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‘Dual carriageway ahead’ – usually seeing those words are a source of relief but not today. Today it was a real pain because it meant either turning off the road or back to avoid it.
My challenge was simple – to ride from Ness Point, the eastern most point of Britain to Ardnamurchan Lighthouse, the western most point, but with two provisions. One was to complete the ride between the hours of sunrise (05:00 at Lowestoft) and sunset (21:45 at Fort William); the other to use only single carriageways for the whole journey.
Why? Well, why not. I have done a lot of long distance rides in the past; most like Lands End to John O Groats are fairly uninspiring and boring, the ride forgotten the minute it is completed. I was hoping for a ride to compare with the English Counties ride which involved visiting every county town in England, travelling on a huge variety of interesting roads. As far as I know nobody had completed this ride before and perhaps it could become an alternative to the north-south rides everyone does.
Preparation involved working out a route using My-Route App on my iPad – I have just started using this and chose it for two reasons - firstly the ability to plan in Google Maps so I could regularly check the roads using Streetview and secondly being able to convert it to Garmin maps would mean I would definitely have the same route on my Garmin 390 GPS. Both assumptions were largely, but by no means totally, vindicated!
My bike is a 2001 BMW R1150GS that I have owned for 8 years and done 104k miles on. It has been remarkably reliable in that time, so it was something of a surprise when I wheeled it out of the garage the day before to find the rear shock was leaking oil. Fortunately I was able to borrow one off a friend and get it fitted that afternoon. I transferred the route to my GPS, wrote out a roadbook which listed the 40 landmarks on my route and my expected time and mileage to get to them, and fitted on my Bagster tank bag and strapped a Goretex bivi bag on to the rear tank (my bike has a second 23 litre fuel tank over the rear seat and luggage rack).
I stopped in the Travelodge in Lowestoft the night before, waking before the alarm went at 4.15am and got to Ness Point half an hour later. The sky was very cloudy so although brightening the sun was not making an obvious appearance. But the GPS had changed to daylight setting and at 5am I took some photographs and headed out of town.
First challenge– the road through Lowestoft becomes two lanes – should I consider this a dual carriageway? I decided if this happens for a short while in towns and the lanes have directional arrows on then it was fine (the only other time this happened was going through Lincoln).
I headed out of Suffolk and across Norfolk with the now rising sun throwing my shadow in front of me to chase. For some reason (I usually count something on long rides) I had decided to count the number of overtakes I made today – there were bound to be quite a few on so many single roads! I also tried to film short sections of the route on my Garmin Virb.
Second challenge – although I had sent the route on Garmin maps to my satnav it seemed to be making different routing decisions and tried to put me onto sections of dual carriageway. Several times I had to make quick turns off the road and find a different route to avoid these – eventually I got stuck on one coming out of Gainsborough and had to turn round at the next roundabout to backtrack and ‘negate’ the mileage. I did have to take a mile section of dual carriageway as the only road through Tadcaster was completely closed off for road works and I could find no obvious sway around, except by bypassing the town for a mile on the A64.
Third challenge – coming into Lincoln after a couple of hours I was slightly alarmed to see the GPS reading ‘Low battery’ – it should have been running off the bike’s battery. By the time I got to pull over outside a closed bike shop it had switched itself off. This was not a ride I could easily follow using my paper map backup so I was glad to see a red wire hanging loose from the auxiliary fuse-box when I took the seat off, and sure enough it was from the satnav.
The road wound up and across the Pennines and I ticked off the counties passed through along with the miles – I was really enjoying the ride; the changing scenery of countryside, villages and towns was always interesting; the weather was gradually becoming more overcast but was still warm and the bike was running fine. I had stopped in Ripon for fuel after 295 miles – the bike will go much further – with the auxiliary fuel tank it will hold 45 litres altogether, but the fuel gauge stopped working last year so I get a bit nervous after 300 miles (needlessly, as I was to find out!).
By 1pm I had been going for 8 hours and covered 398 miles so stopped for lunch at a café outside Brampton. After 40 minutes I was off again and into Scotland whereupon it promptly started raining, and didn’t stop for the next 8 hours.
It had taken a bit of planning to convince the satnav I didn’t want to go up the A74(M) as I had so many times in the past but rather head across to Gretna Green (last visited for my first marriage many years ago!) then along a series of much more enjoyable fast sweeping B roads punctuated by the settlements of Ecclefechan, Lockerbie, Beattock and Crawford before heading away from the motorway and around the back of Glasgow.
After a tour of Airdrie I emerged at Milton of Campsie and turned on to the evocatively named Crow Road to cross the hills towards Callender where I topped up with petrol. The rain had gradually got harder, the temperature had fallen, and my vision was getting poorer so I also changed the visor on my Arai Tour X to a clear one and put on the some total of my spare clothing, a micro fleece jumper.
I was now beyond any dual carriageways anyway and followed the A82 into the highlands of Scotland, through Tyndrum and up onto Rannoch Moor. This can look bleak at the best of times but especially so when covered in swirling mist and seen through the pouring rain. I had seen little traffic for many miles and had Glencoe to myself as I looked up at the mountains on either side, remembering many ice climbs in Stob Coire nan Lochqn to the south and soloing the Aonach Eagach ridge to the north in thick snow one winter when I was much younger and had less metal in my leg! Somewhere on Rannoch the GS’s odometer clicked over to 120,000 miles covered but I missed the moment in the rain and concentration on the road.
My fourth challenge was to get to the ferry at Corran in time to catch it with at least an hour and a half to spare before sunset. Missing the last ferry at 20.30 would mean a detour of an extra 42 miles to the journey and no chance of achieving my goal. I had made good time though and arrived at the empty small ferry port just after 18:40, in time to see the boat half way to the other side of the inlet, meaning I had half an hour to wait. The rain stopped and made me realise two things – one that my arms were actually soaked up to the elbow, and worse that the midges were now out. It was while running up and down the sea front flapping my arms and legs to keep them away that I realized a third thing – that half a dozen cars had somehow silently joined the queue behind my bike. The ferry arriving saved my embarrassment and we all piled aboard.
I ascertained that we would arrive in Ardgour at 19:20 and the last ferry back was at 21:20 – a quick check of the satnav put the final leg of the journey to Ardnamurchan at an hour so that seemed to work fine; push on to the lighthouse, grab a few photos and get back just in time for the last ferry. For the first few miles this seemed fine as the road was tarmaced and two lanes but it quickly became single track with passing places and after the distillery at the 16 mile mark became a much poorer surface. There was 48 miles altogether to the lighthouse and by the time I got halfway there I was resigned to the fact that I wasn’t going to make that ferry! The road wound on and on across Ardgour and through more villages than I ever thought existed out here before finally emerging on to the headland and the lighthouse at Ardnamurchan. It was 20:30, an hour and a quarter before sunset so I had made it within the hours of daylight.
My odometer showed 676 miles covered, with the satnav showing another 424 miles to go when I put in ‘Home’. I eventually got there at 9am the next morning after sleeping for 3 hours by the side of the road in my bivi bag. I must have ridden slowly as I filled up in Fort William and when I got home there was 429 miles showing on the clock and I was not on reserve.
One last number from my journey – 486; the number of overtakes between Lowestoft and Ardnamurchan - and only one bike amongst those.
Would I recommend it? Most definitely; not the hardest but certainly one of the most enjoyable long rides I have done in Britain, and a much better and more interesting route than going from LE to JoG. Hopefully some more people will be tempted to try it.
Sunrise at Ness Point, Lowestoft
Before sunset at Ardnamurchan Lighthouse
Outside Ripon Races
On board the ferry to Ardgour