Beating the Tories: a democratic revolution

Boris Johnson’s decrepit, dishonest government was hit by two devastating by-election defeats in different parts of England last week.

Labour retook Wakefield in Yorkshire, a seat it lost to the Conservatives in the 2019 general election. More dramatically, the Liberal Democrats took Tiverton and Honiton, a seat that had been Tory since the dinosaurs were young. (OK, slight exaggeration.) That Lib Dem success saw the biggest ever majority overturned in a British by-election.

The Tory defeat has led to a debate about the need (or not) for anti-Tory parties to agree a pact to ensure the progressive vote isn’t split, which traditionally means the Tories win despite the opposition winning more votes. Margaret Thatcher famously enjoyed big majorities because of this.

Sometimes it doesn’t matter. Labour won a landslide in 1997 and 2001 under Tony Blair and the Lib Dems did well too. That was the reverse effect: anti-Tory voters teamed up to punish the Conservatives,

Could the same thing happen in 2024? Last week’s by-elections suggest it might. Tactical voting can work, especially when there isn’t a Jeremy Corbyn to deter Lib Dem voters or a Nick Clegg to deter Labour ones.

What about a repeat of the Tory tactics in 2015, saying Labour will be in the pocket of the Scottish National Party? I can’t see that having any traction in 2024. Boris Johnson is the greatest boost possible for the SNP. The SNP’s apparently unstoppable advance has been turbo-charged by the Tories and Brexit. Brexit is done, at least for now, but the return of a progressive UK government might be the union’s last hope. Especially if that government replaced the deeply undemocratic first-past-the-post voting system with some form of proportionate representation.

The progressive parties must state their case – their collective case – with confidence and brio. Take a leaf out of RMT leader Mick Lynch’s book – don’t let this battle be fought on a field chosen by the Tories. Britain – England, Wales and Scotland – must be better than this. Make the case for a fairer government that fights for all the people, especially those less well off, not just the privileged few who win every time with the Tories.

As a Welshman, I long believed that Wales was best served by being part of the UK. We are a small country that has traditionally looked east to our large neighbour England for trade and much more. Yet I have come to believe that the UK in its current form is a divisive, destructive influence. London doesn’t care (spicier epithets are available) about Wales. Or Scotland. Or Northern Ireland. Even worse, it will force any amount of destruction through that negligence, as Johnson’s poisonous rejection of his own agreement to the Northern Ireland protocol shows. The Tory embrace of Brexit has made our nations and their peoples poorer than they were before. How could Wales – or Scotland – do any worse alone than under destructive London rule?

The next five years will decide whether the UK has a future.

Highland 500 Day 7: Lairg to Inverness

This post recounts the seventh and final day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 6 Durness to Lairg

Ferry across Cromarty Firth to Black Isle

Our final day. The end of a 470 mile odyssey across the Scottish Highlands. And the sun was shining.

We continued to retrace in reverse part of my Land’s End to John O’Groats route in 2002 and 2019. It was an easy downhill to the Falls of Shin, along an eerily quiet road. Yet when I paused at the falls I was amazed to see a crowd of people. Then I spotted the tourist coach… I didn’t linger long, not expecting to repeat my 2019 success in videoing salmon leaping up the falls. I was sad to see the lovely cafe and visitor centre was boarded up, a victim of the pandemic.

I followed Rose to Bonar Bridge, seen above. She set a cracking pace, and my average speed to lunch was far higher than on any other day on the trip. Not far beyond Ardgay, where we had lunch on LEJOG19, I said goodbye to the LEJOG route, glancing up towards the Struie hill viewpoint where I’d taken photos in 2002 and 2019.

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Highland 500 Day 6: Durness to Lairg

This post recounts the sixth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 5 Ullapool to Durness

Group photo at The Crask Inn

Today, we said farewell to the sea and the route of the North Coast 500.

Tràigh Allt Chàilgeag beach

The first few miles followed the far north coast, with a few inevitable short, sharp hills. I was entranced by the sight above: wild campers above a beach not far from Durness. Scotland allows wild camping and I can imagine the delight of drifting to sleep to the sound of the waves at this beautiful spot.

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Highland 500 Day 5: Ullapool to Durness

This post recounts the fifth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 4 Ullapool to Summer Isles

Kylesku bridge

This was the hardest day of the tour. Harder than the Bealach na Bà day. And all because of that cyclist’s curse: a headwind.

Yet it started well. The 1,000 feet of climbing over the first nine miles from Ullapool that sapped my morale yesterday proved easier when repeated today. And I was looking forward to seeing Assynt and cycling over the stunning Kylesku bridge.

Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle (and picnic!) behind

We had a lovely stop by the shore of Loch Assynt with Ardvreck castle in the distance. The sun was shining, it was warm and we had a stunningly scenic day ahead.

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Highland 500 Day 4: Ullapool to Summer Isles

This post recounts the fourth day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 3 Gairloch to Ullapool

Images of heaven: Loch Cùl Dromannan

I was cursing my decision not to take a rest day in Ullapool. After nine miles and 1,000 feet of climbing I envied the wisdom of those taking a lazy, late breakfast, enjoying a good book or taking a boat trip. Then I glanced and saw the mountains, blue sky and brilliant clouds reflected in the still waters of Loch Cùl Dromannan. I gasped in wonder, and slowed the bike to a stop to drink in the vista and take the photo above.

It got better. I was soon following Peak Tours guide Simon down a heavenly lane, a tarmac thread along the lochs leading to the coast. After the slog up from Ullapool, we were now coasting along this gently undulating route. Before long we came to the morning’s brew stop overlooking the islands on Loch Lurgainn. I smiled as two recumbent trikes came past as I turned in for my morning coffee. It would be fun to lean back on the comfortable seat of a trike and drink in the view.

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Highland 500 Day 3: Gairloch to Ullapool

This post recounts the third day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 2, Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

Heading for Ullapool

I had a lie-in today, thanks to cycling an extra 17 miles to Gairloch last night. But while those staying in Kinlochewe had an easy warm up along Loch Maree (the route I took last night), I was straight into the hills today with a stiff climb out of Gairloch setting the tone for the morning.

Gairloch beach

It was worth it: at the top of the hill was this wonderful view of a beach with the mountains including Beinn Eighe behind. I didn’t feel guilty about stopping so soon to to savour a view like this. Why tour the highlands if you’re not inclined to pause and reflect on the extraordinary landscapes and seascapes?

Loch Maree

Later, I stopped to admire this view of Loch Maree, the lake that I cycled along for miles last night. Here I was passing the head of the loch.

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Highland 500 Day 2: Lochcarron to Gairloch via Bealach na Bà

This post recounts the second day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022. Read day 1, Inverness to Lochcarron

Bealach na Bà. Not quite at the top!

This was the big one. If any day’s cycling merited nervous anticipation, it was this. Talk at breakfast was a little stilted as we all knew what was to come: Bealach na Bà (the pass of the cattle), the greatest climb in Britain. And many more hilly miles on top.

This is it…

We set off from Lochcarron and were climbing almost immediately away from the loch. This was merely a warm up. I enjoyed the swoop down to Loch Kishorn, followed by an easy stretch along the river Kishorn. A quick left turn and there it was: the famous sticker-strew sign marking the start of Bealach na Bà. Another sign warned learner drivers not to attempt this iconic route, which opened 200 years ago in 1822.

The road over Bealach na Bà climbs 2,053 feet (626 metres) in around six miles (9 kilometres), but the initial section is not difficult: barely 2% for the first mile. But don’t be fooled – it gets far harder. Simon Warren, author of 100 Greatest Cycling Climbs, rated the Bealach at 11 out of 10 for difficulty. It is the closest Britain has to an alpine, hairpinned ascent.

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Highland 500 Day 1: Inverness to Lochcarron

This post recounts the first day of my Highland 500 cycle tour with Peak Tours in May and June 2022.

The adventure begins. Greig St bridge, Inverness

Why do I always feel a few butterflies at the start of a cycling adventure? It seemed unmerited ahead of today’s fairly easy first day of Peak Tours’ Highland 500 tour. Best of all, the first 13 miles from Inverness followed the same route as my 2019 Land’s End to John O’Groats ride, which I remembered as a really easy section.

As soon as we got going, the butterflies fluttered away. It was a grey morning, with showers, and the normal western cycle route over the Kessock Bridge over the firth was closed, requiring a diversion past Inverness Caledonian Thistle’s ground. We briefly joined the main carriageway to the bridge but quickly backtracked to the eastern cycle path. Once over the bridge, we had to wait for a gap in the traffic to cross the A9. Fortunately it wasn’t busy on this Sunday morning.

I was soon enjoying the familiar path along the Beauly Firth towards the intriguingly named Muir of Ord. An easy day was made rather harder by a brisk headwind, which became more noticeable as the day unfolded. As I always say, hills come to an end but headwinds don’t! We formed a modest peloton to take it in turns to ‘draft’ the other riders. I took my turn just before the morning ‘brew stop’ at Rogie Falls, where Peak Tours provided very welcome drinks and snacks to keep morale and energy high. I decided to up the pace a little, which was a mistake as the break was a mile later than expected and that extra mile was uphill! I was glad of the breather.

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2021: my biggest cycling year

It has become a tradition on New Year’s Eve for me to reflect on my year’s cycling, and look ahead to my cycling ambitions for the year ahead. This time, I’m feeling chuffed having cycled over 6,000 miles – 2,000 more than my previous record of 4.255 in 2019.

I have been amazingly consistent in 2021, cycling over 500 miles every month. That became a mission by the middle of the year – I couldn’t fall below 500 miles a month. The early winter months set the pattern of 500 plus mile months, thanks to my Wattbike Atom smart trainer. It was rare for me to record over 200 miles a month in winter before 2021, but the Atom made regular cycling far more enjoyable than cold, wet, icy rides outdoors. (I became far more familiar with the BBC iPlayer and Netflix as a result.)

The toughest months, ironically, were those in high summer: July and August. Summer holidays in Wales and Cornwall reduced the number of cycling days, and I confess that it was a slog to rack up the miles as the months ended. By contrast, November was the biggest month of all, with 586 miles recorded on Strava.

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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