The Hospitality Tour

16 min readApr 18, 2020


Cycling Plus, March 2004

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
(Start again)
It was a dark and stormy night.
(Start again)
Call me Ishmael.

This is a story about a long bicycle ride, and the people I met along the way: a cast of characters who responded to my online entreaty for hosts to shelter me and my bicycle as we travelled from Land’s End in Cornwall to John O’Groats in Scotland. This is known, for reasons which become clear as soon as you look at a map, as the end-to-end. Four or five thousand people do it every year, sometimes to break a record, often for charity, occasionally for the hell of it.

Been there, done that
I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing it. Despite years of cycling hither and yon with the occasional stop in Hull, my dirty little secret, aside from the fact that I actually kind of like Hull, is that I’ve never been terribly fond of pedalling. I’m more a freewheeling specialist. Only so much freewheeling is possible on a trip like this. What’s more, I’ve already done it. In the winter of ’97 I climbed aboard my Marin Sausalito — later stolen and probably now mainlining White Lightning in a seedy backroom bike parlour — and managed to span Britain in ten days. This time I’ll be aiming for a more leisurely three weeks.

E2Es can be addictive. Cycling Plus reader Ron Strutt is a veteran of three tours, his first the result of a pub dare. My excuse is that I don’t like travelling in circles. For complete cycling satisfaction I require a beginning and an end which aren’t anywhere near each other. [Times change.] Following my initial success I made two further attempts, both aborted for various reasons including my odd (for a cyclist) distaste for pedalling. Also, touring is expensive when you B&B it. I don’t fancy camping, as it requires carrying things like tents and sleeping bags and WMD to brandish at spiders, which I don’t tend to deal with in a mature fashion. It all gets a bit heavy. Not likely I’d be going again. Then I had an idea.

Indoor plumbing
C+ maintains a forum. I announced my desire to do the trip, posting that I was:

Hoping to meet readers along the way who are willing to put me up for the night so I don’t have to sleep in a ditch. A spare bed isn’t necessary. Simply a roof, a blanket — the dog’s will be fine if he’s not using it — and access to indoor plumbing would be more than enough.

Qualities I’m looking for in a host include a large degree of flexibility; I cannot guarantee which night I’ll arrive. Only that I’ll probably be very tired and immediately collapse in your sitting room, leaving you and your family to tiptoe politely around my comatose body until very early the next morning when it’s off to the next friendly face.

I’m asking for a hands-up from interested parties. Then I’ll plan the route.

If you’ve got some free time and would like to ride a few miles with me you’re more than welcome, though be warned that I’m subject to wild mood swings, from cordial to moderately amiable.

I constructed a web page, with a map of Britain on which to chart my emerging route, then waited.

The beauty of the internet is that you usually don’t have to wait very long. Within two hours someone named Gordy typed in ‘You’d be welcome in Stone, Staffs’. I had to look up Stone to see where it was. It was in a good place. I was on my way.

Somebody has to
Wilf in Gloucester. SeaBear in Blackpool. Flying Monkey in Newcastle. Ravenbait in Crediton. As the map filled with volunteers, some of whom did indeed have names like Alan and Steve and Barbara, I started to fret. Because although my idea was a good one, it had a serious flaw: I’m shy. Almost pathologically introverted. Even phone conversations can be a white-knuckle affair. ‘Cordial to moderately amiable’ was putting a brave face on it. At least with B&Bs you can say hello then quickly shut yourself in for the night, alone with that copy of Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less always on hand by order of the local tourist board.

Welcome mats popped up in unexpected places, like Germany and Texas. Others, while closer to home, would’ve stretched my trip all out of shape. I sent heartfelt thanks anyway to Wafflycat in Norfolk, Giant Man in Essex, and everyone else.

My route almost drew itself: an easy chore given the indulgent zigzags I was prepared to endure. I had a good start in Cornwall and could pick and choose in middle England, but Scotland remained barren for weeks until Karen in Glasgow emailed an invite, writing ‘Somebody has to’.

When the well finally appeared dry I wrote to B&Bs, promising a small portion of publicity in lieu of lucre. Half a dozen signed on, plugging the gaps. I now had my hosts. All that remained was to cycle the miles.

And meet a few people.

Oh the weather outside is frightful
A randomly chosen day in April. I’m not really ready for this. My favourite cycling shoes are falling apart. I’m a stone too heavy. I’ve made a last-minute change of bicycle because my favourite one has started ticking ominously around the bottom bracket.

My wife accompanies me to Paddington station in London to begin the 5-hour journey west followed by the 500 hour journey north. First stop: Camborne.

Ed Hager (‘Speedup’) is my Land’s End connection. I’m grateful to him for ferrying me to the edge tomorrow morning despite the fact that his car engine exploded a few hours before my arrival. We make sure my bike fits in the boot of his loaner, then I meet everyone else: bride-to-be Vicky, who’s tying the knot with him in a bluebell wood next week; daughter Katie; Sammy the cocker spaniel; and Jack the Canaan, ‘bred to do nothing and does it well’ as opposed to fetching woodcocks, which isn’t so much in demand these days.

Vicky feeds me a mushroom risotto accompanied by rice milk, my favourite tipple. We’re accompanied by Mike Hayes, another forum regular (‘Jalapeno’) who lives in nearby Helston. Even a tiny crowd such as this would normally find me hiding under my chair by now with one of the dogs. Instead I seek shelter behind my little red notebook, jotting down things like ‘bred to do nothing and does it well.’ It gets late. Jalapeno leaves and we all turn in. Not only am I spared from using the dog’s blanket, I have my own room and ISDN connection.

In the morning I stumble downstairs to find Ed in front of the TV: ‘I was just checking the weather for you.’ I’ve already looked out the window. The weather is crap. After a month of unbounded blue skies over most of the British Isles, I’ve chosen The Day Things Got Back To Normal.

On the ride out to Land’s End I reflect on the fact that I’ll be missing Richard Trevithick Day, when all of Camborne parties in Cornish tartan and the streets are draped in bunting to celebrate the achievements of ‘one of the great, sad romances of the Industrial Revolution.’ I read on the internet last night that ‘the son of a Cornish mine captain was not simply an engineer — he was an inventor of railway engines, a visionary and an adventurer. But he still ended his life in poverty, wondering how it all went wrong.’ Streched too thin?

It’s a spectacularly foul morning, the gale-force wind peppered with stinging rain. At the Land’s End Hotel I duly sign the Collins Cathedral Account Book reserved for end-to-enders. I’m followed by David Royle, who’s hoofing it to JoG in 10–12 weeks or ‘as long as it takes’. His minder confers with mine, both of them looking happier in their work than we in ours, then he disappears to begin his patient walk. Ed and I trudge outside, where he takes a picture of me gamely hugging the Land’s End Signpost. ‘John O’Groats 874 miles’, it says. Not the way I’m going.

Adam and Eve
‘9:51 start. 9:53 out of breath — the wind stole it from me.’
-from the notebook

I set off feeling the same way I always do on such occasions: prematurely tired and overwhelmed. I’d like to report a frisson of excitement, but it’s a long road ahead. I know from experience it’ll take a dozen miles for this pessimism to bleed out of my system. The hurricane isn’t helping.

My first planned photo-op comes and goes: the Minnack, a wonderful outdoors theatre with the ocean as a backdrop, where several years ago I’d caught a rainy performance of The Importance of Being Earnest.

I’m creaking along so slowly the rambler may soon catch up with me.

It takes almost an hour to battle my way to Penzance. I idly wonder where Gethin Butler would be by now. He holds the E2E record at 44 hours, 4 minutes, 20 seconds. Devon? (Andy Wilkinson was reigning speed champ for years; I’m still getting used to Gethin. In any event these impossible feats were surely faked, like the moon landing.)

Ed told me the seals in the Gweek Seal Sanctuary are all sick — not SARS I hope — so I cross that off my list and stay the course to Falmouth, home of Josie Dew when she’s not traversing the earth with the wind in her own wheels.

As I step onto the ferry to cross the bay the skies miraculously clear and the waters calm. I exchange suitably seafaring words with fellow passenger Adam, captain of his own boat (Eve, naturally). In the implausibly picturesque St. Mawes his wife whisks him away into the Roseland Peninsula like a cat who’s just got her cream. I follow at my own speed, genuinely happy for the first time all day, getting pleasantly lost in the lanes around Mevagissy, cruising by St. Austell and the Eden Project, in search of Botelet.

Bury my Bike at Wounded Knee
I have my first close call, with a large hissing goose. He wants a piece of me. He opens his mouth wide enough to count his teeth. Teeth?!? ‘He’s looking for respect,’ says David Tamblyn. The goose soon loses interest, chasing a beagle across the farmyard.

This is Botelet, home of the Tamblyns for a longish time and former stomping grounds of William de Betreaux, clerk of the Black Prince. It sits in sheep-strewn fields not far south of Bodmin Moor. I’ve got a big room with a view, spring water running from the taps, and the most comfortable bed I’ll be falling into for the next three weeks. Helen the aromatherapist even rustles up some pasta so I don’t go to sleep hungry.

In the morning it’s just me and the sheep. I leave quickly before the goose picks up the scent.

Did I mention that Cornwall is hilly? Perhaps you’ve heard rumours. I feel a painful twinge in one of my knees as I’m admiring the aqueduct near Liskeard. By the time I hit Tavistock, which has imprisoned Sir Francis Drake in a roundabout that temporarily spins me off in the wrong direction, and start the climb into Dartmoor, I honestly don’t know why my left knee is continuing to bend or what its motivation is. Does it look at its partner and think ‘That must be how a knee is supposed to work’? I’m wishing for an impossible gear so high it takes a mile to complete a revolution yet at the same time so low I can’t feel any resistance…

The pain becomes almost unbearable. It’s the dark epicentre of my universe. Never one to refuse the gift of a hairshirt, I nix the idea of walking, even if it means biting my lip half off as I winch my way up.

I while away the hours alternatively moaning and constructing Dr Seussian rhymes. One hill, two hill, steep hill, cruel hill. I think I must have blacked out for awhile but kept pedalling anyway, because eventually I’m in Moretonhampstead slumped outside a cafe, chosen because another cyclist is already patronising it and all my higher cognitive functions have ceased, leaving me with nothing but a primitive herd instinct. I chat with my fellow cyclist, who accompanies me for a few miles and leads me to a fundamental discovery: when I take my mind off my misery and concentrate on someone else, it stops hurting. A little.

Cycle to live
Not long into our acquaintance Samantha Fleming shows me an x-ray of her brain. [Here’s one of mine.] I’ve been curious what was in there ever since I happened upon her website, a parallel universe where she even features in her own comic strip, drawn by partner Mark O’Brien. Sam lost her right eye as an infant and vision isn’t an entirely straightforward affair via her left: ‘things tend to bleed together’. This must make for a thrilling ride on Fingal, her Orbit Harrier. ‘Cycle to live’, she says on her site.

‘Ravenbait’, Marco, and housemate Andy Gates live in a tiny village near Crediton. The bike census for the house is in the double figures if you include the garden shed overgrown with old Moultons. The shed is Andy’s domain. He shows me a prototype windmill; he hopes to take the house off the mains one day.

I’ll be sleeping in the sitting room tonight. I barely survive dinner. Their rapid-fire wit has me opting for the safety of my notebook (some of us require at least a week’s notice to formulate winning repartee). ‘What would you have to do to make a Bakewell Tart macrobiotic?’, I have written there, a thin slice of a conversation on health food. ‘Use it as a growth medium for cress?’ That must be Andy, who once put a pig’s head in a bucket in an experiment to deflesh it. I turn in early, sadly missing out on ‘Hogs of War’ for Playstation, narrated by Rick Mayall: ‘He who controls the swine controls the universe.’

Regrettably, I’ve been sacrificing local attractions in favour of momentum. Yesterday I’d bypassed the opportunity to explore the Lutyens-designed Castle Drogo to ascertain if it was really a Bond-villain lair complete with shark pool hidden under the topiary. Because of my dodgy knee it’s hard to guess how long it’ll take to get to my next host, so I’m falling into the routine of rising early and trying to get the hard work for the day over with as soon as possible in order to enjoy a nice long stretch of recuperation in the evening.

Every turn of the cranks still heralds a fresh burst of pain. I’m sticking to the main roads because of the kinder gradients, and am looking forward to meeting Mark Darvill, who’s bringing me in for a landing this afternoon.

Total Quality Management
Mark and family live in a spiffy new development in the Vale of Taunton Deane, bordered by the Quantocks, Mendips, Black Downs, and Exmoor. It’s a great spot but they’ve got their eye on New Zealand. ‘We’re not afraid of the mutants,’ says Anita, who’s seen the Lord of the Rings.

They went to France last year to watch the Tour: ‘It’s a wonderful atmosphere, we loved it’. Mark even sampled a stage himself, Tarbes to Luz-Ardiden.

On the forum he’s TQM, or Total Quality Management. The buzzphrase from his business background fits. He’s the consummate host, looking appropriately concerned when I tell him I almost fainted in the bathtub, overcome by heat and torpor; feeding me in the style to which I’ve rapidly become accustomed; taking me on a tour of the area and driving me up nearby Cothelstone Hill for an overview of the Vale; and finally, loaning me a wraparound bandage and a copy of Vivian Grisogono’s The Knee for bedtime reading.

Next morning’s run across the Somerset Levels is blissfully flat. Computerless, I spin along at what must surely be fantastic speeds.

I cruise into Glastonbury and climb the Tor, panniers in one hand, bike slung over my shoulder. It takes all my strength to keep the wind from snatching it away, turning it into a UFO for the small herd of cattle below. I really have no idea why I’m carrying my bicycle up this hill, risking injury to me, it, and possibly the cows. Later I quash the urge to buy a crystal from one of the groovy shops in town to focus the healing powers of the universe onto the sorry hinges betwixt shin and thigh, continue on to Wells, spend all of three minutes staring in slackjawed wonder at the saint-encrusted cathedral, heave myself over the Mendips, then land, typically exhausted, in Bath, where expat Romans kept clean and Cycling Plus publish this magazine.

At John’s Cycle Shop I buy brake pads to replace those worn down by Cornwall, Devon, and Somerset. Then I spend the night with a lovely couple by the name of Withers, parents to the production editor who helps birth C+ every month. Simon’s in London holding his lighter aloft at some rock ’n’ roll concert.

Many Blessings
-signposted hill in Cherhill, Wiltshire. Also, arguably, a political statement

Avebury, home to one of the larger mystical rock collections in Europe, is a spaghetti junction of leylines. I’ve arrived before National Trust opening hours in the hope of plugging my bike into this cosmic power source. Like some kind of new-age twitcher, I’m also determined to log a stone-hugger.

The ancient avenues are thinly populated at this hour. I’m immediately lucky anyway. A woman slowly approaches each stone, stretches her arms wide, and falls into an embrace. When she comes to the end of the line I approach her as gently as she greeted the monoliths and ask her what she gets from them. ‘Each one is a different aspect of life,’ Petra tells me…

She waxes long and poetic about convergence, the circle of life, Michael & Mary lines, and I don’t know what else because I put my notebook away around the time she started explaining how the stones are male and female. I like this woman. She radiates goodwill. There’s something about her that’s very calming. ‘Many blessings,’ she finally says by way of goodbye. Then she gives me a hug, impassive rock that I am. I think she’s passed along some of the energy she got from the stones, because I suddenly feel inexplicably wonderful.

A plague of Morris Dancers
Tim Bartel is late but it’s impossible to be cross with him. He’s just hurled himself down from Oxford, suffering two punctures along the way, to hook up with me at Lambourn. In what is destined to become a familiar refrain I match his pace with difficulty; he keeps such a steady cadence I’d swear he’s riding a fixed. We bisect the Ridgeway high on its crest, then sweep down into the Vale of the White Horse, past thatched-roof houses in need of a haircut, and on to Oxford. This city, named after a convenient river crossing for uneducated draft animals, is home to the Oxford Cycle Workshop. They specialize in reconditioning abandoned bikes. Oh, and there are a few colleges in town, too.

At home I meet Jennifer Swift, a fellow science fiction aficianado and Tim’s tandem partner. She’s stoked him on the English end-to-end, which calls it quits in Berwick-upon-Tweed.

After a night during which my knee mostly reconstitutes itself Tim and I slip past the dreaming spires and skirt the Thames. We hurry through Bampton, which has been plagued by Morris Dancers for centuries (or it just seems like centuries). If you believe everything you read on the web, ‘English “morris” dancing is the earliest known example of biological warfare… villagers who showed the early symptoms of bubonic plague were dressed in colourful outlandish costumes with bells tied to their legs and sent to neighbouring hamlets to perform their macabre ritual.’

Tim leaves me at the edge of the Cotswolds, his Holdsworth not even panting. I’ve been anticipating a nice leisurely jaunt through the myriad Duntisbournes, including Rouse and Leer. The sky jabs at the earth with lightning and follows up with hail. I seek sanctuary in a small church, not exactly praying, nodding off in the cool, dark nave. Later I’ll look back on this lost half-hour as one of the highlights of my trip – my body humming, the wind howling, vague light fractured into medieval colours caressing my restless soul.

Breaking in
There’s a very long hill which rears up a few miles outside of Gloucester, its payoff. I wouldn’t mind if they charged for it. On such a gradient one holds on tight and finds religion, contemplating the occasional blessings of gravity.

Thanks to a flying start I’ve arrived early, but no matter. ‘Wilf’ has left his keys under the bird house in his garden. I peer through the window into Steve Mockford’s dining room, pleasantly surprised by a cheerful welcome note.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m breaking in. It’s a very nice house and comes complete with directions on where to find everything. As a cyclist, there’s really only one thing I’m interested in: largish amounts of food. Fortunately Steve arrives before I can act on my desire to inhale every spare carbohydrate lying helpless in the cupboards.

He’s a LE to JoG vet, his labours certified by an impressive scrapbook and an interview with Radio Gloucester complete with proud mother on the line. After dinner he gives me a patient tutorial on bicycle maintenance which goes largely unabsorbed. I’m not sure when I finally get to sleep because there’s a backwards clock on the wall.

The next morning, newly clued-in to my lack of mechanical expertise, Steve favours my bike with a tune-up. He accompanies me into the town centre and hands me off like a baton to James Thomson, who proceeds to escort me in a delightful meander eventually north.

In keeping with the virtual theme of this tour, I became acquainted with the fiercely intelligent James on a newsgroup some years ago. We first met in person just last week at Paddington Station. He was also headed west and volunteered for active duty should I pass this way. He introduces me to the Severn of his childhood, rewards me with my first glimpse of a swan’s nest, and buys me lunch in Tewkesbury. Later, after he’s deposited me near Worcester, he calls to say that he’s found my wallet on the tarmac a few miles back.

Alan Lord, my newest host, drives me out to collect it. His wife Pauline cooks us a meal. The evening dissolves into a pleasant blur of conversation.

Somewhere along the road from Cornwall I’ve lost my shyness.

It occurs to me that there are worse ways to End-to-End.