End to End, the Roundabout Route
Story and photos by Tony Robinson-Smith

Biking Britain on scenic back roads means fierce hills and funny old folk.

Britain travel

According to the Guinness Book of World Records, some 3,000 people each year travel from Land's End, the southernmost point in England, to John o' Groats, the northernmost in Scotland, and they do it in every imaginable way. Arvind Pandya ran the distance backwards in 1990, taking 26 days and seven hours (tripping over many curbs on the way, no doubt). Norman Croucher Obe walked it the same year on two artificial legs, while pushing a shopping cart, and took sixty days. Steve Gough also walked it, but naked (except for his boots) between June, 2003 and January, 2004. It took him much longer than Obe as he kept getting arrested and put in jail. George Shields did the trip in a motorized garden shed (with his pet chicken) in 1997, and Sean Conway swam it last year in four and a half months. This had to be Britain, home to many of the most intrepid and just plain batty pioneers of travel. Oh, and the common garden snail, concluded "The End to End Story Centre" I discovered at Land's End, would take three years and four months to do "LEJOG" at a speed of 0.03mph.

I would use a bicycle to go "End to End," and I would not try to set any records. The direct route, according to a fingerpost at Land's End marking the traditional starting point, was 874 miles, and there was no shortage of literature on which roads to take, which B&Bs to stay at, and where all the cycle repair shops were. Given the weight of traffic on the roads these days, the direct route, to my mind, would be lunacy, especially through England: goods trucks whistling by my ear at 60 mph, cities snarled with cars, a latticework of criss-crossing roads to negotiate.

I would find my own way and avoid the dual-carriageways and the cities, seeking out instead Britain's quieter back roads and its last remaining green spaces. I would not hurry, nor look out for other LEJOGers to discuss road surfaces or compare the day's mileage. I would ride all day, six days a week, but at a gentle pace and contemplate the fact that I had just turned fifty. I would take with me a tent, a good map, a puncture repair kit, and binoculars for bird-watching. It was June, so the weather would be pleasant.

Land's End

Guided by a Stranger

"Hi. Sorry to bother you. Is there a bike shop near here?" I yelled over a garden wall at Portishead on the Severn Estuary, just west of Bristol, three days into my trip.

Unused to spending eight hours a day on the saddle, peeved that it had rained almost constantly since I started out from Land's End, and tested by the brutal hills of Exmoor National Park in Somerset (one labeled "25%"), I was already bleary-eyed with exhaustion. Now, somehow, I had snapped a gear cable.

"There is one, but it will be closed by now, and you'd never find it anyway," replied a bald, crane-like man of about eighty.

The bike, called "Stratus Adventure," a heavy hybrid rented from my university, was brand new. True, it was designed more for commuting between campuses or doing grocery shopping than touring, but the bike mechanic had said it would hold up, and it came with twenty-one gears and a sturdy rack. In 1996, I had cycled a full month and nine hundred miles of my trans-Canadian tour on a new but entry-level bike before anything went wrong.

"Well, is there anywhere round here to camp?" I asked, telling him what I was up to.

"No, but there is a pub down the road, where you can get a decent meal. Stop by tomorrow, and I'll take you to the shop."

I wheeled my disabled Stratus over to the Windmill Inn and dug out my towel and toothbrush. Was fifty too old for stripping down to my Lycra for a flannel wash in a pub toilet and trying to bathe a tender crotch? Was it still fun and part of the adventure to camp thereafter in steady rain on a littered riverbank between a patch of stinging nettles and a "No Camping" sign?

The old man greeted me the following morning dressed head-to-foot in yellow, bike helmet strapped to his head. bike gradeHe must be taking me to the bike shop and then going off for a ride, I thought. Before we part company, I must find out how to squeeze between Bristol and Avondale and then get over the Severn to Wales. The way north seemed blocked by the city and commercial docklands. The estuary was also a meeting point for several major motorways, the M4 coming west from London, the M5 descending from Birmingham, and the M48 sprouting from Bristol, all several lanes wide and forbidden to cyclists.

Three hours later, I was treating Mike to tea and a bacon butty at a Welsh roadside caravan. Why he had decided to lead me along numerous cycle paths and congested roads paralleling the motorways and then up onto the suspension bridge carrying the M48 across the river (cycle path clamped to the side) was a mystery. It was far from a scenic ride. At one point, we rode by a heap of automobile body parts several stories high being craned into a container ship. Perhaps it was the fact that his sister-in-law once held the End to End cycling record (three days), and he had driven alongside handing her Mars bars. Maybe he simply appreciated the company. I was sad to see him head back to England, the sole cyclist on the bridge, battling a side wind.

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