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 think 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 be 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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In praise of LNER Flying Scotsman

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Flying Scotsman: on the footplate of 93 year old legend

Owen and I today had a priceless experience – stepping onto the footplate of the world’s most famous railway engine, Flying Scotsman, at York’s magnificent National Railway Museum.  The 93 year old engine has just been restored to mainline working after a multi-million pound overhaul.

We have got accustomed to footplate visits to famous LNER engines – we visited all six surviving A4 pacifics during NRM’s unforgettable Great Gathering reunion in 2013. And I confess that Flying Scotsman has never inspired me in the same way as Mallard and her sister A4s. But I didn’t think it was right to spend time at the museum this weekend without queueing to stand on the Scotsman’s footplate. I’m so glad we did.

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Scotsman, BR-vintage

This, as NRM’s marvellous Return of the Scotsman exhibition explains, was the world’s first superstar locomotive. It was a film star from its earliest days. It was the first engine to exceed 100 miles an hour officially. It began the non-stop London to Edinburgh Flying Scostman service in 1928, beating its own 392 mile achievement by recording the world’s longest non-stop steam run – 429 miles – in Australia in 1989.

I think the engine looks wonderful in its British Railways livery, with smoke defectors. I may be biased – this was how it looked the year I was born, when it was withdrawn from everyday service.

The National Railway Museum is a wonderful place to visit – and it’s free to enter. I first visited in 1979, and now love taking Owen whenever we visit York, one of our favourite cities.

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Posing with an icon

It’s amazing to think that when we first took Owen to the NRM in September 2009, aged one, the Scotsman was in pieces at an early stage of the overhaul. Here are a few photos I took on that visit.

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The weekend I became a foul weather cyclist

When friends say ‘You’re a keen cyclist!’, I always reply that I’m actually a fair weather cyclist. Until this weekend.

I’ve cycled 28 miles in the most atrocious conditions over the past two days. I have been soaked to the skin. I have been drenched by drivers as they displaced flood water over me and my bike. The biggest surprise? I loved it.

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Britain’s surviving fingerpost signs

Restored fingerpost in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks

Restored fingerpost in Chalfont St Giles, Bucks

This signpost is one of a dying breed. Fingerposts like this once guided travellers in every corner of Britain. They were simple and graphic guides in an age when people travelled slowly. As speeds increased, they were replaced by bigger signposts that could be seen by speeding motorists by day or night.

Happily, this example in the historic Buckinghamshire village of Chalfont St Giles has been adopted by the local community. It was restored recently for the second time in a decade. It is a welcome sight when I’m racing up Bowstridge Lane on my bike as it means I can relax as the climb is over.

Pointing to Threehouseholds, Chalfont St Giles

Pointing to Threehouseholds, Chalfont St Giles

This fingerpost is a witness to history. The Threehouseholds in the sign refers to the area of Chalfont St Giles at the top of the drag from the village towards Seer Green. It includes the popular White Hart Inn, and was named after the original terrace of three cottages at the top of the hill.

I hope the sign will be guiding travellers for many years.

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

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

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

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Dorset delight

Jurassic Coast

Dorset’s Durdle Door

We’re enjoying a holiday in Dorset, one of England’s most attractive counties. It’s our third family holiday here, and the first since Owen was a toddler.

We’ve barely scratched the surface of what Thomas Hardy’s Wessex has to offer. Here are some of our favourites – with the health warning that this is a personal choice rather than an exhaustive list.

Best museum: The Tank Museum, Bovington Continue reading

Nice and fast: our Chiltern Railways day out to Birmingham

Chiltern Railways Mainline: next stop Birmingham!

Chiltern Railways Mainline: Birmingham here we come!

Once upon a time, Britain had real trains. Powerful engines pulled rakes of elegant coaches. On most of our main lines this is just a memory, but happily Chiltern Railways has brought back the best of the past on its Mainline service between London and Birmingham – with the welcome addition of modern touches like free wifi and the most stylish toilets I’ve seen on a British train!

We had a family day trip to Birmingham on Mainline yesterday, courtesy of complimentary tickets from Chiltern.

Setting off

Setting off

As a former regular traveller to Chester on Virgin, I was very impressed by the legroom in Chiltern’s Business Zone. (Virgin’s Pendolinos and Voyagers aren’t the roomiest of trains, especially when they’re crowded.) And the big windows show off the advantages of the British Rail Mark III coach.

Chiltern's Mainline Business Zone - plenty of room for your breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline Business Zone – plenty of room for breakfast and practising your writing

Chiltern’s Mainline service is a lot cheaper than Virgin’s trains from Euston, as the sign at Moor Street cheekily points out…

It’s good to see Chiltern transforming the former Marylebone to Birmingham line, as it was nearly killed by British Railways. Chiltern has invested millions restoring it to mainline standards – gone are the days of holding on tight when your train took the Marylebone line at South Ruislip!

Sadly, today’s Snow Hill is a shadow of the magnificent old station – more of a bus stop than a station for a country’s second city. So I was pleased that our train terminated at Moor Street station, which has been restored as a Great Western terminus, complete with a GWR 28xx heavy freight steam locomotive. It’s a fitting counterpart to Marylebone, London’s most civilised terminus.

Welcome to Birmingham - our Chiltern Railways train on right

Welcome to Birmingham – our Chiltern Railways train on right

We liked Birmingham. We enjoyed the walk to the National Sealife centre (Owen loved running around Victoria Square) and the sealife displays were very impressive – and we did well to visit when Octonauts Peso and Kwazii were visiting… And Brindley Place is really attractive, even when there’s still snow on the ground. (It was rather warmer last time I visited in March 2010.) On the way back, Owen insisted we pop in to Waterstone’s, which is less than 10 minutes’ walk from Moor Street station. Who were we to argue…

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

Owen and Peso, National Sealife Centre, Birmingham

The Great Western lives - Birmingham Moor Street 2013

The Great Western lives – Birmingham Moor Street 2013

We got the 15.55 home, smiling at the group of fellow passengers enjoying a couple of bottles of champagne.

We thoroughly enjoyed our day in Birmingham – and getting there was a big part of the pleasure. Thank you, Chiltern Railways.

PS: the trip was memorable for another reason. It relived a famous film that we love: the 1962 British Transport Films production, Let’s Go to Birmingham, which was a speeded up Blue Pullman trip from London Paddington to the original Snow Hill. It was a real period piece with many steam trains along the route, from the Paddington pilot engine to the steam express that passed the Pullman as it approached Moor Street. There’s a sad sequel as the driver, Ernest Morris, was tragically killed when his diesel train collided with a steam freight train at Dorridge in 1963.

Disclosure: we travelled on complimentary tickets from Chiltern Railways.

Eurostar: Britain 1-0 France

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Gateway to Britain: St Pancras

I’m writing this on a London bound Eurostar train. I love being able to take a train between Britain and France. It’s a civilised way to travel.

When the channel tunnel was opened in 1994, Britain was shamed by its failure to complete a high speed rail link to the coast. Eurostar trains left a cramped terminal at Waterloo and crawled along commuter lines to the tunnel. How things have changed. Travellers start their journey at the gorgeously opulent St Pancras, one of London’s greatest Victorian buildings. Their train races to the coast along our first (and so far only) new high speed railway.

Paris can’t match this. The Gare du Nord is a nice building, but the Eurostar section is as bad as the old Waterloo International. Today, dozens of travellers took their turn to take one small lift to Eurostar departures. There was a long queue for border control and security, followed by a similar wait for the steps down to the platform. It’s time for the French to spend some money on a proper Eurostar terminal in Paris. Meanwhile, let’s be proud of St Pancras, a worthy gateway to Britain.

Aberporth from 35,000 feet

Welsh coast ahead

I love watching the world from the air. I took this picture of the Welsh coast from a flight to Dublin yesterday afternoon. I assumed we were somewhere north of Fishguard, but didn’t see enough landmarks – such as Fishguard harbour – to be sure.

My former colleague Noel Privett asked on Facebook whether it was Dinas island. A few minutes’ study of Google Maps confirmed that it was actually the stretch of coast from Aberporth to Llangrannog. (The finger of land pointing into the Irish Sea next to Llangrannog nailed it.)

Where are we? Google it…