2nd August 2013
It’s been a week now since we finished John o’Groats to Land’s End, collapsing from our bikes and into our beds on July 23rd having set out early on 5th July. With 7 days to sit around and rest joints and limbs made sore by the relentless cycling we put ourselves through, there was a chance to reflect on what we had done and what we might take away from it all.
It was 1109 miles over 3 countries, 24 counties and countless cities, towns, villages and hamlets across the United Kingdom. The hospitality we received from friends and strangers was never less than remarkable. I’d feared we might find people somewhat hostile in the more remote areas of Scotland or Wales, swaggering bearded Londoners in lycra, but this only reflects poorly on the prejudices that I carried into the trip as people went out of their way to prove me wrong and help us out.
It started with a chase through London rush hour to catch our train. Then a dusky night in Caithness where the sun sets but it never seems to get truly dark and we were on our way. Amongst streams and rocks, shrubbery and gravel, light and air, lochs and pebbles throughout the highlands. The hum and buzz and crackle of tyres across sand and gravel and asphalt. Sunlight and tarmac. Slowly shifting into farms and fences, cows and sheep, trees and fields and creeping alongside us ever so slowly buildings of brick and cement, tiles and windows, wood and stone. Shops and markets, cricket grounds and shop awnings, power stations and windmills, roadkill and oil stains. And always the sunlight and the tarmac. Then, all of a sudden, people and sound, crowds and colours, chatter and sirens. Motorways and A-roads, flapjacks and energy drinks, pies and ale, tennis and the Tour de France lulling us to sleep after long days in the saddle. Sheep and tractors, cattle grids and canals, tow paths and fishermen. And the sunlight, still there, beating down on us and on the tarmac we travelled on. Sun cream and cycling shorts, industrial estates and wooded greens. Now, remarkably, the sea which we thought we might never see again. Boats and b-roads, hills and highways, hostels and town halls, viaducts and railway lines and everything bathed in the relentless sunlight of a baking British July. Bunk beds and bathrooms, floors and sofas and a strange unquenchable hunger and thirst which comes from the constant pushing of legs in a circular movement. Hours and hours of staring at the floor in front of you, or the cars rushing past or into the horizon. Chat and laughter, conversation and debate, lazy evenings reading and writing. The rise and fall of the ululating earth as we neared the end. Then a sprawling, stuttering rush to the finish and a meandering, lazy train journey back to where we started.
We stayed in many YHA hostels throughout Scotland and the North of England and found the facilities excellent. In often remote locations their existence opens up whole swathes of the country to walkers or cyclists interested in seeing different areas which would otherwise be inaccessible. In facilitating travel to young people or families unable to afford the luxuries of hotels and bed and breakfasts they provide a wonderful service that seems all too often to go unused. While there seems to be much more of a hostelling culture in mainland Europe it was disappointing to see these places often half full and under-utilised in the UK. Many of the helpful, often eccentric staff provided us with help finding cheap dinner and gave us a good laugh along the way.
My meetings with Sustrans staff in Caerphilly were also extremely helpful, providing me with a free bell and water bottle, and even filling it up for me before directing me the quickest way out of town and on towards Bristol. The routes serve a key purpose in allowing casual riders to navigate through busy and built up areas without coming into direct contact with traffic and were vital in allowing me to get across the Severn Bridge and move on into Bristol avoiding the M48. They just became somewhat difficult to follow in and around the larger urban areas and too often led us in circuitous routes which slowed our progress and steered us towards a couple of days in the saddle which were longer than we would have liked. Having said that the one day I did solo, Pontypridd to Bristol I managed to do entirely unplanned and without a map thanks to Sustrans, strangers and, as always, a little bit of luck.
There are a huge amount of things that I saw and felt over the trip that I think will stick with me for a long time and I hope to be able to remember them in years to come. The main one was a sensation of being beaten or defeated by a sharp, steep hill or one too many hours of riding and then the feeling of digging somewhere within ourselves to get through it. I lost count of the number of times that I felt like climbing off my bike and sitting by the side of the road or slowing to a useless pace but was dragged through by encouragement from Aldercy Manning or simply the feeling that we were in this endeavour together and it was vital that we both make it through. Similarly, on the Friday evening that we sat in a Carlisle subway and all I could think about was the soreness all over my body and the need to stop, it was his ridiculous dance moves to the Radio 1 blasting from the radio and insistence that we go “raving” that pulled me through.
The endless hours of conversation and talking through of ideas gave us something to think about and on the whole we were drawn to the ideas that had motivated me to plan the trip in the first place. A constant theme was cycling which led to sustainability not only in the way we live but relationships and aspirations for the future. Education and Medicine led us into the joys and challenges of growing older and trying to negotiate careers. Above all I think we were trying to generate an idea of society and where we might fit into that. A departure, then, from our days sloping around Ealing Broadway, 16 years old, seeing what trouble we could get into. There was something that seemed integral, even necessary to doing a trip like this with someone who I had known since childhood – a sort of continuation of our education. Besides we did learn a great deal about the topography of Great Britain and rudimentary bicycle mechanics, about pain and persistence, ecology and philosophy, determination and satisfaction, joy and exhaustion, sunlight, tarmac and friendship.