Book review: Lands End to John O’Groats travel books
When considering a major new project, whether it’s a holiday, a big purchase or a new hobby, I’ll always turn to books and websites to do my initial research. And so it is with one of my next big planned adventures, an end-to-end cycle ride from Lands End to John O’Groats (or John O’Groats to Lands End if you prefer the wind in your face), from the southerly tip to the very north of the UK mainland.
I’m considering the LEJOG trip next year – there’s too much happening this year – and so I’ve plenty of time to research how others have done it, what route to choose and what kit to buy. Our recent beach holiday provided ample opportunity to catch up on some reading and I thought I’d offer my observations on four books on the topic.
Now good travel writing in my book provides the reader with a chance to engage with a well-written narrative about the place or journey – as well as offer some useful factual details. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a blow-by-blow account of other people’s cycle rides but books that tell a good story within the context of the challenges of an 1000-mile bike ride. The four books I’m reviewing all provide this balance: some more factual and some with a strong narrative style.
Lands End to John O’Groats – Self-help Cycle Guide (Royston Wood)
As the name suggests, this self-help guide by Royston Wood largely falls into the former category. In fact, it’s a book of two halves: the first half provides a very practical and helpful overview of how to plan the trip, how to devise a route, route mapping, training plans and nutrition, while the second half offers an account of his own six-day LEJOG cycle ride.
I have to admit that I found the more factual half very informative. As someone who’s at the “just thinking about doing it” stage, he’s focused this section exactly on the kinds of questions a newbie would ask (How am I going to get to the start ? Where am I going to sleep on my route ? What will I need to take with me on my ride ?). Royston Wood clearly has an eye for detail and facts, and his section on nutrition summarises much reading on this topic while he provides a detailed description of how to create routes using Google Maps.
He took on a significant challenge in completing the LEJOG in only six days. To save you doing the maths, this works out as an average of 150 miles each day ! So just as his own cycle ride had to take place on a strict schedule, so the book is a swift sprint along the length of the UK: skipping a few paragraphs might find you missing out on 80 miles of his journey ! This is not a leisurely account of Britain by bike but a fact-laden work by a man on a mission. Consequently, I found the second half of the book far less readable: valuable, if nothing else, to put you off wanting to complete the LEJOG in a week.
Mud, Sweat and Gears (Ellie Bennett)
Cycling at a much more leisurely pace, taking 30 days to do it, is Ellie Bennett’s Mud, Sweat and Gears. At the other extreme, she and her cycling partner are not die-hard cycling fanatics but rather laid-back leisure cyclists with passion for real ale. To prove this point, the contains a Beer Index listing the fifty best beers of the trip.
This is Ellie Bennett’s first book and she has a nice, relaxed style of writing. It did take me a few chapters to get into her laid-back style but once I did I really enjoyed the way in which she mixes her description of her cycling exploits with the interesting historical and beer-related diversions en route. If you’re just as interested to find out more about the hidden corners and byways of the UK as you are a LEJOG trip then this is the book for you.
Lands End to John O’Groats (Sean Conway)
Those of you who follow adventurers on social media will no doubt already be familiar with Sean Conway. Born and raised in Africa, his LEJOG trip was the start of his travel adventures. Since then he has cycled around the world in 116 days (suffering a collision with a car and a fractured spine in the process), become the first person to swim the LEJOG up the west coast of the UK, and plans to run the LEJOG trip in 40 days in August 2014.
However, while Sean Conway is undoubtedly an inspiring adventurer and someone with unbridled ambition, he is not – on the basis of his first book at least – the best of writers. In fact, I gave up reading this book after five chapters. He writes as if he is recounting a story to one of his mates in the pub; it’s often disjointed, frequent short sentences make for difficult reading, and some of his observations really are best left within the pub and inappropriate to a wider audience.
I see Sean Conway has another book available on his round-the-world cycle trip and one soon to be published on his recent LEJOG swim; I can only hope that he has enlisted a good proof-reader since he wrote this first book.
Free Country: A penniless adventure the length of Britain (George Mahood)
George Mahood and his friend, Ben, decided – as you do – that they would start the LEJOG trip without any clothes, or money or even bikes … What follows is a hugely entertaining and well-crafted story of the pair’s efforts to blag meals, accommodation, bikes and clothes the length of the country.
Much more than an account of a challenge (though a challenge is genuinely was), this is a funny and engaging story of the enormous generosities and kindness offered by the people they meet along the way without which their adventure could not have happened. The cycling is of course a major theme throughout the book but it’s almost incidental to the story that unfolds, from meeting llama farmers, to singing Christmas carols in return for food, to sleeping in a hitman’s living room. I frequently found myself laughing out loud at the pair’s ridiculous situations and conversations and this genuinely is an extremely readable book.
While there are an increasing number of LEJOG guidebooks out there which offer the low-down on how to plan and enjoy your end-to-end trip (such as the Cicerone End to End Cycle guide), what I enjoyed most about these books was the ways in which they brought the classic trip to life. The best offer a compelling narrative that draws you into the journey and provide an entertaining read in which the cycling plays an important but supporting role in the overall story.
It’s interesting that only Mud, Sweat and Gears comes from a mainstream publisher; all of the others are self-published and as a consequence, the quality of the writing and layout varies.
If, like me, you’re considering a LEJOG cycle trip at some point in the future my recommendation would be to pick up Free Country and Mud, Sweat and Gears to really help you get ‘under the skin’ of this classic journey. This won’t replace the nitty-gritty of the planning you’ll need to do but it will certainly give you a very good taste for what it takes to cycle from end to end.
Note: I purchased these books myself and these are completely independent reviews. Read more about my blog policies here.