How one trip reignited a taste for adventure.
As eagles circled in the sky above and moose foraged on the beach below, we trekked through muddied terrain up Lone Cone Mountain on Vancouver Island.
I was in complete awe of the landscape and state of calm. What is it about mountain air that clears the head? Is it the grand sense of achievement; the closeness of nature; that feeling of being a small drop in a huge ocean, perhaps; or the simplicity of putting one foot in front of the other.
It was March 2017, and back on flat ground, I was drinking over-priced beers with my brother in Tofino. Known as the 'surfing capital of Canada', Tofino is a small seaside town, nestled in the depths of the Pacific Rim National Park. Surrounded by crystal clear water and snow-capped peaks, it sits a short boat ride away from Lone Cone Mountain. The outdoors has a unique way of slowing down time and soothing the senses, in a way that city life can't. Spending this short about of time in nature had reignited my thirst for adventure and I was eager to take a slice of the experience home.
I vocalised these thoughts to my brother. His advice: “Challenge yourself”.
Five minutes later, I’d planned to cycle the length of the UK (LEJOG), with dates pencilled in, average mileage per day sorted, and a rough idea of the route. At this pivotal moment, my cycling experience consisted of a seven mile commute to work. I had toyed with the idea of LEJOG before, but never gave it serious thought due to lack of ability. This was a challenge and exactly what I needed.
Back in London, I went straight into planning mode. I scrolled through every specialist Lands End to John O'Groats website; drowning in a tsunami of best routes, training regimes and kit guides. It was enough to scare anyone into sticking with a seven mile commute. I tried, desperately, to find evidence that the long distance tour was strictly made for lycra-loving amateurs, not novices like myself. My research came to no such conclusion; I continued to persevere.
After College, I took a gap year to travel solo. This opened my eyes to new cultures, rich experiences, and different ways of living. The impact of travelling solo has by far outlasted the length of the trip itself. Returning from that trip, I was fascinated with what lay beyond Blighty. Curiosity led to reading Rob Lilwall’s ‘Cycling home from Siberia’ and later Alastair Humphreys’ ‘Moods of Future Joys’ and ‘Thunder and Sunshine’. I was hooked. Not only on adventure travel literature, but on the idea of leaving societal norms behind and cycling across the globe.
The ability to carry life’s possessions on one bike, to follow a single road to the other side of the world, and be able to experience it all on a minute budget, has to be one of the most fulfilling, challenging and enriching experiences money can't buy. If there’s one thing in life I wanted to achieve, it was that.
With that in mind, I conformed: University – London – job. The city is full of distractions, so I fed the travel bug with smaller trips here and there. Over time, the allure of adventure and cycling the globe faded. That was until March 2017.
My aim was to finish in ten days, but due to self-doubt, and a visit to friends and family en-route, I planned a thirteen day cycle.
I stepped off the train; the fresh, salty sea air removed any cobwebs from the previous six hours. My head immediately cleared and focused on riding to Land’s End. I was worlds away from comfort laps around Regent’s Park. Penzance felt like the edge of the world. With out of place palm trees, winding lanes carved into cliff edges and miniature multi-coloured townhouses contrasting against my all black lycra. When did I transition into a lycra-loving amateur?
The biggest challenge of any adventure or journey is beginning. So, as I stood on the edge of a cliff at Land’s End and watched the Summer sun melt into the Atlantic Ocean, I knew the hardest part was over. Day 0 had reached its climax, only 1,100 miles to go.
The following days were spent lapping up the Cornish countryside and Devon’s notorious rolling hills. I had a brief encounter with my parents who ensured I was properly fed and watered. This, coupled with a blessing from the Weather Gods, meant I made steady progress, often arriving at my destination ahead of time. My fastest leg was Exeter to Cheddar Gorge, roughly a 60 mile journey, conquered in just three hours.
After six days in the saddle, I arrived on the outskirts of the Peak District – a quick pit-stop to pick up Leo, my Uncle, who joined for the remainder of the trip. We continued north, covering large distances across the highest peaks in the Yorkshire Dales and the northern territories. Reaching Scotland was a major milestone. Not only did this mean I’d cycled the length of England, but it also signalled the end of Summer. Not once had it rained in England, not a single drop. As soon we crossed that border, it poured.
As a self-confessed Southern Fairy and Fair Weather Cyclist, I did not take to this very well. It was day 10 and we were closing in on Oban, a small fishing town situated on the west coast. After spending five hours in a monsoon, meandering around loch after loch after loch, visibility was poor and so was my mood. I’d had enough. We stopped in a coffee shop, leaving the bikes outside in the hope someone would steal them (I mean, I can only speak for myself. Leo was on day 4 of his adventure... and he's Northern). All I wanted was to follow the sun south and dry my webbed feet. I would be so lucky. We refuelled with cake and coffee and continued on.
Day 12 brought with it a gem, the highlight of the trip. Hidden away in the Scottish Highlands is the Crask Inn. It's the only pub in the UK owned by the church and run by a Vicar. The Inn was fully booked that evening. There were six of us: we said grace, ate dinner together, drank and shared travelling stories until the early hours. It was an incredibly unique, surreal experience. Life outside the Inn was barren and wild with nothing to see for miles, we were completely isolated from the world.
That was true, until 8am the following day, when the entire production team of Top Gear turned up. They were scouting locations for their online publication and had stopped for breakfast. As we inhaled a Full English, seven sports cars lined the narrow track outside the Inn; a totally unexpected collision of two opposing worlds. Having left the Inn some thirty minutes later, we were soon overtaken by said production team in a pickup truck; cameras pointed in our direction. They weren't filming us (unsurprisingly), but the parade of cars sat on our back wheels. The roar of a lime green Lamborghini accelerate into pole position, was enough to force uncontrolled smiles, and forget the sudden drop in temperature.
Standing next to the John O’Groats sign post, with my bike confidently held above my head, as if I’d just won the yellow jersey, marked the end of an incredible life-affirming trip.
Cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats taught me the importance of self belief, resilience and that most things really are as simple as mind over matter. A long distance bike tour was now back on the cards.
Next up: cycling from London to New Zealand.