LEJOG Blog

Land's End to John o' Groats on a Tandem


£537.18 (inc. GiftAid) raised for
National Kidney Federation


1051.47 miles cycled in total

Route Map

Reproduced from Ordnance Survey map data by permission of the Ordnance Survey © Crown copyright 2001.

Afore we go...

Tomorrow evening, Janet & I will be setting off for what, probably without any exaggeration, will be the Journey of a Lifetime - Land's End to John o' Groats on our tandem.

We have never done anything remotely like this before: we've never even been on a cycling holiday. We have done a lot of route planning, booked all the accommodation, bought our rail tickets and, most importantly, we have covered lots of miles on our bikes.

Every day we will update this web diary, by the simple means of writing an entry in a book, telephoning our son, reading the entry to him and he will then type it up for us. I'm afraid you will have to wait rather longer to see our photographs.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 03 Apr 2007 13:38:14 BST | Comments: 1 | Cat: Cycling ]

Counting down

Today has been fraught. Yesterday was fraught.

We loaded up the bike and had a ride around the block this afternoon, just to see how it handled. It seemed fine, but I have pushed the D-lock mounting back an inch or two as my left heel caught the lock occasionally when we pedalled. Denis took some photographs and one of them now adorns the top of this page, or at least, it should.

Very soon we will have set up a link to justgiving.com, with whom the National Kidney Federation have an arrangement. As some of you will know, Denis had a kidney transplant in May last year, so this seems to be a logical choice.

In two hours we will set off for the station. Our train leaves at 8.28 from Prittlewell, arriving at Liverpool Street at 9.21. We hope to be at Paddington for around 10 o'clock, boarding our train shortly after 10.30 and leaving at 11.45. We arrive in Penzance at 8 o'clock tomorrow morning.

 

[ Entry posted at: Wed 04 Apr 2007 18:08:21 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

justgiving.com page set up

The fund-raising page has now been set up at:

http://www.justgiving.com/lejogtandem 

We are supporting the National Kidney Federation

[ Entry posted at: Wed 04 Apr 2007 18:39:41 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Fund-raising ]

...and they're off!

The 20:28 from Prittlewell

Peter and Janet are now aboard the train to Liverpool Street and will be catching the Sleeper to Penzance later this evening. They will start cycling in the morning.

Maps and route sheets for the entire trip are available here.

 

[ Entry posted at: Wed 04 Apr 2007 20:53:26 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

We are at Land's End

Land's End

Text message received 9:42am, 5th April.

Journal Entry to follow later.

[ Entry posted at: Thu 05 Apr 2007 09:45:27 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

Setting off

After some nervous last-minute preparations, we eventually made our way to Prittlewell station accompanied by Denis. The bike was dismantled promptly and when the train arrived, it was almost empty. We stored our steed in the space in the last carriage where the seats lift.

At Liverpool Street, we reassembled the bike, emerged by the Monstrous Iron Monolith and set off along London Wall to a loud shout of "Tandem!" from a nearby youth. The taxi drivers did not all behave appallingly, although one or two did.

We passed the Pancake House, found New Oxford Street and Oxford Street with no trouble, then Mortimer Street, Wigmore Street, Seymour Street, Edgeware Road and Sussex Place but I turned right a little too soon and when we hit Praed Street it was still one-way. A short walk, and we were back in the two-way section and remounted the bike.

When the platform for our train was announced, we stored the tandem in the Guard's Van and met another cyclist with the same intentions as ourselves. We then found our berth and partook of the complementary coffee, nuts and olives in the First Class lounge.

These words have been scribbled in haste while sitting on Janet's bed. Very soon, we will be away - no more train travel for three weeks.

Here's to good weather!

[ Entry posted at: Thu 05 Apr 2007 20:56:13 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

5th April, 2:59am

It is a clear and flagrant breach of the Trade Descriptions Act that this train should be called a "sleeper". For one thing, there is the noise. It isn't the noise of rails which disturbs, but what I assume to be the air conditioning system, without which we would doubtless either roast or freeze. Then there is the constant motion. I am not accustomed to dozing off in a bed which is being gently, and sometimes less gently, rocked from end to end by an unseen hand.

The fact that the bed is narrow and short has not of itself been a problem: I cannot sue First Great Western because of injuries sustained through falling fully five feet to the floor whilst asleep because the primary precondition has not been met. Therefore it will have to be the Trade Descriptions Act.

We have been killing time in Taunton Station for at least half an hour, probably more, but this has given me the opportunity to explore the little bag of goodies supplied to us. It was a bit like Christmas Eve, suddenly and unexpectedly finding cellophane-wrapped presents on our bed and I immediately unwrapped mine to see what was in it.

There is a small pack of First Great Western paper handkerchiefs, which are quite useful. There is a razor which frankly is not, although I have toyed with the idea of shaving off my right eyebrow just to see the reaction of all the strangers I meet over the next three weeks. Then there was something orange whose identity remained a mystery to me until I put my reading glasses on. "Foam ear plugs," the wrapper told me. I tried them. I don't think they kept much sound out, but I defy anyone to sleep when they have not one but two orifices blocked by foreign bodies.

Railway tracks

There is a comb, which could prove useful in an emergency (e.g. my unshaven eyebrow needs untangling) and a rather neat toothbrush which comes apart to make it smaller - now I know where Robin Thorn got the idea from when he decided to fit S & S couplings on the tandem. There is a small tube of Colgate toothpaste (good) and a very small cake of soap, accompanied by something which looks like a brand new mantle for a an old-fashioned Tilley Lamp, but which is probably a diminutive flannel.

The final four items are sealed foil envelopes, two of them containing Refreshing Wipes, one containing Shoe Shine and the last containing Shaving Cream. All of these little gifts come in an attractive blue roll-up velcro-fastened container with zip-up plastic pockets.

We are still at Taunton Station and this is bad news. It is getting quite close to the point at which I need to evacuate my bladder and railway companies take a dim view of their lavatories being flushed while the train is at the station. Normally, this wouldn't worry me, after all an emergency is an emergency, but our carriage is being attended to by an efficient and smartly-dressed woman, who gives me the impression that in another life she might have been a member of the Gestapo. This is probably completely unfair, but I still don't feel like having to explain to her that there were no solids among what I just flushed onto the track. This same woman is due to serve me a cup of coffee at 7am and I don't want to do anything to upset her.

[ Entry posted at: Thu 05 Apr 2007 21:09:22 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

5th April

Peter and Janet in front of the Restormel CastleThe train arrived to time, and after a suitable amount of faffing and photography, we were on our way. The weather was glorious - hardly a cloud and very little wind. We found the road to Land's End with no difficulty but everything was hillier than I imagined.

After half an hour, our average speed was only 6.4mph and I was beginning to worry greatly about the entire timetable. This had picked up a little by the time we reached Land's End.

This is a perfect example of how to ruin a place. What on earth do Tardis noises have to do with a geographical feature which has a place close to the nation's heart? This is the sort of crap which should be confined to Southend seafront.

We had noticed on the way in that there was a cafe serving breakfast in a tiny hamlet called Trevescan so we called in on the return. What a breakfast it was! Bacon thick and juicy still with the rind on just as we enjoyed it in the 1960s and sausages that almost squealed when you stuck the fork in them. Moreover, there was a dog with a ball. Oscar, for that was doggie's name, dropped the ball at our feet and we had to throw it for him. He would bring it back and the whole ritual had to be repeated ad nauseam. The only thing missing was non-stop manic barking - otherwise we would have felt quite at home. We ate our breakfast outside and enjoyed it so much we each forgot to take our tablets.

Janet outside the Coach and Horses

Returning to Penzance was a much faster journey and at one point, we exceeded 39mph. We found a very useful cycle route and then climbed to join the A390. Shortly, we found a pub in the village of Kenneggy, the Coach and Horses. It had been recently refurbished and we gathered from the very few people in the bar that it had just reopened after a long closure. Our meals were excellent as was the Betty Stogs bitter. The proprietors deserve to succeed.

On the way towards Helston, we left the A390 for a minor road but as with many minor roads, there were large hills. It was, however, a fortuitous diversion as we saw a swallow - the first of the summer.

I was very disappointed with Helston. The bits we saw were scruffy housing in the modern style. The main road was so steep and busy that we didn't feel comfortable riding on it, so we pushed. Then we came across Culdrose Airbase and the road alongside it was fast, busy and nasty. There was, however, a good cycle track, which we used.

After the airbase, of course, the road deteriorated again and the cycle track disappeared. At The Lizard, we enjoyed splendid tea and cakes. I had carrot cake with orange icing and a blob of Cornish ice cream. We met some motorists who also doubled as cyclists and they were interested in our journey. We reached our digs just after 6pm - 57.77 miles at about 8.6mph.

We have decided that where we can, we should try for an early breakfast although perhaps we spent more time sightseeing today than we normally would. Our hosts provided some very welcome tea and hot cross buns and once we had showered, we made for the Gweek Inn. It was crowded and we were lucky to get some food, as we had not booked. That's a lesson for the future: ask the landlady to book us a table at the local hostelry.

We shared a table with two local people who were very interested in our journey. After we had eaten, we retired at 9:30 and I didn't emerge again until 6:30 - 9 hours unbroken sleep. I've not done that for a while. Jan is still slumbering as I write.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 07 Apr 2007 11:21:32 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

6th April - Good Friday

We bade farewell to Trevone House and Gweek after a superb breakfast. Our landlady had washed and dried yesterday's clothes and we were away at around 9:15. We made for Falmouth, which was a journey of just under 10 miles, but it took us about one and a half hours.

We had a coffee while waiting for a St Mawes ferry and then joined the queue for the 11:15. Another cyclist, riding along the south coast, helped us with the struggle of carrying the tandem down the steps and onto the boat.

St MawesSt Mawes was very picturesque, bathed in glorious sunshine and we cycled and then walked up the hill. This is an A-road but pretty quiet and we kept on it to Tregony. We then made a small mistake - following a sign to an off-piste pub and after a half-mile diversion, in which we didn't find it, we retraced our pedal-strokes and then climbed the hill into Tregony village.

The King's Arms served excellent beer and the cod and chips were also very tasty. We have learned that every time we leave a pub, we immediately have to climb a hill. We kept to the B-road until it joined the A390 and there didn't seem to be much traffic so we decided to stay on the main road into St Austell - there was an alternative through Sticker. This proved to be a good choice because on the 1 in 12 hill, we reached 40.3mph. However, we didn't fancy the upward section with traffic whizzing past us at 60 so we took to the pavement.

We found our way through St Austell and up to Carclaze. It seems to me that there comes a point in every hard ride when you have had enough and this was it. St Austell is simply surrounded by high hills and you have to climb whichever way you go unless you leave by sea. This was all very steep but we got on with it and eventually found ourselves out of the town and heading for Trethurgy and on to Luxulyan. The pub was open so we had a drink and then carried on up yet another hill.

I remarked to Janet that the worst thing about this riding was our inability to get into a rhythm. We were either grinding our way up hills at 4mph or hurtling down the other side at 25+. What I craved was a stretch of nice flat road and lo and behold, that was exactly what we got. NCN route 3, which we followed for some of its distance goes through something which resembles a mangrove swamp. It is a very narrow road occasionally with a lush ridge of turf growing along the middle and for four or five miles, we kept up a reasonably steady 10mph. This stretch was followed by a wonderful downhill where for several minutes, we just flew.

We then reached Fletcher's Bridge and lots more hills. After another three or four very steep miles, we travelled through Mount and with one more uphill I got bonk. We each had a cereal bar and cycled on to St Neot, arriving shortly after 7pm. We put our booked table back to 8pm, had the most wonderful high pressure shower and went to the pub for our tea.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 07 Apr 2007 22:31:17 BST | Comments: 1 | Cat: Cycling ]

7th April

Lyndon House, St Neot, has to be one of the finest B&Bs I have experienced. The room was comfortable and wonderfully appointed, I enthused about the shower yesterday, our breakfasts of cereal, fruit compôte, yoghurt with scrambled eggs, smoked salmon and toast washed down with lashings of tea from a beautiful service while we were admiring the view across the valley set us up for the day.

And what a day it was. There were more hills than I knew existed anywhere. We climbed and we climbed and as we climbed... we got off the bike and pushed. On the smallest, steepest, most remote road, a BMW followed us up the hills (we were pushing the bike) and kindly advised us that we were meant to be riding it. I hope his piles give him ten years' ceaseless agony.

MinionsThe road to Minions and Minions itself are absolutely glorious. To be viewed on a cloudless April morning... I'm enthusing too much.

It took us an age to reach Launceton. It was only about 17 miles, but our overall slow speed and frequent stops meant that we were there just before 1pm. We decided that the next pub would be lunch and it was, but not until we had crossed the Tamar. That momentous event occurred at about 1:20. We finally arrived at the pub in Bratton Clovelly at about 3pm. We had sandwiches.

From there to Okehampton, where we arrived just as the greengrocer's and coffee shop were closing, but we did get a few bananas and some carrot cake.

Again we climbed out of Okehampton and this time, on the rebound, we reached our highest speed ever: 44.9mph.

After we reached North Tawton, there were only another ten or so miles to go and it was touch-and-go whether we would need to refit the front light. We finally arrived at the Red Lion in Chulmleigh at about 8:15, about eleven hours after we set off. Seven hours and forty minutes were cycling time.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 07 Apr 2007 22:42:30 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

8th April - Easter Sunday

What a difference a day makes! Yesterday was as hard a day's cycling as one could ever hope to meet; today's was a dawdle by comparison. Our attitude had changed as well. In spite of eating breakfast at 8am, we were not away until 10. A good deal of that can be accounted for by our hosts: former Essex residents (Radwinter) whose son did the end to end about sixteen years ago in eight days. Dad operated the support vehicle - so 130 miles per day, although extreme, is doable for a fit teenager without luggage who stuck to A-roads nearly all the way.

A church en route on Easter SundayApart from an early walk up the steep hill from Chulmleigh, we had a very steady day's cycling. Navigation was straightforward as the first 19 miles into Tiverton were along a B-road. So direct was it that my right leg became sunburnt, while the left did not. Finding the canal tow-path was also easy, but good old Sustrans - the gates were locked and there was no chance of getting a fully laiden tandem through the labyrinth barriers. After some exploration and asking passers-by, we found the canal basin and we were away. It was not fast cycling but at least we were free from hills for ten miles or more. Interesting too: at one point, a large fish swirled on the surface and later we saw a beautiful little perch.

On leaving the tow-path, we kept to Sustrans route 3 and it led us quite a dance. The road signs were all pretty unhelpful, but in the village of Greenham, we found a man with a 1:50000 OS map. That sorted us out for a while, but around Langford Budville, the doubts set in once again. We muddled through, but I am not sure even now which roads we took.

On reaching Nynehead, we found ourselves climbing a delightful little sandstone gorge and not very long afterwards, we were in Taunton. To think that we were here a few mornings ago wondering when the train would set off.

I have decided that I do not like Taunton. To an extent, this is self-inflicted because I had failed to plot our route in sufficient detail. I asked a couple of 'old geezers' or whatever the Somerset equivalent is, and that was no help. We were looking for the Taunton and Bridgewater canal whose tow-path was going to take us east to Creech St Michael but instead we found the M5 and its exceptionally unpleasant junction with the A38. We had no choice but to take on this maxi-roundabout and finally found our way through Ruishton.

Even on arriving in North Curry, the guesthouse eluded us for a while but we were finally rewarded with an elegant Victorian red-brick former doctor's residence.

Our bike was stowed away, baths enjoyed, washing handed to the landlady and then we were off to the pub. We had the restaurant to ourselves as there was a noisy and inaccurate quiz going on in the bar. At one point, the quizmaster told everyone that the circumference of a circle was πr2 and nobody challenged him.

When we got back to our digs, I dared to turn the television on to sneak a look at the weather forecast for the next week. It's looking good so far if it isn't tempting providence too much to say so.

[ Entry posted at: Sun 08 Apr 2007 22:51:18 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

9th April

We awoke this morning to grey skies - something of a shock after the treat we had enjoyed over the previous four days. Again we had a splendid breakfast - we seem to have been as fortunate with the B&Bs as we have with the weather.

This was a morning for long trousers and warm tops and the flat countryside allowed us to keep up a good speed, covering 10 miles in the first hour. Shortly after crossing the A37 at Shapwick, we met a group from the Somerset CTC, who were returning home after a four day tour. Almost all were riding Argos bikes - not bought from a well-known purveyor of household goods, but a renowned local builder of the finest riding irons. We chatted briefly and they passed on useful info regarding Cheddar and the Mendips and also the Severn Crossing - cyclists only on the north side, apparently.

We stopped in Wedmore for coffee, which is where I have scribbled these words. So far, 19.53 miles at 9.6mph in two hours, one minute and nine seconds.

Cheddar GorgeCheddar Gorge was quite fun. There were lots of slow-moving cars, not enough parking spaces and many admirers and one round of applause as we cycled up, only getting off to push for about 200 yards, and that being the steepest section in the middle. Once we were on top of the Mendips, lunch became a priority and the Blue Bowl, near the Chew Valley lake provided a very good ploughman's.

From here, there were more hills than I expected and when we found our way into the Ashton Park, I was very cross to find that we had somehow missed our way and now had to climb a very unpleasant 1 in 7 to make the Clifton Suspension Bridge. As cyclists, we had no toll to pay and it was from here that Sustrans route 4 proved very useful. Finding our way through Bristol was easy.

Unfortunately, once we started heading out towards the Severn Bridge, Sustrans took us through all sorts of outlandish places, so deserted and desolate that one could easily imagine gangland murders occuring nearby. Worse than that, I reckon that Sustrans added a good three miles to the route that I had planned, and it is a matter of great regret that I did not pay more attention to my own route planning.

Sunset on the SevernWe did eventually find the bridge, and were rewarded with a superb sunset picture. However, the inadequate, nay downright untruthful signposting will be the cause for a letter of complaint at some time when we arrive home.

We finally reached Chepstow at about 8:30 and found our digs with little difficulty. The tribulations of the day were almost compensated for by the excellent Indian meal that we enjoyed prior to a romantic stroll down to the River Wye, followed by a most unromantic night snoring and spluttering.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 10 Apr 2007 00:01:55 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

10th April

It dawned on me today for the first time that minor roads are invariably more hilly and therefore lead to slower cycling than do A-roads. This is quite a shameful admission for the oft-times winner of the King Edward VIth Grammar School John Motson prize for the Bleedin' Obvious. A-roads became A-roads precisely because they were the most popular routes between two places. And why were they more popular? Because people get there quicker.

So it was that on leaving Chepstow we took the left turn at St Arvans and then did lots of climbing as we travelled along the Devauden road. It's not just the slower cycling that slows you down (if you do half your journey at 4mph and the other half at the speed of light your average will still only be 8mph), but the need for more frequent rests, and the non-existent or, worse still, unclear road signs. So the 16 mile journey into Monmouth took about three hours.

A wild flowerIt was a very enjoyable three hours. Again, the scenery was breath-taking and the Brecon Beacons beckoned from the west. We saw several buzzards and watched one as it soared above us for quite some minutes, displaying the wonderful patterns on the underside of its wings and another, gliding in stealth mode in woodland before alighting on a nearby ash tree. Jan took some photos of the wild flowers and as she did so, I noticed a vole scurrying around on the bank above her. I could tell at once it was a vole because it was quite at home on a very steep slope in spite of a total absence of gears (in-joke only understood by ACF members).

In Monmouth, we had coffee and started the long grind up the A466 towards Hereford. "Light vehicles only" said the road sign, so we half expected to be turned back by the police. However, we travailed and were rewarded by the rather grisly sight of a squashed polecat very close to the English border. This was the first I had ever seen, dead or alive.

There was a distinct pub dearth on this route, so we dived into the village shop at St Weonards (where do these saints get their names?) and caused a massive jump in the price of flapjack on the world markets. Suitably refreshed, we carried on.

Several times along the way, I thought I detected some unevenness from the rear wheel. I checked the spokes - all OK. The brakes were working perfectly, so the rims must have been alright, yet the nagging doubt remained that not all was well.

We joined the A49 for the last five miles into Hereford. It is a horrid road, but on that particular stretch, it is virtually all downhill, so we managed as many miles in fifteen minutes as had taken us at least an hour earlier in the day.

We liked Hereford. I came here for an interview in 1972 and had the Principal of the Teachers' Training College, Miss Eleanor Hipwell, not taken grave exception to my enormously long hair and straggly beard, I may well have been accepted and then I would never have met Janet! On this occasion too, we escaped the town's clutches with little difficulty and we were soon on the pleasant and mostly flat minor road through Sutton St Nicholas and Bodenham.

Shortly, we joined the A417, and the point at which it converges with the A49 was a nightmare. The road is narrow, exceedingly busy and thoroughly frightening. We took to wheeling the tandem on the wide grass verge rather than fight with the traffic, but soon we were on the B4361 towards Leominster.

A tear in the wall of the rear tyreOur stops were becoming more frequent as Janet was saddle-sore and was suffering from cramp in her right calf. As she was indulging in a little yoga practice, I had another look at the rear wheel which was still worrying me. The problem this time was immediately obvious: a series of tears in the wall of a virtually brand new (about 800 miles) tyre, no doubt courtesy of the dreadful Sustrans route yesterday. We had little more than ten miles left to do, so I decided we would carry on to Ludlow and change the tyre there.

The remainder of the journey was slow and uneventful and when we arrived at our digs at around 7:45, our host immediately gave me access to the garage for a fettling session. It was at this point that I realised I had committed the fettler's cardinal sin: I had never before removed the rear wheel from this bike. As luck would have it, everything was easy and within twenty minutes or so, I was test-driving the tandem. A quick shower later and we were foraging for a pub that served food at 8:50pm.

The first pub we tried sent us somewhere else and the second was no better, at least from the food aspect. However, they did serve Black Sheep and Timothy Taylor's Landlord, as well as another bitter called Hobson's. With a choice like this, we had to stay for a drink in any case, and were soon chatting to two very pleasant ladies about the best places to eat in Ludlow.

Now I'm not normally that adept at chatting up strange women in bars, particularly in my wife's company, but in the end, we joined Sharon and Jane (for that is who they were) for a second Indian in successive days, and a very convivial evening it was. So thanks, ladies, for your company and if you are ever unfortunate enough to stray into Southend, then please be our guests!

[ Entry posted at: Wed 11 Apr 2007 00:19:37 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

11th April

We awoke to another fine day - clear skies and some spilt-milk mist clinging to the valley floor below. The Mount is another very fine B & B, and very reasonably priced.

We wanted to buy a replacement spare tyre today, but we drew a blank in Ludlow. Even the well-stocked Pearse Cycles, well out of the town but en route along the Fishmore Road, couldn't supply exactly what we wanted.

A donkeyAgain the day began with climbing as we threaded our way through the end of Wenlock Edge, and again our speed stayed down. It was a very pretty ride - one of the highlights was coming upon a trio of donkeys, one of whom deigned to allow me to stroke his nose. Has anyone ever done LEJOG on a donkey, I wonder?

The downhill run toward Leebotwood was one of the most exhilarating so far. Never so steep that the bike started to run away, and never completely straight, I remarked to Jan that it reminded me of a bobsleigh course.

We arrived at Condover at about 1.20 and sister-in-law Andrea provided us with a good lunch of soup, bread, cheese, fruit cake and apples. An hour later we were on our way, looking for Stan Jones' Bike Shop in Shrewsbury. We found it with no difficulty and they had exactly what we wanted - a Schwalbe Marathon Plus in 26" x 1.75". It seems that the walls of the Schwalbe tyre are much more robust than are those of the Panaracer Pasela. We had a good chat with the salesman - a friendly and knowledgeable guy. I'd rate Stan Jones as "very good" in the Bike Shops' League.

There was a grinding climb out of Shrewsbury which lasted several miles, but eventually we reached the B-road to Wem. We had to be alert here as the Council were clearly intent that everyone should be funnelled along the A49 to Whitchurch, and we nearly missed the turning. However, a look at the map soon put us right and now that the roads were generally flatter we were able to maintain a pretty good turn of speed.

After Whitchurch we were onto the minor roads through Wrenbury, which was a relief after 20 or so busy miles from Shrewsbury, in which quite often a queue of traffic would form behind us as we were grinding up some hill or other at 5 m.p.h.

Some red cowsThe last stretch into Nantwich was pretty easy and Jan was able to take a phone call from her sister Helen as we rode along. How nonchalant!

We found the Red Cow, our digs for the night, but were very disappointed to discover that they were not serving food, which I had been led to believe that they would be at the time I made the booking. We had arranged to have a drink with Alan (Alans on ACF) and Marge Smith and we did so, spending a pleasant hour or so in their company, but finally the need for sustenance became a priority so we went to a Chinese restaurant. Very pricey but quite tasty.

During the meal I took the opportunity to phone my sister Tricia and to wish her a happy birthday. I won't say how old she is but I did ask her if she had got her bus pass yet...

[ Entry posted at: Thu 12 Apr 2007 21:43:46 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

12th April

Breakfast at the Red Cow was actually pretty good, but on balance I think it is better to stay at specialised B & Bs rather than pubs, because in a pub the accommodation invariably seems to become a sideline whilst the landlord is busy with what, quite rightly, is the top priority, i.e. selling good beer.

It was another lovely morning as we headed towards Church Minshull, and toyed with the idea of the canal towpaths. However, we have had enough of off-road for a while so even though the A-roads were busy, they were not intolerable and we were able to keep up a decent pace.

We had one awkward right turn near Northwich and had been waiting some time when suddenly a motorist gave way to us from the right whilst another followed suit from the left. How refreshing!

At one point we heard an unusual bird call so stopped to take a look. There was a nuthatch scurrying around in the branches of a nearby oak tree. There are nuthatches in Essex, apparently, but I have only ever seen them in Wales or the North and West of England.

Somewhere in the area of Lostock Gralam there was a massive chemical plant with pipes bridging the road to some reservoir or other which seemed to have escaped the notice of the cartographers. "Beware of steam vapour for one mile" said the sign, so we did that, and were soon on quiet rural roads again.

We passed through Pickmere and turned onto Frog Lane. We had scarcely gone a yard when - BANG! - with open jaws a lion sprang. Actually it didn't, but the fettling of which I had been so proud not two days ago was all undone in a nanosecond as the brand new Panaracer Pasela 26" x 1.75" tyre, being of a dangerous sort, exploded with a loud report (that's enough of the Hilaire Belloc references - ed.)

Keith with teacups, damaged inner tube and tyreI can think of no prettier place than Pickmere if you ever have to change a tyre. It's a little irksome, to say the least, when that particular tyre cost the best part of 20 quid and had only done about 80 miles, but that irk is considerably lessened when a man called Keith, who had been hoovering out his BMW, offers you a cup of tea. Keith definitely provided a service of great value, also disposing of the ruined tyre and tube for us. Thanks, Keith, you're a star!

In quick succession we crossed the M6 and M56, in the first instance treating the drivers underneath the bridge to a quick striptease, as we both ostentatiously removed our trousers, but Janet wouldn't let me moon at the motorists below. We then joined the A6144 on its inexorable journey to the big, bad city.

We felt like a couple of hobbits traversing from the green and pleasant Minas Tirith which is rural Cheshire into the Mordor of Manchester. Crossing the Mersey just doesn't have the same romantic feel to it that crossing the Tamar had done all those miles ago.

In Davyhulme we happened upon a bike shop in which the only member of staff present was a youth. I asked for a 26" x 1.75" Schwalbe Marathon Plus, and after some rummaging he came back with a pair of 700Cs. At least they were made by Schwalbe, which is something, I suppose. We carried on.

The next couple of miles were perhaps the nastiest of my cycling life. We went past the Dark Tower which is the Trafford Centre and then came a little respite when we crossed the Manchester Ship Canal and rode alongside the Bridgewater Canal.

The worst part was negotiating Junction 13 of the M61 and the very unpleasant A575. We took to the pavement and, on crossing the East Lancs Road, picked our way through peaceful residential roads to our friends Enid & David's house.

Once we had been fed (Covent Garden parsnip & apple soup and ham sandwiches) the quest was on for another, or preferably two the rate at which we had been getting through them, Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26" x 1.75" tyres. I tracked one down at the Green Machine Bike Shop in Horwich, so Enid, lovely lady that she is, gave me a lift past the Reebok Stadium to Lee Lane, where I purchase the said item. This looks to me like another Very Good Bike Shop.

So that's all the riding for nearly 24 hours and we have only about 25 miles to do tomorrow. We will set off for Dunnockshaw after lunch.

[ Entry posted at: Thu 12 Apr 2007 22:16:15 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

13th April

Today we had a lie-in followed by a leisurely breakfast. Then Janet and I strolled down to Walkden and did some essential shopping in the form of a couple of spare inner tubes and a pressure gauge for Presta valves.

After a lunch consisting of bacon butties, we loaded the bike, said our farewells to Enid and David and headed for the hills - again! With Enid's help we worked out a very quiet route to Kearsley and then used NC route 6 (OK, I know, I never learn) to Radcliffe. The surface of this particular farcility was very good and it was also direct. From there we joined the B road through Ainsworth and through Tottington.

Approaching New Laithe Farm

We were in familiar territory again when we crossed the M66/A56 into Edenfield and followed the road through to Rawtenstall (I have been to Rawtenstall many times but have yet to witness the Annual Fair, as celebrated in the music-hall song). From there it was a slow and steady plod through Crawshawbooth, Love Clough and Dunnockshaw before climbing part way up the Hamelden Hill to New Laithe Farm.

Nephew Robert proved to be the perfect host, supplying soup, bread and coffee. I pumped up the tyres of his mountain bike and I also gave the tandem the "once over", washing off the accumulated dust, proofiding my saddle and giving both chains a good dose of Purple Extreme.

There has been quite a lot of discussion on the ACF forum about the merits of various chain lubricants. For what it's worth, I have had to retension the chain of my solo machine as it has stretched quite a lot. Mostly that has been lubricated using White Lightning, and the chain had already stretched noticeably in the first 1000 miles. Today we completed our first 1000 miles on the T-bird, I have used only Purple Extreme as a chain lubricant and there is no noticeable stretch in either chain, both of which have been under great pressure. In my mind there is no doubt that Purple Extreme knocks spots off any other chain lubricant I have ever used.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 14 Apr 2007 11:22:18 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

14th April

The day began with a visit from tubbycyclist, bearer of glad tidings and a Schwalbe Marathon Plus 26 x 1.75" tyre. Kevin, for that is tc's proper name, came in for a cup of tea and a chat. In the course of conversation, it transpired that he was originally from Southend and attended Sacred Heart school. I teach there for one hour per week. Well, well, well!

Pendle Hill

We were left to our own devices for a couple of hours, but shortly after 2pm, Janet and I set off for Clitheroe. For most of the first five miles, we were reaping what we had sown yesterday, as the long grinding climb from Rawtenstall to Dunnockshaw was rewarded with a prolonged downward swoop all the way to Padiham. We climbed Padiham Heights, went down the other side to Sabden and then walked up to the Nick of Pendle. At the top, we enjoyed an ice cream, a local brew from Hudson's of Chatburn.

We then zoomed down to Clitheroe, clocking our fastest ever speed of 45.2mph en route. We waited at Clitheroe Castle for Helen and when she arrived, dismantled the tandem and put it in the Jeep. After Robert and Howard returned from the Manchester City match, we all walked down to the curry house in Crawshawbooth. We had a very good meal as ever. The evening was enlivened by a phone call from Heather, who had been fortunate enough to put a £2 each way bet at 40:1 on some nag or other which then romped home in the Grand National.

[ Entry posted at: Sun 15 Apr 2007 21:33:41 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

15th April

This morning was marred by the disappearance of the Cateye cycle computer. We searched everywhere we could think of and I have to conclude that I must have left it behind on the wall near Clitheroe Castle when we dismantled the bike, so today's precise mileage remains unrecorded, as does the top speed.

Today was very hard work. We were late arriving in Clitheroe to pick up where we left off yesterday and the eight miles Slaidburn took us two hours. I found it hard to get going. The weather was unseasonally hot and everything was a great struggle.

Slaidburn

We finally reached Slaidburn at about 12:10 and found the café where we should have met ONB, a fellow ACFer, but although there were plenty of cyclists and motorcyclists on the road and at the café, no-one introduced himself to a pair of weary tandemists.

Jan was very pleased with her selection of roast beef sandwiches and I chose beans on toast. We sat outside the café for around an hour, taking a few photographs and chatting to some motorcyclists who looked at us as though we were mad when I said we were heading for Sedburgh.

Suitably fortified, we set off for the wilderness. This was one of the most worrying days from the point of view of planning this trip. I was worried that the road above Slaidburn would be blocked with snow - an unfounded fear as I doubt that the route we took has had a warmer April day in the past 50 years. I told Jan that I thought that the twelve miles from Slaidburn to Higher Bentham would take us three hours.

It was a very interesting ride, with plenty to see. I am quite surprised how many wading birds which I see in large numbers in the Thames Estuary seem quite at home in the hills. We frequently saw and heard curlews and were treated to some fine aerobatics by a lapwing, which dived around above our heads giving its plaintive 'peewit' cry. What impressed me most was the noise of its wingbeats - a surprisingly loud 'whoomph, whoomph, whoomph'. Later, we saw some oystercatchers, but we heard them before we saw them.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual bird we saw was - well I don't actually know what it was. It had a white rump and I would have said it was a wheatear - except that it had far more black plumage than any wheatear I have ever seen.

Curiously, we saw no predatory birds at all today. On every other day, we have seen buzzards, a few kestrels, and an occasional sparrowhawk. Today, in country I would have thought would have been ideal buzzard territory, not a thing.

Peter and Janet at the pinnacle of their ride

We reached the high point of the ride, indeed, the entire tour, sometime after 3pm and had some sandwiches and flapjack at 427m above sea level. Thereafter, we hurtled down the hill towards High Bentham, arriving ten minutes inside my three hour prediction.

It is remarkable how a small success like this can put a spring into the pedal-stroke. We headed west along the B-road and dived into the Punchbowl in Low Bentham, which claimed to be the first and last pub in Yorkshire. A group of locals were sitting outside. "Where's t'kitchen sink?" came the cry. I looked at the heavily-laiden tandem. "It's in there somewhere," I replied and the niceties dealt with, we then had an affable chat. "Art tha a bit eccentric?" asked the spokesman, after I'd explained the purpose of the journey. "No, completely mad," I replied. After a little more good-natured banter, we finished our drinks and went on our way.

We were now in the Lune Valley and everything was very green. The road had levelled out pretty well and our progress was much more rapid.

Kirby Lonsdale was overcrowded with motorcyclists and after we left the town, the road climbed again - still ridable, but hard work. Gradually, we whittled away the last few miles to Sedburgh but perhaps the most frustrating were the last two or three when the road gave the appearance of being level but we still had to push the pedals hard to make progress.

We reached Holmecroft at about 7pm, showered and headed for the pub.

Climbing: 1169m

[ Entry posted at: Sun 15 Apr 2007 21:51:37 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

16th April

Today, the weather seemed to remember that it's April and not July. We awoke to cloud and mist, although by the time we set off from Sedburgh, the mist had mostly lifted.

Cumbrian scene

We knew today would be tough with somewhere in the region of 70 miles to cover. We climbed the B-road from Sedburgh and had to push the bike two or three times. We had a fine elevenses stop in Orton, but immediately on setting off, I snapped one of the gear cables.

Although Rohloff and Thorn boast that it is possible to change gear whether or not you are pedalling, it is easier to do so when you are not. With a solo bike, this becomes second nature, but with a tandem if the stoker is applying pressure to a pedal, then operating the twist grip presents problems. I am developing quite a callous on my right thumb because of gear changes. I had put this down to the extra cable length, but it is really down to poor communication between Janet and me.

After the cable had broken, I could still change gear after a fashion. The Very Nice Man at Orton Post Office gave me the number of Arragon's Cycle Shop in Penrith, and after some struggling over some very high fells, we descended into Shap and eventually found ourselves in Penrith outside said bike shop.

Their man set to work pretty promptly and after a call to Bridgewater to find out how the Rohloff gear changing system works, he managed to withdraw the broken cable and replace it with a new one. Annoyingly, it takes Torque 20 tool to undo the bolts, which is pretty silly because Thorn and Rohloff do not supply such things as standard. Even if I had brought some spare cable with me, I would not have been able to do the job.

As well as paying for the work to be done, I also replaced the lost Cateye microcomputer.

All of this held us up to the extent that Chris, who arrived in Carlisle at around 2pm, was kept hanging about until 5 before we arrived. With little further ado, we set off for Annan but rush hour Carlisle is not my favourite place. We exchanged a few pleasantries with a Bromptoneer on the A7, but he turned off before the horrendous roundabout at which the M6 becomes the A74.

We got round the A7/A74/M6 roundabout with few problems, but the A7 itself and subsequently the A6071 were pretty fast with poor surfaces. Shortly after leaving Longtown, Jan and I heard a noise to our right and looked to see the white rump of a fallow deer disappearing amongst the trees.

Gretna

We entered Scotland around 7pm and suitable photographs were taken, but no wee drams were to be had. After that, we struggled along the B721 for about nine miles towards Annan. This was the first occasion in about 600 miles that we had had either the sun or the wind in our faces. We were treated to a beautiful Solway sunset.

After showering and washing a few clothes, we went to the Sitar Indian Restaurant, which was very good and reasonably priced.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 17 Apr 2007 22:39:35 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

17th April

We left the Old Vicarage at about 9:30 in bright sunshine. On crossing the river Annan, we took some photographs and a local man, walking his dog, pointed out that the Sustrans route was down a flight of steps and took us out to the seaside. I hope I didn't sound too ungracious when I told him we were going to stick to the road.

We hadn't gone far when a bank of cloud appeared to the north-west and threatened rain. It was enough for us to don our waterproofs, but a few minutes later, we had removed them again.

At one point, a dead rabbit in the road caught my eye as it started to move towards the hedge. I then saw the stoat that was dragging it away. I stopped the bike, but of course that scared the stoat off. Even so, we could see it running up and down a labyrinth of tunnels in the bank, willing us to leave so it could secure its lunch.

In Bankend, we came across a "Road Closed" sign precisely where we wanted to go. We ignored it because it is normally possible to get a bike through where larger vehicles would have to turn back. Here though, we appeared to be scuppered as the entire road was blocked by a wide trench bordered by Harris fencing. It was Chris who noticed a small footbridge over the stream, so we took the luggage off the bikes and man-handled them over.

The Nith at Dumfries

In Dumfries, we particularly liked the river Nith and on its waterfront we found an Italian takeaway, which served some splendid pasta and spicy tomato. We each had some and a cup of coffee, so suitably refreshed, we were ready to tackle the hills.

These were long, grinding climbs rather than the repeated switchbacks of Devon and Cornwall last week and Jan and I cycled up all of them albeit very slowly. Our big problem was that when a downhill did appear we were unable to make much headway against the strong wind.

So we struggled all the way to Dalry. The Porridge House is very comfortable. We were supplied with a pot of tea and the most excellent fruit cake, we ordered a 7:30 breakfast with a packed lunch, the shower was most refreshing and the pub only 50 yards away. The pub also served some very tasty Deuchars. Janet and Chris had the last two portions of lamb casserole and I had the steak and ale pie.

Chris and I finished off with a whisky each - in my case, to celebrate Janet's and my thirty-first wedding anniversary. We returned to the Porridge House and had more tea and whisky in front of a roaring log fire.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 17 Apr 2007 22:51:20 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

18th April

Although today dawned bright and clear, it didn't last long. Soon, there was plenty of grey cloud and it was also by far the coldest day we have had. I started with my longs on and kept them on all day.

Breakfast at the Porridge House was an Event. Our hosts were very good at entertaining and as we were eating in the room in which the food was being prepared, there was a very friendly informality about the meal. The finer points of the preparation and cooking of porridge were discussed as were the various merits of the spirtle over a wooden spoon for the stirring thereof.

After Dalry, near Carsphairn

When we set off at 8:40, armed with a very fine packed lunch, we were in for a morning of climbing. Initially, the B7000 gave spectacular views but after Carsphairn, when we joined the A713, there was yet more climbing. Something like eight miles of unbroken slog as we approached Dalmellington. There was not much wind to begin with, but as the day wore on, a nagging westerly was more of a hindrance than a help.

We entered Ayrshire and its rocky roadsteads were not to our liking. Neither was the occasional enormous lorry which came thundering past. It seemed to me that although there was not a lot of traffic, what there was tended to be heavy commercial stuff.

Some of the villages we passed through looked decidedly run down. Patna was a fairly scruffy-looking place. A pity, as the impressive river Doon runs nearby and Waterside, an adjacent small hamlet, had once been dominated by a large travellers' inn which is now boarded up.

We turned off the A-road onto the B730 and after one final stiff climb, we were out of the highest hills. We entered rolling pasture, reminiscent of Hertfordshire or the hillier parts of north Essex. We ate our sandwiches by a field gate, but were keen to press on: there was a biting wind and we had to catch the 6pm ferry from Ardrossan. We did not have a lot of time to spare.

Just after we reached our highest speed of the day - 39mph - a wee lassie on a very fine bike came racing past us, bade us good morning and was gone.

Now the hills were less demanding, we were able to push our speed up quite a bit and it wasn't too long before we were in Dreghorn. I had planned what looked like a very neat route through an estate, but every couple of hundred yards we committed the offence of ignoring a "No entry except buses" sign, much to the annoyance of one bus driver.

Soon, we were through Irvine and onto the Sustrans route. This worked very well and was a good surface, taking us all the way out to the ferry terminal. We were there with at least an hour to spare and seldom can a warm room, hot coffee and sticky cake have been so welcome.

Boarding the Arran Ferry

Arran is a spectacular island and was shrouded in cloud when we approached, although with enough sunshine to give a variety of lights. The ferry had to wait in deeper water for the tide to rise before it docked, and this delayed our arrival at the B&B. We therefore concluded that finding food was our top priority.

Brodick is a pretty little town nestling at the foot of the Arran mountains. It doesn't have much in the way of neon lights but if ever it installs any the harbour entrance should be adorned with the slogan "Ye'll have had yer tea...".

As we left our digs at about 8:20 to find a meal, we came across restaurant after restaurant which was closed. We tried a promising-looking hotel (well, promising-looking if you ignore the McEwans adverts) but were turned away: they stopped serving at 8:30.Arran from the Ferry We walked the entire length of the waterfront and were just on the point of going to the Co-op for some ham, salad, rolls and red wine when I asked some passers-by where we could eat. They suggested a bistro near the Post Office but without much confidence. We found this and asked for a table for three. There was a large blackboard covered with exciting menu items and we were just thinking about placing an order when the waitress informed us that as the kitchen was on the point of closing down for the night we could have fish and chips or pizza. Three portions of haddock and chips it was then and we each had some sort of dessert. When we left at about 9:45, we were the last customers.

We returned to our rooms, showered and then did some hand washing. Laundry presents a problem when we arrive late at a B&B. We have travelled as light as we dare but even so, we only have three sets of cycling gear so frequent washing is necessary. Washing the stuff isn't the problem. Any fool can make stuff wet with soapy water and rinse it out again. The problem comes with drying it. When we have showered we roll everything up in the towels we have just used and when the lycra is no longer dripping, we hang it up anywhere we can. This works pretty well for getting stuff dry - everything has so far dried after two nights hanging up, but that leaves us the problem of absolutely sopping wet towels. We just bung them in the bath overnight then spread them out in the morning just before we go. Whoever tidies our rooms after we have gone must wonder what on earth we have done to the towels.

[ Entry posted at: Thu 19 Apr 2007 00:48:45 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

19th April

We set off fairly early, given the 8:30 breakfast and bought some rolls and dried fruit slice for lunch. The weather really let us down with wave after wave of fine west coast drizzle drifting across us.

Arran

Our road followed the coastline initially, there was little climbing and we were sheltered from the wind so we made pretty good progress. At one point, on a rare occasion when Chris was cycling behind Janet and me, a red squirrel ran across the road. Chris saw it, we did not.

Then the climbing began. The first climb was not too bad and we reached the top without getting off, but on the descent, the wind was so strong that we had to pedal all the way down.

Arran is a really beautiful island, and it was a pity that we were just rushing through, having to catch the midday ferry.

Lochranza Castle

The main climb was quite a brute, reminiscent of Sunday's ascent in Bowland. It took us a little over half an hour to cycle/push the bike up the hills, but we discovered that on a hill like that, we walk up faster than we cycle.

The descent would have been exhilarating, had it not been for the head wind, which kept our speed below 30mph for the most part. When we were quite close to Loch Ranza, another cyclist was coming the other way. He had a heavily laden bike, but was climbing the hill as though it wasn't there. He looked to be well into his seventies - very impressive!

The ferry left on time and in half an hour or so, we were back on the mainland but as for Claonaig, there is not much there. We now had another stiff climb over the Mull of Kintyre during which, we broke off for lunch. I took the opportunity to lubricate the chain, which I had not done since Dunnockshaw. We heard a cuckoo.

Tarbert

The weather improved dramatically during the afternoon and we headed north in almost unbroken sunshine. We reached Tarbert - a very pretty place. It occurred to me: why do people make so much fuss about the coast to coast ride? We did three today.

We had a good cup of coffee at a rather pseudy art-gallery-cum-coffee-shop in Tarbert. I quite liked some of the pictures on display, but was not so keen on the prices. Then, after a visit to the Co-op to stock up on calories, we headed north to Loch Gilphead with Loch Fyne on our right.

It was a lovely ride with the sun shining on the sea and the mountains beyond. The road was not too hilly and we made quite good progress.

After Loch Gilphead, we turned inland with the Crinan Canal on our left and made for Kilmartin. There was a little climbing left to do, but we arrived at Rosebank soon after 7pm, bathed and enjoyed a splendid meal at the Kilmartin Hotel. I had duck, Chris, roast beef and Janet, venison sausages.

Chris and I had a couple of pints of Highland Ale, a local brew and it was superb. All in all, another excellent day to add to our growing list.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 21 Apr 2007 23:22:35 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

20th April

Another fine breakfast. Rosebank is an interesting house. Chris remarked that it was like the TARDIS. One enters through the door of what appears to be a modest cottage and suddenly, you are faced with a really impressive hallway and stairwell.

We left soon after 9:20 and initially, we made good progress. Before we reached the village of Ford, I remarked to Janet about two large birds of prey I had seen above the loch. One was silhouetted against the sky, the other against the hillside but both were perched on the dead limbs of an old pine tree. The sign on the gate said "No entry: birds nesting". My immediate suspicion of ospreys was confirmed a few minutes later. We met a man, from Norfolk as it happened, having a quick drag outside the Ford village inn. He confirmed, (after asking "'ave you got a loight, boy?") that there were indeed ospreys at that location.

Loch Awe

Soon, we began climbing and it was tough. Loch Awe appeared on our right and it is aptly named. Janet and I had a good view of a bullfinch and frequently the trees would give way to provide a splendid vista along the loch. We came across a coffee shop in Dalevich where we each had cake and coffee. I had chocolate cake. Is there anything finer than a really glutinous chocolate cake to bring strength back to tired legs.

We didn't tarry long because we still had a long way to go. As usual, Chris had forged ahead. Suddenly, my attention was drawn by the shrill cry of a bird of prey of some sort. I could not tell what it was which uttered the cry - the way it tucked its wings in and swooped looked to me like a peregrine - but there was no doubting the object of its ire: there, majestic with long slow wingbeats which clearly distinguish it from the buzzard for which many an optimist mistakes it was a golden eagle. I stopped the bike in an instant and readied the camera, but in my excitement, I forgot to zoom in. I had time for only one shot and the entertainment was over, but there were three birds in the photograph. A large gull, the peregrine/buzzard and the eagle - the last being mobbed by the other two.

We stopped for lunch in Kilchrenan and it was there that a mystery was explained. All morning, a series of cars and much larger vehicles kept overtaking us on a road we had expected to be deserted. Apparently, there had been some sort of chemical spillage not far from Kilmartin and all the traffic had been diverted along the road we had chosen for the very reason that there would be very little traffic on it.

Castle Stalker

When we reached Taynuilt, we were so much behind the clock that we decided to press on. The A-road offered us the opportunity to make better progress and we grasped it with both hands. At one point, a large troupe of motorcyclists, all seemingly immaculately turned out in the Geordie chapter of Hells Angels team colours went thundering past on their Harley-Davidsons. Somewhere amongst them was an absolutely pristine Land Rover in the same Geordie chapter livery which was clearly their support vehicle. So there you have it: the Geordie chapter of Hells Angels needs a sag-wagon. What a bunch of big girls' blouses.

We crossed Loch Etive by the Connel bridge. Now some seriously high mountains were coming into view. Loch Etive is fed by the Etive river in Glen Etive, which in turn is a southerly branch of Glen Coe. We still made good progress all the time keeping a weather eye open for an otter or some other interesting creature on the shores of Loch Linnhe, but although the water was beautiful and crystal clear, we saw no other creatures of great interest.

Gradually, we approached the House of Keil and suddenly we came upon it. We rode down the driveway to be met by the spectacular sight of a fortified Stewart mansion and a pair of noisy labradors. I rang the bell and the Lady of the House appeared. We were made most welcome and shown to our rooms. What rooms they were. Janet and I had a superb family room overlooking the loch and there below our bedroom window were the fortifications and three cannons. We were informed that two of the cannons were seventeenth century but the other was from the Armada.

Cannons at the House of Keil

The whole house was steeped in history. Antlers on the wall (brow, bay and tray and three on top) alongside ancient portraits of ancestors and pictures of dead birds. Was it a snipe and a woodcock? And more incongruously, a wood pigeon and a greater spotted woodpecker. In addition, there was a Broadwood upright piano, probably Victorian to judge by the candle holders, which were still in place. Beethoven himself used a Broadwood. I was very tempted to give it a try but I felt so much that I was privileged to have a window open slightly onto a bygone era that I didn't dare.

We had taken our own food to eat this evening as there were no restaurants or pubs within easy distance. The Lady of the House supplied us with a tray of tea. Unfortunately, the first one ended up all over the floor with the teapot smashed. The carpet looked very expensive and I'm sure a pot of scalding tea and a large jug full of milk did it no good at all. The second tray full was rather more of a success and we had a very enjoyable if simple meal of bread, ham, red wine, tomato and red pepper, followed by a lump of bannock, and of course a cup of tea.

Before I went to bed tonight, I don't think I knew what dark was. There are no street lights in the road outside the House of Keil and our room overlooked the loch. I pulled the curtains back, turned the light off and I could not make out the shape of the window in the wall opposite. It is darker here now than anything I can ever remember - darker than the cupboard I used to hide in as a child because there was always that friendly gleam of light under the door to connect me to the world outside. Here there is nothing, just the complete, total and utter absence of light.

[ Entry posted at: Sat 21 Apr 2007 23:47:31 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

21st April

We enjoyed another excellent breakfast and said our farewells to the Ryce-Garwoods. As we left, our hostess pressed two ten pound notes into my hand as their contribution to the National Kidney Federation. What wonderful people and what a wonderful place.

We made very good progress this morning and reached Fort William in time for coffee, but we had to take care not to drench other customers as we had cycled through non-stop rain. We were due some of course, so we can't complain. In fact, the weather was quite mild and there was little wind so cycling in the rain was not unpleasant.

We saw some Eider ducks on the sea loch (Loch Lynnhe). We had seen some earlier from a distance, but could not make up our minds what they were.

Chris disappearing into the distance

On leaving Fort William, we made for the Great Glen cycle way and once we were on it, we ate the lunch we had just bought at Tesco's. The route was a bit stony but pretty flat so we made quite good progress. On reaching Clunes, we met a lovely pair of English setters in a garden and made friends with them while chatting with the owner. Then we returned to the Great Glen cycle way.

This part was unpleasant, being rough, hilly and hard going. On another day, the views of the mountains would have made it a wonderful ride but by this time, we were thoroughly damp and simply looking forward to a hot shower and some food.

We returned to the A82 as soon as we could and it was quite a good ride, especially the section that had just been resurfaced and was smooth.

We arrived at our digs at around 6:45, so after showering and finding the driest clothes we possessed, we set off for the Lock Inn, where Chris and I consumed venison, whereas Janet had chicken. We were shocked at the price of the beer, which was £2.95 for a pint of Deuchars IPA.

[ Entry posted at: Sun 22 Apr 2007 23:20:09 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

22nd April

Our host at the Bank House, Mike, washed and dried a load of clothes for us for which we were very grateful. We found that Mike is a very accomplished hill-walker, having conquered every Scottish Munro - all 284 of them.

We set off rather late, after 10am, but made very good progress along Loch Ness, dropping into Urquhart Castle for a coffee. Normally, this would have been out of the question because the entry fee for the castle was £6.30 per adult and you had to buy a ticket in order to access the café. However, for the weekend of 21st-22nd April, many Scottish historical attractions were opening their doors free, so we had a coffee and some cake without bothering ourselves with the castle.

Bridge at Invermoriston

Shortly came the major climb of the day, heading north from Drumnadrochit up to Convinth Glen. This was long and steep and Janet and I pushed the bike for nearly ¾ of a mile. Eventually, we caught up with Chris who was waiting by a small loch with the lunch. Although pushing the tandem up a long 1 in 6 had been hard work, when we were on the top, the wind was cold. We were keen to make a move and the descent towards Beauly was great fun as once again, Janet and I broke our speed record: 46.2mph. This hill was not especially steep, just very long but if you cannot build up a bit of pace coming off the Highlands, when can you?

Beauly Abbey

Very shortly after this, we had a potentially embarrassing incident because I was unable to unclip my left shoe - one of the bolts holding the cleat having come undone. We continued to cycle and I took my shoe off as we did so and eventually stopped without mishap. After some fettling, I extricated my shoe and we continued.

I seem to remember an old saying quoted to me when I visited Elgin some years ago when I worked for Customs and Excise: "Speak well of the Highlands but live in the Laich" - the Laich being the stretch of coastline between Nairn and Elgin, which has a particularly mild climate. I don't think that Beauly, the Muir of Ord or Dingwall can correctly be called the Laich, but we all noticed how much warmer it felt at the lower level.

We had a brief explore of Dingwall town centre but there's not much going on at 5pm on a Sunday. We climbed the minor road to avoid the busier routes and I decided it was time to do something about the buckled wheel which had been annoying us for a couple of days. I found the spoke key, tried to adjust a spoke or two in the offending part of the wheel and discovered a completely loose spoke, still attached at the nipple end but the spoke wasn't broken - the hub was. A piece of metal about an inch long had broken off my precious Rohloff hub.

Broken Rohloff flange

This is definitely a tour-threatening situation. If another spoke on the rear wheel, or more to the point, another chunk of hub, were to break off, then I would be most reluctant to ride.

When we reached our hotel, a fairly unpleasant place with no real ale and a very restricted food menu, I set to work trying to superglue the offending piece of hub back into place, but with little success.

We visited the local Indian for our evening meal and it was a case of Balti Towers as the service was very slow but the apologies profuse, the woman blaming her husband for the tardiness of the meal. Eventually, the food arrived and it was very good, although at the end, we were treated to a discourse on how to provide low fat Indian food to Scotsmen.

We returned to our hotel and I made another attempt to glue the piece of hub back into place. There will be phone calls to Bridgewater in the morning and I can see the headline in Der Zeitung now: "Rohloffhub in Landsendtojohnogroatenfahren kaput ist!".

[ Entry posted at: Sun 22 Apr 2007 23:28:13 BST | Comments: 1 | Cat: Cycling ]

23rd April

"Bridgewater, we have a problem!"

So serious was deemed our problem that I was referred immediately to Robin Thorn himself. He said that on very rare occasions, lumps do fall off Rohloff hubs. He talked about short-term solutions and long-term solutions. I pointed out that I had superglued the hub back together, had managed to get some tension in the offending spoke and that in any case, we had been riding on the hub for at least 100 miles since I noticed the buckle in the wheel which my fettling had reduced considerably.

Robin had another solution: take the bike to a good, small bike shop where they know what they are doing and get Bicycle Repair Man to drill out another hole in the hub and fit an over-length spoke in place of the offending one. Robin himself would track down the said BRM, I would visit him en route, the repair would be carried out and everyone would live happily ever after.

Robin found the said BRM and after some faffing, gave me his phone number. His name was Mike, he worked The Bike Bothy in Brora and he was primed with what he needed to do.

I phoned Mike. I was in Tain at the time (as everyone knows, Tain is the home of Glenmorangie whiskey) and Brora is something like 20 miles along the Sutherland coast. Mike was quite reluctant to tackle the job. He felt, as I did, that the principle of "leave well alone" was quite a good one: the bike had done a lot of miles since the break had occurred and my superglue was holding the spoke in place, even if it wasn't doing all of the work it was supposed to.

In my view, this whole episode puts a big question mark over Rohloff hubs. What does Robin Thorn mean when he talks about "very rare occasions". How often does a hub break before a spoke? I have never come across this situation before with other makes of hub. OK, our tandem has taken a good deal of punishment over the last three weeks in which we have done a fair amount of off-road. I think it was the Great Glen way that caused the damage, no doubt aided and abetted by the enormous bulk of riders and luggage. Pilot and stoker weigh more than 27 stone and the luggage must push us up over 30 stone. That, on a rough surface, puts everything to the test and we clearly found Panaracer Pasela tyres to be inadequate for the work we wanted them to do, whereas the Schwalbe Marathon Plus seem equal to the task.

The bottom line is that Rohloff hubs, retailing at about £700 a throw, should not have a fundamental flaw in them. If something is to break, it should be something the rider can easily replace, e.g. a spoke, not something that could put the entire tour in jeopardy. I don't think I could now take my Rohloff-equipped bike to Patagonia with any confidence.

But enough of Rohloffs and superglue. Today's ride began in Alness and very soon the A9 was the be-all and end-all of our existence. It wasn't as busy as many an A-road in south east England but the traffic came in waves and it was fast. As often as we could, we rode to the left of the white line.

Berriedale

We had elevenses in Tain and a very fine cake shop it was. We made for Golspie at lunchtime and sat in the drizzle eating sardines straight out of the tin. We looked for a loo in Brora but decided not to trouble Mike the Bike in his Bothy. It was getting late, so we held a council of war in Helmsdale. We phoned the B&B at about 5:30, telling them that we still had about sixteen miles to do and that we would find food before we arrived.

I had suspected from the way the map showed zigzags in the road that there was a big climb immediately after Helmsdale but we were not prepared for the climb we had. It was monstrous. I was worried that the slow pace enforced upon us would mean that we would miss our meal. Up we went, further and further, with marvellous spectacular views along ravines and out to sea. We reached a summit of sorts, allowing some descent and climbed again. Then we reached Berriedale.

I had been warned by the guy selling ferry tickets at Ardrossan, himself a Helmsdale man, that the hill into Berriedale was quite spectacular. So it was, but I didn't want to give the tandem its head with the rear wheel problem and in any case, I would have been held up by a coach whose tyres smelled as though they were on fire. Even so, we reached over forty miles an hour.

The hill north out of Berriedale is not such a git as the Helmsdale climb, being much shorter, but it takes you right to the top of Caithness. From that point, it is a glorious fast run all the way to Dunbeath.

We stopped at the Inver Hotel, where food was still being served but just to us, or so it seemed. There was one other couple in there briefly, but thereafter we had the place to ourselves. The view across the bay was most dramatic.

Toremore Farm was only about half a mile up the hill from the restaurant, so we were soon bathed, in bed and ready for the final day of this epic adventure.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 24 Apr 2007 00:11:58 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

We are at John o' Groats

Some trips to the pub are better than others

Phone call received 3:52pm, 24th April.

Journal Entry to follow later.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 24 Apr 2007 17:49:51 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

24th April

Leaving Dunbeath

This morning dawned bright and clear. We had another very good breakfast overlooking the Moray Firth in which, according to our landlady, we could see the world's tallest wind turbine. It isn't working yet and there is a similar one being built nearby.

We set off around 9:30 and made for Lybster where we bought provisions. A mile or so later, we took a left turn and went due north through some very remote and wild countryside. We climbed gently but for quite some miles and when we reached the top of this lens shaped hill, the views were spectacular.Grey Cairns of Camster There probably wasn't another human within five miles of us and once we stopped the bikes, the only sounds were of wind and birdsong. This was one of the finest parts of the entire ride.

We descended to Watten, which to judge from the people we met has more than its fair share of attractive young women with children. We crossed the railway at the level crossing and a few minutes later, a train came, one of very few all day. Loch Watten, although small when compared to some we have seen, is a large lake about three miles long.

After lunch, we climbed again, although this time through less remote countryside and after one final rise, we could see Stroma Island and Orkney beyond. Some trips to the pub are better than othersThis was the home straight. The last two or three of a 1000-mile journey which ended up in a not-very-inspiring pub where no beer worthy of the name was served. However, Christopher and I celebrated with a wee dram of Glenmorangie since we cycled past the distillery gates yesterday and Janet had orange and lemonade.

Because we had decided to see Dunnet Head tonight rather than leave it until the morning, we made the mistake of not going to Duncansby Head. This became apparent when we arrived at Creag Na Mara to find that the latest we would be served dinner would be 7:30 so we wouldn't have time to get to Dunnet Head and back either. We have now opted for a 7:30 breakfast to leave at 8:30 via Dunnet Head and to get to Thurso in plenty of time for the 13:06 train.

We had a very good meal at Creag Na Mara where we are the only guests for tonight. We have been overlooking Dunnet Head where we were treated to a very fine sunset.

[ Entry posted at: Tue 24 Apr 2007 23:02:14 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

25th April

I was woken in the small hours by the unfamiliar sound of raindrops being blown with some force on our bedroom window. I looked out into almost total darkness: there were three or four orange smears somewhere in the gloom, neon lights through horizontal rain. I tried to sleep but did not succeed for at least an hour.

The next time I looked out, a small amount of daylight had oozed through the clouds, which was enough for me to see the pampas grass outside clinging onto its mother earth with every fibre of its being. Our final ride of the holiday from East Mey to Thurso via Dunnet Head promised to be among the toughest miles of all.

Dunnet Head

Breakfast was ample and well-cooked and was enlivened considerably when our host informed us cheerfully that Alan Ball had died of a heart attack: Alan Ball of Everton and England, who once famously told a newspaper reporter that he didn't squeeze his spots because he wanted to be repulsive in order to keep the girls away. They would only interfere with his football.

By the time we set off, at around 8:20, the rain had stopped and the sun was threatening to emerge. The fact that the wind was southerly rather than westerly was also a considerable bonus: it would be a crosswind rather than an againsterly for much of the ride.

Our progress was initially very good as we enjoyed a long downhill from East Mey. After about four miles, we turned towards Dunnet Head - a final northern push to the outer limits of this island.Dunnet Head This section was wind-assisted and still we bowled along but we could see that the sleeping monster we had photographed so happily in the tranquillity of last night's sunset was a totally different beast in the cold light of a gale-force day.

I was surprised to see some quite large lakes beside the road as we approached the lighthouse, and even more so to see that the fishing rights belong to the Dunnet Head Angling Society. Does someone really come up here to put half-tame stock trout in these wilderness lochans so that someone else can pay for the privilege of pulling them out again?

Eventually, we reached the lighthouse and in many ways, our journey's end. To me, Land's End to John O'Groats was incidental, a ride for the tabloids. Lizard's Point to Dunnet Head is a journey for the purist.

It is a marvellous place - nothing but sea between you and the north pole. The sun was trying to break through as we reached the top and we could just make out the Old Man of Hoy. We all recalled a gripping day's television in the early 1960s when the BBC broadcast live from Hoy as Joe Brown and his team became the first climbers to conquer it. Now that was reality TV - one of the finest moments of British broadcasting history.

After a few final photographs, we began the last ride of all along the A836 to Thurso station. A few times, we had to stop as we have done throughout the last thousand miles so that Janet can get comfortable.

I really must get around to adjusting her saddle.

[ Entry posted at: Wed 25 Apr 2007 20:34:58 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

Epiblogue

We are now safely at home in Prittlewell after the longest train ride of our lives. This was not without incident.

We left Thurso at 13.06 and succeeded in getting a tandem on a Scotrail train. The guard was clearly a bit confused by the number of sets of bars, but the bike fitted in the available space and he made no further comment. We were accompanied for some of the ride by a down-and-out who made a minor nuisance of himself from time to time, but we sat, ate food and admired scenery, on several occasions recognising roads down which we had ridden.

Inverness Castle

When we arrived in Inverness we had some four hours before our train left for London, or in Chris's case, Crewe (same train). We were just speculating about what to do when a smartly-dressed chap came and introduced himself with a "Hello! Remember me?" It was a passer-by who had offered some sympathy at the moment we had discovered the problem with the Rohloff hub, this time on his way home from work. He had to rush for the Dingwall train.

I had never been to Inverness before, my previous encounters merely to bypass the city via the Kessock bridge. It is a very fine place with a superb river rushing through. We photographed the castle and then found a pub for dinner.

The dinner was pretty good, but again the pub suffered from a lack of real ale. Chris and I opted for Guinness. It appears that there are now two Guinness pumps available - cold and 0° Kelvin. We had the cold version, and I was tempted to ask the barmaid to put the second pint in the microwave for 30 seconds.

We had locked the bikes very close to a BBC outside broadcast bus and had taken a table by the window so that we could keep an eye on them. Suddenly I was surprised to look up idly from the woman on the television in the corner of the bar to the woman on the top of the bus - it was one and the same person doing one and the same thing!

We returned to the station, found our train, and after a little more hanging about, we put the bikes in the guard's van where they were accompanied by polystyrene boxes of live sea food piled high and destined for London. The train set off on time.

The air conditioning on the train from Thurso left the carriage much too hot, but I found myself hunting for extra layers before the journey from Inverness was very old. It was evident that the train crew were also concerned and they made a number of futile attempts to adjust the temperature. It was then that they hit upon a splendid idea, of which any self-respecting fettler would be proud: they came into our carriage armed with a glass filled with ice from the bar, tore a grille off the wall, found the thermostat and stood it in the glass of ice. The air conditioning was fooled and within minutes the carriage was lovely and warm - that is until some moaning minnie said it was too hot and would they turn the heat down please. This they did by the simple expedient of removing the thermostat from the glass.

The ride across London was uneventful, we boarded the train at Liverpool Street and snoozed most of the way to Southend. Denis was there with Morphy to meet us, and the wagging and squeaking commenced. We were home.

[ Entry posted at: Thu 26 Apr 2007 13:31:16 BST | Comments: 0 | Cat: Cycling ]

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