john o’groats

Big Skies at the Top

As you get towards the end of the road north, things start to disappear.

Pulling out of Elgin on Thursday morning, I was heading to Inverness, the most northern city. No more cities after that.

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I was also still enjoying Scotland’s cycle infrastructure, including the nice old railway bridge near Forres (above). But, as I dropped into Inverness on yet another well-signposted, segregated cycleway, I knew I wouldn’t be seeing much more for a while.

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North of Inverness, there’s a lower volume of everything. Fewer roads (just the A9, basically), fewer people, fewer towns and shops. And of course, fewer nice bike paths.

But there were more of some things as I pushed north. Oil rigs and threatening clouds. And finally, quite a lot of long-distance cyclists.

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The rigs were parked up in the Cromarty Firth off Invergordon, where many are repaired or decommissioned. The clouds have been threatening me all the way up to the far north, and taking up an undue amount of my mental processing power.

Given the lack of route options, the weather forecast becomes more important. Do you go or stay? Try to outrun the next shower, or wait for it to cross the road ahead of you? Is that rain at lunchtime just a shower, or are you going to be stuck for the rest of the day? Or do you just ignore the whole thing, pull on the waterproofs, and plug on regardless (getting soaked in sweat instead)?

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Where the clouds clear for a while, the skies get bigger as the road goes north. The landscape at the very north end of mainland Scotland is not as imposing as you might think, leaving plenty of room for the sky and the sea to fill the space.

By the time you start the final gentle drop towards John o’Groats (below), you really do feel like you’re getting to the end of something, despite the fact that you’re not, really. You can see the island of Stroma fairly close by, and Orkney in the background, after all, so it’s not really the end of the road at all.

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If you’ve stuck with this blog for a while, you’ll know that I don’t really understand why John o’Groats is any sort of big deal. It’s not the northermost point in the UK, Great Britain or Scotland. And it’s not even really a town; more a collection of tourist-related services massed around a signpost.

But it’s been famous for ages as one end of the Lands End to John o’Groats (‘LEJoG’) route up Great Britain. And, more recently, it’s been included on Northern Scotland’s North Coast 500 route as well. So, for a signpost in the middle of nowhere, it does get a lot of visitors.

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I suppose, technically, arriving at John o’Groats on Saturday meant that I’d completed my own LEJoG ride in 2020, albeit by an extremely convoluted route. Perusing the records, it looks like I took 33 days, compared to most riders taking 8 or 9 in a stright line. But then, most of them don’t go via Kent, or ride 40kg rigs. To be honest, I was happier to have hit 3000 km without any punctures, mechanical issues or physical breakdowns. Had the South America trip happened, I’d be just a few days south of Santiago in Chile by now.

There was a fairly brisk headwind yesterday, as I headed west from John o’Groats. Given the headwind, and a few tough days ahead, I’d already decided to just trundle across to Thurso. A short ride, but it did give me the chance to have a look at Dunnet Bay (below), and the actual northernmost point of Great Britain at Dunnet Head, across the water.

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The current headache is again the weather. There’s a big storm spinning in from the Atlantic, which is a reminder that things will get autumnal soon. It’s also apparently a massive lump of wind and rain, which should make conditions horrendous across the whole country tomorrow (Tuesday). Except for the very, very northern edge, apparently.

So, I’m resting up in Thurso on a perfectly ridable day today, in the hope that the weather forecast is right, and I can get pushed across Scotland by the edge of the big storm tomorrow, but without getting (too) wet.

It’ll be astonishing if that works out…

Touring the UK – Map and Stats

After hurtling (relatively speaking) back to Bristol from the top of Shetland in a mere 30 hours, by bike, ferry, train, and bike again, I’ve had a few days off to relax.

And now’s the chance to get a bit of reflection in on the UK tour, before planning begins in earnest for resuming the round-the-world trip in a couple of months (that’s looking like early December now, by the way).  From the Isles of Scilly to Shetland, it was a fair ride, with loads to think about along the way.

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I’ll put up a full post-mortem on what went well, what I’d have done differently, and so on, fairly shortly.  It’s also just possible that I’ll finally get around to updating the rest of the pages here to more accurately reflect what’s actually been going on for the last six months or so.

But for now, this is just the bare-bones summary (via a map and some statistics) of my little tour of the length of the UK.

MAP:

Hopefully, the Google maps gremlins of a few weeks ago have given themselves some time off.  This should show the route I took.  The markers show mainly overnight stops, with a few extras to clarify direction or ferry ports etc.

If Google (or even I) have once again failed to deliver any useful information on the map, you’ll just have to imagine it.

And every map needs some statistics to go with it.

STATS:

NB – these are all Bristol to Bristol (i.e. including travel to and from the start and finish of the ride).

Measurements:

Total Cycling Distance – 1814 km / 1127 miles
Total Ascent – 11231 m / 36838 ft (1.27 times the height of Mount Everest)
Overall Toughness Index – 61.91 (100 = Really Tough with bags on)
Toughest Area – Devon and Cornwall (SW England) – Average TI 85.66

Days:

Total Days (Bristol to Bristol) – 28
Full Riding Days – 19
Average Full Riding Day Mileage – 90 km / 56 miles
Rest, Short Ride and Travel Days – 9
Wet days – 2 (which is really quite remarkable for the UK)

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Geography and Transport:

Countries Ridden – 1 – the United Kingdom.  Or:
Countries Ridden – 4 – England, Wales, Northern Ireland, Scotland.  And:
British Crown Dependencies Ridden – 1 – Isle of Man
Islands Ridden – 11 – St Mary’s, Great Britain, Isle of Man, Ireland, South Ronaldsay / Burray, Glims Holm, Lamb Holm, Mainland (Orkney), Mainland (Shetland), Yell, Unst
Ferries – 12
Approximate Hours on Ferries – 28
Trains – 2
Approximate Hours on Trains – 14 (a tad longer than flying from London to Singapore)

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Diversity:

Issuers of UK pound-denominated banknotes spotted – 7 – Bank of England, Isle of Man Government, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Scotland, Royal Bank of Scotland (I missed out on the full set; First Trust, and Danske Bank notes – bizarrely, the Danes can apparently print pounds – eluded me in Northern Ireland)

Indigenous Languages Encountered – 6 to 9, depending on what’s a language and what’s a dialect – English, Cornish, Welsh, Manx, Irish Gaelic, Scots, Scots Gaelic, Orcadian, Shetlandic (Orcadian and Shetlandic are basically Scots mixed with Norn, an extinct Norse language)

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Miscellaneous:

Unfortunate Encounters with Trucks – 0
Near Misses with Traffic – 0
General Traffic Behaviour – Good
Dreadful road surfaces – Several, but Ayr (and the towns around it) stood out as actively dangerous to cyclists
Near-Catastrophic Skids due to Sheep Droppings – 1
Canine Confrontations – 1 (not serious)
Illness – just the explosive fish incident in Cornwall
Punctures – 0
Mechanical Problems – 0
Days cut short due to pain / discomfort from Thai accident damage – 1
Ibuprofen capsules taken – 32
Memorials to Russian Warships passed – 1 (and, yes, that’s specifically a memorial for the ship, not the people on it)

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Well, that’s the outline.  As I said above, I’ll post some more detailed thoughts on the ride later.  Those are likely to be fairly positive, due to the lack of any major disasters.  For now, I’ll just point out my clear preference for surface transport over planes.  As I left the Shetlands on the overnight ferry to Aberdeen, I was reminded how getting on a boat to go overseas really feels like travelling.  Far preferable to getting in a little metal tube to pop effortlessly from one concrete-and-glass terminal to another.

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And the view’s a little better too…

The North (Finally!)

UK Tour Stage 5 (Inverness to Unst, Shetland):
Cycling Distance – 360 km / 224 miles
Ascent – 2351 m / 7711 ft (0.27 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 65.25 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 1715 km / 1066 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 10448 m / 34269 ft (1.18 Everests)

NB: I’ve been trying to post this for 36 hours now; please pretend that I’m not at Aberdeen Railway Station waiting for a train south 😉

There should probably have been an update between Inverness and here, but it just didn’t quite work out (my new habit of falling asleep while typing reared its ugly head again, compounded by the severe lack of decent internet access at the top of the country – sorry!).

There have been a lot of miles and a lot of islands since the last post.

And, in a carefully-planned attempt to undermine any sense of suspense, and just in case you didn’t see the mini-post earlier, I guess it’s worth starting with the fact that the road north finally ran out on Monday at around eleven-fifteen:

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That’s it.  The northernmost bit of road in the UK.  Just next to the northernmost house in the UK.  Just over the insanely steep hill from the northernmost phone-box, bus stop and brewery in the UK.

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The target of the last few weeks.  Since the sunny Isles of Scilly (above) at the southern end of the UK.  Four countries.  Over a thousand miles.  Climbing more than the height of Mount Everest.  Lugging 25 kgs of bags.  A proper test of my shoulder and back (which they’ve passed with flying colours – and a bit of ibuprofen).  Journey’s end.  Phew!

Except for another sixty-odd miles back down to the ferry south.  And, given how well my body has held up, another eight or nine thousand miles to finish the round-the-world trip in the fairly near future.

But that’s all to come.  Where have I been for the last few days?

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After leaving Inverness, the road north basically hugs the east coast all the way to the top end of Great Britain.  The landscape changes quite slowly (essentially, it rolls, sometimes by the shore, sometimes on clifftops), with lots of dives into little harbours, like the one above at Brora.

But one thing is immediately obvious to the road user.  Through the Highlands, all the signs are bilingual, with English and Scottish Gaelic (British language number – what? – six ish?) sharing space.  From Inverness northwards, on the coast at least, they’re not.

Why not?  Because heading north, you’re heading into Viking country.  There are many parts of the UK with Viking place names (they got around a bit, the Vikings), and they’ve tended to stay more-or-less the same, so there’s no real need for bilingual signposts.  That said, there’s nowhere I’ve been before in this country where the Nordic influence is as strong as in Orkney and Shetland.

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After John O’Groats, which is the northern end of the Lands End to John O’Groats ‘end to end’ (and which, as a pedant, I should point out – probably for the tenth time – is neither the northernmost point of Scotland nor Great Britain), I hit another ferry, this one to Orkney.  You can see Orkney pretty clearly from John O’Groats, so it would be hard to be happy with finishing there, in my little world, at least.

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And Orkney’s where you really start to feel the Scandinavian influence.  Kirkwall, the capital of Orkney, is home to St Magnus’ Cathedral (above, behind the Beastlet).  You don’t get much more Nordic than Magnus as a name.  And the accents are fantastic; a beautiful mixture of soft Scottish pronunciation with lilting Scandinavian intonation.  Like a cross between Highland Scots and Swedish accents.  I’ve just changed ‘accent’ to ‘accents’ in the last sentence, as a couple of conversations in the bar in Shetland made it clear that locals up here can spot the difference in speech between one island and the next, let alone between Orkney and Shetland.

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Anyway, once in Orkney and Shetland, you really are in the Viking sphere of influence.  Both have flags with off-centre crosses (like Norway, Sweden, and so on).  And there’s a lot of shared history.  Shetland (Hjaltland) was actually part of Norway for a long time before becoming part of Scotland.

Heading north into Shetland, you can appreciate how beautiful, and how isolated it is (the picture above gives you a good idea).  And Shetland itself is an archipelago, within the larger one of the British Isles, so there are more ferries between islands with fantastic names; from slightly boring Mainland, through Yell (or YELL?) to Unst.

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Unst is definitely Norse; I stayed in Baltasound, and headed to the top of the country through Haroldswick (above), which sounds as Scandinavian as you could want.  It’s just as beautiful and harsh as the rest of Shetland, and the working farms and inhabited houses are regularly interspersed with reminders of how tough life up here was in the past:

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The end of the road nearly came as a nasty shock.  Just a couple of hundred yards from the end, I discovered just how slippery sheep droppings can be.  That would have been close to the ultimate catastrophe; being taken out by dense woolly creatures within touching distance of my goal.

Still, one heart-in-mouth front-wheel skid later, I was there.  Job done after a little over three weeks and a little over a thousand miles.

I’m rushing for a ferry south at the moment, so will provide a more measured summary of the trip (maybe even with a working map!) in a couple of days, once I’m back in southern England.  But it’s been a good little ride, and I’m sorry it’s over.

Now I just have to keep the fitness up to take on the rest of the world later in the year…