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An Exciting Cycle Ride From John O'Groats To Lands End

The first of a two part article by Janet Winstanley. Read the final part here.

It all started, not after a few drinks, but quite soberly with "I would like to join the Cape Wrath Fellowship". This from my husband Brian. "I'll catch the train to Wick and cycle to catch the ferry from Durness and then on to Cape Wrath", said he. Not to be outdone, I said that I would join him. I'm the map reader and route planner, with Brian giving "helpful" suggestions which I accept or try to ignore.

With the map of Scotland in front of us, I started to plan a route along the western coast of Scotland. "Why not go to the Outer Hebrides, we may never be so far north again". So a ferry from Ullapool to Stornaway and another across the Sound of Harris were planned. Initially ferries to Barra and then on to Oban were included until Brian said "I've never been to the Isle of Skye". So Barra was left for another time and Skye and Mull were included. Aran is part of the route described in Phil Horsley's book "Land's End to John O'Groats The Great British Bike Adventure". We joined this route after Oban. It's good for covering the distance on mainly minor roads.

Looking for ferries and timetables to the Scottish Islands couldn't be easier. The Calledonian MacBrayne website provided a downloadable booklet. On close reading this booklet promoted 'Hopscotch' tickets which were cheaper and, more importantly, more convenient than individual tickets. We had three, the main one getting us from Ullapool to Mallaig via Lewis, Harris, Berneray, North Uist and Skye. With eight ferry crossings the total cost was £77 for the two of us, bicycles go free. Very reasonable we thought.

So when to go? Two friends had cycled Land's End to John O'Groats (LEJOG) on the two previous Mays and had barely seen any rain. Plus Scotland's best kept secret the Midges, start late May - good to go early season rather than later. Once back from skiing in March we cycled to Preston to book the one o'clock sleeper train from Preston. This afforded us the least number of changes, there being only one at Inverness. Why go to Preston station you may ask. First we needed to find the best way there from Eccles where we live. We've passed through Preston many times, but our normal route is along a disused tramway, which is unsuitable in darkness. Secondly, the only way to get the tickets to attach to the bike is to go to a station. Bikes have to be pre-booked since there are so few places available on most trains.

We were lucky that 2010 had a sunny, dry April. This allowed us to get some mileage in as preparation. When touring it's good to have some miles in ones legs, but of more importance is the saddle. Here Brian tried several variations, returning to the not very stylish, but more comfortable saddle he used to cycle to work.

So one cold day in May, an hour before dusk, two overloaded bicycles left our home in Eccles for the start of our adventure. We'd been avid weather forecast watchers in the days before leaving. Everything pointed to single figure temperatures for several days and a black cloud that could stay with us if we kept to schedule. There had been snow two days before arriving in John O'Groats so we had brought extra layers and so called waterproof gloves.

The trains kept to schedule and we arrived in Wick just before three o'clock in the afternoon. Still 18 miles to go to the start. We arrived in John O'Groats when most things were closing, but managed a cup of tea and an Eccles cake of all things. The Transit Verification form (to join the Land's End and John O'Groats club) was duly signed at the gift shop and a photo taken. I keep a notebook of daily mileages, where we get to at the end of day, plus a few notes on the journey. Day 1 shows John O'Groats to Mey 6.62 miles, only 1360 miles and 26 days to go!

Cycling along the north coast of Scotland, the Orkneys were initially clearly visible. Daffodils were still in bloom and the few trees were bare. There was a strong southerly wind as we approached Durness. Hard work when ahead, but felt like being pushed along when behind.

We stopped at a welcome café on Loch Eribold only to hear the unwelcome news that the Cape Wrath ferry had been cancelled that day - too windy! Once in Durness we booked into a B&B for two nights in the hope that the ferry would be running the next day. Fortunately it was. The raison d'être for the whole journey looked possible.

With the previous day's ferry being cancelled there were more people than usual waiting for the ferry. So it wasn't until the third crossing that 2 bikes and six people made the journey across the loch. Leaving the other passengers to catch the mini-bus, we started up the steep ascent from the landing ramp. We had 12 miles to cycle, into the wind, on a rough track before reaching Cape Wrath. Heavy rain started a couple of miles before the Cape, but we were rewarded with clearing skies and sunshine as we approached the Cape Wrath lighthouse. Photos standing in front of the lighthouse (needed to join the Fellowship) and spectacular views of the cliffs down to the sea were taken before cycling back to catch the return ferry.

Now it was finally time to travel south. So, heading into a cool wind and climbing what seemed like forever, we left Durness and aimed towards Ullapool. We followed single track A-roads, with very little traffic. The scenery was very varied and beautiful, especially along the many lochs and inlets. With all the climbing and the strong headwind we reached Ledmore rather later than anticipated. On seeing a sign for a motel, we were lured two miles off course. It proved to be a good decision as the next day we saw only three B&Bs and nowhere to eat in the 20 miles to Ullapool.

Waiting for the late afternoon ferry in brilliant warm sunshine we decided to call in the Scottish Tourist Board office to book our Outer Hebrides accommodation. We don't normally book ahead. We are not always sure of where we will finish for the day. For the Outer Hebrides it is a must, as we found out. Stornoway was no problem, but the rest was difficult. We had planned to stay in Tarbert the second night but could only stay seven miles out of our way on the lovely island of Scalpay. For the next two nights we had planned to stay near the ferry on North Uist (Lochmaddy), but this was impossible. We could only book one night 10 miles from the ferry.

The final part of this article can be found here.

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