Land’s End to John o’ Groats on the National Cycle Network – the challenge

This article was written for ‘The Ranger’, the Sustrans Volunteer Rangers Newsletter, and an edited version was published in the Autumn 2007 edition.

Bodmin sign

I first cycled from Land’s End to John o’ Groats in May/June 2006. I was pleased I’d done it but left the saddle vowing never to do it again. But then all sorts of forces began to work on me:

I met and was inspired by John Grimshaw when he gave the keynote speech at the ruralnet|uk conference. We talked about many things including the signage on the NCN.

This got me thinking. In 2006, I’d taken a GPS unit with me: it recorded the route and gave me lots of data to play with when I got back. All this data was published for other would-be end-to-enders on the trip’s blog: ruralnet.typepad.com/endtoend  I was also aware that this gadget could be used to plan routes in advance.

Soon after, on signing up as a Sustrans supporter I heard about  Sustrans’ 30th anniversary – what an opportunity for celebration: before I knew it I was planning a turn by turn route from Land’s End to John o’ Groats on the National Cycle Network.

NCN Signs

This little project kept me busy on many a dark winter evening! The 48 stages are published here: www.gpscycle.com. for anyone to view, download and use.

I wrote about the planning process at: blog.gpscycle.com and the site turned into a ‘saddlelog’ as I blogged the ride live from the saddle, using a fancy mobile phone.

So how did I get on? Did I stick to the network? Could I have done it without the GPS? Well, the NCN route planned was 1,235 miles. Sadly, I managed to cover only 647 of these on the network.

Working to a tight timetable, using major roads for half the route was unavoidable: we were committed to doing 100 miles a day and on some stretches of the network a sustained average speed of 10mph isn’t possible. Without exception they are routes to savour, not so good for chewing up the miles in a hurry.

Sustrans Rangers, Drew Manzie & Ian Brough

I couldn’t have done it without the GPS: the signage was generally not good enough to guide the unfamiliar traveller. Even the best-signed routes generally had a crucial sign missing. An exception was route 3 over Bodmin: brilliant, with on-road markings at every decision point. I dream of the day when on-road NCN signage is integral to every ‘Give way’ triangle on every minor road in the country.

After all the investment in time and resources to set up a route adequate signage is essential. Cheltenham was an example of where the balance is wrong. The cycle path from the station to Waitrose is superb but when you approach the superstore there are routes going off in various directions and absolutely no signage. If you do happen to chose the right path you are dropped onto a minor road with a superb sign, pointing back telling you where you come from but no indication of where to go next. Information is crucial to the successful use of any transport system. Good NCN signage is as important as the NCN itself.

Thanks go to all the Sustrans Rangers who are working hard to achieve this and to the Local Authorities who are investing in good signage. The National Cycle Network is undoubtedly one of the jewels in the crown of national UK infrastructure – a huge achievement in both development and upkeep. The challenge of riding from one tip of the country on the network is still there! Anyone up for it, should plan to take several weeks and enjoy the views and watering holes. Meanwhile, I’m up for joining a Rangers’ Relay.

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