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Part One: John 'O Groats to Lands End

Published: 2 November 2014 · Tags: bike, expedition, jogle

Part one of the story of a three week, 1300 mile, cycle across the length and breadth of the UK mainland

This post is part of the two part series John O' Groats to Lands End. To see more from this series check the series index.

It’s strange to think that as I sat on the first eight hour train north I felt confident about the trip. Max and I started planning this trip nine months prior, coming up with a route which would take in all the places we wanted to visit and yet would still work with our tight time constraints. Sat on the train highlighting our planned route on the map I realised just how much I had committed to memory; with only a few minor parts of the route unknown which we intended to gain local knowledge for.

 alt: The bikes
The bikes, waiting at Plymouth Station to head north. Max’s Genesis CdF left, my On One Inbred 29er right.

We had spent some time using BikeHike to plan our route to work out how far it was, what climbing would be involved, and to attempt to establish if we could fit it into the month we had available. What we planned was a 1200 mile trip, with around 20,000 meters of ascent; at this point neither of us had done any long-distance touring either.

After two days of trains – equating to 16.5 hours of our time – we arrived at Wick station perfectly on time. From here we embarked on a short 16-mile cycle to John O’ Groats; this quickly demonstrated that both bikes had made the train journey relatively unscathed. The journey hadn’t gone completely to plan. On the way up we stopped for two nights in Edinburgh, and it was here that I had filled my water bladder for the first time since leaving Plymouth. Several hours later the train staff were holding up my bag shouting “Who’s bag is this?”; the bag had been dripping on a child’ head. I assumed that something had been on the bite valve, so placed it on the floor between the rows of seats. It was only as I opened my bag once at John O’ Groats that I discovered that the bladder in fact had multiple pin holes through it, soaking our map.

We covered the ground from Wick to John O’ Groats in just over an hour, and proceeded directly to the north easterly sign from which we would ride the next day. We leant the bikes against the post and took the evidence photographs we needed to prove that we had been at the start point. After this we pitched at the campsite and then headed off to find an open pub for dinner.

 alt: Max and I at the start point.
Max and I at the start point.

Along the top

The plan dictated that the first days riding should take us as far as Loch Hope. We decided to take advantage of the restaurant serving breakfast so headed over for a bacon butte and coffee prior to packing up the tents and heading off. We left via the John O’ Groats sign again, making this the official start of the trip; this time I took a picture and uploaded it to Facebook and Twitter to show we were starting. As we went to leave another cyclist showed, who explained he was doing the entire journey in just eight days, but was taking a significantly shorter and less scenic route.

At 09:38 on 19th July 2014 I started Strava and we rolled off with the wind on our backs for the first full days riding.

 alt: The road to nowhere.
The road to nowhere.

The first part of the day was fast going - spirits were exceptionally high at this point as would be expected given we had only just started. The roads were smooth and flat which allowed us to keep the pace up, only stopping for the occasional snack. Passing through Thurso we stopped at the supermarket to pickup the first of many meal-deal lunches, and kept on going until we had just passed Melvich. It was here that we stopped in a field gateway for lunch.

After lunch the terrain started to get steeper, with some reasonable length climbs appearing as we approached the west–coast. It was at the bottom of one of the fields, as it was starting to rain, that we stopped to put our waterproofs on. As I pulled mine out of my bag I noticed something long and black slide across my shoe, as I realised that a snake had just slithered across my foot; the first I’ve ever seen in the wild.

 alt: Steepening Ground.
Steepening Ground.

One of the biggest downsides to Scotland is the well-known midge population. These aren’t too bad when there is a breeze, or it is completely dry - however, they love damp, still, air. Just what we had today; and to make it worse they seem to be more attracted to hot and sweaty people, say two touring cyclists. This made for an interesting challenge along the top of Scotland as we attempted to stay above the magic number on fully loaded touring bikes. Above five miles an hour midges cannot keep up (or, with wind, get blown away), which set us out minimum speed to attempt to maintain up hill in order to not get swarmed by them.

 alt: Incredible views from the Kyle of Tongue causeway.
Incredible views from the Kyle of Tongue causeway.

As the day pressed on we started to eat a little less, mostly because each time we stopped the midges descended, until we eventually arrived at Loch Hope, tired, hungry, and in need of somewhere to camp. After stopping to have a quick look at the map we continued down the road looking out for a water source. We knew we weren’t going to get a pub or anything similar from which we could collect water so we wanted somewhere suitable to camp with running water nearby. We found this approximately half way down the length of Loch Eriboll.

 alt: The tents on the first night.
The tents on the first night.

On arrival we filled up with water, and then made our way down to the corner of a nearby field where we pitched our tents in the corner, being careful to stay out-of-sight from the road. Once pitched we fired up the stove and were slowly driven insane by the midges while cooking; after this we retired for the night, ready for day two and the race to Ullapool.

We set to the alarms for 07:00, aiming to be on the road as quickly as possible. The day started well as we made good time down the side of Loch Eriball. We stopped at the end to tweak our bikes - we’d both concluded that our saddles were too low for the pace we were trying to maintain, so raised them before continuing up the other side. This part was a little frustrating as we were effectively going back on ourselves but we were presented with little choice as this was the only road.

 alt: The road down Loch Eriball.
The road down Loch Eriball.

Once we we hit the coast again we stopped for a few quick pictures at Liernmoor Beach before continuing to Durness where we had hoped to find an open shop to top up on supplies. Unfortunately this was a Sunday in North Scotland which meant the village shops were all closed. We had enough supplies anyway to last the day, so pushed onwards for Ullapool.

As the day draw on we pushed hard through a series of undulating hills with long climbs that seemed to be infinitely drawn-out. Each of the long climbs was topped with a brief plateau before dropping back down to near sea-level and climbing back up. We could only be grateful that we were only clipping the very edges of the mountains, but not entering the highlands ‘proper’ where this would have been much worse. The advantage of this land was just how easy it was to find water; we’d pass several streams every mile suitable for collecting drinking water from.

 alt: One of the many plateaus.
One of the many plateaus.

We eventually stopped for lunch somewhere near Loch Gelndhu; it was here that I left Max outside with the bikes while diving in a small shop to reappear to six or seven additional cyclists gathered around talking to him. It soon established that this group were there on a supported cycling holiday. They each took great interest in our bikes, and what we were doing before telling us the stories of their adventures. After Max finally made his way in to get lunch he reappeared a few minutes later explaining that the cashier in the shop was actually from Oakhampton, which is just a few miles from Plymouth - it’s a small world.

 alt: The seemingly never ending hill.
The seemingly never ending hill.

As we pushed on into the afternoon, with new speed thanks to the food we now had inside us, the hills seemed to get bigger and steeper through the afternoon. Despite this, I tried to look at the positive; the bigger the up the bigger the down. After one particularly long climb, naturally followed by a particularly long descent, we appeared on a junction in front of a loch with a small castle.

 alt: Just add Orcs.
Just add Orcs.

It wasn’t long after this that we found the Ullapool turn off, where I remember myself doubting that we would actually make the ferry. The sign said 18-miles to go, and we had around an hour to make it. We put everything we had in for this last section, with myself gaining more and more motivation as we entered an area I knew. We passed a campsite I stayed on the first time I went out to the Hebrides, and I remember saying to Max ‘I know this road, we’re nearly there!’.

In the end we rolled into the ferry terminal around ten minutes late, but thankfully they still had space on the next ferry so Max rushed into the terminal building to purchase the Island Hopper passes we needed while I hid our fuel bottle which we weren’t sure if we were actually allowed onboard. We then collapsed onto the floor until it was time to board. It’s safe to say that we were both utterly ruined at this point, and we still had at least five hours of the day left; albeit a more relaxed five hours.

 alt: 18 Miles to Ullapool.
18 Miles to Ullapool.

Once on the ferry we collapsed into the first seats we found in the bar area and waited for the ferry to move off and the bar to open. I immediately went and ordered a pair of coffees, which we drank before going to get changed and some food. A Scottish kid joined us to make for some entertaining conversation on the way over as Max queried each Scottish stereotypes with him in turn.

Eventually the four hours on the ferry came to an end, so we headed down to get the bikes ready to disembark when we started talking to another group of cyclists. They were loaded up for touring themselves, and explained that they were aiming for the Hogabost campsite, the same one as us the next day. We’d been planning to find the closest campsite we could on arrival, which it turned out they were also doing. Unlike us they knew where to go, and offered to show us the way to the site where we found the remnants of the last few days music festival with people sat around with instruments and singing as we pitched the tents, and chatted with our newfound touring friends.

It felt like a bit of a treat that night drifting off to Hey Joe and Whiskey in a Jar.

The Islands

We treated ourselves to a lie-in given the nature of the previous day - it had taken its toll on both of us. I had no aches or pains, but needed that extra time to sleep. In the end it was 10:30 by the time we set off from the campsite and proceeded head directly back on ourselves from the previous night into Stornaway, where we stocked up on supplies in the supermarket before heading down to the sea-front in an (unsuccessful) attempt to find a bacon butte.

On leaving Stornaway we made rapid progress across Lewis, motivated by the relatively flat land and the shorter number of miles we faced for the day. The views throughout the day did not disappoint, with clear skies and the ability to see for miles over the open and baron land.

 alt: That's a long way to go.
That’s a long way to go.

After an hour or so on the road we overtook the cyclists that we had followed to the previous nights campsite.

As we approached the mountains at the end of Lewis we spotted a boardwalk start down the right-hand side of the road and after another couple of minutes saw it again as it reappeared though some trees. It was then that we decided to squeeze our loaded bikes through the kissing-gate on one wheel and sit on it for a bit of lunch. We had a little fun here, discovering the wood was much faster rolling than any road we had ridden on to date; it was briefly blissful to be able to push-off and roll down the full length of it without a single turn of the pedals.

 alt: The Northshore/Boardwalk.
The Northshore/Boardwalk.

After lunch we continued to push on towards the mountains, spending the next few hours climbing, remembering the warning we were given about a 20% climb before reaching Tarbert (the last town on Lewis). It was here that we bought the last few bits we needed before pushing on for the last few miles to Hogabost.

We left Tarbert at the hottest point of the day, making the steep climb out an unpleasant experience. We only had about 18km left, but the heat and hills slowed the pace for the remainder of the day. In the end it took us about an hour to reach the high-point of the road down Harris, where we could see the long white beeches stretched out below.

Before leaving I’d told Max about the campsite here, situated on top of the sand dunes just off the beach, but nothing prepares you for the view that greets you from this road if you’ve not been before. Just before we arrived at the campsite I stopped and waited for Max at the top of the headland and got the exact reaction I had expected from him when he rolled up beside me.

 alt: The view our tents pitch atop the sand dunes on Hogabost Beach.
The view our tents pitch atop the sand dunes on Hogabost Beach.

After a few minutes we quickly rolled down the hill into the campsite where we paid for our pitches, bought ice creams, and then setup and cooked some dinner. After we’d eaten the light really started to develop so I wondered off with the camera for a bit, before the other cyclists from the previous campsite finally arrived a few hours after us.

This campsite was reaming with tourers; over the next few days we ended up travelling with different groups of these and various times and bumping into groups throughout the range of islands.

From this point on we had to hit deadlines throughout the islands; the ferry’s are often limited, and we needed to make sure we got through the islands with enough time to complete the trip. We were up and leaving the campsite by 09:00 as we had decided to play it safe with the mornings ferry. The ferry left from Leverburgh at 11:00; in the end it took us just under an hour to ride the 16.5km. Naturally, we spent the spare time in Leverburgh stocking up on food and seeking out a bacon butte.

As the ferry approached we noticed that a few other groups of tourers from the campsite had arrived. One of these groups was foreign, but we ended up chatting to the other pair on the boat, asking them about their trip (a relaxed tour of the islands) while they asked about ours.

Once the ferry journey was over we disembarked and spent a few minutes getting ourselves organised and checking the route across the island to the house we would use for the night at the very bottom of North Uist. Once we set off it was just a few minutes before we had overtook the other touring groups from the ferry, and before long we were turning right onto the main road around the island.

 alt: Max on North Uist.
Max on North Uist.

At this point I was starting to recognise much of the ground here from previous visits, and knew we were coming up on a Coop where we could get some lunch. Once purchased we pushed on aiming for the road which cut through the middle of the island before we stopped at the days highpoint of just 58 meters above sea level for some lunch. As we sat we were surrounded by piles of peat, cut and laid to dry, which would fuel the locals fires throughout the winter months.

After lunch we headed off taking our time as we followed the road around North Uist enjoying the flat ground and smooth tarmac before the single track road eventually turned back into a double track road and the causeways off North Uist onto the smaller islands before Benbecula began. It was on one of these smaller islands that our house for the night was placed.

 alt: The view from the living room in our evenings accommodation.
The view from the living room in our evenings accommodation.

On arrival we immediately got the hot water on turned on and began to show our impatience at waiting for the opportunity to have a shower. After a few hours we did manage to get the hot water working before cooking a haggis and vegetable rice dinner. We also took the opportunity to wash our clothes out in the sink; the first time we could come even remotely close to getting clean clothes on the trip.

With yet another short day coming, we took the opportunity to have a lie in, leaving at a relaxed 10:00. Throughout the day we would be riding one of the flattest islands, with a relaxed 60km to achieve for the ferry, and a further 13km on Barra to the campsite (including a diversion). We’d departed on the day expecting a hefty headwind, which simply did not emerge.

It didn’t take long for us to ride across Benbecula, stopping at the Coop just before the causeway to stock up on the days food supplies. After this brisk stop we continued, taking the road down the middle of South Uist. Due to the flat terrain you can see for miles on Uist, one thing everyone takes away is the sheer amount of water. Despite the volume of water due to the low-lying nature of the land very little of it is drinkable as it is mostly made up of salt-water locks.

 alt: Stopping for lunch on Benbecula.
Stopping for lunch on Benbecula.

The going down Uists was fast, as we stopped after 2:20, and just over half of the days miles, for lunch on a raise just off the hill range that sits on the west coast. Here we took our time eating and messing around with cameras before we packed up and pushed on again, aiming for the south coast.

Eventually we turned off the main road onto the single carriageway road which lead us along the almost Mediterranean coast to the causeway which joins South Uist and Eriskay. Unfortunately for us the hills picked up just before the causeway, picking us up and then dropping us down to sea level for the causeway, just to repeat on the other side between the causeway and ferry port. These were by no means large climbs, but we’d been taking it slow and were riding in the heat of the day which did mean we needed a little time to adjust. Just as we got used to climbing again, the hill finished and we got to enjoy a very fast downhill section which deposited us at the ferry port 90-minutes early.

 alt: Max with the little bit of south-west we found in the Hebrides.
Max with the little bit of south-west we found in the Hebrides.

 alt: Barra airport.
Barra airport.

After the short ferry crossing we arrived on the final Hebridean Island of our trip — Barra. This is a tiny island, and surprisingly hilly for its size. We headed inland, and hung a right at the end of the road towards the airport, where we dropped off the road onto the beech and rode across the runway towards the dunes where the camping spot for the night was located. The airport on Barra is the worlds smallest commercial airport, but as the tide was out the activity flags were down we were perfectly safe.

 alt: Max cycling on the airport runway.
Max cycling on the airport runway.

Once we rejoined the road we followed it to the end, at this point I was looking over the bay explaining to Max that the dunes I could see were where I was expecting us to be. A quick phone-call back to mainland confirm what I thought; we’d missed our turning. We backtracked and dived down one of the few roads in the right direction, then rolled out onto the beach where we cooked in the sand before pitching the tents and heading along the beach for a picturesque walk.

 alt: The view from the tents on Barra.
The view from the tents on Barra.

Our final day in the islands couldn’t have been any more relaxed. We had 16km to ride for a ferry at 15:15, so naturally we had a lie-in and an intentionally slow start to the day, leaving around 11:20. This was appreciated by Max as he and gotten up multiple times during the night for the stars; during July and August in the islands it’s light all the way through the night leading to some disappointment as they never really materialised.

 alt: The tents pitched on one of Barra' Beaches.
The tents pitched on one of Barra’ Beaches.

We started the day with breakfast on the jetty looking down into the crystal-clear water while we cooked and ate. As we headed off the sun was hot enough to leave tyre tracks, so we took the day slow. Despite this we didn’t really stop until we could see Castlebay below us and there was a car-park with some benches to sit on. At the point we’d just crept over the top of the biggest climb of the day, and just wanted to cool off for a few minutes.

After a short break we tore down the hill into Castlebay where we found the village shop to get some lunch. One thing about petrol stations in Hebridean islands is that they don’t seem to care hugely for the minimum sale limits on petrol. As strange a thing as this sounds to comment on, this was important to take advantage of for us, as our main fuel bottle only had a dribble left and holds just shy of one litre. After a quick word with the shop staff they agreed to let us fill the bottle at the pump, meaning we topped up on fuel for just £1. This fuel bottle is currently hidden away in my flat, where it still contains about 1/3 of the fuel from this refill, so it turns out petrol makes for a much more efficient fuel than white gas in my MSR stove.

 alt: Castlebay.

Once sorted, we headed down the waterfront to eat our lunch and read a book until the ferry ticket office opened approximately 90-minutes later. At this point we checked in to reserve our space, and joined the collection of cars that were already queueing near the ramp, ready to board with our laden bikes.

This was the longest ferry crossing of the trip, so it was very much used to do any general maintenance we wanted to get done. This meant having a good shower with the onboard facilities, repairing my gloves which were falling apart and getting a good meal. We spent a little time discussing various travelling adventures with the lorry driver, and spent a lot of time reading until to pass the time.

More from John O’ Groats to Land’s End

This post makes up part one of a two-part series, the next part is now available. This part has seen us from the journey north through to the ferry back from Castlebay to Oben. The full route can be found in the following Strava entries:

More from the John O' Groats to Lands End series

This post is part of the two part series John O' Groats to Lands End.

  1. Part One: John 'O Groats to Lands End: Part one of the story of a three week, 1300 mile, cycle across the length and breadth of the UK mainland
  2. Part Two: John 'O Groats to Lands End: Part two of the story of a three week, 1300 mile, cycle across the length and breadth of the UK mainland

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