Day Four wasn’t great. I was a zombie in the morning and while I had planned a late start, I hadn’t planned on starting quite as late as I did (but I did get to briefly say hi to my nephew Tom who was up to visit his mum).
Leaving Cambusbarron and then Stirling some time after 1pm, I was on the back foot a bit all day regarding time, something I found myself doing a few times more often than I planned for throughout the ride. I was riding to the Forth Bridge via Alloa and Dunfermeline, then intending to ride back to Hamilton via a diversion to the Falkirk wheel.
In theory this was meant to be an easy day of sightseeing followed up by staying with my cousin Jamie and his family, starting too late made the day hard work for no good reason.
While the weather was good (even sunny here and there), the roads were as dry and dusty as badly written history – every time a lorry went past I was riding through a dustcloud and there seemed to be a constant headwind whichever way I turned that day – nothing all that powerful (in fact possibly nonexistent and purely imaginary) but it seemed very hard to get anywhere that day.
I didn’t enjoy the road to Alloa much, busy A road with lots of roundabouts – after Alloa, the roundabouts continued but I rode several miles with the distance to Dunfermeline remaining at 11 miles on three successive roadside signs (that I’m sure were about three miles apart).
Later on the road became quieter but climbed here and there annoyingly. It took me a long time to reach Dunfermeline. I had originally had hopes of reaching the bridge by three but this proved incredibly unrealistic an expectation (it would in fact be well after four by the time I got there). I got a bit confused in Dunfermeline, this was compounded by someone giving me the wrong directions – I was just wanting to confirm I was on the Forth Bridge road but the (quite odd looking) bloke I asked, sent me in the opposite direction (I didn’t go too far the wrong way as the compass on my handlebars was clearly showing I was going north but it added to the general frustration of the day). I hope the guy was just mistaken but I have a nasty suspicion that it was malicious.
Getting onto the bridge itself is scary, it’s effectively a motorway in all but name and was definitely not my best bit of riding of the trip – after two miles of this I was on the bridge itself (there was a bus lane for the last bit) and then onto the cycle track. The views of the Forth Bridge (the rail one) were great but to be honest, not worth the rubbish ride it took me to get there.
It is an impressive thing though – it is actually ridiculously over engineered, deliberately so. It was constructed in the aftermath of the Tay Bridge disaster of 1879 (in which 75 people died, inspiring possibly the worst poem in the English Language by William McGonogall). The new contract for the Forth Bridge required it to be capable of taking massive loads – I’ve read estimates that the bridge is something like 400% stronger than it theoretically needs to be.
It is a good thing and did get me thinking as to what the seven man made wonders of the UK are?
After getting over the bridge, I spied a service road going underneath, which I rode down and then found a path to get down to the road below. From here I started making my way to Hamilton and my cousin Jamie’s house – by then I had decided that I was way too late to consider going to the Falkirk Wheel, which proved the case – my distance estimate for the day was rubbish – I had it down as 61 miles including Falkirk, In fact I rode about 68 miles despite taking a ‘shorter’ route to Hamilton.
The rest of the day was just a slog on A & B roads, the only point that really interested me in my tired state was the old industrial landscape at one point (big red mounds of spoil of some sort but without the site to give it context). I also went past the Kirk at Kirk o’ Shotts. I didn’t realise that the Kirk was just about all that was there.
I had stopped (at Newton I think) to eat something, and had a cheese and ham roll and a can of Irn Bru (there was a choice of rolls – I could have had ham and cheese instead).
Keeping going and keeping going, I slowly got nearer the end – today was the first day I really needed to look at a map – the previous three days I had ridden each day without referring to a map at all. Eventually I reached Motherwell, riding past bits I vaguely remembered from childhood visits – I would like to have stopped by the house where my cousins used to live but it was dark and I was already very late. I eventually found my cousin’s house and was made very welcome – I was given two drawings and a cadbury’s creme egg by Jamie and Fiona’s three children.
Another great dinner followed, I was treated so well by family and friends along the way and it really did help me keep going.
Day Five “The adventures of the solitary cyclist”
Day five was the ride out of the central belt of Scotland and into the border country.
Riding out of the central belt wasn’t much fun but I already knew that would be the case – something like 4/5ths of the population of Scotland live in this relatively small swathe of the country, so it doesn’t always make for great cycling.
I rode out of Hamilton and through Larkhall and was then riding on what was the old main road south (before they built the motorway). It’s not a great road and although very quiet has a shockingly bad surface which slows progress and saps energy, there was a headwind and constant drizzle too, which made for a very tiring ride combined with the poor surface.
The lonely stretch towards Abington is probably the grimmest. It also contains one of the most pointless cycle lanes I have ever seen. It’s been built on the old (empty) dual carriageway and serves no purpose I can see – in that numbers of motorists and cyclists are so small that I don’t understand the need for it.
The views on either side, when not of the adjacent motorway are of stark moorland. There was one lonely hotel left adrift by the change in priority of the road, looked to be mostly a truck stop now.
So that was the bad bit – the good bit that followed was the road from Elvanfoot to Carronbridge which carries through the Lowther Hills via the Dalveen pass – this was a route we were taken as children virtually every holiday, so had personal significance for me. It’s also mostly downhill in the direction I was going, which was a very good thing.
Riding along I looked at the (by now) mature pine woods off to my left, I can remember these being planted, so it’s odd to see them as a permanent feature (well permanent until they get logged).
The ride down the pass was great (although I was slowed a bit by the still present headwind). Weather was very wet, so the descent was quite chilly but enjoyable – it didn’t seem long until I was through Durisdeer, under the rail viaduct and into Carronbridge. Two short miles to Thornhill later I was at my aunt and uncle’s house (a house built next to what used to be my grandparent’s home).
I had a few pints in the Buccleugh Arms with my uncle, then another great dinner.
A very happy border collie licked the pie tray clean afterwards.
It was good talking to my aunt and uncle but I had an early night, partly due to tiredness, and partly in preparation for the long day ahead. The total distance was only 53 miles on this day but weather and the road surface made it hard going.
This was the only day so far on which I didn’t see a single other cyclist. It would later prove to be the only day I wouldn’t see another rider – to put it in perspective, taking all of the days I rode in total on the JoGLE, I would see less cyclists than I would expect to see on a single commute in London on a normal weekday.
Day six loomed big and scarily on my personal horizon – in theory this would have been the longest day at 124 miles.
I got up reasonably early with the intention of setting off before 9am and was given a great breakfast by my aunt (and a cheese and bacon piece to take with me). Before breakfast I noticed one sign that I was going mad – I was walking to the shops to get some milk and I realised that as I walked, I was carefully avoiding gravel and broken glass to avoid puncturing my feet.
With a good send off I was on my way south. The road to Dumfries wasn’t bad- twisted and turned a lot but in the JoGLE direction is mostly downhill. I made good time on this road and had covered seven miles before 9am. I continued at this rate for some time, clocking up the miles at a high average speed. After Dumfries I took the old road to Gretna Green, encountering along the way more bafflingly unnecessary cycling facilities on the National Cycling Network (courtesy of Sustrans). This was another road where I made good time and I was approaching Gretna and the border quite quickly.
Gretna wasn’t the shabby dump I remembered, I always used to wonder how depresssed eloping couples must have been when they got there. I did fancy a pint in the pub on the border (that advertises itself as the first and last house in Scotland) but it was closed for renovation, or closed permanently like many pubs I had seen enroute. While I was briefly stopped there I saw some more end-to-enders. Three blokes on mountain bikes were having their picture taken at the welcome to Scotland sign They also seemed to have a support van, a luxury I’ll have the benefit of next week. They had set off on Good Friday and had not enjoyed the weather. Sometimes it’s good to be contrary, as my against the convention direction choice worked out reasonably well for me.
After Gretna, I took the road to Carlisle via Longtown (as much advised) to avoid the scary dual carriageway (a motorway in all but name and number). Carlisle came and went and I made my first deviation here from my originally planned route – I had planned to head southwest to the lakes from here by back roads – the navigation looked a little awkward so I decided to take the A6 south instead, intending to possibly cut across later.
I also decided that I would stop for a pint somewhere, something (incredibly) I hadn’t done the entire trip. This actually proved more difficult than I imagined it would – firstly because there were virtually no pubs, secondly because one of the two pubs between Carlisle and Penrith still actually in business didn’t open until after 6pm.
Before reaching an open pub I had already decided that I wasn’t going to divert to the lakes, was tired enough without the hard miles through the Lakeland hills. I checked with Bryony what the remaining distance would be via the A6, it still being long enough, I just kept on the A6. I then found an open pub and had two very quick pints, possibly a mistake as my legs felt leaden afterwards, I don’t know if this was the beer or just the longer than usual stop.
Outside the pub I had half my cheese and bacon piece and a bit of caramel shortbread (courtesy of my sister Mairi – thank you family) and continued on my way.
Somewhere between Carlisle and there I had encountered a heavily laden group of cyclists and wondered if they were also end-to-enders. They looked bloody miserable and I wondered if I looked as unhappy to them (I didn’t feel it but maybe I looked it).
After Penrith the miles became more of a slog (although the A6 rolls up and down all the way from Carlisle). Despite wimping out of the Lakeland climbing, there was still Shap Fell to ride over; this is another long climb at a steady gradient that I got into a good rhythm on – until I started descending, then found out that it climbs again – seeing the road stepping up again ahead, I tried to get as much speed on as possible, a later check of the bike computer showed that I got up to 39.7mph, fastest speed on my trip so far.
The ride off Shap Fell into Kendall was ok, mostly downhill but after Kendall it became an endurance slog for the rest of the way, just through sheer distance and the tiredness from the previous days – slowing, I stopped to eat the rest of my piece, some more shortbread and even a bit of hoarded Low Morale fudge.
I was getting even slower, it was getting later and I didn’t have the will to make the short diversion Bryony suggested at Yelland Conyers (it was starting to get dark by then). I was getting nearer to Lancaster but very slowly, a few glimpses of Morecambe Bay here and there before it got dark were good though.
Eventually I reached Lancaster and made my way up the steep hill to Ann’s house, a close friend of Bryony’s family.
After a quick shower and change we nipped out to the pub for beer and chips before seeing a film at the local rep cinema – this was a shortish film called ‘Once’ which I enjoyed – in my blank mental state I liked the lack of contrivance or convolution, liked the songs in it too (I would later buy the soundtrack on CD but not the film because it’s still very expensive for some reason).
I slept very well after that long day. The route was shortened by just over five miles by not going via the lakes but was still nearly 119 miles.
Ann had given me her room to sleep in, which was incredibly generous – that makes one French Lecturer, two children and a border collie that had been displaced from their rooms so far on my behalf – people were incredibly supportive and generous along the way, which made it all a lot easier – so although I didn’t have a support van, I had the great benefit of a lot of help like this.
This ride had taken me all the way from the Scottish border country and well in to England – after six days, I was just over half way to Land’s End. I think back then, had you told me that over a year later I would take on the challenge of riding the entire thing in six days, I wouldn’t have believed you.