To celebrate the school’s 500th anniversary, recently retired teachers Iain McDougall (86-13) and Rob ‘Bob’ Peel (72-11) decided to cycle 500 miles from John o’Groats to Pocklington. This ‘midge-on-the-road’ report by Rob briefly describes their adventure!
Tuesday 13 May 2014
The train trip from York to Thurso on the north coast of Scotland was surprisingly trouble-free. I was slightly alarmed when the train stopped at Darlington and Iain got out (or so I thought) to check the bikes: the train stopped for mere seconds as seems to be the custom these days and it was a disconcertingly long time before Iain reappeared. I was more alarmed still when, changing platforms in Edinburgh (which also involves changing levels), I saw Iain disappear with his fully-laden bike down an escalator. Thank heavens he was only pushing it! In fact, the only cycling we did that day was free-wheeling 300 metres from the station in Thurso to the B & B for the first night…
Day 1, Wednesday 14 May 2014
Distance: 50 miles; Total Ascent: 2,898 feet
Yvonne (who ran the B & B) had agreed to transport us and our bikes to John o’Groats, so the cycling started late but under lovely blue skies and alongside bright yellow gorse (‘whin’ to Scots), retracing a course to Thurso and westwards past the nuclear power station of Dounreay and lunching in warm sunshine by the war memorial in Reay. The number of young men from the area who died in WW1 is astonishing: how it must have decimated the local population.
The last twenty miles provided a series of increasingly long and steep hills which severely tested old bones and joints (ain’t seen nothin’ yet) – and the weather steadily closed in. Overnight we could hear the wind getting up.
The B & B near Bettyhill provided welcome relief and fabulous views of the northern coast.
Day 2, Thursday 15 May 2014
Distance: 56 miles; Total Ascent: 2,244 feet
Over a wonderful cooked breakfast, the possible routes to Lairg were discussed with our fellow guests and hostess and it was decided not to go on the recognised cycle route on the A road via Tongue after all, but on the shorter B road via the Naver valley instead. With hindsight, to eat such a breakfast and then expect to be able to pedal up the hill to the main road was asking for trouble! And once arrived there, the main road immediately generated another steep hill. Then the day’s real problem began to assert itself: wind. A stiff sou’wester was blowing. At first, Iain and I were intermittently sheltered from it, even when we swung away from the coast and started the 500 mile southerly course towards home. The beautiful scenery – hills and woods – and the position of the road in the green valley afforded some protection but we knew that, when we reached Loch Naver, we’d be head-on into the full force of the strengthening wind. The sight of white-topped waves on the water confirmed our worst suspicions, but it was a pretty road alongside the seven-mile long lake and there was always the chance of seeing an osprey, perhaps… Beyond the lake, the road into Altnaharra was often downhill but still hard going and the wind on the hill up out of it defeated gears and muscles altogether. After a half-mile trek we lunched in the lee of a roadside scrape and allowed our batteries to recharge. All through the afternoon we traversed vast tracts of either open moorland or that depressing shattered landscape left by the forest fellers, pedalling hard even to go downhill, but eventually we reached the shelter of lowland woodland, roadside walls and closer hills as we approached Lairg.
Suddenly it became almost warm and the last ten miles or so into Bonar Bridge were a delightful contrast to the five hours battling against the wind earlier. We arrived at the Dunroamin Hotel wishing to re-christen it the ‘Duncyclin’ Hotel and hoping for kinder weather the next day.
Day 3, Friday 16 May 2014
Distance: 53 miles; Total Ascent: 2,757 feet
A much better day, because most of the route was fairly sheltered. That the wind was still strong was fully realised when Iain and I crossed over Kessock Bridge into Inverness: we were nearly blown into the superstructure. But the sun had been shining for much of the day and the only mishap was when I inadvertently caused Iain to topple off his bike into a gorse bush when stationary – a “whin-whin situation, of gorse”…
As soon as we arrived at our destination a very welcome pot of tea was brought out to the table in the front garden for us and so the sun immediately went in. By the time OP Peter Fenton (72-82) had turned up all the way from the west side of Scotland and the three of us went for a Turkish meal in Inverness, it was raining. We had a most enjoyable evening with, of course, lots of reminiscing and updating on matters Pocklingtonian, Orcadian and Fentonian.
A forecast of 45mph winds for tomorrow, with gusts up to 60mph, did not bode well.
Day 4, Saturday 17 May 2014
Distance: 50 miles; Total Ascent: 3,030 feet
Leaving Inverness almost in sunshine, ‘the intrepid pair’, aka Iain and I, followed the National Cycle Route to Culloden where Iain’s lecture on Jacobites, Bonny Prince Charlie, the famous battle and things Scottish in general all led to a number of interesting historical discussions, punctuated by some absurdly steep hills before coming alongside the A9. Gentler hills led eventually to Carrbridge. Over lunch, the rain began to spot and the decision was made to by-pass Boat of Garten* (of osprey fame) and follow the B9152 directly to Kingussie and Newtonmore. A short detour produced, more or less on cue, a magnificent osprey sighting which did much to raise spirits, for the wind was beginning to show signs of matching its forecast and the rain was increasing.
We reached Iain’s sister-in-law’s house before getting drenched, however, and it was heartening to learn that everyone back home was enjoying barbecues in a heat-wave. Iain abandoned about 1 stone of baggage he no longer believed he needed so he could cope with the next day’s ascent whatever the elements threw at him and he maintained his on-the-waggon status despite temptation from the best-stocked cellar in the Spey valley. [He had always said this might be the biggest challenge of the whole trip.]
The hospitality of Katie and David was a great comfort in the face of what we both knew would be a big challenge the next day.
*Apologies to all the Grampian OPs who were no doubt waiting there with banners and waving flags…
Day 5, Sunday 18 May 2014
Distance: 39 miles; Total Ascent: 2,295 feet
The first five miles or so were fairly straightforward but when we lost the shelter of trees, Iain and I found ourselves against a strong headwind on the long climb up to the Drumochter Pass. The next five miles saw the shelter fade away, the wind strengthen and the rain begin. With an average speed of little more than 5mph it became clear that the deteriorating weather and the steepening gradient up to the pass were frustrating progress to an unacceptable extent. As this part of the route included an additional thirty mile easterly detour to take in an overnight stop at the home of Tom and Fran Elder (née Macivor, 88-90), it was decided to catch a local train to Pitlochry despite it involving over an hour’s wait. Emerging from the station in Pitlochry in watery sunshine, we began the steep ascent back into the Grampians now partly assisted by the wind before enjoying increasingly beautiful scenery as we approached Glenisla and the wonderfully positioned home of the Elders. A missed turn produced another steep climb but the best views of all, way up to the head of the valley somewhere near the ski-slopes of Glenshee.
The wind was at last dying and perhaps the fine weather being enjoyed in England might be edging northwards at last. Finally a steep and stony track led to our destination and tea in the sun in the garden.
Fran was expecting their second child and Tom the hot water to be working but his home-plumbing, hampered by the arrival of the two elderly ex-teachers from his wife’s secondary school, was not quite on schedule. They entertained us royally, however, showing us around their sizeable home and describing room by room the adventure that is the renovation of this former shooting lodge.
Big day tomorrow: there are misgivings in certain joints!
Day 6, Monday 19 May 2014
Distance: 79 miles; Total Ascent: 4,233 feet
Fortunately the weather had at last softened and the ride away from Glenisla was in promising sunshine. There was a gentle breeze which we knew would be in our favour as we veered south towards Perth. This was as well: it was going to be the longest day’s ride of them all. To the east was a slowly swirling mist, out of which, on the hills, dribbled the mournful cry of the curlew and from which, on the Forth Road Bridge, condensed a heavy rain apparently typical of that local haar. Bad luck for the only cyclist we ever saw with a puncture: on the crest of the bridge with his upturned bike in that rain. Between-times, the sun pushed through and although there were some hills which defeated us, we enjoyed some speedy descents and the feeling of easy speed on the level instead of the grinding effort of the past few days. Eric Morecambe would have made something of our easy passage to the Bridge of Earn and I wondered if Bilbo Baggins had been to Balbeggie.
We passed through some beautiful rural scenery then enjoyed freshly purchased Melton Mowbray pork pies in the idyllic surroundings of the Tesco’s car park in Perth before approaching the Forth Bridge on a road and in traffic as close to being on a motorway as it is legally possible to experience on a bike.
The rain cleared as we closed in on the cycle-tracks that insinuate the suburbs of Edinburgh. We enjoyed trying with increasingly cheerful greetings to elicit some response from the commuters all pedalling earnestly in the opposite direction – but they had all clearly had a bad day in the office. [There’s a tendency for cyclists out on the open road to exchange pleasantries en passant, as time permits, such as, “Hi! Are you doing the End-to-End?” “Yes! You?” “Well, no: just as far as York!” by which time of course they are unlikely to hear the reply… …but when you’ve seen no-one for an hour on a road over the mountains against the wind, it has a heartening effect and should be encouraged. Edinburgh commuters should try it.]
Iain’s knowledge of Edinburgh got us through it at the height of the rush-hour and we avoided getting our tyres caught in the ruts of the new tram-ways. A commuting cyclist alongside us at some red traffic-lights, having observed our yellow Jogpock tops, enquired if we knew of Greenfingers Garden Services in Pocklington, prompting a slightly bizarre exchange before green lights terminated it without establishing his connection.
Finally, after nine hours in the saddle, we made it to the excellent hospitality of Iain’s friend Norma in Morningside.
Day 7, Tuesday 20 May 2014
Distance: 57 miles; Total Ascent: 3,607 feet
Norma’s suggested route out of the Edinburgh suburbs took us neatly onto National Cycle Network route 7 – and some hefty climbs. The weather was dry and there were excellent views, especially after the extremely long but bikeable ascent to the top of the Moorfoot Hills, followed by a glorious descent into the long, wild valley to Innerleithen whereupon the route changed its character altogether. For five miles it ran along a small country road in the Tweed valley which wound through woods carpeted with bluebells – a fabulous sight – before leading up over the hill to Galashiels.
A fawn, all spots, long legs and panic, found itself stranded on the road ahead of and fled ahead of us until an on-coming car caused it to turn and charge blindly into the fence, twice, before careering shakily back down the hill as Iain was labouring up it. I had lower gears but this was the hill where my chain came off, prompting a servicing later that evening. The construction of a cutting for the new rail link between Galashiels and Edinburgh suddenly and without warning straddled the cycle route and temporary signage for an alternative route was not exactly seamless. So we got lost. After receiving local directions, we finally decided to cut our losses and try the main road to St Boswell’s. After several of my “last” hills we finally homed in on Iain’s sister-in-law’s farmhouse nearly an hour later than anticipated. Liz and Simon carried on the now well-established tradition of excellent hospitality and the cyclists that of sleeping well after our long day’s exercise.
Day 8, Wednesday 21 May 2014
Distance: 58 miles; Total Ascent: 4,447 feet
Iain and I made good progress through the rolling hills of the Scottish Borders with a fair breeze abeam which became a tail-wind when we turned towards Kielder, and England.
We had a good lunch break out of the wind and in the sun on the banks of the blue Kielder Water. The sun was out more and more as we descended swiftly and comfortably from the dam towards Bellingham, staying on the road rather than the designated cycle track on the other side of the river because it turned out to be too rough to risk (some irony there in the context of what the journey was about to produce). In Bellingham the two old codgers sat on an old codgers’ bench and enjoyed refreshments in the sunshine with only five miles to go.
Should be there by 4 o’clock… or so we thought.
Trouble was, googling had conjured up a road where in fact there was none. At least, that’s my story. It was at best a track. And then a path. Or a nature trail. We were three and a half miles from Birtley and had to resort to lifting our bikes over a stile and pushing them along an uneven riverside footpath, over wooden walkways, along an old railway and then hazarding guesses as to which way to go when we encountered roads again. We chose the wrong options. Ages later, after getting directions from a man out walking with his children, we finally entered Birtley from below, rather than above, and collapsed into deck-chairs with cups of Earl Grey tea brewed by OP David Crone (65-73), in his beautiful garden under a blue sky and in hot sunshine. We went in to shower and change; David’s wife Sarah returned from work and then we all sat and chatted in the last of the sun before going in for a hearty meal.
Were we about to cycle the last two days into Pocklington in glorious sunshine at last?
Day 9, Thursday 22 May 2014
Distance: 76 miles; Total Ascent: 3,437 feet
No. It was pouring!
On went the water-proofs… … and off went the cyclists.
The route to Corbridge and the best pork-pies of the whole trip included a succession of hills but eventually we reached the old railway near Consett and it was wonderful to cycle about twenty miles on this traffic-free, well-surfaced track with gentle gradients. I nearly came to grief when we encountered a small digger doing repairs where the track crossed a road, but head-butted the offending barrier out of my way, thereby just about managing to remain mounted on my bike. The workmen’s bemusement at these antics was noted by Iain.
Getting lost as we approached our daily destinations had become a bit of a habit, so (forgetting we had a perfectly good OS map of the area, freshly purchased for the purpose) we duly did it again as we approached Stockton. One missed turn took us further into Stockton than we had ever intended but ultimately we arrived like drowned rats at the home of OP Chris de Jong (formerly Shields, 66-76) with only one more day to do.
Chris allowed his airing cupboard to be subjected to our wet gear, shoes included, and grilled us on our trip as enthusiastically as he grilled the bruschetta that preceded his enormous ‘spag bol’ .
It was a shame his computer took an instant dislike to my camera card, erasing every picture of the trip, but never mind: it was a small price to pay for his sympathetic and generous hospitality!
Day 10, Friday 23 May 2014
Distance: 74 miles; Total Ascent 2,757 feet
Another day for the water-proofs and some short, sharp ascents. The rain was the least of our problems however. We found the cycle route we wanted easily enough but where it headed east up to the North Yorkshire Moors, I had chosen a less hilly route which skirted the escarpment on minor roads south towards Coxwold. Then it was a short hop to Easingwold where we knew familiar faces would be ready and waiting to join us on the last leg of the journey back into Pock. We paused for a banana at the Cat and Bagpipes in East Harlsey having staggered up a short but exponential hill and then set off in good time for the projected rendez-vous in Easingwold.
When I casually mentioned that I wasn’t sure if it was a road or just a track we were looking for to get us to Borrowby but it was “dead straight all the way”, Iain’s alarm bells should have rung more loudly for this was another case of over-googlification. We climbed a moderate hill, found the lane, and descended along a promisingly metalled surface, rounded a corner and were presented with a farm – and a problem. There was no roadway of any description straight on, just a choice of two muddy tracks, one to the left and the other to the right. We chose the one to the left. It was at least a bridle track, but it became increasingly puddled and muddy. I had never ridden a bike through so much mud that it jammed between the tyres and the mudguards clogging the wheels solid; I had to give the bike a bath in the deeper puddles and use sticks to clear it. The track became a path. When we reached a footbridge over a stream, Iain’s bike had to be lifted because his panniers didn’t fit between the hand-rails but at last we came to a stony track and imagine our relief when we chanced upon a proper road again! Only when we spotted a sign advertising the Cat and Bagpipes on the far side of the road did we realise that we were back where we had been forty minutes beforehand and had been on a cross-country circuit achieving nothing.
Cutting our losses, we took the main road into Northallerton and the A168 out of it and headed for Borrowby the first time it appeared on a signpost. Thereafter it was plain sailing: the rain had virtually stopped, there was a light tailwind and we arrived in Easingwold later than hoped but in time to get back to Pocklington at about 5pm. We were met by about a dozen school staff*, picking up some (plus their children) on the way, and their company made the final 27 miles enormously pleasurable.
Iain and I had anticipated returning to an empty school on half-term break, with not a soul to be seen. Little did we know that the remaining boarders had been encouraged to converge on Dolman Drive and welcome us back. And so, as we and our cohorts swung into school off West Green, we found ourselves riding into a heart-warming reception, a smiling crowd, all cheering and clapping.
It was a great way to finish; a local hostelry capped it and then home to a glorious, long, hot, familiar bath…
*Garry Binks, Richard Bond, Phil Donaldson, Goldie Cosby and family, Marion Peel, Steve Spruyt and family, Nick Tomaszewski (support vehicle) and Hannah Towner.
The ten-day trip covered 592 miles, well in excess of the 500 originally targeted. We travelled through lots of wonderful countryside and though we were unlucky with the wind earlier on, we at least experienced only two really wet days.
We would like to thank the OP committee for their support and are grateful to all of our hosts (including the three OPs who put us up as well as all those OPs who had offered to put us up when the venture was first mooted as a Land’s End to John o’Groats trip) and to Peter Fenton for coming over to meet us for a meal in Inverness and to our former colleagues who met us in Easingwold and who arranged our reception on return. Thanks also to Andrew Pearson who drove us and our bikes to York Station in the first place.
We must, of course, thank everyone who has made a contribution to the various charities whom we were supporting. At the time of writing, over £7,000 has been raised (incl. Gift Aid) which is a marvellous amount.
Above all we must thank Rachel Dare and her colleagues in the OP office for putting up with our badgerings, frequent changes of plans, procrastinations, forgetfulness and ditherings.
If anyone is interested in making a donation, it is not too late. Please google “jogpock’s fundraising page” on Virgin Money Giving or click here.