Remembering Land’s End to John o’ Groats: week one
It was four years ago this week that I set off on my version of the LEJOG tour from one end of Britain to the other. I love cycle touring in the UK, and having cycled around its entire coastline I decided a ride straight up the middle should be next. The purpose of the tour was twofold: not only to enjoy the tour for what it was, but also to promote my book, Eat Sleep Cycle, about my round-Britain adventure.
The idea was to give a talk or hold a book signing at various venues along the route, selling books as I went, the proceeds of which would hopefully fund the trip. Kit packed, books ordered, events planned and publicised, I arrived at the south-western-most point of Britain with the sun blazing and a glimpse of the Isles of Scilly across a crystal-clear sea. A group of Lycra-clad roadies milled around, ready for their End to End. “Are you riding to John o’ Groats? With all that stuff?” they asked. “Rather you than me.” They would take nine days to my twenty eight.
The first week would see me riding from Cornwall to Somerset, hosting events at venues in Truro, Plymouth, Totnes, Exeter, Taunton and Wells. This was my first solo tour in four years and I adored being back on my bike, experiencing the freedom that cycling brings, the exploration, the discovery, the self-sufficiency. The route led me from the vast sea to river valleys, from wooded hills to open farmland, the land slowly morphing from the fearsome Cornish hills to the Somerset levels. I was blessed with the weather, the warm September sun causing the sea to sparkle invitingly; I swam at every opportunity, at Lamorna Cove near Land’s End and off Plymouth Hoe, then in the River Dart as the route turned inland.
Much of the riding was familiar, the coastal sections tracing the route of my round-Britain ride. But I had forgotten just how physically tough this section is; never mind Scotland, the hardest hills in the whole UK are, without doubt, in Cornwall and Devon. The previous time I’d been here was on the home straight of my ten week tour – I’d had eight week’s hill training. Not so this time. I made hard work of each one.
By day three I was in danger of losing sight of what it was all about. The initial joy of returning to the saddle had faded, the hills had started to really kick me in the backside, and I had been disappointed with the turnout at my second event in Plymouth. Under the threatening cloud of a black mood I chose the most direct route to my next venue; scenery be damned, I just wanted to get there. A narrow cycle path next to the busy ‘A’ road succeeded in sapping any remaining joy from the ride. Head down, I was in full grumble mode. It’s a familiar narrative, how the woes of touring can threaten what could be a wonderful adventure, the temptation being to focus purely on the destination at the expense of the journey. On this trip it could be a problem more than most, with a prearranged event and a time I must arrive each day, with little time to amble and take whichever beaten track I fancied. I saw the warning signs and had a stern word with myself. It would be a terrible waste for this trip to be a misery plod to each venue. The beauty of cycle touring is the journey, the experience of how one area morphs into another, the physicality of connecting with your surroundings. My mileage each day was purposely low, simply so I could meander, enjoy the ride, and go swimming if I chose. I arrived in Totnes with a new mentality that fortunately lasted throughout the tour, and I truly enjoyed each mile after that – even the horrible ones.
Inland from Exeter the terrain became more gentle (apart from a section described in the guidebook as ‘ascend sharply for 1.5 miles’) and it was a joy to roll through the farmland of Somerset through Taunton, past Glastonbury and into Wells. My final event of the week was a book signing in the Waterstones there. As I pulled up outside the shop, a lady walked past. “We passed you going up the hill,” she said. “There’s a book signing here this afternoon that you might be interested in.” I laughed and took off my helmet, pointing to my picture in the window. “That’s me!”
The week in numbers:
Miles = 215
Talks/signings = 6
Books sold = 50
Sea/river swims = 3
Punctures = 1
Nights under canvas = 2
This is part one of a four-part mini-series about my 2015 tour from Land’s End to John o’ Groats