Almost there

A primary school leaver, Niccolò, and his teenage sister Maia cycle 1,000 miles – from John O’Groats to Land’s End – with their parents Anne and Gabriele.  Was it a fun summer holiday?

This is Dad’s daily diary of the JOGLE adventure.  Posted on Facebook at the end of each day, it provides evidence of how a few days of pedalling can affect the mind of a not-very-fit human. 

In this blog version, I added short retrospectives and references to notable places we stayed at (in italics).


Day 1: Jul 22

John O’Groats to Lands’ End family adventure just started and we already did the most difficult bit of cycling …through Central London! Now on sleeper train, trying to make up for lack of physical training with mental preparation, inspired by a wee dram of Laphroaig.

The overnight train to Inverness in very tight sleeping cabins was an entertaining and exciting way to get to Scotland.
Beds and bicycles need to be booked well in advance if you are going in the summer.

Day 2: Jul 23
Breakfast in Inverness (the northernmost Costa Coffee) followed by 4 more hrs on train to Wick, then 18 misty miles on our bikes to get to the starting point…John O’Groats!

(Jan de Groot XVth century Dutch ferryman appointed by James IV to provide services to the Orkneys. Settled a family dispute by building a house for his 7 heirs with an octagonal dining room at the centre so each could walk from their door to be “head of the table”).

Dinner in the one local pub-restaurant included “haggis tower”, sticky toffee pudding and a local 12yo whisky.

Ready for chilling and a good night sleep in our top B&B find: the Anchorage.

It could be worse.

Getting to Wick from Inverness on a train is a 4+ hours slog but it’s rewarded by beautiful Scottish landscapes.
And there’s more across the sea further north! For centuries, John o’Groats has been the gateway to the Orkney islands, heaven for walkers, cyclists, fishermen and nature-lovers.
The Anchorage B&B was not only beautifully appointed and spacious but, thanks to the amazing host Gail, it was truly a “home away from home”. Best way to start.

Day 3: Jul 24

First big cycling day: we travelled 65 miles from John O’Groats to Tongue.

Or, as my Roman ancestors would have said: “petivimus Linguam”. Now, the verb “petere” actually means ‘to demand’, and as we were cycling up one big hill after another I was reflecting on how the language of old beautifully reflected the desire ‘to get some place’, not taking success for granted. In other words, voyage as a quest.

The winners of the endurance cup today, hands down, are Nic-Nocs and Maia with their Trojan resolve. By the time we get to Land’s End their legs will be strong as tree trunks like Hector’s.

On the road we found a play area with a view in Thurso, a golf course with a ghost club house where we stopped for tea and sarnies, enough lambs to silence Hannibal, plenty of road signs bearing bad news (too many miles left), solitary telephone boxes, various types of cows (including the highland hairy kind) and beautiful scenery.

It was worth carrying the extra weight of spaghetti, tinned tomatoes and tuna, consumed in a primal scoffing session at a very welcome and welcoming youth hostel.

And I won at “Simpsons’ Monopoly”.

A very heavy first leg for absolute beginners.  Especially as we later found out that, after 40 quasi flat miles to Betty Hill, we could have turned South and avoided a further 20 miles of very demanding hills. Route choice: you learn the hard way!


Day 4: Jul 25

Cloudy Misty Rainy Sunny Misty Rainy Cloudy Sunny: a perfect Scottish day for our 48-miler.

After yesterday’s seesaw leg-breaker we were hoping for more moderate altitude shifts. It was not to be and now I know why they call them “Highlands”.

Up we climb from Tongue to a beautiful loch that gives a half-hour respite to our eyes and legs. We stop for a cup of tea in a hotel with a drinking problem. The lady (hoping to persuade us to stay for lunch methinks) says: “oh, you’ve done the hard bit – it’s all downhill now to Invershin, just a couple of wee climbs”.

A couple of hours later we decide that in “invershin”-land downhill means uphill and uphill downhill. Cursing the lady in the misty rain we knock the door at the Crask Inn, a ghostly place lost in a ghostly glen.

First the (g)host has to untangle himself from the cobwebs, then he reassures us that food is at the ready. “Table d’hôte” today: sandwiches and celery soup. Maia kills time plaiting Anne’s hair, Niccolò reads an ebook by the peat-burning stove.

As we get warm and replenished, our eyes adjust to the dimly lit room in the middle of nowhere and – now fully awake – the (g)host is forthcoming with all sorts of useful information for the rest of the day’s ride. When he says it is “all downhill from now” I feel an urge to punch him (but later it turns out he was not affected by the Invershin curse).

So we finally zip 15 whole miles downhill. And at the Falls of Shin, a recommended stop, we are glad that it’s only the salmons going up (though they’re a bastard to catch on camera!).

And then onto tonight’s surprise accommodation. Orcadian ales, OJs and burgers, topped by a Macallan night-cap as we put our knees up in the lounge. Mandated by the route, the “overnight stay lottery” is turning out to be quite fun.

Don’t need 5 stars when you’re carrying the stars with you.

The Crask Inn is probably “the most isolated pub in the country”.  We really enjoyed the hospitality of the owner during our lunch break.  Check out this travel blog for a great description of characters and places in this stunning, little-inhabited area.

The Invershin Hotel was one of our favourite overnight stays: an eclectic, welcoming, cheerful place in a beautiful part of the country.


Day 5: Jul 26

The dark mist of despair and confusion makes a mockery of time and is at the mercy of blind fortune. It is the “the wall” of marathon runners, when the head suddenly says one thing and the body does another.

Great strife requires great resilience and the training ground for resilience is strife.

We got strife alright on our third day of gruelling cycling in the Highlands: 53 miles and 1000+ mt changes in elevation to get to Loch Ness.

Little Nix hit the wall at mile 16 after a monstrous climb and (literally) breath-taking views. He just could not do it any longer. We stopped. We talked. We looked. We talked. We looked again at the endlessly green, empty landscape and it was only after watching a car disappear into the distance that we could see the road finally sloping downward!

Fortune was in a good mood today. A few gentle miles were all that was needed to restore hope and resolve. A hearty lunch, a game of pool and a few hours later, the 3-mile uphill in cold rain right at the end was no longer a crushing obstacle, just another obstacle to crush. And then onto the final mile down probably the steepest road in the Kingdom.

Physical pain also paid a visit to our peloton. Saddle bruises and a swelling knee were silently endured by our expedition leader, Anne. But this is what bike shops and pharmacies are for. A brief stop in Dingwall, the first populated town we have seen in two days, was all she needed to mend all sorts of mechanical problems. And tomorrow’s rest day should do the rest – what a day!

No pain no gain 🙂

Loch Ness is where Scotland turned from indescribably stunning to unbelievably touristy. Book your stay well in advance during the high season!

Food, atmosphere, service were great at the Loch Ness Inn.  


Day 6: Jul 27

Rest day.

I hate souvenir shops. Hang on, is that a pseudo-Gaelic pewter flask? Are those wee bottles of whisky? Is this where Christophe Lambert had his Clan’s scarf knitted?

Hey what the heck. When in Scotland… So I invested in the whisky vessel and its liquid companions. Ought to be better than Lucozade for tomorrow’s ride.

Then onto the Nessie lake cruise, the highlight turning out to be the groundhog-day tour guide stuck chasing imaginary creatures since the sixties. I was even able to immortalise two aquatic monsters chasing breadcrumbs.

After the exciting obventure all that was left to do is to purchase a few thousand calories in the local Inn.

And then to bed in the most uncomfortable bunk-room this side of the Western Hemisphere run by Mad Lady. Makes Bates’ Motel feel like the Four Seasons.

Oh hum. Back on the road tomorrow.

Best coffee stop: Café Eighty2


Day 7: Jul 28

Give me a canal any day, the cyclist’s Netherlands: predictable, soothing, flat …a bit boring after 10 miles.

The XVIIIth century engineer in charge of building the Great Scottish Canal optimistically declared that it was just a matter or finishing Nature’s work, the giant valleys of two adjoining tectonic plates being already filled with lochs. It was only in 1824 that the massive undertaking, uniting two seas, was finished. It never made a profit, but created a safe passage for generations of seamen and a picturesque trail for walkers and 21st century cyclists.

After 10 miles of scary road (full of lorries) from Drumnadrochit, we winged 50 more miles on canals or off-road following the Great Glen Way, via Fort Augustus and Fort William where we took a tiny ferry across on our way to our destination, Ardgour.

We lunched in a quirky barge along the Canal. Fantastic atmosphere, slightly spoilt by the fact that Captain Bird’s Eye was in the kitchen.

At the end of the day, our tired legs were rewarded by sunshine – finally! – and a welcoming Inn.

Tired now… Goodnight!

The overnight stop at the Inn at Argour required a ferry cross-over in the evening which allowed us to enjoy the sunset on the loch and then again in the morning as the sun was rising: a worthwhile detour! 


Day 8: Jul 29

Everyone knows α and ω, nobody bothers with the rest (unless they are Greek, linguists or mathematicians).

Successful projects have exciting starts and triumphal finishes. But it’s what happens in the 25%->75% zone – the doldrums few ever hear about – that determines whether you make it or break it.

As we enter our own doldrums, a few hundred miles on our legs, we shout less and get on with it more, trust and mutual respect growing by the day as road-knowledge and routines develop and it becomes clear that everyone’s dealing with the challenge in different ways but equal determination.

Our inner tribologist is slowly taking control: we tune our gear changes, shift our weights, apply pressure on pedals with increasing efficiency to maintain momentum with the lowest possible energy waste, but it will take a few more days to perfect the art of minimising bum friction on the saddle (or rather for the painful bruises to morph into sturdy calluses).

Today’s main challenge wasn’t the now usual 60-miler, but the fact that it was mostly on “A” roads with traffic flying past at 60-70mph.

Planning ahead, we decreed that free-riding and races were out and discipline was in: we had to work as a unit to keep as safe as possible.

With my fluorescent jacket and helmet, I fancied myself a bit of a Johnny Storm at the back of the pack. Just ahead of me, Maia, a.k.a. Susan Storm, was in charge of activating force fields to keep trucks at bay. Then Nix with his clumsy cycling – a moody Thing – ready to clear any fallen trees or overturned vehicles; all of us behind the confident leadership of Ms Fantastic.

The plan worked and we sailed through the Glens under the Bens in stunningly beautiful Glencoe National Park, then onto a bumpy road and, after another ascent to the next valley, finally being rewarded with 5 miles of cycle path through the forest to our destination, Lochearnhead.

Haggis, tatties and neeps now beckons by the loch – not before a mile’s walk to the nearest pub 😦 What the heck, we need the exercise!

Pink dreams tonight.

From “Tongue” to “Bonar Bridge”, Scottish place-names made the kids snigger.

In beautiful Glencoe we found it was Typhoon jet training season: awesome to watch, terrifying to hear before they suddenly appear.

Mansewood Country House in Lochearnhead was a lucky pick for the overnight stay.  Alan the host directed us to the lake-side Clachan Bar for dinner.  Worth the long walk!


Day 9: Jul 30

“Where do we go next?” – a simple question. Anne observed how, a few days into our family adventure, this has become our primary focus. No school runs, no work deadlines, no social engagements, no household chores, no errands… The only thing we have to worry about right now is getting to the next destination. Brutally straightforward, liberating (albeit temporarily) and exceptionally gratifying as each milestone is achieved with great effort.

Let’s analyse this on a more existential level as a no-frills, concentrated metaphor of life: don’t we feel most alive when we go to bed knowing that tomorrow, after kicking some arse and with a bit of luck, we will have got further than we are today?

Of course we don’t always need to turn ourselves into Forrest Gump: we humans have the luxury of the abstract dimension, our brains capable of the most amazing feats without moving an inch. But getting up every day with a specific objective and pretty much forcing yourself to tick it off before going to bed is a reminder that, whatever our choice of challenge (if indeed we do have a choice), we can’t be lazy. For the moment we stop, gone is the effort, but gone is the gratification too.

Today was a real stretch: 75 miles from Lochearnhead to New Lanark with heavy bikes on heavily undulating terrain.

After an easy start with the most pleasant of rides through forest cycle paths to Callander, a band in traditional dress reminds us of exactly where we are.

By the end of our coffee stop the kids find the Hamleys of toffee shops and we refill with sweets.

The pain starts an hour later, south of Stirling. Past the war memorials of Bannockburn, we set about to cross over to the next valley via the ominously named “Tak Ma Doon” road. 10 very slow miles of leg-wearing ascent: the elation of hitting the long, inevitable downhill quickly dampened by the realisation that we are only just over half-way.

And it’s almost 4pm. And, having underestimated the steepness and barrenness of the road ahead, our tummies are running on empty (for the record, Anne had proleptically suggested, as we passed what turned out to be the last shop in 15 miles: “why don’t we buy some sandwiches just in case?”… Why is she ALWAYS right?!?).

We devour some nosh in a forgettable pub, eager to move on and get to our destination, all the while making a few map-reading mistakes that add a couple of miles to the ordeal.

…We get there in the end! At 9:30pm, having set off at 8:50am.

Survival food in the empty common room of the B&B, some warming victory drinks and off to bed. Thank goodness tomorrow is a rest day!

And then…: “Where next?”

PS – Highlights of the day:
– Maia always looking stylish and quietly determined to do whatever it takes (thank you for spotting the “hidden” bridge crossing the M80!)
– Niccolò singing a motivating BonJovi tune as we ‘happily’ pedalled uphill on mile 72…

The “Tak Ma Doon” road, picturesque and interesting as it was, is probably best avoided if you are scared of infinite, steep ascents.  It did, however, yield a very nice encounter with an old man who kindly gave us directions and encouragement as we were nearing the top, where the cows at pasture in the afternoon sunshine were a beautiful sight.


Day 10: Jul 31

Rest day @ New Lanark. Family day.

Thinking of Ali, our 17-yr old ephebus, away with school friends on his own “no-iPhone, no-parents-contact-for-a-month” adventure in Tanzania.

Under the care of a couple of Afghanistan veterans from the “World Challenge” organisation, they are trekking up mount Meru (a dormant stratovolcano located 70 kilometres west of Mount Kilimanjaro), then spending a week helping a local community and finally chilling out on some beach.

Basically we have no freakin’ idea where he is other than “somewhere in Tanzania”, hoping to hear no news until he gets back.

This is the first time in the young man’s life he’s been away (and out of contact) for so long, so it’s a new experience for us all.

I wonder if he’ll come back with another name after jumping through the ring of fire in a Nemo-style initiation.

Ali’s a dude. It would be so cool for him to be here with us, but there’s a time to fly the nest and now’s his time and he’ll be having a great time.

WE MISS YOU ALI! Ok. Stop.

I said family day. Today Francesco and Giulia (nephew & girlfriend) came to meet us from their Edinburgh love-nest for a hearty lunch and a good chat in New Lanark. Slightly surreal to meet Italian family in such unusual place and circumstances, but great. Thank you guys!

The rest of the day was comfy bed, TV, some laundry, recovery and pizza. We even had the time to go to Halfords and buy a throne to fit on Anne’s bike.

May our bums survive tomorrow.

The New Lanark Heritage site was an enjoyable, worthwhile way to spend half a day.


Day 11: Aug 1

One thing I hate about cycling: the tan line.

In three weeks’ time we’ll be meeting a bunch of perfectly golden, stylish Italian friends for a long weekend in Sardinia looking like kangaroos carrying a headless minion in our front pouch – don’t even want to think about the back 😦

Someone should invent melanine-filled, sun-ray friendly cycling apparel. In the meantime I may consider – as we approach the more southern latitudes of England – going topless. Only I am worried that my toned physique could cause cougar fights or maybe even road accidents. Or my children revolting against the revolting.

Today was the most straightforward 66-miler. We went down (literally) the Route 66 of Scotland, from Lanark to just north of Carlisle flanking the motorway and the railway on a series of now forgotten “A” roads. An infinite mild descent, not very exciting but very welcome.

I am pleased to report that the new throne and the saddle-enhancing implements worked a treat so family buttocks are ok now.

Our destination for the day, Gretna Green, is the Vegas of British weddings -no idea why.

And now I am ready for a drink in the pub conveniently located downstairs. Fully clothed so Anne does not get jealous.

Cheers!

Lesson learnt: a good saddle can make a hell of a difference if you spend many hours a day on a bike.  By “good” I just mean something suited to your derrière.  It’s well worth carrying an emergency “gel seat cover” if you are not sure… and buy a new saddle en route if that does not do the trick! 

Lovely lunch stopover in Beattock at the Old Stables Inn, luckily also the town’s sweet shop!


Day 12: Aug 2

Hermes was the ancient Greeks’ traffic cop, the wing-footed messenger who could cross all the boundaries, from Olympus to the underworld.

His unrestricted passage across realms so different as life and death is symbolically enshrined in the periodic table: Mercury (the Latin name for Hermes) fluctuates between the solid and the liquid state.

Gretna Green, on the boundary between two nations, famed for the most universal of rites of passage, marriage, is rather “hermetic” isn’t it?!?

At least that was my thinking as we left for another 65-miler this morning.

At that stage, there was no sign that it would turn into a multi-stage drama…

It started nicely enough with the dramatic sites of Carlisle, where the ancient history of Hadrian’s wall and of the city’s Castle lives alongside the tall furnaces of the Industrial Revolution and the hustle-bustle of modernity.

Then onto narrow country lanes – so narrow at one point that we got stuck (care of a drunken signpost) into a footpath, but not before having gone off-road, in the mud, and finally into long grass prior to listening to Anne (…why is she ALWAYS right!) and tracking back, losing 40 minutes of precious time and eating into our energy stores.

Late lunch in Penrith put a smile back on our faces until Maia, unlocking the bikes, discovered that mine had two broken spokes, care of the aforementioned footpath (I was wondering when that would happen… I seem to have a habit of destroying bicycle wheels, for something very similar happened almost exactly 27 years ago on my way to Portugal – but that’s another story).

Hey ho, thank goodness that for once, instead of being in the middle of nowhere, we found ourselves within 4′ of Halfords, where they were able to sort it all out in the time it took the female half of our party to go forage for dinner at an adjacent store.

All was good apart from the inexorable clock that kept ticking, pushing our final destination, Sedbergh, later and later into the evening.

Back on the road, it was not long before it started raining. A refreshing summer drizzle to start with, a morale-sapping cold shower within half an hour.

We somehow got to mile 61 and, with 4 to go, Niccolò slips and grazes his knee. So now we are walking in a tiny backroad surrounded by nothing but sheep, in the rain and, alàs, not singing.

Sure enough, however, as uphill is followed by downhill, bad luck ought to be followed again by good luck: a phone call to “Nigel” (the owner of the bunk room we are renting for the night), enquiring if perchance he can summon a man with a van to come to our rescue, is met with: “I have a car with trailer”. Now, how bloody unlikely and how bloody lucky was that?!?

Nigel the angel thus comes to collect us and it’s not long before we are safe again. And the bunkhouse has a dry room too 🙂

Gnocchi al pesto with mozzarelline and beans at 10pm never tasted to good. The ladies tend to our injured hero. After cleaning the wound, we find out the plasters are too small. But the eye pad will do the jobs.

A mercurial day indeed.

Niccolò’s knee injury turned out to be superficial and he suffered more from the shock of falling over.  He slipped on a cattle grid, thankfully, thankfully right at the end so he fell on the road. That evening we hit our “holiday low” –  in hindsight, it is clear that consistent bad weather would have totally ruined our cycling adventure.

Every cloud has a silver lining: the remote bunkhouse we stayed at turned out to be heaving with Pokemons, something that cheered-up Niccolò at the right time.


Day 13: Aug 3

“So seriously did Spartan children go about their stealing, that a boy, having stolen a young fox and hid it under his cloak, let it tear out his guts with its teeth and claws and died right there, rather than let it be seen.”
(Plutarch’s essay on Lycurgus 18.1)

Spartans were pretty intense. A military state predicated on Service or Death, all too often Service AND Death. And it had to be a ‘proper’ death, for if after the battle your body was found with wounds on the back (a sign that you were running away from the enemy) your surviving family’s honour would be ruined.

But while I have nothing but admiration for the heroic, selfless Spartans, especially the 300 of Thermopylae, I fancy better the Athenian way: brawny AND brainy.

Just after Leonidas and his men’s sacrifice at the hot gates, Themistocles ordered the citizens of Athens to leave the acropolis and retreat to the nearby island of Salamis, pretending to hand over the crown jewels to nasty Xerxes whilst readying the fighters for the mother of all naval battles.

A pretty smart decision it turned out: the price of a few burned temples versus the ultimate victory that saved Western Civilisation as we know it.

In a nutshell: “cut your losses”, a mantra I also learned in the closer-to-home world of investment banking.

So this is probably a record-breaking roundabout way to let out that today we cheated a bit and only did 15 miles on the saddle and 45 on the Italian-designed, Virgin-acquired “Pendolino” train from Oxenholme to Preston and then on to Chorley.

…15 miles that, however, are worth at least double on account of:
– an injured but very brave 11-yr old
– more soaking rain
– Aeolus releasing Zephyrus, the West Wind, against us as we were heading west
– Leg-killing hills on fully loaded bikes

The Dales were not kind to us. From now on, when the Albarosas eat Sunday lunch, Yorkshire pudding shall be ritually ripped apart with maenadic fury prior to ingestion.

We are now at the day’s destination, the Premier Inn in Chorley with a couple of hours to spare and a David Lloyd’s fitness and spa centre conveniently next to it – which we scorn in favour of slopping on the beds in front of the telly and enjoying the great luxury of a bath-tub for once.

A cunning day, back on track tomorrow.

Getting the train on this rainy day just after the previous night’s accident was the best decision.  Yes, we cheated for 45 miles, but persisting in the rain would simply have been daft and would have killed our chances to keep going another 10 days. Overall, our end-to-end route saw us cover 1,000 miles with our little legs… I think that’s enough!

Sleepover at the Premier Inn was a pleasant surprise: for a budget one-night-stay chain they did a wonderful job.


Day 14: Aug 4

The Salamis strategy worked: from “Chorley cheats” to “Chester champions” with another 50 miles of pedalling under our belts.

Rainy morning, poury at times, but we got on with it…so this is how you make canal tow paths exciting: mud, slippery stones and narrow passages! At least the tree foliage offered a degree of protection from the elements.

From river to town, we cycled through a few forgettable places (parameter: “is there a decent coffee shop worth a stop?”) until we reached Newton-le-Willows. Great cakes.

Then the weather got better but the roads less exciting – especially for cyclists. Thankfully Maia was able to activate force fields that kept us safe – with the exception of Nix’s flat tyre that was fixed in 10x Halfords’ minutes.

It took getting to within 4 miles of our target for the right balance to be struck: beautiful evening sunshine and picturesque “greenway” with the added thrill of graffiti all the way to the centre of Chester – which felt like the centre of the civilised world after two weeks in the wilderness.

So we dropped the ‘s’ out of the overnight sleeping arrangements and landed in a place that doesn’t just do justice to kitsch: it sublimates it.

A garish ‘rest day’ tomorrow.

The Queen Hotel was fun. Iwan at reception was a great local character and exceptionally helpful to us dirty, tired cyclists.


Day 15: Aug 5

A busy rest day, starting with launderette duties and Pokemon hunting.

Cathedral and Roman archaeological remains seemed ‘de rigueur’ but I was somehow outvoted for the Zoo.

A beautiful zoo, kids loved it. For me, the most interesting animals were of the human kind, some quite scary.

With military precision, as the zoo closed we taxi’d to the cinema to find Dory. Did I say about going to the cinema to find Dory? Cinema? What cinema?

And finally on to the only restaurant in Chester that could sit us on a Friday night at short notice, heaving with high-heeled grannies and their beer-bellied escorts.

We were pining for pasta so it had to be ’80s Italian. The Gavi helped.

On the road again tomorrow!

Chester Zoo is a real showcase for great animal care and a perfect way to spend a day in Chester, a place with a rich history that offers much more to tourists: we’ll come back.

For better or worse, the clock does tick slower the further you move away from the Capital… the Italian restaurant with waiters shouting and banging pan lids as they sung “happy birthday” to the lucky punter brought back student memories.


Day 16: Aug 6

August. One of two months – July’s the other – enshrining the names of two leaders for eternity (so far).

Julius Caesar and his adopted son – also Julius Caesar, Octavian at birth but known to all as Augustus, the first Roman emperor – understood the power of time.

Any civilised society functions around getting a handle on time. Stonehenge, Bronze Age building and tomb orientation, the Pyramids, the Sundial, the Inca monuments, the clock: concrete, invaluable tools.

What makes humans almighty, however, is the power of abstraction and the abstract version of all of the above is the Calendar. If the French Revolutionaries’ efforts in this field had been more popular you would be calling the summer months Prairial and Messidor. Alàs, the Caesars trumped them.

Come the XX century and Einstein tells us to think in terms of spacetime, revealing that – as far as a photon is concerned – the moment it sets off to get somewhere it’s essentially there already, as time from its perspective is infinite.

Basically, if you manage to *not* be dominated by time, your objective is achieved the moment you set your sight on it. Ask Dr Who.

August. Today it finally feels like it, with the Harvest in Southern England in full swing. A 9:30 to 19:30, 70-mile ride to Clun in Shropshire via Wales, sun-blessed and partially sun-burnt (beats rain).

Perfectly civilised, smooth ride most of the way. Difficult to find food in country back-roads, we hit the lunch jackpot at 14:30 at Shell petrol station.

Niccolò dares to complain about some kind of muscular pain. His mum gets him off his bike for 5′ of stretching. When he’s fed up, his dad suggests that the best stretching exercise is – guess what – pedalling.

Within 10 miles of the end is the ‘mountain-goat challenge’ of the day: long, sharp ascents that climax into what ends up feeling like a wall – but to the conquerors of the ‘Tak Ma Doon’ this is just another job to get done.

Destination is a lovely B&B where tea and lemon drizzle cake materialises as we communicate the order to the host with our worn-out looks.

Finger-licking dinner in the most lively pub yet at the end of a summer festival day. Great Ale. Freezing wait for late cab.

More Wales tomorrow.

Little Hall Cottage B&B was a jewel.  The hosts, Elizabeth and Simon, were on a mission to make walkers and cyclists feel comfortable and cared for.

Three-Tuns Ale topped the beer chart for the trip.


Day 17: Aug 7

RCA: Root Cause Analysis. Best practice in Service Management requires you to record Incidents and to link every Incident to a Problem (RCA) ticket until the problem is solved.

When Niccolò’s tyre blew up 4 days ago as we were approaching Chester, we closed the Incident ticket semi-swiftly by replacing the tube.

The newly opened RCA was optimistically left in limbo – no time or inclination to find root cause at that point – hoping for the pointed object(s) that were the most likely culprit to *not* be stuck in the tyre.

After our rest day, the new tube was dead. So we opened a second incident ticket, now less optimistic about the location of the bastard nail / thorn, removed the tyre, checked carefully but quickly, nothing found, cursed, replaced tube, and on we went. Incident closed, RCA still open.

Two hours later, flat again. OK, slow puncture, there’s something not obvious protruding and piercing the bloody tube… New Incident closed with a temporary pumping up exercise.

Plan for closing the RCA: find the first shop on the way and buy a virgin tyre.

In the meantime, deal with the slow puncture Incidents by checking and pumping up every 10 miles or so.

No cycle shops on our way.

Slow puncture turns into a proper flat. So now we finally get less lazy about investigating the Problem properly. Gabriele takes the tyre off again, quick check, nothing.

Then chief inspector Anne runs her feather-light fingers and activates hawk-eye vision.

Solitary thorn identified and removed using Maia’s sharp manicured nails. Root cause identified. Incident closed. RCA closed.

Morale of the story: don’t just close the Incidents, find the root cause and close the Problem. Duh.

60 more miles today to Welsh Bicknor, a cone of a hill with a Hostel on top 😦

Downhill and sunny until some 15 miles from target. Then, like yesterday, our legs again put to some serious test, but we trundle on ‘cos we are used to it now.

This is a part of the country where the pubs are picture perfect, people tour with classic cars and the hills look great until you find yourself cycling up them.

Mushroom pasta (accompanied by Hobgoblin) cooked by yours truly is sheer relief, made all the nicer by looking at the amorphous gelatinous mass of spam-like ragu our fellow campers are about to tuck their faces into.

And another one bites the dust.

The people you meet can make all the difference when you are on the road.  The guy at the SPAR shop on the way to Ross-on-Wye went out of his way to praise our endeavours and offer us his best bread loaves.

Earlier that day, lunch was a perfect roast at England’s Gate Coachhouse.


Day 18: Aug 8

The Blackheath Cycle Club (BCC) is a neighbourhood disorganisation counting 7 members.

Phil and Johnny, the founding fathers, set out the rules:
– no lycra
– not too many miles
– new outing, new coffee shop
– Sunday morning rides

When Anne told the family that summer holidays involved the cycling challenge of a lifetime, the first priority, after purchasing the bicycles, was to get Niccolò acquainted with the basics.

After the swearing-in ceremony, the first time down the hill at Greenwich Park involved Sensible Nix getting off his bike and walking. Cold feet – and cold fingers, it was Winter – but the midget showed promise as a climber, regularly beating the oldies uphill.

During the Spring the BCC enjoyed a growth spurt with Ben, Anne and Maia wanting to get in on the coffee shop action.

As JOG-day loomed, we decided to stretch the rules to include two serious “training” sessions:

– a 20-miler down the “Crab & Winkle” trail between Canterbury and Whitstable and on along the coast. This was designed around a half-way pizza stop-over, a Kentish-Neapolitan enlightened find: A casa mia;

– a 30-miler almost all the way to Dartford and back. A field-trip that demonstrated the inverse relationship between ‘distance from Central London’ and ‘quality of coffee shops’.

Aside from tiny Greenwich Park, there were no hills to be found in BCC surrounds. We had to settle for learning that bit directly on the job.

Now, the reason I am going on about the BCC is twofold: first and foremost because our steely cycling minds were tempered in its disciplined approach to training (‘bikes on train’ was a favourite), but also because tomorrow one of its cornerstones, Johnny Morris, will be joining us in Cheddar for a couple of days on the road – and we are very much looking forward to catching up with him!

Today was an up-and-down-and-up adventure. 70 miles of pain from 9:10 to 21:40, made worse by the 10 extra miles resulting from our poorest navigation to date and a few accidents on the road…

We set off in the fresh morning air riding a geo-camel with very steep humps. After hitting a few downhills we were on schedule and stopped for an early lunch at picturesque Tintern Abbey.

Back on the road, I think I must have annoyed someone up there with yesterday’s RCA lecture as we were punished with no less than 4 flat-tyre breakdowns.

On one of them, as despair was setting in, Anne managed to persuade a fellow cyclist to dispense with one of his inner tubes. May luck be with him.

Maia had thankfully packed tweezers: an essential thorn-extraction tool.

Urban industrial gloom and adverse winds in west Bristol sapped both spirits and ever-shrinking time, the two huge bridges over the Severn and the Avon being the only things that put a smile on our faces.

At 6pm we were still 20 miles away and fading fast.

This is when random cyclist says ‘hi’ to Anne, explaining how he and his wife had just come back from a year-long ‘cycle to New Zealand’ trip.

Top-Trumps-man, sympathising with us, came up with all sorts of generous propositions: “Tea at my place? Sleep in our spare room? Drive your bags to destination?” but his most valuable input was intel on the best route to Cheddar: apparently 100% flat from that moment on, along an old trainline, the “strawberry line” cycle path.

In that moment, Hope – the last to leave Pandora’s box – lifted our spirits with her butterfly wings.

We arrived just as Night was winning its constant fight against Day, relying on Maia’s battery-charged, hawk-eyed, sharp-minded scouting.

And at the Youth Hostel canteen…BEER!!!

Finally, finally ready for a cheesy rest-day in gorgeous Cheddar.

Tube-man and Cycle-round-the-world-man were real god-sends.  Great people appearing at the right time.  The strawberry line is cycling heaven, the silent witness of enlightened local planning in turning old railway lines into fantastic, gentle paths for the nature-loving public.


Day 19: Aug 9

There’s touristy and there’s desperate. Cheddar walks a fine line between the two. Let’s just say it’s a bit cheesy. It is, after all the place-name of the type of fromage that accounts for 51% of sector sales in the UK.

It’s got a gorgeous gorge, spoiled by the amount of car parks (can people not take a short stroll to a beautiful natural site? Shuttle buses?) and single-ownership tat shops (or so Anne thinks and she’s ALWAYS right).

Do I sound fiery? It’s perhaps because of the experience of sleeping in a matchbox of a bunk room. Hostels are great for washing and drying clothes, less so for life’s little comforts.

So we did the tourist thing, walked up to the gorge, bought fudge in a sweet little shop, then walked back to book the best local pub to celebrate tonight’s arrival of the King of the BCC, John Morris.

He showed up on time in the late afternoon, bringing with him the reality check of the world we left behind and will soon rejoin.

It’s crazy how something can feel so close and yet so far… so easy to switch from one “zone” to another.

Today, as I was strolling along the streets I saw a couple cyclists struggling with tools and maps on loaded bikes. It was strange to feel little emotional connection, but ‘rest day’ is rest day.

Johnny was great company over dinner, quizzing us all and showing great interest in the way we described our experience so far.

Come 21:30, the body reminded us of what we had temporarily forgotten: long day tomorrow, better get some rest.

Not before finishing the Bowmore 15 & 18 in celebration of the Scottish leg.

4 days to go and a guest rider tomorrow 🙂

Secret tip: friends are great.


Day 20: Aug 10

Terraforming: when a planet is made habitable for a conquering alien species, a sci-fi concept we have seen in enough recent superhero movies.

BCC geomorphing: when a cycle route is made optimal for BCC members. Mostly flat, pleasant surrounds, an award-winning coffee-stop, pizza, cloudy enough for a comfortable ride, sunny enough to keep you cheered-up.

I don’t know if it was Anne’s professional route mapping skills or Johnny’s magical powers, but today’s 56-mile ride was almost perfectly BCC-geomorphed. Lucky, lucky Johnny!

After leaving our Youth Hostel matchbox we set off Honiton-bound. The only flats of the day were country roads and canal towpaths, a great combination of variety and minimal pedalling effort.

The Bridgwater (“backwater”) 17th mile stop was made BCC-worthy by visiting Coffee #1.

A little later, a small accident on the canal involving a Jupiter milestone saw Niccolò earning another bruise (will he beat his mum in the blue skin competition?).

Lunch break two-thirds of the way was an outdoor, relaxed Italian gastro-pub. Ex-marine-nutter-turned-new-born-preacher provided the passive-listening street entertainment. The choc-shop across the road proved irresistible.

…Could anything go wrong? Not today.

Even the one big hill was a gentle 2.5 mile progression – a proportional version of the home-straight ascent in Greenwich Park – enough to give our BCC guest a taste of the harder stuff but without spoiling the day.

The final downhill to tonight’s Premier Inn was the perfect epilogue.

Only three days to go!

Why Jupiter? The Somerset Space Walk is a 14-mile sculpture trail model of the Solar System. On each pillar is a plaque containing a short inscription describing the planet.

The Earth inscription reads:

<<Earth orbits far enough from the heat of the Sun for water to be liquid, near enough not to freeze, for air to be a gas and earth a solid. With gravity strong enough to hold our atmosphere, gentle enough to allow delicate life forms. Rotating to give our day and night, tilted to give the four seasons. Enormous to us, tiny on the cosmic scale. Our home, unique, beautiful, fragile.>> – Pip Youngman


Day 21: Aug 11

Syntagma. The name of Alexander the Great’s phalanx: a battle formation comprising 16×16 hoplites (heavy infantry soldiers).

Alexander’s phalanxes travelled thousands of miles in a little over a decade, vanquishing everything that fell in their path from Aegypt to India.

Alexander’s main innovations on the original Greek hoplites’ phalanx were the doubling of the number of men from 8 to 16 and introducing a “wall” of spears (sarissae) by having the 2nd, 3rd…5th line holding progressively longer sticks.

Needless to say, for the phalanx to be effective it had to work as a single body – a “corps” in military jargon, full of “esprit” – and well organised together (this the literal meaning of the word “syntagma”, which also means “constitution” and is a close relative of “syntax”).

To win, the fundamental assumption was to “work as one” under strong leadership (…where did modern society go wrong?)

The Roman legion adopted the same principles and thrived for a few more hundred years.

With the exception of solitary setbacks due to unfavourable ground and formidable enemies (as when three legions – up to 18,000 men – were destroyed in the forests of Teutoburg, Germania, 9AD), it took a major technology innovation to undermine the effectiveness of this war machine: the Huns’ composite bow.

An impressive weapon, made with wood and bones, designed so that the bottom half was shorter, usable by nimble horsemen. Incredibly powerful, the arrow shot from it could get through 2 inches of wood from a distance of 400 metres. The Huns could take their time and decimate the disciplined soldiers from afar.

We work as one. That’s why we got here, about to cross the Cornish border. Of course, we could have been undone by the arrows of injury, illness, bad weather – but we got lucky so far.

“There’s a couple of big hills coming up”. Maia: “we can do it”.
Niccolò: “hey, only 8 miles to go!”. Papà: “Unfortunately not, it’s at least 12”. Niccolò: “…that’s still OK”. Great, great kids.

56 difficult miles today. BCC-geomorphing a distant memory, we had to face the Devonian Dragon’s sinuous folds. An endless sequence of ups and downs across infinite farmland, made more interesting by “Hulk road” (destroyed by floods), and a fording passage which made us one with mud.

Respite came in the form of tea and scones a third of the way in.

The half-way gourmet pub stop delivered quality and quantity too high for fatigued cyclists with another 30 miles to go.

It was a humpty-dumpty day for Nix: a few random falls, another flat tyre, a run straight into a wall decorated with nettles, all testing his increasingly stoic disposition.

Having set off at 9:00, we finally hit the “Fox & Hounds” pub-hotel in Lydford at 20:00. Long day, the best luckily coming at the end: cycling route 27, “the granite way”, a breathtaking and finally flat 8-miler in beautiful nature, along another old train line.

Battery ran out today, but moor pictures tomorrow.

…Exhausted! About to get into Cornwall. End in sight.

The Beer Engine pub was tops. Shame about it being only a lunch stopover.

The Granite Way was a close competitor to the Strawberry Line in Cheddar. Breathtaking bridge going across the Valley. 


Day 22: Aug 12

Time for Thank Yous.

Thank you Helen for inspiring Anne to coax us into this adventure.

Thank you Nature for giving us favourable weather and bodies that could just about endure this.

Thank you *all* who encouraged us along with your comments and likes.

Sharing our day-to-day story was a way to cope with the magnitude of the task; it *really* helped to feel connected with a supporting crowd.

Tomorrow is the last day, all going well we’ll be getting to the top southern tip of England sometime in the evening.

Today was a 50-miler. A fight of a 50-miler: the Cornish Dragon took over and provided hilly entertainment all the way to St.Austell.

It was interesting to find out, browsing the Coat of Arms of Cornwall in the road signs, that the motto is: “One and All”. This is how I feel about family, this is how I feel about friends, this is how I feel about work.

No noteworthy accidents. A pleasant quick-snack stop at the SPAR in the first available village at lunch time and then a roller-coaster rush to the SPA hotel awaiting us at destination. Let’s just say it was better than the youth hostels.

Land’s End here we come!

The Cornwall was just what we needed: a bit of luxury and only one day to go. 

We were finally “Almost There” – the two most-repeated words during our cycling adventure.


Day 23: Aug 13

56 miles. 9:15-18:15

Finis Terrae. We did it.

5 miles away from the final-final destination there had to be one last piece of drama: the strain was too much for the spokes on my bike that Halford had fixed back in Scotland and …they popped!  I only found out when Niccolò, riding behind me, remarked: “your wheel seems really wobbly”.  And so I wobbled on to the end… phew!

Sunset at Land’s End has to be one of the best in England as you sit surrounded by a beautiful landscape.  The perfect way to finish.

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