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
ebooks
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
    and  

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

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Executive

    £15000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An On-line Sales & Customer Ser...

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Assistant - Fixed Term Contract - 6 Months

    £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the largest hospitality companies...

    Recruitment Genius: Electricians - Fixed Wire Testing

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As a result of significant cont...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service Advisor

    £16575 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An excellent opportunity is ava...

    Day In a Page

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with excess, cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map
    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    Lionel, Patti, Burt and The Who rock Glasto

    This was the year of 24-carat Golden Oldies
    Paris Fashion Week

    Paris Fashion Week

    Thom Browne's scarecrows offer a rare beacon in commercial offerings
    A year of the caliphate:

    Isis, a year of the caliphate

    Who can defeat the so-called 'Islamic State' – and how?