Jim Sutherland's Fundraising Bikepacking Trip from Land's End to John o'Groats - Part 1
Ambassador Jim Sutherland rode 1177 miles accross the British Isle to raise $3130 for The Fire Fighter's Charity.
Left Bala Lake, Wales campsite with my family who were once again going to be left by me for much of the summer holidays. I’m glad I caught the 1204 train from Chirk to Shrewsbury as there was a mega-delay which ended up with my train being cancelled. Trainline did a great job as I promptly received an email from them which basically told me not to worry and simply get on the next scheduled train from Birmingham to Penzance. Which meant I was only an hour late and could reschedule my taxi to Lands End.
The train journey was pretty mellow most of the way until a bunch of guys my age, or older got on and started to have a right laugh following an afternoon in the pub. We shared a few stories until their stop at Bodmin. Once it had quietened down one of them told me he was an ex-Firefighter and thought that me doing my ride to raise funds for The Fire Fighter’s Charity was a cool thing to be doing. John went on to tell me that he had been involved in a serious car accident as a young trainee Firefighter and had to quit that as well as a promising career with Watford FC. He kindly gave me his phone number and address as I planned to be passing nearby in a day or two.
A group of young local swimmers/polo players were left in the carriage for the last couple of stops and I had to smile when they coordinated a wave from the train to some friends in their garden as the train sped past. We all disembarked at Penzance which was bathed in beautiful sunset light and calmness. Things felt good!
Nobby the taxi driver took me down to Lands End where I got myself sorted out and ready to start riding north the next morning. I left the outer sheets of my shelter open that night so I could enjoy the beautiful colours of the sky and the stars.
Lands End to Goss Moor Farm campsite 61miles/4850ft ascent
I was awake by 5:10am mostly due to the excitement of starting another big ride, the first since my attempt on The Great Divide in 2019. This time I knew that I had prepared better and was more aware of the challenges that I was going to face. I’m getting more stubborn with old age!
By 0700 I was wandering around the grounds of the Lands End hotel looking for the famous mile marker sign. Eventually I asked a local couple where the sign was and they explained that the hotel takes it in at night before putting it out later in the morning and charging £10 to take your photo. I settled for a photo of me, my bike, the coastline and the sea.
The conditions that morning were the best I could have asked for when starting off. The Cornish Way was a delightful quiet way of making progress without having to deal with traffic. Soon I was back in Penzance for a breathtaking ride along the front past St. Michael’s Mount and then Marazion.
The cool thing about my ride was that I was able to pick and choose the roads, tracks and trails that I wanted to ride. Sometimes on the classic National Cycle Network, or the GB Duro or wherever locals might suggest, or what I fancied. This made the whole 1177 miles a fun, challenging and varied journey right from day 1.
Along the Cornish Mine Trail and Idless Trails I was able to purchase fresh produce, such as broccoli and courgettes from honesty boxes at the end of farm driveways.
Later in the afternoon a rider behind me said ‘I wish I had your mountain bike gears.’ I turned round and saw a similarly set up rider with a friendly smile on his face. After a few minutes of riding and chatting Gary and I agreed to stick together heading for the farm campsite at Goss Moor. The owner was painting a horse box in the colours and style of a belted Galloway cow when we arrived and seemed pretty chilled out. He told us to make ourselves at home and showed us the toilets with free showers as well as the cooking area with fresh water, a sink and a table to prepare food on all under cover. Here we had the place to ourselves and were well looked after at this peaceful, well set up campsite.
Goss Moor to Chelsford 50miles/3535ft ascent
A slow start to my day as I wanted my laundry to dry in the morning sun. Keeping me and my clothes ‘fresh’ was one of the things I was determined to do on this ride.
I had a nice run into Bodmin on the traffic-free, multi-use Camel Trail. In town I found a wee place called the Alice in Wonderland cafe. After my second breakfast there I certainly felt like I had gone down a Rabbit Hole as it took me over an hour, close to two in order to get back on route! In the end I had to ask at the bike hire place in the park for directions which I would have never gleaned from my gpx file, map or signage! I was sort of making up time when I happened upon the Snails Pace cafe. The staff there were so hospitable and generous with a cash donation to The Fire Fighter’s Charity. All felt good so I treated myself to a Cornish Cream Tea, part one of what I would later call my ‘Cornish Triple’...
The temperature did not seem to be easing that much into the afternoon and I was beginning to lose count of how many times I had refilled my water bottle. As I passed one farm I saw a worker heading into an agricultural shed so I asked if I could get some water. He kindly obliged and as we were talking I noticed tents and caravans at the ‘farm’. It turned out that this was a campsite. Then he asked me if I liked the name of their pub -’The Stumble Inn’. That was it, the time was 1800 and all the ducks had lined up. Ten minutes later I was on part two of my triple with Steve & Sally in the form of a pint of Hicks, Cornish ale. The crack was good in the pub, in fact it reminded me of a pub that I used to work in not far from where I live now. For dinner in the tent I had the last part of my triple - the Cornish pasty I had bought in Roche that morning. Along with the fresh(ish) veg from yesterday and the carbs from the ale I felt like a king as I went to sleep in the tent that night.
Chelsford to Landkey 41miles/3341ft ascent
Another slow start, I did not turn a pedal before 10:00am. I spent time sorting, washing and packing before having a chat with the lovely owners of this farm campsite. They told me about the villages, history and scenery around Dartmoor.
The ride across into Devon was lovely, I did enjoy the lanes, the wee villages and rural scenes. Two places stand out: the steep street up the hill in Taddiport and the steep, loose bridleway descent into Bableigh at the end of the day.
Due to the Bodmin Rabbit Hole incident I was now effectively a day behind with no gas to cook with!
Landkey to Taunton 65mile/5851ft ascent
Before 9:00am, after a 6:20am start I am 15 miles into the ride and 2067ft brutal feet up onto Exmoor. Because I had no gas the Simonsbath Hotel was my target for breakfast. I was treated like a king there, getting to eat with residents in the dining room and making me feel welcome.
The climbs were enjoyable and felt like I was actually making progress. I made the summit of Dunkery HIll for 12:30pm and was treated to one of the best views I have seen anywhere! Everywhere I looked the landscape stretched into the distance: The Bristol Channel & Wales one way, south to the Devon coast back the way and over to my right the plains and fields stretching east across England. In fact I felt SO good I decided to do the first of my Reels that Matt has suggested on Instagram & Facebook to share this moment with folk and ask them to consider donating to The Fire Fighter’s Charity. The descent off of the ridge towards the Quantock HIlls and Timberscombe was rocky and the ground the consistency of concrete because of the prolonged dry spell. As I entered the woodland at the bottom of this fun ride the soil did soften up a little and turn a nice betrooty red.
This variety in terrain and steepness was why I had taken so much time designing the set up of my yellow bike and then getting my pal Ian to assemble it at his bike shop. I chose tires that were 2.1 inches on my 650b rims so that when needed I could drop air for sections like this, or of course for speed and efficiency on road I could pump them up again. An 11/34 cassette paired with a 44:32:22 crankset gave me a tremendous gear ratio. In fact it was pretty much identical to someone who could have probably done my full ride in about a week! Still it gave me a lot of confidence to know that this set up had his approval.
I now wanted to get the day done and not take a convoluted route in this heat back up and over the hills again. After studying the map, taking a route south then getting further advice from a local I found myself flying into Taunton looking for a campsite. The app on my phone was perfect for this and in no time I was setting up my tent in a gem of a farm campsite where I was even able to buy a litre of home brewed scrumpy. I even had gas, well perhaps better described as rocket fuel going by how hot it made my wee stove and the height of the canister!
Taunton to Gosswood Farm campsite 47mile/1836ft ascent
I faffed at elite level this morning and took longer than some camper vans to pack up and leave the site. Why worry? After all, I am on holiday as well. The Taunton=Bridgewater canal towpath was a cruisy start to the day. Within an hour I had enjoyed coffee and cake at the Lock Inn which was owned by an ex-Firefighter and then a mile or so up the towpath met two of his friends. Phil was also an ex-Firefighter and his pal Dave had ridden John o’ Groats to Lands End when he was 16. We chatted for some time and shared why we enjoy adventures like this as well as our worries and challenges.
Seeing as I had gas I resupplied at a supermarket in Bridgewater where I seemed to get an awful lot of stuff for my £11.10 More lovely shaded lanes and a gentle climb almost to Cheddar before I was confronted with my first hike-a-bike up a bridleway onto the Mendip HIlls. From the top of this section I was once again treated to grandstand views of where I had come from as well as to the south and east. On the fast descent to the road I met a local farmer in her 4 wheel drive and at the very bottom Andy, the ranger for the Mendip AONB. He was able to advise me on a campsite nearby as once again the heat was showing no signs of abating and I really needed to stop, eat and rest out of the sun for the day.
Andy’s recommendation and directions to Gosswood Farm campsite were spot on and I spent the night at another clean, quiet and friendly place. In order to camp, prepare food and pack in advance for the next day I was using one or two specific pieces of kit. Resupply throughout England was simple so an hour to half an hour from camp I would visit a local shop to buy food to prepare for dinner and bars or sweets for the next day's ride. All of this went into a collapsible rucksack which I kept in my frame bag. This meant that I was only carrying this extra weight on my back for a relatively short time. My stove, gas, titanium pot and cup as well as packets of soup, rice, pasta or noodles were all in a cylindrical dry bag which was always attached to my front driveside fork. This made is simple to just unstrap it and take it to where I wanted to prepare a hot drink or meal, it also made it very easy to add supplies to it if I needed to without removing the whole system from my bikeUpon arriving at the campsite I will get out my foldable 2 litre water container and fill it in preparation for dinner and breakfast. Finally I would empty, rinse and refill my litre bottle which I got in Taunton for the scrumpy and my blue Sigg bottle. At Gosswood I especially enjoyed being able to use a picnic table and seats away from my shelter. Here I could be ‘somewhere different’ not at the side of the tent, sitting on the grass preparing dinner. As well as the fresh produce and food I had bought I had a packing pod which has fajita spices, powdered potato, powdered milk and couscous. Preparing dinner was always a relaxing activity and really helped me.
Gosswood Farm campsite to Gables Farm ‘secure’ campsite 78mile/3284ft of ascent
It was starting to look like I made early starts on alternate mornings and this was one of them. That morning my shelter was very wet with dew. I had planned for this and fitted a lightweight front rack on my bike where I stored it all the time. My reason for this was that if it was damp it kept the threat of affecting my down sleeping quilt to a minimum. It also meant that if for any reason I decided not to sleep in my shelter I could simply remove the bar bag with my sleeping system without going near my shelter. This arrangement worked extremely well throughout my whole trip and is something that I will be doing again in the future. I wanted to get up the road so stuck to the National Cycle Network route to Bristol Airport where after some navigation I was able to get onto what I think was the GB Duro route into Bristol itself. These trails required attention but once established on them I was rewarded with shade, no traffic and interest such as rocky climbs or signs warning me of blasting on weekdays. I even met some other riders as I steadily made my way to the city on a swooping, whooping single track through the forest.
Suddenly I was aware of being high up riding into a huge park with views of the Bristol skyline ahead of me. After a fun descent through the park I arrived just as suddenly at the Clifton Suspension Bridge and a handy coffee stall. While enjoying my espresso I struck up a conversation with a man out for a walk. Duncan was great company and took the time to tell me about the new town and the old town, the development of Bristol and what he thought would be the best way of heading north from here. It is encounters like this what make bike touring/bikepacking/whatever you want to call it such an enjoyable experience. Duncan recommended that I take the Severn towpath all the way west to Avonmouth then ask around for directions to Frampton.
The towpath by the river was a well looked after trail, which allowed me to make good time towards the sea. As I got closer and closer I could see the elevated M5 motorway with the ominous rumble of traffic. National Cycle Network route 45 took me to a ramp which then led to a separate bike/walk lane that felt like it was bolted onto the side of the motorway. The contrast to where I had been riding less than an hour before was incredible. I took a short clip of this busy section of motorway and as I stood still I could feel the whole structure shaking with the sheer volume of traffic!
Let’s be honest Avonmouth is not the prettiest of places but it is home to major chemical manufacturing plants, and north of the Avonmouth Docks is the gas-fired Seabank Power Station. Route 45 now took me through secondary industrial estates and lanes which would not have been very inviting later on at night. I noticed some fire engines at one point so detoured to the Babcock/Fire Search & Rescue training HQ to say hello and share with them why I was making this ride. Fortunately for me each of the trainers on duty were from different parts of the route so I was soon furnished with very detailed directions to get to Frampton which sounded lovely.
Further up the road I was checking directions at a junction when a train of assorted riders swept by at speed. We exchanged waves, ringing of bells and the last rider who was towing a bike trailer invited me to join them! That wasn’t part of the plan for now so I just waved and got back to my map. At the top of the next wee hill, beside a farm I could see them gathering and was treated to some ‘encouragement’ as I crested the top. I declined the can of beer or slug of scrumpy and got speaking to them as they swarmed around my bike checking the set up. This eclectic group of riders were heading from Bristol to South Wales for ‘Big Dave’s Stag Do’. Some of them looked like they had been swept up and joined this intriguing peloton for a couple or hours, days, months or years - who knows. One big lad who was riding in bare feet on a classic steel hardtail said he was inspired to do something similar to what I was doing. Big Dave asked me if I knew any of the bike couriers or mechanics from Glasgow where he had worked deliveries on his bike. Many photos were taken of my set up with lots of questions about storage, what I was carrying and where I had ridden. A single road cyclist approached and he was treated to a similar chorus with some additional comments about lycra which thankfully for me was hidden under my shorts or deep in my seatpost bag. I stepped across the lane to give him more room and it was immediately noted that I was now one of them so had no choice but to ride with them for a couple of miles before a junction which Big Dave announced would take them to their destination. There is no doubt that it would have been an adventure to have joined them but I do wonder what my route north would have been after the celebrations, or if I would have even made it further north…
Frampton was as promised a delightful village with a well stocked shop, cricket field and a busy pub with a very welcoming vibe. I had a couple of pints and a basket of chips as I soaked up the atmosphere and reflected on a great day. As had become the routine for each day I got onto the wi-fi and posted some photos with a few words then checked donations. My own handwritten diary was sometimes started at this point but more often than not finished once I was set up in my spacious tent, replete after dinner.
Safe behind the huge steel doors of Gables Farm campsite I went to sleep with the outer sheets of my tent open and the mesh closed so I would be woken by the sun at dawn, not a bikepacker with a crossbow.
Gables Farm ‘secure’ campsite to Bridgnorth 90miles/4480ft ascent
Around 5:00am I got my wish as the sun started to rise through the beautiful old tree at the corner of the field. I was away just after 6:00am and got a move on. Along one of the country lanes I met two women on horses who recommended a great wee shop and cafe up the road for coffee and a bacon roll. This was then followed by another nice spell on canal towpaths to Glouscester where I came across the local rowing club preparing to get on the water. A good friend of mine is a rower so I took a photo of Mike Jones, the club president(?) to share with him.
Worcester was pretty busy and built up but I did manage to find a really cool, vegan cafe for lunch and importantly an outdoor shop where I could buy a proper can of gas, then finally get rid of my ‘long neck’ rocket booster.
As forecast the temperatures were now starting to rise and there was definitely more riding that I banked on to get to Bridgnorth which was revving up for the weekend. This was a stop where I was unsure of my accommodation as all the campsites were caravan or mobile home only. In the end I had to make a steep climb out of the town, past the filling station and up to a country park. My arrival, stay and departure were all done as unobtrusively as possible if you get what I am saying.