Dwarfed by my feelings

When we set off on this ride I wrote about the overwhelming emotions that I experienced on the first morning as we rode away from our home village of Freckleton. Now five months and nearly four and a half thousand miles later I find myself equally dwarfed by my feelings. The National Cycle Route 5 through North Wales threw one last challenge at me this afternoon and led me up a steep climb on route to Flint. I cursed it initially after enjoying miles of flat coastal cycle paths but then through a gap in the hedge I saw the most amazing view. The whole of the Wirral peninsula was laid out before me and just beyond it the skyline of Liverpool. It almost felt as if I was viewing the last few miles and the finish line and I was overcome by the enormity of what we have done. Now, thinking about summing up what it feels like to do a journey like this I am equally daunted by the task of finding the required words. So much so that I have decided to leave the writing of the last blog alone for now. I think that any attempt to capture the experience deserves some time and space in order to create a perspective from which to view it.

Wales has not disappointed, even the endless static van parks of the north coast were made tolerable by really good cycle paths and a tail wind that made the cycling effortless. The last small rocky outcrops along the coast were like the final waves from the carriage window as we left this gentle country. The mighty peaks of Snowdonia gradually gave way to more gentle hills and eventually to the pancake flat plains of  Cheshire as we made the border crossing back to the country we started in and the last night in the tent.

We have two short days left to do and tomorrow night we are having a small treat in the form of a modest hotel in Southport. From there it’s just thirty miles to home and the beginning of readjusting to a non-nomadic lifestyle. A few friends are coming to meet us on the road and ride the last few miles with us. I have no doubt whatsoever that those last few miles will be very special, not least for being with friends that we haven’t seen for so long. That pesky wind may even make my eyes a little watery you know.

So you will have to wait for the analysis. The debrief and summary of what it all feels like until the dust has settled and we can hopefully take in what we have done. Meanwhile here are a few photos from the last few days and one of my favourite notices of the whole trip.

Serious cycling infrastructure over the A55

Serious cycling infrastructure over the A55

Don't forget your helmet

Don’t forget your helmet

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

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Little Orme, last of the dramatic cliff scenery

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Touching base. Liverpool and the Wirral.

Well, nearly all week.

Well, nearly all week.

Over the border, I think

Well that’s the crinkly bit done (Scotland) and we are now back in old blighty although it wasn’t very obvious to start with. First of all there was the border crossing which seemed to only operate in one direction. On the other side of the road to us there was a very large and rather splended “Welcome to Scotland” sign with the flag of St. Andrew proudly displayed. On our side there was a run down burger van and a lot of litter. I considered the three possibilities for this situation; firstly, there could be a strange distortion to the border and our side of the road might not be in England yet, secondly, nobody is actually welcome in England from Scotland, which seems a bit mean or, thirdly, and I think most likely, somebody had nicked the sign for it’s scrap metal value. We took a photo anyway to mark the occasion and moved on. About a mile down the road we came to ‘Meadow House’ the first and last pub in England so things were becoming clearer but then we arrived in Berwick Upon Tweed. If ever there was a town with an identity crisis this was it. History shows it changing nationalities between Scotland and England some thirteen or fourteen times no less. Mostly as a result of some siege or other but also simply given by one side to the other as a kind of bargaining chip to win the favour of some trendy monarch of the time.

A much sought after town

A much sought after town

It must have been murder as a parent in the sixteenth century. You might send little Johnny off to school with his brand new rugby and cricket kit on a Monday only to have him come home on Friday with a note requesting that all parents provide their children with a set of bagpipes and a new caber by Monday morning due to the forthcoming weekend siege.

It hasn’t changed much either. There was a Geordie bloke in the high street busking away on his bagpipes with his faithful bulldog at his side. We did have a very interesting and beautiful walk around the town’s walls but they were still under siege at one point by British Gas engineers and we got diverted. And the fighting isn’t over yet either, but more of that in a moment.

We popped into Wheelers bike shop to have a nosey and got chatting to Ian, one of the owners. Before we knew it we were making arrangements to bring both bikes in to sort out a few irritating little niggles that have arisen.

Ian working o my bike

Ian working o my bike

Later that day Ian spent an hour working on the bikes, including fitting a new, well, second hand mudguard to mine and charged us a ridiculously small amount for his services. You’re a gem Ian, one of the old school and all round top bloke. This trip would be worth doing to just meet these amazingly generous people who seem to materialise at just the right moments.

After our day’s rest in Berwick we decided to push deeper into the country to try to find the real England and headed inland a little way to the village of Etal. And there it was. There was no doubt now about which country we were in. Every stereotype in the book was on display from the village post office and cricket pitch to the charming, but sadly not yet open, thatched Black Bull pub.

Picture postcard pub

Picture postcard pub

There was still a castle just to remind us not to drop our guard. This was, after all, still technically borderland and when we ended our day in the small village of Belford we nearly got involved in a fight ourselves.

We went to do our shopping in the local Coop supermarket and as we pondered the confectionery a row broke out. It seemed that a twelve year old boy had been picking on a six year old and now the mothers of both had bumped into each other in the cake aisle. The mother of the younger child seemed to be saying that the older child hadn’t received a sufficiently harsh punishment. This was challenged vigorously by the second mother who claimed she had grounded her son for a week. The first mother claimed that this couldn’t be true because she had seen him out and about and now the voices were getting louder. Just when it looked like it might be cream puffs at twelve paces the store manager made his presence felt and things calmed down a bit. It was very exciting to see that the frictions still lurk close beneath the surface and I have drawn two little swords on my map and added “The Battle of Belford Coop, 2014” to it.

Despite what people have said we really haven’t been rushing this trip but we do now find ourselves with a bit of time to kill. In order to meet up with a friend who has kindly arranged accommodation for us in Hartlepool we are having an enforced go slow for a few days and taking a closer look at the Northumberland coast. We’ve been blessed with beautiful weather for the last few days which makes it pretty easy to slow the pace down and cover less miles each day. Today we probably set a personal best by moving just three miles south after cycling over 35 miles to visit Holy Island and Lindisfarne.

Lindisfarne castle

Lindisfarne castle

We also met Paul at a bus stop who was so full of enthusiasm for what we are doing I do believe that if his bus hadn’t arrived when it did he might have found himself a bike and joined the party. It was his birthday and to celebrate it he had spent a night on the island to see it at its best after all trippers had left. What a wise man he was because it is a beautiful place, spoilt only by hordes of tourists who pour across the causeway as soon as the tide allows and rush back to the mainland again before the road disappears under water. Just as we did. It is also the only place that I have witnessed a traffic jam caused by two completely independent chains of teacher led primary school children bumping into each other at a crossroad. Don’t they make a lot of noise?

Talking of bumping into people we ended up camping the other night with a bloke that I met on Facebook. Sounds a bit wierd doesn’t it and I suppose it was really. Nick first contacted me when I began blogging and talking about our trip on the web and he kindly offered to put us up in Newcastle. That didn’t work out for the perfectly acceptable reason that he too was going touring at about the time we would be in the north east of England. So it was a wonderful surprise to end up camped on the same small site at Budle Bay and to spend the evening exchanging tales of the road as seen from the saddle of a bike. Nick is telling the story of his trip around Scotland over on Crazy Guy On a Bike web site here. We also swapped a good few tips and tricks which is also fun to do but Gill was not at all impressed by Nick’s way of saving fuel by using the boiled pasta water to make tea. (I suppose I had better stop doing it then.)

Today has ended in such a farcical manner I just have to share it with you before I go. We haven’t had the best of luck lately with finding peaceful campsites so tonight it was lovely to find ourselves far from main roads and with a magnificent view of the Farne Isles. We ate our dinner contemplating an undisturbed night with nothing but the evening birdsong for company. That’s when the alarm of the caravan next door to us went off. The owners were nowhere to be seen and the camp warden couldn’t find a solution. It stopped after five minutes and bliss was restored. Then it started again. After a couple of hours of this we had to literally pick up our home and all our belongings and move to another part of the campsite. You couldn’t make it up, you really couldn’t.

Farne Isles from the first tent location.

Farne Isles from the first tent location.

Plan? What plan?

I was thinking about some of the questions we get asked when we tell people about our plans. Amongst the obvious ones and the just plain daft ones (which may be the subject of a blog one day) some of the more common ones are about the route. “Have you got a route planned?” and “Do you know where you are staying on the first night?” seem to crop up regularly. To the second question I would answer that given a favourable wind, we will camp somewhere around Carnforth. A strong northerly might mean a B&B in Blackpool. As for the first question, the answer is yes and no.

We did originally conceive of the trip as a ride around the coast of Britain but this has now morphed into more of a crude hook to hang the plan on. It sounds better than “cycling all over Britain for six months but we don’t really know where we are going” and it gives people something to picture that’s easy and tangible. In practice we do plan to make our way in a clockwise fashion around the coast but we are deliberately not promising to stick to all the roads closest to the sea and we may, shock horror, take a ferry or two across an estuary or inlet. And if that isn’t radical enough for you, we may go to France or Ireland at some point. It was suggested by someone that we would surely be the first people ever to complete a circumnavigation of the country on bikes. I think not. There are books and blogs aplenty testifying to such achievements every year so we certainly won’t be the first but I can guarantee that our trip will be unique. Because they all are. (If you want a better idea of what we are taking on you can read about someone else’s adventure here.)

So this is the plan: Cycle north up the west coast as far as about Ayr then start panicking about the endless options around that really crinkly bit of Scotland. Once we get to Oban we may go to the Outer Hebrides to do the bits we missed on our last trip. The weather might be a factor in this decision. Once around the northern coast of Scotland there will be more decisions about the Orkney and possibly Shetland Isles. I would love to do both but by now we might be in a position to start judging how much time we have on our hands, or don’t. At some point towards the end of June we are hoping we will be on the east coast of England. This would be very convenient as we have accommodation booked in Harrogate to watch the first two stages of the Tour de France. We booked it before making plans for this trip and it seemed a shame to cancel. After a visit to London and hopefully seeing a few friends we turn our attention to the south coast and some serious decision making. We have to tour the Isle of Wight to see my lovely niece and her growing family and we have to visit our two boys in Dorset. BUT, and it’s a big capital letter but, we may, at this point go over to France, travel along the north coast and come back to England, MISSING OUT A SECTION OF THE BRITISH COAST! I know, I know, we are just so edgy. (No pun intended). Then comes Devon and Cornwall which I believe may induce tears at the very least if not a decision to pack up and go home. (“But you won’t have a home”, I hear you all cry. Ha ha.) Everyone that does this trip says the hills around the south west are horrible and make your legs hurt a lot. We’ll see. After more family visiting it’s Wales which is largely familiar to us and rather convenient for popping over to Ireland for a while. Round the corner from Wales of course is north-west England and we will be back where we started.

So there you have it. A rough plan which may change a lot. No rules, no promises, just a relaxed bike ride, mostly around Britain.

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