The Inverness YHA was in an earlier life a student accommodation block and so had greater space. The staff here seemed more enlightened and had a flexible attitude to the guests. It was a much better experience. We ate our porridge and hit the road north. Then a remarkable thing happened…
We met Jay a fellow Lejogger from Cheltenham. He’d started off camping, then had his wife support him and now was by himself for the last couple of days. Unpicking his route, equipment and logistics brought up more questions than answers but he was, like other younger people, learning and on a great adventure. We suggested a coffee as we got to Dingwall. On a Sunday it was a ghost town bar the large Tesco that seemed to be the local hive of activity.
Jay was a tall strapping lad on a road bike. With flimsy wheels his weight and his luggage were quite a burden. It seems he’d struggled from the start of his ride with spokes breaking. At Tesco it happened again, not a convenient problem on a Sunday in a small town with everything shut. However Jay was game to sort it himself. Peter volunteered to help but was turned down; in reality he was lucky to have Peter available to help. This was until the very end when Peter’s offer of help was accepted and the wheel sorted (we hoped.) From here he was up and running and heading east to Helmsdale on the coast whilst we were going due north to Crask.
After meeting one Lejogger then came Chris from Bradford, riding 100 miles a day for the Woodland Trust charity. He looked all in and complained of several ailments: at least he was now close to the finish.
The inconsistency of how establishments control social distancing and reduce the risk of infection is never more contradictory than at the YHA. Glencoe had all the self catering facilities out of bounds but after having a shower and toilet allocated to us exclusively I still found a plonker showering in our bathroom. He didn’t absorb the rules when explained to him at Reception. I did after hammering on our washroom door and explaining it. The YHA also don’t sell food at the moment either, so why is it safe in a hotel, B&B or pub?
Granted there are different rules between England and Scotland for reasons that can only be explained by the Scottish government wanting to energetically demonstrate they are different.
Each YHA is manned by organised millennials who carry out all the rules to the letter. Peter was apoplectic about denied entry to the YHA when arriving before me. Entry was apparently denied until the actual person who booked the room checked in. Peter asked the receptionist to waive this but she said “no”. Peter then embarked on a well worn routine of challenging this mindless bureaucracy, as only he can, with various arguments. The millennial held firm against the 59 year old. When I arrived, to the team building comment from him of “oh I thought you’d be longer”, Peter ran through the long list of arguments he put to her including “If you’re worried, ask your boss.” “I am the boss.” (You have to love her don’t you!) I did think he’d met his match when his last compelling argument was that he’d been to this hostel 43 years ago!
Undaunted by this setback Peter then decided to tackle the local pub’s decision to not allow diners to eat in an empty dining room inside. Rejection and counter arguments came and went with another millennial on the bar like watching a rally at Wimbledon. Eventually Peter hit on a winning strategy of playing for sympathy. His vulnerability to midge bites was a risk to his physical and mental well being he said. (This was despite wearing more SkinSo Soft by Avon, the ultimate midge repellant, to immobilise a small colony of the hateful insects in any case.) He won them over and we ate inside.
An early start saw us cover the 15 miles from Glencoe to Fort William for breakfast. The cafe owner was English (remember this, there’s a theme developing.) That done it was basically all about following the Caledonia Canal to Inverness.
This 19th Century triumph of waterway engineering linked the east and west coast of Scotland by water.
There are few British men who are not delighted to receive a Full English breakfast: eggs, bacon, sausage, baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomato and maybe a hash brown plus buttered toast. However after 10 mornings and probably eight cooked breakfasts the thrill has gone.
I asked our landlady, Amanda, if all the cyclists on our long distance jaunt still ordered the ‘works’ or opted for something lighter. “Och aye” she started in her beautiful Paisley accent “there’S plenty that just want porridge and toast”. We’d nearly reached that stage.
We were quickly onto the reviled A82 that would be our companion all day. The road is the main artery to get north and west. It took all types of traffic: cars, trucks, buses, camper vans, motorcycles etc. All usually on the road at the same time.
The B&B landlord and landlady were from Kirbymoorside in North Yorkshire. As part of a midlife crisis Mark was sick of being a car mechanic and Dawn was restless; so they bought the B&B after an extensive search. Moffat was delightful as a location but also affordable and when the property turned up they bought it. They were a chatty couple and interesting hosts. The flow of LEJOG cyclists was a nice little earner along with other regulars. In the garage where we stored our bikes he was putting a new engine in an old car for a friend. The ‘friend’ had done them some favour and this barter system seemed to be a way of getting things done round here.
It was climbing from the start although nothing like the Cornwall and Devon hills. We were soon high up in a green and unspoilt landscape. It was terrific. The morning was fresh, dry and bright.
Eventually we fell a 100 metres or more and met up with our old friend the M74 and the old road beside it. We rode that and it rose and fell. It was quite hard work. Peter had alerted me to Scottish road surfaces and in places the surface was nearly unrideable, a bit like going over cobbles. The road wasn’t damaged: it was the use of very large aggregate/stones as part of the top dressing. I feared for my bike as I clattered along. One sign depressed me though…
The YHA at Keswick was ‘intimate’! Peter kindly volunteered for the top bunk bed and I didn’t argue.
In fairness to the hostel about the size of the rooms then having a balcony was a bonus and the view was delightful.
Also this was the best view at breakfast so far.
So after this plateful it was time to hit the road. Yesterday had been tough with awful legs and I’d been to Boots for various lotions. How would today go? The first five miles were rolling, the sun was out and the temperature was fresh. As we moved away from the Lakes the hills became less dramatic until there was a fork in the road to ‘go climbing’ as per the Guide’s route or the option to stick to the A road and get to Carlisle by a longer but easier route. Peter ascended and I pedalled off on the flatter roads.
A question posed each morning at a B&B is “what time would you like breakfast?” We reply “7.30” and they say “8 O’Clock is the earliest”. So it was at The Black Bull Hotel. It’s not with a little irony that the brewer’s truck turned up at 6.45am and there began the symphony of metal casks being dropped, rolled and manhandled in ways that maximised noise as they emptied and then loaded the cellar. This extra time awake was therefore deployed in blogging, shaving and stretching. (The plan is to loosen up all muscles around the knee to put less strain on it.)
The weather looked bright and dry and so lay ahead a trip into the Lake District as well as the later event of England vs Germany for a place in the Euro Quarter Finals.
The start was chilly but the route was all downhill as we continued to enjoy The Forest of Bowland. Discreetly placed new housing developments were visible; who wouldn’t want to live here? Everything looked well cared for and smart.
After a sort of rest day I set off in trepidation wondering if I had actually recovered a little from that half day. The route was up through Manchester City centre. In fact the ride was quite fast despite the rush hour traffic, rubbish road surfaces and infrequent cycle lanes. After all the media exposure of Manchester’s mayor, Andy Burnham I would have thought a bit more action and a little less talk would be a good idea on transportation.
The condition of British roads, their maintenance and adaptation to be cycle friendly would take many £ billions. Looking at Manchester then to restore the road surfaces is an enormous project, to redesign layouts for bicycles means reducing space for motor vehicles (no votes in that) and large capital investment and then keeping it all in good condition necessitates a dramatic expansion of the Highways Department and it’s budget. It’s not going to happen.
Any urban road system is maintained by that town or city council. They’re always strapped for cash. Think of the many statutory obligations they have to fulfil with their taxes. Filling potholes is not a priority. Major highways are maintained by The Highways Agency and they’re well funded, look how good a condition major A roads and motorways are. Lastly many out of town but local roads are maintained by the County Council Highways Departments. You’ve often seen repairs up country lanes and scratched your head as to why city residential streets carrying thousands of cars are potholed ruins yet blokes are mending unused roads in the middle of nowhere; now you know, it’s a different organisation and budget. The whole system, responsibility and funding is a shambles isn’t it. Feel free to ask me questions, I spent six months visiting councils and analysing their Highway Department’s performance in my last job. Who says I’m dull?
Another observation about Manchester is the diversity. When I was a student there, over 40 years ago, it would have meant a few scousers, Irish and southerners mixed in. Today it is much farther afield with mothers and daughters abounding in hijabs as they headed to school, folk who were African, in ethnicity, by origin on their way to work and then in North Manchester Orthodox Jews in their strict dress code often pushing buggies with young children in ‘western dress’. Quite a mix.
The road rose from the centre of Manchester. The Sat Nav directed us hither and thither:
We set off toward Knutsford. Peter lived there many years ago and wanted to visit and then weep at the gates of his former home knowing it would now have appreciated sufficiently for him to be able to buy a large yacht and qualified crew to man it.) Knutsford was and is a very up and coming place; very smart. So were the bountiful millennials on their expensive carbon bikes out for early morning rides and zipping past us.
Today was about riding to the Favourite Eldest Daughter’s home near Stockport to meet the family, dine royally, clean bikes and do our laundry. Peter was also attempting to rehabilitate his Garmin Sat Nav that has been behaving peculiarly.
First, however, we were aiming for Wilmslow to meet Harry, the Favourite Youngest Daughter’s partner. He was joining us for a spin to Reddish. On our other rides my fitness and lighter bikes had given me a telling advantage over him. Here, on a much heavier bike and with my legs like rhubarb Harry was considerably more lively. Later asked why he didn’t get his own back and humiliate me with the odd sprint past he kindly said he didn’t want to be unkind given my earlier days riding. He was told by Peter and me that when on a bike the chance arises to ‘kick a man when he’s down’ you should do it with alacrity!
Given the absence of the hosts I did wonder how the breakfast would be served? Would R2-D2 crash out of the kitchen brandishing plates of bacon and egg or would the host emerge wearing a deep sea diver suit?
In the end a human being, without a mask, brought the fairly mediocre Full English. Given the requirements of cycling then cereal or porridge would have been preferred. However at breakfast were two ladies (Katrina…women) attending a wedding later in the day nearby. One lady’s husband had ridden across the USA and so that was a common interest and the other lady was originally from Arkansas and so country music was discussed. Bliss! Venturing outside the day was overcast but the horror drenching of last night had evaporated and whilst a little cool it was not uncomfortable. It was goodbye to Hereford Cathedral.
Herefordshire was delightful and whilst the hills were hard they didn’t, unlike Norman Hunter, bite yer legs. There was also the surprising courtesy of drivers who stopped and let us pass on narrow lanes. (Clearly all the higher IQ Cornish had relocated here.) There was an obvious level of prosperity and some attractive properties.
Shortly we’d crossed the border and were into Shropshire and at Ludlow. This town was known to me by name but was a complete delight to discover. Like Monmouth this was another treasure found on the ride. If you travel slowly by bicycle she certainly absorb the sights and sounds.
So the first thing the window check revealed was a grey overcast and windy day. Disappointing. With the high mileage demands of the next couple of days an early start was in order. (The Premier Inn steer you next door to their affiliate restaurant for breakfast and last night’s dinner wasn’t good enough to make us want to return.) So Peter added some water to our porridge ‘cuppas’.
Soon we were sorted; a photo taken of our fine establishment and at 7.25am we were pedalling away.
The first 5 miles were bliss until we hit the 300m vertical ‘lump’ that was the Old Bristol Road. This was a tough start to the day with the legs screaming but by 9am 15 miles had been covered, we had a reward, and it felt like we were making progress. The countryside was rolling and verdant as we headed downhill off the hills north to the coast and Avonmouth.
Bristol seemed cycle friendly with many paths to assist you more directly and safely through the city. One took us through a park.
Other Lejoggers had complained of the awfulness of getting through a busy, traffic choked part of Bristol to get to the Severn Bridge. As regards directions then with Sat Nav there were few missteps. It was tortuous with cycle paths swapping sides of the road and not without risk when on the main roads with fast and heavy trucks. The aspect that got to me was the noise of large trucks speeding closely by. It was a cacophony for an hour or so. But we saw some iconic sights.
Our bridge to cross the Severn was reached and frankly was a little of an anticlimax.
Over the bridge was Wales and after riding for over 5 hours some food was needed. A supermarket had to suffice.
The road was still up and down and the legs were terribly sore. The new lower gear helped and, as always, the hills were conquered. One anticipated yet unknown delight was the Wye Valley. Quite exquisite in its French like tranquility and beauty. The road ran beside it and if it did climb it did so gently.
Monmouth was another lively market down bursting with tourists. It looked inviting with lots of character and is definitely worth another visit sans bicyclette. Tony was kept happy with an ice cream cornet.
However there was still the grim requirement to get into the hills to bridge the gap to Hereford. To distract me from the legs I put on the headphones and listened to some music. Sadly Robert Palmer and Candi Staton didn’t completely obliterate the sound of Peter continuing to complain about cars going too fast, cars going too close, cars being driven badly, cars etc etc. I thought I could go on and on about things, clearly I need to practice.
Most drivers, in fact the majority, are more cautious around cyclists but it’s a fair point to say that if the mammal in their path was a pedestrian, a horse or any member of their family they’d cut their speed and keep a greater distance. When it comes to cyclists there is a disregard if getting to Tesco’s or to pick up the kids is being delayed by 20 seconds. It is what it is and all over the world the behaviour is the same.
Peter was ahead and got to the B&B first. Access to the property and various instructions, such as how to order breakfast, were delivered by text or email. The owners are ultra cautious/unnecessary about Covid and were not to be seen. Seven hours on a bike and all you want is someone, with a smile, to open the door and show you your room not redirect you to codes and key boxes. We even had to text to get a wi-fi code. Being Friday the choice in Hereford was limited!
We dined on a Chinese all you can eat buffet. We conformed to the protocol of revisiting the selection on multiple occasions. Peter even came away with pockets laden with jelly beans (mostly put there to satisfy the under 10’s with their parents.)
We went out in the dry and it then later rained as if Noah was floating the Ark! To say we got soaked was an understatement. We had a pint of cider (that’ll shock the Favourite Youngest Daughter) at the Golden Fleece on the way back to B&B and discovered, from the publican, why some football clubs have triangular flags on their corner posts and others have rectangular.
Tomorrow is the longest ride so far of 90 plus but should be slightly less climbing. Oh please be true.
So the curtain when pulled back and revealed drizzle! (Not a great start but cool enough for the climb out of Moretonhampstead.) Our washing hadn’t dried on the line (obvs) and so the landlady kindly had out put it in the tumble dryer… sorted! Another cooked breakfast consumed: P Lawson – cereal, porridge, yoghurt, summer fruits, full English and toast….
That climb out Moretonhampstead was long but worse was to come:
I’d been planning before leaving York to add another gear to the bottom end but couldn’t get the cassette due shortages. However, I thought I’d try my luck in Exeter. The ride there was still these awful steep leg draining short climbs separated with long steep descents in the rain. However a soggy Exeter was reached and a bike shop identified on Google. Asking for directions one local was quite convinced it had shut and become a bar. He was fortunately wrong.
Fortunately they had the cassette and Andy was available to fit it. Really great service at short notice. The existing groupset isn’t really compatible for an 11-34 but he reckoned he could get it to work.
The curtains opened and revealed another sunny day, in fact the temperature eventually soared to 25°C around the middle of the day. After the climbing of yesterday we knew worse was to come today, in fact, shortly after leaving the B&B (and the garden shed) we found ourselves on a beast of a mountain before we got to Fowey for the first of two ferries of the day.
The landlord revealed that Fowey was pronounced ‘FOY!’ This pronunciation entertained us all day with comic interludes of shouting this randomly. Yes, simple pleasures and juvenile! Less comic was the nonsense of COVID rules on the Fowey ferry. A five minute ride on a ferry, that sailed about 150m, necessitated wearing a mask, even though we were outside! This was selective as a motor scooter rider wasn’t asked to wear one. Peter was about to launch into a full scale dispute before I intervened to ensure we weren’t chucked off the vessel.
After the cold and rain of yesterday the first question after waking was how was the weather? It was brilliant sunshine, a little wind and maybe a tad cool: we’d take it. After a bacon sandwich and some porridge we were away from the YHA. Soon we were cycling past Lands End Airport and shortly afterwards came to a deserted Lands End. A worker there said they expected 1,000 cars during the day, however, at 9am, there was just enough folk to get our photo taken.
The speed of cars and traffic was heavy all day, especially in built up areas. It appears Cornwall is the resting place for ancient Subarus and small white Peugeot vans. In fact there were lots of old cars being badly driven.
So the latest expedition started at 9.33am with the York to London, Kings Cross train. Thanks to Anna who brought me to the station. (“Ah,” you say “a small price for two Tony-free weeks!” No she gets only one week before we meet up in Greater Manchester.)
The first task was to meet Peter at Kings Cross after his own train journey from north of the border. This was after reconciling myself to being dressed as a biohazard for all the day. Bloody masks!
The most iconic long distance bike ride in Great Britain is the saunter from Lands End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in the Scottish Highlands. This can be ridden by various, but similar, routes but usually clocks in at about 1,000 miles. I know a few people who’ve done it and they’ve loved it. I’ve been reluctant due to the option of better places to cycle long distance, the cost of accommodation and the British summer weather. However, given my inability to travel abroad at this point in time I thought this might help me get my fix in June.
The route is taken from a guide (Nick Mitchell’s) but I’ve planned a detour via Manchester to stay overnight at the Favourite Eldest Daughter’s house. This misses out Runcorn and other treasures of the industrial north west: not a loss. Camping in England, Wales and Scotland is not something I covet. There’s maybe plenty of daylight but getting to a campsite and finding that the temperature is so chilly that you need to be in your sleeping back at 8pm to keep warm or dry isn’t of interest. So using a combination of hostels, hotels and BnB’s I’ll take a couple of weeks to get to the top. If that seems fast or slow then the record for running it is 9 days! Yes, I know, why would you…
I’ve got used to travelling solo and making all my own decisions without compromise but this time I shall cycle with Peter who’s responsible for introducing me to cycle touring back in 1994. We last toured together in 2010 in France and Spain. He’ll be great company and no doubt ’the official photographer’.
The highlights include seeing Cornwall at close quarters, the Wye Valley just as you enter Wales via a bridge near Bristol and then Scotland. I’ve been to the Highlands a couple of times and the panoramas are breathtaking but I especially look forward to seeing the Caledonian Canal. A lot about the latter part of the trip is dependent on the weather. Scotland doesn’t respect the calendar and so I’ll be looking at the forecasts to work out what to pack.
Guess what? I’ll be blogging as we move up the island. People make the most interesting blog subjects and so grumpy hoteliers, impatient motorists, passing LEJOG’ers, troublesome sheep and anything else that seems worthy to write about will make an appearance. As always I’d be honoured if you joined me so please sign up on the Home page to enjoy the journey: