Every year thousands of people cycle from one end of the UK to the other. Whether you go from the bottom South-West of England to the top North-East of Scotland or the other way round, there’s something about travelling as far as you can possibly go across Britain that appeals to our sense of adventure!
Much of that route is through the ITV Border region, where I work, from Kendal, where I live, through (or around) the Lake district, past our Great Border City Carlisle through Peebles and the Borders towards Edinburgh or Dumfriesshire towards Glasgow.
So when Border Life cameraman Paul Robinson said he wanted to try the challenge I thought it’d be a great adventure and a new way of seeing the beautiful area I work in.
Day 1: Land’s End to Tavistock
The waves smash and tumble against the rocky bay. The window’s wrapped in a ghostly howl. I’m not out of bed yet but I can hear how my day’s going to go.
Paul informs me the wind is 42mph. It’s been raining all night. It still is.
A lovely London lass takes our photo at the famous sign and all I can think of is ‘we need to get on’. It’s 10am and we have 90 miles to cycle before dark.
They say Cornwall’s hilly but I live in Cumbria. They can’t possibly compare with the lakeland hills… Well it turns out Cornwall has hills! They’re not as steep or as high but they’re longer and whilst the countryside is beautiful, it’s not quite the rewarding view you get on top of a Lakeland Pass.
After 8 hours of being cold and wet but enjoying the feeling of powering through A roads, the pub we’re staying at glows orange at the bottom of the hill. That pint’s been playing hard to get for 4 pages of the Atlas. Now time to wash the kit and sleep!
Day 2: Tavistock to Burnham-on-Sea
“Cornwall I never want to see you again,” Paul cheers, as we spin into Devon.
We’re leaving the Cornish steep up, steep downs for Devon’s rolling hills and are venturing onto interesting back roads instead of scary A roads.
What Paul doesn’t realise is that the longest hill yet awaits us. Each bend toys will the prospect of a finish line only to grow further, like a rainbow, the end changing with your viewpoint, always unattainable.
For a moment when the alarm sprang to life this morning I thought ‘oh God, I’ve got to do that again’ but it was quickly followed by the surprising realisation that my body is fine. I should hurt more than I do but a night stretching on the pub floor while chatting to the locals has been worth looking like a wholly.
Stretching, hydration and nutrition are important now. We must sort out those little niggles before the miles exacerbate them to crippling problems.
Eating is not enjoyable. I force down dry energy bars while pedalling uphill and peruse the lunch options for the combination of sugars (glucose or fructose) which provides fast-releasing energy with complex carbohydrates (such as pasta) for their slow-releasing energy. This ensures there’s energy kicking in as the first lot runs out. Eating regularly, before you get hungry, ensures you always have energy to burn. Once your body has to start breaking down fat it’s too late because it takes more effort to break down fat.
But really all this ‘science’ is about one thing: confidence. If you believe you can do it, you can. And it’s working: we’ve cycled 100 miles to Somerset and convinced another kind B&B owner to let us use the washing machine. So far, so good.
Day 3: Burnham-on-Sea to Craven Arms
“Wahoo!” I yell as I click up the gears on a downhill. We’ve just gone onto the Avon Cycleway to avoid Bristol and the thatched roofs of Devon and Somerset have become red tiles on quintessentially English countryside cottages. My mojo, which ran away kicking and screaming on the A38, seems to have decided life with me isn’t all that bad after all.
The weather warning hasn’t kicked in but the headwind is sapping my energy.
I’m worried. It’s approaching the middle of the day but I know we’re not half way through the miles. By the time we get to the Severn Bridge we’ve done 45miles. I stare incredulous at the phone as it tells me we have 85 more to go. My shoulders sink as I realise it’s 130 miles not 100 and it’ll take us 12hours. We’ll have to ride hard to get there before dark.
I’ve had heart burn for a day and it’s getting worse. I never get heart burn. I should have bought tablets earlier but we’re racing the sun.
We flirt with the Welsh border, one moment in Gloucestershire, turning a corner into the deep tree-lined Monmouthshire valleys, into Hereford then Shropshire.
I’m on a downhill and I’m tanking it as hard as I can, chomping up miles. I see the 50mph sign and wonder if I’m getting close. Suddenly hot air swirls around me, pulling me left and right. My body responds on automatic, working hard to keep me upright as my eyes flail wildly to comprehend the situation. A wagon is a foot away from my face. The air displaced by its huge mass rushes under it’s thunderous wheels, searching for peace around me, sucking me towards the wagon. I realise the shouts of “woah woah woah!” came from me. As it passes there’s an even stronger force pulling me into the vacuum created behind it. I’m thankful the road is smooth because I’m trapped and any imperfection in the road would alter my course… to under the wheels.
Shocked, I watch the wagon drive off. I break. I release the tension in my arms as I realise I’ve cheated the heat of hell from grabbing me.
Paul is silent behind me. I wonder if he was sucked in too. He tells me the wagon overtook no more than 2 feet away from me. “It looked like you were going to be sucked under the wheels”.
Over the next few miles I mentally search for why. If a few seconds could have ended our lives, did the driver not realise the effect on the cyclist? Were they trying to get their own back on the cyclist being on the road? Worse, did they even see us?
I have to say that on the whole HGV drivers are usually the most courteous and give us the most room but too many Land’s End to John O’Groats riders have died. 20 lost their lives to one stretch of the A30 alone.
Day 4: Craven Arms to Liverpool
Four pieces of atlas are jigsawed on the carpet. I lean with pen and paper. I’m a lot further down this path than last night when, exhausted after an unexpected 130 miles, the shapes stared back at me as the message stopped short of converting into information.
That morning I’d woken groggy, wishing for another 4 hours’ sleep but drawing the curtains on brilliant sunshine lifted my spirits. 90 sunny, mainly flat miles await.
My list of instructions saves us time. We munch through the miles. An easier day gives us the recovery we need.
I lift my arm and nod my head thanks to a lorry driver who’s waited patiently for a good overtaking gap. The word ‘Araf’ reappears on the road under ‘slow’. The buildings become red brick and Victorian. Manicured fields give way to deep valleys then flat roads. We’re making our way from Shropshire and Wales to the northern industrial heartlands.
We wonder if it’s cheating to get the ferry from Birkenhead to Liverpool then blitz the last 4 miles before Paul calls me. I’m stopped at traffic lights. He’s no more than 200yards behind. This call is unlikely to be good news. “I’ve got a flat”. I circle back and we spend the next half hour fighting with tyre levers and inner tubes.
Ged’s white smile breaks in a white beard as he opens the door. Our former Border Life producer offers us home comforts and life is good.
Day 5: Liverpool to Penrith
7am: Water droplets fall on my phone screen as I try to navigate the streets of Liverpool. A girl has been hit by a car on the way to school. She’s ok but crying and very shaken up. Paul likes the excitement of city cycling (and all the roundabouts and traffic lights that force me to stop) I can think of more enjoyable places to cycle.
10am: I’m getting better at reading the map while cycling. We stop less and make great time as we rattle through flat Lancashire.
10.30am: “Aaaargh” I scream as we try to join the converging traffic into Preston. It’s always terrifying when you have to get into a middle lane.
“Did you see that?” I didn’t. “That car’s trying to join the dual carriageway from the wrong slip road. They’re going the wrong way.”
We make a pit stop at a cycling shop to sort Paul’s tyres then get back on the road.
12pm: The psychological advantage gained from an early start is incredible. We’re in Lancaster and we’re on fire. Just 17miles to Kendal! The Lakeland Fells appear in the distance.
“I can’t believe we’re in Kendal!” Robbo shouts. “We’ve come from Land’s End and now we’re in Cumbria!”
The distance makes more sense to us when we know the local geography: Liverpool would be a long drive from here and we’ve just cycled it.
The route takes us right past my apartment, which is pretty much exactly half way between Land’s End and John O’Groats, but there’s only time for a quick stop. This is our land and we’re on a huge high. But I also know what’s coming next: every bend and climb of the A6 to Penrith, so we need time in the bank.
4pm: I never imagined I’d get a cycling injury to my arm. My legs yes, but my arm? It started as a pain in my left hand on day 1, then my fourth and fifth finger went numb. I started to find simple tasks like turning a key in a lock impossible. I send the message to the fingers but it seems to get lost on the way. The pain gradually spread to the rest of my arm. Now the jar of the climb on my shoulder is agony.
5pm: we wait for a lift back home at Penrith. 110 miles in under 10 hours. Brilliant. A night at home watching the rugby with my friends awaits. It’s good to be home.
Day 6: Penrith to Peebles
We’ve been joined by a celebrity! His Highness of Border Craic and Deekaboot Tim Backshall, lycra clad in an ITV cycling jersey, navigates us through lovely Cumbrian back roads and a complex cycle path network through Carlisle to Gretna. We barely notice almost 30 miles as we chat in the sun.
Lockerbie comes and goes before lunch in Moffat. We’re looking forward to the beautiful Borders road ahead but in no hurry to leave the warmth and pot of tea. Today’s an easy day: 90 miles.
Paul’s knee and my shoulder hold out on the long hill out of Moffat. We look like an advert for ibroprofen gel. The beautiful view makes it worthwhile.
“Woohoo! Owning it!”
Six days ago we’d grumble about this, now the challenge is another one down, safe in the knowledge that we can do this.
I’m becoming more confident on the bike. My aim is to be able to do what I call a ‘Jesus’, lifting my hands off the handlebars, arms spread wide, as I cross the finish line, Tour of France winner-style. Tim proudly showed off his mastery of this art earlier today. I’m not there yet but I’m closer than a week ago. Three more days’ practice to my finish line…
We cycle hard the remaining down and flat to Peebles, making record time and – perhaps surprisingly – having fun.
Day 7: Peebles to Pitlochry
I could be a cycle path connoisseur by now. After 600 miles dropping in and out of them I can say that Britain has some brilliant examples, but some leave us frustrated and wishing we’d stuck to the road.
The one from Perth to Pitlochry has a mix of both. The A9 is an unforgiving road. Highlanders commute huge distances to Edinburgh or Inverness and so slow tourists on bikes are not made to feel welcome. We quickly see a cycle path and decide this must be a better option.
This one is helpfully signed to Pitlochry, a useful addition that not all cycle paths feature. I find simply saying ‘cycle path’ or something like ‘pink route’ really doesn’t help you decide whether it might take you to where you want to go.
But within a few minutes the path deteriorates from tarmaced paths and minor roads to footpaths, with gravel that threatens to send our thin road bike tyres in random directions or worse, puncture the thin, bald rubber.
“This is no good. It’s been designed for a mountain bike or hybrid.”
I scroll around my phone trying to find local roads but these paths aren’t on that map anymore than they’re on my Atlas. “We’ll have to turn back.”
In my humble opinion, good cycle paths have these qualities:
- Smooth Tarmac. Road bikes need a good surface and can’t cope with gravel or dirt tracks. Paul’s had 3 punctures!
- Well-maintained. A sudden pothole or crack in the road can mean you have to swerve into the traffic.
- On both sides of the road. Having to cross 4 lanes of traffic doing 70mph isn’t fun and often feels more dangerous than just cycling on the road with the traffic in the first place.
- Continuous. They’re often put in around junctions to increase safety but this means they come to an abrupt end, leaving you trying to rejoin the traffic, which makes me feel vulnerable.
- A wide path. It’s safer when you can see what’s coming! But you also need to allow room to fall off that isn’t under the wheels of a car.
- Separated from the road and pedestrians. Some have lovely grass patches between the road, cycle path and foot path, which means I can’t hurt a pedestrian and the cars can’t suck me towards them with their drag.
- Well signed! I’ve fallen off a few times when the sign is so small I don’t see it until it’s too late. I also need to know where it’s going, just like I would in a car, and Northern Scotland in particular is good at telling you if it’s a rough track or roads. This is important because different bikes can manage different surfaces: off road is for mountain bikes, Tarmac is for road bikes and hybrids can manage a bit of both.
This day has taken us from the beautiful Borders to even less densely populated areas. The houses shrink away and become stone-built, the countryside becomes wilder and peppered with purple thistles and there are fewer roads to choose from.
Day 8: Pitlochry to Tain
A slow low-pitched groan emits from the road. I almost don’t want to look behind. Moments earlier we’d slowed for a bike shop when Paul’s disc brakes kicked in a little too quickly, spinning his back wheel out on the wet road. I heard the screech and clatter as a car passed on the opposite side of the road.
Paul lay on his back, his bike scattered next to him, the cars all stopped around as if frozen in time.
The groan was the unmistakable sound of pain but what pain? Broken bones? Just bruising? I run, clip-clop, in my bike shoes.
“Are you alright?” A woman asks, her car now parked. Paul tries to get up. “Don’t get up just yet, just rest there.” She’s thinking the same thing I am: has he broken his back? I scan limbs for breaks or blood but find none. “Where hurts?”
“You fell off your bike. What hurts?”
Paul lists the left hand side of his body as he lifts his arm. “Ah if you can do that it’s not broken,” I joke, deciding humour will help this situation. He has cuts and bruises but I’m fairly confident nothing is broken. We stand him up and take him to the side of the road where I set about with my first aid kit and get him to drink as two lovely ladies talk about taking him to the local GP.
Whilst this is nice of them, it concerns me. Today is our longest day. We have 120-130 miles to cycle through the hills of the Cairngorms and are on a tight schedule to make it before dark. We agree he’s fine but what’s more worrying is his memory loss.
“Fiona, I’m not being dramatic but…I know who I am, I’m Paul, and I know who you are but where are we? What are we doing?”
Oh God, I’d realised he was in shock but it’s more than just the accident he can’t remember. “Cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats. You fell off your bike.”
“I came off? How? Did I get you?” I explain the accident again. “Where are we going? Where did we start this morning? I don’t even remember what I had for breakfast.”
“You’re in shock, here drink your water.” I take our bikes to the bike shop and set about pumping our tyres up. “Paul, you need to buy inner tubes.”
“Why, have I got a puncture?”
“No, but you got two yesterday so you have no spare ones left.”
“Oh right.” Paul looks confused and begins asking about the accident again. His helmet is in tact with no marks and I’m fairly sure he hasn’t got concussion so I keep pressing his water bottle into his hand and getting him to drink to treat the shock.
“Is my bike ok?” And click. If Paul’s worried about his bike he must be back. I can almost hear the cogs in his head clicking into gear again.
I’ve serviced our bikes and got us ready to get on the road when Paul complains about the pain in his ribs.
“Right we’re going to the GP. It’s 3 miles away in the next village. Can you cycle?” I’m concerned that if he doesn’t get back on his bike soon after this accident he never will.
We cycle slowly on the cycle path, keeping him in my sight. At the doctors I use the 20 minute wait to go out and buy lunch and painkillers. We need to use this as our stop if we want to get to Tain before dark, which would be dangerous.
“Sorry,” I say handing him a sandwich and chucking a caramel shortbread and a packet of crisps on the waiting room bench next to him, “I’m not very good at sympathy!”
The doctor has confirmed he’s fine and after a while the nurse patches him up. “Right, stand next to something doctory, this is going on the blog!” we laugh.
“And I got no sympathy!” He complains as he walks out the door.
“Sympathy’s for the weak. We’re Land’s-End-John-O-Groaters!”
In truth I think sympathy wouldn’t have got him back on his bike and he’d be gutted to get all the way to the Highlands to have to pull out.
He soldiers through the day, clearly in pain but telling me to push on when I ask. It’s a long day and it’s darker than I’d like it to be when we finish but we’ve made it and tomorrow is a shorter day.
Day 9: Tain to John O’Groats
I was born in the most northern county of England to an English mother and Scottish father. I choose not to decide whether I’m Scottish or English. I’m British.
Cycling the length of Britain has given me time to reflect on what being British means. Going slower means you see more and getting out of the car means you’re exposed to the whole experience.
We’ve seen the change in landscapes, buildings, people and accents from the waves crashing on the rocky Cornish hills, where people feel a strong national identity to their county (they’d have Cornwall an independent country if they could). The countryside is more manicured and ordered where arable farming takes over around Shropshire, contrasting with the deep tree-lined Welsh valleys.
We’ve seen the thatched cottages of Devon nestled in the crooks of rolling hills, seen how the buildings become redder the further North you go: from the red tiled roofs of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire to the red brick of Victorian industrial heartlands the Wirral and Liverpool. Stone creeps in around Lancashire to reveal Cumbria’s stone houses in Lakeland hills as the route choices narrow with fewer (and quieter) roads.
The hills become purpler and wilder in Scotland – and Paul’s favourite part of the route – beginning in the Borders but becoming even less tamed towards the end of the road in the Highlands.
The difference between the Welsh border and Scottish border with England are noticeable: in Wales you’d hear English as much as Welsh, the only difference the language that appears in harmony alongside the English words. In Scotland, there are more Scottish accents.
At Gretna our first experience was the friendship cairn, built by those wanting Scotland to stay part of Britain. Further North, the remnants of the yes campaign linger: a graffiti ‘yes’ sprayed on a road sign, a solitary ‘aye’ on a farm gate. I wonder what receptionists think when they see my Scottish name but hear my English accent: have I betrayed my Scottishness? Have I embraced my Britishness?
As we cycle uphill into a headwind blasting rain in my face, I realise our pilgrimage is ending as it began: the same weather, the same experience, in a place with the same feeling of national pride and a desire to be recognised as a land of its own. My tired legs scream that it’s a long way but it’s not so far that you can’t make the journey with just the steam of your muscles.
Standing under the famous sign, teeth chattering as an Asian tourist takes our photo, Paul can’t believe we’ve done it and is proud to have cycled 100 miles a day for 9 days across Britain. I’m glad to be British and although at times it’s been hard and scary, I’ve adored seeing all 874 miles of it.
It turns out Paul has three broken ribs. And I made him cycle 200 miles on it… And put his own bike on the roof of the car…
I feel pretty guilty but I’m glad we didn’t know. Stopping then for the good of Paul’s health would have been the sensible thing to do, but it’s a feat Paul’s wanted to do for years and I’m so glad we achieved it.
Of course now he’ll be even more of a legend for cycling with three broken ribs…