A magical night spent at a LEJOG legend...
So, we made it! After 1000 miles, Lorraine and I completed Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) this month, carried by a helpful southerly breeze and the many good wishes of fellow NRC members, both virtually and physically en route.
How I came to cycle this iconic ride for a third time is a long story, but each has been different with its own highlights. Many of you will have read of previous long-distance cycling adventures so I wanted to share a particular highlight from this year – a night spent in the famous Crask Inn in Sutherland, 80 miles from John O’Groats.
Inspired by tales of the Crask Inn
I first cycled LEJOG in 2017 with four alumni of Newbury Road Club. Part of the inspiration for the trip came from chatting with a fellow cycling enthusiast who had found refuge at the Crask when cycling LEJOG in 2015. He spoke of a long, lonely and remote road, battling against a fierce headwind when, with the light failing, he came across this most isolated of UK pubs. There he found a warm welcome, a clan of fellow cyclists – some boarding and some camping in the garden, an honesty box on the bar and an evening of cycling banter. We were hooked and resolved to choose a route that took in the Crask Inn.
The Inn itself sits between Lairg and Altnaharra on the single track A386 in wild, expansive moorland, brooded over by 3156-ft Ben Klibreck, the highest mountain in the district. It was built in 1815 by the Sutherland Estate and it has provided a port in a storm for many weary cyclists who are near finishing (or starting) their end-to-end adventure.
A first taste of the Crask
When I first arrived in 2017 it lived up to the hype. It is quite literally ‘miles from anywhere’. On a cycle in ‘big skies country’ you can really sense the isolation as the tiny white building springs in to view. Inside burns a warming peat fire, a small bar serves ales and malts and cycling conversation is soon flowing. I could imagine myself settling for a long evening, cocooned from the beautiful yet wild landscape out of the window.
Alas, accommodation is limited to four rooms so having just tasted the Crask Inn, the majority of our 2017 touring party were bussed backwards 14 miles to the nearest hotel in Lairg. A return trip the following morning reunited us with our bikes (stored overnight in the Crask Shed) for the final onward journey to John O’ Groats. That exact experience was repeated on my second LEJOG trip in 2021. So, I made a plea to our 2023 tour organisers that Lorraine and I might be selected to stay in this special place. And they kindly obliged.
Crask 2023 – Calm before the Storm
The Crask has an unusual history where the lines between the drink and worship are blurred. It was owned and run for many years by Mike and Kai Geldard who, on finding the burden of running the Crask Inn too much, gifted it to the local Bishop of the Scottish Episcopal Church. Mike and Kai now tend their sheep from the bunkhouse across the road. Since March 2023, the new hosts are Dr Denise and Douglas Campbell, (plus two small children and a huge dog), who run the business on behalf of the Church. Both are from the Mid-West of the USA so no strangers to isolation, but it will be a stern test to endure a long Scottish winter, fourteen miles from the nearest shop or school. The pub is decidedly off-grid, relying on generators and water from the local bore hole. But with no streetlights, the night skies are truly awesome.
It was a pleasure to roll up there again on a pleasant August afternoon, with just enough breeze to keep the midges at bay. In August, when the air is still, they can form a black cloud,” says Dr Denise. “You picked a good day to stay.” After the obligatory beers and celebrations of a good ride from Inverness, we bade goodbye to our fellow riders who reluctantly boarded the minibus back to Lairg. And that was it. Just Lorraine, I, our three Peak Tours guides and our host family/landlords. I sat in the garden, beer in hand, gazing at the magnificent vista watching the sun set over the mountains that cradle Loch Shin to the West. A truly memorable moment.
We gathered for dinner in the intimate dining room and after a pre-meal prayer, we devoured Douglas’ fantastic fish pie. Over a nightcap in the bar, on his phone Douglas showed us some beautiful pictures of dancing waves of light, taken the previous night from the Crask. Sadly, the cloud was gathering and we slept too heavily to be looking for the Northern Lights anyway.
Ray, Dave and Betty visit the Crask.
Our LEJOG 2023 was a trip of two halves. Days 1–13 the weather was friendly and benign. Day 14 was all about ‘dealing with’ Met Office Storm Betty with 40mph side and headwinds and 50mm of rain to throw at us. I knew trouble was brewing when I woke to bedroom curtains, horizontal against the open window and the building shaking. It was going to be an interesting last day.
But first a Crask breakfast and two welcome faces, Ray Clark and Dave Childs, on the eve of their Highland 500 cycle, had made the long journey from Inverness to wish us a safe final leg. It lifted the mood on a stormy morning. After the rest of our party arrived for a morning briefing in the Crask Bar, we bade the our hosts and the Crask Inn a final farewell and wobbled into the storm. It was all I could do to hold the bike upright as we passed the newly constructed windfarm a mile north of the pub.
The scenery from The Crask north to Altnaharra and beyond is some of the finest on the whole trip, but it was shrouded in driving rain and low cloud. It was a reminder of the terrifying power of the weather and how a place like The Crask can secure itself in the heart of a weary traveller. The cliché a port in a storm never seemed so fitting - I just wish we had not been leaving it that day!
Lorraine and I stayed at The Crask Inn
We travelled on a supported trip with Peak Tours over 14 days in August 2023. www.peak-tours.com