Fiona: ‘Let’s cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats,’ I said to my partner, shortly before retiring from full-time work at age 65, ‘we need a retirement project’.
‘No way! Not a chance! You must be mad!’ came the swift reply from Owen (66).
A few weeks later, we were loading our bikes on to the train from London to Penzance, panniers packed for a four week ride, LEJOG as it is known by the many cyclists who have tackled it.
Although we had both been commuting to work in London by bike for many years, we had never done any self-guided cycle touring before, only short package cycling holidays with a support vehicle to pick us up if we got tired. In the end, Owen’s only condition for doing LEJOG was that we must book our accommodation for every night in advance – he doesn’t like not knowing where he’s going to sleep at night, and we’re both averse to camping. This meant that we had to estimate in advance exactly how far we would cycle each day – an average of 40 miles a day for four weeks, including two rest days with friends en route – and make sure that we arrived as planned or the whole chain of B&B bookings would collapse.
We bought ourselves a road atlas, marking up the entire route in advance, always along minor roads, canal towpaths and, if we were lucky, dedicated cycle routes along disused railways lines. We tore out the relevant pages of the atlas, the idea being to discard the ‘used’ pages as we went to lighten our load. But for some reason, Owen developed a sentimental attachment to them, and they ended up completing the whole journey with us.
We had barely started on the first leg of the ride from Penzance station to Land’s End when I called out to Owen as he was disappearing over the sun-drenched horizon above and ahead of me, ‘I’m going to have to walk up this hill, my back’s hurting too much.’ (I regularly used to get backache while cycling, especially on hills, but it always eased if I stopped for a few minutes so generally I was able to carry on regardless and Owen was used to this).
‘If you’re going to complain of pain every time we come to a hill, we might as well go home now’, came the anxious and cross reply. Was he looking for an excuse to give up before we had even started? ‘If you want to turn back, I’m going on my own’, I shouted irritably, probably bluffing but not wanting to be defeated at the first hurdle, or hill in my case.
‘And I can’t get all the way to John O’Groats if I’m not allowed to walk up hills and mention when my back’s hurting’. Well, I did walk up many hills in the next four weeks, pushing my heavily laden bike, as Owen (usually) sailed up ahead of me (but always waited at the top).
All was sweetness and light after we got over that initial aggravation on the way to Land’s End – we must both have been feeling pretty apprehensive at that point. We realised that, though we had lived together for over 30 years, we had never been together 24 hours a day for 4 weeks – it was reassuring to find out that we still got on pretty well. Cycling up long hills in wind, rain and mist, can be a test of a loving relationship! It was a brilliant adventure and we were quite elated by the end of it, with our appetites whetted for more.
Owen: There were many magical moments and fascinating encounters en route. On a long hot day in Wales (where we detoured to visit friends) we stopped at a farm shop near Raglan to buy ice-creams and talked to the 80 year old woman behind the counter who told us about her life as a farmer in the Welsh hills and her current role supporting her son and his family who had recently taken over running the farm. Our B&B hosts in the Cairngorms plied us with wine and invited us to join them in their hot tub, hinting at ‘swinging’. Many a picnic lunch was eaten in a bus shelter or a church porch sheltering from the rain, but we always rewarded ourselves with a proper meal out in the evenings.
No surprise then that our arrival at John O’Groats was a very emotional moment. And while we were recovering in the cafe near the famous signpost – New York 3230 miles – a number of other cycling groups came in, all with stories to tell. There was a 16 year old girl who had done the trip in 10 days with support for separate sections of the ride from a range of family members; a father and teenage son who lived in separate households; a group cycling in memory of a friend who had died in Iraq. We had taken longer to do the ride than any of the others, but of course in retirement it is easier to organise four week trips than when you have a full time job.
Both: inspired by the success of that first long-distance ride in 2015, we set aside a month every year after that for a cycle tour, and ventured abroad. By this time, we had gained so much in confidence that we only booked our accommodation one day in advance, as we travelled. We began with France coast to coast, Med to Manche, cycling from Narbonne along the canals to Arcachon, and then following a brilliant mostly off-road cycle route, the Velodyssee, up the Atlantic coast and across Brittany to Roscoff. The following year we followed the Rhine from its source in the Swiss Alps to the North Sea at Hook of Holland, cycling through parts of Austria, Lichtenstein, Germany and France en route. After that, it was the Loire from source to sea, the Massif Central to Sainte-Nazaire. Mainland Europe has the most wonderful network of long-distance cycle routes (https://en.eurovelo.com/), well signposted and largely traffic-free or on minor roads, which really helped us to work out our routes.
We have never flown with our bikes, always starting and ending our journeys abroad by train and ferry or bike bus (https://bike-express.co.uk/), largely because both of us are hopeless mechanics and would have extreme difficulty taking our bikes apart and putting them together again, as required on a flight. We do however travel with bicycle breakdown insurance from the ETA (Environmental Travel Association) https://www.eta.co.uk/bicycle-insurance/, which promises to rescue us if we breakdown, although we have never had to put it to the test.
Our last long ride before the pandemic was in the Outer Hebrides and the west coast of Scotland. Starting in Oban, we got the ferry to Barra, cycled north to Stornaway, crossed back to Ullapool and cycled south along the stunning west coast to Kyle of Lochalsh. This was perhaps our greatest challenge yet – we went in May/June and it rained every day for three weeks, the temperature rarely went above 10C and the wind was always in our faces. We very nearly gave up!
Then the pandemic arrived. Back in the spring of 2020, when lockdown began, we took advantage of our allowed daily exercise by cycling through the deserted streets of London in glorious sunshine. Despite having lived in London for many decades, we discovered all sorts of interesting places that were new to us, such as the “Magnificent Seven” Victorian cemeteries https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnificent_Seven_cemeteries, and some that were familiar, like Oxford Street and Soho, but completely and wonderfully transformed by a total absence of traffic. Our distance was only limited by the size of our bladders, every potential watering-hole being compulsorily closed.
Now, staying closer to home due to various health problems that make travel insurance prohibitively expensive, we have a new project, the British Cycle Quest (https://www.cyclinguk.org/british-cycle-quest) . This is like a treasure hunt without any treasure. Originally set up by the Cyclists Touring Club (now Cycling UK) the Quest has six target checkpoints in each county of England, Scotland, and Wales, 402 in total, where you have to find the answer to a question, the only rule being that you have to cycle there (but you don’t have to cycle all the way). It takes a lifetime and few people ever finish it, but it provides us with endless destinations and motivation to go cycling, and takes us to all sorts of places, both obscure and well-known, sometimes beautiful and always worth the ride. Questions such as: What was placed in Swannington, Norfolk in memory of her husband Hastings Parker in 1888? Who restored St Clements Church, Rodel, Isle of Harris, Outer Hebrides, in 1873? What is the maximum penalty for omitting to shut and fasten the gate at the entrance to Havenstreet station, Isle of Wight? We know the answers because we cycled there! Seventy-two checkpoints achieved so far, leaving only 330 to go. Perhaps we will get a medal at the end of it if we last that long!
We live in south London and we gave up owning a car a long time ago – bikes and public transport meet almost all our needs. We cycle for pleasure, convenience and well-being, but we also hope we are contributing to the reduction of air pollution in the city. We have grandchildren nearby and we worry that their long-term health will be affected by breathing in the traffic fumes that blight our environment. Now in our early seventies, we still use our bikes in town for shopping and socialising as much as we can.
Despite the tabloid articles to the contrary, cycling in cities is a lot safer now than it was 20 years ago – in London, which we know best, there are plenty of cycle lanes and back-street traffic-calmed routes if you don’t fancy heading down the bus lanes, which are faster and more direct but busier. The London Cycling Campaign runs a Bike Buddies scheme (https://lcc.org.uk/groups/cycle-buddies/), which can link you up with an experienced volunteer cyclist to cycle with you to help you gain confidence or discover new routes. Some local authorities will lend you a bike for a month for a nominal charge and offer cycle training, so you can give it a try. And if you’re outside London, Cycling UK offers a wide range of advice about how to get started (https://www.cyclinguk.org/beginners).
Not long after our first long trip, Fiona invested in a new bike and a bike-fit (https://www.bikeradar.com/advice/sizing-and-fit/bike-fit-explained-what-is-a-bike-fit-and-should-you-get-one/), so she no longer gets back-ache – hooray! And one day, we will no doubt invest in e-bikes to prolong our cycling life. We don’t cycle as fast as we did 20 years ago when we were commuting to work every day, or as far, but we still get around the city faster than we would in a car.
And already, we occasionally hire e-bikes for some particularly challenging hilly rides out of town. With a bit of planning, we find ways to cycle in most rural areas in the south of England that avoid busy ‘A’ roads – this often means a slower journey but as we rarely cycle with a fixed deadline, we have the luxury of having time to cycle slowly and look around us. Another of the advantages of age!
Fiona Monroe and Owen Davies