Monday, 28 July 2014

Cycling through England

Just after 8am we slip out our own front door... and start to travel.

We will not cross skies or seas or bolt across the land in trains or cars; not travel at 500 mph - or even 100 - but at the stately speed of 10.
Sometimes less, if there are hills in the way.

We're on bikes, my son and I, travelling down through the Midlands of England into Hertfordshire - on a journey that normally takes just over two hours by car.
We will take three days.

On the first day we cycle as far as my neice's house with a present for her new born baby. Years later I'll tell Alyssa we rode 55 miles with her 'welcome to the world' present in the pannier. By the third day I will reach her Grandmother, my sister. I'll pass on the latest news about her daughter Rachel and husband, Steve, and tell her all about Ayssa. Never mind that the news will be two days old and out of date.
I'm experiencing what it's like to live in the past - when times were slower and news travelled slowly too.

At the beginning of the the First World War, young men, some just boys, joined up to see the world - or at least the trenches of France. Many of them had been no further than a five or ten mile radius of their village or town. Such was life for most of people. Travel was mostly restricted to foot or bike, occasionally a train. And now I'm experiencing that pace of life.
The world looks very different from a saddle.

At 8.30 we've reached the Cromford canal, shrouded in morning mist. I breathe in the smell of wild garlic; hear the Little Grebes pipe on the water. The dew-covered verge-side vegetation slaps against my legs; cold, wet.

Cycling engages all the senses. Travelling by car or train or plane sanitises them.

Late morning, we leave the dismantled railway trail and canal path behind. We stop in the village of Belton in search of a caffine shot. Two women hog the single outside table of the village shop. The pub has closed down. A local stops and asks:
"Can I help you?
"The pub?"
"Sorry, the pub has closed, but come and have coffee with me."
We follow him down the street to the Victorian house with its cottage garden and orchard. Raymond has a summer house, a Victoriana vintage chic-shabby living-room open to the orchard on two sides. It's a British take on the outdoors Mediterranean living space. He brings us coffee and cold water.
You don't have to go to Eastern Europe or further afield to receive hospitality from a stranger.

Over the next two days we cycle along country lanes, past barges on canals, through villages and towns.
We squelch through dark, puddled tunnels and slip past street musicians in market towns.
We watch children at play in city parks and young British Asians gathering for barbecues. In Leicester we'll follow Muslims in long, white gowns as they head for the mosque during Ramadan. We'll hear the wood pigeon and the skylark. We'll hear the roar of traffic on the motorways, and I'll visibly shrink at the speed of the traffic from the bridge above.
We'll stop at village pubs and park cafes and skirt city shopping streets, and I'll have a detailed picture of modern Britain.
You get a much stronger sense of what Britain is today, if you travel by bike.

By the end of day three I'm tired and hot, and I've never reached my sister's house with such elation. I'm so happy to be at a journey's end.
But I'm already thinking of my next trip through England... and beyond.

Cycling by numbers:
8 cups of coffee on the road
5 cities
4 ice-creams
3 pairs of sunglasses lost
1 puncture
0 carbon footprint

Monday, 7 July 2014

The mystery of Scotland

There are some things in life that are a total mystery to me. The fact that the Highlands of Scotland are so empty of tourists (outside of the hotspots) is one of them. But I’m not complaining. The expansive, empty landscapes of Scotland are the nearest thing we have in the UK to wilderness.

Last week I rented a shack (the website, advertising it as a lodge, was over-stretching itself a bit) at the end of a three mile dead-end lane high above Loch Ness. There was a gap in the front door, and the single-glazed windows constantly steamed up with condensation, but it was paradise. Surrounded by moor and birch trees, I woke up every morning to the sound of cuckoo. I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard the cuckoo.

The nearest town of Inverness was recently awarded the accolade of ‘second happiest place to live in the UK’ - and I can see why. It takes just an hour to get to Ullapool from Inverness and a couple to reach the Isle of Skye. Then there’s a whole coastline of wide golden strands on the town’s doorstep, along with moors and lochs. This was brought home to me as we drove through the suburbs of the town when we had to hit the brakes for a young fawn that raced out onto the road. That it was at least a quarter of a mile from open countryside was slightly puzzling, I have to admit.

Just up the east coast, we happened on some grey seals lounging, as only grey seals can lounge, on a sandy spit near Dornoch. And although the east coast is Scotland’s poor relation, the coastline between Brora and Dornoch is the cyclist’s, walker’s and wildlife enthusiast’s haven.

Over in Ullapool we bathed in sunshine whilst further south in Britain it tipped it down. Ullapool will now be my place of eternal sunshine. I ate my lunch overlooking the harbour enjoying the warmth on my skin, remembering another summer’ evening in Ullapool when I’d watched the local kids fishing on the harbour wall. Kids knee-high to a grasshopper without an adult in sight, and I remember thinking, what a place to grow up. I was puzzled when I saw they were throwing their catch back into the water. It was then I realised that they were feeding seals bobbing up and down in the sea below them, and my envy of their idyllic childhood deepened. That summer we’d eaten one evening at the Arch Inn and almost suffocated in the heat.

Back in the present, we drove on to Achiltibuie, surely one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth. On the single track road, Stac Pollaidh came into view, a strange conical mountain rising out of the moor from nowhere. Other mountains around rose up from the moors like isolated fangs. It’s a strange landscape with a wild beauty. We drove on past sea lochs, laced with pale beaches until we reached the edge of the village. I walked down to the shoreline as a group of kayakers paddled towards the shore.

“A massive starfish,” one of them shouted.
I wandered across to them to have a closer look.
“It’s lost one of its arms!” exclaimed one of the kayakers.

It was a brittle star, a pale sandy hue with four – or was it five? – long ‘hairy’ sinewy arms. The fifth or sixth detached arm floated at its side.

The kayakers gathered around the sea creature, intrigued.
“This is how the starfish reproduces,” one of the kayakers said knowingly. “Another starfish will grow from the detached arm.”
He looked over at me, smiling. I gave him a half grin, not sure if this was another ‘haggis story’.

Not being an expert on starfish, I looked it up back home, and did indeed discover that asexual reproduction can take place in starfish, alongside more conventional spawning, and indeed a severed arm can reproduce a whole new starfish.

The kayakers dispersed and I wandered on along the shore, carefully picking my way through the pebbles, afraid of treading on dunlin eggs camouflaged in the rocks. All around me the dunlins piped and chirped, dipping and rising close to me. Once on a pebble beach near Fort William I had almost tread on their eggs, being so close in shape and colour to the rocks they were nestled in.

In the village, I sat in the beer garden, drinking a glass of wine while looking across to the Summer Isles and Skye beyond. This place is hopelessly romantic, even the names. I sat on the bench looking across the water, sparkling white, to the islands and the smudged blue hills beyond, wondering yet again why this part of Scotland is so empty.

But that's okay.

First published in Wanderlust online magazine on the 15th June 2014