The Final Countdown

Day 14: Altnaharra – John O’groats

 

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(#spoiler alert)

Tried was the operative word in the final sentence of yesterday’s blog. The tin tent was decidedly cold. I had forgotten, being in the beautiful South for so long just how cold the highlands of Scotland can get at night. I woke several times and wore my clothes over my Pyjamas, and several blankets and a sleeping bag, but was still cold. Two nights of poor sleep in a row was not conducive to me finishing strong! However, I was under no circumstances going to give up now.

Since the 20 mile drive between Altnaharra and Lairg was on single track roads, it took around 40 minutes last night and so we decided the best thing to do was pack up everything to go before we set off, save Dean and Kaitlin doing the journey 3 times and Kaitlin complaining about seeing more “grass and things” than was entirely necessary. So, I got up early, had breakfast and then did my Jenga thing to try and fit all the stuff in the car with the bike on top so it was easily accessible and I could just get it out and go when we got to Altnaharra. The unfortunate thing with this was that I was stressed and tired before I even placed bottom cheek to saddle. It was almost a relief when, at around 8am,  I was able to get on the bike and set off, leaving them to their breakfast out of plastic bowls in the car.

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I have said it before and I will say it again: Sutherland is beautiful. Even in the rain. Yes, virtually no rain for 13 days of cycling and the finale was completed with rain pretty much the entire way. This meant that a large part of my journey was spent hunched to keep warm, despite wearing my long sleeved cycle jersey, a waterproof and as many layers as I could. Once the rain seeps through your shoes and socks and soaks the padded part of your cycle shorts from splashing up off the road, it’s hard to stay warm. This was the countdown though; the final 75 miles. The first 25 or so were perfect cycling roads – I cycled for over an hour and only passed 3 cars. The roads were slightly undulating and the views awesome. I counted through the 66 miles – the length of the Loch Ness Etape and I arrived at Bettyhill on the coast and the two nights of poor sleep were forgotten. 50 miles and I would be there. That was little over some of my “short” rides in training. The route continued along the North coast 500. This was one of only 2 small sections I had not completed by car of the route and I had not missed much. Whilst it was fairly picturesque, it was in no way as stunning as the sections down the west coast of the Mainland. In the rain, in fact, it reminded me a lot of my training cycle in Northern Ireland. The weather was the same, with the wind against me, but this time with the added joy of rain in my face. The undulations here started to be more pronounced and there were a fair few climbs against the wind and the rain to tackle. The half way mark passed and it was literally a case of counting down the miles. I knew that the not-so-picturesque view of the Doune Reay Power station would herald the end of the hilly part of this section, so I was more than glad to see it in the distance and my gladness knew even greater bounds when it was past.

Up until this point, although I had been tired, and the cold and tension had caused my joints and muscles to cry out a little more than usual, I was fairly optimistic about finishing in good time and without much difficulty. Shortly after Doune Reay, passing through Lybster, however, I started to feel light headed and at one point felt like I was going to black out on the bike. I immediately stopped and took on more water, some food and sat on the cross bar of my bike to rest and take the strain off my now throbbing legs. I started to feel a little anxious. After all this; cycling 980(ish) miles, I was not going to be able to finish. All sorts of possible scenarios for how this was going to end other than cycling victoriously into John O’groats flew through my mind.  I was either going to collapse into a ditch and be picked up and taken off to the nearest hospital in an ambulance, or I was going to swerve dangerously into the road and be hit by a car. The food did little to help my woozy head but I could not just sit on the cross bar of my bike all day, so I continued; but took my time and stopped regularly to let cars and vans past; and before long I was in the town of Thurso. By this point I had what I like to call a brain fog and navigating was difficult. Sometimes the tiredness and fatigue associated with Crohn’s can result in these spells where it’s almost as if your brain falls half asleep. It’s more than the usual walking up stairs and not remembering what you came up for; its often that you literally have to slow down because your physical movements and mental capacity cannot keep up with what is happening externally. You forget words and names and everything you want to say seems like it is on the tip of your tongue but does not want to be said. The world becomes a little hazy and when people talk to you, they appear to be making sense but your brain just can’t process it at the speed they are speaking, so there is a lot of, “Er, what?”s and long pauses as you try to remember where the hell you are, let alone what it was you were going to say. My blood pressure is naturally low, what with all the exercise I do, and when I was on my previous medication, I was prone to dizziness and near fainting. It has not been so bad on the new medication, but there has been several occasions when I have had my infusions and my anxiety levels have peaked due to the nurses not being able to get a canular in, etc, when my flight fight response has kicked in and I have felt faint and nauseous. It’s got to the point where we joke that the nurses all try to take a sickie on the day I am in because it invariably results in some kind of drama where I have to be given fluids, or intravenous anti-sickness medication, or am actually sick and a nurse has to come flying across the ward with a cardboard sick bowl for me. It’s worse at certain times of the month and I am pretty sure that the combination of the cold, the stress on my body and the anxiety was causing my blood pressure to tip over into the danger zone.

I messaged Dean to find out where they were, as they had been off on a walk in one of the forest areas along the coast whilst I was cycling. It was the only point during the cycle when I felt that I actually needed the support; I had been happy up until now just to check in at the end of the day so that everyone knew I was safe. Now, I was glad there was someone to make sure I got safely through the last bit. I managed to find my way through Thurso, pushing my bike, to the Tesco store where they had stopped to pick up some bits and pieces and where they were eating lunch in the car. I needed to sit down, I needed to get warm and I needed to get my blood pressure back up. I chained my bike up outside the shop but even this required a conscious mental effort and an onlooker would have thought I was ever so slightly odd as I struggled to remember how the hell to do this.

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(I could have been anywhere)

I have been in some fantastic cafes during my ride. This was clearly not one of them but was all that was available and I was going to have to make do. I sat and had tea and a chocolate muffin and as I warmed up a little and the caffeine refocussed my brain, and the sugar from the muffin brought the glycogen stores in my legs up to speed, I started to feel better. I was far from normal but I was at a point where I felt like I could continue without being a danger to myself and other road users. It was only 20 miles; the distance for the Rhynd route and the Forteviot loop that I had cycled many many times in training. I could do this. There were two options on this stretch. There was the busier North Coast 500 route on the main roads closer to the coast, or the option to go further inland on quieter roads. Dean offered to follow behind me on either of these routes to keep an eye but I was happy enough now that they just follow the route I was doing and stop ahead every so often to make sure I was OK. I chose the quieter route, unsurprisingly. This has always been my preference on this journey and would be my preference were I cycling anywhere. The peace and quiet. No need for music. Just the happiness of my own thoughts and nature. I set off. I took it steady and continued to eat and drink as I went in the hope that it would improve my blood pressure and my blood sugar levels. The route was straight and ever so slightly hilly, but the hills were easier without cars behind me pestering me to speed up. 5 miles in, I was a little surprised that Dean and Kaitlin had not passed yet. Assuming Dean had got lost, I continued into Castletown, which was a town on both of the routes I had the option of cycling. It turns out that they had nipped along the faster coast route in the hope of catching me as I went though Castletown. Texting them to tell them I had reached Castletown, they thought they had missed me and headed off along the remainder of my route thinking they would pass me on the next stretch. It turns out they were about 200 yards ahead of where stopped to text and eat some more. I was feeling much more like my normal self now and began to cycle faster, which also helped with maintaining the warmth. I would not say I completed the final 15 miles in record time and I most certainly didn’t stride home to victory in the finale. But I finished. Safely and in good time. The sign promising, “John O’Groats ½ mile” was such a welcome sight. The rain was still pouring down and every part of my hurt, but I was so pleased when I turned left and could see the small group of buildings that marked the tourist zone that is at John O’groats. Kaitlin and Dean were standing at the side of the road waiting – worst cheerleaders ever – how was that making sure I was safe every so often? Kaitlin was clearly chuffed to see me but that probably had more to do with the fact this meant she didn’t have to stand out in the rain much longer! There was a proper crowd assembled at the John O’groats sign post when I arrived and I realised that I had arrived just minutes before a pipe band were due to play.

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They obviously knew I was coming! It was a combined band of Scottish, American and Canadian pipers and drummers. They were great, but they were inconveniently blocking the sign for a good 30 minutes so my monumental moment and picture in front of the sign had to wait. Once I had stopped, the cold really set in and I was shivering but the time I finally got to touch the sign and have my photo taken. As with all adventures like this, it is not about the destination though, it is about the journey, and the 30 minutes listening to the tunes of the pipe band, a sound that gives me comforting feelings of home, now that Perth is where I consider my home to be, allowed me time to reflect on what I had achieved and the many things I had seen along the way. It still hadn’t really sunk in that I had done it; I had cycled the length of an entire country (or two countries, depending on your political persuasion on the matter – but that is another blog entirely).

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As soon as I had had my photos, I was desperate to change out of my cold wet cycle gear and into something warm. This I did, and then went to get a hot drink (chocolate, this time) and another cake… for the road. As I emerged from the café, I noticed that another cyclist was being photographed at the sign. It was none other than Dave, the American that I had cycled with in Monmouth and chatted to at the Crask Inn.

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I congratulated him and Kaitlin took some photos for him. It was great to see him and I was glad that he had finished safely too. I really wanted to wait for the Chester crew to finish too. Dean had passed their support crew a few times and they were some way behind, so we checked into the accommodation for the night – a couple of glamping pods on the road to tourist central.

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It was there that I saw the remainder of the American crew and gave them a cheery wave and a “Well done!” Thankfully, the glamping pods had far better heating than the tin tent from last night, otherwise I would probably have thrown my toys out of the pram and demanded I was taken to a 5* hotel instead, what with being a (in)famous cross country cyclist and all now. We then headed back to the sign to see the Chester crew finish. Al and Cathy were there waiting with the van. They were a matter of a few miles away. It was great to see them finish. I felt like they were a big part of the journey even though we didn’t cycle together. Their friendly faces and Al and Cathy waving from the van always gave me a bit of a boost to keep going, and when I didn’t see them during the day, I spent a while wondering how they were getting on and hoping I would see them again.

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The last of our LEJOGer family cheered in and tacky souvenirs in the gift shop bought, we headed to the Hotel next to the glamping pods for a celebratory meal. It was a typical hotel restaurant; and the food was fairly decent. I ate hot smoked salmon and chocolate fudge cake. The meal of a champion! Kaitlin had opted to sleep in with me tonight, and not needing to be up at the crack of dawn and have the energy to cycle 70 odd miles, I was prepared to put up with her snoring for the night, so we snuggled down so she could write her diary which she has been writing since the start of the holidays. Bless her, for getting her priorities right in life; who could want more – cycling and cake.  

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The day after the fortnight before:

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(Looking less worn out and cold, the next day)

Cycling over, it felt odd not to be up early and packing my bike up to head off. We had a leisurely breakfast and packed up the car but there were two final things to do before we headed down the long, long A9 back to Perth. The final day had passed without me plogging, and I still had the travel bug (or trackable) that I had been dipping into every geocache I visited since May, including all the way from Land’s end to John O’groats, so I wanted to find one last cache at John O’groats and drop it off there to continue its adventures with another intrepid explorer. There was one about a mile or so away, walking along the coastal path, so it was beside the point that Kaitlin was dressed up in some flowery bridesmaid dress style monstrosity my mum bought her, we headed off with black sack and litter picker; Kaitlin first asking to do the litter picking then giving up after 20 steps, then asking to hold the bag, which she gave up after another 20 steps, then just deciding her role would be better as supervisor, telling me where the litter was to pick up. There was all sorts of rubbish washed up on the beach and it was not long before the bag was bulging. The geocache (luckily) was in a likely spot and Kaitlin found it quickly for me. It almost seemed fitting that the last cache I found was stuffed full of little folded up rubbish bags encouraging geocachers to take one and collect rubbish on their way back.

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Epilogue:

Now that it has finished, there is always tendency towards an emptiness (which as always is left after something that requires so many months of planning is over) but that doesn’t mean I am sad. I have so many good memories and moments to look back on and little snippets of my adventures come to me every so often and make me smile. And anyone who knows me, knows that that hole won’s stay empty for long. The day after I arrived home, I was already thinking ahead to my next missions; Monday saw me travelling into Edinburgh to meet with other Key Volunteers I will be working alongside this Christmas when I volunteer with Crisis, and Tuesday saw me collecting my uniform for the European Championships at Gleneagles, where I will be volunteering. Wednesday and Thursday, I was in my new classroom, sorting out for the new adventures I will be having with my P1 class, so my mind is already buzzing with the future, less than a week later. Oh, and did I mention, the last weekend in July I have earmarked to attempt to walk 100,000 steps in one day. Bonkers? I think you are right!

 This last entry is dedicated to you, the reader. Thanks for reading and I hope you have enjoyed my ramblings.

 This blog will self-destruct in 30 seconds.

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Let her eat cake…

Day 13: Inverness – Altnaharra

Only I could do day 13 on Friday the 13th… Thank God I am not superstitious. Last night was probably the worst night sleep I have had during the journey and waking up and getting on my bike was a struggle. The few people who I had spoken to last night had tried (not altogether successfully) to encourage me by saying, “Not far to go now”… not entirely true when the “not far” is longer than most people would be able to cycle over a week, let alone 2 days, at 160 miles but there was no way I was giving up after how far I had come. So, on the bike it was, having eaten porridge and toast and eggs which made me feel even worse.

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My motivation came just after going over the Kessock bridge. It was a route that I had driven a couple of times before, once on the way to drive to Orkney and once on my road trip along part of the North Coast 500 with Kaitlin. On the first of those trips, we had stopped for a comfort break in the car park just after the bridge only to find the shop there closed and had to walk down to the rivers edge to find a toilet and Spar to buy something to eat. I was extremely excited… probably much more than I should have been, but desperate times called for desperate measures and my mind certainly needed a positivity boost at that point… to see a sign saying “Harry Gow bakery ½ mile ahead”. Now, unless you have frequented the towns and villages around Inverness, this will mean nothing to you but having completed the Etape Loch Ness, this name was forever ingrained on my mind. Runners and cyclists who have competed in races and sportives will know that it is customary for finishers to be presented, in addition to a medal with a goodie bag with items provided by sponsors of the event. Mainly this consists of protein shake sachets, cereal bars, leaflets about up and coming races or sports massage, perhaps a tube of bike lube or some kind of muscle rub. This particular event, however, excelled in its goodie bag offerings. In addition to the Etape Loch Ness buff and protein shake, the were handing out cup-fulls of Cromerty Brewery Beer and Half a cream donut from Harry Gow. I gave the beer a miss, but having blitzed 66 miles in 3:45, there was nothing more satisfying than sinking your teeth into a cream donut and I’d have cycled the 66 miles all over again just to eat the other half. Hence, my excessive joy at the sign. I was more than delighted to find that they had turned the disused shop in the car park into a Drive by Bakery and mouth watering, I joined the queue of builders and office workers stocking themselves up with breakfast and lunch for the day on the way to work. I chose a macaroni cheese pie (the Scottish equivalent of the carb loading that is a Cornish pasty down south), a caramel donut and a strawberry tart. I was even more overjoyed to be presented with these in a paper bag (the pie) and a cardboard box (the donut and tart). Plastic free july win. The only issue was how I was going to carry these on the bike. The macaroni pie slipped into my bikepacking pack no problem but I had the think laterally for the box and several minutes later, I cycled off with it strapped to the front of my handle bar roll. I am still to this day not sure what those straps are actually for, but they were convenient for this purpose and it made me smile to think that now my journey was being sponsored by Harry Gow as  was giving a free advertisement to every car that approached from the opposite direction. In fact, as I passed through Dingwall some time later, I received a beep and a thumbs up from a white van man. I am pretty sure his support was in favour of my choice of cake. I managed to cycle the next 15 miles with the cake box strapped to the bike like the proverbial carrot dangling in front of the donkey.

 

The most annoying thing about writing these blogs a while after the event is that as time goes on, my memory of the events gets more cloudy, and it becomes harder and harder to recall the little intricacies of the day – the things that made me smile, or the little happenings that triggered an emotional response in me. Sometimes, these things will come back to me and I’ll make a mental note to add them to the blog. It’s odd, because, were I recording the events of a “normal” day, there would be far less of these little instances and each one would be far more significant, yet when you are doing something epic like this, the things you see and the events are more numerous in number and so, some things escape your memory. For example, the day I was in Moffat, when I was walking in the park having just been accused of being a toilet cleaner and about to scrabble around under a fir tree to find a geocache, I had one of my only injuries of the journey. I had, by that point in time, cycled over 600 miles and only managed a slight scrape to my arm brushing past a thorny bush. Cycling this kind of distance, you would have thought that it would have been something cycling related, but no. Walking along the path, I randomly managed to poke my own eye out with a large stick. I would like to think that it was tiredness that lead to this mishap and not just my own stupidity but the resulting pain and bloodshot eye made me think my cycling days were numbered as I’d managed to blind myself. Thankfully, the over dramatization of the moment passed and whilst it still hurt and lead to me having to cycle in my glasses for a day or so instead of my contact lenses, I did not end up seeing my own eye ball hanging from the branch of the tree or have to dial 999. These things, as I say, on any normal day would have been a major talking point but in amongst the many things you do on these kind of adventures, it relatively insignificant.

About an hour and a half into my journey, I saw a group of cyclists a little way ahead of me and out of my now squinty eye, tried to ascertain whether they were the Cheshire crew. As the distance lessened, it was not their appearance that alerted me to their identity, but the sound of Jen’s dulcet tones, shouting to the others about something or other they were passing on the road. I gathered speed and “Fancy seeing you here,” I exclaimed, when they were close enough to be in earshot. It was good to cycle along beside them and catch up about how the previous day had gone for them. It was a comfort to know that they had found it equally as difficult and this was an additional boost to my motivation. Eager to stop for cake, I bid them adieu and sped off into the distance in search of an appropriate place to have my mid morning snack.

The cakes survived their 15 mile punishment relatively well and after consuming enough cream and sugar to sustain my cycle for at least another half day, I set off again.

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The route here was on quiet roads and shared paths. I again saw the opportunity to catch up on my plogging and found an appropriate bag by the roadside and began filling it. It didn’t take long and I soon was cycling with a full bag hanging off my handlebars. My mindset had improved considerably by now and when I saw the Cheshire lots’ van passing by with a cheerful wave I was again in a perfectly positive frame of mind, despite my aches and pains still lingering. I continued on, hopeful that at some point I would pass a bin and be able to deposit the rubbish I had collected. 15 miles later as I came across a viewpoint overlooking the Dornoch Firth, it wasn’t the view that attracted my attention and made me stop, it was the sight of the elusive bin I had been hoping for, for at least the last hour or so. I stopped and emptied the bag and allowed myself to enjoy the view and have a snack too.

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As I ate the macaroni pie, an older looking couple with a Netherlands number plate, who I had passed about a mile or so before, sitting having a cup of tea on camping chairs by the road side pulled in to the layby and got out. The gentleman approached me and asked me about my cycling. They were heading to the north coast to do a drive. It was apparently 20 odd years since they had cycled the same stretch of road and they were reminiscing about their cycling journeys through Scotland and Europe. I again wondered whether that would be me in 20 years time. Although, their suggestion for me to try cycling some of the hillier parts of France went on deaf ears given that my thighs were now screaming at me again and I made the more sensible suggestion that I would come to the Netherlands to cycle first!

Onwards I went, through the familiar Bonar bridge, where I was surprised to see the van which had been supporting the American group of cyclists, who I had not seen since Monmouth pulled up and a couple of them eating their lunch.

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I gave them a wave as I passed and continued on to Lairg, which was to be my sleeping stop for the night. Like the stop in Dumbarton though, this was not the end of my road for today and I would be cycling an additional 20 miles just to be driven back to the accommodation, so that I could get a head start on the mileage for tomorrow, which was a much longer day. My one stop on the way was at the Falls of Shin, which I had visited 2 years previous.  A community run project to take over the derelict tourist attraction, it was in it’s early stages when I last visited. It was nice to come back and see what a community can achieve. There was a thriving cafe, restaurant, play park and visitors centre shaped like a Salmon.

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Lairg is one of my favourite places North of Inverness, and as I passed by the mini house on the island, I remembered a great little café called the Pier, where I had stopped 2 years ago  for “cake by the ocean”. I could not pass by without going back

 

 If there was one thing that would motivate me to finish today it was tea and a slice of Chocolate and salted caramel sponge cake. Just as I was leaving, I heard a little voice I recognised and Kaitlin came running down to the lochside from the car park. I had told Dean I had reached Lairg but not mentioned the Pier. It is funny how good places stick in your memory as he had guessed I would have stopped there. I headed onwards and they stayed to have their “cake by the ocean”. I knew this stretch of the journey well having driven it with Kaitlin. Sutherland is one of my favourite parts of the country and I was awed by it driving through on our road trip, and as Kaitlin said at the time, much to her annoyance, kept “stopping to take photos of grass and stuff.” Cycling was even better and this was one of the highlights of my trip.

 

Halfway along the road between Lairg and Tongue, on the North Coast, a good 10 or so miles from much else of interest is a randomly situatued inn, called, The Crask Inn. For some reason, this was the designated finish of the day for the book I had purchased to follow on this ride, however, being a small in with a campsite, it rarely had spare beds, when groups of cyclists were passing through and so was full when I tried to book it for my trip. The place is surreal.

 

There is nothing but hills and sheep as far as the eye can see in all directions and it was a place that when I drove through struck me as thoroughly interesting. Also odd was the fact that there was a church attached to the Inn at the back – killing two birds with the one stone as the drunks could repent their sins before they headed home, wherever home was. As I was nearing the Inn, I saw that the American’s van was pulled up outside it and a couple of the cyclists were just arriving. “So, that’s the reason I could not get booked!” were my first thoughts, my second; that it would be cool to find out how they got on. I stopped and took some photos and then parked up my bike and went in. It was clear that they didn’t recognise me at first – I was in different cycle gear and when you are all helmeted up, it’s hard to distinguish one cyclist from another, so I ordered a coke and leant against the bar listening in to their conversation. Then chipped in when there was a lull and said, “So, who was I cycling with towards Monmouth then?” The penny dropped and they realised that it was me. We talked about our respective cycles and apparently, their route had detoured to the East a couple of days after Monmouth and they had gone through Perth. I am not sure whether I would have preferred that route or not – passing through home after about 10 days would have been strange, especially if I had to then continue on for 3 more days. I think the fact that I would have been cycling roads I regularly cycled through Bridge of Earn and up through Dunkeld would have been odd. The second half of their crew had joined them and there was now a large crowd. Half of them were staying at the Crask Inn and the remainder in Altnaharra. The Chester and the American group would finally meet. It was like a family get together! The family of crazy LEJOGers. Since I was also cycling to Altnaharra (and would then have to return 20 miles to Lairg by car), I headed off and completed the final leg of today’s journey. I managed to beat Dean and Kaitlin yet again.

The accommodation in Lairg was a flat and shell of a caravan (called the Tin Tent) on a farm campsite. It was a quirky little place, with a games room which was kitted out like some kind of home bar. The flat looked strangely like it had been a granny annexe and the granny (God rest her soul) had since departed but they had kept everything as it was in her memory. The living area was full of nic-nacs from a bygone era; strange porcelain clowns and the like. Even the piano stool had a selection of organ music still in it. I find it bizarre that people will rent out a room or a self-contained space and not clear it of all the sentimental breakables. The tin tent was pretty much that – the caravan had seen better days, most of them in the late 80s by the look of things. The toilet and sinks didn’t work and you needed to use the water and showers for the camp site. But it did for sleeping the night and I had the flat to have a shower in and dinner. The last supper; before the big finish. Aside from spending some time playing table football with Kaitlin, the evening was soon over and I was ready for bed. I settled down for the night in the tin tent and tried to get a good night’s sleep.

The ride today was dedicated to the other LEJOGers. No-one can understand my journey like they can; and still their journey was different. But we now share something. And I hope they enjoyed their journey as much as I enjoyed mine.

I took the high road, I should have taken the low road…

Day 12: Glencoe – Inverness

I woke early again and managed to leave my dorm, have my breakfast and get all my stuff from Dean and Kaitlin’s room without waking a soul – what with that and last night’s undercover operations, I am thinking of getting myself a job with MI5. Having already done the mile and ¾ into the village already, I knew that the start of today’s cycle was down hill. This little bit of advanced knowledge can be a real advantage. Even though there was a light mist of rain when I got up, I was in high spirits as I left the hostel. The first 25 miles to Fort William were flat. There was a helpful cycle path (which makes a change) which kept me away from any early bird lorries and coaches that were whizzing down this stretch of the A82 and in just over an hour and a half I had completed the first part of the journey. I was pleased with my progress and having joked about heading up Ben Nevis on the way past, headed out of Fort William and onwards to Fort Augustus.

 

But, if the phrase, “Pride comes before a fall” is ever appropriate, it was certainly appropriate here. For, just as I was leaving Fort William, I bumped my bike up a kerb and a few seconds later heard that tell-tale hiss that let me know the air was rapidly escaping from my front tyre, “Oh, darn and blast,” I said… or words to that effect and got off my bike.

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It could have been worse. There was a footpath by the side of the road unlike yesterday and by now, the rain had stopped briefly. And I had trained for this. Not only had I completed hours in the saddle pedalling, I had made sure I had done a bike maintenance course so things like this would not phase me. I was a little concerned given that the last time I tried to change my inner tube 97 miles into a 100 mile training ride, I was so wet, tired and disheartened, and having cycled with my pump on my bike through snow, ice and mud, had filled it with mud and dust and it no longer pumped properly, had to give up and hitch a lift the final 3 miles. But, thankfully, I had a new all singing all dancing pump and a new set of tyres and I psyched myself up. “You can do this!” I needn’t have worried. 10 minutes later, the inner tube was replaced and the old inner tube in my bike packing bag to be repaired at a later date – zero waste style, and I was on my way. I cycled tentatively at first for fear of getting another puncture, but my worry was unfounded. The route north of Fort William took a back road. I came off the A82 and headed on B roads, which was a welcome relief. The route passed Neptune’s Staircase – a series of locks on the Caledonian Canal where I watched a navy boat passing through for a while with several other early rising tourists. The route continued close to the canal and was a really nice ride after the slight anxiety of cycling in traffic yesterday.

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If yesterday’s challenge was the traffic, today’s was all about the rough ground. After passing the Clan Cameron Museum, the road veered sharply to the west, but Fort Augustus was pretty much due East. This meant that the route I was directed onto was a shared use footpath which made up part of the Great Glen Way.

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I was a little apprehensive on seeing the sign at the start of the footpath and visions of bears and gruffaloes passed through my head. “Suck it up,” I thought to myself, “You’ve slept in the jungle with peccaries and snakes and howler monkeys, what’s the worst that Scotland can have, (English football hating barbarians aside)” It was on this little stretch of 7 mile path that I think my life flashed before my eyes more than any stretch of the LEJOG route. It was busy with walkers, which was a comfort but the surface clearly was not made for skinny road bike tyres and I hung on the brakes and put my gears into the highest ratio as I slid and skidded over gravel and pebbles.

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Several times the bike nearly side swiped from under me and several down hill stretches I just got off and walked, not wanting to head home with a broken wrist or collar bone, or a nasty case of gravel rash. It was a long (but beautiful) 7 miles and when I finally emerged at Laggan onto a tarmacked road, which even though it was not all that well finished, felt smooth as silk in comparison, I breathed a sigh of relief. And the cycle was worth it. Laggan was fantastic. The locks and the hills and the barge which had been converted into a Café. I did not feel unjustified in stopping to reward myself with tea and cake after the Great Glen trauma.

 

Atop of the barge also relishing in their own successes were two female cyclists and a bearded walker with large rucksack and wooden walking stick. I was tired after my exertions and not feeling much like chatting but was happy to sit and listen to them chat about their own adventures. The women were cycling in the local area and I listened in to their conversations about places I had already cycled and places I was yet to encounter. The story of the young man with the beard was far more interesting and inspiring to listen to however. An Englishman, he had been walking since 21st March from his home and was walking all the canals of the country. He was wild camping for the most part and working along the way to fund his travels and making money for the charity “Mind”. He was hoping to train as a counsellor for kids and start up some kind of business/organisation encouraging young people with mental health issues to come on walks and do outdoor activities. It was great to hear his ideas and helpful to him that one of the cyclists was a trained counsellor and could point him in the right direction. Crazy people with big hearts are doing amazing things all over the world if only you look.

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Continuing on my way, I followed more of the Caledonian Canal and stopped to see a swing bridge in action before arriving in Fort Augustus at late lunch time. Dean and Kaitlin had travelled ahead and met me at the lock. It was becoming a bit of a standing joke now that when arriving in Dumbarton, Kaitlin had announced in admiration, “Mummy, you are first!” unable to comprehend the fact that I was not competing in a race and was cycling on my own. So, as I approached her, I let her know I was first again and she cheered.

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Despite the Great Glen trauma, the morning had been fairly easy and I was aware that the afternoon had been billed as one of the hardest sections of the end to end cycle. So much so that there was an alternative given in the book to avoid the hills. The options were to either tackle the busy A82 to the North Shore of Loch Ness for 33 miles, or do the same distance, going slightly inland of the South shore on more hilly B roads, including the renowned King of the Mountain climb which was a timed section of the Etape Loch Ness which I competed in during my training. Having already cycled both routes on closed roads then and was not thinking that the “hilly” route was all that bad when I did it before, there was no contest; Hills it would be. What I did not know was that the Etape route had done the King of the Mountain section and then dropped down to the Lochside road for the remaining 20 miles which was lovely and flat. The route in the book, and the one that was programmed into my GPS was decidedly hillier. I managed the King of the mountain section without much bother, even though the rain had cleared some time ago and the sun was out in full force. I stopped and took the photos from the summit that I had foregone when I was against the clock on the Etape and then carried on… and on… and up and up and down and up and more up.

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It certainly was a hilly cycle. I persisted and pushed on as well as I could but it was tough. Inverness seemed to be a long, hard slog away for a long, hard time. The whole of my body ached. A sharp pain between my shoulder blades; my glutes, my quads, my hamstrings all throbbed; my knees and hips struggled against the inclines; my wrists hurt from supporting my body on the earlier rough ground, my elbows ached from the tension of cycling in traffic for an entire day yesterday. Time seemed to drag and the miles no longer flew by. They ticked. Slowly. No amount of energy gels or snacks or bananas seemed to ease the struggle. It was one of several moments, but easily the most difficult, where I just felt like giving up and curling up in a ball at the side of the road until someone came along and scooped me up and took me in the car. But I didn’t. It isn’t in my blood. It is that kind of mentality and ability to just keep going when the going is tough that earned my the nickname, “The machine” when I was in the jungle; the ability to keep digging holes through tough clay with post drivers without break; keep carrying several long planks of heavy wood out of the undergrowth to the area we were building the boardwalk continuously, day in day out for 2 months. I was like Zero from “Holes”… and it was this resilience and perseverance that kept me going here. Eventually Loch Ness appeared as I came over the brow of the hill and it was an awesome sight. It gave me the motivation to carry on and as I came into Inverness, recognising the roads I had cycled in the Etape, it was hugely liberating. Had I not had to swerve through tourists leaving their coaches all through the town, walking like snails and performing kamikaze manoeuvres across the roads, it would have been a triumphant cycle, forgetting about my earlier aches and pains, to the SYHA in Inverness.  Dean and Kaitlin had arrived earlier but were out at the supermarket picking up supplies, so I collapsed on the bench outside the hostel feeling like I probably wouldn’t move again, let alone finish this cycle in two days time. It is amazing what a shower, a hot meal and a good sleep can do though and I had the tenacity to finish this, I was sure, even if it meant crawling the last two days with my bike on my back. Mentally, this evening, I was like a zombie. Thinking was hard, let alone anything else. It was probably lucky I was in a place I had stayed at twice before otherwise the navigation to the hostel and getting myself organised for an early night would have been problematic. Even writing about it now makes me yawn.

While I was away, there was a fatal accident involving a cyclist at Bridgend in Perth. Today’s cycle is dedicated to her and her family. No words can express how sad it must be to have a family member killed in such a way. My thoughts go out to them all, and the HGV driver who hit her. I am sure he/she did not wake up that morning with the intention of taking a life and whatever the circumstances, I am sure there is no way he/she will get over it. Take care drivers, and cyclists.

 

Sisters are doing it for themselves…

Day 11: Loch Lomond – Glencoe

The day started differently for the first time in over a week. Instead of the cycle out of the accommodation, it began with a drive to where I had cycled to yesterday. I was still up and away early and had cereal and bread at the Travelodge before I left. I had high expectations for today. Despite being in Scotland for four years and having seen much of the country, I had not ventured to Glen Coe and had been told it was stunning. Leaving Balloch, the weather for the first time since day one was rainy. There was a mist over Lock Lomond and much of the first part of the cycle was close to the loch side.

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However, since the route followed the road but was mostly on shared paths and cycle tracks, the loch was often out of view. It was easy cycling but not so dramatic as you would expect from riding beside a Loch. And I soon got bored and wished I had brought some bags with me to plog along the way. Luckily I stumbled across a poundland bag for life and decided to put it to good use collecting litter as I cycled. It would seem that road bikes were created or this purpose, as there is a handy handle at the top of the handle bars to swing the handles of the carrier bag over! I soon filled a bag and then cycled along looking for a bin to put the rubbish in.

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I managed at least 5 miles before I came across one at a designated camping spot, so I emptied the bag into a bin and carried on plogging. At Ardlui, I decided I had caught up on my plogging, so it was about time I found a geocache. As is often the case, there was a cache located close to the railway station, a series of caches called the SideTracked series. A few minutes rummaging in the bushes and looking very strange and it was in my hands. I continued on the A82, and the cycle paths decreased and more of the cycling was on road.

 

It was a road frequented by tourists, so concentrating on keeping in a straight line with lorries and tour coaches and foreign cars zooming past me was a challenge. I soon passed Crianlarich and spotted a sign tempting me towards home, but pushed on. By now, the rain had eased up a little and the skies were clearer. Lunch stop was the Green Welly at Tyndrum – an independent service station created purely with tourists to Scotland in mind.

 

Most arrive in huge coachloads and are plied with every piece of Scottish related tat you could probably imagine at elevated prices. Lucky for me, the food is relatively cheap for a service station and I enjoyed a cheese and onion pasty and a strawberry tart. I continued on towards Glen Coe. The traffic was heavier still as the A82 and A85 merged. The scenery was ever more dramatic however and it was worth the white knuckles on the handlebars and the pain in my legs up the hills to be cycling through such beauty. There were only a couple of times when I almost saw my life flash before my eyes as cars passed dangerously close or I had to move over to cycle so close to the edge of the road I was teetering on the brink of falling down a gorge.

 

The three sisters mountains were particularly spectacular and it is understandable that this is where the tourists are brought but I was happy to take a few pictures and then head on. I arrived at the Glencoe SYHA at about 3:15. My ETA to Dean had been long after this, but given that there were few places to stop along the way for tea and cakes or even to pull off the road and have a snack, I had blitzed it in record time. I decided to cycle down to the village to explore. It was a quiet village considering the number of tourists that pass by on the bypass and stop at the tourist rammed cafes on the main road. The village café was an altogether more pleasant affair and I had a highland chai and a scone in peace before heading back up the hill to the accommodation and checking in. As I came up the hill and the Glencoe SYHA came into view, I was pleased to see a familiar van in the car park and as I arrived at reception, there was Al, the driver of the Chester LEJOGers van to greet me.

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We swapped stories of the last couple of days and I asked him how they got on with their lack of slime issue… to be greeted with an eye roll… apparently, his tyres were in fact tubed, not tubeless and poor Al had been sent on a wild goose chase across half of Scotland for slime when they could have fixed it with a new tube in 10 mintutes.

 

Eventually, Dean and Kaitlin arrived and since it was getting late, I cooked dinner whilst Dean entertained Kaitlin in the lounge. They had spent a great morning on Loch Lomond going on a pedalo and Kaitlin, a chip of the old block, had even done a mini plog on one of the beaches of Loch Lomond. The Chester LEJOGers soon followed and it was good to see them. So, the bad news was, there was no TV at the SYHA, or anywhere in a 10 mile radius for that matter, and Dean and Kaitlin were hoping to be able to watch football history as England smashed their way into the final of the World Cup, knocking Croatia out in style. Dean was frantic. Luckily, when the other LEJOGers arrived, I asked them if they knew anywhere that was showing it. I was taken aside and in as hushed tones as Jen from the Chester crew is able, told of the secret private viewing taking place in the Hotel that half their crew were staying. It was a secret, it seems, because Scotland (particularly the West coast) dislikes nay detests English football. They had been told that they could use the TV in the breakfast room as long as they didn’t keep going in or out and didn’t cheer! I asked if we could join them and whether there was some kind of secret code we had to use! We just settled on arriving in disguise and under cover of darkness!

Dinner eaten and showered, we headed over to the hotel. It was no joke that they didn’t want to show the football. On all the doors to the bars were big signs saying, “There are no TV screens in ANY of our bars”. When I sidled up to the reception desk looking this way and that for fear of any barbarians with Scottish flags painted on their cheeks and brandishing clubs, and out of the corner of my mouth whispered that we were here to see the secret football match in the breakfast room, the receptionist almost blew up in irritation… “Humph… We are not supposed to be showing it, but he said yes, and now there are more of you… is it just the three of you?” You would have thought I had just told her that I’d brought the plague in through the door. Begrudgingly, she showed us to the breakfast room where the other LEJOGers hid cowering for fear of their own lives in their secret underground football den! I stayed for the first half of the match, carefully sniffing the drinks we bought from the bar for traces of cyanide. I couldn’t tell you the score, even what end that England were playing for the first 20 minutes… aside from the fact that there was an early goal and all others in the room had to stifle their excitement for fear of letting the cat out of the bag… so apathetic is my love of football. However, Kaitlin enjoyed announcing when it was a free kick to England or Croatia and giving her coach-style commentary, telling the players to “keep their eye on the ball” and “focus”. For that, it was worth going. Returning to the hostel, I put Kaitlin to bed and settled down to finally be able to write some of my blog.

Today’s ride is dedicated to the lovely people of Perth. 4 years ago when we moved there, I would never have imagined feeling so at home in a place as I do. The Craigie crew who welcomed me with open arms to playgroup, tweenies and school and my lovely neighbours and friends. The tourists can have Glen Coe… the most beautiful place to live is definitely Perthshire – for its scenery and its people. Thank you all for allowing me to call it home.

The Sherpas arrive

Day 10: Moffat – Loch Lomond

After 9 days of solitude, my support team were due to show up today. The Scottish leg of the tour is supported by Dean and Kaitlin, and I was looking forward to seeing the monkey and sharing some of my crazy adventure with them. But, they were not due until later in the day, so, like the groundhog day scenario it had become, today began as all the others, getting up early, eating, packing up my bike and heading off.

I thought after the halfway mark, things would get easier… When you are doing a Sportive or when you are going out for a there and back or loop cycle, after you get to the mid point, you always seem to speed up, knowing that you are doing a countdown rather than a count up… Well, for LEJOG, clearly this doesn’t happen. Apparently, according to the other group of LEJOGers, day 3 is supposed to be the most mentally challenging day. I concur, it was boring and hard because you were constantly thinking, can I really do 8 more days of this? But the last couple of days have been a real struggle. Maybe it is the boredom or maybe it is the fact that parts of my body are now screaming, “When the hell can we get off this crazy ride?” at me repeatedly, morning, noon and night. As a result I am eating like a pig. Call it comfort eating if you will, but I am sure the calorie consumption today could have been somewhere between 5 and 6 thousand calories. I may well be the only person to finish LEJOG heavier than they started! We will see. Sleep is getting more difficult too. I am having to take pain killers because finding a comfortable position to lie without my joints hurting is a struggle. Now, joint pain is a phenomena you don’t think of when you think of crohn’s but it has definitely been so in my case and is apparently fairly regular. The inflammation that occurs in the gut can occur in all sorts of other areas too – the eyes, the joints, the throat. I am pretty sure most of my joint pain is to do with 7-8 hours a day hunched over the handle bars and hard pedalling, but the fact that I have suffered crohn’s and medication related pain, in some cases quite severe and needing prescription painkillers, which made me sick, so they gave me prescription antisickness medication to go with them, is always a worry. For me, the pain was only ever when I was inactive. I could do several classes or cycle, or walk all day and feel nothing, and then be in agony when all I had done was sleep most of the day. Fingers crossed, that’s over now and this is just my body getting old (ish).

Yesterday was the day of seeing random things on route 74… today is the day of odd transportation. Route 74 continued in much the same vein as yesterday, although the scenery was slightly better and more varied. But the only real things of note other than hills, cows and now wind turbines were a proper old skool wooden gypsy (are we even allowed to say that any more) caravan, the type that is pulled by horses, sitting by the side of the cycle path and just a bit further along, tethered in a field of grass, it’s means of power, grazing happily. I wanted to stop and take a photo but didn’t for fear of getting shouted at by said angry gypsy. Shortly after, I was passed by a pair of proper desert storm-esque tanks full of camo-ed up army lads. I swear, it wasn’t hot enough to be hallucinating!

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(Some images of wind turbines to freak Kirsten out)

Where yesterday’s route 74 was dull, today’s was just rough. The road surface had obviously bore the brunt of the poor weather over the winter and the going was slow around pot holes, gravel and poor surfaces. It was unsurprising when I stumbled along the Chester LEJOGers mid-morning and one of them had suffered a puncture as a result of the road surface. I offered them my help but they were convinced that they were in need of some slime, which I did not have, as the tyre that was punctured was tubeless. They were on the phone to the van to come and rescue them and help out as I wished them, “Good Luck” and headed on my way.

Route 74, like Ariston, went on and on. Eventually, the outlying villages and towns around Glasgow came into view, Larkhill, Hamilton, Blantyre, Cambuslang  and the navigation became trickier.

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(More painted sculptures – this time round Hamilton)

The cycle route went on and off shared paths, crossed from one side of the road to the other, stopped without explanation, then picked up again further on, and with the traffic that was heading into Glasgow with me, this was a little frustrating and rather slow. I was glad when route 74 became route 75 and began to follow the Clyde along the river path. And even though the line on my GPS wove back and forth like the Thames in the Eastenders opening credits, I was glad of the shade of the trees, and something more interesting to look at.

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Before long I was in the heart of Glasgow and route 75 quickly became route 7. The going would have been great, had someone not decided to drop a Pop Concert right into the middle of my cycle path. Suddenly I was cycling up to  a 7 foot sheet of ply stretching for miles from the riverside and a “footpath closed sign”. Echoing across the Clyde, I could hear some American roadie sound checking the mikes. I had to detour across the river onto the opposite bank and try and find my way back to the correct path. Thnk y, TRNSMT! (sic) and then I started to come across the Glasgow I know and love… the street art, the riverside.

 

At one point I was cycling behind one of the Glasgow University Rowing Captains who was cycling along the river path shouting to the crew in the rowing boat on the river with a megaphone telling them the timings between set points which they had obviously agreed along the bank. I stopped briefly at one of my favourite museums in the city (after Kelvingrove), the Riverside transport museum, and had a tea and a cake.

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There was a great atmosphere out the front of the museum as the beach had been set up for the summer and the weegies were out enjoying the sun. After Clydebank, the path began to follow the towpath of the Forth and Clyde Canal. The going was good and flat and it was not long before I was approaching Dumbarton. Now, when planning this trip, the book had suggested that the final port of call for today should be the SYHA on Loch Lomond. Only, between the author writing the book and my planning my trip (as with a lot of guidebooks, which go out of date almost moments after they have been published), the SYHA had disappeared off the face of the planet and no longer existed. All that existed in Loch Lomond in terms of accommodation were expensive hotels. So, I, in my infinite wisdom, looked at Travelodge as my second option for cheap accommodation. And there seemed like a reasonably well located Travelodge at Dumbarton which would suit my purposes, it would just mean that I would either have to finish this leg slightly earlier, or continue on and be transported back to the start of the next leg at Loch Lomond the next morning by car. Just how convenient this Travelodge was, I couldn’t have guessed. Given that the going was good today, I had told Dean that I would meet them in Loch Lomond, which was grand. I received a message from Dean informing me that they were just dropping stuff off to the Travelodge and would head on. Swiftly checking my sat nav, I realised I was just 12 minutes from Dumbarton and told him to hold his horses there and I would try and find the Travelodge. Thinking that I would have to leave the path and go and find some crazy 12 lane roundabout which the Travelodge was located off, I braced myself. My worries were in vain. The Travelodge had been plonked literally right next to the cycle path. Within minutes, I was speeding into the car park to the cheers and smiles of my daughter. I didn’t stay for long – just long enough to deposit some of the stuff from my bags and lighten my load a little and then carried on with the final 10 miles to Balloch. I made it to the Loch before they did. Eager to explore, we headed to the loch shore and Kaitlin chattered nineteen to the dozen about her week. It was good to see her. She requested a go on every piece of fairground equipment they had installed at the loch shore but we managed to reign her in to a go on the zorbs, which she relished.

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Then, moaning her legs hurt (If only she knew), she started to show signs of hanger, so we decided food was more important than a bath for me after 70 odd miles of cycling, and headed to the local riverside pub. I filled my boots and we headed back to the Travelodge where I finally got my well-earned bath and headed to bed.

Today I failed to plog or find a geocache… I was exhausted after my cycle and having the additional mental strain of dealing with a small child and her million incessant questions was tiring after a long day in the saddle… but some days you just have to make do with what you can do. Tomorrow is another day and hopefully I can catch up then. If I don’t, so be it… I’m not going to beat myself up over it.

Today’s ride is dedicated to Dean. A great father to Kaitlin and a great support for my crazy ass stunts like this. Thank you. Kaitlin is growing up to be a strong and independent wee lassie (although I’d prefer less of the cheek and less of the Scottish accent) and you have done her proud.

 

I’m coming home!

Day 9: Keswick – Moffat
Despite being in a room on my own, I didn’t sleep that well last night. And for the first time this trip I had a bit of a lie in. I say a lie in, but I was still up and out by 8am. I made boiled eggs for breakfast and kept some for lunch and used the bread and cheese from the artisan deli to make sandwiches to take. My morning ride out of the Lakes was a calmer affair, it being through an area less popular with tourists. I had another of those, there must be a geocache here moments as I passed a large stone construction halfway up one of the hills. And guess what? My intuition was correct.

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The miles went quickly and I was soon in Carlisle, another location I passed through when I did the Hadrian’s cycle route (which I combined with the C2C over 6 days to make a round trip). There was a familiarity to the place and it made the urban cycling seem less stressful. I was pleased to see the travelling poppies cascading from a window at the castle. Having seen them at Orkney and then when they came to Perth, it felt good seeing them again.

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On I went through Longtown – which sounds like it comes from a Mr Men book, and Kirkpatrick Fleming.
And by lunch time, I was passing over the border into bonnie Scotland, of course taking the obligatory photo at the sign and into the tourist trap known as Gretna Green.


Today was no exception and the shearings golden girls and guys were there in their droves, supping on cream teas and doddering round the coffee shop with trays piled high with prawn and marie rose sandwiches. Weary as I was after cycling all the way across an entire country, I felt I fit right in at the tables next to them. A cream tea it was; jam then cream – let’s not mess with tradition. Within 10 miles of entering Scotland, I was hearing bagpipes, and it filled me with Scottish pride.
After leaving the blue rinse brigade to their egg mayo sandwiches and “a lovely cup of tea” at Gretna Green, I headed on into Scotland. “Great,” I thought, “this should be a really good cycle up to Moffat in the borders. All the borders cycles I have done in training have been pretty spectacular.” Boy, was I wrong. What lay ahead of me was possibly the most boring cycle route in the history of time. The A74, or route seventy snore as I quickly labelled it is a cycle route from Gretna to Glasgow, bypassing all places of any interest and following and repeatedly weaving under and over, the routes of the A74(M) motorway and a central rail route. The section of the route from Gretna to Moffat can only be described as dull. Imagine, if you will, the straightest road in the world, with a cycle lane running down the side, a constant low rumble of the motorway next to you, only this can’t even be seen because both sides of the road are lined in row upon row of bushes and trees, the odd industrial estate and sign posts promising up and coming towns or villages that may be of interest, if only they weren’t located a further 5-10 miles off the road in another direction. Cyclists share this route mainly with HGVs and fly-tippers.

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The monotony of the route was incredible; video it on a gopro and it would have sent an insomniac to sleep. It was the cyclist’s definition of white noise. In fact, this would be the ideal location to test out my patented new cycling invention where magnetic strips under the cycle path direct your bike without the need for pedalling and guide you to your destination. I call it “Snooze control” cycling. The one saving grace on the entire 40 mile stretch was the craziness that is Johnstonbridge.

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If it hadn’t been for the monkey filled garden and the golden telephone box, I may well have slit my own wrists on my disc brakes at that point. That and the chat I had with a random MAMIL who was also unfortunate enough to find himself cycling down this godforsaken stretch of the SUSTRANs superhighway and stopped as he passed my by whilst I was eating a banana. We chatted about my cycle and he told me he mostly mountain-biked. We discussed the weather and the boring road and I told him about Cream of the Croft. He invited me to go open water swimming with them that evening and I was like, “Er… yes, because my wetsuit was an essential part of kit on my 1000 mile cycle up the country.”

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(Interesting sculpture just before Moffat)
Eventually, the bushes and trees parted every so often and you could sneak a look through at the border hills in the distance. And then the random signpost that I was meant to follow appeared and I arrived in Moffat. Moffat is an oddly cute little town. It is full of quaint shops along the highstreet and has the feeling of being a little stuck in the past. My accommodation for the night was another air bnb. This time, a caravan on the driveway of a rather large and grandiose town house a few roads up from the high street.

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(Apparently, it was Gala week last week and it is not yellow and blue to support Sweden against England!)
Whilst the other air bnbs I have stayed in have been very much about the owners interacting with the guests and making them feel at home, this experience was quite the opposite; not in a bad way, just different. The check in procedure was by self check in and was like some kind of escape rooms game where I had to follow a series of clues in photographs and directions to locate the locked away key and then open the caravan. Being a caravan, there were of course also a million different instructions to follow with how things worked and how everything was operated. By the time I’d worked it all out I was famished and exhausted. I didn’t even bother going for a shower but headed straight back to the high street in the hope of being able to locate some suitable dinner for the evening that could be cooked in the smallest space saving pans in the world in the smallest kitchen in the world. I arrived at the greengrocers 2 minutes before closing at 5pm and grabbed a random selection of fruit and some sugar snap peas for dinner. Then I headed to see if anywhere else was open. By the look of things, the whole place knocks off at 5pm but luckily there was a dirty stopout premier grocery store open and I managed to cobble together enough bits to go with my sugar snap peas to make a half decent meal. I got back and showered, then cooked the half decent meal and washed my cycle gear. Having such good weather has been a godsend and there has only been one or two occasions where I have had to put on damp cycling gear to start my ride. The air bnb owner came by with some stuff for breakfast and then I headed out for my walk and plog. There had been some “riverside walks” advertised from the high street so I decided to head that way. Indeed, there were. I strolled by the river bank with the dog walkers and collected a bag of litter, then headed towards the park where there was a small boating lake. I decided to look for a geocache but the one in the park seemed to have been neglected and there were lots of DNFs recorded (Did not find) so I gave up. At that point I was desperate for the toilet. That’s the worst things with crohn’s sometimes; it’s not the stomach cramps or the fatigue, or the joint pain; it’s that sometimes you just gotta go… when your intestines are shot to buggery, sometimes your body just decides enough is enough and it’s like Vesuvius is about to erupt in your bowels. Not very nice; but that’s the truth. This was one of these occasions. Thankfully, I had brought along my RADAR key. For those not in the know, this is a key that opens the disabled toilets, even when the toilets are shut. Up until this trip, I’ve not used it much. We get assigned these from Crohn’s Colitis UK, one of the amazing things they do for IBD sufferers. I feel like it is unfair when I am able bodied to take up a disabled cubicle when there are perfectly good ladies toilets available. This time, I played the disabled card and headed for the public toilets. I still get a lot of odd looks doing this, even though there has been a lot of media coverage about making it clear that not all disabilities are visible; Little old ladies glaring at me and shaking their head when I emerge from the disabled toilets and quite clearly don’t have a wheel chair. I am sure the couple of times I have had to take my bike in there and emerged with that too they have had a lot of criticisms to mutter under their breath. Well, I forgive them, because it is only because of their ignorance that they are so judgemental. This time was rather amusing however, because as I emerged, there was a lady marching purposefully towards me. “Here goes,” I thought. The truth was altogether a funnier matter… Seeing me going in there with my black sack and litter picker she had obviously put 2 and 2 together and got 12… “Are you cleaning the toilets?” she asked. “Er, no” was my response. “Oh, It’s just I think I left my purse in the ladies earlier and wondered if you could get it back.” I totally didn’t know how to respond at that point, other than smile sweetly and tell her that was a shame. “I only have a key for this one,” I said, “You could try phoning the council number and seeing if anyone has handed anything in.” She left and I decided I’d had enough excitement for one evening and headed back to the caravan for an early night… again!
This one goes out to all my teacher friends…and support staff. The Tower massive… you will always have a place in my heart as my first school – and the first Thursdayers were the stars of the show there, The Wheatcroft lot, especially Gem and now, my oakbank family. It takes a certain kind of person to be a teacher… I’d generally say they have to be stark raving bonkers. Kids are seriously hard work. Thanks for going through the insanity with me. And enjoy the rest of your holidays Scottish teachers, and for the English who are just about to begin there’s, the end is in sight. Hold on in there.

The Lakes: Just like Scotland but with tourists

Day 8: Slaidburn – Keswick

 

Every day when I leave my accommodation, I go through a kind of mental checklist. Even though I have very few items in my possession to bring along with me, they are all essential and leaving without one of them would be a real issue. In addition, there are things to be done: bags to be packed on my bike, snacks to be placed in the back pockets of my jersey, beds to be stripped in hostels, pills to be taken, fitbit to be set, tyres to be pumped, chain to be checked and lubed if necessary. And usually, even when I have been through the entire checklist there will be something that needs adjusting within a couple of minutes of cycling commencing and I will need to stop and readjust. All this, and breakfast means that even though I can wake at 5:30am or just after, I am usually not out of the door much before 7. Today was my slickest get up yet (or so I thought). I made e it out of the door and on the road by 6:45.

 

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(Even the signs on the wall are telling me to stop this craziness… but like the littlest Hobo, I’ll just keep moving on)

Then I headed through what was left of the Forest of Bowland, which was mainly a large uphill climb for the first 10 or so miles to the appropriately named Cross of Greet, but I didn’t greet and I didn’t get off my bike but enjoyed cycling through very peaceful countryside with great views over the valley. Then as always with such a climb, the delight of freewheeling down the other side. The advantage of being up so early being that the roads were completely clear and the freewheeling was carefree.

 

That was until I got to the bottom and decided to get a drink and something to eat… reaching into my jersey back pocket I noticed a strange shaped lump. There, next to my cereal bars and banana was a key. The key to the dorm room I was staying in in Slaidburn. Had I not been on my bike and had I not cycled up, then down a very large hill to get away from the hostel, I would have gone back but now I was in a quandary. Given that I had been on one long road out of slaidburn with no turn offs, I postulated the idea of flagging down the next cyclist coming the other way (at this time of the morning there had already been several, and more than the number of car drivers I had seen) and asking if they were going to Slaidburn and could they drop it in. I did actually flag down a car and despite the fact they were heading in the direction of Slaidburn, with no turn offs as I have already stated, they claimed rather dubiously not to be going to Slaidburn. I am not sure I would have entrusted them with the key anyway. So, I decided the best course of action would be to a) post the key back to the hostel, or b) get to Keswick and chance that there was a JOGLEr going the opposite way who would be staying in Slaidburn after Keswick – stranger things have happened. Feeling ever so slightly guilty I continued my cycle, heading out of the Forest of Bowland.

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The route continued through various villages east and Northeast of Lancaster with only a geocache stop (one of those where I stopped my bike somewhere and thought, this would be an ideal location for a geocache.. and lo and behold, when I checked I was sitting right on one. In this case literally, as it was attached with a magnet underneath the metal bench) until I came to Kendal; The gateway to the Lake district; well known for it’s sugary mint confectionary designed to keep lost travellers going at high altitude. Kendal mint cake always conjures memories of being away with the school on school journeys; to us, it was like the cocaine of the sweetie world. There as nothing more naughty than eating what is basically mint flavoured sugar, and I was keen to get my hands on some. Kendal was bustling but cycling through the small town was nice, but the mint cake seemed elusive.

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I eventually settled on stopping at a coffee shop called “The two sisters” and had tea and a slice of white chocolate and cranberry tiffin instead and sat outside on one of the noisy metal tables at one of the noisy metal chairs which squealed rudely across the cobbles when you pulled it out to sit down. Not long had I sat down than a gentleman came out and asked if it was OK if he sat down next to me. He was in his late 50s and obviously a bit lonely. We talked for quite a while and I told him, as you do, about my trip and he asked lots of questions. It passed the time as I rested up a while and ate my cake. It was then that I wondered if I had finally reached that age… the one where you are not cool enough for young people to speak to you and the only people who are interested in coming and having a chat are middle aged men with beer bellies and retired folk. I don’t mind – they are more than happy to listen to my stories and I am more than happy for the company. The younglings can chat about “Love Island” and all that nonsense with each other.

So, I have begun to realise that the conversations I have been having along the way with shop assistants, café waitresses, bar staff and garage attendents follow a very similar pattern:

Them: So, have you cycled far?

Me: Today? Oh, xyz miles.

Them: Wow, that’s a long way, I struggle to drive that. Where did you cycle from?

Me: xyz place. I’m cycling to abc other place. I’m doing land’s end to john o’groats.

Them: (looks up and me in the eye to see if I am telling the truth) Wow. I know someone who did that / That’s a long way / where? *delete as appropriate*

Me: Yes, I am on day blah.

Them: Well, you’ve had good weather for it.

Me: *raising an eyebrow and trying to stop the sweat that drips off it as a result from landing in my own eye* Yes, It’s been beautiful.

Them: So how come you are doing it South to North, isn’t it all up hill?

Me: (My turn to look up and look at them in the eye to see if they are really serious) *nervous laugh*

Them (as I walk away from the  counter): Well, good luck with it. (turns to person next to them) Hear, she’s cycling from Land’s end to John O’groats.

It might be a tad repetitive, but it’s nice to hear the amazement in their voice, and nice to know that it might actually happen. I might actually be able to pull this crazy stunt off.

 

(Took about 10 minutes of waiting to get a road picture free of cars…)

The Lake district was of course stunning – especially as it was such a clear sunny day – a rare thing in these parts apparently. What was not quite so stunning was the traffic. It is a good thing that there is this misconception that the weather in Scotland is so poor otherwise all of Scotland would be like this – heaving with caravans, tourist buses and cars with foreign number plates… so far the Scottish tourist board have managed to limit it to a small section around Edinburgh, Glen Coe and Loch Ness. That means the rest of us can enjoy Scotland’s unspoilt beauty in peace. Shhh. Don’t tell anyone. I lunched with the other tourists on Windermere and then arrived early to Keswick, able to visit some of the artisan food shops and do my bit for Zero Plastic July. Places like this make it easy. It’s more of a hunt when you get to other places to find the more environmentally conscious shops. I am definitely going to seek them out in Perth and surrounding areas though and try to continue what I have started when back home.  

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(And finally, some Kendal mint cake)

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(Another picturesque YHA)

After the last 2 YHAs I had been in being in the back of beyond, I was surprised to remember (since I had been there before once, on the way across the country from West to East whilst cycling the C2C route) that Keswick was quite a hot and happening place. So hot and happening in fact that it had a Thai Restaurant. Having not had many meals out on the trip so far, and most of them being lunches, I decided to treat myself. There is nothing I like more than a well-made Pad Thai, and having travelled in Thailand for 4 weeks, I experienced my fair share of authentic Thai cuisine, so I have become a bit of a connoisseur of Pad Thais. Keswick came high on the list.

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After dinner, I walked my Pad Thai (and the Thai fish cakes I had had for starter) off by plogging along the river bank. It was a lovely walk and I was thanked by a couple walking in the park for my efforts. River bank plogs are my favourite as I feel they are possibly the most important of plogs. It only takes a heavy rain storm and all the litter that was lying about next to the river is suddenly finding its way into the ocean and into the food chain via fish and ocean mammals. It was all too clear on my beach plog just how bad this situation has gotten.

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Another early night. I struck it lucky at the hostel because even though I booked a dorm room, the remainder of the beds were “Spoiler alert” – as the hipster Millennial behind the hostel reception had announced… I’ll bet he watched Love Island too and uses stuff like OMG and BFF in regular conversation too – empty, so I had the room to myself – the Millenial also exclaimed how that would be “handy when I came in late at night from the local nightclub” – see, I told you Keswick was hot and happening. Sadly, there were no JOGLErs so the key will have to be posted. That would have made a good story though – not this time.

Today is dedicated to all the Crohn’s/Ulcerative Colitis sufferers; those I know – Fi, Kyley, Scott and Alyson & those I don’t; the increasing number diagnosed throughout the country and the world; and the get your belly out crew. Here’s hoping that the research that CCUK helps to fund and support can help find a cure one day and in the meantime, wishing you all more good days than bad and the courage and determination to not let these debilitating diseases control your life. Live it with all the strength you have.  Only they can truly understand how big a challenge this has been given what we go through on a daily basis. Sending you belly hugs x