LEJOG revisited: week four
Four years ago this month I set off on a Land’s End to John o’ Groats bike ride (LEJOG) to promote my book, ‘Eat, Sleep, Cycle’. Here is my account of the final week of the tour.
So, this was it: the final push to John O’Groats and the end of the tour. This was to be the longest week in terms of mileage (340) but the shortest in terms of events (only two). Without the pressure of a schedule, it really was all about the cycling.
And what fabulous cycling there is to be had in this part of the world. The week began with a talk in Glasgow then a ride north, tracing waterways: the River Clyde, the Forth and Clyde canal, the River Leven, then finally the expansive and beautiful Loch Lomond, where the West Lomond cycle path led me for 17 wonderfully traffic-free miles along its banks. The sun had shimmered on the immense surface of the loch, its depths a rich blue. I pitched my tent in Crianlarich in a perfect spot to watch the sun rise.
But the next morning, the anticipated sun rise was masked by clouds, clouds that began seeping shortly after breakfast and dropped heavier and heavier throughout the morning. It didn’t stop raining for two days.
This was the section described in my guidebook as having some of the finest views in all of Europe. I had little chance of seeing those views. The clouds hung in the air, almost to the ground, swallowing up the peaks on either side. I rode over the pass of Glen Coe, the road creeping out of the mist ahead, unable to make out much of the scenery apart from the base of mountains as they rose into the white. But this in itself was a unique type of experience: ghostly, atmospheric, magical. I descended into the valley of Glencoe where the mist dissipated to reveal the Three Sisters rising spectacularly above.
A few miles past Glencoe I passed two cyclists taking pictures on the bridge. I stopped and asked if they’d take mine. They were heading to John O’Groats too, just two of the many End to Enders I had seen, but whereas most had flashed past with their road bikes and support van, Tom and Kevin were riding a similar pace to me. We continued together, the remaining miles to Fort William passing in a flash as we swapped stories of our respective trips and lives. It was wonderful to have such terrific company, and as we sat eating (vegan) haggis and drinking ale in the pub, I realised how much I had missed this. Though definitely a solo tour, my preference throughout to ride alone, now, nearing the end, sharing the trip with others was just what I needed.
I bumped into them again the following day after descending from General Wade’s Military Road at Loch Ness, probably the most difficult pass of the whole LEJOG ride. I was absolutely soaked to the skin and my extremities were frozen from battling horizontal rain for two hours, and there they were, equally soaked but smiling. We rode the final miles to Inverness together then parted ways again so I could find a hostel and warm up before my final talk of the tour, at Waterstones Inverness.
It was somewhat emotional to stand in front of my final audience at the last in a long line of events, the planning and promoting of which had dominated the preceding months. There had been huge variety, from sell-out venues to quiet corners of pubs, from lifelong cyclists to those curious to embark upon their first adventures. I had embraced the life of a travelling troubadour, the Pedalling Peddler; it had not escaped my audience’s notice that I was on a long bike ride to promote a book about a long bike ride. Where would it end?
My plan for the final stretch was to ride from Inverness to the Crask Inn, then reach John O’Groats on Saturday evening. Then I’d have a day in hand before my return train from Thurso on Monday. It would be two long days in the saddle. I woke early on the Friday morning and set off.
I’d barely left Inverness before I found a tick in my leg, my first ever encounter with this blood-sucking mite. I panicked that I’d contracted Lyme’s disease and phoned everyone I knew, including two doctor friends and my doctor sister, to find out what I should do. I settled down with my tweezers to remove it but the head snapped off. Now, every article I’d read on tick bites are very clear that you should NOT LET THE HEAD SNAP OFF. But none of them tells you what to do if the head does, in fact, snap off. Between finding a GP and pharmacist who could help, buying some magnesium sulphate cream to draw the head out (which didn’t work by the way), and plastering the thing up, it was gone lunchtime by the time time I left Dingwall. My dream of reaching John O’ Groats by Saturday evening and having a pint with the boys was slipping further from my grasp.
So, that was the moment I decided that, for once, I wouldn’t have a plan. I always have a plan, whether that be a promoted event or a pre-determined route or booked accommodation. So, this time, I wouldn’t. I had a day in hand. Why not use it?
So I set off, calm, relaxed and without concern for miles or hours. There followed two absolutely wonderful days of cycling. From the top of a long pass north of Dingwall I saw the sea, the first glimpse since leaving it at Exmouth. I watched salmon leap in a waterfall at the Falls of Shin. I rode through deserted mountainous landscapes where sheep were more plentiful than cars. I crossed Strathnaver, a barren yet richly historical landscape which had once housed a huge population before they were booted out by the Lords in the Highland Clearances. I swam in the sea at Bettyhill, bobbing amongst the surfers and being drenched by the breakers as they crashed over my head. I traversed the incredible coastline of northern Scotland, the ever-present skyline of peaks a dramatic backdrop to the snaking road as it ascended and descended, ascended and descended all the way to Thurso. I pitched my tent for the final time under the light of the full moon and listened to the waves of Thurso Bay lulling me to sleep.
And then, there it was: the last day, where I would reach John O’Groats. The perfect weather had returned and I rode the final stretch in my t-shirt, a round trip of 50 miles if you include the long-awaited detour to Dunnet Head. This was one compass point that I’d by-passed on the round-Britain, not having had the chance to ride to the tip of the peninsula then, the most northerly point of the mainland. But here I was, striking out across the windswept farmland, the sun at my back, each pedal stroke overflowing with excitement to finally be there. I knew what I’d find: one of Stevenson’s lighthouses sitting squat near the edge of the cliff and a headstone letting me know that I was as far north as I could possibly be. And it was exactly as I had imagined, predictable yet extraordinary, with a breathtakingly clear view of Orkney across a rich blue sea. I wanted to sit on the crumbling wall that had once hemmed in the lighthouse keeper’s garden, alone in my thoughts, deafened by the distant crash of the waves on the rocks, but I had to share it with other tourists, those who had driven there, those who took my picture badly, those who asked me where I was riding and where I lived and what I did for a job, questions that I had no desire to answer. Finally, I was tired of talking.
The approach to John O’Groats was less euphoric – exhaustion had begun to set in and the road seemed never ending, each village that came and went a teasing prelude to that which would signal the end of my journey. But eventually it came, and down to the water’s edge I went, to where the famous signpost stood pointing all that way back to Land’s End. I had my photograph taken then sat in the tea rooms eating my soup, feeling something of an anti-climax. That was it. All over. This point had been in my mind since day one, whenever anyone has asked where I was riding, whenever I wrote my blog or arrived at a venue with one of my posters displayed on the door: “Anna Hughes is riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats!” Well, I was, but not anymore. Now what?
And so it is with long trips, the jumble of emotions that comes at the end, the exhaustion, the elation, the glow of achievement, the sadness that it’s all over, the quiet gloom of returning to real life. One of my motivations for cycling around Britain was to discover the extraordinary in the ordinary, to discover the unfamiliar in a place that was quite familiar. And the same was true of this trip, to find adventure without leaving home. And I certainly found that. Each UK trip I undertake seems only to cement my love for this island and want to explore more of its treasures.
Many people ride LEJOG and have their own unique tale to tell. There’s a reason it is so popular, and I would heartily recommend the ride to anyone who is considering it. It was a wonderful trip, and a success commercially – I sold around 200 books and spoke to around 400 people, hopefully inspiring others to get out there and discover a little more of this wonderful island on which we live.
This is the final part of a four-part mini-series about my 2015 tour from Land’s End to John o’ Groats