Part one: planning the journey
Our 12-year-old son chose our family holiday this year, inspired by an adult friend of ours who cycled from Land’s End to John o’Groats in ten days last year. As a result, we leave home in just over two weeks to start our nearly 1200-mile journey.
We are a family of four, with boys Oscar (14) and Silas (12), and we are not aiming to complete it in the fewest days possible, but rather to see something of the country while we cycle. Where we can, we will use cycle paths (thank you, Sustrans!), and will cover about 60-65 miles a day, completing the distance in 19 days.
Planning has been what seems like a full-time activity for weeks now, and we have enjoyed sharing the responsibility.
My husband Andrew has planned the route (to find the safer and more scenic roads and paths), I’ve researched options for stopping points each day (cafes, shops, etc.), Oscar is working out our options for where to eat out in the evening and Silas is going to pull together a big spreadsheet of all the data about our trip – miles covered each day, metres climbed, average speed, what percentage of the way we have covered each day and many other bits of information too!
Preconceptions about the ride
Silas says he is most worried about what the weather will do (we have had some painful practice rides in the cold rain and on very muddy towpaths), and whether the midges in Scotland will live up to their fearful reputation. I am looking forward to the trip enormously and will be fascinated to see how the country unfolds in front of our eyes.
The big unknown for all of us is quite how hard it will be, or whether we will all cope better than we think. Will there be a day where all four of us struggle, or will just one person find a particular day hard and the other three can encourage them on?
Finally, we’re also raising money for charity. We didn’t want the children to feel that they are tagging onto our idea, so we have all chosen a charity to support so that fundraising is more “our own”. The packing list is my current headache – packing as lightly as possible but having enough to cover our essentials.
Part two: experiencing the ride
What an amazing experience it is to cycle from John o’Groats to Land’s End! It’s quite extraordinary to see the stunning views of Scotland, the Lake District and the rolling Devon hills (and everything in between) all in the same trip. During the many hours in the saddle, my main distraction was to see how different the towns and countryside were from 100 miles before.
I don’t think all members of the family thought about the scenery as much as I did, but I wanted to be free from my phone and any navigation system so that I could enjoy what I could see. The other members of the family all watched the route on maps, counted up (or down) the miles for the day, or worked out how much more climbing there was in the day. These were good distractions too!
We spent about six hours cycling a day with an extra two or three hours for various stops – whether for coffee and cake (a daily occurrence), or buying lunch, or a picnic overlooking an amazing Lake District view, or just for water or “comfort” stops. It is deceptive how quickly the stops add up. We only suffered four punctures on the whole trip and no other equipment malfunctions of any sort.
Battling the elements
Our trip was during the summer heatwave, but thankfully we missed some of the extreme heat in Scotland. Cycling in the Lake District in 30°C+ is definitely energy-sapping; a day including a 1:5 hill coming out of Settle was one of our hardest, and we had never been so excited to see a Premier Inn as when we finally glimpsed the sign in Burnley at 8pm!
We endured thunderstorms coming into Worcester (with a slow puncture that needed pumping up every three miles so that we could change the tyre in the dry of the hotel), and torrential rain and a massive headwind all day the next day, from Worcester to Bristol. Even though that day had very little to recommend itself to us at the time (puddles in our shoes, being so wet through to the skin that we didn’t even want to stop for coffee or food and needing heaters in the evening to try to get everything dry), it’s those days of hardship that actually make the trip epic and memorable.
Takeaways from the journey
Things I liked: the bonding between us over the trip – we all supported each other when needed (Silas encouraged me bit by bit up a hill on one hot day when I had “hit the wall” shortly before lunch, then, coincidentally, he hit the wall a couple of hours later, but by then I had the energy to work with him pedal by pedal up another hill – thanks, Devon!). We had such a good laugh, most particularly in the evenings of the hard days – we were almost delirious with hilarity in the Brewer’s Fayre in Burnley.
I enjoyed pushing myself to do those last 10 miles of the day when all you want to do is stop. I loved the sense of progress as we tracked our way down the country. We met lovely people: at viewpoints while having a break, café staff and hotel receptionists or B&B owners who all went out of their way to help us have a comfortable stay. And, eating as much as you want for the entire trip is great fun, especially for those of us who normally can’t!
Not so good: some drivers, particularly in the Lake District zooming around corners when it’s only one lane wide, weak hands from resting on the handlebars so many hours a day (it made changing tyres really hard, and I couldn’t squeeze the toothpaste tube for the last week either), getting very wet and/or cold as it makes you slow down which makes you wet and/or cold for longer.
After the trip, all our various aches and pains didn’t take too long to subside, but our weak hands took about a month to get back to full strength. As we finished, I had absolutely no desire to do the trip again. Within three months, however, I realised I would love to do it again! I’m trying to think of ways to persuade the family that to cycle from the north to the south coast of France would be an excellent thing to do…