Monthly Archives: August 2014

Land’s End to John O’Groats: Britain in 10 Days

Nick Says: I recently went on a trip. Without Bee. Shocking as that may sound to readers of the blog, we do actually go off and explore places without the other. In particular, I like to go on ‘Brother Adventures’. For those that don’t know, I have 3 brothers. In age order, we are Joe, Chris, Me (Nick), and Phil. We all like to explore. Previous trips have included over-landing from the Czech Republic to Albania, and a road-trip around Western Europe (which you can watch here). This time, we decided to take on Land’s End to John O’Groats via A & B roads. We had 10 days, a somewhat unreliable old car, and a lot of miles to tackle.

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It was great to explore Britain, and especially excellent to properly see the country I live in (most of the time anyway). It had been something I’d really wanted to do even when marvelling at Latin America, and let me tell you it did not disappoint. So here’s a round-up of 10 manic days that involved a Cornish miner called Percy, giant cream teas, setting the car brakes on fire, recording a special road-trip song, watching incredible Peak District sunsets, getting hissed at by an owl, punched by a dog, drunkenly debating Scottish independence over whisky, and visiting the smallest street in the world…

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The trip started in Cornwall, as all good Lands End to John O’Groats journeys probably should. After picking up Joe from his home in Somerset (via Stonehenge) we sped on our way to Penzance. I shocked my brothers by admitting I’d never been to Cornwall in my life. I’d always meant to go, but ended up staying in Devon and never quite making it. So I had no real idea what to expect. What I got was a part of England culturally and geographically unique from the rest of the country. Palm trees abounded down here, the coast looked like it belonged in the Mediterranean, and the people were fiercely proud of their heritage.

After a night in Penzance which involved eating at a pirate themed (a very loose theme) meadery, we went for a few drinks in the local pubs. The tip from a barman at a rival pub led us to the Dock Inn, which I highly recommend. Then on a balmy stroll back, Chris asked myself, Joe, and Phil to be his Best Men at his wedding. Huzzah! Brothers unite! A great start to the trip indeed.

The next day dawned a bit fuzzy, but there was no time to rest. In fact there would be not time to rest on the entire trip. We drove down to a misty Land’s End, where we snapped the obligatory pics, added a UK Man Voyage twist to the sign, and went to a weird Brian Blessed voiced Search for King Arthur interactive thing. I’m not entirely sure what was supposed to be going on for most of it, but it was nice to hear Brian Blessed booming tones shouting at us and wishing us well on the trip (might have imagined that last part).

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Next stop was Porthcurno and the incredible Minack Theatre. A labour of love for the incredible (and possibly slightly barmy) Rowena Cade, the theatre is an open-air amphitheatre built into the cliff-face. With the gorgeous beach at Porthcurno and its beautiful turquoise water as a backdrop, it felt truly like we were in another country. In fact, the stage of the Minack had a certain Game of Thrones quality about it, so it felt like we were on another world! I could have happily spent hours exploring the place, but we had only 45 minutes to make it to the Poldark Mine. The clock was counting down. Mine me!*

The Poldark Mine was a true highlight of the trip. Mining really is the big thing in Cornwall, and this mid-sized former tin mine is one of the few you can go down and have a real nose around. Recently taken over by an eccentric chap who introduces the tour, the real star beyond the underground marvel you descend into is your guide. Percy is a proper Cornishman who is proud of his heritage and LOVES his mine. His tour as it stands is well worth your time and money, as he is so knowledgeable and enthusiastic about everything, but his ideas for an extreme mining tour would be brilliant if they pan out. So go there and demand it. And post a letter from the UK’s deepest mail box while you’re at it.

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We finished up the first day by camping in Paidstow. Picturesque and lovely, and complete with Rick Stein’s fish & chips, this was quintessential Cornwall. The bar had been set pretty high for the rest of the country. The next day we were heading to Taunton to drop Joe back home, and decided to take a look at Tintagel and some of Devon along the way. After admiring the castle ruins, we tucked into a Cornish pasty by a car park, and zoomed on. Devon for us was dramatic to say the least. We stopped at Lynton and Lynmouth, rode the funicular railway (piloted by Blake, one of the coolest men in the UK) and then treated ourselves to cream tea. Which was absolutely bloody massive. Honestly, the scone was the size of my head. Me and Joe heroically battled through it and finished the beast, while Chris and Phil were overcome and outfaced by its size and admitted defeat. I expected more.

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As we drove through the Quantocks a couple on a motorbike shot past us at a crazy speed. 10 minutes down the road we had to break heavily on a steep hill due to an accident up ahead. You can probably guess who had been involved. Thankfully it didn’t look to be fatal, but it unnerved us. The fact that the brakes on the car started pouring smoke at the same time probably didn’t help either, and it was with some relief we managed to limp into Taunton and safety that evening.

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Our car, named ‘the Van’, is an old diesel VW Polo given to my brother Chris by our Great-Uncle Hubert. Chris has driven it everywhere, and if a man can love a car, then Chris loves the Van. They’re buddies, amigos, besties. But this was looking like it would be his last voyage. So I couldn’t help but feel like the Van was punishing us for daring to suggest he no longer had it; after the brakes incident he then decided to make his wing mirrors fall off. As Phil pointed out, as we stopped for a extended period in Taunton the following day in order to tape up the broken mirrors, a lot of our problems and delays on the trip could probably have been avoided with another car. But would it have been as fun? Probably not.

After saying farewell to Joe and finally leaving Taunton, we spent the day heading up to the Peak District via the Cotswolds. England was truly putting on a show for how beautiful it was, and we were lapping it up. Apart from the bit where we had to eat Ginsters sausage rolls sat in the window seat of an A-Road petrol station. That was a low-point. But the jumbo jet graveyard we randomly drove past made up for that.

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After seeing an awe-inspiring sunset across what seemed to be the whole of the Peak District, we finally rolled into Hayfield and the Kinder Lodge. Famous for being the location of the actual village in the BBC drama ‘The Village’, Hayfield is another classic British location. Which was to be a recurring theme of the trip. All these vastly different places, people, and traditions, but all instantly recognisable as ‘British’. Which I guess is the strength of this country. You can take each individual element and have a brilliant time, but together it’s the best. Yay UK!

The next morning we paid a visit to Chris’s friend and occasional band-mate James. While he was supposed to be working, we quickly put a stop to that and instead suggested we recorded a song to commemorate the trip. It turned out pretty good, so watch this space for a link to the finished track. Soundtracked by ourselves, we then drove on into Yorkshire, paid a quick visit to the marvelous Yorkshire Sculpture Garden (well worth a visit) and then arrived into Bradford, where Bee and her family would be hosting us for the night. Which reminded me, just what had Bee been up to while I’d been gone?

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Bee Says: As this was the official “Man Voyage” I had to be respectful not to turn into the equivalent of (in Chris’ words!) “The bit where Ewan McGregor’s wife comes along and surprises him and RUINS EVERYTHING in The Long Way Down” so after welcoming the travel weary lads to my parents house, I got taken out for a fanceh Thai meal with my mum and dad, whilst my little brother took the Horton boys off for some craft beer at Fanny’s in Saltaire and then on to a curry. I had obviously hyped Bradford’s curries up to epic, unbeatable proportions so we had to laugh when it dawned on us that the day was actually… Eid. And therefore the single day of the year that most curry houses are closed! Luckily after a few frantic phone calls, a back up option was located. After my meal, we waited for the guys to come back so we could all share some wine and my mums speciality; CHEESY WHIRLS (buttery pastry mixed with a ton of cheese, served piping hot from the over and melt in the mouth addictive!). We waited.. and waited… and suspiciously neither my brother or Nick’s phone seemed to be working. Eventually they rolled in, a little bit merrier than us but I was happy to see Bradford had been such a highlight and stood up to the stiff competition of the trip so far. For the rest of the week I pretty much spent my time either in the bath, reading, wearing PJs, watching Cat Fish with Lol and um… eating cheesy whirls. Guess who was most rested at the end of the week?!

Nick Says: Top marks to Bee’s brother Tim for showing us the best of Bradford. Foolishly timing our trip for Eid, we found many of my favourite curry houses shut for the holiday. But luckily the Rajpoot was open for business, and a fine time was had by all, even if the waiter was potentially wired on coke. He really, really, really, wanted to show how fast he could tap the buttons on the till.

Next up was the Lake District, and returning the Van to its ancestral home of Workington, Cumbria. Great-uncle Hubert lives up there, so it was only right and proper we paid him a visit and showed off his former motor. He was pretty impressed with how well Chris had looked after it, and gave him his seal of approval. Good work Chris!

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Driving through the lakes we really started to feel the terrain becoming more wild and mountainous. Scotland was beckoning. But, only after another night of camping, drinking rum while sat in the Van and taking the ugliest selfies we possibly could, and a morning visit to the Cumberland Pencil Museum; home of the biggest colour pencil in the world.

We picked up the scenic A7 and headed towards Scotland. It felt odd that this could be the last time any of us would visit Scotland and still be touring one country. The independence debate would permeate a lot of our time up there, and be discussed with some passion. I’ll repeat here what I said to the vociferous ‘Yes’ supporters, ‘I can understand why you would, but please don’t go – I think we’re better together’.

Our aim for the first night in Scotland was to head over to Glasgow to soak up the Commonwealth Games atmosphere. Trouble was, there were a lot of people wanting to do the same. After a panicked hour or so trying to find accommodation (a search carried out in a roadside Holiday Inn while powered by Irn Bru), we finally found a slightly shabby hotel in Falkirk. Intrigued by the fact that Falkirk was named Scotland’s prettiest town in 2011, we set off to explore.

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Now I don’t know who Falkirk’s opposition was in 2011, but I would never ever want to visit them. Falkirk, while it has several charms, is not exactly ‘pretty’. It does though have the Kelpies, the biggest horse statue in the world, so that makes up for a lot. And they really are bloody massive statues of horses. But it also had excellent transport links to Glasgow, and we were quickly on the train and on our way.

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We’d had nothing but beautiful weather our entire trip, so of course it absolutely sheeted it down as soon as we turned up in Glasgow. That didn’t seem to dampen things though, and we explored the city and caught some of the games on the big screen. While obviously on a smaller scale, I was instantly transported back to the  2012 Olympics, my favourite ever time to have lived in London. Everyone in Glasgow seemed really keen to show off the city at its best, and help three lost brothers get around to where they needed to go. I’m a big fan of Glasgow, and now also a big fan of a Chris recommendation, The Hillhead Book Club. Next time I go I hopefully won’t be on a budget and exhausted from several relentless days on the road…

It was into the Highlands the day after, and yet another amazing looking National park – the Cairngorms. Trying to overtake the slow moving trucks with an equally slow moving old Polo proved tricky, but luckily that just gave us more time to soak up the scenery. The plan for the evening was to find a remote wild camping spot and live the off-the-grid Scottish dream. Except it proved really hard to find somewhere remote enough. We drove through Newtonmore, Kingussie, and Aviemore, only to be told there was nowhere we could camp where we wouldn’t be chased away from by angry shot-gun wielding land-owners. Hmm, didn’t sound peaceful and relaxing to me. Admitting defeat, we decided to head to a organized campsite. Except they then turned out to all be full. All we got was vague instructions to follow a Dutch guy who was heading to a car park where we could wild camp. Or something. So we got in the Van, and sped off after him. He led us to Loch an Eilen. I curse that name.

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At first it was beautiful… and everything we hoped for. A stunning loch, and a space to pitch our tent. Sure it was by a car park, but it was wild and we were free! We set up camp. But it was August in Scotland. It was the time of the midgie (or ‘midget’ as a Dutch girl corrected a German guy). At first a few appeared. Then hundreds. Then thousands. We couldn’t breath without spluttering midgie. They were everywhere. In our mouths, our hair, our clothes. OH GOD THE HORROR. Phil tried to brave it out and got in the tent. Chris broke down and revealed this was one of the worst experiences of his life. I stood there in stunned silence not quite believing the living nightmare I was experiencing. We obviously cracked, and took down the tents. We drove as fast as we could away, but the midgies had got in the car. It didn’t stop. It would never stop.

A few hours later, and another panicked search for accommodation, we found ourselves back in Newtonmore at the incredibly friendly Strathspay Mountain Hostel being roared at by owner Laurie, a big Scot with a dubious ginger wig. Life had improved immeasurably. Tomorrow it would get even better, as we were due to go to the Clan MacPherson Highland Games.

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The games proved everything we hoped for. While the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow may have had world class athletes striving against each other in top level competitive sport, it didn’t have massive men with beards tossing the caber. It also didn’t have a team from the USA competing either, and as we saw during the first event (which involved sticking a garden fork in a hay bale and tossing it over a bar) the Americans take their Highland Games very seriously indeed. They even had their own special garden forks! When not watching big men straining their muscles and chucking things, we found time to admire the kilts, eat horrible chips, and watch Chris get hisses at by an owl. Which was an odd experience to say the least. The best part though, was the Clan MacPherson march, where massed bagpipers and drummers played a spine-tingling melody as they strode down the road. I’d never been that close to so many bagpipes before, and I’ll never forget how incredible it sounded.

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But with no time to waste, we were off again the next day. After a quick stop at the excellent Highland Folk Museum to see how the Scots lived through the ages (in dark windowless huts full of peaty smoke) and another at Loch Ness, we headed up to our hostel for the night. No more chancing it with wild camping or panicked ring rounds of local hostels for us this night, we had actually got organized and booked somewhere. Full marks to Phil for picking this place – and what a place it was – a really unique hostel called Sleeperzzz in the village of Rogart, about halfway between Inverness and John O’Groats. What makes it so unique is the fact that the rooms are converted First Class railway carriages, complete with kitchen, living room, and showers. There was sadly no space for us on the train though, which meant we had to settle for this brilliant converted 1950s bus instead – which just happened to sleep three. Perfect! For £16 each a night, it was probably the best value accommodation of the trip. It also gave us the opportunity to drink more whisky with locals in the village pub, and get into a pretty spirited debate about independence with a Glaswegian guy. He was very much pro leaving the UK. He liked to express this in a sometimes friendly, sometimes slightly terrifying, and at all times sweary manner. Then at the end of the night the landlady let a pack of about 7 dogs into the pub, who were the most excitable dogs that have ever lived. Me and Chris (drunk at this point) decided the best thing to do would be to leap in the middle of this already wild pack of animals and start jumping around with them. So it was probably no surprise when one of the hounds punched me…

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Then it was day 10 of the trip, and our final run up to John O’Groats. With everyone feeling slightly worse for wear, we stopped in at Wick (the last major town that side North on the mainland) for Irn Bru and sausages. Wick also gave us the chance to see the shortest street in the world, Ebenezer Place, which occupies all of 2 metres and houses one address, No. 1 Bistro, part of Mackays Hotel. Then fuelled up on sugary orange drinks we pressed onwards to our goal – John O’Groats!

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It was pretty emotional when we finally pulled up to the end of the road. I’m not afraid to admit I was a bit choked up as I got out the car. A lot more chilled out and rugged than the tourist bonanza at Lands End; John O’Groats was a great place to finish the trip. It had been an amazing last 10 days and a chance to experience Britain in way I’d never done before. I had spent 6 months (and most of my adult life before that) flinging myself across the world and soaking up other cultures, but never really stopped to appreciate this truly special island we live on. It’s as beautiful, wild, interesting, and surprising as anywhere else on the planet, and for all its faults, I’m lucky to call it home.

*top marks if anyone gets that paraphrased reference btw. It was an inspiration for the trip.