I have just had an inspiring meeting with two of the senior management team who run Beanstalk from very modest offices near Profile.  They are an incredibly impressive lot.  Former teachers abound, but they are impassioned about what they do and run the charity very effectively on a shoestring.  They spread their work far and wide over England, and fortunately are spreading into Wales soon.  There is immense deprivation there so a huge amount to be done.  (I guess it is no surprise but the problems are greatest in the most Brexity parts of the country).  But of course – and I hadn’t thought of this – there is a great logistical challenge in matching schools that want volunteer reading helpers with where volunteers are able or willing to go.  Lots of companies encourage volunteers but that tends to be in the centre of big towns.  That is a particular problem in London.

Here are two pictures at work.  One of them could be me at some point in the future.  I hope it will be.  Beanstalk are doing amazing work.

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