I had never previously thought of doing the end to end, but one month I saw an article about it in Cyling Plus magazine. Well I'm a complete sucker for that sort of thing, and the article had me completely hooked right away. It was immediately added to the top of my hit list. I finally got round to it at the end of 1999, when I had about 10 days of holiday to use up. Adding in a couple of weekends gave me plenty of time to get to the start, ride the route, and get back. Here is the day by day account of the trip. Apologies that the pictures are of varying quality. Plus there is so much to take in enroute that by the time I got to Scotland I had forgotten where some of the earlier ones were taken, so the captions may well be a bit hit and miss.
The train journey down from Southampton was uneventful, and I arrived at Penzance station late at night. It was a beautiful night, dark, cold, and clear with a full moon. The road from Penzance was quiet, with plenty of ups and downs, hitting patches of cold air, and occasional bats for company, before finally arriving at the campsite at Land's End.
Great first day! I got depitched, and moving about 9am, and headed out through Sennen, past St Sennen church, (founded 520 AD), and the "Last Inn in England". The road was fairly quiet to start with, and I passed towers from long abandoned tin mines, and temporary signs still up offering camping for the eclipse earlier in the summer. As I got further up the coast it got very hot and very sunny, and the roads fell into a familiar pattern of a steep downhill down one side of a river valley, a sharp right hander at the bottom, losing all speed, over a bridge, and sweating back uphill in the heat. Eventually I made it to Padstow by the afternoon. According to the book, there has been a ferry across the channel for six centuries. I couldn't find it, so I headed out on the camel trail to Wadebridge to get across the river Camel. That was a pleasant trail, and very busy with cyclists. I made it to Launceston just as it was starting to get dark. I still felt fairly fresh, so I carried on. The next section in the dark was not well signposted and had lots of confusing small lanes which were hard to match up with the large scale travelmaster map. It was still very pleasant riding though, and to cap it all I saw a badger scuttling down the road in the beam of my bike lights. Eventually I reached Okehampton, and rolled into the campsite sometime around midnight.
The next day started badly when I missed a turn and got lost somewhere on the way to Crediton. Never mind the map, just a compass would have been useful to check I was at least going in vaguely the right direction. Then I got lost again going through taunton, and eventually ended up coming out on the dual carriageway. That was a real low point. But things picked up after that, when I reached the somerset flats. I rode past burrow mump with the evening sun on it, and then fast cruising along the smooth tree lined A361, with very little traffic. I turned off up Pedwell Hill, and headed over to find the campsite at Cheddar. The campsite was buzzing, it was packed with people, and there was a great atmosphere. I walked into Cheddar and got a take out curry, which was a very good move, after two days on the road this was possibly one of my most enjoyable curries ever. I ate it as I lounged in my sleeping bag and looked over the route for the next day.
I expected the worst getting past bristol so I got off on a good early start, but it turned out to be a lot better than I expected. There were some good cycle paths, and there were lots of roadies out in the rural outskirts of Bristol. I stopped by a cemetry in Bristol for a snack, and noticed that the plastic body of one of my pedals had started to self destruct. A temporary fix with zip ties and duct tape and I was back on the road. Then it was over the Severn bridge and heading into the Welsh Marches. There was a lot of traffic on the A466, so it was a relief to turn off onto the quieter road to Trellech. The book had a choice of routes, and I couldn't resist the longer but more scenic version taking the long valley through the black mountains and up to Gospel Pass. It was superb, a very narrow road, sandy in places, with constant views of the Black Mountains, and steady climbing. Then followed by an almighty brake-squealing descent to Hay on Wye. And I had finally made it off the top of my first map - South West England travelmaster, and onto the Wales & West Midlands map - so I was definitely making progress. After a snack in Hay on Wye I headed out through the small villages along the river Wye. It was starting to get dark, and I remember almost sailing past the huge ancient oak in hurstway common, but I caught it out the corner of my eye and did some quick braking and an about turn to go back and have a look at this magnificent tree. After this I started to feel quite tired. I had difficulty finding somewhere to camp, despite quite a few campsites marked on the map. But eventually I found a caravan site and pitched up. No facilities though, so I went to sleep sweaty and sticky.
At Bishops Castle I stopped for a wash in the public toilets, and stocked up on food. The route then headed over the Stiperstones, the last hills before the Lake District! That was lovely cycling, on quiet roads, with a fair bit of climbing, and sunshine. The next part was a bit of a blur, although I do remember seeing quite a few castles on tree covered hills as I got further north. I reached Northwich by the evening, but got lost in trying to find the campsite. After spending what felt like hours negotiating the A-roads through industrial works, and backtracking a few times, I came across another campsite, completely by accident, at the side of a big canal and pitched up inbetween the caravans. The manager wasn't around so I couldn't get tokens for the shower. Another sticky night then, although I did manage to sponge myself down a bit in the sink. While sorting out my bike, I also managed to fumble one of my water bottles into the canal. Luckily it was still there in the morning, and I was able to fish it out.
The next morning I got myself back on route and headed for Runcorn. I expected the worst going through Runcorn, but I was pleasantly surprised. There was a network of leafy cycle lanes, that with some concentration could be followed all the way through the town. And then a section along the canal with swans and herons, in view of the huge cooling towers of Fiddlers ferry power station. After Runcorn things got very bleak in the no-mans land heading up to Preston. After preston though things picked up, everything got greener and more leafy, and soon I was surrounded by lush green fields, and I seemed to cross the canal a lot. My shoulders were sore by this time, so I ignored the bumpy riverside cycle path through Lancaster and stuck to the roads. That led to my first traffic jam of the trip, going over the bridge in lancaster! The Campsite in Silverdale was very quiet, in fact there no other tents at all, but most important of all the hot-showers were working.
By a great stroke of luck the route passed within a few miles of my parents house in Keswick. It was only half a day from Silverdale, so that gave me an easy day, with the afternoon off from riding, and a proper bed for a night. From Silverdale I headed up to Windermere and took the Ferry across the lake. My backside had been a bit sore for a couple of days, and I had a few nasty saddle sores, so as I passed through Ambleside I popped into the bike shop and invested in a padded saddle cover. This improved things dramatically, and I continued on to Grasmere, where I met my dad at a cafe for lunch. It was great to see him, and after eating we headed over Dunmail Raise and then took the quiet road round the back of Thirlmere lake. We usually have a bit of competition on the hills, so he was particularly pleased that in my fully loaded state he was able to drop me on all the hills going through St Johns in the Vale! In the afternoon I took the opportunity to wash all my stuff which was getting a bit sweaty after 5 days on the road, and put some new pedals on, to replace the one that had started falling to bits in Bristol.
After the easy day, I was fresh and keen to get moving again, and we hit the road early. My dad rode up to Hesket Newmarket with me, and made up for burning me off on the hills the day before by opening all the gates on the small roads so I didn't have to stop! We had an impromtu breakfast stop at Hesket Newmarket for a pot of tea and toast. A local chap getting his morning shopping presented me with a packet of biscuits after hearing I was heading for scotland! The stretch from Carlisle to Gretna was bleak, especially the bits on the A7, but things picked up after Annan. Dumfries was pleasant enough, and I picked up the Arran ferry timetable from the visitor info center so I could plan the next days riding. The last stretch after Dumfries took a lovely quiet back road along the river Nith, in sight of the river most of the time. I arrived at Sanquhar as it was getting dark, got pitched up in the campsite, and then feeling very hungry, got double portions of rice and curry sauce from the local chinese take away.
On leaving Sanquhar, there was an unpleasant stretch along the A76 with fast moving traffic. At one point a lorry cut in on me, the first and only time I encountered really bad driving on the whole trip. After New Cumnock it was a relief to be back on the quieter roads again. There was a nice gravel cycle path through Irvine, surrounded by heather and grassland, and big red dragonfiles resting on the path. Then the route took me through the sand dunes, past Saltcoats, and along the promenade into Ardrossan. The ferry crossing to Arran was a good opportunity to refuel on baked potatoes and beans, and I met a couple of people with flash time trial bikes, going across for the Arran Triathlon. There were a few seals bobbing around in the sea. It was great to be on Arran, even if it was only for a short time, the coastal road was low on traffic and the views were great. Taking the pass over to Lochranza it started drizzling, the first rain of the whole trip. I braked hard as I came down the other side, for a bedraggled looking red squirrel that darted across the road. Then I enjoyed a pot of tea & cake in the cafe, looking out over the sea as I waited for the small ferry over to Claonaig. Big jelly fish floated by on the ferry crossing. At the other side it was still raining and there was a bit of a climb up from the ferry pier. By Tarbert it was dark, but it had stopped raining and I met two guys doing the end to end in the other direction. I pushed on, and spun along the smooth wide A83 up to Lochgiplhead in the dark, I could hear the water lapping at the shore a few metres away. I pitched up next to some other touring bikes at the campsite, but they were already asleep in their tent so I didn't get a chance to talk to them. After a hot shower I wandered round the town in search of a take out but there didn't seem to be anything open, and settled for a load of junk food from a late night petrol station.
I packed up and got going fairly early, the other cyclists were still asleep so I didn't get a chance to talk to them. After crossing the Crinan canal a deer darted across the road a few metres in front of me. Much of the day seemed to be spent on busy, narrow, A-roads, with the final section along the A82 into Fort William being particularly grim. After Fort William things improved dramatically though. I turned off the A82, past Neptunes Staircase on the Calendonian Canal, and then along the quieter B8004 with brilliant views of the canal and river below, and Ben Nevis in the distance.
It was a lovely morning, and the flat road along Loch Ness was smooth and didn't seem too busy. I stopped along Loch Ness for a snack and gazed out over the water, half expecting to see the monster. At Drumnadrochit I turned off up a long hill, followed by a huge downhill to the coast. I had a tailwind too, so made fast progress along the coast towards Invergordon, in view of oil rigs in the bay. There were some dreary pulls up the A9 into and after Dornoch, but then the road got quieter and nearer to the sea. At Helmsdale the campsite didn't exist anymore, but the youth hostel warden took pity on me, and let me pitch up on the youth hostel lawn, and best of all, get a hot shower.
As I headed up the coast from Helmsdale there were some big ups and downs that I wasn't quite expecting. Past Dunbeath, I left the A9 to take the back route to Watten. By this time it was starting to rain, so I took shelter in a phonebox while I geared up with waterproofs. The back route was very quiet and atmospheric, skirted by bogs on either side. Old abandoned farm houses added to the feeling of remoteness. The road passed the Grey Cairns of Camster, 5000 year old burial chanbers, that still looked in perfect condition. At Watten I was feeling very hungry and a bit weak, so felt justified in stuffing myself with chocolate biscuits. Finally, at last, after 1840 kilometres, I rolled into the JOG carpark at lunchtime, in the rain.
The book that I used was "Land's End to John O'Groats" by Phil Horsley (published by Cordee). The book gives a great route which misses out Glascow/Edinburgh by a cunning detour onto Arran. The only drawback is that the maps are fairly rudimentary, so you can expect to get lost quite a bit on some of the more complicated and less well signposted road bits. I used almost the full set of OS Travelmaster maps. There is a great feeling of satisfaction as you finish one map and move on to the next. The first one (No 8: Southwest England) takes forever, but they all go quicker from then on. As far as bike tours go, the end to end is highly recommended. In my opinion it compares favourably with tours anywhere in the world, especially if you hit it lucky with the weather. It might be relatively short compared to some tours, but you would be hard pressed to find so much variety packed into only 1800 km anywhere else.