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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.

Desert Island Discs

A couple of people have asked the question, what has been the highlight of the trip so far or what was your favourite place? When I get asked that question I imagine what it must feel like to go on Desert Island Discs and have to select one piece of music to save in the event of a tsunami washing over the island. I can’t specifically identify one particular place or event but I am beginning to get a general feeling for what I like and what I don’t. With the exception of mountains and landscapes I have decided that I don’t like big and I don’t like busy.

As we moved up the west coast of England I couldn’t quite put my finger on why I felt a sense of urgency. A need to pack in the miles and get ‘up there’ as soon as possible. I suppose ‘up there’ meant somewhere I wasn’t familiar with already. Somewhere north of Carlisle. That feeling didn’t really disappear though until we sailed across to the Isle of Arran and everything except the views got smaller. The roads got narrower and less full of cars and the shops became a manageable size.

Empty roads

Empty roads

Even the supermarkets could be navigated alone and without a map. It was better still when we ran out of supermarket altogether and did all our shopping in tiny little village stores that sold a bit of everything and were run by people who wanted to know where we were from and what we were up to. Shopping became a social experience again and it was easy. It is so much simpler to choose a a packet of pasta when the choice is between large or small rather than twenty five different styles and brands.

Once into the Highlands proper complete strangers began to acknowledge us with a raised finger from the steering wheel and many even stopped to let us by. Yes, you did read that correctly. Cars stopped to give two people on bicycles priority. That took a bit of getting used to I can tell you. Navigation became much easier, as exemplified by the road sign that presented us with the choice if going north or south. More often than not we had no decisions to make at road junctions for tens of miles at a time and things like traffic lights and roundabouts were a distant memory. It was, quite simply, bliss. We stopped worrying about locking up the bikes most of the time and all our precious valuables would be left unattended in the tent for hours. There were far less people in the very far north west of Scotland but we spent a lot more time talking to them.

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Change of scenery

As we headed south from John O’ Groats I first noticed things changing as we approached Inverness. Suddenly we were fighting four lane highways, looking for a safe way into the city and what seemed like enormous retail parks appeared with all the familiar brand names. Gill was keen to replace her failed waterproof jacket so we went to a huge branch of Tiso’s but they only had similar stuff to what had let her down already. We were tired and couldn’t be bothered looking further so we battled with the traffic and found our way out of the city only to find ourselves on the stupidly busy and fast A96. We got acknowledged by motorists here too but only to make it clear to us that they didn’t want us on their road. This whole world was about speed and we didn’t fit into it.

There have been some lovely quieter roads and peaceful little villages as we head south but every day we are reminded that we are now heading back to ‘civilisation’ and we become less and less visible other than as a nuisance getting in the way of people doing important stuff.

On the whole the east coast has been still been a delight but in a different way to the west and the north. The pace of life has gone up a notch or two and there seems to be more concern with making money and getting things done than there is with engaging and exchanging. The proximity of the North Sea oil and gas industry and large scale agri-business are ever present and it takes a peaceful forgotten little harbour in a small seaside village to restore the calm and inner peace that I found so easily in the more remote places we have been.

Stonehaven harbour

Stonehaven harbour

So in answer to those earlier questions; the best bits so far have been the quieter, smaller, emptier places wherever they are to be found. They are everywhere in the remote north. Maybe you just have to look a little harder to find them where we are now and cherish them all the more when you come across them. Like just at this moment. We are sharing a small campsite with half a dozen other campers.

More talking than fishing really

More talking than fishing really

A gentleman in a floppy hat has just started fly fishing the river twenty feet from our tent and has caught (and thrown back) two fish in five minutes. Ducks and seagulls constantly bicker and squabble and the ever present sea rolls up onto the shore within earshot. I suppose this counts as one of those elusive ‘best bits so far’.

I hope that tsunami never comes.

Scotland. Twice.

We’ve had a bit of rain, a lot of hills and some really cold winds over the last couple of days so it has been interesting to see how it affects our overall enthusiam. I’m pleased to say that whilst it’s easy to get a bit down in the moment we are generally still very much up.
At Longtown we had terrific heavy rain during the night which is only an issue in that it tends to wake us up sometimes but we were lucky to get away in the dry and high tailed it into Gretna propelled by a strong easterly wind. The gloomy weather got the better of us and we took refuge in a cafe for a full cooked breakfast to lift the mood and fuel us for the day. By any standards it was a poor quality affair but relativity is everything and to us it was Scotlands finest cuisine and we relished every morsel. And talking of Scotland, this second visit in twenty four hours was still exciting and we zoomed along propelled by exuberence, eggs and bacon and high winds.
At Annan (I so wanted it to be twinned with June June, or Sally Sally or something) we detoured to the ‘harbour’ because I was becoming concious that we weren’t really taking in much detail as we travelled. It seems that Annan had a fine harbour and a proud ship building tradition many years ago but now it’s a muddy river creek with some very tired looking boats in it.

Annan 'harbour'

Annan ‘harbour’

Caerlaverock Castle was much more impressive even if it is in need of a bit of redecoration. Well, rebuilding might help as well. Still it was the subject of an exciting siege in 1300 when the English camped outside it and set up all their castle sieging equipment. It must have been impressive because the occupants just threw in the towel and came out to surrender. I bet that was a real disappointment for the spectators. It was here that we found Ted and Lorraine Crook paying far too much attention to our parked bikes outside the tea shop. It turned out that Ted has the same model as Gill’s except that his isn’t bright pink surprisingly. Ted offered to take a photo for us and was very pleased that we also had exactly the same camera as him. It was nice chatting and explaining our trip to them but we left before it turned out that we shared the same mother or something.
Nice cycle paths along the river Nith took us into Dumfries

Flirting with Dumfries

Flirting with Dumfries

but we only flirted briefly with the outskirts before heading south down the opposite bank of the river. This business of travelling up and down estuaries will no doubt become a whole lot more familiar over the next few months.
Home for the evening was Southerness Holiday Park. It was actually a small township of static vans complete with ‘The Venue’ entertainment complex. Tonight’s highlight was bingo followed by guess the TV theme tune quiz. We didn’t partake of either but played the miserable geeks in the corner making use of the free WiFi. It was a very cold night but we knew nothing of it as we slept soundly in our lovely warm sleeping bags.

Bluebells are everywhere

Bluebells are everywhere

Oooh er missus!

Oooh er missus!

Kirkudbright harbour (working still)

Kirkudbright harbour (working still)

Tonight we are enjoying a beautiful sunny evening at Kirkcudbright and I will leave Gill to tell you all about our disappearing underwear later.

Raucous Rooks

Hey insomniacs, here’s an idea. Camp out in a wood directly under a rookery in late April. From 5am onwards you will at least have a reason for not sleeping. I have to confess that I quite enjoyed listening to the rooks raucous cacophany as I drifted close to sleep. I found myself pondering what all the noises meant. Every nest had a bird sitting in it so I suppose they had eggs or chicks by now and maybe that explained all the shouting. I imagined the aawwwcchs to mean, it’s a boy! Or the arrrrchs to say, what a lovely girl. The particularly loud eeeeeches probably accompanied the laying of an extra large egg perhaps. Whatever they were bawling and shouting about they certainly formed a very effective alarm clock. The poor songbirds, blackbird, thrush and robin that I could clearly hear had to be satisfied with playing the part of the backing singers today but their time would come the next morning.
So that was early morning at Ravenglass and as we pedalled away the abundance of police activity suggested they still hadn’t found yesterday’s poor swimmer. It was a grim contrast to a gloriously sunny morning and we were soon exposing legs and arms all over the place to let the sun do it’s worst.

 

Off road touring

Off road touring

We ventured off road at Seascale and emerged from the beach cycle track to be confronted by armed police! Well not really confronted, they were guarding the entrance to Sellafield Nuclear Power Plant.

 

I sneaked a photo of it, half expecting to be seized upon for terrorist type activity but as far as I know I got away with it. Leaving the ugly place we made our way to St. Bees hoping for food but there was nothing except a very long and steep climb over the headland to Whitehaven. The local yobs threatened to steal our lunch as we sat on the harbour making sandwiches which was a bit intimidating. But that’s seagulls for you.  We then met Jamie who kindly showed us the secret cycleroute that goes around the base of the cliffs, as opposed to the road which goes over them.

Jamie the cycle guide

Jamie the cycle guide

Thank you Jamie, we love you. No sooner had we left our cycling saviour but we bumped into Inga and Arno from Amsterdam (sorry if I have your names spelt wrong) who knew of us! They had met Paul who I have engaged with on the internet and who knew of our route for today. We’re famous! We were past the worst of the hills now but they had them all to come so we didn’t go into too much detail about the terrain ahead of them.
At Workington we stopped to brew up and met Maud who, at 93, was keen to share our story and reminisce about the days when she used to ride the Lakeland passes before they were Tarmaced. Lovely lady but I suspect she probably lived on her own and didn’t get much chance for conversation. We did get away eventually and found excellent cycle paths all the way to our next campsite just short of Silloth. I have a love hate relationship with cycle paths but these were truely a joy to ride on. Wide, smooth and mostly going in the right direction.

Maryport

Maryport

Today we made our way along the Solway Firth to Carlisle in flat grey light and the day eventually deteriorated so that as we made our way over the border to Scotland we were welcomed by rain rather than bagpipes and whiskey.

First border

First border

The first five days have been a bit of a shock to the system so we are reducing the mileage a bit to compensate but it feels like we have gone from nibbling to biting at the task we have set ourselves. As it happened the campsites in Gretna Green were either closed or didn’t take tents so we abandoned the country and we are back in England for one last night. We’ll attack the border again in the morning.

Six months and counting

Today it is exactly six months from the day of departure for our grand tour around Britain. I have a geeky little countdown gadget on my computer desktop which tells me to the second how long is left and I’m slightly concerned that I may be getting a little obsessive. I’m worried that the pre-adventure anticipation may peak too early and I’m not sure what I will feel like if that happens. I have been reading a lot of blogs about long distance bicycle tours and they all seem to have a preamble that starts a few weeks or months before the leaving date and usually incorporates various degrees of panic because nothing is organised and there is still loads of kit to buy. In our case, we have virtually everything we need already from many previous shorter tours. In fact, not only do we have all the right gear but we even know what goes in which pannier. We also don’t have any real route planning to do because we will be travelling around the coast of an island and it doesn’t take much in the way of navigational skills to work that one out. This only really leaves the task of shedding our belongings (see previous post) and organising a bit of a leaving do. I’m thinking six months might be a tad on the cautious side to achieve those two things. Which is not the best news for anybody looking forward to a riveting read, because you have six months of inane drivel to get through before anything really happens.

For example:

Today I realised that it is perfectly possible to have good punctures and bad punctures. Bad punctures are like the one I had on our recent tour in Scotland. We were cycling around the island of Arran and really enjoying a bit of sunshine after getting thoroughly soaked by previous heavy showers.

Holy Island

Holy Island from Arran

Gill was about fifty yards ahead of me as we gathered speed down a good descent and I was contemplating the corresponding ascent that lay ahead. I was estimating just how much speed and momentum I could gather and how far up the next hill it would get me when I felt that horrible blancmange like sensation under my rear wheel. Shouting to Gill at the top of my voice to save her any wasted effort (she was at the bottom of the hill by now) I braked hard before the tyre destroyed itself on the rim and managed to stop at the lowest point of the descent. Great. A rear puncture means unloading the tent and panniers, getting oily from handling the rear mech and to top it all having changed the tube and loaded everything back on the bike we would have to start the climb from zero miles per hour. That’s what I call a bad puncture. Today, by contrast, we turned the corner to our house at the end of a really nice morning spin on our road bikes and five yards from home my back tyre deflated. “I’ve got a flat”, I called to Gill, with a big smile on my face because that’s what I call a good puncture. Funny isn’t it?