It is late in the evening here in Orkney and after a long and convoluted day’s travel I am sitting before an open fire in the cosy parlour of my favourite B&B with a tumbler of Highland Park single malt within easy reach and in a mood of reminiscence. It has been ten years, almost to the day, since my first trip up this way – that was the time I rode my bike from Land’s End to John o’Groats (and beyond).
LEJOG as it is known, an acronym formed by the names of the start and end points, is one of the great classic British cycling jaunts: pedalling the entire length of the kingdom, from the outermost tip of Cornwall to the northeastern tip of Scotland. It has been a right-of-passage for British cyclo-tourists and long-distance record-setters since the days of Pennyfarthings.
When I did my LEJOG in the summer of 2002 I extended my journey somewhat to include the Isles of Scilly (in the south) and my first taste of Orkney, up here in the north. In truth, it was my first taste of Britain as well, for I was new here and hadn’t really seen much of the countryside outside of my corner Sussex and occasional trips up to London, generally to go to Heathrow Airport and on overseas.
Taking the train to Penzance, a name straight out of Gilbert and Sullivan, then hopping a ferry to St Mary on the Scilly Isles and later on, once back on the mainland, pedalling down to Land’s End and heading north along the rugged Cornish coast was the start of a gloriously adventure full of scenes and settings and storybook place names. I’d not long earlier completed a cycling journey from London to Istanbul (boy, those were free-wheeling days) in which I’d ridden through something like fourteen countries and yet here, riding through just this one United Kingdom, Britain, I felt a far greater and more exhilarating sense of travel and diversity than I ever did crossing Europe. Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire – everyone one of these places were strikingly different and rich in their own local character, accents architecture, geography. By the time I reached the Scottish Highlands and islands I felt as travelled and storied as a mediaeval pilgrim.
I won’t say I’d forgotten how rich and rewarding that journey was, a taste of travel in the grand old style, but the old memories came back with a particular keenness this afternoon. As I mentioned in a previous post, on my more recent trips to Orkney with my bicycle, coming up here for work, I’ve put the bike on the train, bought a ticket to Thurso and took the ferry. This time though I was obliged to leave the bike at home, fly to Inverness and drive from there. It was the first time I’d been on these roads since I’d ridden along here on my tourer in 2002. As I was driving up along the coast north of Inverness and felt the road start to rise a few miles northeast of Helmsdale and realised it was the beginnings of the long winding grade up the Ord of Caithness – one of the more imposing climbs on the LEJOG route, or at least the one I had heard the most about before I left. I was as excited as a kid. I recognized it all with a kind of deja vue clarity and eeriness, every rising bend and curve, the sense of the sea falling away below me and then the way the road plummeted downhill from the top, at a breezy grade of thirteen percent back to sea level – and another staggeringly steep climb through the Berriedale Braes, a shorter but much tougher ascent than the Ord of Caithness, and which caught me completely by surprise.
I remembered it all, just exactly how it was, in vivid detail, even the old church halfway up the grade, the one with the old graveyard whose weathered headstones you could read as you churned and sweated up the grade – one of them bearing the inscription: A Cyclist. I remembered my sense of bemusement when I saw it and how, using curiosity as my excuse for taking a breather I’ hopped off and walked the bike around and into the old churchyard to find out who this cyclist was and how he came to be there. It turned out to be the grave of a WWI cycle corps messenger, killed in action in France, as I recall.
I spotted the headstone once again, in passing, unchanged in all the years. I spared a thought for the long-forgotten cyclist, and marvelled at the passage of time. That was a grand trip. It was wonderful to take it out of the attic of my memories yesterday on the drive up from Inverness, and find that it had been aging and mellowing like a fine old single malt whisky.