On reaching John o’ Groats
It’s been two weeks since I returned home from LEJOG, but real life starts straight away and this is the first time I’ve had the time (or inclination) to sit down with my laptop. On the road, everything is simple. You wake, dress, eat, and ride. Nothing is more important than the journey you are taking. Now I’m back home, the chaos of life has crept in – earning money, housework, friends, catching up with those tasks that were put aside in the lead up to the ride because they were not important then. It’s exhausting, and I’ve had neither mental space or time to tie up all those loose ends.
Ten days ago I was standing at the top right hand corner of Britain, in front of the famous signpost at John O’Groats, four weeks and over 1000 miles after leaving Land’s End. It was a bright, sunny, warm day – perhaps surprising for late September on the north coast of Scotland, but not surprising for a trip in which I’d had to wear my waterproofs only twice. That final day was wonderful – a relatively short journey from my camping spot in Thurso out to the northwest tip of Scotland and back, a round trip of around 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 mainland Britain. 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 there 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, thinking I would ask them to write “Eat Sleep Cycle book tour” on the signpost. I’d neglected to have my photograph taken at Land’s End, but I would definitely get it done here. Except, the signpost that I had anticipated had been replaced, several years ago it transpired, by a different signpost, a permanent one which was free for all to photograph. It explains the background to the story here. I was disappointed – as much as I thought paying for your photo was a bit cheeky, I was looking forward to getting it personalised with my book name. I liked the old signpost. It looked simpler. This one is a bit grand, and of course, open to graffiti – stickers and signature scrawls were all over it, along with a t-shirt from someone’s charity ride that had been wrapped around the bottom. I thought it a shame. Thousands of people do this ride every year, mostly for charity, so why should your cause be more important than anyone else’s?
I 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?
It’s an interesting place, John O’Groats, a tiny settlement named for Jan Der Groot who used to ferry passengers across the treacherous Pentland Firth to the Orkney Islands, now largely overtaken by tourism, with hotels, restaurants, and holiday lets reaching down to the seafront. It can appear quite dismal but thankfully has been spared the theme park treatment of Land’s End. I sat and watched travellers of all kinds stand beneath the signpost for a photograph, before making my way back along the now familiar coastline to Thurso.
The following day the Great Unravelling began, and I sat on the train as it chugged south from Thurso station through Lairg and Ardgay and Dingwall to Inverness, all places I’d cycled through, remembering how I’d felt in each. Then an overnight train from Inverness, and suddenly I was back in London. The roads were overwhelming. A taxi driver shouted at me. I sought the solace of the canal, riding as slowly as I could while those around me raced to work. I reached my boat, stepped on board, and cried. Happy tears – tears that showed how much I’d missed my home. Then I noticed all the maintenance work that needed doing and I stopped crying.
People ask me how it was. They mainly want to hear about the weather, because that seems to be the mark of whether the trip was good or not. Well, the weather was great, and the trip was great. But it was wholly different to the round-Britain trip, a trip in which excitement and discovery was to be found in every pedal. I was wide-eyed then. Now, I am seasoned; I know what I am doing. In practical terms the trip was a success. I arrived at each venue without a hitch and every night (bar one) I had an audience. I sold 200 books and earned almost £1000 (though I spent £1400). I achieved my goal of riding from Land’s End to John O’Groats, I revisited some familiar parts of Britain, and I discovered some new ones. I returned fit as a fiddle and with a glowing tan. And in personal terms, it was fantastic, though not without its challenges. People ask what’s next. My answer: I’m going to have a rest.