LEJOG wrap up: week four
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 started with a ride north from Glasgow tracing waterways: the River Clyde, followed by the Forth and Clyde canal, then the River Leven, then finally the expansive and beautiful Loch Lomond, where the West Lomond cycle path led me for 17 wonderful traffic-free miles along its banks. I pitched my tent in Crianlarich in a perfect spot to watch the sun rise.
But the next morning, it was rain clouds that greeted me, rainclouds that started seeping shortly after breakfast and grew 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 rain clouds hung low, 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 from the clouds into the valley of Glencoe, where the mist dissipated to reveal the Three Sisters rising spectacularly into the clouds.
A few miles past Glencoe I came across two boys taking pictures on the bridge. I stopped and asked if they’d take mine, then asked where they were heading. John O’Groats too, it seemed. They were just two of the many End to Enders I had come across, but most I’d waved on as they’d zoomed past with their road bikes and support van. Tom and Kevin were the first two who were riding a similar pace to me, so we set off into the (thankfully lighter) rain, the remaining ten 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 haggis (vegan, I might add) and drinking ale in the pub, I realised how much I had missed this. This had definitely been a solo tour – many people had offered to ride with me, and I had thanked them for offering their support, but had preferred to ride alone. I had been happy with that choice but 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 with horizontal rain for two hours, but 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.
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. I’d never had a tick before but I know about them, mainly that there is a risk of disease with any blood-sucking mite. I panicked 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 tell me what to do, 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 booked 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 (apart from the underlying panic that I’d just contracted Lyme’s disease), 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 around 50 miles if you include the detour to Dunnet Head – arriving in John o’ Groats where the famous signpost indicated I’d just cycled 874 miles from the opposite corner of Britain.
The arrival promoted a mix of emotions which I’ve explored here, euphoria and exhaustion among them. I sat eating some snacks as I looked out to the Orkney Isles and up to the lighthouse at Duncansby Head, where I’d sat eating my lunch on my round-Britain trip. Such a lot had happened since then. On that visit, I had been barely a quarter of the way into my 4000 mile ride around Britain’s coast. I was a touring novice, naive in many ways, with the whole of Britain yet to be discovered. John O’Groats was simply a turning point in my journey, neither the start nor the finish, just one more day in my long ride.
But it was the reason I was here again: I have spent the intervening years talking and writing about my trip in a bid to inspire others that adventuring by bicycle is one of the best ways to see the world, and that the UK is a great starting point. The whole point of riding LEJOG was to promote the resulting book. 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.