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Final thoughts – Tom

What a privilege to be able to cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats; to be able to afford the time and the cost and to have the fantastic support that we have had along the way.  Wonderful that we have been able to raise even more than our target of £100,000 for the great causes; and we have been so lucky with the weather too.  It has all gone fantastically smoothly and we have all completed the 1,030 or so miles.  We have even been lucky to hardly meet any midges in Scotland at the height of the midge season.

Sometimes it seems hard to remember all the good things about the ride as there have been so many, some of which have been covered in the daily blogs.

A good place to start is with the group which after slight wariness at first meeting and wondering if I was going to be left behind by racers we quickly formed up into a mutual support group.  If someone was struggling then someone else would stay with them and encourage them along.  When people had problems with their bike there was Mark or one of the guides to fix it.  Of course, there were differences in our natural paces, and for the first two weeks on every ascent Jamie and Lucy would overtake me and on every descent I would pass them.  At the start of the trip Julie and Andrew Stokes were often found at the back, but by the end they often led the way.

It was great having the Garmins showing us the way with their purple lines, but it did mean that I barely looked at the maps which could be slightly dislocating at times, not being aware of what was in the next valley, but it does mean that you can concentrate on the cycling and the views and really not have to worry about the navigation at all.  Saying which, still managed to fail to follow the line occasionally, usually by not looking when a junction was up ahead and I was really in the groove enjoying the cycling.  The result of that plus a few deliberate detours (notably to see our cousin Rob and to take in Dunnet Head) is that I actually cycled 1,080 miles.

Having found the first three or four days quite tough day five was very tiring with the accumulated tiredness of the previous days so that it seemed hard and I thought we would never finish it, but then it got easier again; even if the days were quite tiring.  Our fitness was clearly growing and turn by turn of the pedals it seemed more feasible to achieve.  Until we did it I was worried about the longest day through the Scottish Borders to Peebles, though knowing that Saddle Skedaddle had got many other groups through buoyed me up – they wouldn’t set a challenge that they thought many people would fail.

Most of the route was absolutely fantastic with quiet roads and stunning views through largely unspoilt countryside.  Obviously, we sometimes had to go through duller bits or alongside main roads (for instance to cross the Severn and Forth).  There are huge amounts of wonderful countryside that I have never seen before, and I look forward to exploring bits of the country that have been opened up to me on this journey.

I don’t want to reprise the daily blog so instead I will make some general comments that the journey revealed (even if some of them are pretty obvious).  In the South most of the harvest was already in, with a small number of fields of wheat still awaiting the harvester, and as we moved north the proportion of harvested fields fell.  In the far north of Scotland I even saw a few fields of rape awaiting harvest, whilst in the South they were long gone.  The result is that the North is much greener than the South.  One of the notable things cycling in the UK compared to my journey down the Mosel last year is the lack of bird song.  Our hedgerows are much less vocal than they were even in my youth, but I have seen large numbers of buzzards throughout the length of the country and more swallows than I remember seeing almost everywhere, so long as there are some eves for them to nest in.  Are swallows a bird that has benefited from humans providing nesting sites?

It is wonderful that we could cross the country most of the way on such quiet roads that whenever a car passed you could smell it for some time – but what does this say about our cities where we barely notice the smell any more as it is there all the time?

The most demoralising time is when struggling up a steep hill and Norman overtakes saying something like “this is easy isn’t it?” or “it’s not very steep”. But it is wonderful to see him cycling along seemingly without a care in the world.  And it does impress people to say that an 89 year old is cycling LE JOG.

I am really glad that I did it, and it was much more manageable than I had feared as it was broken down into chunks.  Each day looks manageable and is broken down into three of four stages with elevenses, lunch and afternoon tea.  And given all the cycling we needed the energy. Huge breakfasts with porridge and cooked; energy bars cake and fruit mid-morning and afternoon and a decent sized lunch either an excellent picnic provided by Peter and Rob or a café stop.

I don’t think I’ll do it again.  I will either explore some corner of the country in more detail (the Cairngorms or North West Scotland appeal) or do another trek elsewhere.  I would certainly use Saddle Skedaddle again with their excellent planning and attention to detail and the support they provide throughout is brilliant.

Many thanks to Saddle Skedaddle, Peter and Rob, all the other cyclists and my Brother Andrew for suggesting it.  I had a wonderful time.

And many thanks to all our wonderful sponsors.

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Day 19 – Bettyhill to John O’Groats

We all made it!

Another beautiful day of cycling.  Today was along the coast as we cycled half the width of Scotland from Bettyhill to John O’Groats. The first part of the journey was hilly, constantly up and down over a drunken rolling coast with amazing views of mountains, moorland, cliffs and sea.

 

and in case there was any doubt about where we were, here are some highland cattle to prove it

from there we dropped down to Reay for radioactive elevenses.  Reay being best known for the Doun.

From there Sam and I sped across the next bit which has fences made of stone, but not as normally bits of stone but single slabs, like paving stones, on their ends to Thurso for  quick lunch so that we could add a diversion of seven miles to Dunnet Head. More gentle rolling countryside more reminiscent of Devon or Dorset (complete with montbretia) than the Highlands to the turn off in Dunnet where we found ourselves cycling up hill and into the wind.

Dunnet Head (the most northerly point on the mainland) is very beautiful with 360 views including the Orkneys, so here are a few of them, including our first views of John O’Groats

and from there the final few miles to the straggling village that calls itself John O’Groats, with a stop for Schnapps just before we got there and cava and whisky at the end.

So here we all are

Peter the Guide, Julia, Pete and Karin, Tom, Norman, Jamie and Lucy, Anne and Sam, Mark and Julia and Andy (plus Rob the other guide who took the photo).

All I will say now is that we had a fantastic time, but over the weekend each of Franklin group will post a reflective piece so do hang on in and read some more.

 

 

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Day 18 – Lairg to Bettyhill

We are now on the North coast of Scotland and it is so beautiful, though had our first meeting with midges today and our second cycling in the rain which is pretty amazing over three weeks.

We set off in drizzle this morning for the very first time, but all were cheerful and the midges seemed to be enjoying it too.  Our first 13 miles were a very gentle ascent that we barely noticed along Loch Shin and up the Vagastie valley through the flow lands. The flow lands are some of the remotest places I have been.  All you can see is moorland for miles in any direction and the road in front of you

and then, in the middle of nowhere, seven miles from  the nearest building is the Crask Inn, where we stopped for excellent coffee and tea and at table service for the food (he chucked mars bars, snickers or double deckers to us at our tables).

From there a short ascent followed by a long 15 mile descent to the coast.

On the way we got soaked in a heavy shower, visited a site from the Highland clearances (a pogrom by any other name), where there are the remains of one crofting cottage and some graves.  Life must have been mighty tough even before the clearances, but next time you visit a country house think where the money to build it came from.

from there to lunch and down to the coast by which time the sun had come out and a short climb up to the hotel.

We have now cycled over 1,000 miles! One day to go.

Except Andrew who has already arrived – and congratulations to him!!

 

 

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Day 17 – Inverness to Lairg

Another fantastic day with only one stiff climb and plenty of long gentle climbs and wonderful long descents.

Out of Inverness through the industrial estate, and over the bridge to the Black Isle

Then along the North edge of Beauly Firth with the most fantastic views that we have enjoyed so far

it even has a library which Norman enjoyed

On to Dingwall for elevenses and then a long climb up the side of Cromarty Firth with more fantastic views accentuated or spoilt by the remains of old oil rigs stored in the Firth.

and a long climb with fantastic views over Dornoch Firth, enough to make Norman sing whilst cycling

from there a descent to Bonar Bridge for a late lunch in a cafe with one of the best cafe views in the world

After lunch we had a gentle climb Achinduich waterfall where we watched salmon jumping up the waterfall’s really strong current

finally we enjoyed the path to Lairg station

though I can’t say that I would like to use it on a dark February night to catch the 16:00

 

 

 

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Day 16 – Tomintoul to Inverness

We stayed in a wonderful B&B in Tomintoul that did the most amazing breakfast.  Most of us had porridge followed by scrambled egg with smoked salmon for breakfast.

Probably the most notable thing about Tomintoul is the whisky shop with over 500 whiskies.  The pub where we had dinner had impressive collection including about a dozen Tomintoul varieties (we tried the peatiest of theirs, which was good).

Anyhow, today was short and relatively flat, though with a killer hill near the start, but with a fierce headwind most of the day.  So we set off round the Northern edge of the Cairngorms to Bridge of Brown and our last really bad climb of the Cairngorms at 13%, and Rob pushed Norman some of the way up that from his bike.

We then had a long flattish road round the side of Hills of Cromdale with fantastic views across the Cairngorms.

From there we dropped down to the pretty little town of Grantown-on-Spey, where I bought a new front tyre as mine had developed an annoying kink.  Annoying because it touched the mudguard each time round so my cycling was accompanied by tchk-tchk-tchk and a wobble at high speeds.  We also called in on a coffee shop, where some of us indulged

Grantown used to be on the railway and someone seems to rebuilding the station and 100m of track on the way in with a couple of old carriages on, but on the way out we came across this combined railway bridge and lodge

and so into the wind for a tiring time up “Dutch mountains” to lunch at Dulsie Bridge.  A huge high bridge over a massive gorge that has been flooded up to within a metre of the keystone.

There Andrew left us to cycle ahead, and reach John O’groats a day early as he needs to be in London.

I called in at Cawdor Castle, and so to the viaduct and burial cairns at Clava

 

And so into Inverness.  In the final mile or so I fell off my bike and managed to land on both knees, so we will see in the morning how they are and how much of a struggle it is.

Meanwhile, Andrew has reached Dingwall.

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Day 15 – Bridge of Cally to Tomintoul

Today was probably the toughest day of the trip, though not the longest and not a huge amount more of climbing than other days, but each of the climbs was long and in places fairly steep.  The last climb being the toughest of all.

Anyhow, the day started with an 18 mile climb, though the first 12 of these were pretty gentle

And it was only the last three or four up to the top at Cairnwell that it got to 12% (1 in 8).

Most of us stopped for coffee in the cafe at the top, and some had cake.  Others continued to Braemar at the bottom for coffee there. One (Andrew) had cake at both the top and the bottom.  The weather, again, was better than the forecast with mostly cloudy and some sun and the most fantastic tail wind pushing us up the hill.  When we got to the top we were just about in the cloud and it got quite cold so everyone togged up for the descent.  Descents are cold as there is the wind from the speed and no work being done.

We continued down the Don to lunch near Balmoral Castle (and they never offered us tea even though we pay our taxes).  Beautiful views everywhere, and at one point four stags up on the horizon posing for us (but too far away to photograph).

The second climb was quite gentle, but fooled us by having a long down in the middle followed by more up; then a long descent to tea break at a great cafe at Colnabaichin and the final and toughest challenge of the day was the climb up the Lecht which started off with a 20% (1 in 5) climb.  This turned out to be more than the motor on Norman’s bike could cope with so his children plus Rob and Peter took turns to push him up the steepest bits in order to help the motor along.

The result we all cycled and walked all the way up, and then a final 7.5 mile descent to Tomintoul.  Many thanks to Pete and Rob for their most fantastic help which went well beyond the call of duty.

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Day 14 – Kinross to Bridge of Cally

Today was the easiest day so far, just 39 miles and a mere 600 metres of climb.  This meant that we had time to visit places, divert from the route and generally take things easy.  Even so, it was breakfast at 07.30 and be ready at the bikes for the briefing at 08.45 for a departure at 09.00.

Pete and Rob are very good and efficient and everything seems to just work and we are all ready and on time and ready to go.

So a nice gentle rolling 15 miles to Perth for elevenses

which unfortunately didn’t include this

and on to Scone Palace.

Somewhere along the route Sam’s best man Tom Lamb turned up and cycled with Sam for the rest of the day. Using Tom L’s local knowledge we cycled a different route along some of Tom Lamb’s favourite lanes. It was really good to ride together again and catch up on each others news.

Norman, Andrew and I went to Scone Palace which is a neo-Gothick country house a couple of miles from Perth.  Fairly grand with a terrible collection of Victorian ivory and papier-mache vases.  Andrew and Norman enjoyed it, I less so.

From there Andrew and I deviated from the purple track on the Garmin and headed back into Perth and along the river.  There was then a horrid stretch alongside a dual carriageway, but once we left that it was much better and in Stanley we dropped down the hill to visit the mill.

This was set up by Arkwright in 1786, and at its height employed about 850 people who lived in the model village above the mill.  It continued to water powered (water wheel, turbine, on site hydro electricity until the 1960s and only closed in 1989!  They are again generating electricity on the site, but now for the grid.

From there to a late lunch via the tallest hedge in the world (100 foot high beech hedge) and stone circle,

and so via a nice decent to Bridge of Cally – one of those built by general Wade to suppress the Highlands.

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Day 13 – Peebles to Kinross

Is this day 13 or 14? Yesterday was a rest day and I am only counting cycling days, but to make things more complicated Andrew did half today’s ride yesterday.

We stayed in the Tontine Hotel in Peebles, which I can thoroughly recommend.  Great service and excellent food, and this is the view from my bedroom

and the dining room

Today started fairly cold and blustery and got worse through the morning, with a heavy shower while we were in Edinburgh, but by the time we had finished that was long gone and we completed the ride in glorious sunshine.

The ride out of Peebles was beautiful and flat but along a busy road which made it less pleasant until we turned off to climb up the Moorfoot Hills (or more foot hills as I like to think of them as they are not very high, but some fantastic views.

Anne was having serious problems with her gears, but road on until the tea break where Rob and Pete sorted them.

Pete showed us what he considers to be the best view in Scotland (compare to what Ruskin considered the best view in England)

And so to Edinburgh

And on to Queensferry and the Forth bridges

and past Benarty Hill

to Kinross

Another lovely day with easy cycling and some fantastic views.

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Day 12 – Hallbankgate to Peebles

The longest day! and one of the hilliest.  78 miles and 1,300 metres of climb (don’t you just love the mixed imperial metric units?).

The first couple of miles we were led by Rob as the route started from the other hotel in Talkin, with the two routes merging in Brampton.  The advance party (ie us) decided not to wait for the other group, but to continue following the purple guideline

We each have a Garmin GPS on our handlebars, which is accurate to within a few metres and shows us exactly where to go.  You only have to remember to glance at it as you see a junction up ahead, and maybe check when you have gone past it to make sure that you are on the correct road.  Though, sometimes when you get into the spot and are just cycling along it can be easy to forget – I think we have all been saved by a friendly shout from another cyclist, though Norman has managed to go several miles off piste at times.  But, as Pete said in the initial briefing, “If you can’t see the purple line then turn round and go back until you find it again.  We do also have printed maps with the route marked on it as backup.

Anyhow,  after Brampton we stopped briefly to look at Lanercost Priory

The nave of the original priory is the parish church and the rest of the buildings are in ruins.

From there we had a series of steep up and downs that were tiring until our tea stop on the Liddel Water and across it into SCOTLAND.

We watched Scottish Fire and Rescue togging up for a practice rescue in the river which took them over 20 minutes – I hope they do it faster for real.  You can also see Norman cycling into Scotland with his typical panache

more ups and downs to lunch beside the Buddhist monastery at  Eskdalemuir – a weird thing to find in the middle of nowhere.

 

From there we had a series of gentle, but very long, ascents followed by the most fantastic descents that went on and on and could be taken at speed

and so into Peebles with one final ascent.

Friday is a rest day.

 

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Day 11 – Kirby Lonsdale to Talkin or HallBankgate

Last night we stayed in the Pheasant Inn, Casterton just north of Kirby Lonsdale and the food was superb.

Today was a fantastic day, or as Andrew put it “A perfect day’s cycling. Perhaps the most beautiful of my life.”

We were threatened with rain for the first two hours, but it stopped before we even set off with low dramatic clouds that have been getting higher and higher throughout the day until very little cloud in the evening.

From Kirby Lonsdale we went up the Lune for a while before crossing over it and having our first, of many, climbs of the day.

Then crossed under the M6 and a massive climb round the back of the hills, but the sound of the M6 pursued us a long way, drop down, climb up and down again and again until back over the motorway

to our morning break at 20 miles in Orton in a bus shelter.  From there the sky lightened

From there to Long Meg

and on and on and on

Andrew stopped short this evening to stay at Talkin, while the rest of our group continued on to Hallbankgate to stay in Belted in, and so got our first views of Scotland across the Solway Firth

Once again a huge thank you to Pete and Ron and Saddle Skedaddle for the wonderful planning and support.  They truly make the trip more than just manageable to be very enjoyable.