Downhill from John O’Groats

Trials on a tandem

“I’d like to ride a tandem,” said Bob, “along the Pennine Way.”

It was the kind of remark Bob would make.  He was a well-known character locally and had been my best friend as a child.  We were in our twentieth years and still very close. Sharing a tandem in the spring of 1976 was about to test that bond.

We were sitting in an establishment called Pilky’s. It was a bar just outside Clitheroe in Lancashire some sixteen miles from Preston where we lived, and a place to which we sometimes went of an evening because it had a very particular ambience, and we enjoyed the immature rural rally to get there.

In addition to enticing clientele from Clitheroe Pilky’s also serviced the fluctuating population of the caravan site at Edisford Bridge.  It was a cabaret style venue with a peculiar waiter who bucked the casual trend of his colleagues and dressed in a suit and bow tie.  He looked and sounded the very image of the veteran movie actor David Niven.  He delivered our lagers and lime with suitably discerning disdain. Bob, his brother Jimmy and I discussed the tandem proposal.

“Really?” said I.

“Yeah,” said Bob.  “For charity.”

I pointed out that the Pennine Way wasn’t particularly two-wheel friendly, especially if the two wheels were linked by a single frame supporting two persons.   I suggested something simpler but much longer. “Why not do the job properly and go from Land’s End to John O’Groats?”

“Yeah, that would be good,” said Bob.

I said I’d go with him.  Jimmy sat impassively.  Jimmy usually sat impassively.

“Do you want to come, Jim?” asked Bob.

“Yeah,” said Jim.

I sketched a design for a possible trandem on a beermat but that was rejected in favour of a pair of tandems.  That meant we’d need a fourth rider.  We drew up a shortlist.  We also decided to go north to south, starting at John O’Groats, because we felt that – psychologically – we would be going downhill all the way.  In part, that thought proved prophetic.

We purchased one tandem and put out an appeal for someone to loan us another, and a very trusting local cycling enthusiast duly obliged.  One of our circle of drinking associates called Andy signed up for the vacant seat on tandem two.  Andy’s girlfriend Janet, and my girlfriend Marion and another of our mutual chums, Steve, volunteered to provide the support team.  Steve and Janet would take turns driving the van containing all our gear when the cyclists were under pedal power.

The photograph that appeared in the Lancashire Evening Post to support our appeal for sponsors and the loan of another tandem cycle.  L to R Janet, Pete, Andy, Bob, Jimmy and Marion.

We embarked on a training programme, Bob and I religiously, Jimmy indifferently and Andy hypothetically.  Bob and I mostly undertook a circular route from our homes in Deepdale through the Trough of Bowland via Burholme Bridge and Abbeystead a distance of some 50 miles. We did that at least once every seven days for two months.

Bob was a very gifted individual. He could make anyone laugh via a mixture of surreal wit, earthy northern observation and a charmingly twisted use of the Lancashire vernacular.  He was a lovable clown.  His humour was blatant and immediate but with a shrewd philosophical twist.  He was also strongly skilled manually, working as a fitter at British Aerospace.  He was absolutely brilliant at manipulating a bicycle in motion. Hence, he always took the helm of the tandem while I pounded away and clung on for dear life in the back seat.  We opted for the loaned cycle which was either a 1950s or 1960s racing tandem.

The expedition was arranged for the weeks either side Easter Sunday.  The time required proved to be easily negotiated by those in employment, no problem for I who was unemployed, and tricky for the two girls whose strict sixth form insisted that Holy Week was sacrosanct and required their unbroken attendance.

As the planned departure drew closer Bob grew increasingly excited, Jimmy remained ostensibly indifferent, Steve was resourcefully keen, and Janet and Marion plotted how they might escape the wrath of the nuns at the Winckley Square Convent School.  Andy decided that the journey sounded terrific in theory and that was where he’d prefer to keep it.

With very little time remaining we had to find a replacement rider.  Another friend, Ged, slipped into the saddle.  He hadn’t done any training, so he was more or less a like-for-like replacement.

Ged, Steve, Jimmy, Janet, Bob, Marion and Pete at the most northerly point on the UK mainland.

On Friday 9th April 1976 we drove almost non-stop to John O’Groats, arriving very late in the evening to take up our pre-booked places in the Youth Hostel there.  We used Youth Hostels for each sleep to keep costs down. If they were not precisely on our route, we’d stuff the bikes in the back of the van and return to pick up the peddling from the same place the following morning.  We aimed to hit Preston on Good Friday and hence have a night in our home sepulchres.

The most difficult phases of the trek were the first and last. We quickly realised that it would probably have been better to conduct the journey in the opposite direction. After leaving the mainland’s most northerly point there was a long drag that was primarily uphill until we hit the highest elevations of the whole ride, as we pounded through the stunning but lung-breaking passes of Scotland.

We had one or two mechanical problems with the new tandem.

We contemplated that the training had probably been unnecessary.  Those who hadn’t trained did not suffer any more significantly than the two of us who had.  We were fairly active outdoor types, all aged seventeen to nineteen and in essentially good shape.  Whilst the adventure was something of an endurance test, we did not find it overly strenuous most of the time.  The main problems that we faced were social.

Marion’s diary is mercifully concise, being almost exclusively limited to the destinations attained each day, but the fifth and sixth days in the saddle have the word arguments scrawled across them and Wednesday 14th (a day of betrayal traditionally known as ‘Spy Wednesday’ in Christian circles) has the inscription BREAK UP.  It was not referring to she and I.

The problem with a tandem is that both riders have to go the same way.  When disagreements break out the combatants are linked by a crossbar.  The topic that triggered the dispute is lost in the mists of memory, but so far as can be recalled, it was pathetically trivial in origin and childish in execution on both our parts.  It’s a common story.  When teams get tired tempers get frayed and comrades kick out.  Fortunately, the Good Friday home town respite came just at the right time.


The next morning, we put our differences into pedal power and seared south like the north wind reaching our target of Wilderhope Manor in Shropshire some 112 miles away.  Something had changed and while witticisms and whacky interjections ruled once more, Bob and I understood our friendship had acquired permanent scars.

Things went pleasingly well as we traversed mid and south-western England.  The terrain was less undulated than that we’d experienced in Scotland and the Lake District, so we made rapid progress.

IMAG0870_1We were contacted by a local television station who wanted to film our arrival at Land’s End and so I gave them the itinerary that I had worked out.  Unfortunately, my calculations were incorrect and I had also failed to take into account the topography of Devon and Cornwall which, in places, is interminably rippled.

The ups and downs severely drained us and when it became apparent that we would not arrive until well after dark, the TV crew took down their tripods and found solace their pints and pasties.  Quite rightly, the blame for our tardiness was laid at my arrogant map-reading. My popularity plummeted to new depths. When we finally made it to England’s most southerly toe it was more with a sense of relief than celebration.

It was well after dark and we collapsed, shattered, into a club on a caravan site, not unlike Pilky’s where the project had been conceived.  We still had to find our pre-booked accommodation but upon hearing our tale, a kind lady took pity on us and let us use two of her vacant caravans.

The morning after.   Rear row: Steve and Ged.  Front row: Jimmy, Bob, Pete, Marion, Janet.

We’d done it.  We’d traversed the longest diagonal of the UK mainland on two tandem cycles.  According to the schizophrenic signpost at our final destination we had covered either 874 or 876 miles, though according to this unreliable navigator we’d cycled 889 miles. We rode for eleven consecutive days averaging eighty miles per day.

We paid all our own expenses – including buying the van and one of the tandems. In addition to individual friends and family, we collected donations from passers by on the route and were sponsored by Coca Cola.  The multinational drinks firm didn’t give us any money, but they did supply is with a crate of their product and a set of branded t-shirts.

We raised £500 (Evidently this equates to about £3000 in 2019) which we split between The Harris Children’s Home and Preston Spastics Day Centre. (Neither charity exits today – and if they did, the latter would certainly not be called that!)

Trivial as it was, the friendship fracture never fully healed. It did not end our alliance but it did permanently realign it. The tandem ride has therefore come to mark something more psychologically significant than physically satisfying.  My best boyhood friend would not, three years later, be my best man.  We’d left John O’Groats together, remained on one bike, and cycled to separate destinations.  We’d moved on from childhood and from adolescence. It was a ride of passage.

Other friendships from that foray flourished, which is why I still have access to some reliable documentation. Marion’s diary helpfully lists the Youth Hostels we used during that bruising and redemptive Easter in April 1976:

Friday 9th John O’Groats YH

Saturday 10th Carbisdale Castle YH (Bonar Bridge)

Sunday 11th  Inverness YH

Monday 12th Kingussie YH

Tuesday 13th Perth YH

Wednesday 14th Wanlock Head YH

Thursday 15th Longthwaite YH

Friday 16th (Good Friday) slept in our homes.

Saturday 17th Wilderhope Manor YH

Sunday 18th (Easter Sunday) Bath YH

Monday 19th Tavistock YH

Tuesday 20th (Arrived in Land’s End and stayed in ‘donated’ caravans.)

Wednesday 21st (Commemorative photos at Land’s End.)




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