01 June 2010

Day 19: London to Dover

I wasn't looking forward to my final day. The forecast was for showers, followed by heavy rain, followed by showers.

Well, the forecast was wrong. It was heavy rain all day. So today was just a long, long day at the office, into unremitting grey drizzle, with lorries booming past on the A20 in a chaos of spray, and with no visible scenery.

Above, for example, is the stunning view of the sea and the cliffs at Folkestone. Yes, exactly.

Still, it was fun watching the bike computer tick over the miles. Somewhere in Maidstone the tripometer - set to zero at Cape Wrath - reached its limit of 999.99 miles. It would go no further, and just flashed in protest, so I had to reset it to 0 again.

Anyway, I reached Dover about 7pm.

After a brief photo session on the seafront, I celebrated with a beer at Wetherspoons, and dripped steadily over the floor of the 20.45 train back to Victoria.

It's been great spending time with biking chums over the last few days - big thanks and respect to Mark, Si and Sue, John, and Nigel, for their enthusiasm, good company, routefinding, bonkers suggestions and boundless good humour - and quite a few ideas for further trips have come up.

Who's for Barmouth to Yarmouth and Poole to Goole later in the summer...?

Miles today: 85
Miles since Cape Wrath: 1050

Punctures: 5
Friends who joined at various points: 5
Nights camping: 9
Muffins eaten: 18
Awesome views: 473
Best road: Golden Road, Harris, Hebrides
Worst road: A20 into Dover
Max speed: 36.1mph, down Jeffrey Hill, Lancs
Best dinner: Spaghetti and chicken pasta thing, Whitwell, Rutland Water
Worst beer: Most of Scotland
Best beer: Wantsum Dynamo, Wetherspoons, Dover
Total cost inc all transport, accomm, food: £560
Value: Priceless

31 May 2010

Day 18: Cambridge to London

Delightful, fast, rural tailwind cycling on a grey day. It was drizzly as we left Cambridge. In a nod to the city's role in bioscience research, the cycle path is adorned with a representation of the sequence of the gene BRCA2, which is linked to breast cancer, and Great Shelford.

From the top of the hill on the Cambridge-Essex border, it's said, you can see two counties on a clear day. But it was drizzling so we couldn't. Still, we cycled by one of Britain's most curious cricket grounds, in the village of Langley: a road runs straight across the middle of the pitch, from roughly deep point to fine leg. There's also a telegraph pole at deep third man. It's probably more use than I ever was in the field.

In one of Essex's pretty little villages we saw this horse and trailer. Careful, I said to Nigel. It could be a trap.

Staying at home tonight. Feels strange to have arrived in London not by train, but by cycling down from Cape Wrath via Ayr, Stockport and Epping Forest. Striking out towards Dover tomorrow. Might sneak my passport with me just in case.

Miles today: 70
Miles since Cape Wrath: 965

30 May 2010

Day 17: Rutland Water to Cambridge

Round a bit of Rutland Water this morning. The reservoir was still farmland when Abba were in the charts. Now it’s England’s largest lake in its smallest county, and it has a bike track all around it, as well as a half-submerged Italianate church that looks as though it’s taking to sea.

It was windy enough today for it to do just that. But luckily the electric-assist gale was right behind us, and the bike computer was ticking over as if by itself. The day was a delightful scoot through pretty honey-stone Northants villages, such as this ambitious one. Yes, that's what the sign really says.

As I was going to St Ives, I met a man with seven wives. He has since been arrested on six counts of bigamy, and his wives charged with 392 offences of cruelty to animals.

From St Ives to Cambridge it was all along the Guided Bus Track, a showpiece bus-tram hybrid, and Britain's biggest such. Or at least it will be when they stop wrangling over what’s caused it to overrun and whose fault it is, and actually get it going.

There’s a farm track by its side, too gravelly for most cyclists. So, while the tram-bus chimerae are still in their packaging, the concrete track itself provides a smooth, if excitingly narrow, alternative.

Miles today: 65
Miles since Cape Wrath: 895

29 May 2010

Day 16: Derby to Rutland Water

It rained today. All day. Luckily we were cycling in the frankly dull country round East Midlands Airport, so there was no scenery to miss.

We found brief shelter from the rain in this curious bus stop in the village of Kingston on Soar, which has its own two-seater library.

As you enter Melton Mowbray, where we had lunch, the sign describes it as 'Rural Capital of Food'. This rather ambitious claim seems to be largely based on its being the origin of (a) Stilton and (b) Pork Pies.

I came here on my Lands End-John O'Groats trip in 1997, so this is where my two End to End routes happen to cross.

Here's Nigel just as he entered Rutland, and just before he left Rutland.

Miles today: 54
Miles since Cape Wrath: 830

28 May 2010

Day 15: Hathersage to Derby

I was staying at Mark's last night, which means an early start was always going to be unlikely. We went swimming in Hathersage's delightful open air heated pool, joined by Nigel, who'll be cycling with me to London, looked at some local gardens, chatted over tea and toast on Mark's balcony, and waited for the traffic lights to change.

It was gone noon when Nigel and I set off, so it's just as well we had a short day, just as far as his parents' house outside Derby. Clearly there's some sort of bike equivalent of Parkinson's Law: however short a day trip you plan, it always ends up taking all day.

And it was a day for dawdling: fine May weather, a light tailwind, and lovely Derbyshire hills. They say that on a clear day from the panorama point here near Crich you can see eight counties. We don't know about that, but we did count three major power stations.

Miles today: 39
Miles since Cape Wrath: 775

27 May 2010

Day 14: Wheelton to Hathersage

Another very early start, hacking out into the Lancashire road system at a drizzly half seven. But with a big tailwind, firmly track-pumped tyres, and all my camping gear left at Si and Sue's for shipment home and hence half-weight luggage, it felt like the bike was pedalling itself. Maybe I just hadn't woken up yet.

I slid over the toll bridge crossing the Manchester Ship Canal - a surprisingly uncrossable waterway - en route to meeting up with my brother John at Chinley in the afternoon.

That's John, negotiating the bizarre collapsed old A625 road that used to go over Mam Tor. After constant landslips, the roadbuilders abandoned it to the elements in the late 1970s. It now looks strangely like an earthquake zone in Chile or a Road of Death in Bolivia, instead of a Peak District path near Castleton's tea shops.

Miles today: 78
Miles since Cape Wrath: 736

26 May 2010

Day 13: Dent to Wheelton

Three big, big climbs over the roof of England today, from Dales Yorkshire into Lancashire: up and out from Dent; up from High Bentham to Slaidburn; and up Jeffrey Hill.

The effort was worthwhile (a) because of the long, life-affirming downhills and (b) because of the splendid evening at Si and Sue's of curry, vodka, beer, and a huge hot foaming bath.

This phone box is not just the 100,000th outdoor shower cubicle to be installed in the UK: it is also at the very geographical centre of Great Britain. If you balanced the entire country on the point of a pencil, Dunsop Bridge, in the Trough of Bowland in Lancashire, is where it would sit in equilibrium.

Here's me and Si being silly in that very phone booth. (The strict centre is apparently in the middle of a field nearby, but the phone box is the best option for a signposted, photographable spot.)

The location is appropriate: when Si (and Mark and others) did Land's End to John o'Groats in 2008, their route also passed through Dunsop Bridge and this very phone box. There's a sort of geometric inevitability about their bottom-left-hand-corner to top-right-hand-corner route, and my top-left-hand-corner to bottom-right-hand-corner route, passing through the same spot - that spot being a phone box at the geographical centre of the country.

Thanks to Si and Sue I now smell of mango and jojoba bath essence, instead of damp tent.

Miles today: 57
Miles since Cape Wrath: 658

25 May 2010

Day 12: Annan to Dent

A very early start indeed today, up and off by 5am. Perhaps it was my subconscious ensuring I got out of Scotland and into England as soon as possible. Well, that Scottish beer was a bit rubbish.

Met up with my friends Simon and Sue at Carlisle, who are joining me for a couple of days. We cycled south through the northern Lakes and dropped in on Mark’s aunt Alison. She is hand-rearing two lambs in the garden of her cottage. One is for breeding, the other for, erm, well, you know. If small children ask about the lamb’s destiny, make up vague stories about going off to a farm in Derbyshire or something.

This is on display on a garage on the A6 near Shap. Who says cars are not ecologically sustainable?

It was a long day for me, with quite a few miles of cool cloudy breeze and nondescript scenery – and many of thrilling scenery, such as our last long trail hugging a hillside into Sedbergh, and finally a valley-floor trundle to the campsite at Dent.

In the excellent Sun pub in Dent, we got chatting to a local farmer. It was the sort of conversation that makes you realise you're not in London:

-Where did you cycle from today?
-From Annan.
-Annan? I used to buy cattle from there.

Miles today: 79
Miles since Cape Wrath: 601

24 May 2010

Day 11: Crosshill to Annan

The campsite I found last night, by chance, is a real gem. It's in an old Georgian walled garden in the middle of a wooded valley. Perhaps this explains the strange smell in my tent when I took my shoes off last night. I must have been camped over an old compost heap.

With tailwinds, at last, and plenty of sun, today was another fab cycling day, through the often Dales-like scenery of Ayrshire and Dumfries'n'Galloway. It was a day for whizzing along for the sheer pleasure of it. I finished in Annan, where it was an evening for having a pint and curry for the sheer pleasure of it.

Miles today: 81
Miles since Cape Wrath: 522

23 May 2010

Day 10: Rothesay to Crosshill

An early start, zigzagging down a remarkable and little-known road in Rothesay from the campsite to the ferry. Serpentine Road has nine hairpin bends and must be Britain's most corkscrewy street. The landlord of the pub the previous night where we watched the football lives on it. We hope he got home OK.

We did a quick tour of Great Cumbrae Island, which is the home of what claims to be Britain's narrowest house. It's not even as wide as a bike. Presumably they have a folder instead.

Mark left to catch a train back home, and I ploughed on the coast road on another baking hot day. Half of Glasgow had come out to the beaches of Ardrossan or Troon. The other half kept asking me how far I was cycling.

To which the answer was Ayr, where I visited Robbie Burns' cottage. In Ayr there was a takeaway called BURNS SUPPER, which seemed unfortunate.

I also went up Electric Brae, a famous optical illusion where a downhill looks like an uphill (it's downhill coming towards the camera). I spent half an hour gleefully freewheeling uphill. Unfortunately the trick didn't work with any other inclines en route to Crosshill, near where I found an extraordinary secret campsite.

Miles today: 75
Miles since Cape Wrath: 441

22 May 2010

Day 9: Lochgilphead to Rothesay

A day of baking hot weather, quirky things and magnificent Kyles of Bute scenery started with a fine lunch in Tarbet, a common place name in Gaelic which apparently means 'you can't top a Tunnock's'.

As we cycled out to the ferry there was a man playing the bagpipes by the side of the road. Perhaps it's to scare the children away from the traffic.

We stumbled upon a Shinty match, watched by a crowd of about 150 vociferous locals. Kyles of Bute beat Bute in a tense cup match that ended in a penalty shootout. Shinty is a mixture of aerial hockey, golf, tennis, and kendo.

Finally we stayed in splendid Rothesay, on Bute. It's famous for its Victorian architecture, and has these showcase Victorian Toilets. They're signposted as a bone fide tourist attraction.

Miles today: 47
Miles since Cape Wrath: 365

21 May 2010

Day 8: Tiree to Lochgilphead

The ferry to Oban took me and Mark into summer. On the mainland it was glorious sunny weather, Scotland at its May best. After the windswept austerity of the Hebrides it was a surprise to see things like trees, and our own shadows, again.

The scenery south from Oban was wonderful, lochy and green and lush. And hilly.

The direction signs in this part of Scotland are in Gaelic and English. In a few places they're in Idiot, too.

We stopped at the ancient settlement of Kilmartin to admire their mini-Stonehenge. The stones are precisely aligned so that on the morning of solstice each summer, the sunrise is obscured behind the wood.

We ended with a run alongside the Crinan canal - a real west coast hidden gem - to Lochgilphead, for a fine curry and an enthusiastic discussion with our friendly Bangladeshi maitre d' about cricket.

Miles today: 64
Miles since Cape Wrath: 318

20 May 2010

Day 7: Castlebay to Tiree

The good news is today that there was no wind. The bad news is that there was fog instead. So you could cycle at a normal speed again, you just couldn't see anything.

Still, in the tantalising periods of terrible visibility between those of no visibility, I nipped across from Barra to Vatersay, the last tickbox Hebridean island in the chain of ferries and causeways.

From there it was a ferry to Tiree, where I met up with my pal Mark. He's come up specially to join me for a couple of days to drink whisky, swop stories, and perhaps do some cycling now and then.

Tiree is a very likeable little island: one enormous flattish village green with houses plonked at random on it, as if shaken from a box. They don't have driveways: the owners just drive their cars from the road straight across the grass.

The pub was great fun. There were some entertaining Belgians, and the barmaid was at school with my niece Lucy. It's a small world. And a small island. One day I'd like to cycle right round it. I think I'll do it tomorrow, before breakfast.

Miles today: 13
Miles since Cape Wrath: 254

19 May 2010

Day 6: Lionacleit to Castlebay

A torrid night of gale force winds and driving rain reduced my tent, and most of its contents, to a sodden lump this morning. At least I know now that the various bits of 'lightweight' camping kit I bought really are lightweight - I could see them floating around the tent at 1.30am.

So, another very early start got me out into the mist and drizzle across South Uist, and with a relatively flat moonscape to cycle over and relatively light headwinds, it felt things were suddenly getting better. More island-hopping over dramatically long causeways (above), which like those yesterday - according to the signs - are apparently riddled with traversing otters.

The ferry from Eriskay took me to Barra, the southernmost major Outer Hebridee. Here I found a very nice indie hostel overlooking the castle and bay of Castlebay, the island's main town, whose name was clearly decided by a committee.

Barra is famous for its airport, whose runway is a beach. Here planes really do take off and land on the sand, with timetables determined by the tide. Except there weren't any because of the ash cloud.

Miles today: 40
Miles since Cape Wrath: 241

18 May 2010

Day 5: Plocropol to Lionacleit

Today was mostly another long, tough day cycling right into a strong headwind. A beautiful (and wind-free) early morning's ride along the remarkable Golden Road, though, which threads it way down the east coast of Harris through fishing villages.

After lunch, island-hopping in earnest through astounding landscapes of mountains, lochs, cobalt sea and custard beaches: a ferry to Berneray, then over the causeway to North Uist. Then a causeway to Grimsay, and another causeway to Benbecula, where I'm camping in the least windy spot available, which is very, very windy.

Some of the road signs I hadn't seen before.

Miles today: 52
Miles since Cape Wrath: 201

17 May 2010

Day 4: (Ullapool to) Stornoway to Plocropol

An astoundingly beautiful ferry ride on a clear blue May morning took me to Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. From there it was a long, tough slog into the wind through some austere and rocky landscapes. This is what cycling on the moon is probably like, only at least there's no wind there.

En route to Plocropol - which sounds more like a Soviet-era government department than a lovely little campsite with views over the Minch - I saw the above sign, which reminded me of the notorious Rookhope Incident, when Si, Mark, Martin and I did the C2C in 1998.

Miles today: 41
Miles since Cape Wrath: 149

16 May 2010

Day 3: Achmelvich to Ullapool

Headwinds not so bad today, and some awesome, awesome scenery on remote back roads.

Yesterday was tough so I've had an easy day today, with the prospect of fish and chips for dinner and a pint in the pub overlooking the harbour. Ullapool is a harbour town, so it's a great place for fish - the good road access means there are frequent lorry deliveries.

Ferry to Stornoway tomorrow.

Miles today: 38
Miles since Cape Wrath: 108

15 May 2010

Day 2: Durness to Achmelvich

I was up and off just after 5am this morning, partly because I was mindful of the weather forecast (strengthening headwinds throughout the day, increasing to 30mph by lunchtime) and partly because the tent was soaked following the rainstorm that woke me at 3am.

But I was rewarded by this sight of a Durness shepherd and two collies taking some sheep out on to the beach. I didn't know sheep enjoyed a day at the seaside. So that's what they do on their day off.

The rest of the day was one progressively tougher battle with those headwinds. But I made it to Achmelvich youth hostel, a delightful beachside place in a very remote west coast village. It was full of just the right sort of people, and there were two guitars, and we had an impromptu concert. I also did some washing, and hung the clothes out to dry on the line in the hostel garden. It didn't take long to retrieve them from the neighbouring farms.

Miles today: 57
Miles since Cape Wrath: 70