John O'Groats is a miserable place - relentlessly punished by cruel Arctic winds. It's literally miles from anywhere and it has taken us a full day to ride here through undulating, featureless agricultural land. Its claim to fame is being mainland Great Britain's northern-most point, although technically that honour belongs to a little bay a mile to the east. Our original intention was to ride the extra smidgen and cap off our trip with a skinny dip in the North Atlantic. We cop out and instead persuade a passer-by to take a snap of us in front of the obvious sign. Tacky 'End to End' souvenirs abound, trumpeting the distance from Land's End to John O'Groats as 874 miles. The problem is we've just ridden more than twice that distance and none of these bagpipe fridge magnets will do.
Land's End. It's important to know that it costs a small fortune (well $20ish) to get your photo taken by the sign. But if you're on a bike you can always get in before they officially open at around 7.30am. Commandeer a passing tourist, as we did and say 'cheese'.
When we planned this ride, the challenge was always what to leave out. Britain claims a diverse array of history, architecture, scenery and culture. We wanted to see and do everything. Some things were fixed - like location of hospitable relatives and our end points - but other than that we just picked the most interesting route that we could pack into the six weeks. As gentlemen tourists we've previously settled on a formula to average about 70km a day, with every third or fourth day being one of rest. Thus our six weeks translated into 33 days of pedalling.
We rode up through Cornwall and Devon, diagonally through Wales to the Isle of Anglesey, back across to Chester, then drifted south east before turning north again and tackling the Peak District, Pennines and Yorkshire Dales - crossing the border into Scotland near Carlisle. From there we hit Edinburgh, headed across to Glasgow, north into the Highlands, west to Fort William and up the Great Glen (Loch Ness and all that) to Inverness before the final push to the North Coast. On several occasions during the journey we noted (our surprise was itself surprising) that our route was quite probably the hilliest possible between our two end points. Cycling companions sometimes tire of the optimism I bring to ride planning. My contention that "Britain is part of an old continent and therefore worn flat" proved to be both unhelpful and inaccurate. Certainly there's nothing we would mistake for a mountain, but the hills are numerous and steep. Coastal Cornwall and Devon have many hills with a gradient in excess of 25%.
People were puzzled that, unlike most on this trail, we were doing this for fun rather than attempting to raise cash for a worthy charity. Although the attraction of the 'charity ride program' soon became evident when we met our first fellow cyclists and were dazzled by their spanky sponsored kit. The basic 'End to End' ride is an icon of British cycling. You can easily dig up suggested routes and accounts of others' journeys. The Cyclists' Touring Club hasbeen around since 1878 (current President is Phil Liggett, voice of Le Tour) and has three suggested routes based on the type of accommodation you're after. Membership of the club is quite expensive but does entitle you to some discounts along the way. We didn't end up using their routes much, instead stitching together some rides from Lonely Planet Cycling Britain (highly recommended) and the Sustrans network.
Sustrans was formed in 1978 with the aim of developing a network of bike paths and safe cycling roads throughout Britain. Steady progress received a quantum boost in 2000, when they received a massive £43.5 million grant from Britain's Millennium Commission to develop the National Cycle Network. The network now criss-crosses Britain and comprises many thousands of miles of very quiet, low traffic roads, larger roads with bike paths,paths with separate lanes for bikes and pedestrians, canal towpaths and decommissioned rail corridors. Simply put, it's brilliant and unsurprisingly is gigantically popular. For much of the network there are no specific maps so you need to watch out for the small and sometimes ambiguous road signs. Sustrans does however produce superbly detailed and clear maps for some of the iconic sections - such as Lon Las Cymru which we followed through Wales. The maps were expensive and only useful for some sections but well worth the investment.
One drawback of the Sustrans routes, and in fact cycling outside of the large population centres generally, is that the towns and villages en route inevitably have only limited accommodation options. We had expected to combine camping with backpackers' hostels, but found virtually nowhere to camp and only one or two of the more tourist-oriented placesto provide backpacker type lodging. Youth hostels were of the type now long vanished in New Zealand-hostel closed on Tuesday; hostel booked out by school party on nature study; hostel closed during the day to 'encourage' you to explore the area. Pub accommodation was the alternative and had obvious benefits that we took full advantage of at the end of a tough day's toil. We also hit a few Bed 'n' Breakfast joints. All very comfortable but it blew out the food and lodging budget.
The British people were constantly telling us how unfriendly the British are. We found the opposite to be true andwere humbled by the overwhelming kindness dished out to us. With only a few exceptions British driverswere patient and considerate- so different from what we encounter at home. We found Britain to be charming, interesting (church where King Arthur's head is buried, anyone?) and a huge amount of fun. Kiwis stuck with the picture of a country buried in urban decay are in for a pleasant shock- outside of the cities it really is stunningly beautiful and the Sustrans network makes it a cycle tourists' dream.