It was our third day on the road. After we made it through the traffic-clogged city of Plymouth and the rain had moved from gentle mist to angry drops, we began cycling 1,200 feet up and through the Dartmoor National Park in England’s Devon County. Foggy and desolate, but so beautiful, the moorland was like nothing either of us had seen before. And so cold. Could this really be May?
We stopped for tea and warmth at the Fox Tor Cafe in Princetown, the highest village on the moor, and then coaxed our dripping selves back outside for the remaining 14 wet miles down to the village of Moretonhampstead, population 1,700. There, in the White Hart Hotel, a room awaited us, a room with a surplus of electric heating panels that quickly became one continuous drying rack. Warmth, such pleasure, topped only by a dinner of wild mushroom risotto and wine in the hotel’s cozy tavern.
That day was, in a nutshell, a preview of what our three-week British bike trip last spring would continue to be: 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.
A longtime librarian, she was at the time preparing for voluntary but reluctant retirement. A challenging bike trip across Britain, she posited, would immediately shift her focus from a career she loved but was no more—a clean break before moving on to whatever came next. Michael, a long-retired newspaper reporter, agreed.
That was the theory, and it turned out to be a good one. In fact, almost too good. 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. (The two of us apparently have different rain measures: Mike counted 13 days as wet, Margaret 18.) 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 the library and retirement. All functions, cognitive and otherwise, were directed at completion—and 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. Cars were OK; it was the tour buses, RVs, lorries and lumber trucks that got us quaking. At breakfast at the Loch Ness Guest House in Fort Augustus, we contemplated 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 (perhaps the hardest on the End to End, according to our guidebook)?
It was a measure of how much Margaret had come to hate the traffic that she argued—successfully—for the latter. And we were both glad she did. The east side was indeed tough initially, but once we reached the top, the almost car-free ride through the rural countryside above Loch Ness was one of the trip’s highlights, capped off by an exhilarating descent to the shore-side 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 whom 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 End to End experience taught us a few things that might be helpful to others possibly interested in the trip.
Getting there and back: Our bicycles are small, 20-inch-wheel foldables made by Bike Friday, an Oregon firm. Taken apart, they fit into regular suitcases but are fully geared for touring.
We flew from Washington to London, and there reassembled our bikes and left the empty suitcases in the hotel where we stayed and would return after the ride. The issue then was how to get our bikes—and us—to the End to End start, at Land’s End, and back to London from John O’Groats. The solution was a bicycle-accommodating train that runs regularly from London’s Paddington station to the city of Penzance, which is a 10-mile bike ride from the starting point.
On the Scottish end, we pedaled to the nearby town of Thurso, where we caught a local train to Inverness and there switched to an overnight train to London’s Euston station. The trains don’t charge extra for bikes but have limited storage space for them and generally require advance notice.
Our route: We followed the 2016 guidebook “The End to End Cycle Route” by Nick Mitchell. That was the guidebook Margaret happened upon, and it seemed to us the best all-purpose resource available. It divides the trip into 14 sections with detailed directions south to north, maps and a list of places to stay.
Another guide, “Land’s End to John O’Groats on the National Cycle Network,”by the English organization Sustrans, lays out a 1,200-mile route using small roads and bikeways. The National Cycle Network (NCN)—segments of which are also on the Cicerone route—avoids busy highways. But we found that these byways can be unnecessarily circuitous; great for a leisurely afternoon outing, not a long-distance excursion.
In brief, we went up the western side of England, slid briefly into Wales and continued north through Glasgow into the heart of the Scottish Highlands at Glencoe, where we began angling northeast to John O’Groats. Incidentally, while the climbs in the Highlands were long, they were more gradual and, at least for us, easier than many of the hills we encountered in England.
The traffic: Safety is not an unreasonable concern. While we were often on quiet rural roads, we were also on congested ones, including stretches with heavy truck traffic. “All I could think is if I fall, I’m dead,” Margaret said after surviving a narrow, shoulderless road—hemmed in by hedgerows and stone walls—with huge lorries close on our heels. On the plus side, Britain has some bike lanes, mainly in urban areas.
We went through Glasgow entirely on a path restricted to bicycles and pedestrians. Perhaps more important, British drivers are exceedingly careful and patient; at least that was our experience. No matter how many cars and trucks lined up behind us waiting for a chance to get by, there were no finger gestures—not even a honk.
The switch to riding on the left was not as difficult as we expected. Initially, we kept reminding ourselves to “look right, ride left,” but that soon became second nature.