Wednesday, 11 April 2012

JOHN O'GROATS

The route from Lands End to John O'Groats has long been one of the holy grails for people seeking to break records, raise money for charity or simply fulfil a personal goal. The most favoured methods of travel between the two is by bike or on foot. In 1880 cycling companions H. Blackwell and C. A. Harman were the first known cyclists to attempt the ride, completing it in 13 days. This record was broken in 1885 by one J. Lennox, who managed 6 days and 16 hours. The following year, an 18-year-old called George Pilkington Mills broke the record twice, once on a penny farthing and once on a tricycle, achieving 5 days and 10 hours on the tricycle. And so it has gone on down the years, with ever faster times achieved courtesy of ever more high-tech machines. The current record is held by Gethin Butler, who made it in 1 day, 20 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds in 2001. Perhaps the most poignant achievement of a cyclist was that of the late Jane Tomlinson, who made the journey in 2003 while terminally ill with cancer (this was but one of her cycling achievements, which included a bike ride across America).

Then there are the walkers, which over the years have included a number of celebrities. Former cricketer Ian Botham was one of the best-known: he completed the walk for charity in 1985 following a chance visit to a children's ward. That other great charity fundraiser, the late Sir Jimmy Savile, walked from Lands End to John O'Groats three times. The first recorded walk between the two end points actually went in the other direction: brothers John and Robert Naylor made the trek south in 1871. Not all of the walking events were undertaken with charity in mind. In 1960, the holiday park entrepreneur Billy Butlin organised a road walking race from John O'Groats to Lands End which was entered by 700 competitors, and which offered a prize of £1000, bagged by 19-year-old Wendy Lewis. There is a wonderfully nostalgic piece of footage covering the event on the British Pathe website.

Finally, as is so often the case with such endeavours, there have been a fair number of oddballs making the trip over the years. In 2005 a golfer from Kent called David Sullivan walked the north-south route hitting golf balls all the way. In 2010 three skateboarders made the journey in 21 days, a record for skateboarding the route. A number of people have made the journey on ride-on lawnmowers, the first being Stuart Boreham in 1996. In 2009, John Carver made the trip by "flyke", a flying bike. Also in 2009, US Navy pilot Rick Ryan claimed the record for a wheelchair. In 2008, an enterprising pensioner made the most of the recently introduced free bus passes for the over-60s by making the journey up and back on public transport, for free!

Those who make the journey northwards are greeted by a roadside scattering of houses, hotels and shops which are actually a short distance from the coast: to gain a real sense of an end to end, one has to push on a bit further to Duncansby Head. The name of the village derives from the Dutchman Jan de Groot, who was charged with setting up a ferry service between the mainland and Orkney. The ferry which operates from the tiny harbour nowadays offers birdwatching trips around the coast and day tours to Orkney during the summer months. John O'Groats does things a little more subtly and cheaply than its brash Cornish opposite number, with just the Last House in Scotland Museum - entrance free - which houses local memorabilia and photographs of shipwrecks, along with displays about life on the nearby island of Stroma.

Map of the area.

'John o' Groats sign and hotel' photo (c) 2005, Auz - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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