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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Open letter to Cheryl Gillan MP on Brexit

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Margaret Thatcher campaigns to keep Britain in the EEC, 1975

The Rt Hon Cheryl Gillan MP

House of Commons

London SW1A 0AA

29 June 2016

Dear Mrs Gillan

Like many of your constituents, I am deeply concerned about the consequences of last week’s very narrow referendum vote to leave the EU, which you campaigned for.

We are already seeing major companies like HSBC and Visa saying they will move jobs from the UK to the continent if we lose access to the European Single Market, which Margaret Thatcher played a major role in creating. The leaders of the leave campaign such as Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage have been quick to disown the pledges they made to win votes. The Conservative and Labour parties are in chaos, and the country is rudderless at our most critical moment as a nation for generations.

You, as our MP, have a great responsibility for helping save the country from disaster. I urge you to:

Demand that Parliament has to agree to any government decision to invoke article 50 of the Lisbon treaty.

Britain is a parliamentary democracy. Recent governments have accepted that vital matters affecting the nation such as going to war must be subject to a parliamentary approval, rather than royal prerogative exercised by the prime minister. Starting the process of withdrawal from the EU is just as important – and parliament must decide.

Only vote in favour of invoking article 50 when the UK government has determined what the future relationship with the EU should be, in agreement with the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland

Like me, you were born in Cardiff, Wales. Unlike me, you have served as Secretary of State for Wales. As such, you must understand the vital need to preserve the United Kingdom. Keeping Scotland in the Union, preserving peace in Northern Ireland and maintaining the interests of Wales must be fundamental to the task of negotiating the right future for Britain in Europe. Millions will never forgive this government if it destroys Britain.

Demand that the UK maintains access to the European Single Market – including financial services

Many of your constituents work in financial services. London, the South East and the rest of the country will suffer countless job losses – and the City will be hugely disadvantaged – if UK banks lose the right to ‘passport’ their UK banking licences to the 30 countries in the EU and EEA. We have already seen HSBC and Visa say they will move jobs from the UK if this happens. This is not a game. The time for bluster and rhetoric is over – MPs have a responsibility. You will be held to account if you get this wrong.

Fight against hate speech and crimes

Millions of us are horrified at the way the referendum campaign fuelled xenophobia in Britain. We liked to think of our country as tolerant, embracing people no matter what their background. Yet leave campaigners have let a horrible genie out of the bottle. I’m appalled by the attacks on the Polish and Muslim communities, who have enriched the country. (How many of the thugs know that Polish refugee airmen helped to save us in the Battle of Britain?) It’s time to take action to end this hatred and punish those who fuel it.

Protect EU nationals working in the UK

Colleagues from other European countries working alongside me here in the UK have been in tears, taking the referendum rhetoric and the result as meaning they are not wanted here. This is appalling. They make a huge contribution to our country and economy. They are our friends as well as colleagues. I call on you now to urge ministers to guarantee that no one working here who come from other EU states will lose the right to work in the UK.

End the lies

The referendum campaign marked a new low in British political campaigns. Politicians are not famous for telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth – but never before have we seen so many of them telling outright lies and refusing to stop when exposed. The £350m claim was the most outrageous example, condemned by the independent UK Statistics Authority as plain wrong. It’s time to ban politicians from telling lies. And the thought of one of those liars becoming prime minister is totally unacceptable.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Rob Skinner

Paris, Facebook and the fight for humanity

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Paris 2014: the city and people we love

Bravo to family and friends who have turned their Facebook profile photos into a tricolour in respect for the victims of Friday’s appalling murders in Paris.

I love France and the French, and grieve for them and everyone else who died in this assault on humanity. But I won’t be changing my profile photo. I feel equally sad for those who have been savagely killed in Beirut, on the Russian airliner, on the beaches of Tunisia and across the Middle East. And those who have perished fleeing the death cults of the Middle East.

I just wish we could find some way to combat such brutal, medieval tribes that wish to defeat those who hold different values. The sad truth is that the western powers will most likely respond in a way that makes things worse, not better.

It’s easy to change your profile photo. That’s not to say that doing so has no meaning. I’m sure it will bring some comfort to the people of France, a country that millions of us love and cherish. But I’d rather see brilliant minds across Europe thinking how we can turn the tide of hatred. The west has a grim record of intervening in the Middle East without thinking or caring about the consequences, from Britain, France and Israel’s 1956 Suez adventure through to the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Please prove me wrong.

Georgio Moroder, Phil Oakey and Nigel Lawson

Together in Electric Dreams

Together in Electric Dreams

A Guardian article this week caused a nostalgia rush. Georgio Moroder has launched his first album for 30 years.

Memories, memories. Thirty years ago this month, Moroder’s 1984 hit with Phil Oakey, Together in Electric Dreams, was top of my college cassette playlist. Along with The Cars’ Who’s Going to Drive You Home Tonight. Band Aid and the Frog Chorus were mercifully a few weeks away.

Back in November 1984, I was living in a student terraced house on Ullswater Street in Leicester. I was preparing for a law tutorial about the Sunday trading laws. We had been tipped off that the chancellor of the exchequer Nigel Lawson might sit in on the session. I wasn’t a fan of local Blaby MP Nigel – he seemed far too confident, a view that was reinforced by his too-clever-by-half 1988 budget – but I prepared more carefully than normal, including prepping a few jokes walking along the Grand Union Canal in Leicester on a mild November evening…

Needless to say, Lawson didn’t show up but we did get an MEP (Tom Spencer) and, if I remember correctly, Peter Bruinvels, a one term right wing Tory MP. I never thought he would last in multi-cultural Leicester.

Delivering on?

I’ll scream if I hear another politician saying they will ‘deliver on’ their promises.

You keep a promise, you don’t deliver on it. And since when has the verb deliver needed ‘on’? Does your postman or woman ‘deliver on’ your mail?

I wrote to the Guardian in 2011 about this awful example of abusing the language of Shakespeare.

The Great War, 100 years on

To war, Gare de l'Est, Paris

High hopes and hidden fears: to war, Paris, 2 August 1914

It was meant to be the war to end all wars. It was the conflict that went global. And it killed millions, leaving families across the globe grieving lost sons, brothers, fathers – and lost womenfolk and children. 

The Great War has left a deep scar across Britain, France, America and the Commonwealth, not to mention Germany and her allies. The photo at the top of this post captures young Frenchman leaving Paris for war as France mobilised the day before Germany declared war on the country. Britain and its empire entered the fray the following day. This was one of a moving open air exhibition in Paris’s Avenue des Champs Élysées. By a curious coincidence, I photographed the photo 100 years to the day after it was taken.

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End of the story for Richmond’s Lion & Unicorn bookshop

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The saddest chapter

Is there a sadder high street sight than an abandoned book shop?

When Karen brought Owen to see me at work in Richmond, Surrey, last week I suggested they visit the wonderful Lion & Unicorn children’s bookshop. (I bought my very first books for Owen there: books to read in the bath.) I was shocked when Karen reported that the shop had closed down.

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Memories that began at the Lion & Unicorn, Richmond

The Lion & Unicorn had been a Richmond institution for over 35 years. Roald Dahl opened it in 1977, and countless famous authors visited over the years. But soaring rents and the rise of online book selling put it out of business, owner Jenny Morris explained to the Daily Telegraph. It joins a sad list of wonderful independent bookshops that have lost the fight for life, including the famous Harbour Bookshop in Dartmouth, once run by AA Milne’s son Christopher Robin and his wife Lesley. 

The fact I hadn’t noticed the Lion & Unicorn had closed says a lot – about me. I have always loved books, but didn’t shop there enough. We live over 25 miles from Richmond, so Owen and I tend to go to Waterstone’s shop in Amersham. (We recently chose my childhood favourite, The Secret Garden, with his World Book Day token.) And I wonder if selling just children’s books was another factor in the Lion & Unicorn’s demise. When we go to a bookshop, Owen will look at the children’s titles while I look at my favourites as well. 

Richmond still has two excellent bookshops: a big Waterstone’s and The Open Book

Books and book stores create life-long memories. As a child and teenager I loved Lears in Cardiff. And I still remember visiting George’s in Bristol as an 11 year old in 1975. I bought so many cherished books in those stores: every Famous Five and Secret Seven title, along with Malcolm Saville’s marvellous Lone Pine series, set in the Wales/England borderlands, Sussex and Devon. 

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George’s bookshop, Bristol. Childhood memories