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

Paul Jones cycling from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Credit: Property of Paul Jones

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.

Almost all cyclists despair at some point between Carlisle and Perth, or forget what they are doing and why

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.

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