A hard day's ride

Cycling from Land's End to John O'Groats was a tough gig for Warren Howard and his band, and that's before they sang for their supper – and charity – every night as well

It is 11pm on a Sunday at The Star Inn in St Just, and a good, hazy hour after the band were planning to get to their beds – but what can you do when a pub full of Cornishmen is trying to buy you just one more pint and a character known decorously as Eddie the Snake has just whipped out his didgeridoo in your honour? Not much.

Besides which, over by the door, a regular who's seen the likes of us come and go over the years, is holding the lads in thrall. "Do you know how many people," he says, taking a long, slow swig of his Trelawny, "have died doing this trip?"

It was a perfectly imperfect beginning to an adventure that was due to start the next morning just a few miles down the road in Land's End – a cycling trip from the tip of Cornwall to the (bitingly cold) wilderness of John O'Groats. Thousands have done the trip before, but not many, I suspect, in quite the same way that we were. Doing the End to End was one thing, particularly when the last serious biking action you've seen is pulling wheelies on a Raleigh Burner; doing it as a travelling band, peeling ourselves from our saddles at the end of a long day and hoiking our instruments into pubs to play for the locals – and ask for their cash – was quite another.

In January, after my offer of a 1,000-mile, one-way ticket to a blistered undercarriage (albeit in aid of Cancer Research UK) had been politely declined by almost everybody I knew, I had somehow persuaded a group of six complete strangers that this could be the trip of a lifetime. Over the months, we huddled together in Brian's kitchen in Brixton and knocked up a set-list of guitars, ukuleles, a clarinet and a double bass; we bought or repaired bikes we already owned and became acquainted with the rolling beauty of the South Downs.

To anybody along the route who'd listen, we'd flogged it as a pub idea that had sobered up, sprouted legs and bought a bicycle; now, with a matter of hours to the off, it – and I – didn't seem quite so sober after all.

Yet it's incredible how galvanizing a fresh pair of lycra shorts and a Youth Hostel breakfast can be. The following morning, after the obligatory photographs in front of the Land's End sign, the journey began to swallow us up in a way that would become familiar over the next 17 days. The burn on the thighs and the lung-busting effort of taking on another slow climb were balanced by the dazzling views that met us at the top.

In Cornwall, we got lost repeatedly, found our way again, and somehow managed to bump into the local BBC radio van in Looe and play live on air; in Devon we climbed to the top of Dartmoor and sacrificed our back-marker, Dom, to the bottom-biting attentions of a horse that chased us through a village; and in Somerset, veering north on a long ride towards Cheddar, we descended slowly into the Summerland Meadows, with Glastonbury Tor rising to the east and Michael Eavis's farm sitting somewhere, quietly, in front of us.

Taking in Britain like this, by bike, is a revelatory experience; at this pace you get a proper sense of how the country changes, not only in terms of its landscape, but in terms of its people, its accents and its local delicacies. In his book Pies and Prejudice, Stuart Maconie tries to pinpoint where it is that the North actually begins; here, gliding along the Welsh border and in and out of Herefordshire, Shropshire and Cheshire, it felt as though you were going to break through some invisible boundary at any moment. Was the North Nantwich, just to the south of Crewe? Was it Chester, where the Cross Keys pub that night bustled with Merseyside accents?

The gigs themselves became boisterous, sweaty affairs as we tried to cram into packed pubs. Gladly, the band, or Buskers on Bikes as we'd called ourselves, had begun to gel; unplugged, we'd created a kind of folk-meets-country-meets-rockabilly sound, but shamelessly played to our audiences with a series of classics: "Valerie", "Walk of Life", "King of the Road" (naturally) and Dan's storming, lilting version of "Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me)".

On Dartmoor, at the gorgeous Warren House Inn, we sweltered in front of a fire that had been burning for the past 160 years; at the Bike Shed Theatre in Exeter, we were joined by the fantastic folk musician Dave Wood, who'd written a biking song especially for us; at The Ship in Windermere we tried to persuade a pub brimming with tourists to pay attention to us rather than their gammon and eggs.

We were met everywhere with generous donations, affecting stories about personal experiences with cancer and incredible warmth. Outside the Drouthy Neebors pub, in Stirling, Jonny had his ailing knees massaged by a physiotherapist who'd noticed his bandages. Miraculously, save for general chafing, his was the only physical injury sustained – apart from Neil's guitar, crushed under the weight of Dave, who'd slung up and fallen out of his hammock in the back of our brilliant Boxer van, leant to us free of charge by Peugeot.

We saved the best, perhaps, for last. Two days before the end, after an incredible ride through the Scottish Highlands and down to Loch Ness, we fell into the arms of the Invershin Hotel in Sutherland. By this point, with the temperature dropping, the log fire was no longer incongruous, and surrounded by a bravura bevy of local musicians – fiddlers, accordionists, a bagpiper – we gleefully ripped up the informal two-pint rule set since our first night in St Just and basked in the sight (almost) of the finish line.

To donate to Buskers on Bikes, visit www.justgiving.com/buskersonbikes

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookA delicious collection of 50 meaty main courses
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Environmental Adviser - Maternity Cover

    £37040 - £43600 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The UK's export credit agency a...

    Recruitment Genius: CBM & Lubrication Technician

    £25000 - £27500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides a compreh...

    Recruitment Genius: Care Worker - Residential Emergency Service

    £16800 - £19500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to join an organ...

    Recruitment Genius: Senior Landscaper

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In the last five years this com...

    Day In a Page

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones