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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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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