Destination: John o’Groats

Thursday 11th September

Day 4 of the Hum!

I awoke on this peaceful Thursday morning to the sound of running water… I thought I had heard it the night before but thought nothing of it (new place, strange sounds?) I then go over to the window and to my amazement there is a river… just outside – terrific! It is beautiful – as so many things along the way seemed to be – some more than others of course. Definitely not me by this point… I staggered over to the mirror (journey tired) and looked deeply into the reflection – “So Louise… onwards!!?”

Downstairs Vince and Struan (Vince’s work colleague and friend) are having a meeting about work stuff. As soon as I walk in I’m sure I just pointed out of the window and shouted “RIVER!” – this particular view was one floor down from my room. I forgot in that moment that Struan actually lived in Dunblane… so of course he was not overly phased by the river, but definitely appreciated it (by taking his dog for a walk along it most mornings).

The three of us settled down to a fantastic breakfast (served by the wonderfully delightful owner). Struan had many great ideas of a scenic route to Inverness which would involve taking the tourist road – and with his advice we wouldn’t miss a thing. As Struan is Scottish, and it is easy to see his love for Scotland, Vince and I were sure his route would be worth taking. I was, however, starting to get anxious whether the BMW would really make it… it did manage Shap Fell… but… the highlands?! Would I have to sleep in the boot bed, that I have so far managed to avoid, due to the i3 just saying “No more!! please no more!”?? – We shall see.

Vince decided that it was the right time to sit at the piano in the dining room and play Beethoven just before we left… Why? Maybe he was getting withdrawal symptoms from Classic FM.

11am – 632.4 miles into the journey, 34 miles of electricity in the battery and 57 miles of petrol in the tank… we set off for the A9 and to the NORTH!

According to the BMW sat nav, it is another 244 miles to the hotel booked in Thurso (north coast, west of John o’Groats) – and we should reach it at 15:41pm. Except we are taking a couple of scenic routes… because if you were here, you would to… right?

Along the way we arrive in a small village near Crieff – I forgot to write down any detail because I was too excited about a little scenic spot nearby… but it’s not too far from where we left. We technically also stopped because Vince and I have spotted a post office – prior to our departure (from Cambridge to Land’s End) he had gotten one of his cars clamped for not having a valid tax disc (oops) – so we stopped to see if this post office will do it. It doesn’t… but we decide to explore anyway! Vince wandered off somewhere, I don’t think I even asked where by this point. Soon after, he joined me in my own exploration of the village – near some ruins of a church. Vince and I took a few photos – especially of the Scottish flag nearby!

We were advised by the post lady to try the main post office in Crieff up the road, as they still did tax disc’s… so off we went. When the car stopped again Vince pointed down the road (in the opposite direction to the post office where he was going) and said “go and walk down there… there’s a lovely school somewhere.” (Was it something I said?) – Down the hill I go… wondering what it would be like to live in a place like this, all quaint and lovely – peaceful and friendly. Well… right now it is anyway, don’t we all ‘see’ that other places are nicer? who am I kidding – this place is great. A little further down the road and the ‘old lovely school’ that Vince suggested turned out to be a modern concrete affair… so I turn around and head back. In true Vince style – as soon as I walked up to the post office he walked out (I won’t question it) – he was clutching the tax disc triumphantly. Back to the car. After fending off a wee cute spaniel doggy which seemed interested in the boot bed, we set off in the direction of John o’Groats.

1:04pm – 684.2 miles in we get to Pitlochry – 23 miles of electricity and 32 miles of petrol left. I had pestered Vince to fill up, as I was getting increasingly anxious about the availability of petrol stations – we already had problems with charging in Carlisle, what was it going to be like further on!? We filled up the 9-litre tank with 6.08 litres (sometimes station attendants would comment on the small amount, they probably wish they hadn’t… as they then got a full lesson in the BMW i3 and also why we were this far north in one – though the surprising thing was actually how interested everyone seemed to be). The fancy dashboard screen told us we had 80 miles now available to us of petrol charging abilities. Woo let’s go!

One of the places Struan pointed out to us was Dalwhinnie distillery – When I saw it I cried for Vince to stop the car so I could take a picture. This led us into a brief discussion about whether we should stop in for a tour or not (as it’s said to be a lovely sight). We quickly reminisced our visit to the Eden Project, though lovely and glad we went, it left us ridiculously tired and passing out at a random services in the darkness miles from our agreed stopping point for the day. So we drove on.

To Inverness!

3pm – We arrive at Asda – the most northerly Chargemaster charging point – as explained to us by Kim, Vince’s contact at Chargemaster. We are 771 miles into the journey with 6 miles left in the battery and 39 miles of petrol in the tank. This post is a 7kW Type 2 fast charge that should take around 4 hours to (mostly) fill the battery. I could mention a story here… about how people with petrol engined cars shouldn’t park in an electric vehicle charging bay… when Vince is around – but perhaps best that I don’t. Suffice to say that three cars, only one of which contained an apologetic driver, got some talking to. One of the two non apologetic car drivers was there for a quick stop to use a cash point – which was located right by the charging posts… hmmm possible oversight there by whoever installed them?

Tangent alert – Are we not living in a world where we HOPE that the majority of vehicles will be electric soon? I mean… after being in the i3 for a while you start to look at other vehicles on the road as if they are steam trains. I mean, they’re cool and everything… but seriously? I’m bringing this up in the hope that one day electric charging bays would actually be full (or at least used often!). So telling petrol engined car drivers not to use the bays, even for a minute (like with disabled ones), should be in practice already so people get used to it? We can only hope.

After a relaxed baked potato (and slice of chocolate cake Vince offered me after I’m sure he saw me eyeing it up) and a chat with the the lovely staff member at the Inverness Asda cafe about a sight we must see (a castle… I can’t remember the name of)… Vince called Kim to discuss our charging point options further north. Turns out Kim doesn’t believe we have made it to Inverness! So we took a photo of the both of us pointing at the Asda Inverness sign (which she believed was photo shopped due to the lovely weather! – apparently we need a photo of Vince with a man in a kilt to make her believe us – challenge accepted). I suppose it’s a good time to point out that every one of the charging network’s we’ve called seem astonished at the idea that anyone would attempt this journey in an electric car… fill us with confidence huh! Inverness is the last ‘safe place’ for the electric car from what we’ve been hearing – though Kim has managed to find us some other posts, not on the Chargemaster network, further north. They all seem to be the 4 hour charging type… one is in Tain, another in Helmsdale, one at Wick police station (hmmm – perhaps we’ll need Vince’s friendly communication skills for that one) and another in Thurso (where our hotel for the night is located).

With all this information written down we are starting to feel slightly confident that we’ll make it. Until we reach the car.

I bet you can guess what happened?

It hadn’t charged… it hadn’t even added 1 mile to the battery. It was now 4:20pm – and the numbers all looked the same (after stopping for an hour and 20 minutes to charge) – 39 miles of petrol, 6 miles of battery charge and 771.5 miles in. I did all I could do… laugh. We then discovered that the post, which worked fine when we plugged in, was now switched off. Had the lovely and reliable BMW i3 (the only reliable thing on the whole journey) blown up the post?! Maybe. Who knows in this complicated charging network world we live in. We tried plugging in to the neighbouring post, just to check if we were unlucky (again), but lost patience within about 2 minutes when it didn’t appear to be working either. Kim said it would have worked if we’d waited… but by this point… waiting was doing nothing for us.

So we set off again (after getting some petrol at Asda – bringing our tank to the equivalent of 85 miles capacity). After all this messing about it was now 4:51pm and we still wanted to get to John o’Groats before dark and take pictures! We realised we might have to rely on the range extender for a while… but bear in mind that all the range extender does is charge the battery to run the electric engine – making the car a fully electric vehicle (just with the clever idea of making sure you don’t need to stop and charge every hour – rendering the car mostly useless in my opinion). The BMW i3 sat nav told us there was 119 miles to go… all of a sudden we had a new lease of life (considering how far we’d come) and Vince put his foot down.

To John o’Groats!

Kim rang us again after we had left Inverness to tell us some specific details of the posts further north. Looking at our total range we decided to head for Helmsdale as it seemed to have both a charging post and a petrol station – perfect!

I usually leave the pictures for the gallery… but I’ll make an exception on this occasion.

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This is Helmsdale petrol station – look closely. It appears the brand new BMW i3 smart navigation system (of which the software was updated only days before we left) is… out of date? It can’t be… what MAY be is that no one bothers to check these things? or no one takes information off the internet when it is no longer valid? So what seems to be happening, is what happened when people didn’t realise that the Earth did NOT have an infinite amount of space to bury it’s rubbish… nor infinite amounts of oil… seems to me that the internet is one big garbage tip that no one can be bothered to clean up (well… they probably can… but who really wants that job? no thanks). Can you tell that by this point in the journey my mood had begun to swing between laughing at misfortunes and/or becoming incredibly sarcastic? Vince asked some people at the local pub where the charging post could be found… we were directed here:

2014-09-15 19.25.34

The charging post in Helmsdale – you can see the symbol of the electric car charging bay at the bottom, and what I can only assume are the remnants of a ripped up and concreted in charging post above (formally owned or managed by PodPoint).

It’s time I gave some more context – we have 16 miles of petrol in the tank and 6 miles of electricity in the battery. So our options are limited. Vince goes back to the locals to ask for some further advice (sarcasm alert – because advice from people has helped us so much so far). It seems our only option is to go BACK down the road to a place called Brora – 11.4 miles away – in the wrong direction. Quick Maths anyone? Yep – if the petrol station in Brora is anything like that in Helmsdale (not in business since about 10 years ago)… we’ll only have 4.6 miles of ANYTHING left to run the car when we get there. I think it was around this point that the boot bed started speaking to me “Louiiiise… you’re going to have to sleep in meeee…” – I think delirium had set it. I even wrote in my journal “oh noooo!” – just in case I forgot how I felt at this point.

With a bit of economical driving, Vince managed to get us to Brora by 6:50pm with 10 miles of petrol in tank and still that 6 miles of charge in the battery. Remember that these numbers are pretty much vague (oh sorry, I mean ‘smart’) figures produced by the BMW i3 smart e-Drive thing (I think) that calculates all this stuff as we go.

2014-09-15 19.26.15Again I shall break out the “Hoorah!” – the petrol station is open – it was due to close in 10 minutes… (I don’t even want to think about that). While Vince is filling up – I notice a little sign saying ‘card payments are not accepted on transactions under £10’ – considering every re-fill has been under £10 it’s lucky we went to Helmsdale and back then! Thank you silver linings.

We now had 84 miles in the tank and 5 miles of battery charge – John o’Groats was 62 miles away. Vince decided to put the pedal to the metal so we could make it before the light faded.

Soon after that I looked over at the dashboard and noticed that there was only 1 mile of battery usage left. I pondered briefly before saying aloud “what happens if that hits zero? Does the car stop?” All of a sudden I felt a pulling sensation as Vince took his foot off the accelerator – it seems we had both forgotten that though we had petrol to charge the battery… we couldn’t drive faster or harder than that of the range extender’s ability to charge it. I can tell you now that this was a real moment of panic… I looked at the road ahead and there seemed to be a steep and unforgiving hill climb. Oh dear.

Vince feathered the throttle and somehow we made it to the top… 900.5 miles in we still had 43 miles of petrol in the tank and Vince had managed to get the range extender to charge the battery up to 6% (something in the BMW i3’s computer doesn’t actually allow us to attempt to charge it any further than the previously noted amount – or something like that… I was confused by this point – but I do remember thinking that this was silly).

It was now 7:49pm and the light was REALLY fading.

“Let’s not take any risks”

Something I have written in my journal in huge letters. Straight out of Vince’s mouth… I’ve never heard anything like this from him and I doubt I ever will again! Very close to our destination I got a feeling that maybe my ways were rubbing off on him. No idea if that was a good or a bad thing, but mostly I was just relieved that in saying this he meant – “Let’s stop here for petrol.” we had entered Wick. We refuel to 83 miles in the tank, still hovering with our 6 miles of electricity – we switch the car’s headlamps on and just hope we can make it the 16 miles to John o’Groats. Passing the Police station (where Kim told us of the possibility of a charging post, we make the decision to keep on driving – as all of our experience had told us that the likelihood of it working (and charging anywhere near a helpful amount) in the time we had available to us (still hoping the light doesn’t COMPLETELY go by the time we get to our destination) was too risky.

You may, or of course may not, have noticed that we have been unable to directly charge the battery so far today. In that case, would the answer to the question “Is the UK ready for the electric car?” be ‘No’? – Perhaps, if you want to drive through the highlands of Scotland anyway… or you want to drive around in England but are not a patient person. One thing is for sure… the RANGE EXTENDER saved us. It seems that where technology and charging networks are today, getting an electric vehicle to ‘replace’ your petrol car, would only be practical if you took the range extender option.

Where was I? … Oh yes… we’re nearly there!

At 8:08pm, 909.1 miles into the journey, I make the suggestion to check our hotel booking. Considering the lack of telephone signal where we are, this involved stopping the car. We had booked a twin room at ‘The Royal Hotel’ in Thurso… however on calling it seemed we were talking to an American company who were checking the reservation remotely… any request I made for the phone number of the actual hotel was ignored. On hold for what seemed like forever, as we were asked to ‘hold on for one moment please’, resulted in us being hung up on… or it cut out… who knows. But we had no idea about the booking… (Seemed I just couldn’t get away from the possibility of the boot bed).

With darkness looming all around us, we saw some lights flickering in the distance… was that John o’Groats?

YES! We excitedly began to search for the sign that proved we had made it. We had no idea so Vince asked the only people around – a very kind couple named John and Mary McManus, who were walking their German Shepherd ‘Cole’- They not only pointed us in the right direction (of two John o’Groats signs) – they also helped us to take pictures! We knew we were lucky that they had been there. Some minutes later, after lots of torch positioning, we came out with this:

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There will be more pictures in the Gallery!

We made it! – So… the BMW i3 electric vehicle with range extender CAN drive from Lands End to John o’Groats! even with us in charge of it.

Hoorah!!!

We got there at 8:30pm – 75 miles of petrol in the tank, 3 miles of electricity in the battery and a total of 917.7 miles driven since Lands End.

For us though, the journey was not over. We still had to make it to the hotel in Thurso… AND THEN BACK TO CAMBRIDGE! – I plan on writing that story on this blog over the next day or so. Vince also plans on writing a post about the car itself, from the driver’s perspective – so look forward to that! (he’s already challenged Jeremy Clarkson to a race, so why not give car reviews a go as well?).

But in the mean time, Vince and I would like to say a huge thank you to all those who donated to this wonderful cause – Mesothelioma UK. I’ve just checked and the total stands at £1,912 – which is absolutely fantastic. The whole adventure was so we could raise money for Carole’s chosen charity – and though I have written a lot about the car and the journey… Carole was always in our minds and our hearts throughout the trip. We always knew why we were doing this and always will – So thank you so much for reading this, thank you for donating – and thank you for making this so special. THANK YOU!!!

Vince and Carole 1

East Coast USA 2009

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