Saturday 21 April 2012

AshWarP: LEJOG (End to End) Ride Done - Going Home

Travelling Home from Wick

The LEJOG (End to End) ride completed the night before, it was a strange feeling to be no making plans for setting off to ride our bikes long distances whilst we consumed breakfast.  We figured we still needed to help our bodies to rebuild after the big effort of the last 9 days, so we tucked into yet another big cooked breakfast.  We had been staying in the Norseman Hotel ( in Wick and there breakfast offering was ample, in a running buffet style, so it seemed rude not to eat heartily.

With the important task of nourishment out of the way, it was just a case of rounding up the gear, which was luckily all dry this time after using the bin liners in the pannier bags.  Packed up and ready to leave and ready to check out of the hotel we decided to have a wander around town and, smart phones in hand, see what options we had for the journey home.  Unlike the car hire to Penzance prior to our departure, we hadn’t decided how we would get home.  We both obviously needed to get home, but with it being a Friday the immediate pressure was off.  Other than the wedding Paul’s was going to attend on the Sunday, we didn’t need to rush home for anything on the weekend (apart from meeting back up with the WAGs).

The Spot in Wick  - Looks Like Just a Toy Shop
We visited the train station in Wick and had a look at our options.  The lady working there was extremely helpful and looked into everything for us.  She even looked at what was going to work best for us, considering we had the bikes, from both a cost and timing point of view.  She seemed to be struggling to get a guaranteed connection at Inverness that would have room for us to put the bikes on.  She suggested us seeking an alternative way of getting the bikes home separately and then our train options would be better.  That sounded like a good plan.  The lady recommend a local toy shop/bike shop that often offered a courier service for the bikes.  Obviously, being one of the larger towns in the area and with a number of accommodation options, Wick seemed to a common place for people riding their cycles End to End to stay.  From that point of view, the locals were all used to seeing cycling tourists and offering them services, help and advice.

We head of to the recommended shop.  It was called “The Spot” and did a large range of toys, models and games along with a range of everyday family cycles.  The man in the shop (Brian) suggested he could do each bike for £50 (fifty pounds), which included both the packing up and shipping of the bike directly to our doors.  We figured that we would need the bikes for a few days when we got home, and tot be fair we both have other bikes if needed, so letting somebody else take care of getting them home seemed like a great idea.  It’s one thing taking the wheels off and putting them in the back of a car, it’s another thing altogether rushing between connecting trains etc. with a bike in tow.  That bit sorted, we head off back to the train station to sort out our tickets and route home before getting the bikes back to the shop, so that Brian could organise the shipping for us.

On the way back to the train station, Paul suggested we look at splitting our journey between the train and bus an the journey home.  We hadn’t got a final price, but the cost of getting home on the train had been stacking up and considering that we’d already parted with fifty quid to remove the hassle of travelling on public transport with bikes, we needed to consider the cost.  Now that we were on foot and travelling with just our pannier luggage our options did open up a bit.  Paul had a look at the Megabus web site on his phone and reckoned that we could pick one up at Inverness and then get back to Preston (we have a big bus station there - was once the largest terminal in Europe, I think) with perhaps one or two changes on the way.  This seemed like a reasonable plan and would definitely save us a few quid compared to making the entire journey by train.  It probably wasn’t going to be a quick and would involve a bit more stopping, but at least we’d be sat down all the way and could rest a bit as we travelled.  We booked the mega bus online and then went back to the train station to sort out the train from Wick to Inverness.

The bikes dropped off with Brian, the travel arrangements sorted and checked out of the hotel, we set off the get on the train.  It wasn’t going to be too far to the first stop in Inverness and we were going to have a reasonable stop there to wait for the connection with the mega bus.  We picked up supplies at the local co-op and got on our way.  The train journey was fairly pleasant.  The train was pretty quiet and the scenery out of the window was good, but not spectacular.  It was a dry, but not overly bright day at this point and it was interesting to pass through a good number of the towns and villages we’d cycled through the day before.

Once in Inverness the weather had taken a turn for the worse.  We had a bit of time to kill, so we stocked up on more supplies, from another co-op, for the rest of the bus ride into the night and grabbed some reading materials (cycling magazines) to read whilst we were on the move.  However, the supplies this time did include a few cans of the local beer.  As we were walking around the rain was coming into my leaky trainer again.  Now that carrying things wasn’t as much of a problem, I set off to investigate what I could purchase as an alternative, more suitable footwear, in the local shops.  We got settled in another Wetherspoon’s first and it set off alone for a bit to explore.  Fortunately, I discovered the local Sports Direct and was soon in position of a nice pair of ’cut-priced’ Karrimor walking boots.  I returned to the Wetherspoon’s pub to meet up with Paul, had a few beers and dined out of burger and chips again.

We departed from the pub and had small wait outdoors to get on the appropriate Megabus.  I can’t remember too much about the journey on the bus, other than the early scenery.  I suppose because a lot of it was in darkness later on, as I don’t think we got back to Preston until something like three or four in the morning.  We did travel along the A9, which a totally different route to the one we’d cycled and that did afford us nice views of the Cairngorms into the early evening until dusk.  We had a change quite early on at Avimore (I think) and then a bit of a stop on the outskirts of Perth at Broxden Park and Ride.  Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed the alcohol on the bus, so we’d had to stash that in the hold with the luggage!  By the next stop at Glasgow, it was quite late at night and completely dark, so it was a case of trying to rest as much as we could and keep our lift from Preston informed (my girlfriend Rachel) as to how we were progressing.  I can never sleep properly sat upright on public transport.  I do doze a bit, but always feel worse when I wake up.  We were totally shattered at the end of the journey, and it was a great relief and pleasure to see Rachel in the bus station car par in Preston.

Our adventure over Paul and I parted ways at his home on the way back to mine.  It was great to be back, but it was a real anti-climax to be not thinking about were we would next be cycling to.  Oh well, maybe next year we can do something similar?

Thursday 19 April 2012

LEJOG (End to End) Day 9 - To John O'Groats

Leg 9 - Strathpeffer to John O' Groats

We awoke to another dry morning.  A little overcast and a bit cool, but not freezing and not wet, so almost ideal for the last leg.  Looking back and learning that April had been the wettest on record in the UK since records began made us feel even more lucky that we’d been relatively dry, other than a few hours at the end of the day twice.  We’d never needed to set out into heavy rain, which would have been totally demoralising and we’d not encountered any floods like had been seen in many parts of the country.

We tucked into another hearty breakfast and that included the local speciality of porridge again.  We got all the stuff together, which now pretty much dry and commenced packing it into our pannier bags now lined with the black bin liners.  We had a brief spell looking around the quaint little spa town (with me inevitably photographing everything in sight - churches included) and then we were on our way again.  The first minutes were going to be easy, as we knew the was a brief spell of downhill.  We’d gone up and down it unnecessarily the night before!  We had a relatively quiet (traffic free) ride down some of the area’s smaller A roads (A834 & A862) before getting back onto the main A9 road in Dingwall.

I think our Inverness bypass route through Strathpeffer had been a successful one, it seemed like it had cut a bit off the journey, taken us away from the main roads for a while and (to Paul’s satisfaction and relief) probably avoided us crossing to fairly significant bridges over the Beauly Firth and Cromarty Firth.  Our route took us North-Easterly along the north edge of the Cromarty Firth until we swung almost directly North near Tain to cross over the Dornoch Firth.  This wasn’t too much of a drama for Paul as it was a very low level viaduct.  As we passed Tarlogie and approached the bridge across the Dornoch Firth we saw our first indication that we were headed to John O’Groats since we’d left Land’s End.  The road sign showed us that there was officially 85 miles to go until our final destination.

The First Sign of John O'Groats - At This Point Still 85 Miles to go
The next stretch of road took us past Loch Fleet, well I suppose technically over it, as it appeared to be on either side of the road.  We had a natural break and tucked into a few leftover sandwiches and snacks from the hotel room picnic we’d enjoyed the night before.  It looked like we may have to do a bit of climbing just up the road over something called ‘The Mound’, but the road actually didn’t rise up too much here and took us along the side of it.

APaul Rides off into the Distance on the A9 by Loch Fleet

The weather remained mainly dry, but we did see a few showers and needed our raincoats.  However, there was nothing too heavy and we just carried on.  Compared to the rest of Scotland, this was the least picturesque, but it did have its own charm.  There was a lot of agriculture, so to some extent it was too dissimilar to being at home.  We pushed along the A9 with the rest of the day-to-day traffic on the region’s main thoroughfare.  It did get quite busy at times, but we though it best to stay on the main routes.  I’m not sure what options we’d have had otherwise, to be honest.  I remember seeing Dunrobin Castle on our journey between Golspie and Brora, but unfortunately I couldn’t get near enough to photograph it without pulling off the main road and investigating.  My view was almost always obscured by the surrounding woodland.  I noted it down as another one of those places to visit in the future on another trip or holiday and carried on riding.  There was still quite a long way to go to get to the end of the journey, so time wouldn’t permit too many stops.  We discussed the upcoming places and decided to have a stop in the next town (Brora) to have  brief rest and pick up any necessary supplies.

The Memorial Clock Tower in Brora

While Paul stocked up (probably more Mars bars and Shortbread) I had a look around and photographed the Memorial Clock Tower in Brora and the River Brora.  We regrouped and Paul headed off again.  I decided to linger for a few more minute and see if there was anything else worth photographing.  I sat on the road bridge over the River Brora for a few minutes until I notices something bobbing in the water below.  There was quite a large gap between each occurrence, but something was coming up for air.  Initially, I thought it was an otter, but when I finally got to see it properly (albeit just the head) I realised that it was a grey seal.  Now there was something you didn’t see every day, well maybe you did in Brora, but certainly not in the River Ribble in Preston!  I ended up hanging around for ages, as the large water mammal could hold it’s breath for ages.  I realised that I wasn’t got to get any better shots of the animal, so I mounted the bike and head of to catch Paul, who now must have been quite some way ahead.
The River Brora - Where I'd been Surprised to see a Grey Seal Swimming
I did eventually catch up with Paul, but this time he was beginning to wonder where I was, I think I probably managed to catch him up on the small climb in towards Helmsdale.  We had a brief comfort break and discussed whether it was worth stopping for a proper meal, we were both fairly cold and tired and probably could have done with something substantial.  We were also now starting to calculate whether we’d just ride on to Wick, the location of our final hotel, or whether we’d go all the way to John O’Groats today.  We tried to spot somewhere to eat in Helmsdale, but didn’t manage to decide on anything, this mean that it was probably going to be Wick before we had another opportunity.
The River Helmsdale Further up the A9

After Golspie, Brora and Helmsdale the A9 became evermore undulating and closely followed the North Sea Shore line.  The climb out of Helmsdale was the most significant one of the day, at 750 feet over 2 miles that took me over thirty minutes to climb with my tired legs and heavy luggage. Unfortunately, this meant we were picking up a relatively strong headwind for most of the way.  The shoreline was quite rocky and covered in Gorse in many places.  Indeed, ironically we hadn’t really seen ant gorse (well at least not noticed it) since our time in Cornwall the previous week.  It seemed to funny to be starting and ending the journey with a similar landscape and flora.  To be fair, there was an awful lot more of the yellow flowered plant up here, and my eyes watered and my nose ran for a few hours.  I’m not a hay fever sufferer, but there was just so much gorse, if it was emitting pollen, there must have been tons of the stuff in the air.

It had been quite bright whilst we rode past the gorse, but now it was starting to get dull, and the headwind (whilst not strong) just seemed relentless.  The next few hours were a drag, and personally I was tired and just wanted the day to be over.  It was going to be a long one.  We’d come to the conclusion that we’d be better doing the 35 miles from Wick to John O’Groats and back in the evening rather than having to get up and kitted out for cycling for such a short trip the following morning.  Having come to this conclusion, we should have probably had the stop in Helmshore, but we ploughed on and we really ready for it in Wick.  We decided to stop at a local chip shop in wick and get a power up before the end.  Paul opted for the (battered) Haggis and Chips again, but as much as I liked this meal I wasn’t sure about cycling on it.  I opted for a lighter Chip Butty instead.

Paul tucks into Another (Battered) Haggis and Chips in Wick

There is very little to see on that final bit of the journey up to the End of the Earth and the fading light made it all the more bleak.  I’m sure it’s nice up there on a nice day, but in the (semi) dark, wind and rain, it’s not the greatest of spectacles.  We continued up what was now the A99, as we’d left the A9 between Helmsdale and Wick.  And mileage checks suggested we were within the last ten miles.  We could soon see the village around John O’Groats in the distance, but we’d need to go a bit further than that to get to the official markers.  The journey became more pleasant again, despite the conditions, as we realised that we were soon to accomplish what we set out to do ten days before.  We actually started to enjoy the last few miles even though it was still hard.  On reflection, I would have been better kitted out for night riding, if I’d have known we were going to do this before I left Preston.  I had no lights proper, just the hi-viz raincoat and a number of flashing LED reflective armbands.  There was very little traffic, but I would have preferred to be a lot more visible.

Well into the Evening (circa 9 pm), we were Finally There!

John O'Groats - The First and Last in Scotland

We've Finally Made it - Paul by the John O'Groats Sign

Slightly Worse for Wear - Ash by the John O'Groats Sign

Wot no Sign? - We were Slightly Disappointed that there was no Official Sign

Paul Checks in With the Wife - "We've Done it Love - See You Soon"

The Bikes - Probably Glad it was the End Too!

We finished basking in our glory and decided we better get going before the cold set in and to ensure that everything was OK with the hotel reservation in Wick.  The journey back to Wick was much easier and with the tailwind we managed it in record time.  Seventeen miles in an hour with the luggage was unusually fast for us, but we were on a bit of a high and keen to get back to civilisation.

Fortunately everything was OK at the hotel and we checked in OK, although it was well after 10pm by now.  A porter found us a suitable indoor location, down one of the corridors, to park the bikes and we went to remove the layers of lycra for the very last time.  As it was now pretty late we’d run out of dining options.  Paul wasn’t too bad off the back of his haggis and chips, but I needed to eat again.   The hotel had stopped serving meals and there wasn’t too much on offer now in Wick.  I think there was a curry hose open, but Paul didn’t fancy it.  We went back to the Hotel and the night porter kindly offered to rustle up some sandwiches for me.  We had a couple of quite celebratory drinks and relaxed in the knowledge that all our pedalling was done.

Wednesday 18 April 2012

LEJOG (End to End) Day 8 - Through the Great Glen

LEJOG Leg 8 - Fort William to Strathpeffer

This was another great day on the bike in Scotland.  We arose after our night in the room with the very elevated temperatures, thanks to our kit drying antics and readied ourselves for breakfast and the days riding.  It was back off to the other end of the hotel for the big breakfast and this had to include the option of the Scottish style porridge outs.  A great delicacy and great, so we’re told, ‘slow release energy’ for the coming efforts on the road.  Fortunately, everything was pretty much dry now, so we packed everything up, checked out and we once again on our trek ever Northwards.  We enjoyed the views from the car park, checked the views round and about and got on our way.  Luckily the rained had passed over not too long after we’d got settled at the hotel the night before and hadn’t returned, so we set off on dry roads.

Leaving the Clan MacDuff Hotel in the Sunshine
As we’d had problems with the rain it was even more important that we kept our phones and camera dry.  I’d not brought anything other than the wallets and pouches that I normally used, so extra care was needed to keep the cold and wet out.  We’d really be stuck without the phones and it would be a shame to get the camera wet and miss all the great photo opportunities.  I improvised with a few sanitary towel disposal bags taken from the hotels along the way!

Sanitary Bags for Dryness - We'd be in Trouble with Wet Phones 

The first port of call was the town of Fort William, which was on the North end of Loch Linnhe and just up the road from where we had been staying.  I hung around in a car park near the water’s edge, at the south end of the town and took a few more photographs for the scrapbook.  Paul ventured into town to see if he could find a bike shop and get some more air into his under inflated tyre.  I’m not sure where he ended up, but he did get his hands on a superior pump, so bikes back up to scratch we set off proper.  He wasn’t gone long, and he said it was around the corner, so I can only assume that he ended up at (Alpine Bikes -  The day was going to consist of us following an important natural feature (The Great Glen), that would not only take us further North, but push us from the West to the East of Scotland, so that we’d eventually be on the right side for our final destination.

Again, the route for most of the day was going to take us along the A82, until we came off it before Inverness to head for the planned accommodation in Strathpeffer.  No too far up the road and not taking us off our plotted course was Spean Bridge.  This was not only a necessary bridging point, but also it was the location of a significant military monument.  The Commando Monument in Scotland was just off the A82 about a mile beyond the crossing at Spean Bridge.  Paul had been in the army in his younger days, and we keen for us to pay it a visit and pay our respects.  I didn't know much about it before, but the Commando Memorial is dedicated to the men of the original British Commando Forces raised during World War II.  It overlooks the training areas of the Commando Training Depot established in 1942 at Achnacarry Castle.  It has become one of Scotland's best-known monuments, both as a war memorial and as a tourist attraction offering views of Ben Nevis and Aonach Mòr.

Views from the Spean Bridge

Commando Memorial - dedicated to the Men of the British Commando Forces

We paid our respects at the monument, once again admired the views offered by the stunning scenery and got back on the A82 again to follow the course of the Lochs of the Great Glen.  The road undulated a bit, but nothing too dramatic, we were rarely to far above sea level and it often switched back and forth between the left and right sides of the water ways.  We followed Loch Lochy along it’s right shore travelling North-Eastwards and soon reach a car park about half way up the loch.  We stopped for a bit of maintenance.  Now it was my turn to have a bit of shoe plate trouble.  Unlike Paul, I use the three bolt ’Look’ type plates (Old ones, not Keo, on this particular bike).  However, I hadn’t been checking them and my foot seemed to be twisting about more than usual.  The plates are designed to allow you heel some degree of freedom, about six degrees of swivel left to right from the toe, but not as much as I’d been feeling.  On closer inspection, one of the bolts had come out and I didn’t have a spare (something I would definitely carry on future trips).  We surveyed the damage and moved one of the remaining bolts and ensured that they we all (including the other shoe) fully tightened.  I’d recommend fitting a shoe plate inspection into you daily routine when riding long distance day after, as well as carrying spare bolts, as both Paul and I had issues on this trip.

Pebbled Beach on the Shores of Loch Lochy

After Loch Lochy, we followed the course of Loch Oich until we crossed over the swing bridge at the start of the Caledonian Canal.  We had a short break here (for personal reasons) and to have a look around.  The shoe (plate) seemed OK now and Paul’s tyre was holding the air OK.  It was still a lovely, if not pretty cold, day.  There was always a reminder that Winter wasn’t too far gone away up here as we surveyed the snow on the peaks.  Funnily enough, about a month before our arrival, they were experiencing unseasonably high temperatures North of the border and I believe it got up to about 23° C at he back end of March.  I’d been out on a training ride wearing just my shorts and a racing jersey on the same day around the hills near Rochdale.

A Quick Break Before Crossing the Swing Bridge on Loch Oich

Still on the A82, we headed up towards our next stop at Fort Augustus on the banks of Loch Ness.  Compared to everywhere else we’d been since Glasgow, it was busy again.  There were plenty of tourists about this infamous location.  We got some refreshments and had a look around.  We didn’t see the fabled ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in the flesh, but we did see the sculpture of it by the locks.  At least we had a picture of something to send back to the Facebook and Twitter followers.  We sat down with our coffees near the locks and watched the world go by.  Whilst there we met a fellow cyclist and as it transpired he was only from a town about 20 miles from where we lived (Bolton).  We got chatting to him about our long distance bike ride and he explained that he’d travelled up un the train for the day and was enjoying riding on the roads around the Lochs.  It seemed like a great plan, not having to cycle the entire distance and taking several days to experience this glorious scenery, most of it just by the roadside.  He got up early and was going to be back home the same day after his ride.  It’s something I hope to do myself at some point in the future.

A Sculpture of the 'Loch Ness Monster' in Fort Augustus

Paul Chats to a Fellow Cyclist from Bolton (near Home)
As we prepared to set off again we could see that the weather was closing in at it was looking likely that we’d get a repeat of the previous days experience and see rain in the latter part of the afternoon.  As we progressed up the road at the side of Loch Ness, the rain started.  We passed Castle Urquhart but, as the weather was deteriorating, we didn’t contemplate stopping too long.  We stayed just long enough to get a few photographs from outside the castle grounds, and then we were on our way again.  The rain was heavy on the next section, but perhaps not as bad as the day before, and it did seem brighter again in the distance.  The Road switched back around a junction near Invermoriston and I became totally confused and disorientated about which way we were heading.  We weren’t lost and we were definitely on the correct road, but it felt like we were heading in completely the wrong direction.  Looking on the map afterwards, I could see how the road headed away from the Loch and almost came straight back on itself, which explained my confusion.

Castle Urquhart by Loch Ness - The Rain Started Here

We didn’t get to travel the whole of the length of Loch Ness as we were going to leave the A82 and avoid going as far as Inverness.  Again the road pulled away from the Loch’s edge, but this time we were going to head in a different direction.  We passed Drumnadrochit and joined the A831.  We had a few alternative routes here.  Paul decided to pull in a car service station and call on some local knowledge.  They suggested pulling of to the right just further up the road and take the A833, this seemed to provide us with a shorter route to Strathpeffer.  Maybe it did, but they did not mention the climb we have to negotiate by taking that road.  On the entire trip so far, we had climbed a fair bit, but nothing was ever steep.  We had compact chain sets, but when you’ve got more than twenty extra pounds compared to what you are used to, steep climbs should be avoided.  A can’t remember the severity of the gradient, or whether it was even indicated, but we certainly felt it.  I optimistically fiddled with my rear mech indexing in the hope of finding just one more gear.  I got up there slightly quicker than Paul and we regrouped at the top.  We came to the conclusion that maybe the ‘long way round’ would have been better, but it was too late now.  It was still raining, but not heavily, and we carried on grinding out the miles.  We passed all the scenery and landmarks, the camera was well and truly packed away for the day and we just wanted to get to the hotel.

We were tired now, both from the day’s riding and the journey as a whole.  We’d chosen a hotel in Strathpeffer for the night, using the now usual app, to avoid having to go into Inverness.  There seemed to be quite few twists and turns on the run-in and the final section was yet again uphill.  We seemed to be damp all the time now and it was quite a cold day.  There also seemed to be quite a few stops to consult the smart phone and check Google maps.  To add insult to injury, the post code was showing up in the wrong place on the Google Maps and we rode through Strathpeffer and down a hill on the other side only to have to come back again.  D’oh!

In reality, I think this was the shortest leg of the entire tour, but with seven or eight hundred miles already in the legs, it felt like more.  I don’t suppose the cold was helping any!  We were still enjoying it though.  In masochistic sort of way.  It was just a nice sight to see the hotel and the end of a hard day’s riding.  We’d booked in to the Mackays (Spa Lodge) Hotel.  We found another, round the back, location to hide the bikes for the night, and got to the room for a welcomed shower and to get the wet stuff off and drying again.  It was the same script as the night before.  Heating on and windows ajar to try and dissipate some of the moisture.  We had wet stuff hung up all over the place.

The Hotel Bedroom - A Chinese Laundry!

It was going to be a bit of a rush to get sorted (with the extra drying work) in time to go out and dine formally, and there didn’t seem to be too much in the way of takeaways in the vicinity, so we opted for a bedroom picnic.  We went over to the local convenience store to pick up ingredients, after that we planned to sneak in couple of bevies in the Hotel bar.  Whilst at the shop, we hit on the bright idea of purchasing some bin bags (bin liners) in an attempt to try and keep things dry the following day.  Yet again, much of the contents of the pannier bags were pretty wet.  Our plan was to get everything dry and then line the pannier bags with a bin bag, insert the gear and tie it at the top.  Hopefully that would give us something a little more waterproof.

Paul and Ash in Fort Augustus near Loch Ness

Suitably fed, we head to the hotel bar as we’d planned.  We got a table and sat ourselves in view of the hotel’s entertainment for the night.  They had a guy doing a bit of country music on the guitar.  It’s not my ’cup of tea’, to be honest, but it was still quite enjoyable.  We went to get the drinks in from another room where the bar itself was situated.  It was very busy for this time of year.  Maybe the music act dragged them in from far and wide?  I order a pint of the local larger for Paul and a pint of bitter for me (probably Tennant’s and Stones respectively).  To my dismay the barkeep asked me for three pounds in return.  We went to sit back down and tried to figure out why it was so cheap.  Another visitor heard our debate and chipped in saying that it was some kind of promotion and all pints were £1.50.

Result!  However, we were slightly gutted that this wasn’t the last night, as we could have had a major celebration at that price.  As it transpired, we were yet again pretty sensible and only had one or two.  We had another long ride tomorrow (maybe the last one) and looking at the weather reports it was likely we’d be pushing a headwind all day!