Birdwatching by Bike: from John o’Groats to Lands End

Over a glass of wine the plan was hatched to cycle from John o' Groats to Lands End. Well, in a sober moment the plan took on a different angle and the maps where pored over to decide how two Silver Bikers would tackle the route.

Cycling through the Scottish Borders Well, one of us is semi retired and decided that he would start off, on the train to start at John o' Groats and we would meet at the famous Roslin Chapel in Edinburgh, famous because of the Da Vinci Code. So off my mate Peter went with his trusty bike to travel the long journey by train. I set off about a week later from Sheffield at 5.30am by train with my bike securely stashed in the luggage carriage. Tip: An early booking enabled me to get the fare at £17 from Sheffield to Edinburgh Waverley Station. Great value. We rendezvoused at Roslin Chapel and then set off for The Tushielaw Inn which is in the Scottish Borders, travelling along quiet lanes and 'B' roads.  So braving sunshine and the heavy showers we set off.  The  rolling moorland with valleys and long shallow hills that aren't too testing on the legs, particularly ours. During this day, we only passed through one small town, Innerleithen, and we had the Borders to ourselves apart from the odd house or farm and the birds – curlews, oyster catchers, skylarks and lapwings which were constant companions, these are wonderful sight for all birdwatchers as we puffed and blew our way south!

We arrived at the Tushielaw Inn, a lovely pub next to Ettrick Water at the bottom of a valley at about 6.00pm and we were the only people booked there that night. In fact the pub wasn't even open so we had the bar to ourselves with our trusty bikes propped up in the entrance to the bar.  We went for a walk late evening where it was still light until nearly 11.00pm – remember its quite a way north and were only driven in by the infamous Scottish midges. They get bigger each year or is my memory getting the better of me! We slept well that night, well fed with pie and chips and sticky toffee pudding, good cycling food.

The full cooked breakfast inside us next morning saw us fortified for what was to be a long day. The forecast was not good and we set off in the same lonely countryside, the birds still calling, cycling into a strong wind and some showers. We stopped at Hawick, the first real town since Edinburgh and stocked up on food.  Lots of carbs are vital for a trip like this and my tip is to eat a lot of what you fancy.  In my case, bread, pies and cake. In Hawick, the first proper rain started and it continued as we climbed out of the town up on to the tops towards Northumberland. It may be me but at the actual point were we left Scotland into England, the rain really started to come down and as it ran down my back and steamed my glasses up I had to tell myself quite a few times that I was enjoying this. Honest!

Tushielaw Inn Lunch was a plate of meat and veg at the Anglers Arms near the Kielder Reservoir. We sat and watched the pouring rain as we ate, knowing we had to go out in it again. Three hours later it finally stopped as we cycled into Bellingham. After a short refuel with cake, we set off and just as we had dried off, it began to rain again. But this wasn't just ordinary heavy rain, though, this was the real deal – tropical and to make matters worse, we were on a main road being sprayed by lorries. Just great.  We finally arrived in historic Corbridge at that nights B&B completely soaked at about 8.00pm to a very warm welcome, a power shower and more cake, home made this time – 82 miles this day. Not bad.

The Crofts B&B is excellent with a superb breakfast and comfortable rooms. And anyone who has foot lotion in the en-suite at somewhere catering for cyclists gets the thumbs up from me!! They are very cycle friendly with our machines stored in a locked garage. It's also a good base for exploring Hadrian's Wall and I'd like to go back with my wife to explore the wall next year. The rain still poured so our evening meal was the food we bought in Hawick earlier that day eaten in our room in front of the tv. Another tip – on these trips always have food available – you can always throw it away if it is not eaten.

Standing at the Impassable Ford The third day saw us cycling through small towns and villages, up and down hills, lunch at Durham, getting lost near Trimdon, sheltering from more showers and arriving at Yarm in the evening. The accommodation here was adequate – no en-suite and the food at the pub had 'microwaved' all over it.  Actually Pete and I both experienced a lifetime first at this pub. We both fancied a whisky, any whisky after our meal and pint. After pouring the half glass remaining in the bottle on show, they ran out and had no more. A pub without whisky. I couldn't quite believe it at first either. We just laughed in disbelief.

We left the surreal whisky experience next day in sunshine (remember that?) heading towards the beautiful village of Great Ayton and up the hills at the edge of the North York Moors towards the head of Eskdale. This was a grand days cycling. Lots of moorland, big skies, space, lovely villages like Castleton, Danby, Glaisdale, Egton, Grosmont and Ugglebarmby. There was hardly any rain either. Following the river Esk downstream to Whitby we watched the steam trains at Grosmont, cycled up and down a lot of very steep hills and looked accross miles of empty sky. A defining moment came at the bottom of a long, steep hill.  We followed the route which included a ford at the bottom and if this was not passable, the only option was cycling back up the aforementioned long, steep hill, a detour of about an hour. Ford, you know, trickle of water across the road. Er no…..  four feet of chocolate brown churning torrent that roared down the valley. No way to cross this. However, all was not lost as some local saint had built a narrow footbridge across the river next to the ford. Onwards and (in our case) very upwards.

The end of the line at Scarborough More steep hills towards the coast and Robin Hoods Bay where we followed the Cleveland Way, which was worth the rough surface for the spectacular views, past Ravenscar and finally into Scarborough to greet the waiting thousands, who were aching to share our success. Well our wives, my sister-in-law and a friend were there. Four altogether, not quite thousands but lovely for us, with banners and tea towels waving they greeted us to the final leg of our ride. I always like to do some casual birdwatching on these trips. I wasn't to be found for hours staking out something rare in the high moorlands, I just watched as I cycled along and highlights were – the buzzard that flew about 10 feet above Pete's head (he didn't see it), another buzzard being mobbed by jackdaws and lapwings, the dippers bobbing about little Scottish burns, the ever present joyful skylarks, the pair of lapwings that made it crystal clear that we were not welcome at that particular point of Yorkshire moorland, the clamouring kittiwakes at Scarborough but, above all, the curlews, the long bubbling call of the curlews, so evocative of the big, solitary country in Scotland and Northumberland.

This was a great trip with a very good friend and we both thoroughly enjoyed it. 276 miles for me and nearly 700 for Pete (Chapeau that man!). Yes, it rained, but looking back, it didn't matter that much. All part of the fun. The scenery was wonderful, the accommodation very good and good food, I cannot  wait for the next trip.

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Trevor Sullivan

Town planner for Sheffield City Council and keen cyclist & birdwatcher

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