Wednesday, 9 July 2014

LEJOG - Now it’s behind us

As promised after the blog covering the final leg of our trip last week (our thanks, by the way, to Scilla and Graham, who were great hosts for the two nights in Golspie either side of our last leg to John O’Groats), this blog has a few thoughts from the two of us after what has been a genuinely uplifting experience for us both. We’ve also added to the photo gallery (including the photos at the start in Cornwall, which couldn’t be added to the initial post for “technical reasons” and we've updated the route to show the actual mileage in comparison with the initial estimates (the reality proved somewhat longer).

Some of our thoughts which follow are aimed at all readers, whilst some are directed more at the cyclists amongst you and in particular those who might be considering doing something similar.

1.      Observations – for everyone

·         The objective was of course to reach John O’Groats, and in doing so promote Beating Bowel Cancer, raising funds for the charity and hopefully raising awareness of the condition and its symptoms. We certainly reached our destination and have raised funds for the charity (with, fingers crossed, more donations still to be made) and we’d like to think we’ve contributed something to raising awareness.

·         A recurring theme as we fell into conversation with people along the route was how many had been affected by bowel cancer, whether themselves, a relative or someone they knew.

·         We also came across people who admitted that they weren’t doing as much as they should to get themselves checked for the condition, including, for those in the target age ranges (which, for whatever reasons, appear to differ between Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland) admitting to having received a testing kit, but having not done anything with it.

·         The ride was a brilliant way to see our glorious island, with the route taking us to places we might not have otherwise seen.

·         At the start the distance appeared enormous, but by the end our island appeared that little bit smaller.

·         There was no single stand out region or place as different parts of the island have different features and attractions, but three areas which made a particular impression on us were:

o   For beautiful, gentle, rolling countryside – the Welsh/English border counties.

o   For magnificent grandeur – the Scottish Highlands.

o   For rugged beauty, glorious views and pubs where you wouldn’t expect them (very important!) – the Lancashire side of the Pennines, as we rounded the east side of Manchester and headed north. This section of the route, which we followed as a result of going via Macclesfield was probably the unexpected revelation of the trip.

·         People with experience of LEJOG had told us that, for cycling, the first couple of days through Cornwall are the worst. With its myriad of narrow lanes (which didn’t help navigation), steep inclines and descents on which, because of the narrow roads with blind bends, you couldn’t build up much speed, they were spot on. A lovely county, which from Ian’s experience is more easily crossed by Land Rover Discovery!

·         We were not disappointed with any of the accommodation Martin booked for the trip and our hosts everywhere gave us a great welcome. It would be invidious to try to pick out a favourite, so we won’t.

·         The various friends we stayed with were all generous with their welcome and hospitality and we are very grateful to everyone who put us up (and put up with us!).

·         Our gratitude also goes to everyone who came to see us on the trip, whether they travelled from far or near, although in this case we have to mention again Martin Benson, who made the round trip from Ullapool simply to see us at the finish at John O’Groats and (through his choice) did not even get on a photo. We’ve heard of people going the extra mile, but 350 of them!

·         Our thanks also go to the people on whom we relied most to make sure both our bikes and our bodies were up to the task, in particular Graham Theobald, Roxy Pearson  and Sue Edgar at The Body Rehab in Staveley and Chris Wood at Your Sports Therapist in Northwich.

·         Our thanks, of course, go to our families for their tolerance in giving us the freedom to spend the time preparing for this ride as well as actually doing it and giving us all their support in helping us achieve our objective.

·         Final thanks go to all the people, some of whom we met along the way, and many of whom we have not mentioned by name, who have given us (or are possibly yet to give us, as word spreads) their support and also their donations to what is a very worthwhile cause.  

2.      Observations on the practicalities, for the cyclists amongst you   (if you’re not one, feel free to skip this bit!)

·         We were glad we had carefully pre-planned our route and pre-booked our accommodation, making sure there was a pub or restaurant close by. This avoided hunting round for a place to eat and sleep at the end of a long day.

·         We used paper maps for navigation rather than Garmin or similar. This enabled easy adjustment of our route, which we did several times. Pages from a 1inch: 4miles road atlas worked well generally, with the complicated bits augmented by 1:50,000 printouts from the OS getamap online mapping service.

·         We found it best not to rely on mobile phones – the signal was often patchy or non-existent. Wi-fi, although on offer at most places, was sometimes not powerful enough – worth bearing in mind if you do a daily blog as it can waste a lot of time.

·         Probably stating the obvious, but it’s worth travelling as light as possible. You don’t actually need much stuff, especially in summer.
3.      Final Thoughts

·         Martin discovered four nights after we had finished that he had broken a toe, whilst stumbling going down the stairs in our B&B in Inverness – he’d had his eyes glued to his phone at the time, so there’s a lesson there somewhere! Fortunately it hadn’t affected his last two days cycling on LEJOG, but he has now been told not to ride a bike for two or three weeks. Thank goodness it didn’t happen a couple of weeks earlier.

·         An important and heartfelt observation from Ian (based on personal experience!).  Bowel cancer is a common condition, but if the symptoms are acted on early enough it can in the vast majority of cases be successfully treated. People owe it to themselves and their loved ones to be aware of the possible symptoms and if they occur they should get them investigated. Also, if people fall into the age bracket where they are sent testing kits, please use them. When I was diagnosed, I was below the age for routine testing and also I had no idea of the possible links between the symptoms I was experiencing and bowel cancer. Whilst I sought medical advice, I am sure that if I had been more informed I would have chased up the investigations I ultimately had, so that they would have occurred sooner. I am exceptionally fortunate to be here today. Please don’t get caught out by either ignorance or inaction – and if you are reading this, there really is no excuse.

·         Can anyone recommend a comfy saddle?

Friday, 4 July 2014

Day 17, July 3rd - Golspie to John O'Groats (At last!)

The last day and the omens were good. Despite opting for a longer route, rather than the originally planned more direct A9 route towards John O'Groats (much steeper hills and much more traffic), we were hoping for a good day's cycling for two reasons. Firstly, the weather forecast was favourable, with little or no rain expected and, crucially, following winds for some of the day. Secondly, as we were returning to Golspie that evening we could leave most of our luggage (that's significant in my case) there so we would be travelling much lighter. 

However, we expected to be covering over 90 miles in the day, so we went for an early start and were on the road before 8am after consuming large quantities of porridge, courtesy of Graham and Scilla. We rattled off the 20+ miles to Helmsdale, although not before stopping off en route at Carn Liath, the remains of a fortified Pictish building, perhaps a couple of thousand years old - very interesting and very good value, as it was free to get to the site just at the side of the A9.

At Helmsdale we stopped for excellent hot refreshments at Thyme and Plaice, yet another of the caf├ęs where the staff have been more than helpful - offering to fill our water bottles and making sandwiches for us to take with us - stocking up was important for us as we left the A9 here to head north-west and it could be 40+ miles before we would find anywhere to buy refreshments. It was definitely worth a photo credit before we set off:

We then headed off through through easy cycling country, most of it on single track roads with very little traffic and we continued to make really good progress - the smile below reflects amongst other things how much easier riding a bike is without heavy panniers on the back (you don't feel the bumps in the road as much!).

One thing that Martin wanted us to fit in was a fashion shoot to display his new bamboo socks, courtesy of Mike and Pam, with whom we stayed in Bristol (note the 1000+ mile legs).

One thing we came across was a moving memorial to the people from Halladale who lost their lives in the Great War. What was particularly striking was the number of names on the memorial despite the obviously small population in the area today.

After over 60 miles on the road we eventually had our first view of the North Atlantic (if you look very very carefully in the photo below you can just spot it in the distance), which made us feel that at last we really were nearing the end of our expedition.

After a roadside lunch of our purchases from the cafe in Helmsdale, we stopped for a hot drink in another cafe, this time in Thurso, where the lady serving us suggested we might want to do the detour up to Dunnet Head, which is the most northerly point on the mainland. However, when we reached the turning towards it off the main road we discovered that the detour was about 6 miles further than anticipated and we sadly decided we couldn't fit it in and reach John O'Groats on time. However, a further opportunity arrived a few miles further on, when we came across the signs for the Castle of Mey, which had been owned by the Queen Mother and was now open to the public.

Whilst we had missed the opening time, we decided to cycle down to it to see if we could get a view of it, which we indeed could and so excited was Martin that he performed an impromptu jig to celebrate:

The castle also had stunning views towards the Orkneys. It is definitely a must see place when next up here.

We'd been keeping in contact with Roz and Harry, who were travelling up from North Berwick, to make sure they would be in John O'Groats to greet us and at around 5.50pm we eventually reached our destination and to our delight, not only had Roz and Harry come all the way north to greet us, but also Martin Benson, a friend from my Kendal quiz days (if you follow the media link in the blog to the Westmorland Gazette, Martin is in the quiz photo taken in our younger days). Martin had travelled around 175 miles from Ullapool where he was staying with friends and would have to do the return journey after he left us - what a star.

Obligatory photos followed (Martin B refused to be in any, so was official photographer) and here is the evidence that we'd actually reached the end of LEJOG.

So we've actually done it! And, by the way, ignore the 874 miles to Land's End on the signpost in the photos. We'd gone our own way and with 97 miles on the last day, we finished with a total distance of 1161 miles.

It's been a memorable nearly three weeks, but we're not going to try to sum up now what we've experienced. We plan to write a further blog entry in the early part of next week when we've reached our respective homes and have had a chance to reflect on what we've done. So tune in again next week to read more.

But for now, it's back to Graham and Scilla's to celebrate!

P.S. We've just reached 50% of our target donations to Beating Bowel Cancer and  now that we've actually achieved what we set out to do on the road, there is even more reason for people to donate and help us towards our charity objective!

Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Day 16, July 2nd - Inverness to Golspie

The penultimate day started overcast with quite strong winds, but it was fine, although rain was forecast for mid to late afternoon.

After an excellent breakfast, we took our leave of our hosts at Glendoune (another place we can strongly recommend - Martin researched and booked all the places we stayed when we were not with friends or family and he maintained his 100% success rate). Our thanks to Margaret and Angus for their hospitality, their donation and this great photo:

We set off at a pace out of the city with the wind picking up noticeably (cycling the Kessock Bridge out of the city over the Beauly Firth was "interesting" to say the least - see the concentration below?)

Staying close to the coast we arrived at the Cromarty-Nigg car ferry with about 20 minutes before the next crossing and decided to dive into the nearby Sutor Creek Cafe. The mussels being served looked very tempting, but we made do with a lightning quick coffee and Eccles cake (similar high standard to the previous day's Cornish pasty). We were still in good time for the ferry, our first of the trip, and I was able to make contact on the short crossing (see photo below - no time wasted on this trip!) with my wife Roz and younger son Harry, who had just set off on their journey north from Cheshire to meet us in John O'Groats. 

Once on the other side the following wind really picked up and, with the route being quite flat, we were making very good pace. By the time we reached Tain (the oldest royal burgh in Scotland) for lunch we were beginning to realise we might arrive 1-2 hours earlier than the time of 6pm I had indicated when I called Graham and Scilla the previous evening. Apart from the favourable wind and the terrain, this was also caused by the increasing realisation that our mileage for the day had been overestimated - a new experience for us on this trip.

By the time we were about 4 miles from Golspie I called Graham and Scilla to find out if there was anyone at home (fortunately yes) and to let them know we would be arriving around 4.30pm rather than 6pm. Whilst I was making the call, Martin couldn't resist going back down the road to photograph this sign, which we'd just passed:

We duly arrived at Graham and Scilla's (by the way, I don't think I've mentioned the connection - Graham and I worked together in Glasgow a few years back and this was the first time we had seen each other since then). Their house is in a stunning position with spectacular views - Martin took this from his bedroom window - not bad, is it?

We had completed 56 miles in the day at our best pace to date, bringing the total distance covered to 1064 miles and just one day left. Will we have a successful conclusion in John O'Groats tomorrow? Read Thursday's blog to find out.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Day 15, July 1st - Newtonmore to Inverness

What a difference a day makes (cue for a song?). We awoke to glorious sunshine and the expectation that we could, with the planned route, have one of the easiest cycling days of the trip - and, remarkably, so it proved. 

Breakfast was self catered at the Newtonmore Hostel, so that was simply a bowl of porridge, using sachets brought by Martin - and very good it was too. I brought the blogs up to date and Martin did his usual and "fettled" the bikes, whilst chatting to Neil, who runs the place with Sue. I eventually joined in the conversation and given the common interest in cycling, plus our shared experience of Kendal (Neil 30+ years there, Martin and I 20 years +), plus Neil's comparison of the merits of the two locations, meant that it was around 11.20 by the time we actually set off, only of course after photos. The hostel had really been spot on for our needs and was superb value for money - highly recommended.

Now we wouldn't normally stop after three miles of intensive cycling, but as time was on our side and we had only had the first course of our breakfast some time earlier, we stopped in Kingussie at Pam's Coffee Shop for "brunch". We were served by a lady (we didn't check if she was Pam) and when my ham and cheese toasty was served I asked if Lea & Perrins sauce was available. The answer was sadly no.

I hadn't even started eating when the lady came in through the front door (I hadn't noticed her go out) and put a new Lea & Perrins bottle on the table in front of me, having dashed over to the Co-op opposite to buy some. That's what I call customer service! The gentleman in the photo below mentioned that the lady has also been asked for porridge, which is not on the menu, and done exactly the same thing to oblige the customer. 

The food was good, the service was very friendly, plus free wi-fi - 10/10 and definitely worth a photo.

Given that this is supposed to be a blog about our journey north, having spent all the above on the first three miles of the day, I'll try to speed up.

For the rest of the day we were treated to probably the most magnificent scenery we have experienced to date on our trip, aided by superb weather. Below is the view across Loch Insh (note the snow):

And here is the view from a bridge over the River Spey as we were entering a lovely village, the Boat of Garten:

We decided to stop for lunch in the Boat of Garten and found the Post Office and Village Shop, where we couldn't resist the Cornish pasties (what else?). We ate our lunch sitting in the sunshine outside and fell into conversation with a number of people and, yet again as we have found in Scotland, cash donations were made, one by a local lady shopper and the other by guess which member of the visiting Edinburgh family (whose home it transpired we cycled past on Friday) in the photo below:

It was of course Robbie the dog, albeit unwittingly, as we were told the donation was actually Robbie's pocket money - perhaps that's why he doesn't appear to be smiling in the photo! On a more serious note, many thanks for the donations from the kind people we met - as always they are very much appreciated.

Moving on from Boat of Garten we had a similar, but less demanding ascent to yesterday's, this time to Slochd summit, before the long descent towards Inverness. Again I'll give Martin the summit photo credit as he (as usual) reached the destination first:

The remainder if the ride into Inverness was speedy and enjoyable, and as we arrived in the city we had one unscheduled stop at Velocity, cafe and bicycle workshop, which caught Martin's eye and which the lady in the photo told us was a social enterprise and had been open about 18 months. Whilst they had closed for the day she showed us the bike workshop, which was right up Martin's street. I think at least one of us will be calling into Velocity when next in the area!

We soon found the Glendoune B&B where we were staying for the night - a very friendly welcome from Margaret and Angus Noble, our hosts, and an excellent room - and after a quick shower we headed off into the city centre (very impressed by the way) and headed for Urquhart's as recommended by Margaret. As soon as we were inside the restaurant Martin realised he'd been in the same restaurant (when it was an Italian) on his one previous visit to Inverness in 2005 - a bit of a coincidence. 

After an excellent meal we ambled back to Glendoune, but not until we'd taken some photos of the views from one of the several bridges over the River Ness - it really is very attractive:

It was a satisfying end to a really enjoyable day. We had done an easy 56 miles, with good weather and superb scenery and we had brought our total mileage up to 1008. Two days to go and signs of favourable winds!

Day 14, June 30th - Perth to Newtonmore

I exchanged emails with (and received a generous donation from) Hamish Wilson the day before we started LEJOG. Hamish had looked at the route and made the comment  "I hope you realise how far Newtonmore is above sea level!". With that thought at the back of my mind, we left the excellent Ballabeg B&B to start our estimated 70 miles for the day.

There was actually a slight initial diversion into Perth, as Martin's son Jamie needed his increasingly lavish lifestyle (see day 12 blog and Jamie's degree result) funding and we needed to go to Barclays Bank for Martin to transfer funds (Martin's trying to look at it as an investment). With this successfully done, we set off around 10am following the cycle route which first took us to the west of the city, before turning north. Unfortunately, the morning became increasingly frustrating as a couple of the minor roads on our route were completely closed for resurfacing and they resulted in detours which added around 13 miles to our journey - with the climbing we needed to do to get to Newtonmore, that's just what we didn't need.

We eventually got back on the route, which meant that for most of the day we were following the old A9 and the related cycle track. An early photo opportunity arrived in Bankfoot, which we couldn't resist (the question is - who is the one who is livid?):

We cycled through some lovely scenery, stopping for lunch at a cafe in Pitlochry, where we were approached by Don from Wigan who told us he had had surgery for bowel cancer about 8 years ago and he kindly made a donation.

After Pitlochry we then started the very long ascent to Drumochter summit and, with this prospect in mind and the best part of 40 miles to go, only about 30 minutes from Pitlochry the heavens opened and we had a torrential downpour - by a long way the heaviest rain of the trip to date. It looked as if it was set for the afternoon, but fortunately it eased within the hour so we were able to gradually dry out as we battled on (apt description in my case!) to tackle the long ascent - cue appropriate photos:

Eventually, we reached Drumochter summit and to celebrate even the sun came out to celebrate:

Our biggest concern by this time was whether it not we would reach Newtonmore before the hotel opposite Newtonmore Hostel, where we were staying, stopped serving food. From Drumochter summit we had approaching 20 miles still to do, but at least overall it would be downhill (apart from the uphill bits!). As has often been the case we made good time late in the day and reached the Newtonmore Hostel where we were staying with just enough time to dump our kit and dash over to The Glen Hotel (highly recommended) for a really good bar meal. I had intended being alcohol free that evening (a concept alien to Martin), but after the rain, the long climb and what turned out to be 87 miles for the day (remember the estimate - 70 miles?) a modicum of wine was consumed and very good it was too.

We retired to our accommodation with the comforting knowledge that the next day's route was estimated to be only 50 miles which was likely to be fairly accurate (?). Plus, we would be losing altitude on the way to the next stop in Inverness. Allied to a weather forecast of glorious sunshine for the next day, it sounds almost too good. To find out if that is the case, read the next "thrilling" instalment to find out and to see if we've cracked four figures (952 miles so far)!

Monday, 30 June 2014

Day 13, June 29th, Edinburgh to Perth

After our two nights at our respective homes, on Sunday Martin and I did the the return (and last of LEJOG) rail journey north to Edinburgh to recommence our ride. Prior to LEJOG I'd never taken a bike on a train, although Martin had, and each time it has gone very smoothly, with the rail staff very helpful on each occasion.

We arrived at Waverley Station around 2.30pm on a dry, mild afternoon and with 45 miles estimated for the last of our three "half day" rides on the trek to take us to our B&B in Perth. Despite the shoppers and tourists, the traffic in the centre of the city was a little lighter than it had been on Friday and we were soon heading out to the Forth Road Bridge crossing at Queensferry, where, as the discerning reader can no doubt see from the photo below, I made light of quite a strong headwind. 

The ride over the road bridge gave us some superb views of the original Forth Bridge:

Once over the bridge we continued to make decent progress and as we cycled into Hill of Beath, we came across the statue of one of its famous sons, Jim Baxter, one of Scotland's football greats (apologies for the lighting - the sun was right behind it).

A relatively uneventful ride took us into Perth and our B&B for the night, from where we went into the city centre and found a really good restaurant, the Grand Italia. On leaving to make our way back to our berth for the night, we came across a new twist on (a) Scottish national dress:

For those struggling to see the detail, the sporran in the window might be clearer to read!

The final photo opportunity for the evening came as we were about to walk back over Perth Bridge, which spans the River Tay. In full daylight the bridge and the river views were superb, but in the fading light they were augmented by the bridge itself being illuminated, as well as the trees by the water's edge, as you can see from the picture below. It was really impressive and if you added a bit of snow it would look even better!

A good end to the start of the last week. The mileage came in spot on estimate at 45 miles, making a total of 865 miles to date, with an estimated 253 to go.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

Day 12, June 27th, North Berwick to Edinburgh

Friday morning was relatively overcast, but Martin was still able to take some stunning photos from the close at the end of which Steve and Lisette live:

We then set off for what turned out to be a speedy (by our standards) ride into Edinburgh, with the aim of being there in good time for our 11am meeting at the Royal Infirmary and, for possibly the first time on LEJOG, we were early! We had the luxury of killing a bit of time near to the hospital, before arriving on time and we then spent over an hour and a half chatting to Professor Garden, my liver surgeon, and the time he gave us was hugely appreciated. I had seen him in 2004 when I had been to Edinburgh on business, but just as when I contacted Mr Morgan at the Royal Infirmary in Lancaster, I had disappeared off his "radar" and so he was unaware of my current well being.

Again as with seeing Mr Morgan, it was great to be able to meet again in such positive circumstances someone who I had first met in challenging times. We were able to talk, amongst other things, about my own medical history, developments (and the greater success it has brought) in medical techniques since my treatment and of course our current expedition. It was a delight to see him again and this is reflected in the photo below:

This year being the 20th anniversary of the surgery by Professor Garden, hopefully the 25th will present a similar opportunity!

We eventually headed off to a shop in the west of the city as Martin needed to try to pick up a spare part for his bike from a specific shop. The visit was successful and we then dashed back to Princes Street where we had arranged to meet Fergus (the younger son of Rob and Joyce, who we had seen in the pub in Hallbankgate) by the Scott Monument and after a quick coffee and a chat (plus photo at at slightly artistic (for which read "odd") angle, below), we boarded the train south from Waverley Station. By the way, Martin admitted that as the day went on his usual standard of navigating our route was a bit off the pace. This was following the phone call he received at lunchtime from his son Jamie to say that he had been awarded first class honours for his degree - sitting opposite Martin and watching his reaction when he heard the news, I'm not surprised his mind was elsewhere!

The journey south was to enable me (apart from to have a rest!) to attend with my family the wedding of my nephew Brendan to his bride Kate in Cheshire, with a return to Edinburgh planned for Sunday, so we could pick up where we had left off.

By the time we'd reached Waverley Station on Friday we'd done 41 miles in an abbreviated day, bringing our total to 820 miles to date and with an estimated 298 remaining for the final week - in theory it would be an easy last few days, certainly in terms of overall distance. We'll see what transpires!