During our first year in London, Astrid and I spent a lot of time leaving the UK. For various reasons we found ourselves in the infuriatingly long line at Stanstead Airport, then crammed into a Ryan Air flight to land in some lovely European destination for a few days, followed by a reversal of the procedure. Basically, the whole operation made us uncomfortable. You can’t (well, we couldn’t) cycle half way around the world and not have been affected by the slow and unassuming nature of bicycle travel. It makes jetting off to destinations feel like you are consuming travel rather than a true reflection of what travel encompasses. Aeroplanes are an extraordinary form of transport, but I personally feel we take them too much for granted. Short haul flights are one of the most destructive and unnecessary (unnecessary because unlike getting to say Australia or the US there are feasible alternatives) things we can do to the environment. Sadly, these alternatives are usually (not always) more expensive and longer. Until governments start to subsidise train travel instead of air travel, choosing the alternative will mostly be a conscientious decision to spend more money. However, after a year of not really listening to our instincts about travel we decided to try and completely avoid short haul flights if possible.
It was always our intention, but this year we have specifically planned trips which feel to us more like the kind of travel we want to do (even though we did have fun last year). Essentially to us this means moving slowly in nature; using trains to get to our destinations and bikes or legs to explore. We might not see as many things, but the ones we do will be at a pace more suited to us.
Which leads me into this blog. We decided we had seen far too little of Britain and thought it was high time we explored this peculiar island we currently call home on our bikes. We booked tickets to Penzance (30 quid! booking in advance and having a rail card is totally worth it!) and made plans to cycle ‘end to end’ meaning we would cycle from the very south of Cornwall to the very north of Scotland. That was the plan anyway…
Leaving day rolled around and I found myself packing on no sleep – London what have you done to me?! A friend’s house party had inevitable turned into a wonderful all night event and I had made it home in time to sit somewhat confused in piles of stuff and gingerly pack my panniers. Poor Astrid was not much better – a lingering head cold had manifested into something rather unpleasant and we were a slightly broken pair piling on to the train at Paddington. Mostly we slept on the journey west and arrived in rainy and cold Penzance at around 5pm. The plan had been to cycle about 20km to a camp site, but as we rounded the first corner and were blasted by a furious headwind and rain, we promptly opted for the pub. Over a pint it was decided to go for the backpackers and try again the following morning.
After about 12 hours of sleep we were both feeling much livelier and hit the hills of Cornwall in fine spirits. The climbs were intense but the scenery was beautiful; rugged coast, cute villages and country lanes. Even a few prehistorical standing stones thrown in for good measure. We reached Lands End in the early afternoon, took the usual photos and ate some hummus. Then we turned around and began heading north.
I need to mention early on a hidden treasure of Britain; The National Cycle Network. I have totally disregarded Sustrans and the national cycle network in the past. I mean, try and negotiate their website for a minute and I am not sure you can blame me. However, I will categorically apologise to Sustrans here; the national cycle network is awesome. Sure, it has a few issues (it might be a bit purest at times and take you on a ridiculous alternative route to avoid a B road, and the website!) but there is literally a huge cycle network that traverses Britain! It’s almost like being on a highway for bikes. It connects small country roads to rail trail and bike paths and has so far been nothing short of brilliant. We hardly need to use our phones or guidebooks. It saves a lot of navigational faffing and the routes are super lovely.
By evening of the first day we had reached the coastal village of St Ives and were both quite exhausted. Stealth camping just seemed too hard – we had not yet gotten into our dirtbag mindset and opted instead to pay a ludicrous amount for a piece of dirt and use of a toilet. Never mind, sometimes it’s just part of the process. It did feel brilliant to be back in the tent though.
The rain began in the night, and a fierce wind lashed at our tent. By the time morning arrived we were less than excited about facing the weather. Luckily a friend had contacted me about somewhere to stay that night. I had put a photo up on facebook the night before and Holly (a friend we met cycling in Tajikistan) saw my post, just happened to be in Cornwall and had a friend who we could stay with that night. A big part of me really doesn’t like social media, but it can prove useful! Knowing we had somewhere dry to stay that night and that we would be seeing Holly, lifted our spirits and finally got us moving out of St Ive’s.
The day did prove rather wet. The wind was luckily in our favour so it wasn’t all bad. We followed the estuary inland, undulated through farmland and then followed a brilliant off road track through the mining scared landscape. We reached Truro and David’s home covered in mud and water. Being a cycle traveller himself David wasn’t at all disturbed by our less than clean presentation. We were treated to a wonderful evening of food, wine and conversation (not to mention a hot shower!) by David and his partner Norma.
We woke again to rain but the morning was brightened by the visit of Holly and baby Anissa (sadly Dave, Holly’s husband was in Portugal). It was lovely to eat David’s amazing breakfast and catch up with Holly (the last time we had spent anytime with her and Dave, the four of us had been rather unsettled in a house in Kent – having all just finished our trip). It was ludicrously late by the time we left David’s place but we didn’t really care.
Our route took us to Newquay where we stuffed chips into slices of bread and watched the hardcore British surf in the rain. From there we took the hilly route along the coast – beautiful in the rain but probably stunning in good weather. Our last section was on the camel trail – another delightful off road route incorporated into the NCN. We left the camel trail at Wadebridge as we had organised a warmshowers host who just happened to be a good friend of Holly’s. Small world. Jackie and Richard welcomed us with open arms and we were again treated to amazing hospitality.
Rain once more. My spirits were low. I mean we could be in Spain in the sun like normal people. Instead, here we were trying to have “fun” in Britain. And it was cold. Where the previous rainy days had been slightly humid it was now quite chilly. Still, we pushed on, if somewhat morosely. By the evening it had cleared a little and we found a beautiful spot to put up our tent on a guys trout farm. He let us use the area not currently used by anglers so that we wouldn’t be disturbed.
We were treated to the Tarka Trail the next day which led us slowly back to the coast on a lovely off road track, through forest and along an estuary. Another quick restock and we started the long and steep climb into Exmoor. After a rather gruelling (but enjoyable) climb late in the day we lucked out with finding the perfect spot to put our tent. It’s hard to find the kind of wilderness we are used to in Australia in England, but up on Exmoor I began to get a stronger sense of being somewhere a little more remote and wild.
Cycling over Exmoor the following day gave us a reprieve from the endless hedge rows and paddocks. England is beautiful but there are a lot of fields and a lot of sheep. Although London might be the greenest capital in Europe, unfortunately England is the most deforested country, with agriculture everywhere. During the ride whenever we descended to where the trees have been left, I would get a small sense of how beautiful the woods must have been before they were cleared for grazing.
By the afternoon we were back on the country roads, pedalling alongside hedge rows, marvelling at the many shades of green and watching the blackening sky in front of us. The rain hit us late in the afternoon and we were more or less drenched. But this is England and we soon found a pub to dry out in. I’m beginning to think there is a reason England has so many pubs…We sheltered there for an hour or two while searching on the net for somewhere to put our tent for the night. At this stage we hadn’t fully gotten to that comfortable place where you know the road will provide. In the end we found a campsite just out of Taunton and headed there. Of course on the way we saw places where we could have slept but we had already phoned ahead and felt like we should make the extra few miles as well. We pitched our tent in a soggy apple orchard and crawled into bed to polish off a few ciders.
I woke feeling really low and out of sync the next day. The weather was still miserable, I was cold, dirty (the shower at the campsite was shit), we were behind in schedule and I felt like cycle traveling wasn’t as fun as I remembered. This is where having an awesome partner like Astrid makes all the difference. She suggested we splurge on a bed and breakfast that night, not worry about how far we still had to go, and let ourselves reset. This really worked. Sometimes you just need someone to give you a pep talk. I tackled that days rain in more or less good spirits (although I occasionally cursed it). We reached our charmingly tacky (think shelves covered in tea pots and walls in novelty plates) bed and breakfast quite exhausted. After a hot shower and ordering the hugest amount of Indian takeaway ever, and a few bottles of beer, we passed out. Reset complete.
Finally, the sun arrived!! What joy it was to cycle in the brilliant sunshine. Everything felt better and my spirits soared. The sun is simply life affirming. We pushed hard towards Gloucester (although not so hard that we didn’t stop for a Sunday veggie roast in a beer garden), alternating between country lanes and a canal tow path. Late in the day we reached Gloucester, where we used our dirtbag tactic of ordering a beer, then asking the bar staff to charge our phones and collecting water from the bathroom for the evenings cooking. I liked Gloucester, the old docks had been gentrified but it din’t take away the impressive nature of the warehouses and brick work. Once we left the city, we were faced with ample camping opportunities in the surrounding park. We chose a forest and I felt like we were slipping back into being at one with this kind of travelling lifestyle.
From Gloucestershire we cycled into Worcestershire, stopping at Tewksbury to marvel at the abbey and Worcester to drink some beer. The sun kept shinning and riding was an absolute joy. I was beginning to realise how much I had missed this kind of life; being free, outdoors, moving slowly, calling anywhere home for the night. The simplicity is extremely life affirming and I find it incredibly uplifting. I think I have come to understand that I am quite adaptable. Perhaps too much if such a thing is possible. After a few initially difficult months I have adapted to being in London and working well. The truth is I love London a little bit and my life there. It reminds me of the kind of life I lived in Melbourne, where I was really happy. I always feel the hardest thing I ever did was not climbing 5000m passes, but making the decision to leave my really good life in 2013 for the unknown. It was of course the best thing I have ever done, and this trip is reminding me of that. It has reignited something and reminded me of the adventures still to come.
From Worcestershire we pedalled into Shropshire which was a real highlight because of the beautiful Wyre Forest and the amount of off road cycling. It was in Shropshire while eating second breakfast at a rather picturesque cafe overlooking a river that we came to the realisation that we weren’t going to make it. No matter how we calculated the remaining kilometres, it was far too many. When they say three weeks is ample time to ride the end to end they probably don’t mean on fully loaded touring bikes, camping, riding mostly the NCN and indulging in afternoon ales. Astrid and I aren’t particularly goal orientated. We are still not sure how far we rode on our big trip (maybe 30,000km?) and we changed our final destination 4 months out to better suit our needs. So, making the decision to continue to go slow and enjoy the backroads of England, ending in Glasgow (actually our original destination from 2013) wasn’t particularly hard. Plus, Scotland shouldn’t be rushed (everyone was telling us it was the best bit). What was even better was that we would be cycling right passed the Cycle Touring Festival. A quick email to Laura (the festival organiser) and we got some last minute tickets.
Our high spirits continued as we headed towards Manchester and a day off. In Telford we came across our first rather unpleasant city, getting lost and finding the NCN slightly lacking. Luckily soon we were back into the countryside and passing a pub, right on evening water collection time. It was here that we learnt about the attacks that had occurred in Manchester which therefore made the helicopter circling above our forest camp later that night slightly eerie.
We woke with 100km to go into Manchester, the sun shinning wonderfully yet again. Truly, England is one of the most delightful places when the sun shines. In Cheshire we found the NCN signage somewhat lacking again but managed to eventually fumble our way onto the trans pennine way and a beautiful ride into Manchester. Our hosts Pete and Maya lived in the south of the city and warmly welcomed us. We washed five days of grime off ourselves and promptly got down to serious cycle talk, eating loads of pasta and drinking copious glasses of wine. Pete and Maya had spent 11 months cycling through Africa (Pete had also cycled to India before that) and they totally re inspired us about cycling on the African continent.
Our day off in Manchester was wonderful. We walked the city streets, went to an art gallery, drank some beers, ate some felafel and explored canal street. I know it was sunny and therefore everything seems shinier, but I really liked Manchester. In the evening we cooked thai curry, drank some beers and talked late into the night. I’m sure I’ve said it before but Warmshowers is such a brilliant organisation, connecting like minded people all over the world.
Pete pedalled with us into central Manchester the next day and then bade us farewell. We picked up some fuel for our stove and began the cycle north. It was hillier again now and we had some lovely climbs and sweeping views as we cycled through Lancashire. As we neared Clitheroe our excitement grew. The last section through the Ribble Valley was super beautiful and quite familiar as we had done a bit of cycling there the previous year. We arrived at the festival in high spirits and almost immediately ran into our friends Chris and Pete (who we met in long ago Meteora and have seen many times since). The atmosphere was lovely, people were arriving on all kinds of bikes, putting up tents and chatting excitedly.
This festival is truly special. It is so uncommercial and down to earth (Laura’s family cater most of the food, the beer is local, theres only one stand selling things, plus books from a few of the speakers). The feeling is more of a tribe coming together in the spirit of knowledge sharing and love of bicycle traveling. There is such a feeling of solidarity and friendliness. I have never felt more comfortable sitting down at a table full of people I don’t know. Everyone has a story and it doesn’t matter if you have cycled 6 continents, pootled down the Danube cycle path, or were just thinking about a bike trip. People are humble and excited to share and learn. Someone described it cycle touring anonymous, which is kind of fitting.
Astrid and I spent a lovely weekend going to inspiring talks, chatting to friends we made last year, making new friends, eating lots of sandwiches (hmm maybe that was just me actually), drinking ales and generally having a superb time. All too soon it was over. It may have been our last festival, although maybe not. We will have to see what next year brings..
By the time the festival had ended, so had the good weather. We left in soaking rain with plans to be at Chris and Pete’s the following evening. Even though it was raining we weren’t so bothered now. I felt like I had settled in to being okay with being uncomfortable at times, plus a week of sun in Britain leaves a lasting imprint of joy. The cycling was tough at times with some steep climbs but they were followed by beautiful descents into river valleys. We were particularly charmed by a village called Dent, with it’s cobbled streets and beautifully preserved buildings.
Our cycle into Cumbria and Hallbankgate (where Chris and Pete live) was intermittently wet but we were really into the groove of the road and I even enjoyed the rain and the wind. It was a beautiful ride, the mountains of the Lake District could be seen to our left, the Pennine range to our right and the small villages offered delicious food and some warm shelter. It’s always extra lovely arriving somewhere familiar to be embraced by friends. Even though we had just seen them at the festival it was so lovely to spend another evening with Chris and Pete with great food, wine and conversation. We have made many good friends on the road and any time that we spend with them is very precious. Soon Chris and Pete are heading off on their own adventure and after that it’s likely we will be living on the other side of the world from each other.
The next day the sun was back. I was surprised and delighted. We rolled out of Hallbankgate armed with road information and Chris’s famous flapjacks. Our first stop was literally across the road at the really lovely Hallbankgate Hub, the cafe/shop that the village had been working on opening (after their original shop was shut down) ever since we have been visiting. Feeling slightly overstuffed on cake we finally hit the road north towards Scotland. Not long after that we had to stop again to explore the Lanacost Priory, which was beautiful.
The ride to the border was hilly. Long climbs followed by long descents to a creek and bridge and then repeat. We reached Scotland in the early afternoon and it felt awesome, and almost immediately different because of the forests (although they were plantation sadly). Our first night in Scotland we had decided to make a slight detour and head to a bothy. There are now officially two things that really enchant me about Britain; canal boats/canals and Bothies. Bothies are huts (mostly in Scotland) that in the past were often basic accommodation for shepherds. Now they are maintained by the Mountain Bothy Association and are free to use for all. They are usually remote and are primarily used by hikers and cyclists. Traditionally their whereabouts has been kept a bit secret, although that is slowly changing. We had heard about Bothie’s before but had been truly inspired by a talk at the festival. I was so keen to see if we could stay in one and it just happened that we could – with a little bit of planning.
The cycle in along the valley floor towards the bothy was lovely in the early evening light. As we got closer, the road deteriorated and it began to feel like we were actually getting a little remote. Houses disappeared and there was only forest and fields. As we rounded the final bend the simple stone structure of the bothy came into view and I just felt delighted. We rolled into the clearing and discovered it was just going to be the two of us for the night. Brilliant. The bothy was situated by a stream and consisted of three rooms with sleeping platforms. There was a stove and an open fire place and a few utensils and supplies. It seemed in really good condition and we felt so privileged that we could stay in such a lovely hut in such a great location. I built a fire and Astrid cooked some dinner and then we did the most appropriate thing for a Scottish hut – drank some whiskey. It was wonderful falling asleep in the cosy hut, watching the light of the fire. Scotland, you are brilliant.
This being Scotland the rain returned the following day. We packed up and left the beloved bothy, wishing we could spend a day sitting by the fire reading and writing. But by now we really did have to make it to Glasgow to get our train home. Using back roads we pedalled through the plantation forest and in Eskelmuir which just happened to have one of the biggest Tibetan Monastery in the West. We headed there and were reminded strongly of our time in the Tibetan part of China. After drinking copious cups of tea we dragged ourselves back onto the road and the impending weather.
After a pleasant morning of cycling we were greeted with an uninspiring afternoon, following the motorway towards Glasgow. Our ‘bike lane’ on the secondary road was terribly surfaced and the rain became heavier and heavier. At least the wind was in our favour. After pushing on into the early evening we decided to call it quits and put our tent up on the side of a section of bike path (there were some off road sections). I cooked us some noodles and then we both jumped into the tent to drink some whiskey and eat dinner.
It rained most of the night but by the morning it was only intermittent. Instead of cooking breakfast we just packed up and headed a few kilometres down the road to take shelter in a truck stop café and have breakfast there. It was hard to leave but as the day wore on the weather began to improve. First some patches of blue, then sun. By the time we were nearing Glasgow things were looking up; the sun was shinning and we were following a lovely bike path along a river. Because we weren’t in a rush we decided to dry all our wet gear, cook noodles and naturally have some whiskey.
We rolled into Glasgow in the early evening. After sorting out our train tickets (our original booking had been from Inverness but the Caledonian Sleeper kindly rebooked us onto the Glasgow-London service) we naturally headed to a vegan pub. Glasgow rocks. While we were sitting outside drinking our first beers, a whole bunch of people turned up on bikes. They began chatting to us and it turns out they all work at the local bike shop and The 78 was their usual Friday night post work beers spot. We even got invited to stay at one of their places so that we could spend more time in Glasgow. We both wanted to but home was calling.
So, it seems we had finally made it to what was our original ‘destination’ when we left Australia 4 years ago, not that it really matters anymore. This trip was another brilliant lesson that destinations are not important. Funnily enough they always seem to matter to others more than to us. It sounds a bit cliched but it really is (in my opinion anyway) the journey that matters. I am so glad we took our time to explore England slowly, to take the off road paths and change our route as we saw fit. We will certainly be back on the bikes to explore Scotland before we bid this Island farewell.
Till next time