One year on…..
It’s now almost year since our LEJOG. And to help others plan their own adventure, we thought it would be good to write up our views on our route as it rode, given a detailed discussion of how we arrived at it, the pros and cons of the different options we considered, the state of all the off road paths on the route, the best B&Bs and cafes we encountered, and our tips for the scenery along the way.
So here it is!
You can find the links to the .gpx maps we used under “The Route” tab on this site, as well as the pre-trip description of the route that we wrote for our Flemish friends.
Note, the names on the .gpx links under “The Route” tab above reflect the route as initially planned. The routes they link to are marginally different reflecting the routes as finally planned and actually cycled. The reasons for the differences are explained day by day below.
Planning the Dream….
Pete and I both agree that our End2End was one of the best things either of us had ever done – and a very good part of that was down to the route we took.
Looking back at what we wrote when we planned the route, did it live up to our expectations? Yes. And more.
Ours was a way through the minor country roads of Britain, canal paths and old railway lines, amidst all the flowers and leaves of Spring. The British countryside at its absolute, glorious best.
Not simply an achievement. Every day was a pleasure and a joy and an adventure in itself.
Of course we were blessed with extraordinary weather, as the daily blog shows. But, even apart from that, the whole journey was continually involving and enthralling from “End2End”.
I can’t possibly better Mike Garnham’s description on his excellent “LEJOG with a Difference” Blog on the CTC LEJOG website (it pleases me to write that as an old Essex CCC fan who watched him keep wicket), so let me quote:
“This is the story of a trip through a whole other England. Scotland is as Scotland always was, but there are so many Englands, and we set out to explore the one which is built around the likes of Much Marcle, St Columb Major, Egloskerry, Coleford (is there a more perfect village in all the world?), Grittleton, Hope-under Dinmore (OK, I know, but Oh what a name!), that little Shropshire gem, Cardington, as well as ancient market towns such as Leominster and Ludlow, Wem and Whitchurch. This is the England of church bells and canals, of small country pubs and village fetes; a place which understands how to locate the most gorgeous buildings or bridges in exactly the right spot in the landscape. A place where beauty seems to come before utility, yet it all appears to work. A place as timeless as if Thomas Hardy were writing about it still.
This England is of hedges and dry-stone walls, village greens and stone mile-markers. A country of English bond or Flemish bond brickwork, not Lego-inspired estate stretcher-bond. A delight of oak framed cottages, 400 year old front doors, and hand-made panes of glass in hand-worked lead cames. Porches and ivy, chimneys and thatch, thousand year old cathedrals and twice as old Roman roads. We immersed ourselves in this England for almost two wonderful weeks of gentle exploration. I can’t tell you just how beautiful this country is….
For days on end we pootled along in a rural idyll. We stopped to drink and eat flapjacks in field entry gates, and peed behind hedges. We took endless photos of sheep and cows, and enchanting, timeless rural hill scenes. Little arched bridges over bubbling little streams were a particular favourite, as were canals. We helped a few hand-painted traditional narrow boats “lock-through” at various places along our route, and cycled along excellent tow-paths on the Grand Western Canal between Tiverton and Taunton, then the Bridgewater-Taunton Canal. Later, the Union Canal in Edinburgh provided us with both a haven from the traffic and confusion….”
Our route was different to Mike’s, but the inspiration and experience was very much the same.
If this is the kind of cycling you enjoy, and the sort of LEJOG experience you are after, read on…..
The Golden Rule: Cyclist, Know Thyself!
There is no such thing as the End2End route that is perfect for everyone.
You need to match your planned route to your time constraints, your physical abilities, and your interests, your own idiosyncratic likes and dislikes, so you have something that works for you.
The only real recipe for a successful End2End route is individual – you need to maximise your own enjoyment to the maximum extent possible given your constraints.
Other than that it really doesn’t matter if your route takes 6 days or 6 weeks.
Our route worked for us because it matched our constraints, our abilities and our interests. We were lucky to have three weeks to play with – 19 days cycling. Both of us loathe traffic with a passion as much as we love small country lanes, hedgerows, canal and railway paths. The uncomfortable feeling and the violent noise of cars coming up on your shoulder and passing you close is something we set out to avoid with our route.
The aim was not merely to have only light and traffic but, to the maximum extent we could, next to zero or even absolute zero traffic. And that we did.
A note on time constraints and shorter journeys
Maybe you don’t have quite so much time as our three weeks?
We are hardly the quickest cyclists. And I think more or less anyone could travel the same route taking a few days less than us without undue difficulty. Shorter than that, though, would be pushing it.
Even if you can’t do the whole route, however, I’d hope if you look through it there is something you might find interesting and worth incorporating in a quicker route.
The off-road through the canals of Southern Lancashire, for example, was a fast and efficient and interesting and attractive route through a busy area most people don’t enjoy….
Our Lake District route was only a few miles more than the more conventional routes further East near the Howgills, not that hilly at all, and gave access to some of the best countryside in England….
The route we took through the Cotswolds up to the Cheshire Plain was a little to the East of the more usual route over the Severn Bridge and up the Welsh Marches. But the countryside in these days was some of the best of the lot, especially along the superlative NCR 45 route north of Worcester through the Wyre Forest and along the Severn Gorge…
We could go on. Check out the day-by-day route descriptions and see what you think you might like….
How the route was planned
All in all we put over 3 months work into the route until my girlfriend was going spare!
A lot south of the Scottish border was based on personal knowledge – I’d cycled in a lot of these regions and along a good number of the possible alternative routes before and I already had a fair idea of what I liked and disliked, which parts of the country I though most scenic, etc.
Over and above that it was hours upon hours:
– on bikemap.net plotting routes and alternatives;
– checking contour maps to decide whether it was worth going over or round this or that hill;
– reading the CTC and Cyclechat End2End forums for advice on this or that stretch;
– scouring Phil Horsley’s End2End book (“the Great British Bike Adventure”) for ideas;
– searching through local authority, Sustrans and British waterway websites to identify off-road options and whether we thought they were better than the on-road alternatives;
– ferry timetables for the ferries on the route;
– Google Streetview and satellite imagery for tricky bits of detail;
– TripAdviser and Google Maps to identify possible B&Bs, bike shops, etc.
In this way we first fixed the general line of the routes we were taking, and then through constant (not to say obsessive) iteration, refined them further and further into greater and greater detail (deciding whether this or that hill should be rounded or taken straight, whether this or that line should be taken through this or that town, etc) – until we had our route.
Last minute changes were made right up to the end. The very last pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place were:
a. the opening of the new NCR 45 “missing link” between Bridgnorth and Ironbridge a fortnight before we set off: an absolutely brilliant route and a no-brainer choice as soon as it became possible.
b. a last minute decision prompted by CTC discussion to take the north shore of the Beauly Firth north of Inverness and then cut back from Muir of Ord towards Dingwall, instead of taking the more direct NCR 1 route near the A9; a choice for a slightly longer, more scenic but less hilly route.
On-road or off-road – The Opposing Views
A glance at the CTC End2End forum shows there are two schools of thought on this question.
One holds off-road routes are a bit of a pain….
You have to stop to open the odd gate, which some really dislike but other like us find a trivial issue.
For a certain section of cyclists they are not quite purist: i.e. for them it is not what long distance cycling ought to be about. The surface is not as good as a road so you are a bit slower (NB: except in Dumfrieshire, where the tarmac is terrible and – bizarrely – seems to get worse as you move up from minor to main roads).
There is the fear of a puncture or worse, especially if you are riding a sleek road bike.
They rarely work well for those with trailers or tandems, etc.
I’ve no criticism to make of those points. All of these are perfectly good and sufficient reasons to avoid off-roads . Indeed, if you are of those views they are, by definition, right for you and off-roads clearly won’t give you pleasure, which is what it is all about.
But we are emphatically of the other view. The plusses of off-road for us massively outweigh the disadvantages.
First, zero cars. Zero. Peace. Blissful, relaxing, peace. The wind rustling through the trees, the sound of water in the canal locks, bird song in silent woodland, lowing cattle in the fields, etc. Heaven.
Second, the surface of most UK off-road cycle routes is now a damned site better than people who don’t often ride them (or only have done a while back) usually Bear in mind we were travelling unsupported with 12-14kg rear panniers, and in my case on not especially high quality 25mm tyres on a lightweight Marin Sausalito hybrid. And neither of us had a puncture the whole route after Land’s End (Peter did have a puncture on the way to Land’s End on the road at Lamorna– but that doesn’t count as it was before the start!).
Third, following on from that, next to no need for pushing. It is often thought by the road hounds that the surface of a lot of cycle ways must be so bad you must constantly need to get off and push. Not true. In our case you really only had to push was for about 150m on the West side of Windermere and 150m to the East of Loch Oich. (see daily entries below.) Trivial amounts. And the second one of these had a new cycle path being laid on an old rail bed when we passed, so that has probably disappeared by now as well.
Fourth, speed. Of course, you will generally go a bit faster on a road. But bear in mind that cycle paths along canals and old railways have the easiest gradients imaginable and sometimes (although not invariably) take pretty direct lines. So it is a moot point in many cases whether the extra speed on the road actually saves you any material amount of time to make up for the traffic.
Fifth, continual mental stimulation. Don’t underestimate this. A lot of the trip is in the mind. For both of us the hardest parts of the route were the long straight roads in Dumfries and Galloway where the issue is not so much physical (we are talking mostly pancake flat) as mental – there is little to do but count telegraph poles till the next bend a km or two in the distance…. This can be sapping. A varied off-road on the other hand is usually so continually interesting you eat up the mileage almost without noticing it, and without the cars on your shoulder you can chat to your companion as you go, or not as the mood takes you.
At the end of the day there is no right and wrong answer to these issues – only the personal preferences of different people.
What works for you is right for you.
But, if you have not tried off-road routes and harbour some prejudices, I’d recommend you try out a few in your training for End2End so that you can make up your own mind based on your own experience.
A “grading” system for the surface of off-road routes
This is a perennial discussion on the CTC threads. What is the state of this or that off-road?
To try to address this, and to give a semi-objective measure to make it easier to understand the state of different paths and compare them with each other, I’ve described the state of particular off-road sections in the day-by-day route descriptions below using the following entirely personal Off Road Route (“ORR”) classification system:
ORR 1. Top notch path on asphalt suitable for all bikes
ORR 2. Top notch unmade path, probably fine crushed stone, suitable for all bikes including road bikes on skinny tyres
ORR 3. Good unmade path. Often fine crushed stone and/or pressed earth but no significant mud or sharp gravel. Free draining but typically a bit less well-maintained in places. Your typical average former railway path. Ok for road bikes with skinny tyres with care. But more suitable for tourers and hybrids, for whom no significant problems.
ORR 4. Similar to above but a bit rougher, with maybe a little (emphasis on little) more mud and grass. Your average canal path. Just about “ok” for road bikes with skinny tyres. But not ideal and near the margin. Still more than OK for touring bikes and hybrids, but a little (emphasis on little) bit slower.
ORR 5. As 4, but with patches of sharper gravel/stones/potholes/mud occasionally creeping in, which you will usually be able to cycle round. Still perfectly fine, therefore, for hybrids and touring bikes if this sort of thing does not phase you, but requiring a little bit more care.
ORR 6. As 5, but the gravel/stones/potholes/mud are getting a bit more commonplace to the extent that that from time to time you may need to push a touring or hybrid bike over the obstructions, albeit not often or for any length. Again, no real problems provided this does not phase you.
ORR 7. As 6 but the gravel/stones/potholes/mud are now getting so prevalent that, while you could still just about make progress on a hybrid or touring bike, you would probably want a mountain bike to do this.
ORR 8. As 7, but more so, so that the mountain bike is no longer so much preference, but more a necessity. You would have to have a good reason and be prepared for a lot of pushing to take a hybrid or touring bike this way.
ORR 9. Same as 8. But more so. Heavy going even on a mountain bike.
ORR 10. The toughest trails. Challenging/marginal even on a mountain bike.
(NB: these grades only relate to the state of the surface. They are not a general measure of the merits and demerits of off-road routes vis-à-vis the nearby on road alternatives in terms of relative speed, relief, scenic appeal, etc. For that type of wider assessment, see the day-by-day notes below. )
Following the route
Until End2End I’d always used a traditional map – and had a pretty high opinion of my own map reading abilities.
Finally after a month of training I bit the bullet and bought a Garmin Edge 800 – it sold itself to me by virtue of having the UK’s OS 1:50,000 series fully loaded rather than the rather inferior maps found in earlier machines.
It was great (despite once or twice needing to be reset for some accountable reason when it failed to get up in the morning with us which caused a momentary panic the first day it occurred at the start of Day 2 until a call to Garmin sorted it out – see the daily blog).
We also carried two back-ups.
We had laboriously printed out all the bikemap.net maps of our route on waterproof A5 on whatever background and scale was needed for this or that stretch, and wire bound them together in a small book. In total that came to some 100 odd pages.
We also had laminate pages from a 1:250,000 OS road atlas.
We could have done the route without the Garmin with these.
And you sure must have a back-up if your technology fails, which it might. (A couple of the longer days we also lost battery power for the last half hour or so.)
But the fact is without that Garmin, given the intricacy of our route at least in Southern and Central England, it would most days have added at least an hour to each day as we would have had constantly to stop and check the maps. And sure we would have made some mistakes.
The Garmin was great. It took all that away. So I’m a convert.
But for God’s sake if you are new to this game like us give yourself a good couple of months to play around with the thing in training so you know your way around it. Use the Garmin and CTC tech fora on the internet to iron out any quirks and glitches you encounter. These are not the most intuitive bits of kit and they have their quirks. Assuming you will be able to just “plug and go” would be risking a lot, unless you are much more technically literate than us….
Accommodation – to book or not to book?
We booked in advance our first and last days, plus the days falling in the Easter and May Bank Holidays. At that time in Spring we did not feel the need to book the rest in advance, and certainly in the first week we benefited from that flexibility – we had a list of places along the route and called ahead mid-afternoon to secure a spot.
But after the first week when we were in a routine and pretty sure how much we would want to do each day, we booked up the remainder for the peace of mind. By the time we were in Cheshire we were booked through to the end.
Sure in Summer I would recommend booking through. The last thing you want is to be hunting around at the end of a long day only to find most places are full.
The Route Day-by-Day – Planning Notes
Day 1: Land’s End to Veryan
We took this route mainly because I prefer the scenery on this route to that further north around Cambourne and Redruth, which I find a bit dull.
All minor roads. No off-road to speak of – the tiny east stretch east of Penzance to Marazion is immaterial.
Hilly, for sure. This is Cornwall. But not ludicrously so. And a good, logical line. It’s actually easy from Land’s End to Penzance and round St Mount’ Bay. The route skirts round the big hill at Godolphin Cross before hitting the day’s heaviest up-and-down stretch in the 5 miles before Rame. After that it gets a lot easier up to the King Harry Ferry (always fun – and in our case maybe a bit more than expected: see below and read the daily blog and check the photos!), before you get back into the hills of the Roseland Peninsula – but by then you are almost done.
We had originally intended to finish our first day at Polgooth just outside St Austell – but our 1st choice B&B there was not open and since, for a couple of reasons detailed in the blog, we had a slow start on our first day, we cut it short at Veryan. Beautiful village with several B&Bs. And a truly great pub with fine food. If you want to push on through though, no reason at all why you could not get to St Austell on the first day, where there are plenty of places to stay. In which case no need to go down and up the hill to Veryan – just keep on the A3078 through Ruan High Lanes and take the next minor road right towards Caerhays till you pick up our route on Day 2.
If you have time on the way down to Land’s End and are cycling from the station at Penzance, why not try either the southern coastal route round Lamorna (like us) or even (but only for the brave or foolish) the spectacular northern route round St Ives and Zennor and Cape Cornwall. Too much, probably, for your first day of End2End proper when you want to get on. But beautiful, beautiful routes down to Land’s End if you have the time…..
Check out The Cycle Centre at 1 New Street, Penzance TR18 2LZ 01736 351671 for last minute bits of kit if you need them (you shouldn’t, and neither should we have done, but we did – check the daily blog). Great shop and friendly staff including a Cornwall MTB competitor who has ridden Bristol to Penzance in a day, rather putting our efforts to shame….
Trellisick Garden on the hill down to the King Harry Ferry is a great place to stop for tea, if you have the time.
Per our daily blog, we arrived at the King Harry Ferry to find it was in dry dock – a once in five years’ event!. Having cycled there more times than I can remember this was, of course, the one ferry on the whole route I had not checked to see if it was running. But they kindly gave us a tea and rowed us across in turn in a small boat – so it worked up fine. This will not happen to you. But if you are ultra cautious, you may just want to check….. The manager, by the by, was doing LEJOG in September after us…. You might want to ask him how it went.
Above all, do not – repeat not – get phased by the relatively slow going in Cornwall and West Devon. It’s official: 3 cycling miles in Cornwall and Devon count as 4 miles elsewhere – Scotland included. So, if you plan 50 mile days in Cornwall and West Devon, you will easily manage 65, 70 or so elsewhere. Plus, of course, starting from Land’s End, it will take you a couple of days to hit your rhythm. Build this into your planning. No point killing yourself and putting at risk the rest of your trip by overdoing these first days….
Incidentally after we plotted this route we found Al Pewsey’s excellent LEJOG website…. and discovered we had plotted a more or less identical route. Great minds think alike/fools seldom differ and all that….! But it was a complete coincidence, honest!
Day 2: Veryan to Horsebridge
Hilliest day of the trip – but also one of the most scenic.
The “trick” with the route planning this day was to avoid both the A30 and the A38 – horrible, busy, death-trap roads we would not be seen dead on, on a bike. To coin a phrase. This route, still a relatively well-known one along the southern rim of Bodmin Moor via Minions follows a logical line in between the two, and is a relatively common one for End2Enders.
All minor roads – no off-road at all.
The route begins with an hour of hills in the deep sunken lanes of the lovely Roseland peninsula. In Spring especially this is like cycling through a never ending garden with wild primroses, daffodils and bluebells and honesty lining the sides of the routes. Steep but not especially so. Then it’s easier and mostly downhill on the approaches to St Austell.
If you have time to burn, look out for the Lost Gardens of Heligan – you pass the entrance a few miles south of St Austell.
St. Austell is as workaday Cornish town as you will meet. But lots of accommodation. And a good chance to take on supplies as you are going on to remoter areas after this – the next significant settlement is Okehampton on Day 3.
A pull up out of St. Austell and around the Eden Project, and then there is a beautiful, exquisite and (very surprisingly) mainly flat route north towards Bodmin through a sort of “lost” Cornish valley which the NCR follows on a tiny forgotten road with lots of mysterious stunted woodland. Wonderfully remote. Real back of beyond territory.
From there you turn east past Lanhydrock House (another good potential tea stop), narrowly avoiding the A30, then down into a wooded valley, up the other side and a long climb up a sweeping steep left-hand bend takes you up to the shoulder of Bodmin Moor. At the top as the road bends right there is a great tea ship set in a fine little garden (Pinsla Garden and Nursery – check it out on Google to see if it will be open) with some crazy home sculptures. Superb spot. Great place for a stop.
Then its up/down/up/down on minor roads along the south side of the Moor, working across the grain of the land, with the open moor to the north and the steeped wooded river valleys running down to the South.
After the steepest climb out of all these valleys on a wooded lane, the country flattens out a mile or so short of Minions and opens out, giving tremendous views right down to the Channel to the South and, looking back, all the way to the china clay workings (aka the Cornish Alps) near St Austell where you passed hours earlier in the day, and then beyond way down west into Cornwall. Make sure on this stretch you stop to take in the view from the roof of the peninsula, and check out the 9th century King Doniert’s Cross just beside the side of the road to the right.
Minions is at the top of the ride for the day, where you cross behind the shoulder of Caradon Hill with its transmitter masts. More superb view, and a great place to take a tea stop in the Post Office. Make sure you take a look at the huge stone circle known as The Hurlers on the edge of the moor proper, just a couple of hundred yards north of the village.
After Minions you will find your pace picks up considerably from there to the end of the day with an immensely long downhill from Minions followed by some much easier up and downs before Horsebridge. For the rest of the trip the phrase “We were only at Minions at 4 O’Clock on Day 2!!!” became a refrain when we usually hit the same mileage about lunchtime. As noted above for Day 1 do not, repeat not, get phased by the slow going in Cornwall and West Devon – you will pick up speed thereafter!
Crossing the Tamar out of Cornwall on the ancient stone bridge at the bottom of the steeply wooded and dramatic Tamar Valley at the end of Day 2 is a Significant Milestone – out of one county (or country) into another, a spectacular spot, a sign that the hills are (almost) coming to an end.
Note: we stayed at a B&B in Beera Farm just north of Horsebridge. Great place – but in season they normally only take people staying a few days. Other accommodation options around Horsebridge are slim – so plan carefully! Maybe you will need to push on to Lydford (an hour or so further on) where they is plenty….. in which case maybe best to get to St Austell on Day 1.
Horsebridge to Hele (near Cullompton)
Home from home for me, this day – I used to live near Chagford on the East side of Dartmoor and have cycled backwards and forwards over this landscape many a time…
A much easier day: after the pull up from Horsebridge out of the Tamar valley there are few other significant hills in the day.
For the first part of the day the looming bulk of north Dartmoor dominates all the views. Eerily beautiful country. Check out beautiful Brent Tor with its hill-top church and Lydford Gorge along the way as you approach the moor, making sure to peer over the parapet of the bridge over the gorge into the chasm below….
The Granite Way (ORR 3 -4) from Lydford to Okehampton is brilliant – it follows the old railway and provides a flat route on a good track in a very hilly landscape, soaring over the valleys right in hard against the north west edge of Dartmoor on a series of viaducts. Highly recommended. The views north west over the lower country of north west Devon and out towards north Cornwall are huge.
The route shown in our link cuts out (1) a bit at the southern end of the Granite Way that seems to exist on the map but not reality, and (2) near Bridestowe takes a much shorter and easier link between the two off-road sections rather than the much longer and official way that gratuitously takes you all the way down and up a steep hill. Plus the linking route we followed also has a short stretch of really beautiful road planted on each side with beautiful, majestic beech trees. You may find this on the photos in the blog – we used it for the front cover or our own commemorative photo book.
Incidentally, there was a detailed discussion re the Granite Way on an early Spring 2012 thread on the CTC End2End forum (“LEJOGish”). I could simply could not believe some of the comments on the state of the Granite Way which suggested this trivially easy route (to our mind at least, and provided you are not on a tandem or with a trailer) was tantamount to uncycleable! This only goes to reinforce the point I made earlier: views on off road routes in the long distance cycling community are fundamentally divided and ne’er the twain shall meet. I guess you will know your own views on this well enough before you set out! Anyway, coming from Lands End the Granite Way on this route will be the first significant off road section, so you can make up your mind about the grading I give it and whether that is reasonably accurate – or a load of rubbish! And, comparing the grade I give the Granite Way with the grading I give other off road sections on other days will also give you an idea of what you are letting yourself in for!
Numerous good places for lunch in Okehampton, the slightly bleak but not unattractive town right under the north prow of Dartmoor. And bike shops. Noel Edmonds is a local and sometimes drops by from time to time…
Short easy pull out of Okehampton (if you have not had too much for lunch) thereafter the route stays on minor roads with gentle contours close in around the north edge of the Moor with views of its highest tors,. You cross the busy A30 on a bridge by Widdon Down at the very top of the route, and thence along the quiet “Old A30” looping back and forth over the new road with views to the lovely country to the south above the Teign gorge, before turning north at Cheriton Bishop and heading steeply down a winding valley to emerge, at a lot lower altitude, in the flat fields around Crediton.
This is a definite rubicon. You have now left he granite uplands you have followed all the way from Lands End and emerged in the thick red iron rich soils of the West Country of central Devon and Somerset….
The route dog legs around just outside Crediton to cut out a hill. Crediton is a bit of a bland place IMHO, but you can find a place for afternoon tea.
From Crediton to the end of the Day the route dodges the Cadbury Hills (you definitely don’t want to face these at the end of the day) circling round to the south on the minor roads of “Rob’s Passage”, as it is termed on the CTC forum, to finally cross the Exe (another Significant Milestone) and finish just south of Cullompton.
You could, as an alternative, go straight over Dartmoor. What are the pros and cons? It’s a big but not monstrous climb. We did have it planned out as an alternative. But ultimately on the day we decided against it though. The weather was a bit cloudy on the day, and this really is a road for fine weather. And great road though it is, it is busy (or at least for traffic phobes like us it is). If you do go “over the top” just make sure you have the legs and the rain gear (just in case – you never know up there) – and enjoy. The Warren House Inn (where the fire is always kept) is a fine pub right on top of the moor between Postbridge and Moretonhampstead. The alternative route we plotted also takes in Chagford, Castle Drogo (after a short but steep pull up from Chagford), and Drewesteignton before rejoining our main route at Cheriton Bishop– all lovely spots and the last with an especially fine old village pub, the Drewe Arms.
Day 4: Hele (near Cullompton) to Wells
The route on this day was simplicity itself – from Cullompton we just picked up the NCR 3 and followed it all the way to Wells.
For large parts of the way this follows the canals north of Tiverton Parkway and then from Taunton to Bridgewater.
Al Pewsey was not so keen on these paths – he found the surface a bit rough and the going slow.
All I can say is we did not. I’d give it a fairly steady ORR 4. Maybe the surface has been improved more recently, but this was a quick and lovely route. It was helped by the fact that on this day the sun, which had been a bit patchy for us up to then, came out in force and stayed that way pretty much for the rest of the trip – in fact we hardly saw a cloud in the sky for the whole of the route after this until we had a slightly cloudy few hours in the southern Lakes (and that was only half a day). Lovely, peaceful riding on the canal paths with the sun glinting off the water, fish rising, old lime kilns, locks and other industrial heritage with lots of information boards. Beautiful.
You leave the canals for a short while to pull over the shoulder of the Blackdown Hills and over the Devon/Somerset watershed (another Significant Milepost) into the Tone valley leading to Taunton. These are lovely quiet, lost lanes, with some great old villages and house, a lovely area. The route here also goes through some spectacular sunken lanes, not so much sunken in fact but almost wooded gorges cut deep into the rich red earth….
Taunton: great place for lunch with lots of nice places to eat. We stopped at “The Olive Tree”. Really nice, Highly recommended.
North of Taunton the canal path travels through more open country, with sweeping views across North Somerset. For us in the glorious may sunshine glinting off the water and hypnotically yellow fields of oil seed rape all around, it was beautiful going.
Nice pub just by the canal side just south of Bridgewater – check it out. When we were there, there were people swimming in the canal in the sunshine. May it be as sunny for you!
Change of scenery beyond Bridgewater – but still really nice. A mixture of Somerset levels and the long narrow ridge lines of the hills cutting through them, which before the levels were drained used to be islands, and in some wet winters still are.
You get to see Glastonbury Tor miles before you get to the town and as you approach there is a sense of excitement, with the Tor dominating the landscape. Eventually you drop off the ridges and head down to the strange, reed infested lower levels round the town with the peat working round about.
OK, when you finally get to Glastonbury its overrun by new age tat and actually a bit tacky. But it’s still interesting and attractive for all that, and has some fine tea shops.
A short run north through the flat fields and reed beds of the levels and around the shoulder of a low hill takes you to Wells, the last stop. Lovely evening sunshine for us on this day, slanting low across the land and illuminating the reeds like torches.
Wells is a different again – simply one of England’s most beautiful small towns with an amazing, lovely Cathedral. Do have a look round if you have time….
Route Options – Severn Bridge or Gloucester? Welsh Marches or the Cotswolds and Severn Valley?
There are some significant choices to be as the routes head north of the Mendips.
The first one is whether you are heading for the Severn Bridge or plan to stay East of the Severn at least as far north as Gloucester (the next crossing point).
The second question, over and above that, is whether you intend to head north to the Cheshire Plain through the Welsh Marches via Leominster and Ludlow, or to stay further East and head on up to the Severn Valley and reach the Cheshire plain that way.
In our route we went via the Cotswolds, Gloucester and the Severn valley – but on other occasions I’ve cycled round Bristol and the route to (but not over the Severn Bridge), and had week long cycling holidays in both Herefordshire/Forest of Dean/Black Mountains and the Shropshire Hills. Based on that experience, my own very personal view of the alternatives, is as follows:
All these alternatives are great – you can have a great time on any of them.
If you are going to the Severn Bridge then, obviously, you perforce have to go via Bristol and need to plot a route for that, either going for efficiency or taking in sites along the way such as Cheddar Gorge, Clifton Suspension Bridge, etc.
If on the other hand., you are heading for Gloucester you can either go via Bristol or, alternatively, the alternative possibility of going via the Cotswolds and avoiding Bristol altogether opens up.
Which one? Constraints and personal preferences. The choice is yours. Undoubtedly you can plot a fast route via Bristol. But, for what it is worth, when we compared mileages and ascent totals for a more “scenic” Bristol route keeping to minor roads and cycle trails with our Cotswold route, they were as near identical as made no difference. So we went with the Cotswolds as if you are going for scenery, that really is pretty hard to beat.
In terms of the larger question – Welsh Borders or Severn Valley? – I think, undoubtedly the fastest/most efficient overall routes are along the Welsh Borders – probably the most efficient of all being Bristol – Gloucester – Leominster rather than across the Severn Bridge.
In terms of scenery there is great scenery either way. If you cross the Severn Brodge you have the Bridge itself (of course) plus the chance to take in some of the Lower Wye Gorge, Tintern, and (depending on route) maybe some or other of the Forest of Dean or Black Mountain Borders. Further North, of course, you have Ludlow and the Shropshire Hills.
On the more easterly route via the Severn Valley you have the chance of the Cotswolds, the Gloucester-Sharpness Canal, as well as Ledbury and the Malvern Hill borders and the superlative NCR 45 route north of Worcester through the Wyre Forest and along the Severn Valley Gorge to Ironbridge. The stretch from Bewdley to Ironbridge where I had not cycled before was, frankly, a revelation. The Severn in that stretch is a beautiful wooded gorge with not only the river but also the Severn Valley Steam Railway alongside and the most beautiful off-road paths. The whole stretch was as fine a one as any on our trip.
If your aim is to use only minor country lanes my impression, personally, is that this is somewhat easier to achieve on the Eastern route up the Severn Valley . You certainly could do this in the Welsh marches as well– but if you wanted to cut out all the bigger roads on that route your ascent totals would probably climb considerably.
If you are aiming to maximise easy off road tracks, I would also suggest the advantage is definitely with the Eastern route – there are simply far more going in the right direction for End2End that you can string together into a logical progression.
But I repeat, whichever choice you make here, with a bit of effort you should be able to plot a beautiful route, so its really back to personal preferences….
Day 5: Wells to North Nibley (near Berkeley)
Back to the route day by day.
The climb out of Wells onto the Mendips is long but easy, and then you bounce East along minor roads with lovely flower strewn banks along the top of the Mendips before heading down to the Avon on the NCR 24. This follows and old railway line serving the long defunct Somerset coal mines. Hard to believe now – the landscape is so lovely, with the line alternately above the line of the land, contouring round the steep hills, and pushing through deeply wooded cuttings. ORR 3. Stops along the side of the path tell you about the geology and industrial heritage of the region, and also of the story of a particularly disastrous old train crash on the line you are following.
Note: the road on our GPX link does not quite link with the NCR 24 – it soars across the read overhead on a bridge! No matter, just follow the road on a couple of hundred yards bearing right, and you can easily walk the bike up the embankment to the NCR route. The NCR 24, like all the off-roads today, has a superb surface. ORR 3.
There is a lovely café/bike and boat hire place where the NCR 24 comes down to the Avon just before the viaduct and just beside the water. Great place to stop for lunch. While we were there a boating party managed to capsize their craft, somehow or other. No one hurt – in fact it added to the general merriment.
At the Avon you have a route choice – left along the canal path to Bath, or right to Bradford-on-Avon.
I say right. Either way the path alongside the canal is lovely. But I’ve cycled round Bath before and once you leave the Avon the surrounding hills are brutally steep. In contrast the route north from Bradford on the NCR 254 once you leave the Avon is much more forgiving, and Bradford-upon-Avon is itself a lovely little town.
And as you climb up reflect the Avon is another Significant Milestone – you have now crossed from the West Country to the Midlands.
Check out Corsham as you head north through the quiet open hills of the southern Cotswolds – the most Easterly point of the entire route and the location for the bunker the government would have gone to if Armageddon had struck in the cold war.
Then check out the ancient Foss Way, and the incredible Badmington Estate of horse trial fame (I never realised it was from round here till be passed), before the road dives off the western Cotswold escarpment down a steep twisting road with spectacular views across the Severn Valley.
Look out as well for the Tyndale Memorial atop the escarpment.
The slightly twisting route at the end of the route reflects our last minute decision to stay at a B&B at North Nibley (palatial place with great owners) rather than in Berkeley. Feel free to iron it out – or follow us. If you do you follow us will pass an incredible space age house, all glass and steel, half buried into the ground. It has just recently been built by a successful businessman, apparently. “Grand Design” does not begin to do it justice.
Day 6: North Nibley to Wichenford
Another very, very good day with a lot of off-road, quiet lanes, and great scenery. A favourite of Peter, especially.
A glance at the map shows the route follows a very logical line: north along the Sharpness to Gloucester Canal to Gloucester, then north through Ledbury and along the West side of the Malverns, before cutting back through the hills on the A44 (a very short stretch of A road for us! Luckily a traffic light contra-flow when we passed reduced the traffic to our usual preferred minimum) in the gap just north of the Malverns, before the last stretch to Peter’s brother’s house at Wichenford in the hills North West of Worcester.
Obviously you will not be staying with Peter’s family so you would need to find some different accommodation, but google maps will show you plenty of other B&B options roundabouts in the region.
In more detail…..
The route from North Nibley back across the M5 to Sharpness follows quiet country lanes that “select themselves”.
Berkeley is quite a pretty little town in whose castle (check it out) Edward II, reportedly, came to a very sticky end.
Sharpness docks only a little further on are small but surprisingly still have a bit going on. For those of us quite into in this type of industrial landscape, it has its interest.
You need to use the pedestrian bridges at the very, very end of the canal to get round to the towpath on the West Side – check the GPS plot and satellite view. From here you get great sweeping views down and up the Servern, and across to the north end of the Forest of Dean on the far side.
The towpath is not an official cycle path although clearly lots of cyclists use it.
It starts unpromisingly with a c.200m or so of grass over hardcore then c.200m of broken asphalt (a heavy ORR 4) before settling down to a very typical canal cycle path for the rest of the way (ORR 4). Not the fastest of surfaces, but more than compensated by the dead straight line and extreme flatness. If you wish there is a parallel NCR on country lanes but I am not sure that would be any faster, and the canal has lots going on and lots of interest along the way. I think, from memory, we picked it out after someone on a CTC LEJOG thread mentioned it as one of the scenic highlights of their route.
Eventually you pull into Gloucester docks which have undergone some serious urban regeneration and are quite attractive as a result.
Highly recommended is “Toast” – a pretty fantastic toasted sandwich place near the centre of the docks which the route goes right past, and which does some pretty way out stuff as well as the normal. When we were there, before Easter, the “special” was a Cadbury’s Crème Egg Toastie – but I settled for the Welsh Dragon (cheese, leek and chilli) which was superb.
Gloucester has some pretty big roads out of it but we cut those out using the City’s cycle paths (a little intricate – check the GPS plot carefully and scrutinise the route well beforehand, especially the small bridge crossing at the start that gets you into the “system”) which efficiently got us north west out of town any onto the B road heading towards Ledbury. On the way you pass, and in fact cross, Thomas Telfords old bridge over the Severn, just south of the modern A40 road bridge.
After a short stretch on the B road north (not too much traffic for a B road, even for us) it was back on quiet country lanes through bluebell woods and orchards towards Ledbury across the Gloucester/Hereford border, all pretty easy rolling landscape and quick going.
Ledbury itself is a beauty – we took a short left off the route in the town centre to have tea opposite the old black and white Tudor market hall.
There is a hill out of Ledbury to gain the road on minor road north on the West side of the Malverns, but nothing to write home about, and thereafter that road was really quite remarkably level and fast, making for very good progress north through beautiful scenery with the ridge line of the Malverns on the right and rolling Herefordshire hills on the left, until the A44 gap noted above.
Why West of the Malverns rather than East? The Eastern side is dead flat most of the way for sure. But the West side is pretty easy too (see above), it is near impossible to string a logical route together on the East side that avoids busy roads, and the scenery, although good on both sides, is best on the West.
The quiet country lanes north of the A44 to Wichenford were actually the biggest of the day, but nothing much in the scheme of things, and with the sun going down now in the West behind the ridge line running north of the Malverns really rather beautiful. This is Elgar country. Quiet as quiet as the Heart of England can be. His birthplace and museum are just a mile or two east, if you wish to drop by.
Obviously you will not be staying with Peter’s family so you would need to find some different accommodation, but Google maps will show you other plenty of other B&B options roundabouts in the region.
Day 7: Wichenford to High Ercall
On a trip where we had so many, many great days (almost all of them in fact) it would be a invidious as picking a favourite child to pick one out of the best.
But if push came to shove I might just admit that this is one of those that might there or thereabouts be in the frame, as it was continually interest and beautiful from beginning to end. It was also, perhaps, coloured by the fact that this was one of the regions of the trip south of the Border I had not cycled through before, at least until the very northern end of the day beyond Ironbridge, so there was also the joy of discovery. I loved it. Sometimes cycling you have perfect days where everything just clicks and you ride in a blissful natural high. For me, this was one of those days.
Easy pretty country lanes on sunshine took us first down to the Severn from Wichenford, then across the bridge and north on peaceful equally pretty lanes to Stourport.
Stourport itself is no great shakes (a lorry passing us with junk on the way to the tip shed and old garden chair which skittered lazily along the road without the driver noticing) but you are through it in a moment, and then it was a lovely peaceful cycle path through the woods to Bewdley (ORR 4), a very pretty town on the river and great place to stop, if your timetable suits.
From Bewdley the route went on through the Wyre Forest. On the map this looks like a dog leg, and I’ll admit it is. But it is an exceptional one that not only cuts out busy roads, but has good tracks (ORR 3) and has some exceptional scenery – for us in Spring the trees were not quite out but the floor of the woods were carpeted with white wood anemones.
Down from the woods to the river on minor roads you meet the Severn Valley Railway with its steam trains and period architecture – a train was in the station puffing steam into the sunshine as we passed – and then over the river on a pedestrian/cyclists only bridge at a beautiful spot, before stitching back and forth up the beautiful river gorge to Bridgnorth on exceptionally pretty roads and the cycle trails (ORR 3) of the NCR 45 (the Mercian Way), and past yet more super attractive period stations on the railway, replete with 1930s ornamentation and artwork and poster.
There is one slightly rough couple of hundred yards of trail just east of the lake south of Bridgnorth (ORR a heavy 4) but, really, nothing to be concerned about – albeit I remembered SI, the CTC moderator, once posting that a friend of his had broken his lightweight on that stretch – he must have been very reckless is all that I can say!
Bridgnorth was also another attractive town previously unknown to me, and we had a good lunch in the sheltered back garden of a café (the Quays Tea Rooms on the Cartway) in brilliant sunshine a bare few yards north of the old bridge over the Severn, looking out over the river on the eastern side of the centre.
The route north from Bridgnorth to Ironbridge has recently been transformed by the opening of the new cycle-path plugging a missing link in the NCR 45. This opened just a fortnight before we passed through (were we the first End2Enders?) and is first class, possibly the best off-road of the whole trip.
An ORR 2, easily doable on road bikes, it follows the bottom of the wooded Severn gorge on a level track on a stretch with no roads at all on either side. Before this you would have had to follow relatively busy roads that followed hillier and more indirect routes outside the valley altogether. You would be insane not to use the NCR now. If you want a good definition of an anti-off road route fundamentalist in the long distance cycling community, then someone who would stay on the roads north of Bridgnorth to Ironbridge rather than take this route would fit that bill.
Linley Halt, half way along the gorge, is the “private” station (now a holiday cottage) the railway was forced to build for the local estate to get permission for the line, and is well worth a look. As is, a few yards beyond and 50 yards or so down the track to the right, the ornamental wrought iron bridge over the Severn leading to the said aristocrats former private estate. All in all, a lovely stretch.
The track pulls you straight into Ironbridge and, in no time at all, straight to the bridge itself, a real landmark, a great spot for photos and, if only we hadn’t eaten so recently in Bridgnorth, for tea.
There are several ways out of the valley from Ironbridge, all steep, but we took the cycle route up towards the Wrekin, which is probably the least steep and is very quiet.
If you are interested in quicker progress you could quite easily divert from our route by carrying on to the top and over the Wrekin on minor roads and straight on to High Ercall. However, about two thirds or the way up we cut west, staying on the NCR45 and then looped back towards High Ercall for two reasons. First, I am a sucker for Roman remains and this route gives you the chance to take in the remarkably well preserved Roman City of Wroxeter along the way. Second, The Mermaid at Atcham is a fine pub with a good riverside garden looking out by the old road bridge towards Shrewsbury and makes a lovely spot for a latish afternoon drink. The weather was perfect when we were there, with children playing in the shadows of the river. A great spot.
The NCR 45 route down from the Wrekin towards Atcham runs along lovely quiet lanes with great views to the South and West of Houseman’s blue remembered Shropshire Hills, as well as passing by some stupendously large and majestic Oak and Ash trees in the hedgrows.
The country lanes from Atcham to High Ercall are quiet and straightforward, as you rise slightly from the Severn valley onto the southern edge of the Cheshire Plain.
Day 8: High Ercall to Acton Bridge
Confession. Of all the days on the route this is the only one that, in retrospect, where I might consider changing the route: not because it was too difficult, but because if anything it was too easy.
Originally we had planned to follow the NCR 45 on north as far as Tattenhall near Chester, before cutting back to Acton Bridge via the quietest roads possible round the Delamere forest.
But then it occurred to me that since the NCR 45 makes a point of going via all the sandstone outcrops on the Cheshire plain, we could fashion a much more direct and considerably less hilly route following quiet lanes via Market Drayton and Middlewich, which is what we did.
It was pleasant enough, the country lanes across the plain are peaceful and beautiful, especially on another glorious spring day with the dandelions all out in the hedgerows and the bees buzzing in the Spring sunshine. But overall, the day struck us as a bit too one-paced, just a question of pootling along through flat country lanes between quiet green fields and the odd pleasant market town.
Of course. you could always build this in as an easy rest day, albeit in out case we had had our rest day a couple of days earlier at Peter’s brother and so didn’t need it. Likewise if you want to do the whole route in shorter time you could easily eat up the miles here. But again, on our timetable we did not need to – and we did not want to push on beyond Acton Bridge since the next nice places to stay after that were a good 20-25 miles over the Mersey (the other side of Runcorn, Warrington, Leigh etc.)
So, even though the NCR 45 alternative looks a bit gratuitous – nearly 15 extra miles and “supposedly” an extra 1500’ to finish at the very same spot it’s something, if we did it again, we might consider.
(I say “supposedly” since even though the route we took was pancake flat no way was it only 360’ for the whole day as the official count says. We wondered if maybe there is a technical explanation such as GPS only picking up changes in height of more than given increments? Anyone know?)
I can’t complain too much though as the day gave me my best moment of the trip.
During lunch at the Bhurtapore Inn (great place, highly recommended) while Peter went to the bar for drinks, I called my girlfriend and said: “You know, I had a dream last night you were pregnant.” To which she said, “I am.” Ernest, our youngest, was born healthy on 23 December last. If you are passing this way and stop at the Bhurtapore, have a drink for Ernest at the table under the wild cherry in the garden where this took place!
The road on from near Winsford towards Cuddington I should mention was just a little busier than traffic phobes like us ideally like, although I am sure most would not notice. Maybe if like us you loathe traffic you should try the canal path north from Winsford, albeit not having ridden it I cannot vouch for it.
Last point, the B&B at Acton Bridge, Wall Hill Farm Guest House, was superb, one of the best of the trip, and an absolute steal at £45, and brilliantly placed for a good pub (the Leigh Arms, with Stockport beers and, for the first time, northern accents just like my folks from Manchester) down the hill by the canal and for setting up the next day. Highly recommended.
Day 9: Acton Bridge to Garstang
We both agreed one of the best.
And what made it especially gratifying was when we arrived at our B&B in Garstang (another brilliant and highly recommended place, “Little Stubbins”. Apparently a member of Kasabian stayed there while doing LEJOG. And Bonnington has also been a guest) the landlady said most End2Enders passing through thought this easily the worst day of their trip. Busy roads through the pollution of the South Lancashire sprawl.
We did not. And the reason was simple – our route had taken the paths along the old canal network through Southern Lancashire so we had cut out entirely all the urban roads in the less than beautiful region (my family is from round here, so I am allowed to say that!)
I really think more End2Enders should take a good look at this as a solution to what is otherwise usually a less than visually beautiful few hours.
The canal paths are all in good condition, all ORR 2, 3 and sometimes 4, making for quick progress. We entered the system just 500m down the hill from our B&B at Acton Bridge, and the route along the canals into Runcorn is, actually, really attractive.
Runcorn itself of course is no great beauty, but what you can say is the cycle paths are so laid out you hardly see it – a bit like with the roads round Milton Keynes, if you know that.
The bridge from Runcorn over the Mersey, though, is really spectacular. An exciting crossing and Significant Milestone, marking the end of the Midlands (entered at the Avon days back) and the start of the North.
Just make damn sure you take the dedicated cycleway/pedestrian path on the Eastern side of the bridge – the dual carriageway for the cars would be lethal for cyclists.
From there the canal along the north side of the Mersey to Warrington has a lot of historic/industrial type interest as well as quiet reed beds and fishermen along the path, and sweeping views to the south back across the Mersey. The cooling towers of Fiddler’s Ferry especially are oddly majestic. I kid you not!
After Fiddlers Ferry the route continues into greener paths heading north from Warrington and away from the Mersey along the old Sankey canal. Peaceful parkland and quiet routes away from it all in this most crowded of regions. When you finally leave the canal system some 25 miles or so after entering it, you have cut out almost all the South Lancs conurbation, and swiftly after Haydock are back into pleasant country lanes.
There few good lunch option along the route from here. We stopped at The Starr Inn near Roby Mills, which was good, and seemed to specialise in Tom Jones’ evenings.
Beyond that we cut round the left side of Parbold hill to avoid the climb. A good option. In this extraordinary early spring this was maybe the hottest day of all and the sun was really on our backs heading north.
Quiet pleasant country roads continue all the way to Preston.
I have to confess, I quite like Preston. I know on Mike Garnham’s brilliant blog he wanted to nuke the place after he passed through, (and when I was young I was a big fan of Essex CCC when he was behind stumps) but I have to say our passage was painless and actually very pleasant. We cut across East to pick up the NCR 55 as it heads into the town centre from the south. We did not quite get the connection right, having to walk our bikes down a grass bank to get onto the path –big deal. The NCR path itself is actually a lovely tree-lined route on a raised embankment across parkland to a pedestrian/cycle bridge over the Ribble, and then up through another pleasant Victorian Park with Prestonians bathing in the sun, to the town centre.
NCR 6 from here takes you painlessly through the town centre and out through the north of Preston passing by another pleasant park with more sunbathers by Preston North End’s ground.
Beyond Preston the NCR 6 takes a big dog leg East towards the Pennines before continuing north, but the roads are easy, quiet and attractive, with the western fringes of the Pennines now close by, and it made for a nice quiet end to a great day before we got to the magnificent Little Stubbins at Garstang.
Dinner was a nice walk along the canal to Garstang to a grand old pub with a good beer garden – the Crown? – and fine food. While there rumbles and thunder and a few isolated spots of rain in the air. But nothing much. And it was a dry walk back in the evening.
Choices, Choices – Lake District or the Howgills and Eden Valley?
Most End2Enders, undoubtedly, stay East of the Lakes.
Straight up: my view is unless you are really pushing your time constraints and have little slack, the Lake District option deserves a good look.
The extra investment in time and total ascent, while definite, is not much
The key question in the lakes is where you cross the watershed going South-North or vice versa.
Either way, if you take the Kirkstone Pass between Windermere and Ullswater you are taking on a formidable if exhilarating challenging. A great trip. I’ve done it before. But not for most people on End2End, I think, unless you are in the really heroic bracket.
But the Grasmere – Thirlmere route is a completely different kettle of fish. As hill climbs go more Vauxhall Conference than Premier League. Whether you are LEJOGing or JOGLING I doubt by the time you get here this will even rank in your top 20 climbs along the way so far.
And sure the Howgills, North Pennines and Eden Valley are lovely.
But, in good weather at least, the Lakes can be glorious.
Again, personal constraints and personal preferences. All I say is it is worth checking out. Over to you.
Day 10: Garstang to Grasmere
The route this day heads north efficiently from Garstang to Grasmere, to set you up for the pass over to Thirlmere the next day, using only minor roads and off-road trails.
Scenically it is very pleasant going throughout with real highlights being the aqueduct on the canal just north of Lancaster, the lovely countryside round Arnside Knott with its views of Morecombe Bay and, of course, the Southern Lakes.
The NCR 6 follows minor roads north of Garstang to Glasson Dock. These are good roads, quiet and quick in gently undulating wooded country passing through the haze of bluebell woods: it and can’t cost much time over the A6. Along the way we passed a man in an amazing old gypsy caravan with his horse, making breakfast on an open fire by the roadside.
The day was our first cloudy day since the morning of Day 3, with the remnants of the night’s thunderstorms gradually thinning, and the sun playing a will it/won’t it come out through the clouds. The slightly damp atmosphere made for a cooler, more contemplative ride through this exceptionally quiet countryside with the damp touching the grass and the bluebells by the roadside.
Looping down through the fields to Glasson Dock, you touch the sea for the first time since the Mersey or, if you think that was a river at Runcorn, at Sharpness on the Severn Estuary – and before that it was Marazion! The way from their follows an off-road to Lancaster besides the Lune estuary (ORR 4), then the canal north from Lancaster till the path peters out near Carnforth. The going north of Lancaster is typical riverside/canalside, a touch on the heavy side, ORR 4.
The “trick” in Lancaster was to switch from the low level path by the Lune to the much higher level canal path going north. Check out the GPS plot. The canal, a couple of miles north of Lancaster, heads out over the Lune over a spectacular high aqueduct. Again, this was a tip from the CTC LEJOG thread – well worth taking and worth the investment of the slightly looping route.
From Carnforth you have a choice of routes through the beautiful little wooded hills around Arnside Knott.
Rather than follow the NCR 6 we took a route along the coast as we wanted to have the views of Morecombe Bay. Good going on quiet roads. And a very nice lunch stop at a café at Silverdale, where the sun finally pushed through the clouds to bath the sands of the bay in limpid, gentle light.
From Arnside, a prettily located small Victorian seaside town, you can see the railway bridge over the sands to the hills of the Southern Lakes. It was being repaired when we were there, and supposedly they are putting in a cycleway that will give new possibilities for heading north. But not yet. The sands are magnificent but bleak, and the rails are lined with warnings about the speed of the incoming tide, a sombre reminder of the fate of the Chinese cockle pickers a year or two back caught in the freezing waters.
From Arnside we stayed on easy minor roads dodging the A6 as far as Leven’s Hall. The one short unavoidable bit beside the A6 has a cycleway parallel to the road in decent condition: ORR 3.
Leven’s Hall, incidentally, has some of the most famous topiary gardens in the UK (date 1694), not to say the world. Well worth a tea stop if you have a chance. Unfortunately for us it was shut on Saturday’s. On an Easter Bank Holiday Saturday too! Some folks can’t need the cash!
From Leven’s you can penetrate north between the hills of the Southern Lakes on dead flat ground using quiet lanes almost as far as Underbarrow, with the hills gradually building on either side. This is an exceptionally quiet corner of the Lakes, well off the main drags, and even on an Easter Saturday we had these roads almost entirely to ourselves.
On the day we reckoned we past the half way spot on these lanes. Actually, recalculating after the event, we think it was just past Lancaster on the way to Carnforth!
From Underbarrow it is up and over a low ridge of hills to get to the ferry at Bowness. On the day, the Open Cycle Network base map we had used to plot the GPS at this point let us down. The minor road over the summit proved impassable. It clearly had been a metalled road. Once. But it looked like someone had since been down it with a plough! We took the next road over the ridge to the south without problem, and I have since corrected the GPS plot to show this. (Note looking now it seems the Open Cycle Network map has been amended to remove the non-existent route.)
The Bowness ferry is runs over Windermere more or less continuously – but of course check first and last times. Here the weather, which all day had not seemed sure whether to turn sunny or cloudy all day, gave us our first real spots of rain while we were on the road (those the night before in the pub not counting) since just outside Veryan at the end of Day 1. Five minutes. Patterning the surface of lake, which showed grey under the clouds. They also proved to be our last in this extraordinary spring.
The big benefit of the off-road route on the West side of the Lake is it gets you off the busy Windermere – Ambleside route on the East side. The off-road starts ORR 4 then moves uphill into the woods. At this stage there is a short stretch in poor condition – ORR 7 or 8. If you are not on an MTB you will almost certainly need to push. But only 150m. In the scheme of things, trivial – or at least to us. After that it improves rapidly though ORR 4 and ORR 3 before becoming, after a while, a metalled minor road as it descends again through the woods and comes out into open ground further north, with views into the heart of the lakes – the southern fells round Grasmere, the Langdale fells further west, and north east to Fairfield and the hills up to the Kirkstone pass.
At the north end of Windermere you can cut round the back of Ambleside on quiet roads before a short and relatively painless stretch of the main road by Rydal Water, and thence into Grasmere.
Alternatively, if you are up for a climb at the end of the day, there is a good route on minor roads to the West of Rydal Mount that then brings you down to the West Side of Grasmere. But on the day we felt we had done enough – so gave this a miss.
Lots of accommodation in the lakes, including Grasmere, but book ahead in busy periods. Grasmere was in fact the first place we booked as we expected to pass through on an Easter Saturday. Most of the B&B’s and hotels were only taking bookings through the whole weekend – but the Swan, apparently mentioned in a Wordsworth poem took us for a single night, no problem. Nice place. And at dinner time the sun finally drove the clouds away, and the whole of the Lakes became bathed in beautiful golden evening sunshine
Day 11: Grasmere to Dumfries
A very efficient and, in the Lakes, scenically majestic route on minor roads and only small amounts of off-road from Grasmere to Dumfries, to set you up for the journey onwards to Arran. (see below: Scotland – West Coast or Through the Centre?)
The pass over Thirlmere, the minor road round Thirlmere, the minor road to Blencathra, the quiet roads round Blencathra and on north to Carlisle and the Border were stunning and, in great weather, gave us some of the very best riding of the whole trip.
Taking an early start (7.30am) for a long day, for the first hours of an Easter Sunday we had absolutely deserted roads and the Lakes to ourselves, with the sun hitting the tops of the peaks in the Helvellyn range at the start of the day, while there was still frost and shadow and a some tiny ethereal touches of mist down below around Thirlmere in the woods to start with. The lake was smooth as a mirror. Magical. We even saw some deer along the way. The Lakes at their magnificent best.
It was, again, one of those moments when everything comes together when you cycle, and both of us covered the ground swiftly on a real high.
As noted earlier, the pass over to Thirlmere is very easy going, and nothing to cause concern. Look back as you climb and your see the hills round Grasmere laid out behind you, and beyond to the Coniston fells and the hills round Windermere. The minor roads after that round Thirlmere and all the way north to the Border are blissfully quiet.
Note, if you have a bit more time than we did consider a short detour West to Castlerigg Stone Circle – a spectacular spot.
Round Threlkeld under Blencathra stick to the minor roads and the cycle way rather than use the busy Penrith – Keswick Road. The main road will save you no time, but you would be taking your life in your hands. This can be a racetrack.
On the .gpx plot the road around Blencathra shows quite a climb. But for some reason cycling it you hardly notice it– it is almost as if the ground around falls away beneath you rather than you go up.
One point to beware is there are a couple of gates across this route even though these are metalled roads – including some at the bottom of some downhill stretches. If you are not paying attention, it could be nasty. Certainly one looked as if a bike might have hit it at speed with the top metal rail bent right back. Take care.
Round to the east of Blencathra the road north is quiet as can be, looping gently over the ground along the edge of the Skiddaw/Blencathra massif amidst great banks of gorse and bright green grass close-cropped by sheep, with views every now and again into the mountainous interior of the range. To the east and behind you can see the Helvellyn and High Street range round Ullswater.
At the north end of the range the road strikes north north east towards Carlisle looping over easy green hills. Beautiful back of beyond country with maybe 1 visitor to every 1000 in the Lakes,. Quiet roads, quieter villages, and the odd old manor house settled into the gentle rippling green hills.
The Bell Inn at Dalston gave a good Italian pasta style lunch for us in the small courtyard at the back, a real sun-trap in the weather that day, with the sun dazzling as it came off the white and metal tables.
Carlisle is a bit of a nondescript town, but our route takes in the castle but otherwise only grazes the edge of it. You are through it and out almost before you notice. Since we passed this way a new ring road has gone in around the north side of Carlisle, which you will need to cross. The road is meant to be busy (it is the main road from Carlisle to West Cumbria) but our route follows the NCR, and there is meant to be cycling provision at the crossing point – but you will need to check it out.
More scenic quiet lanes north to the border. Note, there is no longer any need to take the Longtown diversion – there is a new minor road just to the West of the A74M that runs you straight into Gretna.
To be honest, the rest of the route from Gretna, after the obligatory photos at the border post, is not quite in the same class as the first part of the day.
It is pancake flat and easy enough. Even the B roads you have to take are quiet. But there are two problems.
First, the Tarmac. Extraordinary stuff. It is like it hasn’t been rolled. It will take at least two gears out of what you might otherwise expect. Frustrating.
The other is a lot of the roads are ruler straight, meaning at times there is little to do but count the telegraph polls until the next slight bend, usually anything from 1 – 3 km ahead of you. A textbook illustration as to how things can be mentally tiring as well as physically tiring.
My strong recommendation would be to follow our route where we headed south off the main road to use the off-road tracks (ORR 3) and minor roads of the NCR. To be frank, the surface is actually better than the main road, and the route is much more involving and less mentally tiring as a result, with great views out over the Solway beaches and to Skiddaw and the rest of the Lake District to the South. The extra distance over the main road is trivial.
An easy run into Dumfries with plenty of accommodation options. But let me put a word in for the very pleasant and friendly Glenaldor B&B – nice location, very used to End2Enders, secure bike parking – and next door to JM Barrie’s birthplace.
Also Bruno’s is a very, very good Italian, and good value too, in a town where the eating options are otherwise not the greatest.
Scotland – West Coast or Through the Centre?
The differences in the scenery along the route (good both ways, but different) and the other main objective differences (the West Coast being somewhat longer, having more midges from midsummer onwards, and usually having relatively dodgier weather – albeit the weather is always pretty relative up here) are so well known as to require no comment from me.
Most people, in my experience, have a pretty clear idea of which of these two equally viable routes they prefer, and their own reasons for that choice.
The only think I think I can usefully say is that, provided only you don’t have a trailer or a road bike with skinny tyres, the feared state of the A82 (a vile, death trap road for cyclists) ought not to be a reason to take against the West Coast route.
You can, of course cut out the A82 south of Glencoe in its entirety either by going via Arran or Dunoon. From Glencoe to Fort William there is a cycle way alternative under construction that will solve the problem some day. But, pending that, judicious use of the ferries (you need to check the times for the Carmasnagaul Ferry at Fort William which only runs a few times a day and not Sundays) will get you over to the West Side of Loch Linhe and a beautiful quiet road.
North of Fort William the canal paths and forest trails to Fort Augustus are, in fact, nothing to fear unless you have a trailer or a road bike with skinny tyres, and will cost you at most a couple of extra hours over the road alternative.
From there you can easily avoid the A82 on the quieter roads East of Loch Ness. See daily entries for more details.
Day 12: Dumfries to Stair
Route planning in Scotland is all about a much smaller number of choices but with bigger individual consequences.
The question today was which way to go over the Southern Uplands on the way to Arran.
Not knowing this part of the world at all we simply took the guidance on the CTC website. This is that the A76 is a pretty nasty road with lots of lorries, and although you can avoid most of it on minor parallel roads you cannot do this on the worst bit of all. Apparently.
The suggested alternative, which we of course took, was to take minor country roads further West to Moniave, and thence over the top to Carsphairn, and then pick up the a quieter main road to Dalmellingto and Patna before branching back on to minor roads for the last few miles to Stair.
A number of people on the threads suggested the roads round Moniave were a highlight of their entire route.
You cover some high ground today but all the gradients are gentle.
The roads and countryside from Dumfries to Carsphairn are the quietest imaginable and the scenery beautiful if, in some indefinable way rather empty and lonely and slightly melancholic.
Its quiet lanes between green fields with the hills set back on the way up to Moniave, and after that you begin to climb properly away from the fields, and through the trees to the open country along the top. Huge sweeping views from the summit to the mountains in Galloway to the West, and a long swift descent from the high point all the way down to Carsphairn. As we went down this, we had to pull of the road for a while as the true professionals and their support vehicles in the Tour DoonHame Stage 3 cycle race pulled up to the pass from the other direction, at roughly the same speed as we were going down.
One point to think about is that this day is food stops are few and far between.
The Thistle Café at Moniave, though, is brilliant. Great place and a great place for an early brunch. Highly recommended.
The Post Office at Carsphairn is also good.
But as these are the only places for miles around carry some food as a back up in case they are not open.
The Carsphairn PO, by the by, although the people are friendly enough, is absolutely packed with sings asking you not to touch this or that, not to sit at this table, if you have a bike to park it exactly – and we mean exactly – in one particular place. I think all told there were about 11 such notices. But don’t let that put you off! We photo’d them all!
The main road north from Carsphairn, although not especially busy, marks an unwelcome return of the dreaded south Scotland anti-cycling tarmac, and the long-straight-stretches.
The scenery, though, compensates, at least until you get to some of the more scarred old mining areas around Dalmellington and Patna which are not so great.
Beyond Patna once you branch off the main road onto minor road the surfaces, bizarrely, improve considerable, and you leave the Long Straight Stretches behind, so the final few miles give you a very pleasant run into Stair.
The Stair Inn itself is a lovely place at the bottom of a wooded fold in the landscape, with great food in a part of the world where accommodation options are not always the best – but a bit on the pricey side at near £70 a night. There is also cheaper accommodation a little further on at Tarbolton. But despite the price the Stair Inn is nice.
Day 13: Stair to Tarbert
If it wasn’t for the fact that a couple of the hours of the day were not spent cycling but were on ferries, I suspect both Peter and I might consider this a contender for best day of the lot, Certainly one of the best.
Like the NCR 45 day north of Worcester and the morning in the Lakes, this was one of those cycling days where everything came together, and with perfect whether, the Firth of Clyde, Arran and Kintyre were all simply stunning. Amazing, incredible scenery.
The route to from Stair to the ferry at Ardrossan was easier and prettier than the previous afternoon, small lanes through rolling green hills in an agricultural landscape, with the scars of the old mine areas round Patna and Dalmellington now left behind, and none of the diabolical anti-cycling tarmac of the Southern Uplands in evidence. The hills of the Southern Uplands were slipping behind us to the south, but almost from the off you could see the hills north near Largs and Greenock to the North, and out across the sea the crumpled mountains of Arran in the sunshine, giving a real sense of anticipation.
The route we had planned aimed to dodge all the main urban areas in the region, passing between Kilmarnock and Irvine, and delivered on that intent in spades. At Dalwinning we picked up the NCR 73 and followed that on excellent off road
(ORR 2 or 3) all the way down to the sea at Saltcoats, and then round by the sea to the ferry at Ardrossn.
Arran and the Firth of Clyde in the strong early spring sunshine and low wind were close to heaven on earth, with sea a brilliant blue mirror of the sky. If you are blessed with good weather, Arran cannot fail to impress.
From Brodick to Lochranza on Arran you have a choice: either East Cost (slightly shorter and big hill near the end, gradient not bad) or West Coast (bigger hill at the start, slightly longer.)
On a good day I doubt you can go wrong either way. But, for what it is worth, I think the more common East Coast route also shows Arran’s spectacular mountains to the best advantage, and the road round the island is brilliant all the way. To start with you have the sea lapping quietly on the rocks to your right, while the most amazing razor sharp mountains tower up to your left. Towards the end you have an easy but high pull up to the pass with great views of the mountains all the way, that then gives a lovely swift descent down to Lochranza.
Lochranza with its old tower in good evening sunshine is idyllic, and a great place to lounge in the afternoon sun by the small beech as you wait for the tiny ferry to come over. There is also a very nice place know as the Sandwich Station just over the road serving some very classy sandwiches and cakes, if it is open.
The Lochranza to Claonaig Ferry a bit of an adventure (check running times of course),. The roads on Kintyre to West Tarbert are as quiet as you like and the scenery blissful. You suddenly feel very remote and away from it all indeed, with the towns of the Ayrshire coast and now a world away. You are now definitely entering the southern Highlands, with the Lowlands left behind. The landscape is all rough low crumpled hills and little cottages set low against the winds.
With the ferries we were cycling later than normal that day, and with the roads deserted I was taking photos of my shadow cycling besides me as the low sun slanted across the roads.
Tarbert is a very pretty spot with cottages built around a lovely natural harbour filled with yachts on the east side of the peninsula. There are lots of good accommodation options and great places to eat (we can recommend the Anchor Hotel). In holidays it can get busy, so you may need to book ahead.
Day 14: Tarbert to Taynuilt
Route finding in the Highland is pretty simple there are so few roads. This was simply a case of heading north to set up a trip on to Fort William the next day.
The scenery remains superb the whole way. In good weather, if you are lucky enough to have it as we were, this is blissful.
Unless you have a month to play with you will not take the circuitous cycle way round the West side of the Peninsula, but just take the main road on the East side to Lochgiplhead. Fat, fast, very quiet and efficient, it also has great views over the Firth of Clyde all the way, again with the sea lapping on the rocks the whole way just to the right of the road, with the hills and forests to the left.
Just south of Lochgilphead you can come off the main road and follow the NCR 78 along the canal path, and then follow minor roads and some short cycleways north to Kilmartin. Highly recommended. All surfaces of the off-roads are good (ORR 3); the canal path is very attractive, and set slightly above the surrounding land so you get constant views. As you leave the canal to head north the route heads out across a great plain filled with stunted trees and the mountains to the north circling around. A spectacular stretch.
As you head north towards Kilmartin you pass through some beautiful woodland, then close by a number of very interesting pre-historic standing stones, burial chambers etc which can easily be seen just besides the route. The Kilmartin visitor centre back on the main road (back a few yards to the south from where you rejoin it on the cycleway) serves a great lunch and has interesting information on the remains in the surrounding area.
North of Kilmartin you have a choice of the main road to Oban or the minor Loch Awe road to Taynuilt. Naturally we took the latter – very quiet and very beautiful and very remote. At the northern end near where the path leaves the Loch, and the views really open out to the mountains to the north and east, with Ben Cruachan towering up just ahead, and further over East towards Ben Lui and Ben More.
The GPS relief map for this road shows three distinct climbs. The first is by fast the worst: not especially steep it seems to go on for ages, with numerous false summits and minor ups and downs. The second and third are far easier.
Dalavich about half way along this road has an marvellous eccentric Post Office and store/cum café run by an Australian woman and her Scottish husband who bought her to this supremely remote spot. Highly recommended.
After you cross the final pass the run to Taynuilt north down the wooded gorge is beautiful.
The Tanglewood B&B where we stayed was great and highly recommended. A sort of modern wooden cabin just to the left of the road as you come down towards the bottom.
The food in the only pub in town was ok but a bit uninspiring – but hey, we are talking a small place in a remote village.
Day 15: Taynuilt to Fort William
Again the route planning is straightforward – get to Fort William using the quietest roads – meaning especially avoiding the notorious A82, and its reputedly worst stretch from Glencoe to Fort William.
From Taynuilt we had called ahead and Glen Etive Cruises has agreed for a modest fee (£20) to ferry us across the Loch from Taynuilt to Boniave. A neat trick, we thought.
This is the ferry crossing on the old coast road before the bridge was built at Connel further West and the new coast road put in there. There is no regular ferry at Taynuilt now, so you need to call ahead and see if you can make a private arrangement for this to work. If it does the old road north, of course, is now completely deserted, a much shorter route from Taynuilt than going via Connel, and after an easy pass drops down to join the usual coast road north.
If you cannot cross Loch Etive this way you can get to Connel from Taynuilt either by the main road to Oban or via the cycle way inland. For what it is worth, our landlady at Tanglewood told us a local doctor who worked in Oban always used the cycleway as he reckoned the main road too fast and too busy. Over to you.
From where you join the coast road to Glencoe more and more of the road is shadowed by a new cycle path. You would be mad not to take it. It is fast and efficient and all Rolls Royce quality: ORR 1 & 2. The only thing to be said against it is that near the remarkable Castle Stalker it passes some way beneath the highly recommended Café Stalker on the maid road above.
Glencoe was lowering under an unusually grey sky when we passed, but somehow that suits the mood of the place. You get especially good views of the horseshoe ridge of Beinn a Bheithir at the southern entrance to the glen as you pass, with Bidean nam Bian, the Three Sisters and the Aonach Eagach further back behind in the recesses of the glen, just discernable as you pass by the bridge over Loch Leven.
From Glencoe you join the A82 north. Hideously busy. Lots of lorries. But you can cut it out by cycling the four miles or so to Ardgour Ferry (you can use the continuous pavement on the right hand side if you don’t fancy the road) and then crossing to the West side of Loch Linhe on the ferry.
The Ardgour Ferry makes a good place for lunch, with a nice pub on the far side. The road north from Ardgour is easy, deserted, and very beautiful. Apart from having several 1000 times less traffic than the A82 on the East side, you also get much better views of the Mamores and Ben Nevis from here. When we went the five fingers of Five Finger Gully – the notorious accident black spot which it is easy to fall into if you get the exit from the summit using the tourist path ever so slightly wrong – were picked out in snow, against a slightly lowering sky on a highly unusual cloudy day, but with the base of the clouds fortunately well above the peaks.
The Carmusnagaul back to Fort William Ferry over the Loch does not run Sundays and only 4 times daily. Check it is running and the times carefully if you mean to use it. It is a long way round if you miss it! It was the need to make sure we did not miss this and the lack of places to stay between Fort William and fort Augustus that accounted for the low mileage total this day. After the afternoon ferry has gone, there is little time to press on beyond Fort William.
Let me put a word in for St Anthony’s B&B Fort William, great place and friendly owners, as well as the Crannog Seafood Restaurant down on the pier by the quay – maybe the best meal of the entire trip.
Day 16: Fort William to Dores
The route today involved a straightforward planning exercise – through the Great Glen avoiding entirely the death trap A82 by using the easiest canal paths and forest trails.
In good weather this is very pleasant going with some great views along the way, at least as the gaps in the trees allow.
Inevitably, almost all the planning advice about this day turns into a discussion of the state of the off-roads. So here it is.
The Canal Path from the spectacular Neptune’s Staircase with its fine views back south (say goodbye to the Western coast of Britain for the last time here) to Loch Lochy is ORR5/6.
But for one point this would have been an excellent surface throughout – ORR3. The point, however, is some moron probably not so long before we cycled it had, in an act of municipal vandalism, elected to “repair” the potholes in the surface by filling them up: with stones. You couldn’t really call it gravel. “Stones” is the right word. 19 times out of 20, this is no big deal – you can just cycle round them. 1 time in 20 you have to elect either to bounce over them or push for a yard or two. In the scheme of things, no big deal. But frustrating as there was no need for this at all. But you soon get into the rhythm, so to speak.
The Forest Tracks West of Loch Lochy are essentially the same as the Canal Path in almost every respect, but perhaps with longer gaps between the stones. The rest of the surface is good and would not gather mud even after heavy rain. All the gradients are very gentle, with the route wending its way up and down the hillside, with the trees every now and then parting to give great views back the majestic north cliffs of the Ben behind you to the south.
One particular point to watch, as you leave the trees and start the last mile or so heading down to the north end of Loch Lochy is that, about half way down the hillside, there is a sudden steep drop on loose gravel. No more than 10m long. But marked up for a MTB race when we were there as an “accident black spot”. I can see why. Coming South to North you could be on it at speed almost before you knew it if you were not paying attention. Coming the other way you are going uphill – so no issue.
The canal Path/trail between Loch Lochy and Loch Oich is somewhat different to what has gone before. No more stones. Easy and fine. ORR 3 or 4. There is a pub/cafe on a barge on the canal along this stretch, but the day we passed it was shut – maybe because it was Royal Wedding day.
The trail through the trees on the east side of Loch Oich. Is different again. It is level and flat, hugging the lochside all the way. In Spring 2011 they were a good way through putting down a Rolls Royce cycle path on the old rail bed just to the right of the current trail, which, if it is in now, will make things easy. If not, this is a narrower path than before, mostly easy enough, ORR 4, but with two trickier points.
First, about 150m or so of the path at one point has a lot of tree roots. You might want to push this, otherwise proceed with care – Pete (per the daily blog) fell off here when progress became so slow a tree root stopped him dead when he was not paying attention. Anyway, at most its 150m versus the cost of a will to cycle the A82. Your choice.
Also at the north end of the Loch the path leaves the rail bed and takes 200-300m over a grassy track through a meadow. Possibly this might get a bit muddy after rain? I can’t say for sure , as for us it was dry and the track was more than fine. Again, though, the total length of this is tiny in the scheme of things – just one side of a meadow to another.
After this the canal path from the North End of Loch Oich to Fort Augustus is easy and flat. ORR 3. No problems at all.
In total, the off-road paths probably add 90mins to 2hrs to the direct road route from Fort William to Fort Augustus. As always, it is a matter of personal taste whether you think it worth it. But for those for whom busy roads with fast and dangerous traffic are purgatory; this seems a small cost to bear for some much more pleasant scenery and cycling.
There are plenty of decent places for lunch in Fort Augustus, albeit it is a bit on the touristy side.
Moving on from Fort Augustus it is easy to avoid the A82 taking the quiet roads on the East Side of the Loch. The climb to the summit from Fort Augustus is enormous – but so are the views over this part of the Highlands as you gain height. And from the top, when you finally get there, there is a very swift downhill to the Loch again near Foyers over several miles where you really eat up the distance. As you descend, there are also some very pretty spots by the river along the way. At this point at the end of April we caught up again with banks of daffodils, which what seemed an age ago in Cornwall had just been finishing when we began or ride. Here, several hundred miles north, they were still in their prime.
The road from there is by the Lochside and very pretty, catching the late afternoon/evening sun, with the odd fisherman dotted along the shore along the way.
Rather than stay in town in Inverness we stayed at the Clock House at the end of the Loch in Dores. Great place, I really can’t praise it enough. And Dores also has a really high class pub right at the very north end Loch shore, with excellent food to which a lot of Invernessians go to on a good evening – so you may wish to book.
Day 17: Dores to Lairg
You are out of the Highlands for a day now, and this is very much a “cover the distance” sort of day, working north, but very pleasant and with continuously good scenery for all that.
For the first time in a good while back in amongst hedgerows, fields and farmland.
The run from Loch Ness to Inverness is pleasant and easy, with gentle undulations on a quiet road. Inverness is your last sizeable town – a good place to stock up on anything hard to come by further north.
There is a good cycle path over the Kessock bridge, with fantastic views over the Beauly Firth.
From the north end of the bridge you have a choice – either follow the NCR cycle route north near the A9 to Dingwall, or take a flatter but slightly longer route on the minor road along the Beauly Firth to Muir of Ord, and then follow the road north from their to Dingwall. Based on a tip from the CTC thread, we took the latter. Good choice. Dead flat by the Firth on a lovely little road with great views across the water in the sunshine, and then an easy quiet and, again, pretty flat road north to Dingwall. I can’t speak for the more direct NCR route over the hills, but it can’t save you much time, and I doubt it can be so scenic.
North of Dingwall its again a fairly straightforward choice: either the B9176 directly north over the hills, the NCR route through minor country lanes to Tain, or following the main A9 to Tain.
Having had lots of hills in the previous days we opted for the NCR route. Good choice, I think. Easy to put on distance, and very pleasant to be back on quiet country lanes again for the first time since southern Scotland. It is impossible to see any appreciable time would be saved by taking the busier A9. That said I am sure the more direct B road over the hills would be great as well, if you are up for the climb, and have a good day for views.
The A9 bypass at Tain has a reputation for being intimidating for cyclists, so the usual advice is to follow the NCR route through Tain itself. Nice little town. That said, a blog I read shortly before setting out had a warning even the tamest ground can have hazards: in this case the story was of a nice old gent pulling out of Morrison’s without looking and putting a LEJOGer into hospital with cracked ribs, ending his ride only a day or two from the end. Awful luck. As all cyclists know, you can never be too careful, and still it might not be “your fault”.
From Tain it’s a short stretch of the A9 (easy and quiet enough when we were there) until the A9 disappears north over the Dornoch Bridge. After that the road along the south side of the Firth of Dornoch is great cycling, lovely views near the water’s edge and railway, and really really quiet in the afternoon sunshine.
From Bonar Bridge I would also strongly recommend the NCR route on to Lairg on minor roads. Very pretty, good views of what must have been a magnificent Youth Hostel at Carbisdale Castle before it closed, and then a lovely route on the B road up the gorge to Lairg past the Falls of Shin. The direct route on the A road would not be so pretty.
Just be aware as you cross the river on the railway bridge on the NCR route there are a few steps you have to carry your bike down and up. No big deal at all if like us this does not phase you. But if you have a different views on such things, you might wish to cut out this section.
At Lairg the countryside to the north opens out before you: you leave the hills around the Shin gorge behind and ahead, into the distance, stretches the Flow Country in all its majestic remoteness. A good place to stop for the night, on the edge of the wilderness. We stayed in the Loch View B&B, very pleasant indeed. And the Highland Hotel down the road did a good basic dinner menu and had a good bar.
Day 18: Lairg to Sharvedda
There are no two ways about it. This is either going to be one of the best days of your trip or a grind.
And the thing that will make the difference is something you can do nothing about: what mountaineers call an “objective risk”. In this case, the weather.
Given good weather the scenery north of Lairg in the Flow Country is beyond compare: incredible sweeping vistas over one of the last great wildernesses in the UK, west to the mountains on the Sutherland Coast (Ben More Assynt and Quinang), north to the mountains of the far north (Ben Kilbreck and Ben Loyal), and back South West to the bulk of Ben Dearg on the road to Ullapool. But in bad weather all you may see are 20m or so of grass on either side of the road, sinking into mist….. believe me, I’ve been there before!
But on this occasion we had the luck of the gods this day. Beautiful warm weather, not a cloud in the sky, just a touch of snow still on Ben More Assynt to the West. We even had Peacock butterflies in the Crask Inn and at the Altnaharra Hotel, and when we reached the North Coast their were people bathing in the Pentland Firth at Farr Bay! Incredible.
Remember – this area is remote. You will want to make sure you stock up with supplies in Lairg before heading on. Shops between there and Thurso are few, and those that exist on the North Coast may have eccentric opening hours. Check they are open before relying on them.
The road north of Lairg is dead quiet, and the gradients easy all the way. The landscape is so empty round about it is like cycling over a vast rolling sea.
Whatever else you do, stop at the Crask Inn – Britain’s most remote Inn, surely, by far, and an incredibly atmospheric place either to eat, stay, or in our case just having a morning tea in the sun outside with the dogs from the Inn playing around the gardens, and the Peacock butterflies sunning themselves on the walls.
It was so idyllic a few miles north we did the whole tea thing all over again in the garden of the Altnaharra Hotel next to the stream, with scones and cream in the sunshine. More Peacock butterflies again, and a swarm of bees who looked like they were just getting up with Spring.
North from Altnaharra you can either head up Strathnaver with its poignant reminders of the clearances along the way, and good views to Ben Kilbreck, or you can head for Tongue.
The latter will give you the best views of Ben Loyal, north Scotland’s grandest but not highest mountain and, if it is still open, the Youth Hostel at Tongue. But we took Strathnaver – shorter and more direct, beautiful in its own right, and cutting out a stretch of the hills along the north Sutherland coast.
Topping out on the North Coast is a magical moment, As you come down the glen with the river to your right you sort of sense you are getting to the sea before you see it. The clue are the crumpled sandy that line the coast which, as you climb them give great views over the beaches of the Pentland Firth.
This is a moment to reflect on the distance from Lands End. In glorious sunshine we wheeled out bikes off the road just after Bettyhill and had a sandwich lunch in the sand dunes behind Farr Bay, before taking turns to walk out across the sands to the waves in the sunshine. A really lovely spot on a beautiful spring day, there were even a couple of families jumping the waves in this incredible early spring weather.
The road east along the coast after lunch, though, was a much, much harder proposition than the route to the coast from Lairg, with a continual series of up and down hills. Not much to speak of really, especially after Devon and Cornwall. But the day we did it we faced a really strong easterly headwind, that slowed progress markedly, and demanded real effort. But hey, in the sun, who could complain?
Accommodation along the coast is sparse so you may wish to book ahead if you are not going on to Thurso. Can I put a word in for Sharvedda B&B a mile north of the main road on a promontory north of Melvich? A real end of the world sort of place, incredible views over the sea cliffs, and the most magnificent and welcoming landlady, Patsy, who did us proud with a home cooked meal. A really, really, great place to stay.
Day 19: Sharvedda, JOG, Duncansby Head and Thurso
A day of achievement – and sadness. In one sense it’s great to finish. On the other we both felt we could have gone on for ever, it had been that good.
The hills east of Shervadda got progressively lower to the Caithness Border and pretty much cease after that – from thereon in it is rolling moorland rather than the up and down hills on the Sutherland north coast.
Again we were helped by brilliant weather. We woke with cloud ahead of us to the East, but this rolled away in front of us as we went, and again it was another – the last for us – day of brilliant sunshine.
Near Dounreay you have a choice of following the main coast road or heading inland along the NCR route. We went for the latter. Quieter – not that the Coast Road could be called busy – direct, and with good views over the moors and out to the coast. In May the roadside was picked out with great banks of yellow gorse, great to cycle through.
From Thurso on we again kept to the inland NCR routes – same advantages as above.
JOG is on you really before you know it. You see a white lighthouse on the horizon on a hill top (Duncansby Head at it turns out) and you think you might be heading there. But you are not. Just before the hill starts you turn left down a short lane to a rather dilapidated bunch of buildings, trinket shops and cafes by the sea – and that is JOG.
Sure its good to be official, have a tea, and see the other finishers.
But my top tip for the whole trip is, if you possibly can, is to cycle the last mile or so on to Duncansby Head.
This is much, much more like it. If you do this you have not only done LEJOG but End2End, the SW to the NE corners of Great Britain. The lighthouse has a magnificent location on the edge of the headland looking north to the Orkneys and the remote Pentland Skerries lighthouse to the North East. And, if you walk on a few yards to the East, you get to see the towering Duncansby Stacks of the East Coast. A much more fitting ending than the rather tacky JOG.
If you haven’t a car back the usual choice is to spend the night either at Thurso or Wick before heading home. We went for Thurso, partly because we wanted a last night on the North Coast, and partly because the train from there leaves a half hour later than Wick, making for a longer lie in.
Rather than trace the NCR route back to Thurso or taking the main road, we took the minor roads north of the Castle of Mey and returned via Dunnet Head – the northernmost point of mainland Britain. Lovely roads, right by the sea.
There is a short unmetalled section of a 100m or so just north of the Castle, which you can push or ride with care, but apart from that it is all paved. The Castle itself is fairly spectacular. It used to belong to the Queen Mother and, in season, is meant to have a fairly good tea room if you are there in time (we were late afternoon, so skipped it.)
The Dunnet Head detour takes about an hour but, if you have the time, is worth it, at least in good weather, with great views north to the big cliffs along Hoy in the Orkneys. We decided to “tick it off” after JOG so as not to spend longer getting to the “main objective”, but on the way back it was a fine ride.
The last night was spent at the very pleasant and friendly Pentland Lodge, and the Red Pepper Restaurant in town did us proud for a modestly celebratory last meal…..