The coronavirus pandemic has raised an age old question. How do we assess risk? More difficult still, how do we balance competing risks?
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown up a stack of such balancing acts. The most prominent one is where to strike the balance between health and economics. But other trade offs are apparent. Should we shut society down in the hope of killing the virus? How do we help the young, who are by all accounts much less at risk?
Yet our view of risk changes over time. My 16 year old aunt took 13 year old Dad to the cinema in London in the middle of the blitz in 1940, retreating home hours late after an air raid. Less dramatically, as a nine year old I’d venture alone across 1970s Cardiff on my bike to my aunt and uncle’s house in Rhiwbina. No one had ever heard of a bike helmet back then. Perhaps some children tragically ended up under the wheel of an Austin Maxi – but it didn’t stop us exploring on two wheels.
Don’t get me wrong. We were right to make work and life safer. Too many people died unnecessarily. The Great Western Railway introduced ‘automatic train control’ in 1906 to warn drivers when they were passing a ‘distant’ caution signal. Later, the GWR system applied the brakes if the driver didn’t slow down. It saved countless lives. It took half a century and the catastrophic Harrow & Wealdstone and Lewisham disasters before nationalised British Railways introduced the same safeguards on the rest of the network.
Similarly, once controversial measures to tackle drink driving and smoking now seem like common sense.
Yet human beings are not good at understanding and assessing risk. Take cycling. I have had a cycling helmet for almost 30 years. I usually wear one. (Though I didn’t in the photo opening this post – climbing a very steep hill to Todi in Umbria in 2004.) Most parents today would be horrified by the idea of not putting a helmet on their children as they pedal up a deserted road.
But helmet use should be a choice. We need to get children into active lifestyles, such as cycling, walking and sport, to reduce the risk of obesity. A report in 2017 suggested that 35% of children were overweight or obese at 11. Yet MP Bill Grant demanded that children be forced to wear helmets, so criminalising a child pedalling down a quiet cul-de-sac without a helmet. This shows a complete inability to assess risk. Banning McDonalds and fizzy drinks would be far more effective.
It’s a similar story with child abduction. The tragic story of Madeleine McCann, still front page news 13 years after the three year old disappeared in 2007, heightened fears that children were at much greater danger than during our childhood. Five years earlier, the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham, Cambridgeshire shocked the country. Yet child murders are remarkably rare, and are at historically low rates. Most are committed by parents or others known to the child. The difference is that today’s saturation media coverage and social media interest raises the prominence of tragedies. (Although I vividly remember the media frenzy about the awful ordeal of Lesley Whittle, a 17 year old kidnapped and killed by Donald Neilson in 1975.) We need to remember that such appalling cases are vanishingly rare. Be sensible, and teach children how to spot risks. (The age old advice about not taking treats from strangers remains relevant today.)
The communications lessons
Back to 2020, and the coronavirus conundrum. Global companies face a dilemma: do you take the same approach everywhere, or tailor policy and advice by region? Should you keep working from home globally, or allow countries like Australia and New Zealand to return to (close to) normal?
There’s no one answer. But whatever you decide, explain your approach.
Communication is key. It’s striking that the leaders who are natural communicators and educators like Jacinda Ardern have shone in this crisis. Leadership isn’t about bullshit and bluster. The greatest leaders educate the public. This hadn’t struck me until I read Steve Richards’ wonderful study of British prime ministers of the past 40 years. The greatest failures, like Theresa May, don’t even bother. Thatcher famously used her experience as a housewife to explain why the nation needed to spend no more than it earned. (Though the parallel was arguably misconceived.) And Tony Blair – at least before the historic blunder of the Iraq war – was the great communicator, bridging the then gap between traditional Labour and aspiring middle class voters.
Boris Johnson should have all the advantages. He has a vivid turn of phrase, when he remembers to speak English rather than Latin. He’s a larger than life character and people have in the past forgiven him a lot because of that. (Except in Liverpool.)
But the prime minister seems to lack any sensible advice in government. Dominic Cummings may have helped win the Brexit referendum, but so far has proved a disaster as Johnson’s chief adviser. The prime minister has a majority of 80. He should ditch partisan campaigning in favour of statecraft. Ditch the vengeance against people perceived not to be ‘one of us’. Learn a lesson from Roosevelt in the 1930s. Take the public into your confidence. Admit there is no simple answer: that we have to balance health and economics. After all, mass unemployment kills people as well as viruses. Children’s life chances are being damaged by lockdown. Start a conversation.
I blogged in March how the UK government’s confused communications about coronavirus were risking lives. (Careless talk costs lives.) Sadly, things have not improved.
These were the headlines in the UK national press on Thursday. A nation straining under lockdown got a clear signal that freedom was beckoning. The hope raised is likely to be cruelly dashed when Boris Johnson announces whether the government is to make significant changes to lockdown rules for England. That seems unlikely with COVID-19 still far from contained.
Those headlines didn’t happen by accident. They would have been based on briefings from the government’s PR teams. This was carelessness – recklessness even – ahead of a warm bank holiday weekend marking the 75th anniversary of VE Day. Caution was needed. Sure enough, the following day’s headlines marked a gut-wrenching handbrake turn:
How could Boris Johnson have allowed this to happen? In a health crisis, words matter. The UK government has failed to apply the basic rules of crisis communications. What a contrast to the way the Scottish and Welsh governments have done things. They have been clear and consistent. You can sense the frustration in Holyrood and Cardiff Bay at the failures in London.
Matthew Parris in The Times (paywall) today brilliantly summed up the prime minister’s failure to lead and communicate. In his column, he captured the bumbling prime minister in the Commons as he struggled to string a thought together, never mind a sentence:
“The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”
Cruel but accurate. Johnson long ago perfected his persona as a bumbling, rather chaotic player. This seemed to provide a front for a man who was actually ruthlessly ambitious. Yet, now, we wonder whether it’s not an act after all – that, to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there”. Matthew Parris asks in The Times today whether Johnson is actually up to the job. He says:
“We need to be persuaded that the leader is leading: in charge, across his brief, able to bang heads together and when key decisions loom, equipped and ready to take them.”
Wales takes the lead
It’s clear that the first ministers of Wales and Scotland have decided they cannot afford to allow London to lead coronavirus communications. True, Mark Drakeford and Nicola Sturgeon come from rival parties with little time for Old Etonian bluster. And Sturgeon in particular has an agenda to show that Scotland is better going its own way. But they have their own responsibilities in their respective nations. Drakeford announced on Friday only “modest” changes to the coronavirus lockdown in Wales, warning it was “too soon” to go further. That has to be right. Why did London not do the same? Why did Johnson delay his announcement until Sunday? It’s hard to imagine any new trends or data emerging over the weekend to justify a major change.
As Matthew Parris concludes, “This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups”.
It’s clear now that the government seriously blundered over its target of providing 100,000 COVID-19 tests a day. At the end of April, it triumphantly trumpeted that it had reached that target on the last day of the month. But suspiciously, it then failed to meet the target on every single day of the following week. It’s hard not to conclude that the government was playing games. That’s the last way to govern and communicate during the greatest health crisis for a century.
The failures to keep promises to provide tests and personal protective equipment for NHS staff and carers recall an episode early in Churchill’s wartime premiership, recounted in Erik Larson’s superb new book The Splendid and the Vile.
Talking to a general recently evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, the prime minister commented, “I assume then that your Corps is now ready to take the field?” The reply: “Very far from it sir. Our re-equipment is not nearly complete…” Churchill, taken aback, checked the reports that claimed that the general’s division had been replenished. The general gave a devastating retort: “That may refer to the weapons that the depots are preparing to issue to my units, but they have not yet reached the troops in anything like those quantities”. At that, according to Larson, Churchill was almost speechless with rage and threw the misleading reports across the table towards the chief of the imperial general staff. Winston wasn’t interested in massaging figures; he was outraged that the troops hadn’t got the equipment that the reports claimed had reached them. If only Churchill was in charge in 2020.
Boris Johnson could learn a lot from his hero, who became prime minister 80 years ago today. As I blogged on the anniversary 10 years ago, our greatest premier reflected:
“As he returned from Buckingham Palace as prime minister, Churchill had tears in his eyes as he told his detective that he was very much afraid it was too late. “We can only do our best.” But as we went to bed at 3am the following day, he reflected a profound sense of relief. “I felt as if I were walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and this trial.”
There’s never been an Easter like it. All the churches in Britain were closed, and family parties, day trips and holidays cancelled. Beaches and parks that would have been packed on every other sunny, hot bank holiday were this year deserted.
Priests tended to their congregations in new ways. My great friend Anthony Beer is priest at Laleston and Merthyr Mawr near Bridgend in South Wales. This Easter Anthony held Eucharist on Easter Day in the vicarage garden – as you can tell from the photo on the left, it was a very different congregation this year. (By contrast, one Easter at nearby Wick Anthony brought two lambs to church on Easter Day, as seen in the second photo!) Anthony like so many other priests is ministering to his flock by phone, email and social media.
As Anthony remarked, the Easter story is of being transported from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will have prayed and hoped for happier times around the corner.
What a contrast to Easter 2019. A year ago, we were staying in my hometown, Cardiff. On Easter Day, I cycled to our favourite Welsh beach, Dunraven, Southerndown. It was a gorgeous spring day, much like this year’s Easter weather, and I revelled in exploring familiar countryside by bike not car. I even discovered an abandoned pub, the Cross Inn near Llantrithyd, which closed in 1939 after 239 years.
Easter Day 2019
I close this post with a photo that captured that joy of the setting of the sun after a beautiful day. This classic E Type Jaguar was parked outside my father’s then home on the Esplanade, Penarth, Vale of Glamorgan. Presumably this Easter this lovely car was standing silently at home, waiting for life to return to normal.
As Anthony remarked on Easter Day 2020, the Easter story transports us from sadness and darkness to joy and happiness. Millions around the world will be hoping and praying that happier times are around the corner.
They called 1940 ‘the Spitfire summer’. It was one of the finest summers of the 20th century. The endless dry, sunny days and azure skies provided a vivid backdrop to the Battle of Britain. Some seasons in history provide a stark contrast between nature and reality.
Spring 2020 is proving similarly contrasting. The coronavirus lockdown is taking place during possibly the most vivid British spring of the 21st century.
I have relished this extraordinary spring during my lockdown bike rides from home in Buckinghamshire. Today, I marvelled at the glorious birdsong as I made my way to Burnham Beeches, including the call of the majestic red kite. As I skirted the beeches, one red kite swooped down barely 10 feet away from me. He landed on a tree by the side of the road, thought better of it and flew off, those immense wings giving him lift. Burnham Beeches is a historic area of Buckinghamshire woodland owned by the Corporation of London. It’s the closest I’ll get to London for some time…
Yesterday, I was thrilled as confetti-like blossom blew in the warm wind across the country lane in my path. These natural delights soften the pain of lockdown, and give an intense taste of life renewing as well as fading; a high note of joy to lift us from the daily tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic.
No one’s London-bound: the M40/M25 junction
The lockdown has emptied our fume-fuelled motorways and roads. Today, I cycled past the M40/M25 junction, above. How many times have I waited patiently in the rush hour on the slip road on the left to join the M25? Today, Easter Saturday, it was deserted. No one was hurrying to Heathrow or London. Birdsong ruled.
A silent Good Friday, Cliveden, Bucks
On my Good Friday bike ride yesterday, I paused to reflect on this stunning explosion of blossom at the pub opposite the entrance to the National Trust’s Cliveden estate. I love my rides to Cliveden for tea and cake on a weekend afternoon; that pleasure will have to wait. It is sad to see so many fine town and country pubs closed and quiet. Let us hope that they will reopen when the pandemic is under control.
Camper vans: a home from home
Karen and I both saw Volkswagen camper vans on our respective exercise sessions today. These classic campers inspire an idea of freedom and the open road. For now, that idea is just a dream. The campers are on the drive, rather than the upland roads and sun-kissed beaches of Great Britain and beyond. Their moment – our moment – will return. For now, let us enjoy this spring san pareil. It’s our equivalent of that Spitfire summer as history is made as nature unfolds.
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.
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:
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.
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.
Let’s make the most of these days of cycling and running while we can.
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.
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.
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.
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 , 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
68 miles, 3,209 feet climbing, 4 hrs 42 mins cycling, 14.2 mph average speed