Land’s End to John O’Groats: travellers’ tales

It’s the ultimate British bike ride: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats on Scotland’s far north coast. The End to End. I did the ride in 2002. I’m now starting to dream about doing it again with my son when he’s older.

To feed that dream, I’ve just read two books about other riders’ End to End experiences. My favourite was Ellie Bennett’s Blood Sweat and Gears. Ellie clearly loved and loathed the experience, a contrast most End to End riders will recognise. The sinking feeling as you see yet another West Country hill looming ahead of you. The dread at the number of miles and hills before that night’s destination. And wondering if the rain will ever stop.

Yet Ellie also captures the joy and adventure of cycling the length of Great Britain. Her book is peppered by interesting facts about the places she and best friend Mick passed through. (My favourite: on a clear night in London you can see around 200 stars; in Scotland’s Galloway Forest you can see around 7,000.) She and Mick treat the ride as a 1,100 mile long pub crawl, seeking real ale during refreshment stops as well as the end of the day. (I relished my evening beer, but unlike some of my End to Enders couldn’t face the idea of alcohol en route.) Ellie and Mick sound great fun – no wonder one admiring reviewer said they’d love to spend an evening in a pub with them.

The second End to End book was It Takes Two to Tandem, by Louise George. Louise is a New Zealander living in Adelaide, Australia. She completed the ride in the opposite direction on a tandem with husband Nev. I was intrigued as we have a tandem, and I was wondering if this would be a good option for my End to End with Owen. I was glad I read Louise’s book – at £3 for a Kindle version, it’s a bargain. And I was lost in admiration for people from the other side of the world who chose to o Britain’s ultimate bike ride.

But it’s clear that Louise and Nev enjoyed the wide much less than Ellie and Mick. Perhaps they didn’t appreciate the scale of the challenge – at one point, Louise suggests that a daily maximum of around 40 miles would have been more realistic. (That was the distance I found most manageable when I was cycle touring with luggage in my thirties. Her account reminded me of my Wales to Buckinghamshire bike ride last year when I averaged 58 miles a day. Much more enjoyable in retrospect than at the time.)

To be honest, I also felt like shouting at Louise and Nev to get a grip. The book recounts their post-End to End tour of France and Italy, and I couldn’t believe their inability to catch a train. Having missed a vital connection once, you’d have thought they’d have the common sense to get their in good time to catch the next one. Oh no… Unlike Ellie, she doesn’t turn these misadventures to humour – instead, you feel like you’re intruding on personal frustration. But I did enjoy the book, especially the early days when their route coincided with mine in reverse. (I remember the descend of Struie hill, and the painful ascent from Dromnadrochit.)

It’s raining again…

Reading these books makes me more grateful for the weather I experienced cycling End to End in 2002. My only really bad weather was approaching Clitheroe, Lancashire. The road was flooded and I created waves as I went along.We abandoned the planned campsite for a warm bed and I revelled in the comfort. I swapped campsite for hotel room at Bettyhill as well but that was more by choice than necessity – the campsite was open despite a downpour.) Curiously, my best weather was in Scotland, including a glorious sunny ride from Taynuilt to Fort William along Loch Linnhe.

I did feel sorry for Louise and Nev – they chose one of our wettest summers for their End to End.

Youth hostel hell

Both books reminded me why I have chosen never to stay in a youth hostel – even when I was a youth. Ellie described the petty tyranny of these establishments, and suggests how they can regain a sense of purpose. (She’s equally good in suggesting a future for the British pub.)

Lost again

Both writers mention getting lost – or more accurately missing vital turns – a lot. I missed a few on my End to End despite being on an organised trip with route directions. (Climbing a steep hill in Devon twice was the worst moment.) As I explained in my blogpost about my Wales to Bucks ride, my best ever tour was a 325 mile West Country odyssey with a stack of ‘proper’ OS Landranger maps. I’ve not yet found digital maps, apps or satnav as reliable. No doubt that landmark is not far off.

I can’t wait to do the End to End again!

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