Al Maher’s Epic Land’s End to John O’Groats

LEJOG_StartFinish

 


Sunday brunch, over a triple English breakfast, I am wondering what to do with some spare days before Christmas.

I had always wanted to take on the classic cycle challenge from Land’s End to John O’Groats, known as LEJOG, the traverse length of Britain. Like most people I had imagined cycling it in summer to take advantage of the long daylight hours. However the number of days seemed to fit my schedule and despite being winter it would make for an extra challenge. I figured accommodation could be booked on the fly, being low season. I would allow myself the flexibility to cycle as far as each day permitted and had no fixed end date. A quick check of the 10 day forecast and conditions looked good. Why wait for next summer? I was going do it now!

I had never individually raised money for charity before as I always felt I couldn’t ask for money for something like a marathon or the like, as I’ve run many. LEJOG seemed a worthwhile and lengthy challenge. I chose CRISIS, the national charity for single homeless people. They organise “CRISIS at Christmas” each year for the homeless and the time of year seemed appropriate. They also run The CRISIS Skylight Cafe on Commercial Street in East London near where I used to work. I wanted to help.

I went into preparation overdrive. A quick list of things to do before I set out and a t-shirt design that evening with the charity and fund raising details.

Monday I purchased some new items, had the t-shirt printed, booked a train ticket for Penzance, packed my panniers (9kg rear, 3-4kg in the front), which were not light as I was truly packing for winter. I took two front lights, a head torch to light the road, a rear light for the seat post and two for the rear of my bike helmet. I marked the whole route out on a £10 Phillips Road Atlas.

Tuesday I took off to the station, panniers on for the first time, they felt clumsy and awkward and I wondered if they’d be fine for the entire journey. I was off to catch the train from Paddington. Due to the speed I put this plan in to action, it meant I hadn’t told many people what I was about to take on. By chance, I ran into one of my best mates Ben, at Paddington. He saw my laden bike, along with me all kitted up and asked what I was up to. I told him I was off to Penzance and he knew exactly what that meant and gave me a few words of encouragement.

That night in Penzance, the B&B would only let me lock (cable & padlock that I had) my bike to the grate in the ground at the front of their house. I went to sleep hoping it would still be there in the morning.

DAY 1 : 11-Dec-2013 Land’s End to Launceston

106 mile / 171 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day1

I arrived at Land’s End with the sunrise having already broken through the clouds. I wandered down to the famous Land’s End signpost and due to the absence of anyone else around I tried to take a few ‘selfies’, only to end up dropping and cracking the screen of my iPhone. I wandered up to the Hotel and signed the ‘End-to-Enders’ logbook, the most recent entry being 6th December 2013…eek! One of the hotel staff obliged in taking a photo of me at the Land’s End sign.

A 10am depart; I made my way along the Cornish coast. St. Ives was particularly scenic. I had to have a Cornish pasty, so stopped for one in Hayle. Hit some really hilly sections. Through to Padstow and across the river to Rock. Then into the dark of the night with bike lights blazing and flashing. I arrived in Launceston at Rose Cottage B&B and rewarded myself with a steak and beer at the White Horse pub for dinner. Apparently some of the hilliest parts of the route were now behind me, after only the first day, whew!

DAY 2 : 12-Dec-2013 Launceston to Street

102 mile / 165 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day2

The B&B host afforded me an extra banana for my day’s journey. He told me they had hosted a JOGLE (the reverse route) cyclist about a week ago, as I figured it must have been the cyclist who signed the log book on the 6th December. I pushed into Devon and found myself having to change the tube on the front wheel as it seemed to be leaking, though I couldn’t detect where, using the usual means. Snacks at a service station, I was then into Somerset and encountering more tractors and farm traffic on the roads.

Into Glastonbury that evening but had to double back after missing a turn, to a place called Street, and to the Wessex Hotel for my accommodation. I noticed one of the straps on my panniers had broken, after only two days! Pasta and pizza with a pint of Carlsberg for dinner to the sounds of a live act at a nearby Italian restaurant. All was sweet in Street!

DAY 3 : 13-Dec-2013 Street to Nr Hereford

95 mile / 153km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day3

Light rain in the morning. It was over the course of the day that I had to tend to pannier problems no less than 5 times. Again, thankful for taking some zip ties as they were a saviour, I even had to secure the rack with them. Through North Dorset and over the River Avon. Got lost a bit with the myriad of roads. Some sections here were a little more traffic heavy than I’d encountered. Into South Gloucestershire and over the River Severn.

Skirted through Wales and passed though the lovely town of Monmouth as an amazing sunset took place. Was following the Wye Valley over some hilly quiet roads as it got darker and darker. The muddy farm roads of Somerset had left my bike so dirty I had to give it a gentle jet wash at a service station.

Arrived at my accommodation, The Old Vicarage, near Hereford. Walked 30-40 min into town to the 24 hour Tesco to collect a some cold chicken and a selection of salads for dinner. A stretch of the legs before bed. Feeling good after three good days!

DAY 4 : 14-Dec-2013 Nr Hereford to Ellesmere

94 mile / 152 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day4

Pannier problems again from the outset, they continued hitting my spokes on some of the rougher sections of road. I secured them again successfully without too much of a problem.

Highlight of the day was passing up over Long Mynd. I was at first cursing the steepness of the gradient having to push my bike up part of the ascent as it was way to steep for my gearing and load, though I was rewarded with stunning Shropshire scenery. The strong wind blowing across the top of the moorland and the descent into Church Stretton was a blast. Due to the excitement of the descent, I missed a turn had to route back via Stapleton & Lea.

The bike chain was now squeaking so I purchased some general purpose oil from a service station, to use for the rest of the trip.

As dusk approached, the wind was absolutely howling and it was pushing me along at a fantastic pace, up around 40km/hr+ with ease. I imagined my rear panniers were acting like sails. I pulled into Ellesmere to stay at the Red Lion pub. Chicken wings and a massive lamb shank for dinner washed down with a couple of beers. Despite the locals having a big night out in the pub, I slept solidly in my room above.

DAY 5 : 15-Dec-2013 Ellesmere to Blackburn

85 mile / 137 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day5

The day was going well until about an hour in and I heard the ping of a broken spoke. The pannier problems from the days before had weakened the spokes. With very few shops open on a Sunday I secured it with tape to the adjacent spoke, released the rear brake, and aimed to nurse it to Blackburn.

The highlight of the day came as I slowly passed and shared a conversation with a guy called Alan from Chester who did LEJOG in 2000 when he was aged 65. I enjoyed hearing him recount his experience and the route he took, it gave me a lift. In fact he was riding the same frame as he did LEJOG on, though he’d since had it re-sprayed.

As I checked into the Hill View Hotel in Blackburn I noticed I’d now busted a second spoke. Pizza Hut for dinner and all I could do was scoff at the “500 calories only” pizza options.

DAY 6 : 16-Dec-2013 Blackburn to Kirkby Lonsdale

56 mile / 90 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day6

I missed breakfast! It was a 6:45 to 7:45 sitting! So I had some sandwiches from a service station instead.

It was raining from the outset but I had my waterproofs on. The morning hours were dedicated to addressing the rear wheel problem I now had. The guys at Ewood Bikes sold me an affordable replacement Mavic wheel, arranged postage home for my broken wheel and gave me a cup of tea, top service! I was on my way again despite taking a few wrong turns trying to get out of Blackburn.

Off through the Forest of Bowland, which surprisingly wasn’t at all densely populated with trees, though I imagine many years ago it was. The rolling landscape was all very scenic none the less.

As the daylight closed, I had now pushed into Cumbria and checked in to the Blue Pig Inn in Kirbky Londsdale. A really nice little town. Dinner at the Orange Tree pub while a group of locals sang Christmas Carols. I enjoyed Fish n Chips and a few of the local brewery’s ales, their ‘Singletrack’ brew was superb!

DAY 7 : 17-Dec-2013 Kirkby Lonsdale to Gretna Green

70 mile / 113 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day7

The host of the Blue Pig Inn advised me of a shortcut through the town and down to the historic Devil’s Bridge, on the way to Casterton. The morning was crisp and I enjoyed cycling along seeing the low lying blankets of fog in the valleys.

Into the Yorkshire Dales and over Scap Fell, which is used as one of the climbs on the Tour of Britain. The cycling was fine until my chain started to slip on gradients of only 3-4%. So without surging I continued cautiously to Penrith and over the lunchtime period had the chain-set replaced. After which I was back on the road and flying along again.

Made it to Carlisle in good time and given there was still daylight ahead, I raced it all the way to Scotland. This was a good mental milestone. I stayed at the Gretna Hall Hotel in Gretna Green. It was curry night! So devoured a good meal and a few pints of beer.

DAY 8 : 18-Dec-2013 Gretna Green to Balloch (Loch Lomond)

115 mile / 185 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day8

Excellent progress through the first 25mile / 40km. The route largely meandered either side of the motorway towards Glasgow.

Purchased some Scottish Tablet (a sugar slice) for energy. Took a much needed coffee stop near Adington in order to warm up. Each day, I was now starting to get cold hands and feet after only a few hours of cycling.

Made a few wrong turns around Paisley near Glasgow. From Dumbarton I had a tow-path alongside the river to follow. This allowed me to cycle safely an extra 10 miles in the dark to get to Balloch at the tip of Loch Lomond. A most successful day of 115 mile / 185 km! Stayed at the Tullie Inn, with steak soup and vegetables to refuel me.

DAY 9 : 19-Dec-2013 Balloch (Loch Lomond) to Fort William

84 mile / 135 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day9

It was cold and blustery, rain fell as I set off. I followed Loch Lomond from there and because a 300m section of road had been washed away it meant most of the traffic had been diverted elsewhere, being effectively treated to closed roads. At the road construction site, one of the workers said he didn’t mean to be rude but he asked if I was “f**king mental” cycling in these conditions.

Once I got to Crinlairich I had to stop and dry my socks and gloves on the radiators and warm up with two cups of coffee before setting off into the Highlands proper.

As the road crossed through Rannoch Moor, the snow was prevalent and falling. Sleet smattered my face and it was stinging my cheeks. These were the toughest conditions I had ever cycled in. One guy in a car who kept stopping to take pictures of the landscape also asked if I was “f**king mental” (twice in one day!). The cycle to Glencoe was tough and I was concentrating on pushing on through the cold and blocking it out mentally. I was really pushing to make it to Fort William as I knew there were more accommodation options there. I ended up waltzing in to the West End Hotel, soaking wet, to the amazement of the staff.

Dinner in town at the Crofters pub. Haggis neeps and tatties, sausages cooked in Irn-Bru and a pint of Best, a fairly Scottish affair!

DAY 10 : 20-Dec-2013 Fort William to Invergordon

88 mile / 143 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day10

After the tough day cycling into Fort William it took me a bit to get going. I’d stopped at a garage at Invergarry for a snack and a chat with the attendant. I later arrived into Drumnadrochit expecting to have lunch, though none of the restaurants or cafes were open, since it was winter and not the tourist season. I settled for some hot chips and a few chocolate milks. A quick photo in front of the fiberglass Loch Ness monster and pushed up over a steep 15% hilly climb into more landscape quilted in snow.

Pushed on to Invergordon as it hit dark. It wasn’t hard to miss the giant oil rig platforms in the distance, all lit up, which were being renovated by the shore. The host at the Ship Inn tumble-dried my wet clothes which was super nice. A pub dinner and on the walk back I noticed the sky starting to clear, so I crossed my fingers for favourable conditions in the morning.

DAY 11 : 21-Dec-2013 Invergordon to Wick

80 mile / 129 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day11

Got cracking early and made good progress with no rain. The sky and the sunlight at this latitude and time of year was throwing off some amazing colours!

Stopped in Helmsdale and on advice of a local had a great coffee with cake and mince pies at a local art gallery. En route, I saw “John O’Groats” on a road sign for the first time, with 85 miles to go. Some windy conditions but a comfortable days cycle, I was feeling pretty fit.

Checked into my accommodation in Wick at the Bank Guesthouse. A pretty low key night, though because I was excited for the final few miles in the morning it wasn’t easy to get to sleep.

DAY 12 : 22-Dec-2013 Wick to John O’Groats

16 mile / 27 km
[Strava]

LEJOG-Day12

The morning sun was glorious and I enjoyed the final miles. The low-slung winter sun cast an amazing light for my arrival. It was an immensely satisfying feeling when I arrived at John O’Groats. It had been a truly fantastic way to see Britain, in all its winter beauty!

As I collected the last stamp on my transit verification form (to be acknowledged as an “End-to-Ender”) I learnt that in the coming months / year they’ll be enabling an embedded timing device at John O’Groats. This will mean that it will not matter what time of day you arrive, your journey can be verified on arrival 24/7.

I caught the train from Thurso to Inverness where I boarded The Caledonian Sleeper which travels overnight to London. A great train journey to cap off a great and truly memorable cycling journey!

Summary Data by Day

LEJOG_Summary
Here’s a short video, I hope you enjoy it!


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THANK YOU to all the friends, family and colleagues that generously donated to LEJOG-Crisis£882.55 was raised for CRISIS. Each donation and comment spurred me on more than I could have imagined.

@alastairmaher