What would you do differently?

There is a huge difference between setting out to cycle around the coast of Britain and setting out to see the coast of Britain. Hence the question; “What would you do differently?”

Gill and I were talking during our morning walk yesterday and it turns out we have been independently going back over the photos of our trip around Britain and coming to the same realisation. We feel as if we rushed the whole thing. That we didn’t take enough time to stop and stare and really absorb the experience. That probably sounds a bit shocking when you consider that we spent longer than most making our way around the coast. We averaged less than forty miles a day. That’s pretty slow by a lot of touring standards. We thought we had allowed ourselves plenty of time to take it all in. To take days off and to ensure that we really got the most out of this once in a life time experience. In reality we find that whole days went by with little or no lasting memories to show for them. (I hear one or two people saying, “I told you so”.)

I also think that we made a big mistake in announcing that we were going to cycle around Britain, albeit with the added word, ‘probably’. I thought that strap line was terribly witty and really summed up our care-free, relaxed attitude to the whole trip. Of course, I was kidding myself wasn’t I? Just as I said in the blog about giving up drink for January, making that announcement is great if you want pressure to achieve something difficult. Fatal if you don’t. So, lesson number two; don’t pick any journey that is of a circular nature if you don’t want commitment. Any circular trip has a very obvious beginning and end and most people would notice if you did half a circle and then made a bee-line for home. In other words, a circular journey has ‘failure’ written all over it if you don’t complete the circle. We really, genuinely believed that we were above all that stuff and that we could make up our own rules. That it really didn’t matter if we decided to miss out bits of Scotland or save Wales for another time. In reality though, the pressure to ‘do the whole coast’ was huge. So, lesson number two; keep things open ended, literally.

I’ll give you a specific example of what I think I did wrong. I say I, rather than we, because I actually do think that I was much more to blame for this than Gill. We had a glorious ride one morning around Loch Eriboll. The whole day is covered in this post: Skerry Wild Camp.

Brooding Loch Eriboll

Brooding Loch Eriboll

The scenery was spectacular and even the occasional shower of drizzle couldn’t dampen our mood. As you complete the circuit of the loch there is a pretty steep climb and then a spectacular ride down through wild country before an even tougher climb at the head of Loch Hope.

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

Looking back down on Loch Eriboll

As I tackled this next climb, and it really was a brute, I glanced over my right shoulder and caught a glimpse of the loch lit by a shaft of sunshine amidst a brooding dark background of towering hills and black skies. It was a breath taking scene but I had no breath to give. Preoccupied as I was with completing the climb I looked for only a fraction of a second and I recall thinking as I pushed on how it would have made a fabulous photograph. Did I stop? Did I take the opportunity to capture something really special whilst also having a quick breather? No I didn’t. I let the climb consume me completely and only when I reached the top and the loch was completely out of sight did I stop to catch the breath that I kept from the scene. I will always regret that moment because already the sharpness of it is fading. If only I had stopped and really taken it in. Etched it more permanently on my mind like an indelible tattoo to savour for ever more. I let the challenge of a physical achievement outweigh the beauty of a moment that might have fed my soul forever. It’s easily done and to some extent that’s what we did with the whole journey. As I said, I think I was more to blame for this than Gill.

We have over two thousand photos from the trip but as I have been going through them adding captions and locations I am bitterly disappointed to find that I can’t place many of them. It takes a huge effort of recall, aided by maps, notes and Google Street Map to pin down the exact location and bring to mind how I felt at the time. Sometimes, sadly, I just can’t remember.

We have had the first tentative conversations this week about future tours. We don’t have any plans for where to go. When, or for how long even. All we know right now is that in future we will get on our bikes with the sole intention of really seeing somewhere. Seeing it with our eyes, our ears and our hearts and our minds. Seeing it slowly and intensely, however long that takes. We might put a duration on it. A month, two months or whatever but we won’t put a distance on it and it definitely won’t be circular.

 

Pivotal moments

Moving on

Moving on

It has been an interesting couple of weeks here on our personal tour of Britain. For the first time there has been serious discussion of whether or not we will complete the full circuit. I suppose it started with the recognition that we were both very tired and in need of a break but the simple solution of stopping for a week didn’t completely fix the problem and that’s when it got a lot more complicated.

After our lovely break in Brighton we both set off expecting everything to be fixed and we were quite surprised when we found that it wasn’t. OK we did have strong blustery winds to contend with and Gill’s problem with her hands hadn’t gone away but it was both shocking and a bit depressing to find that after just fifteen miles of that first day back on the road we were both really down in the dumps. We sat on a bench by the seaside and talked about the consequences of simply throwing in the towel and heading back home to Lancashire.

The Needles over troubled waters.

The Needles over troubled waters.

It was a difficult moment. Gill was teary, I was bitterly disappointed and underlying these feelings was the terrible fear of the potential damage this might all do to our relationship and our future. Looking back with a measure of perspective I can see that this was a pivotal moment and the point at which all kinds of things about this trip changed.

Time for reflection. Bosham harbour.

Time for reflection. Bosham harbour.

Before we left lots of people referred to how brave we were to give up everything and set off on such a daunting journey but we never saw it that way. For us it was anything but brave. We were simply, finally, doing something that we had wanted to do for a long time and bravery didn’t come into it. We were fulfilling a dream, not facing our fears as many people seemed to think. All that changed in those five minutes on that seaside bench. Suddenly bravery was absolutely what it was about. Facing the question of carrying on when things had become difficult or giving up and going home was about as daunting as anything gets and the more I thought about it the harder it became. Now was the time for facing our fears. We had had three months of having a good time. No work, pleasing ourselves, drifting along on a wave of happy emotions. It really hadn’t been difficult at all. Yes there were tough days of wet and cold weather. There were rubbish campsites and never ending hills but on the whole we had just been having a ball. Now, all of a sudden somebody had moved the goal posts and our endless holiday had turned into a very real test of strength and courage.

Over the next few days we stayed with friends and family and we talked the whole thing through which helped a lot.

I spent many hours unable to sleep as I wrestled with my own selfish perspective. Gill had always been enthusiastic about this project but deep down I think we both knew that it probably meant more to me than to her. I knew Gill would push herself to ensure my dream could continue but I was also aware that pushing herself to breaking point was not a solution for either of us. Something had to give.

We always talked about this experience being life changing but to be honest, up until this point I was beginning to have my doubts. I know that our lives are constantly changing in small ways, mostly so small that they aren’t even noticeable but we were expecting something a bit more spectacular. Now I am starting to understand how such a paradigm shift might come about. We are finally being tested. Really tested, in a way that will change the way we think. The way we understand ourselves and each other and the way we want to live our lives at the end of this process. It’s scary, exciting and challenging but now I know that this is what this trip is really all about.

Scary but challenging times

Scary but challenging times

As somebody posted on Facebook just this morning, “nobody changes inside their comfort zone”. We are so far outside our comfort zone right now that change is inevitable. We both think we may have turned a corner and we are both determined to finish what we started but we now understand that it isn’t a party anymore. This is when the hard work starts. This is when we find out just how much we really want this life changing experience. There is no easy way out from here. To go home would feel like a massive failure (I know, I know. It’s not really a failure but it doesn’t stop it feeling that way). Continuing is going to be tough and may test us physically and mentally. It will almost certainly reveal any weaknesses in our relationship and in ourselves. It’s dangerous but I think it has to be done.

Catching up with family helped a lot.

Catching up with family helped a lot.

We are both enormously grateful to everyone who has supported us and encouraged us so far, we really are. Don’t go away just yet. You are as much a part of this journey as we are and we need you now more than ever before.

And so to Devon and Cornwall. Something of a nemesis for us. We’ll see you on the other side.

 

Failure

By the time I post this we should be in Kings Lynn in Norfolk which brings to mind one of the many times in my life that I have failed at something. The particular failure I am thinking of is very significant right now because Kings Lynn is where I aborted my first attempt to cycle around the coast of Britain. I set off on the first of April thirty or so years ago and only managed about 300 miles before giving up and getting on a train up to Lancashire. I blamed a painful knee condition at the time but as I got older and wiser I realised that the knee was really just an excuse. The truth was that I was lonely. I probably should never have attempted it on my own because just a couple of years earlier I had also abandoned another solo adventure. That time I had planned to walk the length of Wales but again I had got lonely and fed up on my own and came home after three days. It might appear that both of these trips were examples of failures but that isn’t true of  the second one. The first one was a failure because I didn’t learn from it which is why I set off on the solo ride around Britain. The second was anything but a failure because it taught me a valuable lesson that I have never forgotten. That is, I’m not that keen on travelling alone so it’s probably best avoided. And therein lies the inadequacy of that word failure. It carries with it nothing but negativity and it is so often misused.

I actually learned two things from that aborted cycle trip. The first was that I wasn’t really suited to travelling on my own but the second and much more important discovery was that it is OK to fail in anything so long as you learn from the experience. Or, as someone once said; you should never make the same mistake twice because there are so many to choose from.

It is thanks to those early learning experiences that I can happily sit in this hotel bedroom having abandoned our plans to camp today. Not camping when the rain is relentless and we are wet through all the way to our skin has nothing to do with failure and everything to do with having learned from past mistakes.

Of course it’s great to have the benefit of hindsight and experience but then again ignorance is sometimes bliss. We have just met another tourer in the bar downstairs who is four days into his own round Britain tour. Kuldip set off from London with not so much as a packing list of things to take as a shopping list of what he needed to buy on the journey. He showed us today’s purchases which included a new waterproof jacket, overshoes, a light, a water carrier and goodness knows what else. His complete lack of planning and happy go lucky outlook was a breath of fresh air. We left him preparing to ride for another three hours before it got dark and in the pouring rain too. Two hours later when we went down for dinner he was still there. Still smiling broadly and still preparing to leave. He eventually headed for a nearby campsite in his brand new waterproof to pitch his four day old tent and unwrap his other new purchases. I really hope such a happy and positive person turns out to be a quick learner too. Good luck Kuldip, I hope you enjoy your shopping trip around Britain.

We met another interesting character this morning. As we got ready to leave the hotel I had my bike propped up outside and as I oiled the chain I became aware of a disembodied voice telling me to go away. I traced it to a very rude old man sitting on the other side of an open window. He claimed I was spoiling his view. I asked him if he meant the view of the building on the other side of the street but he simply told me to go away again. I told him to stop being ridiculous and continued with our essential maintenance. At this point the manageress of the hotel came out, apologised profusely but asked me to move. It turns out that the former squadron leader has lived in the hotel for the past three years and is plainly a few cards short of a full deck. I waited expectantly for Basil Fawlty to appear to complete the scene but sadly I was disappointed and reluctantly moved the bike to keep the peace. I did consider going back into the hotel to present the miserable old fart with one of our contact cards so that he would be able to read this blog but Gill talked me out of it. I have no doubt that he learned all sorts of valuable life skills during his heroic time in the RAF, it’s just a shame that tolerance or good basic manners weren’t amongst them.

It is now twenty four hours since I started writing this and Kings Lynn is behind us. I am re-tracing my steps along the Norfolk coast. A bit wiser, a lot older and in far better company than thirty years ago and unlike thirty years ago I am enjoying it enormously.

Random pictures from the last few days.

Preparing to watch the tour in some style.

Preparing to watch the tour in some style.

Here they come and there they go.

Here they come and there they go.

 

At last, a bridge that was open.

At last, a bridge that was open.

Crossing the Nene in the  rain.

Crossing the Nene in the rain.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

There are lots of potatoes in Lincolnshire.

A right royal thistle, Sandringham.

A right royal thistle, Sandringham.

At last, some dramatic scenery. Cliffs at Hunstanton, Norfolk.

At last, some dramatic scenery. Cliffs at Hunstanton, Norfolk.

 

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