Category Archives: UK

8 Things I learnt from the Three Peaks Challenge

Bee Says: My company, Penguin Random House, is hot to trot on all things charity. At the start of each year every single person in the business has the opportunity to vote on a list of nominations for the charity of the year, and then the year is jam-packed with opportunities to band-together and raise money for that one cause. This year the charity is Mind, who in their words seek to “provide advice and support to empower anyone experiencing a mental health problem and campaign to improve services, raise awareness and promote understanding.” I was thrilled when Mind were announced as our chosen charity because I have experienced through friends & family how debilitating and devastating mental health problems can be – and how crucial it is to have access to the right people and support. With this in mind; when an email whizzed around the company in March asking for people to sign up to the Three Peaks Challenge I was quick to jot my name down; without giving an awful lot of though to what this would entail. A nice summer ramble, I thought. A bit of a jolly with my colleagues, I thought…

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What is the Three Peaks Challenge when it’s at home anyway? Well I soon learnt that it consists of climbing the three highest peaks in Scotland, England and Wales. Those three bad boys stack up as Ben Nevis (1344m), Scafell Pike (978m) and Snowdon (1085m) and well, as if it’s not hard enough to lug yourself up three mountains; the stakes are raised by racing against the clock to complete the set in under 24 hours. The challenge racks up a total of 480 miles of driving, 25 miles of hiking, climbing a total of almost 3000 vertical metres, and.. 0 hours sleep. Sounds like fun… right?

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I thought it might be useful to share a few hints, tips and tricks I picked up through my experience in case you are considering something similar. I would HIGHLY recommend it – just book yourself a decent massage afterwards.

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1. You honestly don’t need to train that much

When I first signed up to the challenge and shared the news; I was met with bewildered and horrified faces and comments ranging from “isn’t that just for top athletes?!” to “you’re going to surely DIE”. So just to clarify, whilst the challenge is “challenging”, you just need to be at a basic level of good fitness. The event itself is actually so much more about psychological strength and grit (and ability to scoff scotch eggs at record speed). We did get given a 16 week training plan by Mind – which wasn’t ideal as we signed up with only 11 weeks to go! – but really the key suggestion was just that you do regular exercise of any type (be that walking, swimming, pilates, running, cycling… anything that tickles your fancy really) and that prior to the event you do a few mammoth walks, I did a 13 and a 19 miler, just to test the endurance of your legs. I have to say that by far the most important and useful training I did was taking the stairs at every opportunity. It’s 7 flights up to my desk at work and 3 flights up to my flat; and that was the bit that felt most similar to the vertical hiking of the peaks. Aside from a few super-hero-standard fitties, everyone in our team of 21 was a similar level of fitness and it was definitely an achievable challenge for people who are “quite active but also like sitting about eating crisps and watching Netflix”.

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2. You can never, ever predict the weather

You might think that a June weekend would be the ideal time to partake in this challenge; especially a June weekend where the rest of the country basks in a tropical heatwave. What I learnt (and maybe should have known but I was always very bad at geography, and… science) is that no matter the conditions on the ground, each mountain has it’s very own micro-climate. At best; the summit will be stuck in a cloud because it’s so high up there. At worst; you’ll experience 5ft of snow on Ben Nevis, hail, rain, wind gusts of up to 40mph on Scafell Pike and temperatures that plummet well below freezing. So ignore the weather forecast and pack for every eventuality; taking doubles of everything and waterproofs even if there is a heat wave. Trust me on this; as someone who climbed Scafell Pike with gloves that were soaking and then started to develop actual frost crystals (and turn my hands into white fat sausages) by the top. Even if it appears sunny and lovely as you embark; weather fronts can come in fast and furiously. It’s also always going to be pretty cold at the summit; and if you need a rest or hurt yourself and are sat about for any length of time – you need to keep warm and toasty.

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3. Invest in some decent kit

The Three Peaks Challenge (or a similar event) will end up costing a chunk of change. I under-estimated this bit; although the good thing is that I will re-use most of the kit and it’s that type of snazzy outdoor wear that is built to last. The challenge itself cost £80 to sign up for; and then a minimum donation total of £550. This is because Mind don’t want to lose money on paying for the aspects such as bus, guide, accommodation in Fort William on the Friday night before you start, water etc. Mind provided us with a handy kit list and luckily I had some of the key bits – most importantly a good warm AND waterproof jacket. Mine is this Madigan beaut from Craghoppers which is so reasonably priced and has an Aqua Dry outer coat (which honestly repels water, it never gets wet!) and a micro fleece for 3 in 1 warmth, wind proof and water proofing. Also it’s definitely worth investing in some proper ankle height walking boots, again that are properly waterproof and will stop you coming a cropper on any crags. The only luxury item I found it totally worth buying was some walking poles! I had previously been a special sort of idiot who thought these were only for “old people”. These metal rods are crucial for navigating up and down mountains and not shredding your knees. You can even start to convince yourself you look pretty cool with them in a Where’s Wally kinda way.

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4. Waterproof gloves are a thing. And a very good thing.

I didn’t actually know waterproof gloves existed but boy do I wish someone had told me. I would buy yourself a pair, if only to avoid standing in a service station desperately trying to dry a pair of wet-dog stinky wool gloves under the hand dryer at 2am.

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5. The UK is SO beautiful.

One of the absolute best bits of this challenge is seeing bits of the UK I would never usually visit. It may have been a whistle-stop tour but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a really good taste of the diverse terrain, the beauty, the views and the sights that the highlands, the lake district and Snowdonia have to offer. There was plenty of gazing out of the mini bus and time to plan future trips back to all these places to see them properly (just perhaps not the mountain bits) I think the most exciting place for me to visit was Glen Coe and the surrounding area of Scotland. Having never explored past Glasgow and Edinburgh; that scenery seriously packs a punch! It’s unlike anything anywhere else in the UK. Volcanic looking peaks, snow, ski lifts!, waterfalls cascading down the side of anything high, epic lochs that last as far as the eye can see, BIG sky and air that’s so fresh my London-riddled lungs could actually feel the difference with the first breath.

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6. Treat yourself to a Camelbak

This experience has been a real education in kit. I SO wish I’d known about the holy Camelbak when we were backpacking. It’s such an obvious solution to the pain of carrying about heavy bottles of water and having to stop every time you want a swig.The Camelbak is a hydration system; which is a posh way of saying a plastic pouch that can carry 3L of water, attached to a plastic hose you can dangle over your shoulder and then easily slurp from at any moment (see the blue pipe thing below). You can even drink whilst you are walking! Genius. I am now intending to fill my Camelbak with gin & tonic and fit it to my sofa.

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7. Distraction is key

I could not have completed the challenge without Katy Perry. That is a fact! I am so relieved that I packed my ipod and loaded it full of happy pop songs; because at the points where my brain was screaming at me that I couldn’t do it, I could drown that all out with some Roar on repeat. I also listened to a bunch of my favourite podcasts – Undisclosed, Watch the Thrones and You Are Not So Smart. Somehow having voices nattering in my ears made it feel less lonely as I clambered about something that resembled the surface of Mars (that’s you Scafell!) I mentioned earlier that the challenge is a psychological one, and I can never really put into words how gruelling it was. The tiredness of my legs and body honestly paled in comparison to the battering my brain took as I went through various stages of ~the fear~ and self doubt and wanting to throw my sticks down and give up!

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8. You can never have enough snacks

I went shopping for snacks three times leading up to the challenge (as this was the bit I was most excited about) and still munched my way through nearly everything. Protein bars, fruit and nuts, snickers, oatcakes, twiglets, pork pies, scotch eggs, babybel, flapjacks, jelly babies and anything else that can deliver you a quick boost of sugar or energy needs to be in your bag and belly. I feel quite sick even looking at this photo now, and think I’m retiring from both mountaineering AND snacks.

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Well that’s just a few of my thoughts. It was equally the best and worst thing I have ever done; but I am so proud of my team for hulk-smashing their way through the challenge! We went with a great company called Adventure Cafe (and in fact I’ve pinched a few of their photos here – thanks guys) Everyone was amazing at cheering each other along at bleak points, lending out woollens when the temperature dropped and generally keeping morale high and a sense of humour when things looked wet and wild. We were also lucky to have two fantastic guides who we were totally reliant on to get us up and down safely; and deliver that tough love of “no you cannot stop for jelly babies, it’s too cold to stand still”.

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I’m currently just £10 short of my sponsorship target, so if you are feeling generous – my page is here and every penny counts. In total, my group will have raised over £10,000 for Mind… and that makes every moment I’ve woken up in the night this week with leg cramp worthwhile!

 

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.