Land's End to John O'Groats II
15 - 28 June 1996

(or, Just When You Thought It Was Safe to Get Back on Your Bike)

Overall statistics

total distance 1051 miles
average distance/day 75.1 miles
average speed 11.3
total climb 8.96 miles
average climb 45.0 feet/mile
total time pedalling 93 hours
total time travelling 145.7 hours.

About the authors

Paul Smee is American, 50 years old at the time of our trip. He was born in Little Rock, Arkansas, raised in Pittsburgh, Pa, and spent 16 years in Boston, Ma, before coming to Bristol to work in the University Computing Service in 1980.

Ann French is a Scot, 51 years old at the time of our trip. She was born in Aberdeen and brought up in Aberdeenshire. After Aberdeen University, she went first to Exeter then got a job in the University of Bristol Computing Service in 1970. She spent 1972-5 in London but returned to Bristol where she has been ever since.

What? Again? (A 'Paul' digression)

For Ann and I this was the second End-to-End ride. We'd done it by ourselves in 1993, a slow, fully-laden, cycle-camping trip, taking 25 days. This time the trip would be very different in style. A group of 13, carrying very little luggage, and staying in youth hostels, for a 14 day ride. The first time, we were carrying full front and rear panniers plus rack-top luggage. This time, Ann used a rack-top bag, and I used our smallest pair of panniers, the pair Ann usually uses as front bags.

People inevitably want to know why we decided to ride the End-to-End. For the first trip, the answer was simple; it's one of the classic cycle tours, and everyone should do it. (And besides, it's fun.) However, 'everyone should do it' only works once; once you've done it, why do it again?

I had the answer, of course. We didn't join the CTC until after we'd done the first trip. When we joined, I discovered that if you do the ride and collect the proper evidence - receipts or rubber stamps from the places you've stayed - you can get a sew-on End-to-End badge (patch) from the CTC. Not knowing this, we hadn't collected the evidence during our first trip. So we had to do it again, to get our badges. That's my story, and I'm sticking with it. (And besides, it's still fun.)

Since doing it for the second time, I've become aware that if we'd done it only slightly faster, and collected slightly different evidence, we could have had, in addition, an End-to-End badge from Audax UK. The story might not be over.

The party

The trip was organised by Keith, who first suggested it in August 1995. We were fortunate to hear about it early on and jumped at the idea, as did everybody else. Keith wanted to keep the group to a reasonable size and ended up having to turn people down. Keith obtained initial route sheets from the CTC and booked the hostels for the whole trip. Some of the hostels on the route didn't have room for us so Keith found alternatives and amended the route accordingly. Having prebooked accommodations has both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it's comforting to know that you have a place to sleep that night and won't have to look around for somewhere suitable. On the other hand we ended up doing some very long days to reach the night's hostel. Still, with a largish group it would be impractical not to prebook.

There were 13 in the group although one (Jerry) didn't join until Monmouth. All were members of the the Bristol section of the CTC, some (like us) for only a couple of years, but others for many years. The others (apart from us, Keith and Jerry) were (in no particular order) Shirley, Mark (Shirley's husband), Jean, Stuart, Matt, Dave, Richard (Shopper), Pete, and Phil.

The group ranged in age from 30 to 57, with an average of 45, though there were 7 aged between 48 and 53 so the spread wasn't exactly even.

Getting there

Mad packing, and then we rode over to Ray and Jean's. Ray wasn't coming on the ride, but he had volunteered to take us all down to Land's End in a hired minibus with trailer. It didn't look as if all the bikes would fit in the trailer, but all but one of them did. We set them in the trailer pointing alternately to left and right, with the pedals and front wheels removed and the forks dangling over the sides. Shopper's MTB went into the back of the bus, along with all the panniers.

Dave had decided to go by train to save his back though we had his bike in the trailer. As we passed through Penzance, Ray swung by the station, apparently on a whim, and there was Dave, just off the train and headed for the taxi stand, so we loaded him onboard and headed on to the hostel. We arrived about 6, unpacked the trailer, put the bikes back together and signed in. The hostel is a neat little building, with a bunkhouse annexe adjacent to it. The girls (bet Richard wouldn't call Ann that again soon) were in the main building, and the boys in the annexe.

Everybody except Keith, who'd brought some food with him, decided to go into St Just for supper. The instructions in the hostel said it was about a mile. However we managed to get lost immediately and took a detour through a potato field and over a couple of fields. We arrived at the chippie's just as they were closing but they took pity on us and fried up some more fish and chips for us. We ate them sitting over by the Town War Memorial. Adjacent to that, behind a stone wall, is a small and ancient earth-mound type fortification which appears to be the drinking spot for the local teens.

Keith arrived just as we were finishing and we all went to a pub for a couple of drinks. Afterwards, Keith led us back along the official, much shorter, route.

Ray slept in the minibus for a few hours and drove it back to Bristol very early on Friday. The rest of us woke a bit later and we two had our traditional rolls and cheese for breakfast. Repacked the bike (tight squeeze due to the limited luggage) and had a bit of fun with Mark. He was carrying more stuff than all the rest of us put together, it looked like. We all took turns trying to lift his bike - no-one could, though annoyingly he could ride it with that load. This developed into a set of standing jokes, including such lines as 'Careful, if you fall over we'll have to leave you. Won't be able to lift the bike off you', and regular merriment whenever we came across a bridge with a weight limit.

Finally it was down to serious business - off to Land's End - at about 9. The official photographer hadn't arrived so we messed around taking our own photos for a while. We watched two tandems setting out and being well-photographed by their own photographer. The official photographer arrived, put up the signs, took an official photo, then obligingly took photos with several other people's cameras. Then we set out.

Day 1 - Friday 15 June 1996
Land's End to Golant YH

69 miles, 9.7 mph, climb 4430 ft, 64.2 ft/m

Bright and sunny all day but with a strong easterly wind (that is, against us) for most of the day.

First rest stop in Penzance. We stopped at a bike shop on the way out so Ann could buy new bottles (because she'd forgotten to bring hers). Paul bought a little saddle bag to put the first-aid kit in to free up some pannier space.

Then it was up and over the roller-coaster hills of Cornwall, heading east; we kept finding ourselves at the tops of hills with amazing views. We stopped for lunch at the Star Inn in Porkellis, where we found the rest of the group settling in. They made a great show of pretending that they were just leaving, but in fact they'd only just arrived themselves. We'd come the direct way, while they'd missed a turn and taken an extra lap around the valley nearby.

After lunch, nice jacket (baked) potatoes with fillings, we all carried on together into the wind and hills again. We bypassed Penryn and Falmouth, and went over the King Harry Ferry. At the top of the big hill on the other side, we saw a sign for a tea shop down at the D-Day beach, but couldn't face coming back up again so carried on east to Veryan. There we managed to get a bit lost (a theme which would recur) until we finally picked up the B3287 and just headed for St Austell, with a stop for refreshments at a mini-shop en route.

The final part of the day was very hard. Ann dropped behind the rest of the group before Par and arrived at the hostel feeling very tired.

The hostel at Golant is almost palatial, in an Italian villa sort of way. We knocked together some tinned pasta and hot dogs for dinner. (Meals on this trip were handled on an ad-hoc basis, with people cooking either individually or in small, and ever-changing, groups.)

The World Cup was in progress, and all day Mark kept asking any kids that we passed whether they knew the day's football scores.

Day 2 - Sunday 16 June 1996
Golant to Dunsford YH

69 miles, 8.8 mph, 5740 ft, 83.2 ft/m

Dry and sunny with a refreshing breeze against us at first, turning into a gale as we approached the top of Dartmoor.

A long, hard day. We had a nice start with a long drop down to the ferry at Fowey. We were greeted at the other side by a bunch of people shouting 'See you later!' Turns out they were from Bristol. We were identifiable as Bristolians both because of the club jackets some of us were wearing, and because of Mark's Bristol Rovers football scarf.

Immediately off the ferry there's a horrible hill, and we struggled up and over it to Looe, where Keith's mum lives. She had offered to set us up with morning coffee. We regrouped at the station in Looe, which is at the bottom of a major hill, before going to her house. Paul jokingly pointed to the eaves of a house way up at the top, and said 'I bet that's her house'. Turned out that he wasn't far wrong. We all (even Keith, who rides up everything) had to push our bikes up an incredibly steep dirt footpath to her house. It was worth it for the brilliant selection of cakes (including Cornish saffron cake) and the lovely view from the garden overlooking the sea. It was so nice we stayed a bit too long and set out much later than we'd intended.

At St Ive we stopped at a pub but found there would be a 25-45 minute wait for food so most of us carried on, leaving Pete, Phil and Matt behind to eat there. We carried on, down to Gunnislake then up to Tavistock, getting to Somerfield's just before it closed at 4 pm. We ate beside the river and Mark went in for a little wade. Just as we were setting out again, Mark found that his slow puncture had speeded up and he had to stop to repair it.

We and Jean went on ahead, which was just as well as we had a terrible struggle getting up the huge hill on to Dartmoor against a very strong wind. This was the least pleasant cycling any of us had done. It was trying to be scenic, with lots of sheep and ponies, but we had to fight the incredible headwind all the way. We did a lot of walking. After ages of this struggle, we at last hit the top, and were rewarded with a long mostly downhill run, culminating in a long high-speed freewheel into Moreton Hampstead.

Keith had rung the hostel to say we'd be late, so we all stopped for a pub dinner - chicken pie, mashed potatoes, peas. While eating we chatted with a local resident, an ex-Bristolian, about our trip.

Finally, as dusk was setting in, we did the 4-mile ride to the hostel: probably about a mile of climb, then a long coast through a tunnel of trees to Steps Bridge.

[Ann] Steps Bridge hostel is very scenic with one shower off the bicycle shed. Fortunately there's a second shower next to the women's dormitory which Jean and I designated the women's shower. I had a shower and a cup of tea and was in bed at 10.30, completely shattered.

[Paul] What a contrast to Golant this was, a primitive set of buildings tucked up in the woods. It made some of the military barracks I've seen look luxurious by comparison. The most entertaining feature was the shower, which was down in the bicycle shed. There was a minor panic while unpacking, when Ann thought she'd lost her speedometer, but it finally reappeared.

We've realised that we're going to be crossing paths with a fellow named Simon, who's doing the same route we are but not staying in all the same hostels. He said he's not really a 'cyclist'. He just decided, as a New Year's resolution, that he was going to do this ride, so here he was - on a borrowed bike, since he didn't own one himself.

Day 3 - Monday 17 June 1996
Dunsford to Street YH

69.5 miles, 11.5 mph, 3590 ft, 51.7 ft/m

Very hot, sunny day with an occasional breeze. Not as hilly as yesterday but it's all relative and some bits seemed very hilly.

Steps Bridge hostel had a piano. It had a few broken keys, and the tuning could have been improved - a large axe might have been a good way to start. But it worked, so Matt decided to practice a few of his Grade 1 pieces before breakfast. There were another couple of End-to-Enders there, two fellows riding it south to north, with their wives driving a support car. None of them seemed to appreciate the serenade.

Finally we set out, on a long downhill into Exeter, just in time for some traffic jamming in their rush hour. There were lots of traffic lights to break up the group but we all gathered together before we left the town.

Stopped at a shop and pub for coffee at Whimple then carried on to Honiton for lunch. We had to use the A30 for a short time which was unpleasant. We sat around a churchyard with seats after getting a very good pasty at a local bakers. Next stop was Broadway for tea. We had to go along 6 miles of the busy A303 first and managed to whizz past a nice-looking cream tea shop just before the village. Instead we bought snacks in the village shop and sat on the pavement opposite a lovely row of cottages covered in honeysuckle and roses.

The last part was surprisingly hilly and the day longer than had been anticipated. (This was to be a common theme - the CTC route sheet seemed to underestimate the distance most days.) Street is in the middle of the Somerset Levels, more or less, and the Levels are supposed to be, well, 'level'. Somehow whoever designed the route managed to miss that part.

A few miles before Street we stopped for provisions at a shop. We, Keith, and Jean decided to cook together that evening, so we bought our groceries and distributed them among the four bikes. Keith tied his plastic carrier bag to his backrack. Unfortunately it broke after a short distance depositing a tin of peaches into his rear wheel. This caught in the spokes and went happily around until it was stopped by the stays, having cleared the rack legs somehow. This brought Keith to a quick stop, and he fell over sideways into a bush conveniently sitting by the side of the road. Keith and the spokes were fine but the tin suffered horribly. A worse accident befell Richard - a pack of margarine in the same pack as his clean clothes melted in the sun.

At the hostel we were directed to a set of rooms up in the attic (another recurring theme). . There were only 10 of our group at the hostel. Phil and Pete had split off early to go all the way back to Bristol for the night. After dinner, when four of us managed to eat 1 kilo of pasta for supper (without struggling), a few of us plus Simon walked down into Street for a couple of pints in the Two Brewers. A nice end to the day.

Day 4 - Tuesday 18 June 1996
Street to Monmouth YH

69.3 miles, 11.5 mph, 3100 ft, 44.7 ft/m

Sunny with a slight headwind. A much gentler riding day.

We started the day with a tin of rice pudding and bananas - traditional cyclists' food. Dave went off on his own to visit a friend for a second breakfast so there were only 9 of us.

The ride began with a short downhill spin onto a bit of the Levels, at last, and over to Wells. At Wells, Mark decided to go home and get something done about his wheel - which was beginning to succumb to his load - and also to repack to transfer some of the weight off the back. There's a horrible hill coming out of Wells on the Old Bristol Road. It has a false top halfway up. You think you've made it, and then hit the crest to discover that there's a lot more of it to come. Realised later that we should have looked out for the mast that marks the real top. Afterwards it was an easy run to Bristol stopping at Chew Valley Lake for coffee. They'd built a nice new café since we were last there and it was very pleasant.

In Bristol, we went to Ray & Jean's where Ray had prepared a great lunch. He'd invited some other club members round as well and some of them joined us when we set out after lunch. We went through Almondsbury to the Severn Bridge and then up to Tintern for tea. Ray and Mike W joined us for this bit, and on until dinner. We two dropped behind coming out of Chepstow and missed the others when they stopped for tea at the Mill House in Tintern. We carried on to the Old Station where the Waiting Room is now a tea shop (complete with a surly waitress). There's also a gifte shoppe in an old carriage and the signal box is a museum. It's a sad sight - symbolic of the destruction of the railways. Nice tea and cakes though.

We knew that the next planned stop was The Boat at Redbrook - a popular pub which we'd never been to - so after our break the two of us headed on in that direction. Eventually we found a sign for the pub, and turned in, to find a large barren unpaved car park, with no sign of a pub anywhere. The Boat, we thought, must be somewhere near the river down below, even if we can't see it. Walking along the top of the bluff overlooking the river, behind an athletic field, we came upon a long rickety footbridge over the river, cantilevered out from a rail bridge. We walked halfway across so we could look up and down the river. And, sure enough, there was The Boat at the other end of the bridge. A wonderful little pub, that serves an excellent range of beer from wooden kegs and has very good food.

Most of the rest of the bunch caught up with us there, and we had dinner and a couple of pints of beer. Jerry, our 13th rider, joined us there. After dinner we forged onwards to Monmouth, except for Ray and Mike who went back to Bristol. Pete, Phil, and Dave rejoined us at the hostel in Monmouth where Peter Boulton of the Bristol CTC was the temporary warden. The hostel is an old friary, very quaint. Hamish, another local section member, joined us there; he was going to ride with us for a day.

Mark arrived about 9.20 having had a new back wheel built and low riders fitted so his luggage was more evenly distributed (though there also seemed to be more of it). By the time he got here Shirley had eaten most of their food!

Day 5 - Wednesday 19 June 1996
Monmouth to Bridges YH

75 miles, 10.8 mph, 4020 ft, 53.6 ft/m

Much cooler in the morning, getting warmer in the afternoon.

A very long day but Ann felt much better for the 9 hours sleep. Peter Boulton took piccies of us all as we left the hostel. Jean and Ann followed Jerry out early to get a head start on the long hill out of Monmouth. We rejoined the Wye Valley, cutting off a loop of the river. Then it was mostly rolling terrain up the valley to Leominster for lunch - pasties from a baker's - with an intermediate coffee stop at the Moon Inn in a small village. The Moon Inn had a little children's play area, including a small house labelled 'Uncle Keith's Cabin' so we had to have a picture session. There was a shop with a nice display of quilting material in Leominster but it turned out to be advertising an out-of town craft shop so Ann couldn't buy any souvenir material.

Mark had a puncture before lunch and arrived in Leominster just as we were leaving. In the end we left without him, with Pete and Phil staying behind to ride with him to Bridges along the main roads. The rest of us continued on minor roads, getting slightly lost on a road which turned out to have two separate single-arrowed sections - grade 1:7 (14%) or steeper, on the maps we were using.

At Leintwardine Shirley spotted a tea shop - the Fiddlers Tea Room - and we had a wonderful cream tea with two scones, huge amounts of clotted cream, home-made jam and a slice of delicious cake.

Then on to the hostel at Bridges. This was up yet more hill but it was a very pretty, undulating route along the valley. Paul's knee was playing up a bit, and we were glad to see the hostel at last, tucked away at the top of the hill. It was too late for a hostel meal and the pub next door didn't do food, but the warden sold us 2 kg of pasta (though he originally suggested 2 oz per person!) and a variety of tins of beans and things, and allowed us to use his catering sized pans to improvise a pretty good and healthy meal.

After dinner we wandered down to the pub for a very nice pint of Spitfire, a local brew. Jean and Shirley had an early night and afterwards said it was the first night they'd had a good night's sleep since we started.

Booked breakfast for the next morning which turned out to be a fine idea.

Day 6 - Thursday 20 June 1996
Bridges to Chester YH

58.8 miles, 12.6 mph, 1190 ft, 20.2 ft/m

We had the hostel breakfast - nice bacon, sausage, eggs etc but not enough toast. Think the warden was glad to see the back of this bunch of gannets.

The day was very easy, almost a rest day. Hamish left us early in the morning ride. There were a few hills until 11s at Baschurch, which we bought at a shop and ate sitting outside. Then mostly rolling until lunch at Ellesmere - a nice little place with a canal and wharf. We ate a pasty, coffee and nectarines, then went to a café where we were very entertained by Shopper's description, complete with actions, of his method of putting his duvet into the duvet cover. (This appears to involve grabbing the two top corners of the duvet itself, then diving into the cover, and battering the duvet into submission.)

Shirley had a slow puncture which Mark fixed using Keith's spare tube (with 13 repairs on it already!) after finding his spare didn't fit and the bike shop was closed for lunch.

We did the 27 miles to Chester at a fair pace and arrived in time to spend a couple of hours sightseeing, visiting bike shops, buying supper in Marks and Spencer and having tea before going to the hostel. It seems to be a very pleasant little city. About half the group stayed in town for a meal and the pub.

The hostel is huge though there's no bike shed. The women in the group had a four-bunk room to themselves with the blokes next door in a 10-bunker. We had a nice evening eating the superior M&S pasta and chatting to an Australian couple and their son who we'd previously come across in St Just. They were interesting company. The couple turned out to be born-again Christians who were traveling the world looking for a suitable purpose in life; their son had just returned from an extensive stay in Tibet.

A few of the group had gone to the pub up the road and failed to ask for a key so were locked out when they returned at 11.10. Fortunately the young Australian heard them shouting outside and let them in. (Although we missed it, we're told there's a story here. Stuart - 'LET US IN! LET US IN! - Why won't they open the door?' Another member of the group - 'Well, would you unlock your door if you found a large deranged person banging on it and shouting in the middle of the night?' Stuart - 'But I'm a nice guy. I wouldn't hurt anyone.' Another - 'Well, yeah, but they might not know that.')

[Paul] Went to bed to find a 'love note' from Mark, who'd been in the bunk under mine when I took my stuff up. Said he'd moved across the room to escape from my snoring.

Day 7 - Friday 21 June 1996
Chester to Malham YH

102.4 miles, 11.0 mph, 4700 ft, 45.9 ft/m

An exceptionally long, hard day. It started out well with a flat bit but deteriorated later. Similarly, the weather started out warm in the morning but got colder in the afternoon.

Keith and Richard stayed behind to buy a new block for Richard. (As it turned out they couldn't get one in the much-lauded bike shop some people had visited yesterday, but found one in Halfords.) Jerry led the rest of us out of Chester at rush hour. Although it's a very flat town, there are no cycle lanes and we saw no other cyclists.

The first part of the ride was flat, except for a short up-and-over, very pretty, through the Delamare Forest. We stopped for coffee in Lymm, a very friendly place with lots of locals chatting in the street and others sitting on benches beside the duck pond. We went to an excellent coffee shop run by women who claimed to have been up baking at 3 am! Shirley bought a hand-made cushion cover with a picture of a lamb, which Mark carried for the rest of the trip.

Matt and Stuart waited for Keith and Richard while the rest of us carried on for another 19 squiggly but mostly level miles to Loxton Junction for lunch at the Lostock Arms down under the road bridge. The others caught up just as we were ordering.

After lunch it became windier and hillier. They've changed the road layout in Bolton (we discovered later), and we managed to get wonderfully lost there for a frustrating hour or two, which included a tour of most of the Bolton one-way system. (At one point in this tribulation, Matt opined that 'You know you're in trouble when the folk who brought them go off into a corner and waggle their maps at each other.') We finally escaped by heading east (not the right direction, but a possible one) about 5 miles out of town, and then north through Ramsbottom and Clayton-le-Moors. One advantage of this route was that we missed Blackburn altogether, but there was no easy way to recover the way to the hostel.

We stopped at about 4 for some tea and food from a fish and chip shop, which we ate sitting outside in the cold, feeling cold and miserable and waggling our maps some more.

Then Jerry, who had been studying the map, announced we had another 36 miles to go. He was right. The terrain got hillier and the weather colder. Keith and Jerry stopped for a pub meal at Gargrave but the rest of us carried on. That last 7 miles was a terrible struggle. It was the first time we'd been in the Dales but we were much too tired to appreciate the scenery. We arrived at the hostel at last and stuffed some food down (2 tins of stew, a large pack of instant mashed potatoes - serves 8 - and some rolls between the two of us). We just had time for this before they closed the kitchen for the night, then had a quick shower and crashed. We'd planned and paced this to be an 80 mile day - it ended up over 100.

Day 8 - Saturday 22 June 1996
Malham to Carlisle YH

88.1 miles, 9.8 mph, 5000 ft, 56.8 ft/m

Another long day with similar weather to the previous day.

Up early and had a quick wander around the village of Malham. It's an incredibly picturesque and photogenic little place nestled among trees. Mark was also out taking pictures. Stuart was 'maintaining' his bike - he had it in pieces all over the lawn, and was giving it a complete clean and lube job. It turned out he did this every morning.

The beginning of the day was a hard hilly slog, followed by a great coast down into the Ribble Valley at Stainforth. We stopped for coffee after only 12 miles at a nice place in Horton-in-Ribblesdale which served pint mugs of tea & coffee and lovely apple cake. Then a fairly flat run up the valley to Ribblehead, taking time out to admire some of the marvellous rail viaducts. At the head of the valley we crossed two lumps, one very nasty big hill which passes Dent, the highest station in the country. Afterwards we dropped into the Eden Valley - beautiful.

Lunch was in Kirkby Stephen, an interesting little town, where we ate bakery goods while sitting on a step. While there Paul finally succumbed to temptation and bought a Leatherman, while Pete terrorised a young lady in the chemists by asking for nappy-rash (diaper-rash) cream and trying to explain that it wasn't for a baby, it was for him.

3s were in a nice pub up a hill in Lazenby. The rest of the afternoon was mostly undulating with a downhill trend, though there were occasional short sharp climbs just to keep us on our toes.

When we eventually arrived in Carlisle we cycled through the centre. Carlisle wins the 'Armpit of the Universe' award for this trip. It was incredibly rough with groups of extremely drunk, abusive blokes sitting around outside pubs everywhere - one group even tried to spit at us; fortunately they were too drunk to aim properly.

We had very good fish supper about a mile from the hostel. The hostel itself was huge and unfriendly with a For Sale sign outside. Nevertheless, we were pleased to get there.

[Ann] I was very discouraged by how soon I had to get off and walk on the long hills today, and also found it difficult to get back on so ended up lagging well behind everybody else. I was shattered by the time we stopped for lunch at Kirkby Steven (22 miles after coffee) and spent the rest of the day in a bit of a haze.

[Paul] My left hand pedal had been giving some trouble for the last few days; the screws holding the cleat-grabbing bit on keep working loose. So, a spot of pedal maintenance, stuffing some steelwool into the screw holes. This seemed to help.

Day 9 - Sunday 23 June 1996
Carlisle to Wanlockhead YH

67.8 miles, 11.8 mph, 2350 ft, 34.7 ft/m

A beautiful day all day.

We were glad to leave Carlisle. The first part of the day was very flat and we managed to stay on minor roads and avoid all but 3 miles of the horrible A74 on the way to Gretna. Paul managed a quick breakaway to get to the Scottish border sign first, at which point he stopped to take a picture of the rest of the mob coming across the bridge. This turned into a group photo stop and minor celebration. Some of the group had never been to Scotland before and were quite excited! We zapped along to coffee at Annan then lunch at Dumfries with a tailwind. We were averaging 14.4 mph for the day just outside Dumfries which is exceptionally fast for us. Paul had a quick stop to take a picture of the sign at the town limits of Newbie; what computer person could resist that?

We had a longish lunch stop. Left the bikes in the square and went off for a bit of a wander around Dumfries, a very pleasant-seeming town, then went to a large Safeway to buy provisions for lunch and supper. We sat around eating in the square which is very agreeable. Keith was beginning to show signs of the strain of leadership and was very tetchy as we (slowly) got ready to leave.

After lunch was a simple, mostly flat, spin up to Thornhill where we stopped for a nice ice cream, and tea. Ann lived there for a few years when she was too young to remember anything about it. A quiet town, at least on Sundays, and there were a number of kids doing BMX-style stunts on the main road.

Then came the moment we'd been dreading - the pull up to the hostel. This was a turn off the main A76 we'd been riding along much of the day. While we were regrouping at the junction, a cyclist came down the road and warned us (yet again) about the climb to the "highest village in Scotland". In fact the climb was nothing like as bad as predicted. It was a very picturesque route alongside a stream and was a long, but rideable, drag - 1000 feet of unbroken climb in 6 miles. Finally you ride over the crest to find Wanlockhead nestled in a small grassy bowl at the top. Simon was there before us - our routes had diverged for a time - and he was looking a bit bedraggled, particularly his sunburned knees.

After showers, the hostel kitchen was very crowded so Jean and Ann set out to find the workingmen's club that serves as a local pub for a drink before dinner. Unfortunately it didn't open till 8 so they came back and we cooked masses of pasta instead, and went to the club later. In theory it's a 'members-only' club but they have an arrangement with the hostel, which is probably just as well as we seemed to make up most of their business. We were in a large, dim, and fairly basic room which was obviously used as a multi-purpose hall. The few locals were in the much smaller bar proper. Everyone in our group was there except Stuart so we bitched about him - a standard practice which encourages people to come to club events. Maybe as a punishment (or maybe it was the fizzy beer) nobody slept well.

[Paul's brag] The first part of the day was my kind of terrain - flat. The group had gone on when I stopped at Newbie, but after a short bit of spinning I managed to catch up with the first set of stragglers, where Shirley grabbed my wheel and let me pull her up to the bunch in the middle. There was a large gap between them and the lead group, so I tucked in for a couple of minutes to reorganise. Then I popped around and hammered up the road to catch the leaders. There I surprised Shopper, who'd been pulling that bunch for some time, by belting past him at about 27 mph, and pulled the bunch the remaining miles to Dumfries. (Surprised me, too. I don't think I'd ever before managed to stay ahead of Shopper for any noticeable distance.) After Thornhill, it was mostly a gentle uphill until just before Sanquhar. Still my kind of terrain, but social responsibility struck, and I stayed back and helped pull the slow group against the wind.

[Paul] That evening I realised that Mark has his watch set to beep the hours, but the pitch of the beeps is too high for him to be able to hear them. I asked him about this. He said, no, he couldn't hear the beeps, but every time they went off, someone would say, 'what was that?' Then he'd know his watch had just beeped the hour.

Day 10 - Monday 24 June 1996
Wanlockhead to Loch Lomond YH

70.4 miles, 11.5 mph, 1600 ft, 22.7 ft/m

Another nice sunny day though a bit of a headwind from time to time. This was supposed to be an easy day but it turned out to be very tiring.

The road was lovely - very quiet and mostly downhill - as far as Crawfordjohn. Then we got on to the A74 which has been superseded by the M74 and is now effectively a dual carriageway cycle path! Ann managed to keep up with the leading group who were really moving along for a little while until we got to an incline and she was dropped. Our first stop was after 29 miles in Larkhall where the group split between two cafes. Our group was in a fish and chippie. Ann couldn't resist the black pudding and chips while Paul had an interesting batter-coated burger. We also raided the local bakery.

The route sheet instructions, rather surprisingly, led us through Glasgow to the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre though we had difficulty in locating the beginning of the Loch Lomond Cycleway once we got there (it was having extensive work done to it). We passed the Glasgow Central Mosque on the way - an amazing building. We had a side-of-the-road 3s stop before picking up the cycle path.

The Cycleway is visually beautiful - partly along a canal with swans and hand-cranked lift bridges, and partly along an old railway right-of-way. However, it's too lumpy and narrow for fast riding, and it's incredibly dusty and tiring. Still it made a pleasant change from the traffic. The Cycleway finally dumps you out in Balloch, from where it's about 2 miles - an up and a down on the very busy A82 - to the hostel.

The hostel at Balloch is a massive old manor house with room for more than 200 people. It's all walnut panelling and marble inside, and very impressive. There's a large arched entryway outside the front door, with a doorbell push-button about 7 feet up off the ground. We decided that that was probably a relic of the horse and coach days. You could drive a covered coach under the archway to shelter the debarking passengers from the weather, and the driver could ring the doorbell from his seat on the top.

After a quick shower, we walked back down to Balloch for a nice dinner at the Tullichewan Hotel. Some of the others took a taxi down; more, including us, took one back. Everyone commented on how late it stayed light - a feature of Scotland, even more so as you move farther north.

Day 11 - Tuesday 25 June 1996
Loch Lomond to Glen Coe YH

67.9 miles, 12.5 mph, 2630 ft, 38.7 ft/m

Another nice day starting with continental breakfast at the hostel. We stayed on the A82 all day except for the last couple of miles to the hostel. As you'd expect there was too much traffic to be ideal, but on most of the road there was a paved and rideable extra 2-foot strip at the edge which helped. Also the traffic grew lighter the further north we went. We two cycled on our own in the morning missing out the detour through Luss which the others took and which was apparently very scenic. Apart from the traffic it was a beautiful stretch, with the Loch on the right and the woods on the left, cloudy-bright weather and well sheltered from the winds. We met the others when we stopped for coffee and a bacon roll at a shop in Tarbert. The woman serving was unable to cope with the rush and put up a Closed sign after we all piled in.

It was a gentle uphill with brilliant scenery all the way to Crianlarich which was smaller than expected, but we bought sausage rolls from Mace and ate them lying on the grass by the side of the road, across the street from the police station, along with several of the others who'd stopped there before us.. Then Jean and we walked up the hill to the train station to get tea and cakes, and to make use of their facilities.

The afternoon ride was hillier so the three of us left just after Jerry with Mark and Shirley just behind leaving the others lazing about. Mark and Shirley stopped at the Green Wellie shop in Tyndrum and fell behind. (Shirley bought a really effective helmet visor there which nobody's ever seen anywhere else.) We passed Jerry sitting outside a hotel at Bridge of Orchy with a cup of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other. As we climbed up to Rannoch Moor there was a tea wagon in a parking place. Ann (in the lead for once) shouted back to Paul and Jean to ask if they wanted to stop but misheard Paul's "Yes" as "Carry on" so we carried on. Jean didn't even hear the question.

It started to drizzle and the wind picked up as we reached the moor, and something between proper rain, and mere heavy mist, settled in. If you stood still it didn't seem to be falling much - just sort of hanging in the air - but it made you really wet while you were riding. It gave a romantic air to the scenery though. Rannoch Moor is a strange and desolate flat sandy stretch, with mini-lochs, bogs, dunes, and stretches of heather. It looks like a transplanted beach. A photo would have been nice, but by now the rain had properly set in, and the visibility was too low to make it worth trying.

We stopped in a hotel at the end of the moor for tea and found some of the others having a couple of pints. Jerry arrived just after us.

There was another climb after tea with the rain getting heavier. Ann had to wear her raincoat for the first time. At the top of the hill, Shirley caught us up - fortunately, since they weren't sure of the way to the hostel. We waited for Mark before going on to the hostel turn.

Just after the turn, Jean and we stopped at the Clachaig Inn to join some of the others and have a meal before going on to the hostel. It's a nice place, including a huge stone-floored bar which claims to stock 120 varieties of whiskey. There was a sign at their reception desk - 'No hawkers or Campbells' - a reminder of the time when the Campbells (with the help of the English) massacred the MacDonalds at Glencoe. Finally, after dinner, a mile coast down to the hostel for hot showers, tea, cards, diary, reading.

For the first time, we saw the sheets which were stamped for each of us by the hostels, and were surprised by how pretty they looked. To simplify things for the wardens, Keith held on to all the sheets and had them all stamped every day. We collected the stamps with a view to getting CTC 'End to End' patches at the end of the trip.

Day 12 - Wednesday 26 June 1996
Glen Coe to Loch Ness YH

62 miles, 13.3 mph, 1670 ft, 26.9 ft/m

A flat day (within the meaning of the Act, anyway), and mostly sunny. The weather seems to be getting ahead of itself, which is probably a good thing. We'd been expecting another day or three of rain.

There was a bit of a contretemps between Stuart and Jean in the morning. All trip, Stuart had been putting his bike away last, so that he could get it out of the bike shed first for his early morning bike-cleaning session. However, it was raining when we arrived the previous night, and Stuart's desire to keep his bike dry won out over his desire for accessibility. So he'd put his bike in the shed first and it ended up at the back of the shed, behind all the rest which were locked together in twos and threes. In the morning Stuart still wanted to get his bike out early, so he tried to move the other bikes out of the shed while they were still locked together. Jean objected to the way he'd intertwined her bike with another in the group. Fortunately, this quieted down fairly quickly.

We said goodbye to Simon after breakfast. His train time, coupled with his assessment of his cycling strength, led him to book more-evenly spaced hostels for the last stops. We'd been forced into a less even spacing by the need to find places for 13 of us. He gave us his email address and we found out later that he made it OK.

Keith, who initiated the ride and who had, despite his resistance, become de facto ride leader, phoned ahead and booked us a table at the John O'Groats Hotel for 9 pm on Friday, for our celebratory meal.

We set off with a coast down into Glencoe, and a ride along Loch Leven to the bridge at Ballachulish. We stopped in mid-bridge for some pictures - great view - and then carried on along Loch Linnhe to Fort William. This was being a wonderfully clear day, with beautiful views of the lochs, and on across to the mountains.

Our first stop was at Fort William where we spent a couple of hours wandering around. Had coffee and a scone with Pete and Phil soon after we arrived, then coffee and toasted sandwiches when everyone gathered before we left. Paul finally broke down and bought a set of 535 pedals to replace the 323s, which were still being troublesome.

About half of us turned off the main A82 and crossed the River Lochy to ride for a while on the B road on its north side, up by Neptune's Staircase with a great view of Ben Nevis. At Gairlochy, our group split, with us electing to come back across to the main road, while the rest decided to go on the forest trail along the North of Loch Lochy. We stopped for a cup of tea at Laggan, in a cute little café on an old icebreaker moored at the edge of the water. Then, back across the water to follow along the north side of Loch Oich, again mostly through woods and out of sight of the water.

At the top of Loch Oich, we passed the beginning of The Cycle Track From Hell (see the report of our previous End to End), but this time we skipped it in favour of staying on the main road to Fort Augustus where we found Dave. We all did some shopping, and then sat by the canal locks there, just like last trip, munching some of our purchases and watching a set of boats being locked down the 'staircase'. Everything was lovely apart from the fighter plane trials that took place along the Great Glen all day.

After a while, another group arrived. They'd taken The Cycle Track From Hell and survived. We left with Jean to go to the hostel where her daughter and grandchildren (who live in Kyle of Lochalsh) were meeting her, bearing food, so she could skip the shopping. This stretch of the ride is mostly a forest tunnel, above the lake. The hostel is on Loch Ness and has a little beach with wonderful views across the loch. The dormitories are small 4-bunk rooms.

After showering, eating (haggis, peas and Smash) we sat around writing journals for a while. Jean's grandchildren were very energetic so she had to take them to bed early. The group who'd taken the forest trail arrived around 9 having had a great time and ending up in the pub.

After dinner, we walked several miles up along the forest trail - better than riding it - high up, for a pink misty view of the Loch in the sunset.

Day 13 - Thursday 27 June 1996
Loch Ness to Carbisdale YH

66.3 miles, 12.4 mph, 2680 ft, 40.4 ft/m

Another easyish day. It stayed dry though cloudy most of the day - cool off the bike but a good temperature for riding. This was familiar ground - the rest of the route matched our last trip.

We had a short tourist stop (about 10 minutes) at Urquhart Castle before getting to the big hill at Milton - 1 in 7 for the first two steep bits, then 1 in 6 for the third. We managed to cycle up the first steep bit but had to walk up the other two - better than we did last time though. The climb is worth it for the beautiful scenery at the top - complete with a small loch and a gorse-covered hill. The descent is fantastic, very long and straight but not too steep with a smooth surface. Ann reached an all-time maximum speed of 38 mph; Paul hit 39 mph, and several of the others claimed to have topped 45 mph.

We stopped at Beauly for coffee, bacon and egg roll, iced biscuit and tablet (plus a couple of doughnuts for Paul), fuelling up for tomorrow. From there we carried on through Muir of Ord and Dingwall. We picked the wrong turn there, and so ended up doing about 4 miles on the horrible, busy, narrow A9 instead of the parallel unclassified one we'd intended to use. Finally we found a turnoff to Eventon and Alness, a welcome respite from the traffic. We had lunch in a cafe in Alness that had only been open a week so they were a bit disorganised. Fortunately we were still quite full from the coffee stop so the not-very-large portions didn't matter.

Keith phoned the hostel to try and book us an evening meal - the only time we tried to do this on the whole trip - but was told that the kitchen was closed for that and the following night ("for essential maintenance" we found out when we arrived). So we bought some stuff in Gateway before setting out. As we spent 20p at the public loos we saw two cycle campers with huge loads. They later zapped past as we went up the hill out of Alness.

After a long, though not too steep, slog we got to the viewpoint above Bonar Bridge where everyone gathered to admire the view and take photos. Easter Kinross looked green and empty. From the viewpoint you could just see tonight's hostel - Carbisdale Castle - nestled in the woods on a hillside off in the distance, behind two lochs.

Finally, a quick spin up to Ardgay - one end of the Bonar Bridge - and then up a minor road on the same side of the river to the hostel. Carbisdale Castle is a truly imposing 'castle', built at the beginning of the century for the Duchess of Sutherland as part of a divorce settlement. It was bequeathed after the war, complete with its contents including many paintings and statues, to the SYHA. There are lots of huge rooms, including a library and a quiet room (complete with piano). Some have impressively painted ceilings. We had hours of fun exploring and admiring the art collection. The common sitting room alone is bigger than some of the other hostels we'd been in.

Supper for the two of us was 3 packets of Pasta with Sauce (each supposed to feed 3-4 people) followed by rice pudding and peaches. (We did have a tin of semolina but it turned out to have no semolina in it so we had to buy the rice instead.) After supper, some people took a taxi to the pub at Ardgay. The rest of us stayed around in various parts of the hostel, worrying about the length of tomorrow's ride. The route sheet said 105 miles, but it had pretty consistently underestimated. Worse, we suspected - correctly as it turned out - that it ignored the fact that the only (legal) crossing of the river is back at Bonar Bridge, an 8 mile diversion to end up a few hundred yards from the hostel. The alternative is to cross a couple of fields and a railway bridge - but there is a potential £400 fine for crossing it on foot. There was much discussion on which was the best choice.

Day 14 - Friday 28 June 1996
Carbisdale to John O'Groats

115.3 miles, 13.1 mph, 4590 ft, 39.8 ft/m

This was the longest distance of the trip. It was also the only day we really got wet.

[Ann] Jean woke Shirley and me at 6.15. We moved all our stuff into the women's washroom to pack but still managed to disturb quite a lot of others in the big dormitory. Everything was loaded on to the bikes before breakfast at 7. There was more discussion about whether to go over the railway bridge at breakfast. Paul wasn't keen so we decided to go round the road. Jerry and Jean left first to go over the bridge. I finally got Paul to leave with me at 7.30 by which time I was in a foul temper because of the delay in starting and having to cycle the extra miles (though in fact it only took 45 minutes to reach the other side of the bridge - not much longer than walking through the couple of fields and across the bridge). Keith and Richard also went across the bridge but everyone else took the road.

[Paul] The most compelling argument for the road turned out not to be the trains (2 a day, at known times) or the fine, but the fact that it was going to be a long day, and losing an hour or two chatting to the local constabulary would probably put a crimp into it.

The next bit, over a gentle hump to Lairg then on to the Altnaharra Hotel, was very easy - basically downhill with a following wind. We passed through Crask, which consisted of two houses between the village signs, one on each side of the road - and both for sale! Last time we did this trip, Lairg to Altnaharra was half a day's ride; we seemed to be going a bit faster this time. We didn't go up the minor road to Lairg and so missed the reportedly spectacular waterfall.

We'd decided that we'd all ride at our own paces today, for speed. 13 people arriving at a rest stop - pub or café - take a long time to be served. There was also a general feeling that it would be easier for people if they could ride at their own most comfortable pace for a ride of this length, rather than having to adjust to everyone else. So, when we arrived at Altnaharra about 6 of the group were already well into their tea and scones.

Then it was off along Strathnaver - the valley of the River Naver - to Bettyhill. This is the stretch where we'd met the bike-chasing sheep on the last trip, but they weren't out this time. This stretch, contrary to what you might expect of northern Scotland, is flat, near as makes no difference - a little gentle undulation, followed by 240 feet of descent in the 16 miles before Bettyhill. The scenery was very beautiful with many remote little crofts dotted around. There was more traffic than we remembered from our last trip along there. Most of it seemed to be lorries associated with road-building. After the climb up into Bettyhill, we had a second progressive reunion for lunch at the pub. The final group arrived wearing their rain gear as it had just started to rain.

At Bettyhill we turned east for our run across the north coast. This meant that the S-SW tailwind we'd had all morning turned into a crosswind trying to blow us off into the ocean, though it still gave a bit of welcome push. From Bettyhill to Reay is a very lumpy up and down bit, easing off as you move east. To add to the fun of the hills and the wind, it started to rain in earnest - sheets of water blowing across from our right. At Reay we finally stopped to put on our rainwear, which we hadn't wanted to wear while climbing hills. By then we were already soaked through, and the rain was easing off, but the rainwear still served as a welcome shield from the wind.

Then we dribbled - both figuratively and literally - into Thurso, for tea, and cakes, and more cakes. 'Tea for two, please, and all the food you've got.' It had already occurred to Paul, several hundred miles ago, that this was almost the theme of the trip - descend upon a quiet little unsuspecting country town like a herd of gannets, eat everything in town, then get back onto the bikes and head out in search of the next innocent town or village. Jerry's tyre was bulging, so he trashed it and put on his folding tyre for the final assault.

After the stretch to Thurso, the rest of the ride was almost anticlimactic - a final flat 20 miles to the hostel at Canisbay to attempt to regroup, and then on to John O'Groats. We'd done it! We picked up Keith at the pub on the way - he'd already been to Dunnet Head and Duncansby Head before stopping for a drink.

After an obligatory cycle of picture taking, it was back to the hostel for a quick shower before the taxi (there's only one taxi) arrived to start ferrying us to the John O'Groats Hotel for a final dinner. Jean and Ann went in the first taxi and ordered pints. The barman seemed surprised that they'd done the trip. When questioned, since there must be thousands of end-to-enders in there every year, he said that they were "usually younger"!

We had a good meal and everybody was happy. Keith was presented with a mug, a stick of rock, and a sweatshirt for his efforts in planning the trip, and reluctantly leading us all through it safely. Then we repaired to the bar for a couple of Taliskers to round off the trip nicely.

Epilogue - Saturday 29/6/96

Woke up at 7. Then remembered that we didn't need to get up to ride today, and decided to sleep in. Woke up again at 7.15, and decided to yield to the inevitable and get up. Jerry and Matt had already gone, to catch the 5.20 train from Wick.

After a relatively calm breakfast, Phil set off to cycle back to Wick, as he'd booked a place for his bike on the later train. The rest of us were taking advantage of arrangements made by Pete. We took the pedals off our bikes, tied down any loose bits, and stashed them all in the bike shed. They were picked up later by a delivery company and carted back to Bristol for us. Then we all piled onto the bus for Wick.

Pete, Phil, and we got on the train from Wick for Inverness. Dave set off to find a hotel in Wick, having decided he'd like to look around for a few days. The rest of the mob headed for the bus station to catch the coach to Inverness, and from there, to Bristol.

At Inverness, we switched (with some difficulty) to a hired Fiat Punto, to drive down to Kirriemuir for a break, and a visit with Ann's mother.

Copyright © 1997 - Paul E. Smee and Ann French