Side To Side: The Sunset To Sunrise Challenge

Jag, Monaro and Merc at Land's End
Jag, Monaro and Merc at Land's End
We've all been there. You're sitting around with a group of friends and then someone who's had too many bottles of fizzy pop says "I wonder if it's possible to..." or "you know what we should do lads, we should...". Or, most worrying of all, "I mean seriously, how hard can that be?" All of these conversations usually end up in either fits of mocking laughter or an argument over why you can't attach a cat to a kite (for example). But how often does someone come up with a pointlessly outlandish idea that you decide to see through to the end?

Well, this was something I found myself contemplating as a group of friends and I pulled into the car park at Land's End in Cornwall one summer's evening in 2009. You see, I'd suggested an appropriately stupid idea one night in the pub (obviously) and here we were a few months later about to carry it out.

The question that I had posed was: would it be possible to watch the sun set at Land's End on the longest day of the year, (21st June), and then watch it rise at Ness Point in Lowestoft the next morning? Initially, my question was met with a bit of confusion, but eventually they understood where I was coming from.

Which one would you choose?
Which one would you choose?
The date in question would provide us with the shortest night of the year. Land's End is the most westerly point in England and Lowestoft the furthest east. A quick bit of maths and we worked out you'd have to average a considerable and yet not unfeasible speed to cover the 430-odd miles in the given time slot. Convinced that my friends would consider this pointless and irrelevant, even for them, I let the subject drop. That was until I got a call from someone a month later asking me if it was the 21st of May or June they had to book off work to do our "side-to-side/sunset-sunrise thing".

Which is how my Jag, a Monaro and Mercedes would end up perched on a clifftop at the very tip of the country awaiting the sunset.

We set off in a blaze of dust, tyre smoke and a concern that perhaps we should have all left the traction-control buttons alone. On full alert for unmarked police cars, boy-racer chavs and caravans, we sped off into the night. Once we'd joined the A30 out of Cornwall I started to ponder the possibility that this may not be as much fun as I'd hoped. 400 miles of dual carriageway, motorway and major A-roads stood in front of us. It was hardly a forest stage on the WRC. I was concerned that boredom would be setting in quite soon. However, to my relief it never happened. Take three cars, three two-way radios, six people, perfect driving conditions, a high average speed born of necessity to hit an utterly pointless but challenging mutual goal and mile after mile of desolate highway in the middle of the night and you'd be amazed at how much fun you can have.

Geting ready for the off
Geting ready for the off
The speed at which we were passing well-known landmarks along the route started to become surreal. This no longer felt like a random 400-mile drive. It felt like it had real purpose. With every minute and mile that passed we all became more determined to make it to Ness Point in time for the earliest sunrise of the year. The cars all felt like they were running better than they ever had done, as they swallowed up the cool night-time air. And everything felt like it was going our way. To say that we were hitting a continuous sweet-spot would be an understatement.

Throughout the journey we managed to keep ourselves amused by playing with the assorted chavved-up hot hatches that we encountered along the way. If you've never tried to embarrass a body-kitted Corsa that's carrying half a ton of 'ice' by using three big GTs, a quiet stretch of dual carriageway and some two-way radios, you haven't lived. Believe me when I say it's the game that just keeps on giving. There was one moment, however, when our Merc got somewhat shown up, shall we say, by a very stealth-like supercharged Golf, but we won't go into that.

A herd of picnic tables gathers in the dusk
A herd of picnic tables gathers in the dusk
As we pressed on, none of us seemed to be getting tired. In fact, as we joined the A12 from the M25 on the final 100 miles of our mission we were more alert than ever. This was make-or-break time. As far as we could make out, we were running on time, but anything could happen on this final push. And it very nearly did.

Driving into a village on the Suffolk coast we came upon a Police traffic unit that took immediate interest in our little GT car convoy. They sat tightly behind us for what felt like forever. We weren't actually doing anything wrong, but if they decided to pull us over for a 'chat', there was no way we'd make it to Ness Point in time. So, we drove like professional chauffeurs for the next few miles, not giving any excuse for a flash of the blues. Speed, indication, road positioning, distance apart, it was all textbook stuff. Fortunately, they soon got bored and/or hungry and vanished into a 24hr garage. Right feet were then re-deployed and we cracked on to Lowestoft, now with the sky gradually starting to light up.

Ness Point; cameras don't work so well
Ness Point; cameras don't work so well
As we turned into the unromantically named Gas Works Road leading to Ness Point, I knew we'd done it. The source of all light and energy had yet to put in an appearance. Ten minutes later and a thin slither of orange started to appear on the horizon. We rejoiced and celebrated in a way that only a collection of over-tired thirty-somethings can. We jumped around like children for about two minutes and then headed straight to our hotel for the promise of a guaranteed good sleep.

But, as I stood there staring out to sea at the rising sun, I felt a bizarre sense of achievement like nothing I've ever really experienced. All told, it wasn't that big a deal, I know this. All we'd done was drive through the night at speeds high enough to get us in serious trouble to achieve an irrelevant goal that we had set ourselves. I don't think we broke any records and I'm certain we won't be entitled to any kind of reward or prize. What we had done, though, was to actually carry out one of those pub-induced silly ideas, which we have all had from time to time, just for the sake of it. For no other reason than for the sheer hell of it. To my knowledge our challenge had not been done before and probably with good reason. But I felt more alive than I had done for years.

So, the next time you or a friend comes up with one of those "I wonder if that would actually be possible?" ideas, don't immediately dismiss it. As long as it doesn't have anything to do with bungee ropes or animals, you'd be surprised at how much fun you can actually have. And, if it involves a group mates and some appropriate cars, well, you're already halfway there.

Epilogue: Following his pointless-but-fun adventure, Mr Small wondered if a certain Mr Clarkson would be interested. He was, and he had a go, too. So when you see something like this on Top Gear in a few weeks time, remember that a PHer got there first...

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  • HereBeMonsters 18 Feb 2011


  • zebedee 18 Feb 2011

    so can you attach a cat to a kite?

  • Robatr0n 18 Feb 2011

    Superb story! thumbup

  • Morningside 18 Feb 2011

    I wondered when this was going to happen as it was in the local paper last year (Lowestoft Journal).
    Some candid photos of Clarksons car (a Jaguar XFR I think?) taken by some locals.

    Will be interesting to see.

  • 51mes 18 Feb 2011

    Thats a great story,

    Just had me looking up sunrise/sunset times to figure out your average speeds..

    Whatever next ;-)


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