Saturday, June 28
I asked FLJ for a photo of his triumphal entry into John o’ Groats, right on schedule on Day 13. He said he’d eaten the best cake of his life there while waiting for the taxi back to Inverness.
Land’s End to John o’ Groats is a ride of about 1,500km from the most southwestward point of Great Britain, at the end of Penwith peninsula, to most northern point of mainland Scotland, in Caithness.
From Day 9 through Day 13, I was playing tourist while Fearless Leader Joe continued on solo. He didn’t take many photos, and anyway, that’s his story to tell. I just wanted to include one image of Crask Inn, which FLJ would have passed on Day 12. I found it by tracing the route on Google Street View, and it’s the only thing for miles around. When I asked FLJ if he remembered it, he replied, “Of course!” And then regaled me with stories of what he’d eaten and whom he’d met there.
(I hadn’t followed that far north as I had to turn around and drive back to London to get Kuroko packed up for the flight home.)
My tourist photos of Carlisle and Scotland are available on Flickr:
Monday morning dawned rainy. I’d had hours and hours of sleep and was eager to get a car and start chasing Fearless Leader Joe. I was soon on the road and apparently so was he, deep into Scotland. The weather forecast was bad and getting worse. When the deluge hit it was of Biblical proportions. The rain came down so hard I had to pull off the road because I couldn’t see where I was going! FLJ meanwhile, thoroughly drenched, had found shelter and a pot of hot tea near Edinburgh at Badgers Brook, Broxburn.
After the weather cleared, we met up for the night in Perth.
Sunday morning, over a Full English breakfast, I let Fearless Leader Joe know that he’d be continuing solo. I was sidelined by saddle sores. We made a plan to continue to Penrith, where I would rent a car and continue to follow Joe up through Scotland. Unfortunately, we hadn’t counted on it’s being Sunday, and there were no rental places open when we arrived in Penrith. So we continued on together to Carlisle, where we had lunch and then found lodging for me for the night while FLJ continued onwards. And what a day he had! We’d already done 60km to reach Carlisle by lunchtime (after much faffing about in Penrith), but he put in another 100km before calling a stop for the night!
Saturday — our planned day of rest — saw us on the road once more, making up lost time. We said goodbye to the canals here as we headed into the Lake District, but we did so in grand style. First we crossed the Lune Aqueduct, a canal on a bridge over a river, and then I found myself lending assistance to a canal boat whose motor had stopped.
Just jumping ahead one moment: compare my windbreaker in that photo with the result after I’d returned to Tokyo and Nana had had a go with the washing.
We reached Kendal, our goal for the previous evening, about 5 p.m. I was for stopping but FLJ was eager to take advantage of the remaining sunlight to get a leg up on the following day’s riding. We had quite a climb ahead of us — a Category 2 according to Strava. We passed through the lovely village of Garnett Bridge, but that was only the beginning of our climbing. We finally reached Shap Fell summit at 8:24 p.m. (Fearless Leader Joe far ahead and waiting patiently for me to come puffing up behind) and then flew down the next 10km to reach our lodging in Shap on the dot of 9 p.m.
In the morning, with Kuroko behaving better than she had all trip thanks to Ben’s ministrations, we ate our breakfast standing in an Asda parking lot and then (after some faffing about) found our way back to the canals.
With daily shortfalls of our riding goals and the time lost to the broken spokes, we knew we’d have to forfeit our rest day to get back on schedule. With that in mind we were pleased that the day progressed well, despite the coolness of the Manchester locals, and the only incident was another flat. (I’m happy to report it was our last flat of the trip.) As we were finishing up the repair, a community support officer dropped by to see if we needed help, and happily agreed to pose for a photo.
On the morning of Day 5 we started by fitting our panniers. I had new panniers (brought from London by FLJ’s brother) to replace the one I’d broken on the first day, and Fearless Leader Joe had a new bike to fit his panniers to.
As we set out, my chain was making squeaking noises. I knew the rear derailleur was somewhat misaligned, and all the mud and rain had apparently washed away most of the chain lube. We stopped at a garage and they kindly let us use some oil. It helped a bit. We set out again with FLJ getting used to his new bicycle with its much more upright and relaxed riding position.
At Worcester our route took us through the town center. We got turned around once or twice and were impatient to be moving, but the views were amazing.
Then at Kidderminster, FLJ had quite a time fitting his wide handlebars through this gate (meant to keep motorscooters off the canal path). We’d been working through various styles of gates the whole time, but this one was the most difficult. (I was able to pass through without any problem.)
The GPS guided us under this bridge and then seemed to call for us to continue along the road on top of the bridge. We looked around for a way up. Eventually we found we’d passed by a poorly maintained and unmarked path up to the South Staffordshire Railway Walk, a converted rail right-of-way.
Later in the day as we cycled along the canal, my rear derailleur started misbehaving. It wouldn’t shift off the four lowest cogs. We took a break and I used my water bottle to clear the mud out of the derailleur and I fiddled with the adjustment screws. I got the thing working again but I’d made a bad mistake: I’d backed out the lower limit screw. In the evening as we neared Stafford, I shifted the derailleur off the lowest cog and the chain went into the wheel, breaking two spokes and mangling a few others.
While I got the broken spokes out of the way so Kuroko could limp into the next town, Fearless Leader Joe worked his phone and found a mobile bicycle mechanic. We secured a room at a Travelodge in Stafford, and Ben showed up in his repair truck to replace the broken spokes, straighten the wheel, clean and lube the chain and adjust the rear derailleur! He’s our hero!
Day 4 saw us at a rather slow start as we spent time sponging clay off the bikes from the previous day’s failed detour. But the skies, although grey, did not threaten rain, and we were on the road with sandwiches in our pockets earlier than we had left Hatherleigh the day before.
We rolled into Yatton at 11 a.m., which was too early for the cafés to open for lunch, so we enjoyed some coffee at the station. (As it turns out, we should have eaten something as well, because the sandwiches we’d brought from the hotel in the morning did not see us through the lunch that we missed.)
After leaving Yatton we encountered a local on his bike who gleefully led us towards Portishead and directed us towards our goal: the Avonmouth Bridge. We cycled along a repurposed rail line towards the bridge only to enounter a construction area. Mindful of our experience at Bridgwater, we asked a construction worker for directions. He guided us towards this makeshift bridge — “But you didn’t hear it from me” — and from there we found our way onto the bridge proper after only 20 minutes or so of going off on a wild goose chase in the wrong (but it was right?) direction.
North of the Avon, we dodged cows, only back-tracked a little bit, and found ourselves again in rain and mud. But at least we had cell signal to handle those important business calls.
Later in the afternoon the skies cleared enough for us to delight in discovering a mailbox! and a phone booth converted into a share library! Shortly after that we rolled into Berkeley. The café we spotted was closed, so we stood on the pavement and enjoyed some convenience store munchies to make up for our missed lunch before continuing.
We’d arranged a slight detour to meet up with Fearless Leader Joe’s brother, who was driving out from London with the beautiful new bike that FLJ had ordered for this tour (and then dithered so long about the paint color that the frame builder had to move heaven and earth to get the thing to us before we’d actually finished the ride). But on our way to the meet-up point we had one more break at a lovely crossing over the canal, where FLJ got involved in a seemingly endless conversation with a couple of locals.
We finally rolled into Staunton just a few minutes ahead of the cloudburst to find that the hotel was full. The staff helpfully assisted us in finding a B&B, but on our way there the heavens once again loosed their barrage upon us. The rain was over as quickly as it started, but we arrived dripping and muddy from head to toe. FLJ’s brother let us know he would arrive soon, and so we retired as we were to the Swan for a very delicious dinner as the sun re-ermerged and started to dry out our gear.
First thing in the morning, we discovered that FLJ’s bike again had a flat.
This was the same tire we’d fixed the evening before on the road. I soon discovered the probable cause of the repeat flat: the tire wasn’t seated properly on the rim, which would have made for another pinch flat. We sorted it out, but then decided to help ourselves to the hotel buffet for breakfast since it had opened in the meantime. Long story short, it was 9 a.m. before we got on the road.
As expected, it was a bit of climbing to leave Hatherleigh, and it was 11 a.m. before we rolled into (i.e., puffed and strained uphill to) Lapford, which had been our goal for the previous evening.
We had only a short break (with Snickers bars, which we hadn’t yet grown sick of) and then continued. We had just a bit more climbing out of Lapford and then things leveled off a bit. As though to compensate, however, the heavens opened up and it began to rain. By the time we rolled into Tiverton, it was well and truly pissing it down. We found a likely looking café but it was being remodeled. A passing local directed us to the Half Moon and we thanked him for the advice. When we got there we found it was warm and the food provided us with much needed calories, but the atmosphere left more than a little to be desired.
As we left the Half Moon behind and (after some faffing about in a cul-de-sac) Tiverton as well, we entered into the first of a long series of canal paths just as the rain was letting up. It proved to be a somewhat deceptive introduction to the canals as the path was broad and smooth. The wet clay of the path was soon spattered over our gear (and our faces, most likely), but it was still smooth going compared to some of the canal paths that lay in our future.
Later in the afternoon we left the canals for a roll through Devon’s more distant historical lanes, and found ourselves suddenly plunged into a … Devonian … crevice displaying dark and foreboding strata on each side. Adding frosting to the scenic cake was the fact the road was quite narrow and we had the threat of traffic whizzing by in either direction as we struggled up through the narrow defile.
And yet later the same day we found ourselves back on the canals. It was lovely and scenic before all turning topsy turvy at the end of the day in Bridgwater as a failed detour had us going backward on our course as the rain and the darkness began to fall in tandem.
The second day brought us a fresh start and — after a bit of excitement on the A30 again out of Three Burrows — our first of several flats.
While I was fixing the flat, a gent about our age — but far fitter — whizzed past us in the opposite direction. We called to him and he stopped and chatted with us for a few minutes. He was on Day 10 of Jogle — John o’ Groats to Land’s End — and had the goal in sight. We didn’t detain him long.
Not long after fixing the flat and setting out confidently again, we came to the cycle path that wasn’t: a cow pasture full of mud and brambles, and 99 44/100% free of actual path. And yet Google Maps insisted this was a cycling path that was the quickest route to our next way station.
Lunch turned out to be one of the true and rare gustatory delights of the trip: Goat’s cheese burgers.
Many hours of climbing later, and getting through much rain, we found ourselves speeding downhill through puddles of mud. I was in the lead and with Kuroko’s fat tires I was splashing fearlessly through the opaque puddles and the broken pavement they were hiding. Fearless Leader Joe on his skinnies did not fare quite as well, and soon had a pinch flat — although it took some time for him to catch up enough to get my attention. We pulled off at a likely looking farm gate to sort out the pinched inner tube.
Not 10km later we rolled into Hatherleigh. It was 8 p.m. and I could see from our route that we had 20km of climbing to go before reaching our goal for the day. With rain (again) in the offing, we decided to seek out lodgings where we were.