Land’s End – John O’Groats off road route
21 Days (South to North) –
Based upon James Spencer and David Broddle route
by Stewart Black, 2010
This route is entirely indebted to James Spencer’s route, and the encouragement James game me to tackle this adventure. After considering doing LEJOG, I searched for an off road route via the internet, which led me to find the excellent account from James and David. I contacted James and he kindly replied via email, and subsequently met to discuss the ins and outs of their route.
For anyone considering LEJOG, then I must firstly advise you read James’ and David’s account:
The description herein will describe the variances from that route, and not the full route itself which is so excellently described by those fellows.
My route therefore took in the following: The Camel Trail, Bodmin Moor, The Tarka Trail, Exmoor, Dunkery Beacon, The Quantocks, Cheddar Gorge, The Mendips, The Severn
Way, The Greenway, Stratford upon Avon Canal, Grand Union Canal, Tissington Trail, Cut
Gate, The Pennine Bridleway, Leeds-Liverpool Canal, Cam High Road, The Maiden Way, Craik Forest, Black Law, The Trossachs, The West Highland Way, The Great Glen, Gleann
Mor and the wilds of Northern Scotland…
There is a large extent of NCR and necessary (mostly very minor) road to join the true off
road sections. Major roads are avoided like the plague, and bridleways/ cycleways taken where feasible going in the right direction.
The major difference from the James/David route was that I was restricted to 21 days,
and therefore did not go via Bristol to Wales and the Brecons, but went through the heart
of England, through Cheltenham, Stratford, the outskirts of Birmingham, and on to the
Peak District. I also made up time in Scotland by changing stopping places and reducing
Scottish leg by one day (you should realise that Scotland is a massive chunk and still accounted for 8 of the 21 days).
Unlike James and David, I was mostly travelling solo, and carried my belongings in a Bob
Yak (trailer attached to the rear wheel via a special axel). This did restrict the flexibility of what I could do with the bike, and so took certain detours where the trailer was just too
difficult to manoeuvre. This was more so in Scotland where many marked cycle routes have barred or secured gates, or even steep steps, which can be very difficult with a trailer (requiring disconnection, separate moves, and reconnection). For example parts of the West Highland Way had several consecutive gates, making for very slow and tedious progress.
Day 1 – Land’s End to Truro
Same route as James/David route. I even got lost at the same places (Nine Maidens), with a disconcerting section taking me back to Penzance after 3 hours, which was little more
than an hour of direct riding from the start!
B&B in Truro was one of the smallest and least comfortable of my travels, and had
nowhere to store the trailer (bike was parked in the hallway of this terraced house).
Day 2 – Truro to Launceston
Same route as James/David.
I did find the Camel Trail tedious as it was a hot Saturday, and so bristling with
family groups out for an annual cycle ride. The tea garden was very welcome at Boscarne. I did lose the trail on Bodmin Moor but took the route from Black Rock to Westmoorgate before going back on route.
The B&B in Launceston was possibly the best on the entire route – large room, with own bath, shower, and separate lounge, with excellent food served.
Day 3 – Launceston to Fremington (Barnstaple)
Same route as James/David. This was a very short day, finishing at 3pm, as so much is on the Tarka trail and relatively flat. If you want to shorten your route, then extend this day.
Day 4 – Fremington (Barnstaple) to Blue Anchor
Same route as James/David. Tough day in Exmoor, with possibly some of the toughest climbing of the entire route. Also, I got lost on Exmoor, which with the trailer made for a rather tiring push through long swamp grass until the route was recovered!
The “challenging RUPP” from Goodleigh to Stoke Rivers was tough with the trailer, and the last section to the road outside Bratton Fleming was almost impossibly steep for the trailer. I therefore stuck more to the NCR 3 through to Simonsbath (yes, on road, but was still very hilly and little traffic), rather than following the planned route. Route up and
down Dunkery Beacon was great though!
The B&B at Blue Anchor was very welcoming to cyclists, and had a trust bar.
Day 5 – Blue Anchor to Bristol
This was essentially same as James/David route, but ending in Bristol rather than outside at Barrow Gurney. Quantocks are such good fun riding (and fine for trailer), then easy Somerset Levels, and then a tougher (road route) through Mendips, ending with a very steep climb up to Dundry before a five mile descent into Bristol city centre.
The route onto Quantocks was easy to follow, then through Bridgwater to Cheddar. The
route out of Cheddar was tough uphill and rocky track – so had to push a small bit! Downhill from Black Down was fun on open grassy route. Road sections nearer Bristol were busy with boy racers, but new cycle routes in Bristol are making this city much better to traverse.
Cheap B&B in Bristol, but not recommended!
Day 6 – Bristol to Cheltenham
This day was mainly on road, with few interesting off road sections, although much of the road once outside Bristol was on NCR minor roads through pretty villages. I met a friend at Bristol Parkway station, so cycled through the City to Parkway (via
Gloucester Rd, and a bike shop for first service!). From Parkway, through Henbury and North onto NCR through Oldbury-on-Severn, to Purton, whereup pick up the Severn Way to Upper Framilode. Continue on NCR to Hardwick’s Farm, across to Brookthorpe, Upton St Leanards and Birdlip, then head North into Cheltenham.
Day 7 – Cheltenham to Shustoke
A long day, but after the first hills around Cheltenham, this becomes much flatter into
Stratford-upon-Avon and via the canals to Birmingham.
Take B4832 to Prestbury and pick up BW to Cleeve Hill. Then take MR and then BW past Langley Hill Farm. Travelling East, north of Greet, to Wood Stanway, then North to Broadway and
Willersley. Take MR East then pick up B4081 to Mickleton. Head North to Long Marston to pick up The Greenway to Stratford-upon-Avon (where there are many opportunities for lunch). Take route NW picking up Stratford-upon-avon canal to Wooton Wavven. Continue following the canal North, riding where possible on towpaths else MR. At Kingswood pick up the Grand Union Canal to Solihull, then B4102 through Hamton in
Arden and on to Meriden. Head North picking up NCR to Shustoke.
Day 8 – Shustoke to Fenny Bentley
A flat first half of the day along Midlands canals. This was a very wet day, first rainy day. Joined by some friends who took us to Abbots Bromley, before continuing in the rain with one remaining friend to Fenny Bentley.
Leaving Shustoke, head North on NCR over Motorway, then pick up Heart of England
Way. Then take Birmingham and Fazeley Canal passing Lichfield, and then to Handacre. Take MR to Hamstall Ridware, continuing North past Hoar Cross, Newborough, and Gorsty Hill. Take B5017 into Uttoxeter, and out on A315. Turn off B5030 to take MR through Combridge and pass through Rocester. Head North through Roston and Nordbury, where you pick up the dismantled railway to Ashbourne. Follow railway line North until it picks up the A515, and then head back South to Fenny Bentley.
Beer Festival around May Bank Holiday – so if travelling then book early but enjoy the 60 different types of beer on show.
Day 9 – Fenny Bentley to Milhouse Green, Thurlstone
Meeting up with more friends for the Bank Holiday weekend, it started badly with one of them having mechanicals, and then two punctures on TIssington Trail, requiring a hard push through the rest of the day ending up on the spectacular Cut Gate route by Ladybower Reservoir.
The route followed was same as James/David, except that there is no longer a hotel at Dunford Bridge, hence ending at Milhouse Green. Tissington Trail is a long up-hill (despite
being a railway line). The ride (or push) up Cut Gate from Ladybower was particularly tough with a trailer, but I managed to complete this. Best to take GPS if you are not familiar with the area – we were fortunate enough to be guided by James and his fellow MTB’s, which helped us no-end get across the moor and down to our B&B before 7:30pm!
Day 10- Milhouse Green to Hebden Bridge
Pretty much same route as James/David, but again was staying with friends in Midgley, near Hebden Bridge, so small detour required. Whilst some hard riding, the route across Wessenden Moor down to Marsden was one of the highlights of this epic. The final drag along canal into Hebden Bridge was a bit of a disappointment after some fantastic (albeit hilly) riding.
Day 11 – Hebden Bridge to Austwick
Followed James/David route. Section out of Hebden was steep uphill climb in damp weather, but soon riding out of the town and across moorland. A day of mixed riding, from some hilly offroad to rolling road and canal towpath. Bike shop in Settle (see next day, when I needed it!).
Good hotel/pub in Austwick run by a French family.
Day 12 – Austwick to Appleby in Westmoreland
Was supposed to follow James/David’s route. However, the BW from Wharfe to the West
of Horton-on-Ribblesdale became unclear, and I ended up taking footpath rather than BW, and subsequently damaged derailleur hanger on very rocky and almost impassable terrain (with bike, never mind trailer!). So be clear to take the correct BW (I did not see this marked).
I was fortunate enough to find a Forest Ranger with pickup truck who very kindly took me to Settle to get the bike fixed. However, it was nearly noon before I was setting off again, 4 miles behind my morning start in Austwick. So many offroad sections were suppressed to
make up the mileage! It was also the day of a mass shooting in Cumbria, as I crossed into the territory, and the largest annual gathering of gypsies from across Europe in Appleby. I
broke a spoke and also got that fixed due to the stress on the rear wheel from the Bob Yak.
Day 13 – Appleby in Westmoreland to Longtown
This was planned to be the same route as James/David. However, due to the gypsy
festival, the route through Long Marton (the centre of the gypsy gathering) was not recommended. I therefore took the NCR route through King’s Meaburn to Temple Sowerby and on to Culgaith.
Due to the trailer, and the forewarned poor track conditions from Kirkland, I took the
A686 up a gruelling five mile climb to Hardside and the café at the top, continuing on this MR to Leadgate. Thereafter I followed James/David route to Longtown..
Day 14 – Longtown to Tibbie Shiels
I followed James/David route except the route through the forest (as navigation was evidently difficult, and being on your own in a very remote place, and the trailer, made more sense to take the road).
Within 15 minutes of leaving Longtown you are in Scotland! This was first experience of Scottish equivalent of BW – with gates nailed shut and difficult riding conditions (even without a trailer). It’s good that they are open to cyclists, but don’t be fooled into thinking everything is rideable! The B709 through Eskdalemuir Forest was a good choice, and there was virtually no traffic (avoid logging season!). The Tibetan Centre was not only a great place to stop, but literally the only place for miles around – very welcome! The route from Tushielaw to Tibbie Shiels was not well marked – but follow the map and all shall be revealed. The descent to Tibbie Shiels and a lovely lake, sunshine, bar (and no midges) made this heaven!
Day 15 – Tibbie Shiels to Castlecary
Followed general direction of James/David route. The start of the offroad section was steep and rocky route, with a descent into a swampy field (even in good dry summer), and then very steep out the other side. Great sheep track down from Redsike Head, although no sign of “Macbeth’s castle”. Some offroad sections were both difficult to find or in a poor state, so many road workarounds had (probably more possible without the trailer). Very uninspiring places in this part of the country.
Note: The dismantled railway section just south of Blackridge is no longer passable, as this is being re-mantled as a new train/tram route. Also, road works around Castlecary make access difficult compared to maps – and the hotel hadn’t got a clue!
Day 16 – Castlecary to Kingshouse, Strathyre
A steep route out from Kilsythe, and wet weather set in for the coming week. Choose to stick to (empty) road to B618, rather than thru woods (as recommended by James). Meet old friends in Aberfoyle to ride with me to Kingshouse (nice after 5 days on my own). Despite the tropical rain, the riding is good although mostly firetrack. Gritty conditions do cause chain suck.
Hotel at Kingshouse is run-down and depressing, but at least it exists when there is little else around!
Day 17 – Kingshouse, Strathyre to Fort William
Follow some of James/David route, although not all side excursions (dismantling the trailer to go over gates getting tedious on these Scottish cycle routes).
Midges out in force. Rain rather persistent. WHW to Bridge of Orchy but due to difficulties
towing trailer on WHW, decided to take the (busy) A82 up Rannoch Moor and along Pass of Glen Coe. This is just fantastic scenery – probably the best in the UK (I have
walked it before also). A82 makes up good time despite the heavier traffic. Continue on A82 all the way to Fort William. On this leg of the journey should you fancy a break from the main A82 we would recommend that you turn right at Glencoe village along the B863 signposted for Kinlochleven. Follow this road for 6 miles to Kinlochleven, where The Tigh Na Cheo Guest house can be located. ’A cycle friendly establishment’, see the link below. At Kinlochleven follow the road round to the left and back up the other side of Lochleven and the road brings you back out on the A82 where you turn right towards Fort William. Kinlochlevenwas the first village in the world to have every house connected to electricity.
Day 18 – Fort William to Drumnadrochit
Following broadly route of James/David – using different stopping places. Day 18 is mainly Great Glen Cycle Route – from Fort William along the canal to Loch Lochy (original), Loch Oich and Loch Ness. This route starts like towpath and becomes more rolling. However, with sandy fireroad route, bike suffers from chain suck, so last few miles done on the A road.
Nice B&B in Lewiston with short walk to good restaurant/pub.
Day 19 – Drumnadrochit to Lairg
Modified route from James/David – more direct but more road. Took A road to Beauly, and then on to Muir of Oich, Further busy roads (only real time had heavy traffic all route), then along Cromarty Firth, take “scenic route” over Easter Ross to drop down into
Dornoch Firth and to Ardgay/Boner Bridge. Take minor road from Ardgay along to Shin Forest and Shin Falls to Lairg.
Landlady at Hotel in Lairg could do with cheering up, and worst breakfast all trip – not sure how they managed to get mushrooms so rubbery and tasteless.
Day 20 – Lairg to Forsinard
Followed James/David route, despite having misgivings as it was so remote. But this day was definitely one of the key highlights. Note that A roads have a different meaning up here – single track with passing places, and you might be lucky to see a vehicle in 10
minutes or longer. So the offroad stuff is really remote.
The Crask Inn marked on map is a small and a little run down house, standing virtually on its own in the middle of nowhere. Take the gate just before the Inn on a path to Loch Choire, and battle the boggy track and then up the indistinct sheep track to the top where the views are spectacular, and the route from then on to Forsindard are pretty obvious, with a smooth 11 mile farm track from the end of the Loch across open land before reaching tarmac. Forsinard is little more than a few houses and the Hotel, so make sure you keep supplies.
Day 21 – Forsinard to John O’Groats
Followed James/David route to JOG. Starting with a very lonely and desolate (yet well defined) sandy track through forest and scrubland, this eventually turns out onto road and rather flat Sutherland riding through uninteresting towns and villages, more reminiscent of the midlands than remotest Scotland. The first section is very remote, and the marked forests do not bear resemblance to the map, but if you follow the most obvious tracks, this turns up at Altnabreac Station, giving confidence you are on track. There remain few places to stock up again, although there is a small convenience store in Wadden (less than two hours slog to JOG).
Arriving at JOG, then went on to Dunkansby Head, before turning around and cycling all the way to Thurso. This wasn’t a plan, only that I had time to spare, and nothing better to do than cycle another 25 miles! Only the route to Thurso was with a full-on head wind. But there again, little attraction in Thurso to want to get there too early .
1. Book trains in advance and ideally all accommodation. Trains are essential as without reservations for the bikes, you might find you are stuck to go anywhere! Accommodation helps to ensure you are not stuck after a long day’s ride with nowhere to stay – more critical the further north you go where options become few and far between.
2. Take supplies – again, especially important in the remoter areas. Plenty of water also.
3. I used printed map pages (1:50,000 marked up using Anquet software), and had them in a map case per day (the rest kept secure and dry). The advantage over simple route plan or GPS is that you can easily see different options if you get stuck or need to change your route.
4. Do lots of practice rides, so then it will be straightforward, without any physical difficulties.
5. Wear good padded shorts with chamois cream – and make sure all your kit is properly washed and dried each day.
6. I requested indoor parking for bikes at all accommodation – so the bike was kept safe after I had daily oiled and cleaned it. You don’t want to go out and find your pride-and-joy not where you parked it!
7. Take advantage of a good breakfast in the B&Bs – this will be a good source of energy which you will burn off during the day.
8. Try to stick to a routine and timescales – its OK to be early, but you really don’t want to be finding hotels in the dark, not having eaten and still needing to clean kit etc. You’ll know your speed, so keep an eye on the daily end-game, and be prepared to take short cuts to make up time.
9. Take a smartphone – I had an iPhone, and used it for photos, phone, text, email, GPS, maps, Facebook (daily blog), alarm clock, etc. But don’t leave your charger behind (like I did!).
1. A Word document with more details and links to photos from James Spencer’s trip can be downloaded here
2. James Spencer was happy to respond by email if you have further enquiries. Stewart Black is also happy to take any queries.