Sophie’s LEJOG

· 21 minutes read

It started with an early morning train from Bristol Temple Meads on 1 June, accompanied by a steel framed mercian touring bike. The two panniers on the back were, in hindsight, overpacked, but I managed to lug the bike over the gap.

My fully laiden Mercian at Bristol Temple Meads

It is a bit over four hours to Penzance. Enough time to dwell on all the things which could go wrong with this plan I’d drawn up. I had two weeks booked off work and had informed all but my closest friends and family that I was “taking the bike to Cornwall and seeing where I’d end up”. In reality a lot of time had been invested the prior 6 months in researching accommodation, planning routes, researching midge activity and trying to understand the bike policies for 4 different train providers.

Arriving at Lands End with just 17km in my legs, I was met by the first unexpected complication to my adventure… Did you know the Lands End sign is a formal tourist attraction?! It was a gloriously sunny, half term day and apparently Lands End was the place to be. The famous sign was roped off with a professional photographer busy at work taking pictures of lots of people who appeared to have forgotten their bikes…

Anyway I wasn’t queuing, I had places 874 miles away to be! A quick selfie with something saying Land’s End and I was off to find the least deserved coffee and cake of my cycling life. 

The iconic, but crowded, Lands End sign.

My only objective for the day was to make it back to Penzance and my first B&B. A little over 40km down I sat looking out over St Michael’s Mount with a sausage roll and tried to relax – this was my holiday, and the weather was glorious. BRC had got me plenty fit enough. I’d got this!

It was a relief to wake up to my first full day of cycling. There is a very simple pattern to cycle touring. Eat, cycle, repeat until sleep. But I was kicking off with a toughy – 112km with over 1600m of climbing on a heavy bike. 

This first day carried some particular significance for me. I had once before headed to Land’s End, aged 14 then with my dad. We had intended to cycle up to my home town in Leicestershire. The plan came undone very quickly when I, dehydrated, failed to uncleat at a junction on day 1. I still have a small scar on my left knee from that day.

It was now half a lifetime away but my memory was right that Cornwall has hills within hills and the only flat bits are water. With that knowledge I had planned a river crossing via ferry at Padstow to cut out some climbing. This arguable cheat was punished swiftly when the ferry, boarded down a concrete landing, pulled up on a sandy beach in Rock. Nothing sets a bike up for 1000 miles better than some sand in the chain…

A lesson quickly learnt too was that my road cycling instinct to smash each and every hill was not going to work out. It is possible to get out of the saddle on a heavy bike with luggage, but it wears down your legs far, far quicker. By the end of day 1 I had learnt to see a hill and start clicking my way straight down to my lowest gear… oh the shame. But preservation was the game with 2 weeks ahead of me.

Although tough going, the Cornish coast was spectacular in the strong summer sun. I could completely see why all the cars full of tourists clogging up the roads were there too… 

I stopped in Tintagel the next night. That meant starting the next day with a brutal climb. Having covered just 5km in the first half an hour of the day, I did the mental maths on when that average speed would see me arrive in Tiverton, another 115km away. I might make breakfast.

Thankfully I did pick up speed having tackled the worst of the ascent. Even so, the undulation did not stop. My knees burning after one too many hills, I could practically hear Cornwall talking to me;  “Did you enjoy that sharp climb? No? Oh, that is a shame. Nevermind, drop back down and you can try another.” I couldn’t help but laugh as I crossed the border into Devon with its “welcome to” sign at the bottom of a sharp, straight climb.

Unlike the day before on open coastal roads, I was hidden away in quiet little country lanes. The weather turned as I approached my destination but the rain was warm and the greeting from my airbnb hosts was warmer still. I spent the evening eating chips while listening to their accounts of all the LEJOGers who had passed through their spare room before me. 

The weather was turning more grey, murky and windy as I departed from Tiverton in the morning. I wasn’t too bothered though, too busy fantasising about how wonderful the somerset levels would be after two days of cruel climbs. Indeed after a lunch stop at a community cafe in North Curry, I pushed on ready for an easy ride across home territory.

Apparently not wishing to look soft after Devon and Cornwall, Somerset pulled out its best level’s headwind for me. And these were the roads now I would usually cruise along on a light carbon frame, fresh legged and sat in the wheels. I crawled towards home completely demoralised. These roads were boring and everything hurt, not least my ongoing knee issue having flared up. Scotland seemed impossibly far away.

135km later and never before have I approached the Clifton Suspension Bridge and thought “wow, this bridge is long!” I got home, ordered a deliveroo and lay down on a foam roller to discover I now possessed quads with all the material properties of planks of wood. 

And so I give you my top tip for LEJOG, particularly as a Bristol resident. Plan to meet friends or family in the Crew area. 

That night, lying on that foam roller, I decided I was not capable of cycling to John O’Groats. It was far too far away. But having shared my planned itinerary with my mum, she had promptly booked herself and my dad into the same hotel as me two nights north of Bristol in Nantwich. And as romantic as I’m sure a Monday night in Nantwich is, I felt an obligation to turn up and meet them there. I probably did have 2 more days in my legs… 

I woke up the next day, and I set out to cycle to Crew over 3 days, from where I would stick myself and my bike on the train home. I completely repacked my bags. The amount of kit which had seemed crucial just three days earlier now seemed utterly frivolous. And most impressive of all, I made it up Henbury Road without realising cycling is a stupid hobby, tossing my bike into the ditch and finding a bus back home. 

Having rolled across the familiar South Gloucestershire roads fantasising about what I’d do with my free fortnight off work, I crossed into Wales and headed along the main road into Tintern. This wasn’t a day for the St Briavels climb and the fact I’d entertained that idea when route planning now seemed hysterical. It was a grey day, arm warmer and gilet weather, but it wasn’t actively raining.

Stopping at Old Station for a coffee I switched on my map again – a straight line north continued until I hit Leominster. It felt like a very flat day. Really that was just a reflection of the steadier hills which did not immediately fall away and start over. 

The accommodation was a slightly creepy old house, but the bed was comfortable and there was space to lie on a massage ball and ease the muscles in my quads. My knee had not felt so bad that day, be it only 115k with 1100m climbing. Maybe my legs had more in them. Some sort of optimism overcame me as I ate a delivery pizza in my room and watched rain batter the window – my goal was now Gretna Green. I could make it to Scotland, potentially. 

Day 6 I was on a mission. That night’s hotel looked very nice and the parents were taking me out for a meal. The sky was still grey but the land was lying flatter and the wind dying down. The lanes were quiet and I put some podcasts on to pass the time. One greasy spoon cafe stop, a single photo of a strange hill in the distance, 125km and 1000m of climbing later, and the sun was out as I rolled into Nantwich. 

That night I made use of dad’s laptop to change one of my hotels, having decided my Scotland route was a tad ambitious. I had booked all the hotels many months previously, my top selection criteria after location and price being generous cancellation terms, and now I validated that decision. My parents then took my mind off things with a glass of wine over a fancy meal and by providing good company. 

The next morning the sun was shining again. I rolled out with some much needed moral support from the two people in the world with the most faith in my capability. 

I cannot really sell the getting through the North West urban sprawl phase of LEJOG. Runcorn is not a preferred cycling destination. The Silver Jubilee Bridge over the Mersey is quite fun with a segregated bike lane but that lasts all of a minute. Wiggling through St Helens requires a lot of concentration to navigate traffic. 

Still, urban areas bring ample cafe opportunities, and things start to get pretty again as you get closer to Preston, which itself is a nice little city in the sun. By the time I hit Garstang with another 120km and barely 800m climbing ticked off, I was starting to enjoy cycling again. My knee was even feeling okay!

The next day started with thick drizzle and on the sort of country lane which looks like it should be empty on the map but is inexplicably full with traffic. The surroundings matched my mood, I’d rather convinced myself this was the day that would destroy me. It was one of the most difficult day’s I’d found to plan. I’d mapped two routes before leaving home; a) an ambitious day climbing through the Lakes enjoying a gorgeous view over Windermere, or b) straight up the A6. It had been clear since I attempted to escape Tintagel in Cornwall that my knee was making an executive decision for option (b). So it should have been straight forward, a touch over 100km with 1170m of climbing. Easier than Cornwall anyway.

Even so I had built up Shaps fell on the A6  in my mind as some sort of 20%, 15 mile monster with a continually stream of articulated lorries close passing me at 70mph while my knees screamed in agony. Obviously this would be in the pouring rain. I’d spend day’s trying not to think about this part of the journey, because when I did I’d put a 60% chance on certain death. If I survived, surely it would be stranded, clinging to a cliff face trying to get a phone signal for a taxi to come take me back to Kendal train station so I could go home…

Anyway, in reality Shap’s fell is a lovely climb. A gentle gradient on a large, smooth, pretty deserted road (thank you parallel motorway) with spectacular views. I powered up.

I must also give a shout out to the Lancaster leg, which was one of my favourite counties to cross. The landscape was steady, rolling hills with beautiful views and the faint peaks of the Lake District framing it on the horizon.

The day mostly remained grey but the drizzle lifted. As I made it to Penrith the sky was even sprouting patches of blue. I made good time despite my leisurely cake stops, and there was plenty of evening left to go for a nice dinner and look around the castle ruins. 

My knees had been recovering on the road since Devon. The significant amount of attention in the form of stretching and a massage ball each night was paying off. I was certainly feeling more upbeat about my chances of completing my little mission as my head hit the pillow at the halfway mark. 

The following day started grey but quickly brightened up. The road to Carlisle was a straight line stretched out in front of me. To add some curiosity to my day, about 100m ahead of me was an orange thing… I followed it for miles but despite my best efforts, never managed to catch it and find out what it was. On the bright side, the dot on my GPS personified provided good motivation to make it to my last English city. Obviously I stopped for a teacake. 

It was then a slog along a B road which ran directly next to the motorway to work my way up to the border. A quiet road for traffic but oh my, motorways are really loud! 

I obviously stopped at the border for a photo. I was super proud of myself for getting so far, and anything beyond that selfy felt like a bonus. The part of me which now believed John O’Groats was achievable was also relieved to see a sign showing that JOG was now closer than LE. In the warm glow of the moment the tug of the cafe across the road was overwhelming and I stopped for coffee number 2. 

The glow then wore off fairly quickly as it got greyer and windier on my very loud B road. Hence a stop number 3 in Lockerbie. Shortly after I was happy to finally turn off that B road and see some of Scotland’s beauty for 20k, even if I got a bit wet. That was another 100km, 740m, and 1 country, completed.

That night I stopped in a motorbikers hotel which was perfect for acoustic models too. My bike got its very own room and I had fun in their lounge looking at the maps covering the wall and tracing the journey I had taken to get there.

Then after a good night’s sleep I was back on my favourite B road. Not only loud, the B7076 has to be one of the worst road surfaces I’ve ever ridden on – it was like cycling through treacle.

It didn’t last forever though, and eventually I turned off onto some smooth clear roads with lovely views. I managed to dodge the rain once again, but the wind was now becoming more of an issue. The news talked of the remains of tropical storm Alex which I’d hoped would give me a nice tail wind but unfortunately seemed to mostly provide stubborn cross winds. One side gust in particular almost took me off, luckily it was an empty road so I could swerve it out.

It was a fairly average day numbers wise, 115km with 950m of climbing. I’d investigated getting to see Edinburgh as part of the adventure, a city I’ve never been to, but it became clear that would be an awkward and expensive detour. My destination that night was therefore a basic B&B in Rosyth, just north of the Forth river. 

Midway, I stopped for lunch at a little bakery and met a local cyclist doing the same. He warned me that no one really uses the old Forth bridge any more. It didn’t really prepare me for just how empty that bridge is! I was scared I’d missed a ‘bridge closed’ sign somewhere. Cyclists & pedestrians outnumbered any motor traffic on it. I object a bit to having to stick to our little side lane when there were empty smooth dual carriageways I could have taken!

I must admit… I did think I’d be cycling over the red bridge. I didn’t appreciate there were multiple Forth bridges and that was for trains only. Still, I got a good view of it! Not that I had much time to see it with storm Alex becoming a tail wind for the crossing.

That wind was only getting stronger as I started day 11. I was a little apprehensive setting out and more than a little relieved that it coincided with my shortest day so far, only 95km with 850m climbing. I was fortunate in that it was predominantly at my tail. There was the odd occasion when I’d turn and it became a side wind I’d need to lie into. I had sympathy for the locals out on their Saturday long ride and having to tackle that as a headwind at some point on a circular. 

Although I did share in their pain a little… You’d think after having too much fun whizzing down a road with a strong tail wind to realise I missed my turn and having to plough a mile back into a gale force head wind once, I’d have learnt my lesson. Of course not, I did that twice.

In my enthusiasm to hide from the wind, it was a double coffee stop day. There was one particularly cute little cafe in Kingross, but it might be a bit out of reach for a Saturday morning, even for the fast group.

While fighting the elements, the scenery continued to get more breathtaking. The roads here were quieter and smoother. The beautiful B&B in Alyth with a backdrop of Cairngorms National Park was the perfect ending, be it I was too lazy to get a proper dinner and ended the day sitting on a park bench, enjoying the view with a bag of chips.

In my initial route I went over the Spittal of Glenshee the next day, which was another hysterically optimistic bit of route planning. I was very thankful as I rolled along NCN route 7 that I’d changed my hotel and route earlier in the week. The 120km to Kingussie was far more achievable, and a couple of rubbishy bits of pavement cycle path next to the A9 was a price worth paying. 

The day was not completely without challenge though. There was 1075m of climbing to be tackled, predominantly to get over Drumochter pass. I had not thought too much of this until I passed a sign informing me: 

Drumochter Summit
Cycle track climbs to 457m
Weather conditions deteriorate without warning and can be severe even in summer
No food or shelter for 30km”

I have to admit, I possibly did not heed this warning seriously enough. It was a warm June day with blue patches in the sky. How hard could this possibly be?

The route started to climb up using lanes which were no through apart from bikes and so effectively traffic free. The sun was still shining with bright yellow flowers bordering either side. Then as the kilometres ground by and the metres ascended ticked off, the quality of the lane’s surface seemed to deteriorate with the weather. The lane gave way to the purpose built cycle track, barely wide enough for a bike to pass in either direction, I was being drenched by an icy rain and pushing into a growing headwind. Even working, my speed rarely got above 10kmph. 

The higher hillsides did not lend itself to a smooth straight track. The narrow path weaved up with steed steps of ascent, some of which you immediately dropped down from. Any turns were sharp. In the wet it was testing my bike handling. Helpfully, beautiful scenery mostly distracted me from contemplating the question of how long a rescue party might take should I misjudge one of the path’s roller coaster turns. The rolling mountains off to either side were spectacular.

Finally having passed a sign declaring me to be at the highest point in the scottish NCN network, it was a very quick (and at some points nervous) descent to an awaiting and much appreciated cafe. It was only then a short, flat run into the hotel in Kingussie. 

The next day was effectively a rest day. I had such a leisurely start that dad rang me to check everything was okay because my gps tracker link hadn’t started and it was gone 10am. Even with only 75km and 580m elevation, there were two cafe stops on my itinerary. I stretched my welcome at both. There was even time to stop and find out why there were loads of tourists looking at a field with some rocks in… turns out they were 4000 year old, the Buluaran of Clava. Having satisfied my education quota for the trip, I only had a short climb up to my B&B just outside Inverness. 

It was at this stage the winter thermals I had bought all the way up from Cornwall were for the first time taken out of the panniers. I had wondered if I was being a bit pessimistic packing them, but as it turned out they were much needed. Although unfortunately the weather was so changeable that even with them, I spent all day taking off and putting back on layers, such that I was never actually wearing the right kit for the moment. This was by far the wettest day, arriving drenched at my first cafe stop. Thankfully then it was only 95km with 900m climbing to cover.

While my surroundings were beautiful, unfortunately the need for bridges across the various fingers which reach from Scotland’s North East coast restricted my route options. Potentially the worst road of the trip therefore came with the A9 bridge which is single lane in each direction and with no cycle provision. I suppose I was unlucky… a massive lorry got stuck behind me, and behind it, all of the cars. I was head down, TT-ing it until the lorry finally squeezed past, itself not a pleasurable experience as I focused on keeping a straight line and preparing to throw myself onto the narrow pavement if needed. 

Having escaped to the quieter lanes again, things relaxed a little. I was now funnelled back onto the concentrated LEJOG route and increasingly meeting others on their own journey or happily recounting stories of when they did it themselves.

And so from Lairg I set off for my final proper day of cycling. There was only 120km and 1,200m of climbing left until the mainland’s most northeastern city. I rolled out onto the single track A Road I had checked out on google street view many months before. I must say it was a slight disappointment to find there were other humans out here, be it most of them seemed to be due to a significant wind farm development in progress – itself an impressive sight. 

There was still plenty of time where it was just me with the sheep and their lambs. New scenery of open expanses and deep woodland rolled towards the coast. It didn’t rain, and when I did finally hit civilization on the north coast, a good coffee was forthcoming. 

As impressive as it is to cycle from the south to the north coast, there was a final photo opportunity to be taken about 30km from that night’s B&B in Thurso. I got to bed as early as possible ready to hit the road at 7am.

The early start on day 16 was not really necessary, but with the midday train being the only transport south that day, I wanted enough time to deal with even the most catastrophic incident and still make it to Wick in good time. I completed the 30km ride across to John O’Groats in a leisurely hour and a half, enjoying the early morning sun on the sea from the silent coast road. 

At the Northern point, there was no photographer roping off the famous sign. A kind passerby offered to take a photo and so I do have a perfect record of my arrival. 

I did take a brief moment to pause and think back across my journey. Cycling simultaneously shrinks and expands distances, leaving you with a perspective it’s impossible to describe.

And with that, it was straight back onto the bike and around the coast to begin the real challenge – a 16 hour train journey back home.