Biking Britain, end to end

From the town of Fort Augustus at the foot of Loch Ness, we climbed five miles to this high point overlooking the Scottish Highlands, northward toward Inverness. From here, the road shadowed the east side of the loch for 30 miles to Inverness, the avowed capital of the Highlands.


By MICHAEL AND MARGARET BROWN | Special to The Washington Post | Published: January 30, 2018

Our three-week British bike trip last spring could be called a series of literal highs and lows. We cycled what’s called the End to End: from Land’s End on the southwestern tip of Cornwall in England to John O’Groats in the northeastern corner of Scotland, the two most distant inhabited points in mainland Britain.

It’s roughly 1,000 miles, but the End to End is more of a concept than a route. There’s no officially prescribed course; you are free to cycle it however you wish, including north to south. For that matter, you don’t even need a bicycle. People walk the End to End, even run it; some have employed such imaginative modes as skateboard, motorized wheelchair and horse.

We were not so imaginative; it was simply bicycles for us. The two of us have done a good bit of cycle touring, including a trip years ago across the United States. But like probably most Americans, we had never heard of the End to End until one day early last year, when Margaret came across a British cycling guidebook on the journey.

We followed a 983-mile itinerary that quickly confirmed something about which we had been sufficiently warned but had insufficiently appreciated: Britain ain’t flat.

A grade-warning sign on a hill in southern England read a horrendous 20 percent; luckily, we were going down that one, but we caught several 16-percenters on the upside.

Nor is Britain dry. Of our 21 days on the road, most were at least partially rainy, from heavy drizzle to buckets. And traffic? Turns out there are lots of cars and trucks on that island.

In short, the trip was physically exhausting and at times emotionally draining. Ever see a couple of septuagenarians trying to negotiate a four-lane roundabout in the middle of the Liverpool-Manchester megalopolis at rush hour? Not a pretty sight, trust us. All of which is to say there was nary a thought in those three weeks about anything back home. All functions, cognitive and otherwise, were directed at survival.

But while the End to End is a challenging adventure, it’s one accessible to people of all ages who have a fair amount of physical stamina — at least enough to walk a bike up the steepest hills, which we admit to doing a few times. And the rewards are many.

In England, we pedaled through dazzling green, sheep-dotted pastureland and idyllic villages. From the picturesque community of Slaidburn in the Ribble Valley district of Lancashire, we climbed seven miles up through open moorland on a single-track road no wider than a driveway. Lambs and their moms grazed peacefully alongside us as we moved slowly by, and at the top we had spectacular views of the valley below.

There were intriguing old market towns, such as Glastonbury and Shrewsbury, as well as large commercial centers that tested our navigational skills, which proved up to the demands of busy Bristol but sorely lacking in the never-ending urban strip around Warrington.

In Scotland, the mountains, lakes and wide-open expanses of the Highlands reminded us of the American West. The landscape is spectacular — and popular, judging by the amount of traffic on the area’s relatively few highways.

At breakfast at the Loch Ness Guest House in Fort Augustus, we weighed our choices for the 33-mile stretch north to Inverness. Stay on flat, but busy, A82 along the west side of Loch Ness? Or take a back road on the east side that’s scenic but starts off with a five-mile, 1,000-foot climb?

We opted for the latter and were both glad we did. The east side was indeed tough initially, but once we reached the top, the almost car-free ride through the countryside above Loch Ness was one of the trip’s highlights, capped by an exhilarating descent to the shoreside hamlet of Dores. As we often did, we had packed a picnic lunch and consumed it on the Dores beach, looking out at Loch Ness in the fast-disappearing sunshine. We were past Inverness before the day’s rain started.

There were, of course, scores of cathedrals, castles and monuments to explore along the way — if time and energy allowed, which unfortunately they did not for us. We had booked each night’s lodging before leaving home, so we had a set schedule and limited leg power to meet it. Our one honest-to-goodness sightseeing stop was Tintern Abbey in Wales, and that was unplanned. We were meandering along a lovely rolling road by the River Wye when we descended a hill; at the bottom, out popped the looming gray ruins of the famous 13th-century structure. It was a magical sight, impossible to pass by.

Our paltry sightseeing record seemed to horrify an English friend we visited in Shropshire. “What, no other National Trust sites?” she said. This trip’s about the journey, we replied, a bit defensively; next time, the sites. Still, we picked up some historical tidbits through osmosis.

For example, on an evening walk through the Welsh city of Monmouth, where we were staying that night, we came across a bigger-than-life statue of Charles Rolls, co-founder of the Rolls-Royce automobile company and, we learned, part of a prominent Monmouth family. Cyclists do the End to End in all kinds of ways: solo and in groups, small and large. Deloitte’s annual charity Ride Across Britain draws hundreds of them. Some riders carry everything on their bikes, as we did. Others have a spouse, friend or commercial outfit transport their luggage — and the riders themselves, if need be. The truly hearty finish in nine to 10 days; mere mortals take 14 and up.

The two of us, ages 72 and 74 at the time, were very much in the latter category. We averaged about 50 miles a day over the three weeks, though our daily stats — dependent largely on the availability of overnight accommodations — varied widely (from 33 to 70 miles). While we stayed at bed-and-breakfasts and small inns reserved in advance, it’s no doubt possible to find rooms along the way, and that would have given us more flexibility. But searching out a bed at the end of a long day would have been time-consuming and chancy; the Lake District town of Keswick, for example, was booked solid on the weekend night we were there.

Our accommodations varied in cost and comforts. The night before we started, we stayed in a cozy seaside hotel, Old Success Inn, which turned out to be one of our favorites. It was named for a fishing boat that once plied the local Cornish waters, but we hoped the name was also an omen for our upcoming trip.

In the Scottish town of Crawford, we stayed in the modest home of John and Helen Damer. Theirs is a no-frills B&B, but the Damers are a warm couple and made us feel like part of the family instead of paying guests. At the other end of the creature-comfort spectrum was the luxurious Mey House on a bluff overlooking the Atlantic near John O’Groats, with bedroom views of the Orkney Islands and the Castle of Mey, which once was the summer home of the late Queen Mother. Foodwise, one of our most rewarding overnight stops was Ben More Lodge in Crianlarich, Scotland. There, we were introduced to cullen skink, a traditional Scottish haddock soup, which we ordered every chance we got thereafter.

The biggest End to End payoff is the tremendous sense of accomplishment at the finish. For us, it was not so much self-congratulatory as “I can’t believe we made it.” In whatever fashion, it’s definitely a moment to savor. After posing for the obligatory photo in front of the John O’Groats signpost, we retreated to a nearby cafe and watched a group of eight End to Enders complete their ride in fine style — with a bottle of bubbly and a banner reading “Congratulations” held high by a welcoming chorus of relatives and friends. Our public celebration was more low-key but our internal hurrahs were no less boisterous.

Our 20-inch foldable bicycles await while we stop for a midmorning coffee and roll in the Scottish Highlands town of Fort William, a tourist center on Loch Linnhe surrounded by mountains and walking trails.