1 Jan 2017

Trip of a Lifetime: John O'Groats to Land's End in One Day

Before Christmas I was wondering what on earth I was going to do in the black hole that is the few days between Christmas and New Year apart from drink and eat to excess. I'm really not a fan of winter and short, cold, rainy days make me feel quite miserable. I needed something to take my mind off it all. I needed a challenge!

One disgustingly dark and horrible December morning I was sitting on the 7.25am from Theale to Paddington reading the latest Guy Martin book. Guy is a human dynamo with boundless energy and a need to fill every hour of the day with danger and excitement. I'm not in the same league as him in terms of activity but I had had a pretty action packed 2016 as far as I was concerned and why not finish it with another road trip?

Inspired by Mr Martin and the fact my new car, a 2007 BMW 330i M Sport, was both fast and comfortable I decided to undertake a trip I'd always wanted to do. Land's End to John O'Groats.

That evening I studied the map. I live in the south east of England and the distance from home to Land's End is 276 miles. Land's End to John O'Groats is 837 miles and John O'Groats to home is 675 miles.  The most I'd ever driven in one day was from Dallas, Texas, to Santa Fe, New Mexico via Roswell and that was 704 miles. 704 miles on straight, open, traffic free, speed camera free American highways. In daylight.

Land's End to John O'Groats would be 837 miles on British roads with average speed cameras, road works and festooned with ignorant drivers in MPVs. The trip would take around 14 hours (without any stops), half of which would be in the dark.

Sounded good. I set a date and booked the hotels. My plan was to do the trip backwards and take two days to get to John O'Groats so I would be feeling fresh and unweary for the big day.

Christmas came and went and on boxing day morning I set off for Dunblane in Scotland. The car was freshly serviced and fully fuelled and I had a cardboard box strapped to the passenger seat which contained all the essentials I'd need for the trip.

Day 1 was an enjoyable blast along familiar roads - the A34, M40, M42, M6 and M74. I was surprised at how much traffic was on the road but nonetheless didn't get stuck in any traffic jams.  The hotel was comfortable and the next day I breakfasted well and headed to John O'Groats. This day was much different. The vast majority of the trip was on the A9 which would be a fabulous road but is neutered by average speed cameras along the majority of its length.

Still, there is a certain enjoyment to be found setting the cruse control to 74mph and doing everything in your power to maintain that speed no matter what - including overtaking those doing 68mph (everyone).

The A9 flows through the Cairngorms where the view changes from forest to mountains. It's an achingly lovely place spoiled only by having to constantly overtake other drivers whilst making sure you don't speed. At one point I stopped in a quiet lay-by. There seemed to be no-one else for miles around and was the perfect place for a comfort break. Then a cyclist clad in lycra arrived and stood ten yards away from me, unmoving. It felt like he'd done it on purpose. Still needing a pee I got back in the car and carried on.

The road situation vastly improves north of Inverness where the road gets quieter and twistier and the speed cameras disappear. I would argue this promotes safer driving as one needs to focus on what is going on and one's driving. The further north you get the more corners and elevation changes there are. The sea is to one side and craggy hills to the other. Towns and villages are sprinkled infrequently and traffic is extremely light. Even when you do come up behind someone there are plenty of opportunities to overtake safely.

At a place called Golspie I pulled over and went for a walk along a quite spectacular beach. At Wick I stopped for fuel and some healthy snacks for the journey - carrots, nuts, grapes.

At a shade before 4pm I pulled into John O'Groats. The village is nothing more than a collection of touristy type buildings surrounding a harbour. Shops, cafe, pub. I walked along the harbour and was for that moment the most northerly person on the British mainland.

My hotel was 200 yards away. It was simple and quite cold. Darkness descended totally at 4.15pm and suddenly what had been a welcoming kind of place seemed harsh and unforgiving.

I had arrived early so I could be as ready as possible for the big day ahead. In terms of overall preparation I was as ready as possible. I was travelling alone. I could have dragged someone along but I'm happy with my own company, and often prefer it to inane chattering for the sake of it. I'd also prepared a very long playlist of my favourite music - around 25 hours worth.

I'd been considering audiobooks but couldn't make my mind up - I prefer to read actual books. However when I learned of the sad death of Carrie Fisher I downloaded her new book, The Princess Diarist.

I'd also altered my sleeping pattern. I'm normally a bed late, up late person - a night owl. But I'd been going to bed earlier and earlier and been waking up earlier too. My alarm was set for 5.30am for a 6am start.

At 7pm I ate dinner in the hotel bar, surrounded by drunk Scottish people. I showered and went to bed at 9pm and fell asleep immediately.

At 3.48am I woke up. There was no point going back to sleep. I made a cup of tea, packed my stuff and hit the road at exactly 4.33am. The satnav said it would take 14 hours 26 minutes. I felt fresh and ready for the trip. Heated seat on, climate set to 20°C. Head off into the dark.

The first couple of hours were fantastic fun. Winding, twisting, single carriageway roads. Hands on the wheel, eyes fixed on the road or the next apex. I was carrying a good speed. Manoeuvres were not conducted like I was in a race car - I was in this for the long haul - but I was braking late, hitting apexes, accelerating hard.

I saw lots of wildlife. Deer, foxes, rabbits and the odd something small, furry and fast, scurrying across the road.

The sky was pitch black but the wind was low and there wasn't a hint of mist, even though fog was forecast over parts of the country.

The further south I headed the more traffic I encountered. I continued driving hard. I came across the sections of the A9 with average speed cameras. Cruise control on, overtake slowly, insane politicking affecting safety. Still, at night you can see headlights approaching - or not.

I passed through the Cairngorms in darkness and didn't see the snow spattered mountains

At 7.41am the sun started appearing above the horizon. Then it came suddenly and the day arrived, albeit gloomily.

By Glasgow I had been driving for 4 hours 30 minutes without a break. We had done 280 miles and there was was still a quarter of a tank of fuel left. My average speed had been 64.6mph and fuel consumption had averaged 27.1mpg.

I was ready for a break (busting for a pee) but the electronic sign said the services I had planned to stop at had no fuel. Instead I asked the satnav to find another fuel station. I stopped at Morrisons, Glasgow to fill up with petrol and windscreen washer fluid and a run to the loo. After less than ten minutes we were on the road again.

The next few hundred miles were going to be my opportunity to increase my average speed before hitting the midlands. South of Glasgow and into northern England and the interfering busybodies in government leave the poor motorist alone for a while. There are no fixed cameras and little other traffic. Those hours were glorious. If you've ever driven across Europe you'll know the feeling of driving mile after mile on straight, quiet roads at high speed. This is what the M74 and M6 through the Lakes and Lancashire is like. Pure pleasure.

And then I hit the traffic.

My average speed over 450 miles had been 69.9mph. I was now just over half way there and feeling good. But the M6 had other thoughts. We ground to a halt north of Warrington and my average never reached 70mph. I was using Google maps on my phone for more accurate traffic data and it said the area north of the Thelwall viaduct was totally blocked and that we should turn off and travel 2 miles east down the M62 then head south through Birchwood and back on to the M6 just ahead of the viaduct. Google reckoned this hugely out of the way route would save 20 minutes. I took the diversion.

We continued to crawl and Google came up with another suggestion to avoid 45 minutes worth of queues. This time it involved the M56 west then the A559 south until Crewe. I took this too.

Coincidentally this route passed within half a mile of my brother's house so I called in for a quick pit stop but the house was empty. They were out shopping. It was 12.45pm. I watered his hedge and carried on.

Back on the M6 and I didn't take any more diversions. The traffic shuffled along in fits and starts and ruined my average speed even more. At Birmingham we took the M5 and carried on inexorably south.

Patches of mist came and went. The traffic didn't improve. At several points the fast lane went from 75mph to 0mph whilst the other lanes carried on at 60-70mph. I was surrounded by ignoramuses who refused to drive according to conditions, to any code of conduct, to simple common sense or courtesy.

I regularly dipped into the middle lane if it became free but would then be blocked from getting back into lane three. People would drive close to the car ahead and constantly brake. Others sat for miles in lane three at 65mph, ignoring the massive queue behind and acres of free motorway ahead. Random panic braking would occur frequently. People only seemed to look at the car ahead rather than to the traffic all around and ahead. I was, as I often am, quite appalled at the driving standards on our roads, something that becomes quite dangerous on a busy motorway.

Time and miles wore on. I had stopped again at Hilton Park services in Birmingham. The sun sat low in the sky at Bristol and everyone slammed on their brakes every time the road aligned with it so it sat right on the horizon at 12 o'clock.

The sun set at 4.30pm at Avonmouth. I took stock. I was feeling fine. I'd been driving for 12 hours straight and did not feel weary. The BMW was doing a fine job. I had finished my audiobook and moved on to music. I would open the window occasionally for a blast of cold, fresh air.

I stopped for fuel somewhere on the M5 but cannot remember where. Then we hit Exeter and turned on to the A30 which is a beautiful road, mainly dual carriageway, that passes through some spectacular scenery as it heads through Devon and Cornwall.

There was plenty of traffic but it was better behaved than on the M6 and M5. We all cruised as fast as we felt comfortable with and people would move over if lane one was free. Very civilised.

At Bodmin we hit 12 miles of roadworks, policed by average speed cameras with a limit of 40mph. I was behind some moron in a Hyundai who could not maintain a constant speed so we wavered from 30 to 40mph for what seemed like forever.

Finally free of the roadworks I mashed the pedal and carried on across Cornwall. I stopped for fuel at some point and felt weary and tired for the first time. The dual carriageway lasts a surprisingly long time. It was only after Penzance - just a few miles from Land's End - that the A30 becomes single carriageway.

Those last few miles were conducted in silence. I turned the music off and opened the window and enjoyed the moment. I followed an old Defender for a few minutes. The driver was caning it so it was quite fun.

And then finally I hit Sennen and saw the sign for Land's End. I passed the Last Pub in England and carried on. Along a quiet lane you see a pair of stone signs either side of the road that simply say Land's End. I stopped for a photo. A deer jumped in front of me and bounced off into the night.

Another hundred yards and I had done it. It was 7.39pm. According to my car's trip computer (not accounting for stops) the average speed had been 62.9mph and the average fuel consumption 28.2mpg. I had covered 857 miles.

The overall trip had taken 15 hours and 6 minutes. I had been driving for 14 hours and 12 minutes. Therefore I had stopped for a total of 54 minutes.

I felt elated. I parked in the Land's End car park and looked upwards. It was a crystal clear night and the sky looked spectacular. I could see three or four times more stars than I normally would in the light polluted south east.

Happy with the day I drove two miles to my hotel in Sennen Cove, ate a light dinner, drank a single pint and went to bed.

The next morning I woke an hour before breakfast so went for a walk along the beautiful beach at Sennen Cove. At 9am I drove back to Land's End and walked down to the craggy area behind the tourist buildings. For that moment I was the most southerly human on the British mainland. Then I headed for home and was able to view Cornwall and Devon in daylight - always a delight. I stopped for lunch with a friend in Somerset and finally arrived home at 4pm.

When I mentioned on Twitter I was doing the trip I had lots of support. When I was headed up north and then on the day of the trip itself I was inundated with questions and well wishes. A few people asked why I had done it, some just said I was crazy. Everyone congratulated me. It felt good to have so much positivity from people.

Driving from John O'Groats to Lands End in a day is an ultimately pointless exercise but so is any kind of rally or competition. I can say I did it and the vast majority of people cannot. I feel good that I did it. I ticked a box that would have always remained unticked - unsatisfactorily so. I enjoyed my time behind the wheel but I also enjoyed the preparation and the time afterwards.

I am writing this on 1 January. This year I will ride my motorcycle with a group of friends across Wales, touching the south, east, north and west boundaries, and I'll drive through most of the capital cities in Western Europe. I've developed a taste for road trips but it is so much more satisfying if that trip has a purpose.

By Matt Hubbard