Graham Robb

Journey to ‘the grimmest place in the world’

End-to-Enders must cycle through the worst of Britain as well as the best to arrive at the deeply anticlimactic John o’Groats, Paul Jones discovers

Journey to ‘the grimmest place in the world’
Paul Jones cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Credit: Property of Paul Jones
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End to End: The Land’s End to John o’Groats Cycling Record

Paul Jones

Little, Brown, pp. 320, £16.99

Suffering from post-traumatic stress and the effects of government austerity measures, Paul Jones resigned as the head of an inner-city secondary school and, ‘an idiot without a job’, decided to cycle from Land’s End to John o’Groats in four stages spread over ten months. He had raced occasionally with professional cyclists but had never ridden more than 127 miles in a day.

His aim was to ‘dissect a brain slice of the country’, to find some relief from the ‘formless terror’ of his mental landscape, and to subject himself to the torture of a long-haul literary endeavour. It took him three years to produce this companionable and energetic book about the obsessive and strangely affable breed of record-breaking End-to-Enders.

It is possible to plot a reasonably pleasant cycling itinerary from the ‘bleak and unprepossessing’ toenail of England to the soggy Scottish headland which an exhausted Jones found to be ‘the grimmest place in the world’. Unfortunately, the official shortest route (842 miles) runs through some of the worst that Britain has to offer in the way of scenery and behaviour. ‘I hope you fail!’, a driver stuck in traffic in Penzance told Michael Broadwith nine miles into his staggeringly fast End-to-End in 2018 (43 hours and 25 minutes).

With its foul-mouthed motorists, dogging areas and septic swathe of fly-tipped fridges and fast-food waste, the ‘urban midland morass’ stretches from the Severn flood plain to the moors of Greater Manchester. Jones has chosen to represent this throbbing heart of 21st-century Britain with his snapshot of a giant diesel-smeared dildo dumped on the road to Stoke-on-Trent. Such are the memories which stick in the benumbed minds of these self-professed maniacs — the exact number of cat’s eyes on a certain stretch of road, the peculiar recurrence of identical dead rabbits, or the time it took to wrestle the Kendal Mint Cake out of the back pocket without getting off the bike.

To non-masochists who treat the bicycle as a cheap and moderately exhilarating alternative to the car, the northern half of the route, beyond Lancaster, offers relatively gentle climbs and many a blissful panorama. On the quiet old A-roads and older byways, the passes of Shap, Beattock and Drumochter, taken at a steady pace, are mere undulations compared to the Alps and the Pyrenees (so called, according to the old cyclists’ adage, because it takes a good ‘pair o’ knees’ to get up them). For serious End-to-Enders, these gateways to the North are the stations of an appalling Calvary, blurred by pain and hallucinations.

In the 1890s, George Pilkington Mills broke his own record several times, despite blood poisoning, a bout of ‘cholera’ at Gloucester, an exposed thigh bone after colliding with a horse in the Pass of Killiecrankie, and an overdose of cocaine. The long-time female record-holder, Eileen Sheridan, breathing too hard in the freezing cold, burst a blood vessel in her throat but, obviously, kept going. For Andy Williamson, piloting his high-velocity ‘plastic egg’ bicycle and taking in plenty of fluid, it made sense to use an improvised catheter. Though it slipped out and sprayed the entire ‘cockpit’, making it hard to see the road, ‘it was never a big problem, apart from for the people helping me’.

These days, End-to-Enders are invariably accompanied by support vehicles. Trundling all the way up to the Pentland Firth at under 20 m.p.h. in the unrelenting rain, the helpers dispense nourishment evocative of a more spartan age: tinned fruit, malt loaf, egg-and-tomato sandwiches, Bakewell tarts and, crucially, biscuits. (Interviewing the surviving record-breakers, Jones always turns up at their homes bearing a tin of biscuits.)

The other function of the support crew is to exert moral pressure. Almost all riders despair at some point between Carlisle and Perth, or forget what they are doing and why. But when friends have taken several days off work and a well-wisher is sitting on a deckchair by the side of a dual carriageway at dead of night waiting to cheer you on, the only honourable excuse would be total incapacity. On reaching the anti-climactic John o’Groats, they are urged by their ‘helpers’ not to waste the opportunity but to make an attempt on the 1,000-mile record. Only another 158 miles...

Unlike many midlife-crisis accounts of needless, navel-gazing feats of velocipedal endurance, Jones’s funny and affectionate book is a celebration of ‘the fellowship of the road’. It gives equal weight to women and is remarkably light on techno-fetishism (heart-rate monitors, power meters, gear ratios and the like). For this, apparently, we have to thank Mrs Jones: ‘When the wife is struggling to sleep I talk to her about the benefits of a 65.8-inch around Bristol and the Mendips.’