The sound of the rain and sleet on the roof coupled with the wind whistling through the trees and a temperature of just over four centigrade is doing nothing to make me wish I was outside today. Then again, there are many thousands of people in Britain today who will be heading out there in the name of sport, adventure and challenge which makes me wonder what it is about the outdoors, nature and physical exercise that is so enduringly appealing. It seems to me that the more we isolate ourselves from the natural world with our air conditioned cars, centrally heated homes and second hand wilderness delivered through the TV and internet and the more interested in the outdoors we become.
Maybe I have a warped perspective because of my own involvement with cycling, walking and working for a wildlife charity but I get the distinct impression that interest in the outdoors is booming. According to the Outdoor Foundation in America participation in outdoor activities is steady or very slightly declining. Having said that, a whopping 49% of Americans took part in some kind of outdoor recreation in 2014 and according to a Sport England 2014 survey that figure was 59% in the UK. Whatever the trend, that is a huge amount of interest and it raises the question of why are so many people keen to get outdoors at a time when we have never had a more comfortable or entertaining indoor alternative.
My hunch, and it’s only a hunch, is that we haven’t actually evolved anywhere near as far as we sometimes think we have. ‘Modern civilization’ as we call it is still a very, very new concept and only represents the tiniest part of mankind’s presence on the earth. Our new found sophistication is a bit like your first school blazer in that it will take a while to grow into it. Intellectually we can rationalise our great achievement in creating a safe, warm and secure environment in our towns and cities. We can marvel at the cleverness of the many different forms of entertainment we have created; from 3D movies to interactive computer games but the reality is that they are no substitute for the wonders of the great outdoors. Our heads may be ready for driverless cars and flights into space but our bodies and souls still crave the feel of warm sun on our faces or the sound of a blackbird singing at dusk.
This isn’t a rant against modern life by the way. I’m not suggesting for a minute that we should abandon our smart inventions and eschew the comforts of twenty first century living. I just think we need to have some perspective and appreciation of how important the outdoors and nature still is and how ingrained in us it must be. We have spent hundreds of thousands of years as a species living an outdoor life and a mere few hundred escaping it. It isn’t surprising that the lure of the wild draws us to walk in the countryside, to marvel at the beauty of nature or to find peace and solace in a magical sunset.
Dawn over Staithes harbour, North Yorkshire, England
My worry is that each generation will grow more isolated from these things and I hope passionately that we won’t let that happen. One of the most rewarding parts of my new job is talking to children and their parents as they explore the world of nature on the Brockholes reserve. The innate fascination that children have with all things wild reminds me that we are a long way from evolving into urban creatures for whom the natural world is irrelevant and it gives me hope. When we do finally get those self-drive cars that we are now promised I really hope we will use them to transport ourselves to the countryside where we can abandon them for a few precious hours while we reconnect with our deeply embedded roots.
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A magical thought struck me the other day. If you travel around the perimeter of an island by bicycle, or any other means, you will, inevitably, cross every river in that land. For somebody who really likes ferries and bridges this can only bring lots of enjoyable experiences and so far it has. The slight fly in the ointment is the fact that people do have a tendency to build large cities on rivers and those cities are not always cyclist friendly.
On our way up the west coast we only had Lancaster and Glasgow to deal with and neither were a problem. Lancaster was easy because we know it quite well and were able to use the surprisingly good network of cycle paths to get us through the city and over the River Lune. I say surprisingly because unless you are local and use city cycle routes on a regular basis they can be a nightmare to navigate. Glasgow was even easier. We didn’t go anywhere near it. This kind of ruins my opening statement about crossing every river but let’s just gloss over that for now. No, we avoided Glasgow by the simple act of using the isle of Arran as a stepping stone to link two bits of the mainland.
So that was the first half of the west coast dealt with, next stop Inverness. This wouldn’t have been too bad if we hadn’t wanted to go looking for a new waterproof for Gill. We were sucked over the Beauly Firth on a cycle track along the very busy dual carriage way and the Kessock bridge which promptly dumped us in the middle of an industrial estate.
We found our way out and then had to find a way over the river Ness and out via the horrible A96 at 5pm on a Friday. Not our best plan I admit, but we survived that one, just. Aberdeen was easy and quite enjoyable. The theory of following the coast inland, up the river and over the first bridge then following the opposite bank back to coast doesn’t always quite work but in Aberdeen it was as simple as that. It’s a strange city in that not many of them have a mile or so of seaside beach and promenade. Most big cities dump sand somewhere in the middle of themselves in the summer these days and call it a city beach. In Aberdeen they don’t need to do this as the real beach forms one side of the city and it’s lovely on a warm summer’s day. We were told by a local that the weather was exceptional and that normally they get nine months of winter followed by three of bad weather so we were privileged to see it in the sunshine.
We wove our way around the docks hugging the water’s edge and along the south side of the river Dee, past the original village that pre-dates the city and we were through. If only it could always be like that.
We didn’t anticipate too much trouble with Dundee. We would only be flirting with its southern edge before crossing the splendid bridge over the Tay. We also had local knowledge in the form of our friend David who lives in the city. He came out to our campsite to visit and as if bringing excellent home-brewed beer wasn’t enough he also had an encyclopedic knowledge of the local cycle routes which he primed us with. We hadn’t realised that access to the north end of the bridge was via a lift for cyclists. Well, at least it should have been. We approached through the docks, which was the usual mixture of awesome engineering sights and dereliction but with the added spice of having to be let through locked gates to pass directly through the secure area of the complex. We reached the bridge and made our way excitedly to the lift and read the instructions for its use: “Lift out of order, please use the stairs”. Not funny. Once loaded with all our luggage we can’t actually lift our bikes so it was a question of unloading ten bags plus tent and other paraphernalia. Five trips up and down two flights of stairs later we loaded everything back onto the bikes and set off to ride the 2km bridge over the Tay. There’s no wonder we are both losing weight! Next stop, Edinburgh.
I was excited by the prospect of crossing the Firth of Forth. There can’t be many more iconic bridges than the Forth rail one and I had never actually seen it in the flesh before. Add to that the fact that we would somehow be riding across what in all but designation is a motorway even the light drizzly rain couldn’t spoil today. We also had a campsite earmarked four miles south of the city centre so there was the additional anticipation of navigating in and back out again of a major city to spice things up. Our first view of the mighty rail bridge was even enhanced by a giant cruise ship posing in front of the arches.
Forth bridge through the gloom
The relative scale of things was confusing. Cruise ships are massive but this one looked tiny juxtaposed against such a giant of engineering wonder. The road bridge didn’t disappoint either. We rode along a wide cycle track as cars, lorries and buses thundered by and the bridge gyrated around like a giant bouncy castle under our wheels. We managed to follow the National cycle route number one right to the heart of the city and without touching a busy road. The signage was generally very good apart from one section where we passed through literally millions of pounds worth of the wealthiest part of the city and they obviously weren’t going to have horrible cycle route signs blotting their pristine suburban idyll. Then something amazing happened. First a bit of background. On the previous night’s campsite at Elie I spotted a chap wearing a small rucksack pushing a loaded bike quickly up the coastal path and out of sight of the campsite. My guess was that he was he was looking for a spot to camp wild somewhere along the coast and it turned out I was right. Back to Edinburgh and we were mixing it up with the crazy city centre traffic as I used a combination of inadequate map, compass and instinct to find a road south that would get us to the campsite. That’s when I spotted Mr. wild camper astride his bike standing by the side of the road. A very enjoyable conversation ensued about the advantages of wild camping and the fact that nobody Scottish lived in Edinburgh any longer and ended with perfect directions for finding our campsite. Serendipity personified.
Which brings me to Newcastle and Middlesbrough and what turned out to be the most complex and least pretty part of the whole journey so far. I confess to getting slightly anxious about these sorties into big cities. It isn’t the traffic. Neither the volume nor the speed and proximity don’t really bother me. It’s more to do with finding a suitable route. I don’t use sat nav and the maps we carry don’t show details in cities so it’s all a bit of a mixture of luck and good judgement that gets us through. Getting into Newcastle was easy and very pleasant as far as Tynemouth and then it was simply a case once again of following the river bank inland until we found the entrance to the pedestrian and cycle tunnel that takes you under the Tyne. Well it does when it isn’t closed for refurbishment. There was a replacement shuttle bus service but rather than run from the tunnel entrance we were left to find a bus stop some way away by virtue of a diagram pinned on the tunnel closed sign. It meant yet another removal of all the luggage from the bikes so that they could be mounted on a trailer behind the bus but it also meant that we got to meet a lovely character from Liverpool who helped us with our bags. When you come across a bloke with a red Trilby, purple trousers and dyed blonde hair, rolling a fag and smiling at you through a partial set of yellow teeth you just know that here is somebody that really lives life. He was lovely and I could have spent hours talking to him but the bus arrived and before we knew it we were being unceremoniously dropped in Jarrow and our colourful friend was gone. We loaded up the bikes, tweaked the mudguards that had been bent out of shape on the trailer and set off once more. That last bit isn’t true. What we actually did was stand around wondering where the hell we were and where we should go. I knew that we needed to head for South Shields but the various cycle route signs very helpfully pointed us in two opposing directions, both to South Shields. We took one on a whim and gave up after half a mile as it turned into a dirt track and retraced our steps back to the drop off point. Option two was better and now we were heading east and back towards the coast. I opted to turn south to avoid the centre of the town and headed down a B road from which, in theory we should be able to make our way to the sea once more. Sadly, and somewhat quirkily, the road just came to an abrupt end on the edge of a housing estate. A mile of rough footpath got us back on the road and finally to the coast and we were back on track and heading for Sunderland. “Keep the sea on your left and you can’t go wrong” they said. If only it were that simple.
So finally to Middlesbrough and what, for me, was going to be a real highlight of bridge crossing element of this tour; The Tranporter Bridge across the Tees. But it was closed for redecoration. (They are going to regret choosing that wall paper in six months time). To say I was disappointed would be a massive understatement. The only consolation was just getting a close up view of this amazing structure and putting it back on my list of things to do on a future tour.
The bridge we never crossed
We were lucky enough to have our friend Les guiding us on this part of the journey and as a native of Billingham just down the road he was completely unphased by the enforced route change. We made our way through a surreal landscape of heavy industry and chemical plants in the middle of which is an RSPB bird reserve with the second highest visitor numbers in the country.
The alternative scenery around Middlesbrough
It reminded me that whatever impact we humans have on our environment there will come a day when the rest of nature will take it back and make it its own once more. As I pondered this battle of man versus nature an ear piercingly loud siren went off. I was wondering if it was possible to outrun a major chemical explosion and fire on a bicycle when a reassuring tannoy announced that this was a test of the toxic release alarm and we were to take no further action. Well that was a lucky escape. We made it over yet another wonder of engineering in the form of a bridge that originally was able to lift itself clear of passing ships but is sadly no longer operational. Les left us here and we followed another Sustrans cycle route through some of the most derelict and desolate scenes of former industry that I have ever seen. The shiny new Middlesborough football stadium sits like a bauble amongst the utter devastation of what was once the heart of the steel industry. Mile after mile of ruined factories and works reminded me of how the working structure of this country has been turned on its head in less than one generation. It was quite depressing and arriving at the coast in the little village of Coatham was literally a breath of fresh air.
We are now camped at Staithes. As picturesque a seaside village as you could find anywhere in Britain with quaint cottages nestled amongst towering cliffs.
Staithes nestled between the cliffs
The smell of chemicals and fumes has been replaced by that of the sea and the sound of endless traffic by the cries of gulls. I love this country.
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