The Pilgrims end to end
A mile to the east of the rather shambolic Land’s End visitor centre, next to a low-slung whitewashed pub that advertises itself as the Last Inn in England, is an ancient church. Saint Sennen church has a solid square tower, covered in yellow-green lichen, and a graveyard of leaning stones whose inscriptions have been worn thin by time and the elements. It’s a reassuring place. For many centuries local people and travellers have sought peace and guidance here. And for a particular brand of pilgrim, it is a place for prayer. Many of those undertaking the iconic Land’s End to John O’Groats long-distance route stop here to take a few moments of reflection. The Reverend will pray with you, just as pilgrims through the ages have received prayers for a safe journey.
Usually my own riding consists of a couple of hours thrashing around the lanes of Kent, dodging cars and enjoying liberation from London. So when, on a ride around the comfortable landscape of Richmond Park, I got talking to a cyclist who’d recently completed Land’s End to John O’Groats, I was struck both by the scale of the trip and the emotional undercurrents she told me about.
A founding member of The Adventure Syndicate, a collective that aims to inspire, encourage and enable others, Emily Chappell is an experienced long-distance cyclist whose tyres have crunched the wild roads of China, Iran, Japan, Turkey and many more countries. She has completed the 4,000 km Transcontinental Race from Belgium to Turkey, ridden through deserts, snow plains and across high altitude mountain passes. And yet Land’s End to John O’Groats still holds a special place for her, in part because it attracts such a range of people, with vastly different cycling experiences.
Often, she told me, people are compelled to take on the challenge in response to loss. She tells me of a woman who lost her sister to cancer, and found the experience of riding the length of the country a transformative one. The woman’s father acted as support crew and was so inspired that he is planning to ride it himself next year. And she told me about Jon Hodkin, tuba player and cyclist, who rode the route in reverse, towing his tuba in a specially constructed trailer and playing gigs along the way. Jon has had a cycle touring musical show since 2000, but his mission to bring music into the lives of people around the country was deepened when he lost his partner in 2012. Since then his travels, and his tuba shows, have been a tribute to the woman he loved.
There is something poetic in riding from one tip of the country to the other. To have traversed the length of this rocky island, crossing all the obstacles that entails, and to swap the wild Atlantic for the wild North Sea, is a challenge both objective and personal.
Before we set out, some facts. It helps to know what you’re taking on. Land’s End is Britain’s most south-westerly point, John O’Groats is its most north-easterly point. The shortest measured route is 818 miles, but most routes, using quieter roads, are between 850 and 900 miles. The record, for a conventional bicycle, is held by Gethin Butler who in 2001 got to John O’Groats in just over 44 hours. The record on a recumbent is 3 hours quicker. The record on a unicycle — the British are an eccentric bunch — is 6 days and 8 hours. Other forms of transport recognized as officially holding records for the journey are walking, running, wheelchair, motorized shopping trolley, skateboard, horse, hitchhiking, lawn mower, paramotor and public transport.
The earliest days of cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats are a little hazy, but the most famous record, the one that captured the public’s imagination, was set by George Pilkington Mills in 1885. Just eighteen years old, Mills rode the course on his penny-farthing in five days and ten hours. Over the following years he rode it five more times, adding the tricycle record to his penny-farthing record. His feats attracted such attention that he was invited to lead a British team in the classic Bordeaux-Paris race, which he duly won.
Attempting the Land’s End to John O’Groats record is a challenge of endurance, mental toughness and logistics. Britain has a well-established history of long-distance time trialling, and for those who excel in the gruelling 12 and 24 hour time trials, where the winner is the rider who has clocked up the most miles, the ‘End to End’ record is a natural extension.
A friend in America, who has been fascinated with the route for many years, sends me clippings from an old edition of Sporting Cyclist, in which the legendary British writer J.B. Wadley follows Dave Keeler on his successful 1958 record attempt. More used to reporting on European road racing, Wadley writes with great admiration and affection about the uniquely British challenge that is this record. He knew Keeler from the time trialling scene, and was convinced of his class, almost protective of it. There isn’t much examination of motives; perhaps it’s not quite British to question the underlying reason a rider attempts the record. Keeler himself is very matter-of-fact about the whole thing; there seems to be the assumption that if you consider yourself capable you should have a crack at the record, why not?
In Wadley’s account, and in stories of other record attempts, the mechanics of food, drink and sleep play a prominent role. Keeler rode for the delightfully-named Vegetarian Cycling and Athletic Club, and his supporters met him at agreed points along the route to hand up hot drinks, cheese and tomato sandwiches and hardboiled eggs. In all he received food from his supporters on some 70 occasions, and, unusually, he didn’t sleep at all.
In 1982 the irascible stalwart of the British time trial scene, John Woodburn, took on the record. His motivation was simple: the sponsor of his Manchester Wheelers team asked him to do it. Woodburn himself claims to have been ambivalent. Nevertheless, he trained hard, riding up to 500 miles a week. His pride and innate determination meant that he was going to give it everything. And while Woodburn powered along on his lightweight Stan Pike machine, his support crew had to dash about the countryside trying to get into position for his next feed. One of the more arcane rules of the record is that following cars must not pass their rider more than once every half an hour. This meant that Woodburn’s wife and the married couple sharing the work with her, had to dive off into country lane detours in their Volvo, screaming through tiny villages in an effort to get ahead of Woodburn and lay out his roadside picnics. By the end of the first day however, Woodburn decided he wanted something that they didn’t have in the Volvo: fish and chips. So a chip shop was found in Stafford, the owner was told to expect a sweaty gentleman in blue lycra who really needed to skip the queue, and Woodburn got the fuel he craved.
Keeler and Woodburn were racers in the purist sense of the word. They wanted to beat other men’s records, to be the best. For the women who have become synonymous with the record, the motivation was similar but subtly different: it was about making history, about taking the record irrespective of who previously possessed it.
Eileen Sheridan’s record, set in June 1954, stood until 2002. Sheridan was intensely competitive — she once told an interviewer that she had an innate love for the thrill of the chase — and the End to End was just one of a slew of long distance records she set. Distance was never intimidating for her — as a newcomer to cycling she went off on long touring trips with her local cycling club, and with her husband-to-be. When she started racing, such was her prolific success in long time trials that she was offered a professional contract by Hercules, a company that made cheap mass-market bicycles and fancied having a female sporting figure for their advertising.
Her cheerful disposition belied a will of steel. Her Land’s End to John O’Groats attempt suffered bad weather but there was no question of calling it off. Remarkably, the first time she stopped for a rest was after 470 miles, not far from the Scottish border. One of the challenges for anyone taking on the route is that the first 100 miles, through Cornwall and Devon, are hellishly hilly. The land there rises and falls across picturesque moors and farmland, and the roads seem to cut straight across the contours. After a brief section of recovery in the Somerset Levels, the rider follows the Welsh border northward. The borderlands lead into Merseyside, after which comes the leg-sapping splendour of Cumbria.
For Sheridan to ride the length of England without taking a break is truly astonishing. She knew what she was doing. Though the image Hercules liked to portray was of an everyday girl blithely pedalling the length of the country, Sheridan was meticulous in planning and preparations. In Scotland, despite a fierce wind and heavy rain she pushed on to the end of the country, then her manager promptly turned her around and told her to ride another 150 miles to smash the thousand mile record. This is when both her body and mind began to crumble. Exhausted, she hallucinated people at the roadside, and was nearly overcome with sleepiness. With only forty miles to go she had to stop, her manager fed her fried eggs and bacon, and she found the energy to eke out those last miles. Her record for the thousand miles of three days and one hour came within two hours of the men’s record.
The woman whose records Eileen Sheridan demolished was Marguerite Wilson, who in turn had claimed every distance record on the books of the Women’s Road Records Association. Not as well-known now as Sheridan, Wilson was nonetheless one of the greatest early female racing cyclists. Tall and muscular, with a punchy pedalling style, Wilson loved cycling from an early age, and like Sheridan she made no distinction between riding the bike for leisure, touring, commuting and racing.
Her Land’s End to John O’Groats record was set at the very end of those halcyon days of 1930s cycling. By late August 1939 everyone knew that war was coming, and with it a blackout that meant riding at night with lights was banned. So, despite an unfavourable prevailing wind, Wilson travelled to Cornwall. Because of the headwind she was down on her schedule for the first day, which meant the local cycling club marshals who had volunteered to see her safely through their towns and villages were kept waiting for several hours. Described by a weekly cycling magazine as a ‘blonde bombshell’, Wilson invariably gave the marshals a smile and a wave in gratitude. Fuelled by cake, soup and lemon barley water, she gradually got back on schedule, getting to John O’Groats in 2 days, 22 hours and 52 minutes. She too turned round to tackle the remaining miles of the thousand. Her destination was the town of Wick, and when she arrived in the middle of the night, she was shocked to find the town in complete darkness; the blackout regulations were already in force in the far north of Scotland, an unwelcome reminder of what was shortly to grip the whole country.
In a quiet residential street in a suburb of South London I pay a visit to Paul Callaghan, who rode the End to End in 2014. Paul, perhaps like many of the men who have driven Britain’s cycling boom, loved cycling when he was a teenager, then got distracted by the usual stuff of life, only to rediscover it in early middle age. Since then he’s done road racing, time trialling, classic sportives, and when his shift-work as a printer will allow he’s out on Sunday club rides, taking in the surprisingly vicious hills immediately to the south of London. Yet, I sense he was looking for adventure, something that broke out of the confining world of local racing.
As he talks, of dodgy hotels, punctures, the problems of different fitness levels within a group, of avoiding saddle sores by wearing two pairs of shorts, and of whether to indulge in the local beer, he remembers special moments from the nine day ride. Like a Saturday evening riding across a desolate Scottish moor, with the light fading and a bird of prey gliding over a nearby river, no houses in sight, thinking about his family watching television back in London. Like playing ‘I Spy’ with his companions to sustain morale on an unrelentingly wet day in Lancashire. Of the beauty of the Ribble Valley, bypassed by all the tourists heading up the motorway to the Lake District. And, passing by a loch on a cinder road north of Glasgow, a woman in a wetsuit emerging from the icy waters, climbing out to have a chat. On the road through Glencoe, made famous by Skyfall, the most recent James Bond film, Paul describes the torrential rain falling from rolling grey clouds, and a tricky descent, after which the whole group whoops and cheers; sharing the intensity of what they’ve all just experienced. I’ve never felt so alive, Paul says.
Land’s End to John O’Groats is a physical challenge, but for Paul — and thousands like him — it represents a profound connection with the landscape of Britain. The End to End rider sees, and feels, the true scale of the country. No distortions, no stereotypes. From the rolling red hills of Devon to the rugged valleys of Lancashire and the windswept emptiness beyond the Highlands, the rider takes it all in. And comes away with a new understanding of this island.
Near the end of our conversation, almost as an aside, Paul makes a comment that strikes me as incredibly poignant. He describes how you ride from village to village and in every one you see a war memorial. After a while the repetition of the war memorials becomes thought-provoking. You see, he says, the scale of the sacrifice across the whole country. No other form of transport would give this kind of insight; cycling connects us to places in an honest and a true way.
After her record-breaking ride in 1939, Marguerite Wilson wrote that she lay awake ‘for quite a while, hoping and praying that war would be averted.’ Implicit in this memory is the sentiment that cycling is an adventure to be savoured when times are good. Adventure need not mean travelling to the other side of the world; it can be as simple as cycling from one end of a country to another, and feeling alive.
If you liked this story consider purchasing Soigneur Cycling Journal 17 where it was first printed.