Thoughts from a 1000 mile bike ride

IMG_0985.JPGEver since I started cycling at the beginning of last year, I’ve wanted to embark on an epic mission. Initially I fulfilled this desire by cycling from Bristol to London, a 140 mile journey on a hot summers day. The first 100 miles was easy – and by easy I mean, challenging but achievable – but when I hit the 100 mile mark in the baking sunshine, I began to feel absolutely rattled. I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about how to pace myself, let alone how regularly I needed food and drink to replace all the energy and sweat I was losing, and to top it all off this was more than twice the distance I’d ever cycled. At 3 o’clock in the afternoon, after 9 hours of cycling, I lay down in a forest on the side of the road and began to convince myself that perhaps my destiny was to stay in this forest forever, living the life of a woodland dwelling vagrant sleeping amongst the shrubbery, an existence I would happily embrace if it meant not climbing back onto my bicycle. After an hour or so getting accustomed to my new life by getting cosy in the fauna, I dragged my hot, sweaty and dehydrated carcass back onto the road and cycled the final 40 miles into London. I vividly remember wandering dazed into a petrol station and purchasing a packet of Starburst, allowing myself a single Starburst every 3 miles in order to motivate myself to keep going. At this point, I knew nothing about the importance of replacing the calories I was burning, nor did I realise the extent of how rapidly my body was losing energy. I had only been cycling 6 months and was cruising into our fine capital city a delirious, haggard, delusional mess. A few miles from Buckingham Palace, I got hit by a car and managed to ninja roll over the bonnet and into the road. The terrified lady at the wheel leapt out the car to check I was okay. With a crazed look in my eyes and a manic grin on my face, I cackled at her, gleefully remarking at how hilarious it is that I’d been on the road for 14 hours and had managed to get hit by a car just a few miles from my destination. “Sods law!” I exclaimed. To this day, I’m still not sure if that was the correct context for such a reference.

Upon returning from this swashbuckling adventure my beak was wet but I was thirsty for more. I was proud of myself for cycling from Bristol to London, but Bristol to London doth butter no parsnips. And by “doth butter no parsnips” I mean that it wasn’t enough. My parsnips were dry and arid, positively screaming out for a healthy splash of delicious butter. A combination of thirsty beak and dry parsnips is only bearable for so long. I soon decided to cycle the length of Great Britain. A year later, thats exactly what I did.

My journey began on 12th August 2017 with a smile on my face and a spring in my step. At least, that’s how I wish this story began. Truthfully, I had spent the night tossing and turning in a damp tent 10 miles from Penzance, struggling to sleep for reasons that were threefold.

Firstly, I hadn’t slept in a tent in about 20 years since a camping trip with my Dad as a very young child. I’d been to festivals in the meantime, but they usually involved intoxicated comas or no sleep whatsoever. On that first night on the windy cliffs of Cornwall, with the rain beating down,  the cold damp cocoon of tent life was not a recipe for good quality sleep.

Secondly, my tent was damp and I was fuming about this because I’d spent a fair bit of money on a tent which branded itself as “wind proof, water proof, nuclear bloody bomb proof” Actually, that’s the way I’d been describing it to people. The proprietors of the tent didn’t use those exact words, but their sales pitch was near enough to that claim. Yet there I was, on my first night – cold, damp and miserable. As the trip went on, I figured out a way to set up the tent by precariously balancing the rain cover over it while putting the poles in, which meant I never slept in a wet tent again. Sadly, by the time I had sent up my tent on night one, it was too late and the fate of my evening was sealed.

The third reason I struggled to sleep on that first night pitched on the Cornish coast was because for the first time, the scale of what I was about to do lay before me. I knew I could achieve it, and I knew I would achieve it. But knowing that you’re able to do something, and the actual reality of doing it, are often very different things. As I lay there, reality sank in. Bloody hell. I really have to do this now.

And so I departed on day one of my thirty two day adventure feeling completely in awe of the task that lay ahead of me, and to add insult to injury, I just wanted to go to bed. The first cruel shock to the system was immediate, as I cycled away from Lands End and began tackling the brutal hills of the Cornish coast, I suffered unbearably with the weight of my bike. I thought it would be cool and adventurous to attempt the trip with everything I needed to survive in the great outdoors – tent, pillow, sleeping mat, stove, fuel bottle, kitchen gear, clothes for all weather, multi tools, not to mention electronics for filming and editing videos. I was a man on a mission. The alternative to this approach was to travel with nothing but very lightweight cycling clothes and a credit/debit card, staying in hotels along the way and carrying next to nothing on the bicycle. When most people cycle the length of Britain, that is the approach they take. Why weigh yourself down with all that extra gear when you can carry next to nothing and stay in hotels? The logic behind my approach was that it would be more of an experience sleeping outside in stunning locations amongst the breathtaking wilderness. Also, it would save money. The flip side, however, is that my bicycle was literally 5 times heavier than usual and neither my legs, nor my lungs, nor my mind, body, soul or spirit were ready for it. The first few days were absolute hell.

Its difficult to describe those first few days without sounding contradictory.  Everyone who saw me tackling the unforgiving Cornish hills, one after the other, would have seen a topless man in the sweltering sunshine with a smile on his face, happily waving as he passed by, stopping for a chat, appearing on the surface as if he was loving life. In many ways, I was enjoying myself. After that first night in the rain, the weather was incredible and I was treated to the great British summer while cruising through the great British seaside. It was those first few days where I experienced the kindness and generosity of strangers,  something which animated my entire trip. For example, there was a festival near St Ives and when the man at the hot dog stall saw my bedraggled sweaty figure appear through the crowd, accompanied by my monster truck of a bicycle, he called me to the front of a very long queue and served me before anyone else. Later that day, as I climbed out of Newquay, slowly ascending one of the steepest hills of the entire trip, a car full of teenagers drove next to me for the entirety of the hill shouting words of encouragement and giving me a round of applause when I reached the top. On the third night, an old friend from Bristol who I hadn’t seen in 10 years arranged for me to have a free night at the B & B in his village. Its called the Elliot Arms and if you’re ever in Tregadillet, Cornwall, you should definitely go and visit it.
Yet despite the beauty of Cornwall and the acts of kindness I was receiving along the way, my internal mood was one of pain, fatigue and uncertainty. Those first 5 days from Lands End to Bristol can be described as nothing other than a baptism of fire. I had never cycled this distance in a 5 day period, I had never experienced cycling with a bicycle this heavy, and I was traversing the unforgiving hills of Cornwall, the most challenging terrain of the entire trip. On top of all this, the mental aspect of staying sane  sitting on a bicycle for 6 to 10 hours every day was an interesting challenge within itself.

On the third day, despite feeling absolutely rattled, I took a 50 mile detour across the hilly moors of Dartmoor National Park in Devon. It’s like another world up there! My logic at the time dictated that it didn’t matter how tired I was, there was simply no point in cycling the length of  Great Britain if I was going to take the easy route along busy A-roads. I was already struggling to the extreme, so I may as well try and push myself to the limit. I’ll write in more detail about that day in a separate blog, but to briefly summarise, it was the hardest day of the entire trip and it nearly broke me. I left a little bit of my soul in the wet and windy undulating hills of Dartmoor National Park. Some day, I will go on a rescue mission and attempt to retrieve it.

By the time I arrived back in Bristol after 5 days, I was a broken man. Of course, I didn’t tell anyone this. I expressed to my friends and family that although the journey was tough, I was enjoying it. This was true to an extent. I did feel happy at what I’d achieved and I had enjoyed marvelling at the beauty of the landscape I had passed through.  However, this feeling of achievement was hugely overshadowed by an overbearing feeling of complete and utter fatigue. On one hand, I had no intention of quitting. On the other hand, the highlight of every day was at the end of it, when I got off my bicycle. The feeling of freedom and adventure I had hoped for upon embarking on this trip seemed a fairly long way away. So far, it had been an experience to endure, rather than enjoy. My beak was wet and my parsnips were dripping in butter, but perhaps I’d bitten off more than my greedy little parsnip gobbling beak was ready to chew.

I was putting all this pressure on myself to cover a certain distance every day, and to take the most difficult route regardless of how I felt. I spent the days clock watching, working out how many hours of riding I could squeeze in after designated food stops. How on earth did I expect to find freedom and adventure while putting myself under so much strain? I guess this is where I learnt the first important rule of bicycle touring. There are no rules. This was supposed to be an experience to enjoy, and here I was being strict with myself over imaginary guidelines which existed nowhere but in my own brain. Also, this approach doesn’t suit my personality. I wanted to be spontaneous, free spirited, and adventurous. After 5 days, I threw the rule book out the window. I would simply cycle North with no plan. Eventually I’d get there.

Once I relieved the mental pressure on myself, everything got so much easier, and as the mental pressure drifted away, my body began getting stronger and more able to cope with the long days, the weight of the bicycle, and the nights sleeping in the tent. At first, sleeping in the tent was a chore but very soon, I began to love that warm little bubble, my heavenly refuge at the end of a long day. It had officially regained its noble title of being 100% nuclear bomb proof.

And so, with a new lease of life, the next few days were absolutely hilarious. My good friend Pete joined me cycling from Bristol to Liverpool, as we crossed Wales via the Black Mountains. This was a completely unnecessary detour,  but I had readopted my philosophy of “Why bother taking on a journey of this magnitude if you’re going to take the easy route?”

Having company at this point was extremely welcome, especially the company of such a good friend. It lifted my spirits at a time when I really needed it. We experienced wild camping together for the first time, with lots of jokes about a combination of Brokeback Mountain and axe murderers.

On the first night we slept in a thick woodland at the very top of the Black Mountains, which was completely dry but as a windy storm raged outside, trees were literally falling over around us. We moved camp in the middle of the night when we realised there was a serious risk of a tree falling on us. There were a couple of hours of exhausted deliberation before finally making this decision. After 65 miles on the road, followed by cooking dinner and setting up camp, the last thing we wanted to do was move camp in the middle of the night. We calculated that although we could hear trees swaying, bending, creaking and falling over, in such a large forest the chances of actually being squashed by a tree was around 1 in 1000. As I lay there in the dark of the night too tired to move, listening to the wind blow around me, I liked those odds. As I drifted off to sleep, I muttered to Pete “If one of us gets squashed by a tree, the other one will have to tell the family of the deceased that we were well aware of the risk but we just couldn’t be arsed to move” I think that was a lightbulb moment for both of us, and we got the hell out of there.

As the journey continued, I began to really appreciate the beauty of the scenery I was in. Its a feeling thats hard to explain unless you’ve experienced it. For millions of years we evolved at one with the land and only in very recent human history have we become so separate from it. There’s something so therapeutic about being fully engulfed in the great outdoors. Anyone who has spent time cycling, hiking, camping, or indeed partaking in any activity which involves a prolonged period of time in nature, will have no doubt experienced this feeling of tranquil calm and contentment.  It ignited an animalistic feeling of belonging within me. Its so easy to spend years living in the city and never feel that connection with nature, and its such a shame because it awakens a part of our spirit which otherwise lies dormant. A member of my family once told me that there’s a scientific theory behind why we have a feeling of happiness, fulfilment and satisfaction when we look at a beautiful view across the horizon. Because thousands of years ago before humans decided to settle, we were nomads and travellers wandering the land. The feeling of an incredible view is telling our brain that this could be a place to conquer, live in and settle. I don’t know if that’s true, its just a theory after all, but something felt so fulfilling about waking up in the great outdoors, cycling across it all day, and then sleeping in the great outdoors at the end of it. Everything felt uplifting, important, valuable, clear. The clarity of my thoughts on everything – my friends, my family, my life, my ambitions – fell perfectly into place. As I write these words, I feel desperate to get back out there.  The remarkable progress of humanity in the last century or so can not be underestimated: electricity, transport, technology. As a species we have astronomically excelled and will continue to do so. The only downside is the lack of connection with the great outdoors that so many people suffer from their whole lives, often without even realising it. For me, there was no greater spiritual medicine than being part of nature in that way. After all, thats where we come from, nature was our home for hundreds of thousands of years. Its no surprise that it feels nice going back there.

The journey soon began to fly by. Wild camping was a really funny experience. At first, I’m not going to lie, I was scared. I’d never done anything like that before and a whirlwind of doubts and uncertainty were swirling through my mind when I first wild camped alone, in the Lake District. Pete had left me a couple of days earlier and I knew it was time to “Toughen up, cupcake” and muster up the courage to sleep in the great outdoors all alone. I lay there beneath a tree in the pouring rain, tree roots uncomfortable beneath me as this was the only dry part of the field. I’m laughing as I write this, because as the trip continued to unravel, I soon had no hesitation about wild camping whatsoever. But on that first night away from the camp sites, feeling very tired after 67 miles of cycling, lying in a dark rainy field beneath a tree in the heart of the Lake District, I did something I hadn’t done in a very long time. As a 27 year old man, I rang my big brother because I was scared.

I told him that I knew I was being stupid but I couldn’t help lie here imagining some disgusting murderer wandering through the fields coming to get me. Despite the fact I knew this was ridiculous and irrational, my brain was doing funny things to me that night out there in the middle of nowhere. My brother gave me the best advice he could have possibly given “Seb – you’re the thing they should be scared of. Imagine you’re walking through the Lake District in the middle of the night, and you come across a small tent under a tree hidden in the complete darkness. What’s the first thing you’re going to think? Who the fuck is in there!? THEY SHOULD BE SCARED OF YOU” This actually really helped. I was the top of the food chain. I was the predator. I was the king of the jungle. This also had the added benefit of being completely true. The scariest thing to run past my tent that night was probably a fox or a mouse. There really was absolutely nothing to be afraid of. By the end of the trip, I wild camped wherever I fancied it and had no concerns whatsoever about animals, murderers, or farmers throwing me off their land. I would simply sleep and if I encountered any problem I would deal with it at the time. Suffice to say, I did not experience a single issue on the entirety of the trip. Wild camping is wonderful, there really is nothing to be afraid of.

I think there’s also something to be said for the benefits of a simple life. As our lives get more complicated, we get more stressed and less happy. We are surrounded by distractions, responsibilities, personal and societal pressure. Some of the happiest people I’ve met are the people with the least. I know this is a cliche but its a cliche for a reason. Its an important message to consider. As a teenager I visited The Gambia several times and it was an epiphany for me to see that these people were so much happier than most of the people I experienced in England. They were always smiling, they said hello to one another, they always stopped for a chat and most importantly they had genuine kindness in their eyes. Despite having very little, their warm and friendly nature was more authentic than anything I’d experienced in England. When I began reading about bicycle touring, it didn’t surprise me to read accounts of people experiencing that same feeling of happy, simple contentment on their journeys. Suddenly, there ie no stress. Suddenly, there is nothing to worry about. I thoroughly enjoyed that feeling of freedom and simplicity. All I had to think about every day, for a whole month, was waking up, packing up my tent, eating food, cycling across beautiful landscapes, and finding somewhere to sleep. No stress, no pressure, no complication. This was complete nourishment for the soul. It was blissful.

I realised on the road how easy it is to go and have an adventure. I’m not suggesting everyone should hit the road and disappear for a month, because I know in many cases that’s just not possible. But in this country we are surrounded by hundreds of miles of beautiful nature. Its entirely possible to wake up on a Saturday morning, drive somewhere beautiful, go on a hike for a few hours and still be home by lunch. Instead of sleeping in your bed, you can go camping for the night. There are so many options to mix it up and make life a little bit more adventurous. Embracing this sort of experience doesn’t need to be expensive or time consuming.  Getting out of your comfort zone is always a positive thing!

I grew as a person on my trip across Britain. The mental and physical improvement in how I was able to cope with the journey was striking.  On day one in Cornwall I cycled 55 miles over 5000 feet of hills and I was drained at the end of it. 32 days later, I cycled 75 miles over 4000 feet of hills, at a much quicker pace, and I could have easily continued at the end of it. It was a massive leap from where I had began. That was a really encouraging experience. Stick at it, and the rewards will come.

There are so many funny stories from this trip which I will share in future blogs. Such as the night spent hiding in a farmers bush amongst a field of wheat, creeping away as the sun came up. The fateful evening that I was saved by my scouser guardian angel, an 11 foot man named Simon who I met on the outskirts of Liverpool. Approximately 11 foot, anyway. The afternoon I had the remarkable fortune of breaking down a few feet away from a semi professional bicycle race. There was the evening I briefly fell in love with a B and B owner on the North coast of Scotland, not to mention the afternoon I embraced Scottish culture by attending a Buddhist meditation class.  I look forward to sharing all these stories in future posts.

So many people helped me on my journey across the Britain. Thank you to Dan & Claire who cooked an amazing roast dinner and arranged a free night for me at the Elliot Arms. Thank you to the Elliot Arms for having me. Thank you to my good friend Imogen who literally saved my life at the end of Dartmoor National Park, with a hot bath, a hot meal, and a warm bed. There are no words to describe how much I needed that! Thank you to my good mate Pate who joined me for 3 days, ending with an dramatic 14th century-esque farewell amongst the Shropshire Hills. Thank you to the man in the reception at the hotel in Blackpool who took my clothes home and washed them for me. I must have really stank. Thank you to Laura and Eeamon who welcomed me into their home in Liverpool and cooked the most delicious meal I ate on the entire trip, not to mention stimulating my brain with a good old fashioned Richard Dawkins themed debate.  Thank you to Angus & Terri for letting me spend 4 days at their flat in Glasgow – we ate Chinese, we ate Mcdonalds, we discussed the trials and tribulations of modern day feminism, and it was bloody great- I love you guys. Last but not least, thanks to the gang of motorcyclists at John O’Groats who gave me a round of applause, patted me on the back, and even threw in a few hugs for good measure when they found out what I’d just done. It was a great end to the trip, they all honked their horns at me as I rode into the distance.

Also, thank you to the deer that I spotted running parallel to the train for 30 seconds at 7am on the journey back down south. That was a really nice moment and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Cheers little matey!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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