In June 2001 I finally decided to ride the End-End – something I had promised myself I would one day get round to doing. I noticed that this year a company advertising in the CTC magazine were running a two week camping holiday. The route was 1,100 miles, between 60-78 miles a day with no rest days. This distance allowed for the scenic route. A back up vehicle would take all the heavy luggage and cruise the route during the day in case of major mechanical problems.
This was exactly what I was looking for. Most holidays that I had seen advertised previously were three weeks long, this trip was reasonably priced and included the cost of travelling to Lands End and back from John O’Groats. For that you got all camp site fees, breakfast and sandwiches when arriving back at the camp site, plus all route directions and back up.
I’ve been on organised cycling holidays for a few years now and they have always been superb, especially if you’re travelling alone. On a trip with 22 other cyclists you can be pretty sure that at least a few will want to go at your speed and take in the scenery, which in my case means lots of photo/café/pub stops – I’m on holiday, OK!
Living in South London I set off by train from Paddington to Penzance, then cycled the scenic 15 miles to a very basic campsite to meet the others on Friday night before setting off from Lands End on Saturday morning 1st June. First thing the next morning there I was just getting over that slightly uncomfortable ‘communal washing feeling’ trying to make ‘I don’t mind washing my armpits in public’ small talk with a fellow camper, who told me that he was on a walking holiday. He couldn’t believe that we were cycling all that way and in just two weeks. We must be incredibly fit athletes. There I was feeling all ‘Lance Armstrong like’ basking in my fellow washers praise when admittedly slightly aloof I asked him where he had been walking, ‘I’ve just come back from the North Pole’ . Oh!..exit one deflated cyclist.
We set off first thing. Unfortunately the prevailing warm south winds, that we hoped were going to blow us all the way up, turned out to be a freezing cold north wind that stayed with us all the way up! We followed the coast the first day before cutting in land to pass around the southern edge of Bodmin Moor. All End-Enders usually comment on how hard the first three days are – and they’re right – especially the second day through Dartmoor. We seemed to spend 75miles either going down a 1 in 4 or up one, I had two speeds, 4 or 40mph – nothing in between. The scenery however was spectacular, especially coming down through Dartmoor National park to the camp site, when the weather changed from very cold to very hot.
If many of you haven’t been camping in a few years let me dispel a few misconceptions. Most campsites are not grim affairs. They have superb facilities with showers, laundries and even swimming pools. Modern tents are also much improved, my £63.99 blue ‘Millets special’ packed into a small front pannier, took five minutes to put up and is waterproof even in the heaviest of downpours (I can vouch for that).
After Cornwall and Devon we rode over the Severn Bridge into Wales, then basically straight up through the Wye valley and Herefordshire. By now the weather was cooling slightly which gave everybody’s bright red noses time to turn back to a more normal colour. Due to foot and mouth and the resultant closing of some camp sites we had to spend a night in a farmers field. Fortunately the basic facilities were not noticed as England were playing football and it was on at the local pub. England won so my new found best mates and I celebrated ourselves into a stupor; for medicinal purposes only you understand.
Hangovers were wearily ridden off the next day as we headed north. After a few easy, flat days we went back into the hills and over the Yorkshire Dales. The weather was wet and cold, although strangely this was one of the best days cycling I have ever experienced. The storms made the Dales spectacular, as the clouds swept through the valleys. I had the joy (in hindsight) of out-riding a huge storm cloud that I could see rolling down the side of the mountain valley along the 10 mile descent out of the mountain range. It was a close thing and with the head wind even the descent was hard but I was very relieved to have missed it.
Fortunately the next few days were back to the good weather as we rode in the warm ‘Micro Climate’ between the Lake District and the Pennines, crossing the Sustrans C-C route, which due to foot and mouth has not seen much traffic this year. On the second weekend we reached Scotland. We remained, as we had done all the way so far, on quite scenic roads right up until Glasgow, which fortunately has a tow path the entire length through the city. The only trouble with remaining on such quiet roads is that it is hard to get your bearings. I knew we had gone between Manchester and Liverpool and basically all the way up the left hand side of the country but basically I didn’t have much of a clue the whole time where I was. Some riders on the trip made a point of taking maps to complement the very detailed route directions given by the organisers – purely for this reason. After Glasgow we continued north, around Loch Fyne and stopped for Lunch at one of Scotland’s most famous fish restaurants right on the Loch, enjoying that days catch for dinner .
At Fort William our camp site was just along the valley from Ben Nevis, which is one of a range of very similar height mountains, under which is a memorial to the Commandos who trained in the area during WW2. Anyone who has ever seen this will vouch that it is well worth a visit. Rarely have I seen a more impressive memorial in such an awesome setting. Loch Ness was something I had been looking forward to seeing but in reality most of the other locks were more impressive. As we headed towards the north coast we actually rode beside more picturesque Lochs, through some very remote country, eventually reaching a place called Betty Hill on the north coast.
From there the last day’s ride to John O’Groats was along the coast road, which is very barren with no trees and far less agriculture as is typical in the Highlands. I felt the majority of the Highlands were not as impressive as the Lowlands, but the scale and obvious natural beauty was nonetheless extremely impressive. So we had done it! Everyone felt a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.
Most travelled back the following morning, Monday 17th June, many like myself by train. Unfortunately our train broke down for three hours in the sunshine when the electricity thingy fell off the roof, which also means that the air-conditioning didn’t work! In the queue for the only window the Americans on board were in full whinge, threatening to sue the railway company, dragging me into the row with them exclaiming “we’re gonna sue and he’s (pointing at me) gonna sue as well”, to which I replied “actually I’m British we don’t do that sort of thing”! Mind you in a fit of pique I can look very disappointed when the mood so takes me, I think it also helped that I was reading ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ and saw the whole episode as part of the adventure.
In conclusion this was a superb Tour. The organisation was spot on with an excellent route and back up for anybody who needed it. Nothing was too much trouble and I know that many of the group went on Cycling holidays with the same Company in 2002 which is the best advertisement of all as far I am concerned and as always, I made some great new friends who all helped make this a Tour to remember.
A great experience for seasoned touring cyclists, and any racing men or women out there could do worse than getting 1,100 miles under their belts for a couple of weeks break during the season. As the saying goes ‘all miles are good miles’ and I for one came back fitter.