Coronavirus: do we have right to know facts about Prime Minister’s health?

 

Britain was shocked last night by the news that Boris Johnson had been admitted to intensive care after the prime minister’s coronavirus symptoms worsened. The news raised the important question: how open should the government be about the prime minister’s health?

The dramatic news followed intense speculation that Number 10 had not been open about Johnson’s true condition. The PM released a video (above) on Friday in which he claimed to be feeling better, yet needed to stay isolated as he still had a high temperature. Johnson’s appearance and voice raised concerns rather than calming them. Speculation grew after Boris was admitted to hospital on Sunday night. Why was he still working? Dominic Raab, the PM’s deputy in all but name, admitted at Monday’s daily Number 10 news conference that he had not spoken to Johnson since Saturday, despite continuous claims the PM was still in charge. Within hours, all that had changed as the PM moved to intensive care. Twitter was flooded with goodwill messages from across the political spectrum.

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COVID-19 lockdown: common sense needed from police and public

Screenshot 2020-03-28 at 20.06.11
Derbyshire police: droning on

Derbyshire Constabulary had the bright idea of producing a video to persuade the public to stay away from the Peak District during the COVID-19 pandemic. They took footage from a drone showing people walking their dogs in this beautiful part of England, highlighting what they said was non-essential activity.

It’s a clever campaign and an example for the UK government, whose communications have been poor at best during the greatest health crisis for a century.

Unfortunately, though, Derbyshire Constabulary’s interpretation of the UK government’s COVID-19 regulations has been, to quote from the Constable Savage sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, overzealous. There’s no ban on using the car to get to the start of your dog walk. That drive may avoid walking in busy crowds. 

Let’s hope Derbyshire police are as vigilant against burglars as they are against people walking their dogs.

A difficult balance

The police do have a difficult challenge. Last weekend, the country was horrified by images of crowds of people flocking to Snowdonia, the Peak District and other national parks. Rural communities aren’t equipped to cope with hordes of people needing treatment for COVID-19. It’s right to stop people from London piling into a camper van and heading for Wales, Scotland and the Peak District. But policing in Great Britain relies on consent. And here Derbyshire went beyond what the regulations actually said. This tweet from @iaincollins sums it up well:

Bang to rights?

Overstepping the mark like this risks losing public support for the critical need for measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. As former government minister David Gauke said on Twitter:

“This is badly misjudged. People should maintain social distancing, which is what these people are doing. We need to maintain public support for fundamental behaviour change which requires the authorities to focus on genuinely bad behaviour.

It goes without saying that the public needs to take act sensibly. Those crowds last weekend shocked many. No sensible person would drive hundreds of miles in a camper van during the crisis. If we don’t all act responsibly, we will all suffer from stricter controls. We may lose the right to go for that bike ride or run. That would be a dark day.

COVID-19: Treasure that daily exercise

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Lockdown leisure: the view on my Wednesday exercise

These are the strangest of times. Our lives have changed almost overnight. Those carefree evenings out, family get-togethers and shopping trips are fading memories. (Although it’s a relief we no longer face that scramble to find a meeting room.)

Yet in Britain, for now, we can still go out for exercise. It has become a precious escape for me – a time away from the laptop screen, getting a physical challenge as a change from the intellectual challenge of communications work in the time of coronavirus.

It helps that the first week of Britain’s lockdown has been gloriously sunny. (Although that may have forced the lockdown, as crowds were gathering in London and people were flocking to Snowdonia and other national parks.) I revelled in the sunshine as I enjoyed my regular bike rides in Buckinghamshire, snatching an hour a time from work.

Don’t underestimate the importance of these daily escapes. These strange times are tough on us all. (Although obviously those at the front line in the NHS, care homes and serving the public face to face have a far greater challenge.) Getting out for some decent exercise is good for body and soul. You may experience a high that will get you through the loss of all those activities that you can’t enjoy at present.

The joy of lockdown exercise

Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.

Britain in Europe – our destiny

Britain has left the European Union. The fight is over.

In truth, the fight ended before the referendum in June 2016. Years before. For decades, British governments believed in membership of the EU but did nothing to encourage popular support for it. The first instinct of struggling governments – such as John Major’s in the 1990s – was to pick a fight with Brussels. The creators of Yes Minister instinctively understood this – Jim Hacker became PM in that classic comedy series after leading a campaign against the Euro sausage. An earlier episode railed against European computer standards.

So I was in no doubt in 2016 that the referendum could well be lost. When our European chief executive asked me that February what the outcome would be, I said I feared the UK would vote to leave.

Yet I fervently hoped it wouldn’t. Days before, I spent time in Luxembourg with colleagues from all the major EU nations. Like many, I work with people from a host of nations, and have learned so much from this multi-nation and multi-cultural interchange. It feels the most natural thing in the world.

It wasn’t always like this. Growing up in the 1970s, as Britain joined the then European Economic Community, I sympathised with the view that we were abandoning our Commonwealth cousins by joining the EEC. Peter Hennessy’s superb history of Britain in the early 1960s, Winds of Change, recounts the agonies of Harold Macmillan’s bid to join, rebuffed by General de Gaulle. (On reflection, perhaps the general’s non was right.) The epic waste of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) offended every instinct – as taxpayers spent billions buying unwanted cheese and milk, enriching French farmers. But we were late to the party, and couldn’t reasonably complain that the kitty had already been spent. As an 11 year old hostile to the EEC during the 1975 referendum, I proudly taped the leave leaflet to the inside of my desk at Lakeside School in Cardiff. (My friends were far more interested in whether Bay City Rollers would get to Number 1 in the charts.)

I spent a year studying European Communities law at university in 1983, which wasn’t my most inspiring subject. (But it came in useful years later.) In time, I came to see Britain’s membership of the EU as valuable for us and our continental friends. The UK played an increasingly influential role in Europe, helping the continent chart a path that blended citizens’ rights with encouraging economic development. And we won critical concessions, such as avoiding membership of the ill-conceived euro. (The common currency has arguably been better news for British citizens travelling across the EU than it has been for many people in the euro-zone, with its disastrous impact on the economies of so many nations.)

I voted remain. I condemned the lies of the leave campaign, and the appalling way Corbyn’s Labour Party failed to campaign wholeheartedly for Britain to remain in the referendum. It was a tragedy that Labour chose Corbyn as leader just as the battle for Britain’s European future began. But as Boris Johnson won his historic election victory in December 2019, I felt curious relief. I didn’t vote for this deeply flawed politician. But the result settled the biggest issue facing Britain.

How will this end? None of us knows. We can but hope that Johnson raises his game, and becomes a man of destiny. If the UK is to survive and flourish, he needs to play a blinder. He needs to create a new sense of national unity that starts to heal the schism with Scotland, and heals the rest of the nation. Britain is certainly big enough to do well outside the EU, but our politicians – of all parties – need to do far better than their dismal performance over the past five years.

Our European friends – the enduring bonds

We are still Europeans. We travel far more than our grandparents did. As Britain’s EU odyssey ends, I recall and cherish our family friendships across our continent. In the 1950s and 1960s, Mum and Dad met Charles, Rosel, Werner, Sabine, Uschi, Helmut and others. Those friendships were born in the town twinnings between Wales and Germany. It is so moving to reflect that our countries were at war less than 15 years earlier. But there was a compelling wish to build bridges across the years. One of my favourite moments of 2019 was meeting Werner, Sabine and their grandson in Cardiff and reminiscing about shared memories and values We mourned Britain’s departure from the EU, but agreed that friendships are deeper than political structures. Britain remains at the heart of Europe.

My car is still in the EU

Postscript: I wrote the article below in 1995 after a lively dinner discussion with the then editor of The Independent. It reads like an elegy for a lost world. But pleasingly Wales now has the Senedd that the article envisaged 25 years ago.

The EU flag flies outside the Senedd in Cardiff Bay on Brexit day

Europe – a dangerous obsession

Rob Skinner, March 1995

British democracy is at crisis point. Not just because fifteen years without a change of government has left the nation restless for change. Not even as a result of former ministers making sleazy, easy money in a privatised quangocracy.

No, this crisis is a case of obsession. The subject of this obsessions is Europe, the perpetrators politicians and the media alike. This single topic dominates news bulletins, current affairs programmes and the leader columns of the national press. Yet it utterly fails to stimulate the nation.

The Euro-debate is almost entirely the preserve of the political professionals. Europe and its future currency is for most of the British people the non-issue of the decade. It rarely if ever puts in an appearance in public bars and at dinner party tables.

If the loudly debated referendum on the single currency took place tomorrow, Britain’s polling stations would almost certainly be lonely places as the electorate used their time to fulfil other, more pressing needs.

The media star a heavy responsibility for this sorry saga. Radio 4’s Today programme, in particular, has been dominated by Euro-obsessed talking heads for what seems an eternity, while the surfeit of Sunday political punditry on British television finds Europe a lazily easy choice for discussion.

Yet the obsession simply confirms what everyone outside Westminster’s cloistered circles has long suspected: that politicians are hopelessly out of touch with the real world, and incapable of tackling the issues that their constituents care and worry about.

Most people see Europe as a distraction. They long for a government and opposition that tackle the real issues of the day, such as unemployment, crime, rising taxes and the sense that Britain has become a less caring, more ugly society. For many, the great fear is not the loss of the UK’s economic sovereignty but the loss of something much nearer to home – their jobs.

None of these issues is being tackled. Instead, a sterile, futile debate dominates, which looks for all the world like an endless battle between two foolish lovers. The weakest, most enfeebled government in living memory seeks to impose the very thing it lacks – authority – on the country. A cynicism fired by years of misrule is now raging out of control, threatening Britain’s self confidence as a nation.

As a Welshman, I see Europe as an opportunity, not a threat. I believe in a Europe of many countries and cultures – not just a Europe of nation states. The doomed debate that has riven the Conservatives is very English rather than British. It speaks eloquently of a nation uncertain of itself, suspicious of outsiders and nervous of its smaller neighbours within the United Kingdom.

This is high irony. How could the dominant tribe in the British Isles, the English, have become so fearful, so lacking in vision of confidence that they have largely destroyed Britain’s standing on its own continent?

The crying shame is that Europe is important. There must be a proper debate about Britain’s future. We should be looking for ways to put right the failings of the democratic process in the European Union and within these islands. And we must be open and humble enough, for once, to recognise that the United Kingdom might profitably learn from democratic experiences beyond these shores.

John Major has sought sanctuary behind an ugly word – subsidiarity. Yet this strange and unfriendly term signals the way to make Europe and Britain more democratic. The principle is that decisions should be made as locally as possible. Yet in the UK, under John Major’s desperate leadership, the concept has been hijacked, and given a new, sinister meaning. That mother – the Mother of Parliaments – knows best. Yet who truly places trust in the traditional Westminster system in 1995?

Subsidiarity needs a new, more attractive name. The Welsh word agosrwydd means nearness, and has been suggested by David Morris MEP and Martin Caton as a far better epithet.*

If the English aren’t ready to accept a Welsh word for what might be the most important democratic principle of the dying years of the millennium, then nearness will serve just as well. It is a compelling sentiment, an idea whose time has come. The European Union is here to stay, and Britain’s future is inextricably linked to it. For non-state regions and countries like Wales, Scotland, Baden Würtemberg and Catalunya, being part of a wider family is a historic development that arguably makes the break up of nation states like the UK less likely. But it is only less likely if the nearness principle puts greater power in the hands of regional governments such as a Welsh Senedd.

John Major talks of a triple lock within the burgeoning Northern Ireland peace process. In a wider concept, three links also hold the key to unlocking the eternal dilemma that has dogged Britain for a quarter of a century: regional identity, our British identity and the European dimension. Only by creating harmony between all three, and recognising their legitimacy, will we ever escape this constitutional conundrum.

In this anniversary year [1995], of all years, we must look back to 1945. Not only to commemorate the huge sacrifices made to secure our generation’s freedom and future. But just as nobly to recall how the European ideal was born, in the ruins of a continent that had allowed evil and hatred to carry all before it.

After Warsaw, Aschwitz and Dresden, reconciliation might have been expected to have taken decades to bear fruit. Yet amidst the tragedies of an  unimaginable numbers of lives, the determination to forge a different Europe was born. Since those dawning days, the idea of Britain and Germany taking up arms against each other, or Belgium and France being overrun by a continental army, has become inconceivable.

Now the challenge for Britain’s politicians is to shake off their obsession and start treating Europe as something that is part of everyone’s lives. Votes can only be lost over this issue, not won, and it is time for Eurosceptic and Europhile alike to recognise the basic truth. The year of the last great second world war anniversaries would be an appropriate time for Britain belatedly to throw away the empty rhetoric and start to build a future for itself.

* A Europe of the Peoples – the European Union and a Welsh Parliament’ – ed John Osmond, Gomer Press 1994

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 14, The Crask Inn to John O’Groats

We made it!

This post recounts the 14th day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 13, Inverness to The Crask Inn

This was bound to be an unforgettable day: the end of our epic ride from the south west tip of England through Wales and Scotland to the far north shores of Great Britain. But I had no idea that this would be my fastest ever day’s long distance bike ride.

It started with the forbidding sound of heavy rain. Would the last day be spoilt by the weather? Happily, no. We finished as we started, with overnight rain giving way to sunshine when it mattered.

Ready for the road

We got a lift on the minibus back to The Crask from Lairg. I knew the ride from here to the coast would be magical. But I hadn’t realised how fast those miles would be – over 17 mph for almost 20 miles.

Relishing the open road to Altnahara

When I cycled from The Crask to Altnaharra in 2002, I saw one of the guides standing on the side of the road, and hoped he’d taken a photo of me in this stunning open landscape. He hadn’t… This time, I took photos and video as we made our way north on a gorgeous Scottish summer’s day. In winter, Altnaharra often features in weather reports as the coldest place in Great Britain, but today I was wearing shorts and – as soon as I warmed up – a short sleeved jersey.

Along Loch Naver

After Altnaharra we cycled along the shore of lovely Loch Naver, which seemed to last forever. I drank in the views and the tranquility of this beautiful and deserted corner of Scotland. The loch finally gave way to the river Naver as we headed closer to the coast. We passed through lonely Syre, with its tiny, picturesque church, which I remembered fondly from 2002.

Climbing to Bettyhill

I enjoyed the climb up to Bettyhill, a tiny village overlooking the most stunning, deserted beach. One of my favourite memories of my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride 17 years ago was seeing that beach in the pouring rain and deciding I had to go back in sunnier weather. That prompted me and Karen to return to the far north in 2004. We were so glad we did.

Embracing the hills

I remembered the north coast as being hilly, and expected our average speed to drop dramatically between Bettyhill and Thurso. But – and this was so satisfying – I found that my new-found fitness gave me the power to conquer the hills and regain speed on the inevitable descents. I was actually waiting for people at the top!

Waving to Karen and Owen

We were descending after one of these climbs when I saw people waving in the distance. I didn’t think much of it as we’d seen a few people waving at us in the past few days. But then I heard a cry: “Daddy!” It was my 11 year old son Owen, with Karen. It was a wonderful moment two weeks after I last saw them at Cape Cornwall near Land’s End. I was sure they would come to find me, as Karen did in 2002, but I didn’t expect to see them this early in the day.

We had a lovely family lunch at the Halladale Inn at Melvich. This was probably the best lunch of the tour – even better than the lunch at the Wee House at Glenshee. Just 35 miles to go to John O’Groats!

In no time we were passing through Thurso, the most northerly town in Great Britain, and sweeping on to Dunnet, with its lovely sandy bay, and enormous sand dunes, which cover a Norse settlement. We stopped at the Northern Sands Hotel to regroup before the final 11 miles to our legendary destination. It was a delicious interlude, sitting in the sun on the benches, sipping coffee, knowing that we were about to complete our epic journey. Nothing could stop us now!

Well, almost nothing. Between Dunnet and Mey, Chris’s tyre gave out a loud noise, followed by a mini-explosion as it blew out. Simon got him back on the road in no time.

Only on the road to John O’Groats…

I really shouldn’t have been surprised to see a group of people pushing a bed along the road. Anywhere else in Britain you’d have feared for their mental health. Here you just known that they must have been heading for Land’s End to raise money for charity!

Arriving at John O’Groats

John O’Groats is a tiny village, but it is a lovely destination unlike Land’s End. We cycled slowly down the modest hill towards the famous sign. Owen and Karen were waiting for us, along with friends and family of other members of our cycling clan!

Owen captures our arrival
Journey’s end!

Last year, I reached John O’Groats by plane and car. I had expected to journey there by bike, but my cycle trip was cancelled. It was a moment of pure joy to fulfil my dream this year, thanks to Steve, Simon, Julie and Howard from Peak Tours. And I was thrilled to complete this last day at my record speed of 16.4mph!

The sign of our time
A dream come true
It’s a long way!

After the celebrations, I made my way to the chalet that would be our home for the next six days. This was the perfect place to relax after cycling 1,000 miles. I stretched out across the map of Great Britain, reflecting on how far I had come. And I relished the unique tranquility of this far north tip of Scotland, overlooking Orkney. We started plotting my next cycling adventure – but that’s a story for another day.

As I end this final chapter of LEJOG19, I reflect on the fact this was almost certainly the last time I cycle this epic journey. I will never forget these 14 days in the summer of 2019: the company of our cycling clan and the dramas and landscapes we shared. Over the past couple of years, I wondered whether cycling the length of Great Britain would be easier in my fifties than in my thirties. Thanks to my training and Peak Tours it most definitely was.

If you’ve ever dreamed of cycling from Land’s End to John O’Groats, just do it!

Day’s stats

82 miles, 3,802 feet climbing, 5 hours cycling, 16.4 mph average

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 13, Inverness to The Crask Inn

The Dornoch Firth

This post recounts the 13th day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 12, Ballater to Inverness

After yesterday’s drama, today was plain sailing, despite a rain-sodden conclusion. It was certainly an easy day’s cycling although my hill climbing is definitely stronger after 12 days on the road.

Crossing the Ness, Inverness

It was a novel experience cycling over Kessock Bridge over the Beauly Firth from Inverness having driven over it several times. It felt strange but exciting knowing Karen and Owen would be crossing it by car later today on the way to John O’Groats to meet me tomorrow.

Racing along the Beauly Firth

This morning was a wonderfully easy ride. We followed the Beauly Firth from Kessock Bridge towards Muir of Ord. It was exhilarating cycling at speed in a peloton to Dingwall. We then had a sharp climb away from Dingwall. I’m not a natural hill climber, but unusually I was in the mood to attack the ascent and soon left the others behind. (Though I’m sure most of them would have left me behind had they chosen!)

We were soon enjoying a coffee at the morning brew stop overlooking the bridge over Cromarty Firth. Again, I reflected that Karen and Owen would cross that very bridge this evening, 13 days after I saw them near Land’s End in Cornwall.

It’s strange how memory plays tricks. Looking back to my Land’s End to John O’Groats bike ride 17 years ago I was convinced there was a long climb from Evanton to the viewpoint at Struie overlooking Dornoch Firth. It wasn’t like that at all! There was a long but not difficult climb but it was a good few miles before Struie. (I enjoyed the view when I got there!) As we approached the lunch stop at Ardgay, the sun was shining and it was turning into a warm summer’s day. It was a pleasure eating the excellent lunch at the quirky Ardgay Shop and Highland Cafe. I was in no hurry to rush away.

The bridge at Bonar Bridge

I loved the ride from Ardgay to The Falls of Shin. I remember this as a lovely ride in 2002 and unlike this morning my memory wasn’t playing tricks.

Salmon a-leaping

The Falls of Shin was a lovely interlude. We walked down to see if we could spot salmon leaping up the falls. We did! This is an amazing sight, showing one of the most extraordinary feats of the natural world. You can see the salmon leaping in today’s highlights video, below. The cafe is excellent and we had a family trip here after I finished in John O’Groats.

By the time we got to Lairg the sunshine had given way to cloud and then rain. The ride to The Crask Inn is a gorgeous one but it was pouring with rain by the time we made the journey, with no views at all. (Much like our ride over the Lancashire moors on day 7.)

Arriving at The Crask Inn

Much as I’d have preferred sunshine to rain, we did get a feel for what a relief it must have been for travellers to arrive at the Crask in terrible weather. We hurried into the bar, and gained comfort from the real fire.

Drying off at The Crask Inn

We had a magical hour ‘drying out’ at the Crask. It was a true ‘traveller’s rest’, and by popular request I sang Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, the Welsh national anthem, in Welsh, and Kevin sang the Belgian anthem in Flemish.

Ironically, by the time we were taken by minibus back to Lairg for the night the rain had stopped and we had a gorgeous view of the neighbouring mountains.

It’s hard to believe that tomorrow will mark the very end of our epic ride from Land’s End.

Day’s stats

68 miles, 3,209 feet climbing, 4 hrs 42 mins cycling, 14.2 mph average speed

Read Day 14, The Crask Inn to John O’Groats

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 12, Ballater to Inverness

Climb that mountain: heading for the Lecht

This post recounts the 12th day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 11, Kinross to Ballater

I was confused. A familiar figure waved me into a picturesque cafe in the Cairngorm mountains. We’d barely gone 13 miles – didn’t we have the Lecht, one of Britain’s toughest cycling climbs, before our morning brew? We’d done some serious climbing but I was sure I couldn’t have missed the Lecht!

Sheltering from the weather

I hadn’t. Instead, Peak Tours wanted us to stay safe as the weather was worsening by the minute, and they assessed whether it was safe to tackle the five mile ascent. I was cold and wet as I sipped a hot drink, and listened to the verdict from Simon and Julie. Visibility was very poor, with strong sidewinds, so they recommended that they give us and our bikes a lift to the top. Most of us agreed straight away. Much as I’d have liked to tackle the Lecht, I was relieved to have been reprieved! I climbed into one of the vans and Howard drove me and Nigel just beyond the summit.

I’m still alive, jokes Holger!

It wasn’t the start we expected to the day. It was sunny as we left Ballater, heading along the Dee. We were overtaken by a Range Rover with fishing rods attached to the car. We were soon climbing, which was when the weather started to deteriorate quickly. I ditched the jacket as usual, but soon decided that I needed the warmth on the descent. The experience showed how quickly the weather can turn in the mountains. “I’m still alive!” Holger joked with a smile a mile or so before our unexpected coffee stop.

Still more hills…

Ironically, the weather improved as soon as I got back on my bike. The sun was shining, and I warmed up after 10 minutes despite the strong wind. I soon passed through Tomintoul before another stiff climb. It was satisfying to look back at how far we had climbed.

Looking back at how far we’d climbed

I enjoyed our lunch stop at a very quiet hotel in Nethy Bridge. But the next 14 miles were a real slog. Was I tired? I probably was, but looking back on Strava that evening I saw that the route had climbed steadily to Slochd summit at over 1,300 feet above sea level. And we had a vicious headwind at times. From there, it was mostly a continual descent to Inverness. But there were nice moments on the way to the summit, including seeing the old bridge that gave its name to Carrbridge, and the deserted road that was the old A9, superseded by the new road. Perfect for cycling.

Downhill all the way? Nearly!
Tomatin viaduct with new A9 viaduct beyond

I was pleased to stop for a cuppa at the brew stop in Tomatin, near another viaduct on the Highland Railway to Inverness. I knew the last session of the day would be an easy one, and it was a pleasure to cycle with Fiona and Simon and the rest of the Cheshire crew in the sunshine. Finally we saw the Moray Firth and Inverness below us.

Inverness arrival

After quiet lanes, it was a shock to join a huge traffic jam approaching Inverness town centre. But we were soon passing through the car-free high street to our guest house.

The Ness at dusk

That evening a few of us had a pint in the lovely Castle Tavern. On my Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002, I had noticed how some Scottish beers were named after shillings, the pre-decimal equivalent of 5p. Tonight, I had a pint of 80/- (80 shillings). It was a very malty beer, and the only ‘shilling’ beer I saw this year. We chatted to a man who claimed to have done LEJOG in eight days. He was probably telling the truth, but there was just a hint of a tall tale in the way he recounted his adventure…

Day’s stats

67 miles, 3,983 feet of climbing, 5 hrs 32 mins cycling, average speed unknown

Read Day 13, Inverness to The Crask Inn

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 11, Kinross to Ballater

Climbing to Glenshee ski centre. Not your typical UK bike ride!

This post recounts the 11th day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 9, Penrith to Moffat

We could see the landscape changing. Soft hills gave way to mountains in the distance. I felt a mix of excitement and nervousness: we’d be climbing those mountains by bike this afternoon. 

In the morning, the scenery was pleasant but not especially interesting after yesterday. But as always there were moments to remember. As we approached Perth, I noticed a cyclist on a sturdy bike with a tray on the back. On a steep climb on the outskirts of the city, he started outpacing us, which suggested he was a strong cyclist, given we were on light road bikes and had gained fitness from riding over 700 miles in 10 days. He explained that he was cycling to work at a garden centre in the north of Perth.

We crossed the Tay, which reminded me of the famous, ill-fated railway bridge over the river’s estuary. That structure collapsed when a train was crossing during a storm in 1879, shocking Victorian Britain. Our crossing passed without incident…

This means big climbs…

We had the best lunch of the trip so far today at the Wee House of Glenshee: soup, a very generous ploughman’s platter. and a cake that I saved for this evening. The staff were lovely too. Our enjoyment was overshadowed by the knowledge that we’d be tackling the toughest climb of the trip so far straight after the meal: the climb to Glenshee ski centre.

Climbing to Glenshee

I was lulled into a false sense of security initially. I could barely sense a climb: was this to be one of those comfortable ascents like the Devil’s Beef Tub yesterday? But then I saw the road heading skywards in the distance. A little later it was thrilling to inch up the mountain, but once again I found myself struggling to produce enough power. I could have done with a lower bottom gear. My Garmin gave the game away: my heart rate was not going over 140 beats a minute. My heart had more to give – my legs didn’t!

Simon captures me reaching the summit

“You’re still smiling!” I was told as we paused at Glenshee ski centre. “That’s because I’m at the top!” I replied. It was a lovely moment, especially as we could relish the downhill to Braemar.

Cycling past the ski lifts

It was a very odd feeling cycling past the ski centre and the ski lifts. A year ago, we’d visited Whistler in Canada, and had seen mountain bikes on the ski lifts. (The British Columbia resort has become a huge mountain biking centre in the summer.) By contrast, the lifts at Glenshee were still and silent on this August day.

The cafe looked nice – ‘Tea at the Shee’

That downhill was exhilarating if windy, and I enjoyed the brew stop two miles down the mountain. We passed through Braemar, and cycled along the Dee valley, admiring the bridges across the famous river.

Bridge across the Dee

We soon found ourselves at the gates of Balmoral, the Queen’s Scottish retreat. It’s not hard to see how generations of monarchs have relished the tranquility and beauty of this corner of Scotland. It would have been lovely to have had longer to explore Deeside – that pleasure will have to wait for another visit. But we enjoyed a magical moment when a policeman guarding Balmoral took our photo.

The Queen’s policeman takes our photo outside Balmoral’s gates!
This is the photo he took!

Our destination tonight was the Deeside Inn at Ballater. I had a lovely room, and took advantage of a heated towel rail and radiator to wash some cycling clothes. I also enjoyed the delicious shortbread from lunch at the Wee House. It was a smart move saving it for later!

The day’s stats

83 miles, 4,672 feet climbing, 5 hrs 59 mins cycling, 13.9 mph average speed (curious how my average is often higher when there’s more climbing!) 

Read Day 12, Ballater to Inverness

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 10, Moffat to Kinross

Edinburgh Castle and piper

This post recounts the 10th day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 9, Penrith to Moffat

What a wonderful day. Enjoyable cycling and unforgettable experiences, especially cycling through Edinburgh during its famous festival.

Climbing Devil’s Beef Tub

Once again, there was an autumnal chill in the air as we set off from Moffat. But we knew we had the six mile climb of the Devil’s Beef Tub to warm us up. I was looking forward to this as I remembered it as an easy and enjoyable climb from my 2002 end to end. So it proved. The sun was shining and we had impressive hills to frame our views on the ascent. The name Devil’s Beef Tub is a reference to the notorious border reivers who hid stolen cattle here. There is another historical link: the ‘postie stone’, a memorial to the driver and guard of a mail coach who died in a blizzard in 1831 trying to deliver the mail. We had perfect weather today, but our experience on the Lecht near Aviemore two days later showed how treacherous Scottish weather can be even in summer.

Edinburgh here we come!

The ride to Edinburgh from the Beef Tub was a wonderful one – some 12 miles of easy downhill cycling with the bucolic accompaniment of the Tweed to our right, near that lovely river’s source and hills to both sides. We had a nice lunch stop at the Royal Hotel in Penicuik; we could all say the town’s name correctly thanks to Scotsman David! I was happy to while away a pleasant hour, anticipating the pleasure of Edinburgh and the Forth Bridge.

Edinburgh, festival city

There can’t be a better way of visiting Edinburgh during the festival than by bike. (A view confirmed later by colleague Imogen, who had the impossible task of getting a cab in the city later in the month.) We thrilled to the sights and sounds as we threaded Scotland’s capital, freewheeling down the Mound to stop at Princes Street for a view of the castle. There was a piper stationed there – no doubt enjoying rich pickings from people like us, happy to get the statutory bagpipe sound in our videos. (Fiona and Holger danced to the tune, which made a nice feature in my highlights video at the end of this post.)

Through the New Town

We then made our way through Edinburgh’s New Town and onto a railway path towards the Forth road bridge.

We go Forth

Unfortunately the east cycle path overlooking the famous 1890 Forth Bridge was closed, so we were routed onto the west path, overlooking the latest, 2017 Queensferry crossing. (Footnote: the ‘Forth Bridge’ is the railway crossing, built to withstand an enormous storm after the collapse of the original Tay bridge at Dundee in 1879 when a train was crossing.) I was surprised how tranquil the crossing was, compared with the very windy Severn Bridge six days ago.

The Forth Bridge

We got our best view of the railway bridge as we climbed away from the Firth of Forth towards Kinross. It was a hilly ride to our destination, but I enjoyed it, especially the views of Loch Leven. It reminded me of my childhood in Cardiff, where my friend Anthony lived in Leven Close. Many roads around Roath Park Lake in the Welsh capital are named after Welsh, Scottish and Canadian lakes.

On first glance, our destination, the Green Hotel in Kinross was a treat, with its airy corridors and comfortable rooms. I had the biggest room by far of the treat of the trip, with a bath – always my first measure of a good room!

The Green Hotel, Kinross. I didn’t have a bath

But appearances can be deceptive. As the sun streamed through the window, I went to run a bath. But no water came out. I got on with other tasks but when I tried again, there was still no water. I went to the front desk, who said they’d had a problem but everything should be fine shortly. I paid three visits to the reception desk, but the promises of hot water never came true. When water finally started running, it was a horrible brown colour – and still cold.

Chris, one of our party, was kind enough to let me use his bath. At no point did the staff at the hotel apologise to me or find a way for me to have a bath or shower after 80 miles’ cycling. They gave everyone a free drink, a miserly recompense for their incompetence. (There was no hot water in my bath in the morning either.) I will not return to the Green Hotel in Kinross, although I am happy to point out that dinner in the bar was excellent.

Day’s stats

80 miles, 3,898 feet climbing, 6 hours cycling, 13.3 mph average speed

Read about Day 11, Kinross to Ballater

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 9, Penrith to Moffat

Our third country!

This post recounts the ninth day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, in August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats. Read Day 8, Conder Green to Penrith

This was a less eventful day, apart from the milestone of crossing into Scotland. There was a distinct chill in the air as we prepared to set off. My revised, less favourable view of my Penrith guest house was confirmed when the owner told me off for leaning my bike against an outside view. As if handlebar tape and a saddle would ruin it!

The cooler weather prompted my only clothing mistake of the tour. I started with a base layer and long sleeve jersey. In the chill of the morning, I wasn’t warm enough – but was too hot with a jacket on! That’s when I wished I’d brought a wind-resistant long sleeve jersey.

On leaving Penrith we went through Newton Rigg college campus – which gave me a flashback from my Coast to Coast ride in 2017, when we did the same in the opposite direction.

It felt good seeing signs for places in Scotland.

We reached the border at lunchtime, taking the obligatory photos by the sign. We had reached our third country! Amusingly, we slipped back over the border for lunch at the Gretna Chase Hotel. After the rain of previous days and the cold start, it felt good to sit outside in the sunshine and enjoy an excellent lunch.

The first hour’s cycling in Scotland was a bit of a slog on the road to Annan. There was an unhelpful headwind and the scenery was nondescript apart from glimpses of the Cumbrian mountains and Solway Firth.

We reached the lovely town of Moffat in good time and gave the bikes a good wash after the rain, mud and muck of the last few days. I really liked Buchan Guest House, despite my small room. The owner invited us to leave clothes we wanted washed in a basket; they were back by the time we got back from dinner.

We had dinner at the Star Hotel, which the Guinness Book of Records confirms is the narrowest hotel in the world, as it’s only 20 feet wide! We had an excellent dinner here. Highly recommended,

Day’s stats

70 miles, 2,930 feet of climbing, 5 hours 9 mins cycling, 13.7 mph average speed

Read Day 10, Moffat to Kinross