Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 4, Street to Monmouth

About to cross Brunel’s masterpiece.

This post recounts the fourth 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 3, Moretonhampstead to Street.

What a fabulous day’s cycling! We crossed the Severn Bridge into Wales, which was an emotional moment for me, born in Cardiff. But there were other magical moments, including passing Wells cathedral, crossing Clifton suspension bridge and having a brew stop in glorious sunshine next to the ruins of Tintern Abbey.

Glastonbury

For once, we avoided big climbs after lunch and brew stops. Instead, the day began with the Somerset levels. This is such a magical landscape, with Glastonbury Tor rising mysteriously high above the levels, and the quirky town of Glastonbury with the whiff of incense hanging in the air as we cycled through on the way to Wells. The inevitable downpour greeted us as we reached England’s smallest city, but magically the shower gave way to sunshine as we reached the beautiful cathedral.

The hill of the day followed – the climb onto the Mendips – which was a long ascent but by today we had got into a pattern for these hills: choose a low gear and take your time, rising from the saddle from time to time to vary things. It didn’t seem long before we were enjoying the long descent to Chew Magna Lake, which was bigger than I remembered it – and a lovely spot for a brew stop!

Clifton suspension bridge

The next stretch towards Bristol was a bit of a slog – a busy road and dull scenery. But the reward was cycling over Clifton suspension bridge, Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s masterpiece, finished after his death. This is an example of how Peak Tours is so good at creating routes with unforgettable experiences. (Cycling through Edinburgh was another.) I was just as impressed by the route to the Severn Bridge, which was surprisingly rural compared with the route we took on my 2002 LEJOG, which went over the M5 Avonmouth bridge footbridge and past various chemical plants.

Over the Severn Bridge to Wales

The Severn Bridge has featured in my life for over 50 years, linking my Cardiff birthplace with homes, family and friends in England. It replaced the old Aust ferry in 1966, but remains the only cycle route over the mighty estuary below Gloucester. It was amazingly windy up there – which made the wind-free Forth crossing in Scotland six days later a surprise!

Croeso i Gymru – welcome to Wales!

I felt emotional as we crossed into Wales and saw the familiar bilingual road signs. Unfortunately, there isn’t a welcome to Wales sign on the cycle path – a missed photo opportunity that the Welsh government should address!

Tintern Abbey – afternoon tea

We had a lovely ride along the Wye valley to Monmouth, fortunately just days after the A466 reopened so avoiding a hilly diversion at St Arvans. The sun was shining at our most scenic brew stop yet at Tintern Abbey – and we had Welsh cakes to celebrate our arrival in Wales.

I couldn’t resist!

It was just a short ride from Tintern to Monmouth, the historic border town, and we crossed the border back into England for a few miles with the beautiful Wye to our side. We were staying in the King’s Arms, an old coaching inn that’s now a Wetherspoons hotel. Our bikes had an equally historic home for the night – the Shire Hall opposite!

The Shire Hall and Charles Rolls

I had a lovely evening in Monmouth catching up with my cousin Wendy and family. There was a poignant aspect to this as on my LEJOG stay in the town in 2002 I had dinner with my father and late mother. Happy memories.

Day’s stats

65 miles, 3,865 feet climbing, 12.7 mph average.

Read Day 5 – Monmouth to Clun

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 3, Moretonhampstead to Street

Gone to lunch, Drewe Arms, Broadhembury, Devon

This post recounts the third 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 2: Fowey to Moretonhampstead

As if we hadn’t climbed enough hills in the previous two days, we faced a brutal truth from the word go today: a steep climb out of Moretonhampstead. And it was raining, so the combination of a warm day, a stiff climb and a rain jacket had me overheating straight away. I quickly decided I’d ditch the jacket (in my jersey pocket) and cool down. There folllowed a pretty if switchback ride to Exeter, and several grinding long ascents on a road with temporary traffic lights.

We passed quickly through Exeter (a contrast to Plymouth yesterday) although we didn’t see anything of the city other than the modern Exe bridges. The good news was that we’d done most of the day’s climbing other than a stonker of a climb after lunch at the picture-postcard thatched village of Broadhembury near Honiton. The Drewe Arms is as pretty as the rest of the village, and we enjoyed the stop.

We couldn’t delay that climb any longer, and the moment of truth came as the skies opened at the start of a very wet afternoon. It was a largely level ride after Stafford Hill although the pleasure at easy cycling was tempered by being bombarded by water from all directions. We had a very tricky descent on a gravelly, narrow lane just before the afternoon brew stop. The Peak Tours team had added an awning to keep us and the snacks dry as the rain returned. Happily, the sun returned just as we approached our destination, Street, and we took the chance to clean and fettle the bikes ready for tomorrow’s stage.

We stayed at Mullions hotel in Street, and I was delighted to get an ensuite bath for the third night in a row. I enjoyed a walk along Street’s main, er, street, and noted the buildings carrying the name of the Clark family, whose success in the shoe trade made Street’s name. As has already become the routine for LEJOG19, I edited the highlights video, which was shorter today because of the weather.

Day’s stats

70 miles, 5 hrs 8 mins riding, 3,900 feet climbing, average speed unknown because of Garmin issues

Read Day 4, Street to Monmouth

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 2, Fowey to Moretonhampstead

Looe, Cornwall. An interlude between hills

This post recounts the second 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. Here’s the post about Day 1, Land’s End to Fowey

The sun was shining as we set off from Fowey to the Bodinnick ferry. We were lucky – heavy rain overnight had moved east by breakfast time, a theme that would be repeated several times over the journey north.

Yesterday was simply an appetiser for today’s main course of West Country hills. The pattern was simple: climb, descent, repeat. But it was garnished with lashings of nostalgia as memories of childhood holidays in this part of world came flooding back. We passed through Looe and had the morning’s brew stop at Seaton, Cornwall, just cross the road from where I paddled a rubber dinghy in the glorious heatwave summer of 1976.

We earned this view of Plymouth!

Lunch today was on the waterfront in Cremyll overlooking Plymouth. We had another ferry ride to the Devon city, but had to wait as we couldn’t all get on the first one. There followed a bit of a frustrating trek round Plymouth – an example of how cycle ways too often take slow and circuitous routes to avoid main roads. Finally, we escaped onto the Plym valley railway path, which took us into the foothills of Dartmoor without really noticing how high we’d climbed. (The beauty of cycle paths that use old railways.) This was much easier than the long, long climb from Tavistock that I remembered from 2002.

By the time we reached Yelverton, the sunshine had given way to wind and a sharp downpour. Fortunately, the weather cleared before we tackled the climb onto the moors. The sight of the prison at Princetown made me shudder – the 200 year old building is a menacing presence in the bleak moors. We were not detained, and pressed on to our destination for tonight, Moretonhampstead.

Day’s stats:

63 miles, 6,122 feet climbing, 5 hrs 26 mins cycling; average speed 11.6mph

Read Day 3, Moretonhampstead to Street

Land’s End to John O’Groats – Day 1, Land’s End to Fowey

Ready to ride the length of Great Britain

This post recounts the first day of my 14 day LEJOG19 adventure, on 4 August 2019. For tips based on my experience, please go to my blogpost How to ride Land’s End to John O’Groats

The moment had arrived. I along with 18 other cyclists were gathered by the famous sign at Land’s End, supported by three guides from organisers Peak Tours. There was laughter – and a few butterflies. Were we and our bikes up to the challenge? How would we cope on the endless hills of the West Country?

As always, Land’s End struck me as a place to leave, rather than a destination. (A good reason to cycle from there to John O’Groats, rather than the other way. Even more important, the prevailing wind will usually be a helpful tailwind rather than an infuriating headwind slowing you down.)

Nice spot for a cuppa

The ride to Penzance was surprisingly fast which banished my nervousness and we were soon cycling along the seafront to the first Peak Tours ‘brew stop’. This was a wonderful moment as we were given mugs with our names on for us to grab a coffee and an array of snacks to keep energy and morale as high as the Cornish hills.

Having cycled LEJOG in 2002 along the north coast of Cornwall, I relished the softer scenery of this southern route skirting Truro and heading across the river Fal on the King Harry ferry. (There’s something special about taking a bike on a ferry, especially a rare chain ferry like this one.) We were making good time, and even reached the pub lunch stop at the Royal Oak at Perranwell before it opened!

Fowey and the Galleon Inn

Those Cornish hills proved manageable until the very last one, a brute of an incline near the lovely harbour village of Fowey. But I was soon approaching Fowey and the nice surprise of a gem of a pub as the night’s accommodation, the Galleon Inn. It was right on the harbour and my room was in a modern, comfortable wing. A perfect place for a meal to get to know my fellow cyclists and to watch the boats go by.

Day’s stats:

Pre-ride to Land’s End from Cape Cornwall: 7 miles, 400 feet climbing, average speed 13.8mph

Land’s End to Fowey: 65 miles, 4,878 feet climbing, 4 hrs 43 minutes cycling, 13.8mph average speed

Forward to Day 2: Fowey to Moretonhampstead

How to cycle Land’s End to John O’Groats

LEJOG19: near Altnahara

LEJOG19: near Altnahara

It’s the iconic British cycling journey: from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland. You travel through three countries and climb almost twice the height of Everest over almost 1,000 miles. Cycling LEJOG should be on every British cyclist’s bucket list.

I’ve just made that magical journey for the second time, and loved it even more thanks to better training and a brilliant cycling holiday company, Peak Tours. (More on that later.) In this post, I will share what I learned in my two LEJOG trips and give some advice. In a further series of posts, I will tell the day to day story of this year’s ride including a highlights video for each day of the adventure.

Training is key to enjoying LEJOG

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Top of the climb to Glenshee ski centre

People have completed LEJOG successfully with little or no training. In other words, they set off from Land’s End without getting the miles in in advance. I did my first End to End in 2002 with just a few hundred miles of cycling in the run up. But it was a struggle, especially on the hills of Cornwall and Devon.

This time, I was determined to be fit and ready for the challenge of cycling 1,000 miles in 14 days. By the time I reached Cornwall, I’d cycled over 2,500 miles over seven months. It made those early days so much easier. I will never be a natural hill climber – especially when the road gets steeper than 1 in 10 – but I was able to get into the groove of climbing at my own pace, standing out of the saddle now and again to give extra power and vary the routine.

The real benefit came later in Scotland as the fitness I gained from the ride kicked in. On the last day, we averaged 16.4mph over the 82 miles from the Crask Inn to John O’Groats. I’d have happily kept going but the famous sign was in view.

Just keep eating

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Time to eat: the famous Peak Tours brew stop, overlooking Cromarty Firth

The first time I cycled Land’s End to John O’Groats, it was like driving a car and continually running out of fuel. I simply didn’t eat enough to keep me going. In Dartmoor, I devoured a Mars Bar and energy bar – but by the time the benefits kicked in I’d reached my night’s destination at Moretonhampstead.

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The view from the first brew stop, St Michael’s Mount

This time, I took half my bodyweight in energy bars and gels. I made up a daily bag of bars to keep everything on track. But my preparation wasn’t needed. Within a couple of hours on day one, we’d reached the first Peak Tours ‘brew stop’ overlooking the legendary St Michael’s Mount I realised I would not be needing that mountain of gels. We were given mugs with our names on – and a table laden with snacks to keep us powered and happy. It was a lovely moment, even though the Peak Tours guides would be carrying my excess baggage of energy food for 14 days.

There’s no such thing as waterproof cycling clothing

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Raingear – perfect for dry weather…

I always overheat when I’m climbing and so decided to splash out on an expensive lightweight Gore waterproof ready for this special trip. (I knew the chances of a rain-free 14 day ride in Great Britain was vanishingly small.)

I soon discovered that regardless of how lightweight the rain gear is, I will resemble a boil in the bag chicken within minutes of starting a modest climb. While others were still sporting leg and arm warmers, I’d be down to a jersey and shorts in anything other that storm conditions.

But the one thing I regret not packing – despite my pantechnicon of clothes – was a windproof long sleeve jersey. It would have avoided my worst clothes choice of the tour, on our first cold morning’s ride, as we set off from Penrith to Moffat. I had a base layer, long sleeve jacket and my rain jacket. Within 20 minutes I felt like I’d fallen into an oven. So much for layering. A windproof jersey would have been all I needed short of a biblical storm.

I did ignore the suggestion to bring overshoes. I did have a pair, but could only find one! There were a few times when I wished I’d worn them but in my experience overshoes don’t keep my feet dry in torrential weather as the water comes up from the road rather than from the sky.

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Drying off. In a pub…

The one thing I definitely wished I’d brought was a light fleece for lunch stops on cooler and wetter days, including the amazing day when we arrived at Tockholes near Blackburn after an hour’s biblical rain. We were so glad to be given towels to dry off – not to mention pots of tea (which started a two-week tradition on tour and after!) and delicious cheese tart and jam roly poly pudding!

Savour the moment

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Another milestone on LEJOG19

You won’t cycle the length of Great Britain very often. So savour the experience! Stop to take photos and videos. Keep a journal each day to record what you see and how you feel. Note the change of the scenery, the accents and even the local beers as you make your way north (or south). In Scotland in particular, as we ventured from Inverness into the lonely Highlands, I couldn’t resist taking photos of the firths and the way the green hills were giving way to stark mountains and moors. It showed why cycle touring is a the perfect way of exploring a country.

Choose your LEJOG company with care

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Peak Tours – my perfect LEJOG tour company

I wondered if this trip would ever happen. I booked to cycle LEJOG in 2018 with one company, which then cancelled the tour because not enough people had booked. I rebooked with another company in 2019 and amazingly the same think happened again. For 24 hours I was in despair, thinking I’d have to cycle 1,000 miles on my own with no support. But then I spotted that Peak Tours was running LEJOG over almost identical dates. I’d never heard of the company before but the website gave me a very good feeling. How had I never heard of it before?

All those initial feelings proved right. Steve in the office and Simon, Julie and Howard on the road were brilliant. The Peak Tours approach suited me perfectly – morning and afternoon brew stops, with tea and coffee and snacks, and decent lunches in pubs, to break up the day and keep morale high. In the evening we had a few group meals alternating with nights when we could choose our own dining arrangements.

Emotional moments

Cycling the length of the country is an emotional experience for everyday cyclists. I was surprised to get a lump in my throat after we crossed into Wales over the Severn and Wye bridges. (By request, I sang the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad fy Nhadau, in Welsh as we cycled from the bridge towards Monmouth on day 4.) It also felt very special crossing into Scotland near Gretna and cruising the last few miles to John O’Groats on the last day.

The Crask Inn

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Sheltering at the Crask Inn

If you ever cycle the road from Lairg to Bettyhill, do stop at the Crask Inn, especially if the weather is bad.You will get a true picture of the days of old, when a pub truly was a traveller’s rest, and indeed salvation.

We enjoyed glorious weather as we headed from Bonar Bridge towards the Falls of Shin. But as we reached Lairg, the weather was closing in. We got soaked and cold as we headed north to the Crask, and entered that old inn with true relief. Rarely was a fire so welcomed in August! By popular request, I sang the Welsh national anthem in Welsh and Kevin did the same for the Belgium anthem in Flemish. So we celebrated this union of cultures and accents as we prepared for the last day on the ride to John O’Groats…

The end of the road…

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I made it!

Finishing the ride was a magical moment. I cycled almost 1,000 miles with no punctures or other mechanical problems. For the second time! Given my training I was in a better state to savour the moment of completing LEJOG this time, and indeed would happily have cycled another 18 miles to complete the day’s century ride.

To finish, here’s the inevitable group shot at John O’Groats, followed by a photo of me stretching over the map of Great Britain to show how far I cycled. Happy memories!

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Ireland marks the Easter rising centenary

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The 1916 rebellion that led to the end of British rule in the 26 counties

Easter has long been hugely significant in Ireland, and not just for religious reasons. The Good Friday agreement of 1998 marked the end of the Troubles in Northern Ireland, despite later tragedies such as Omagh. But the really significant event was the Easter rising of 1916, which Ireland marked today on a grand scale.

I blogged a decade ago that 2006 was the first time Dublin had staged a public parade to mark the Easter rising since the start of the  Northern Ireland Troubles in 1969. That murderous conflict complicated Ireland’s relationship with 1916. Ireland and Britain have an even stronger relationship now than in 2006, as the Queen’s visit to Ireland in 2011 and Irish president Michael D Higgins’ state visit to Britain three years later showed.  Continue reading

Am I English or Welsh? A seven year old’s dilemma

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The Welsh boys!

My wife asked our seven year old son Owen today if he’d like to take part in the Beaver Scouts’ St George’s Day parade. His answer taught me a lot about how young children take identity seriously.

He gave a puzzled look, and declared that he didn’t know if he was English or Welsh. So should he take part in a parade on England’s little-observed national day?

I cherish the fact that my thoughtful seven year old is pondering questions of identity.  But I’m pleased that he decided that he would take part. We live in England, and it’s right that he should join his friends in this special event. I have deliberately tried not to influence him about which country he supports in rugby or soccer. (Though I was quietly pleased when he proclaimed, “This is fun!” when England lost 4-1 to Germany in the world cup in 2010!) He seems to be following his elder cousin Siân’s support for Wales. It’s entirely his decision!

Britain on the brink: the SNP and the 2015 general election

The unionist Tories big up SNP's Sturgeon. Reality will be different

The unionist Tories boost SNP’s Sturgeon. Reality will be different

You could never accuse the British establishment of being intelligent. Almost a century ago, its brutal response to Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising ensured the departure of the 26 counties from the United Kingdom. David Cameron is doing his very best to repeat the trick 100 years on with Scotland.

I don’t blame the Tories for having fun at Labour’s expense over the rise of the SNP. But talk of the SNP holding the country to ransom is very foolish. The Scottish nationalists are completely entitled to use its bargaining power in the new parliament. That’s how parliament and the constitution work. More fool the Tories and Labour for allowing the survival of our corrupt and undemocratic voting system. It’s unlikely the SNP would be in the same powerful position had justice prevailed with the introduction of a more proportional voting system.

As Jonathan Freedland says in today’s Guardian, the Conservatives have been totally calculating in talking up the SNP. Chancellor George Osborne praised Nicola Sturgeon’s performance in the leaders’ debates. Why? To embarrass Labour. Yet the ploy was cynical and stupid at the same time. If the Tories were so horrified by the SNP supporting a Labour government, why praise that party’s leader?

Ironically, the SNP is likely to have less influence by ruling out any kind of unholy alliance with the Tories. It’s unlikely to repeat its 1979 folly in bringing down a Labour government. Ed Miliband may have more room for manoeuvre as a result, despite the Tory scaremongering.

Here’s my verdict after last September’s Scottish independence referendum:

“Out of touch London politicians have had the fright of their lives. Cameron, Miliband and Clegg complacently assumed that the result was a foregone conclusion. But when a single poll claimed a yes lead, they panicked. They cobbled together a promise of ‘Devo Max’ – home rule within the UK. Dave, Ed and Nick rushed up to Scotland to declare undying love for the country and plead with Scots not to file for divorce. It was desperate and unconvincing.”

Judging by their actions over the last month, those out of touch London politicians have learned nothing.

Europe: a dangerous obsession

Introduction

I wrote the article below in 1995. It’s eerie how little has changed in 20 years – the only conclusion I’d change is the assertion that few people would have voted in a referendum about whether Britain should join the euro.

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.

Continue reading

Cadbury’s and the supersonic Seventies

Three years ago, I blogged about Dominic Sandbrook’s BBC series The 70s. I reminisced about Cadbury’s Supersonic Seventies TV advert and lamented that it was sadly missing from YouTube.

Happily, it’s now there. It was pure nostalgia watching this over 40 years later. Curious how I remembered the ending so accurately: ‘One of today’s great tastes, ooh ooh!”