In about ten days time I will be flying to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Argentina with my friend Vijay. This trip to Galloway in Scotland was to be a little bit of a test run. It would give me the opportunity to test out a lot of my equipment and try to figure out a way to comfortably set up my bike. This was to be the first time I had ever ridden with a fully loaded bicycle including front panniers. Below is what it looked like the moment I set off northbound from Nottingham.
I was going to head up to Scotland regardless to catch up with my Granny and all my Scottish relatives. I could have rented a car and driven which I suppose would have been the easier option. I could declare that my decision to cycle to Scotland was based on the pursuit of adventure. Truth be told, I only passed my driving test a year ago at the age of 32 and I haven't driven once since that moment. The idea of hiring a car and driving up to Scotland is far more daunting to me than the idea of cycling up there! So essentially I was just being a coward by cycling as I was too scared to rent a car. Fortunately people seem to be impressed by the decision... FOOLS! Haha.
The trip was to be a surprise for my Granny. I didn't tell any of my relatives about the trip except for my Aunt Eleanor who lives way up in Edinburgh. I wanted to see her while I was visiting my Granny, so I kept her in the loop so she could arrange to come down and hang out. She is also my chief gin and tonic maker, so if she didn't come down to my Granny's I would be without my nightly aperitifs. There was no way I was going to let that happen!
DAY ONE: Nottingham to Sheffield (70 km)
I expected to journey to Scotland to take 6 days - 5 days of cycling and one rest day in the Lake District. I didn't really have a solid plan of exactly what route I would take or where I would be staying. These were decisions that would be made along the way. Day one was the exception to this. I knew I was going to ride up to Sheffield where I once lived for five years. I expected this to take about four hours having done this journey in that time a year before. I was wrong! Take a look at the next three photos and you might gather why.
Try fitting this through that. Time to engage core muscles and LIFT!!!
For the trip to Sheffield I decided to consult google maps' cycling option. Sometimes this can work well but this time it was a massive fail. The problem with many cycle route planners is that they will try and stick you on all of the available cycle paths which can lead to a multitude of problems. These routes are seldom direct. The surface quality of these cycle paths can also be dreadful (as seen in the photo directly above) which means that you are forced to cycle at painfully slow speeds. The biggest annoyance for me was on national cycle route 6. As you cycled out of Nottingham each segment of the cycle path had these barriers to stop people from squeezing their motor vehicles through. This is really annoying if you are touring as you can't fit your bike with panniers through the given space. So you can either remove your panniers and wheel your bike through, or do as I did and just pick up the entire rig and carry it over. That was not much fun as the whole bike was ridiculously heavy. I need to get rid of some excess baggage for Patagonia.
These paths would be nice for an afternoon jaunt on your bicycle in the summer, but for little else.
Getting out of Nottingham was painfully slow, but I did make one mistake which led me to Newstead Abbey, the residence of the poet Lord Byron. I was quite pleased with that mistake!
Eventually I got sick of the route that was given to me by google, so I just got onto the roads and bypassed national cycle route 6 altogether. Suddenly progress was made.
These zombie children are here to let you know that you're passing a school. Creepy stuff.
After visiting Newstead Abbey you get the pleasure of riding through the rest of the not so stately north Nottinghamshire...
Chad... much more local than Santoshi or Patel. I guess we're entering UKIP territory now. Uh-oh.
It started to get dark as I rode into Chesterfield. Below you can see Chesterfield Parish Church, an example of fine British craftsmanship. The spire of the church is crooked and warped. If only we had some more skilled migrant labourers back in 1362, perhaps then the spire would be straight? We can only speculate.
I set off from Nottingham after midday on day one which resulted in me riding into Sheffield long after sunset. I had expected the ride to take 4 hours but it actually took about 5 hours 30 minutes. I would like to blame it on the route planner, but that was just one factor of many. The fully loaded bike was much heavier than I was used to. Just cruising along on the flat was much slower than normal. The main factor was that I was simply not cycle fit. The most I had recently ridden prior to this was 36km without all my kit. This ride ended up being around 70km and the bike weighed a ton.
The slow progress was a bit of a blow to my morale. This ride was going to be a lot tougher than I had anticipated.
I spent the night at my friend Nathan's house in my old neighbourhood down near Ecclesall Road. I couldn't believe how much the area has changed. It's till very lively but the street is full of chain restaurants. In one spot I even saw a Pizza Express, Nandos and a Taco Bell next to each other. That's right... TACO BELL!!! What is happening? Fortunately Two Steps chippy is still going strong, so I ordered fish and chips with a few large pickle onions on the side. After that we washed it down with a couple of ales at my old local pub, the Porter Cottage, with my old friends Steve and Arthur. You've got to replace all those calories somehow.
The downside of eating pickled onions is the stench that emanates from your sleeping bag in the morning as you wake from your slumber. Well, I might say that it's a downside, but I actually love the smell!
DAY TWO: Sheffield to Cononley (89 km)
I took a quiet but hilly route through Sheffield to Hillsborough, past the Sheffield Wednesday football ground and the Owlerton greyhound racing track. From there it was uphill for a long way out into the Pennines, the longest mountain range in Britain. It stretches from the Peak District all the way up to Scotland.
Penistone! There are a lot of great town names in England. Some of them ruder than others.
Taking a break after a long climb. I mostly ate sandwiches from petrol stations and granola bars as I was cycling. However my favourite instant snack is a tin of cold rice pudding - 400 calories just like that! BOOM!
It was pretty cold weather, but generally I just wore a merino wool base layer. It kept me very warm. I popped on a jacket for the downhills as it wind chill was a little too much to bare. If I cycled in the jacket it would start to get a little steamy in there.
Some industrial relic in the clouds. In Yorkshire you see a lot of old warehouses and factories. Some of them are incredibly old. Despite being a very rural part of Britain there is still a lot of evidence of its heavy industrial past.
"Call Tania. She'll tan ya for a tenner."
I spotted this gem of a poster for Sun Junkie whilst riding north out of Halifax. It was a complete bastard of a climb. The hill seemed to never end. It was possibly the slowest I have ever ridden.
I saw a lot of viaducts on this trip. They're two a penny round these parts.
Proper bleak house. Heathcliff might have a bit of trouble selling that place.
As the sun got low approaching Skipton I started to worry about accommodation, so I got my phone out to find a campsite. Fortunately there was one very close by in Cononley, a tiny village on the rail tracks. I rolled up to the Riverside camp ground and pitched my tent as the sun set. There were no other campers, just a couple in a motor home. It cost £10 for the pitch.
Living in the city, the night time doesn't really affect you. The days are incredibly short in a British winter and this becomes very evident when you are cycling in the countryside and staying in villages. Generally the sun would rise around 8am and set around 4pm, so cycling is a race against daylight. The further north you go, the shorter the daylight hours. The problem is that once you have set your tent up it is pitch black and you are exhausted. It feels like it is 9pm but it is actually 4pm. It's still the bloody afternoon! All you want to do is eat and go to sleep, but you can't do that because you will end up waking up at some ungodly hour in the morning.
In Cononley there was a Chinese take away (that's one thing every self respecting village in the UK has) and a couple of pubs, none of which opened until after 5pm. So I had to grab a shitty sandwich and a snickers bar from the post office while I waited for the village to come to life before I could oblige myself with the mandatory calorie binge that I have come to expect after a long day's ride. Finally I made myself comfortable in a pub and ordered a big dinner with a Cumberland sausage, topped off with a few jars of Timothy Taylor "Boltmaker". A damn fine ale.
In Cononley I got to test my new tent. I splashed out and bought a Hilleberg Nallo 2. It is a damn sturdy tent. What I hadn't counted on was how damp England is. British winters are humid, so everything is covered in a dense layer of dew in the mornings and everything is misty. Needless to say that all the contents of my tent were covered in condensation in the morning. Luckily all my things were in dry bags. I'm used to bone dry sub zero Korean winters. British winters are much milder than Korean ones, but the moisture in the air makes everything feel much colder. In Korea I can just pop on some long johns and thermal underwear, problem solved. In Britain your long johns will just get soaking wet and you'll be cold anyway.
DAY THREE: Cononley to Kendal (79 km)
Breakfast time! A cold tin of rice pudding and an apple.
I packed away my tent, which was soaked with condensation, bought some snacks and set out on the road. I tried to master the art of eating sandwiches while cycling, but it proved near fatal so I shelved that idea for future hunger pangs.
The morning was a tough cycle. My legs were feeling pretty weary. The roads looked mostly flat, but they were those deceptive roads that are actually a slight incline. The majority of the morning was uphill towards Settle, but I didn't realise it. I listened to my body though and rode slowly until lunch. I stopped off in a little cafe and ordered a large mug of coffee and a plate of pie, chips and vegetables.
My front derailleur was throwing tantrums, so I gave it a good seeing to before setting off back on the road towards Kirkby Lonsdale. It feels so good when everything works properly after it hasn't been working for a while.
There is a large hill heading out of Settle but after that there is a fantastic hill bomb. The morning had been a real grind, but after that lunch break I was flying! PIE POWER! Whereas Cononley to Settle had been a constant invisible uphill, this was quite the opposite. It was easy to maintain a good speed without really making any effort. The ease was such a relief and the landscape got more and more scenic as the day progressed.
Hungry? GAME COCK!
Keeping my navigation simple. I should have written down instructions too (I did later). Inspecting a map while riding is pretty wreckless.
Brace yourselves for lots of photos of horses.
Kirkby Lonsdale. From here I took B6254 to Kendal. It's a stunning route as you shall see! It was probably the most scenic ride I have ever done, partly due to the epic sunset.
Pheasant. There were dozens of them at this spot.
Empty winding roads.
I'm a sucker for blind spot mirror selfies.
The day ended on a lovely downhill ride into Kendal past Oxenholme station. It turned out that I had descended upon the town as the Mountain Festival was opening. An army of active types had invaded the town for a film festival about outdoors pursuits, so there was quite an atmosphere. I watched a couple of short films on the big screen in the square before sniffing out the local chippy. As you can see the quality of my calories was not so good.
I stayed at the Youth Hostel by the Brewery Arts Centre. It cost £20 a night.
DAY FOUR: Kendal to Penrith (68 km)
This was supposed to be a rest day for my feeble weary body to recover. I changed my mind and thought I would do a short ride to Glenridding and maybe do hike. What an idiot. This day was BRUTAL.
I cycled over to Lake Windermere and took a nice break before heading over to Ullswater via Kirkstone Pass. Yes, I said Kirkstone Pass.
Did I say "rest day"? Scrap that.
"Up and awaaaaaay on my beautiful, heavily laden touring biiiiiike!"
That's pretty. I suppose I really should stop cycling for second and take loads of photographs. Well, it would be rude not to.
It took about an hour to cycle to the top of Kirkstone Pass and there were some steep gradients. My legs and knees were ruined afterwards.
Sharing the roads.
Finally, the winnings. A gorgeous view and one of the most serious downhill rides all the way to Ullswater.
I just rode over that? What the hell was I thinking?
In Patterdale the sheep are punk as fuck.
I saw so many signs for red squirrels in Cumbria and Scotland but didn't see any.
I tried to find the youth hostel which was a long ride all the way up this road at the base of Helvellyn, England's 3rd highest mountain. On the ascent a guy on a unicycle came flying down past me with his dog in tow. I suddenly felt a bit pathetic. It was a long climb which resulted in nothing. The youth hostel was closed and wouldn't open until 5pm, hours later. There was no way I was waiting for 3 hours for this place to open and there was also not a chance that I was going to come back up this road again. At one point I thought I was going to do a hike after this ride. Think again.
There was nothing to do in Glenridding. It was the off season and all the other accommodation was expensive. I didn't feel like camping either as the weather had become seriously grim. I decided to press on to Penrith. It was only 23km away and was mostly flat following the edge of Lake Ullswater. It was an easy but miserable ride in low grey light with a constant light rain.
I rolled into Penrith in a cold steady rain as night fell. The hostel was fully booked. I couldn't believe it! Out of options I headed to the Station Hotel. It wasn't bad accommodation, it cost £37.50 which included an massive breakfast which set me up nicely for the next day.
I walked around Penrith centre to find something to do and stuff to eat. All the pubs looked pretty generic. I ended up stumbling into a Wetherspoon's and ordered a cheap steak, but laid off the beer. I needed a protein fix! It had been a good day of riding over some rugged terrain but the weather left me in a dreadful mood. Eating dinner by myself in a Wetherspoon's only compounded the misery. I was starting to see how badly little things can affect your morale.
Back at the hotel I took my tent out to give it an airing. It was still damp from two nights before. It was really early and I had some hours to kill, so I watched some god awful television show about the seventies. I decided it was time to treat myself, so I popped down to the pub and got myself a glass of Bowmore single malt whiskey and took it back to my room. It hit the spot! Some little things can also really lift your morale. Cheers!
DAY FIVE: Penrith to Annan (65 km)
After the slog over Kirkstone Pass the day before, day five ended up being more of a rest day. This dour weather continued in the morning, but soon lifted. The road undulated, but it was mostly a slight downhill all the way to the next city. That was a relief. It took no time to get to Carlisle and Scotland was in my sights.
The sun came out in full force, so I decided to worship it by sacrificing a snickers bar by the roadside.
COCKLAKES! WAHEY!!! Another winner of a name for a British village.
Carlisle. Up north the buildings turn red.
Leftover halloween decorations.
Approaching Scotland! Gretna is the first town in Scotland.
Self indulgent selfie time.
The borders around Solway Firth are flat and sometimes windy, but luck was on my side.
I decided to stop in Annan and camp at Broom Fisheries campsite. Lots of people come here to go course fishing. They have about 8 ponds on the sight of an old munitions factory. It was a couple of miles out of the way, so I set up my tent and rode back into town to meet a friend for a cup of tea before grabbing a haggis supper dinner. For those not in the know, a "supper" is with chips. Battered haggis and chips. Once again I had hours to kill, so I went to a pub and chatted to some locals. Eventually I cycled back to the campsite in the pissing rain. It was the darkest night and the roads were unlit. My supernova E3 dynamo light illuminated all. No problem!
A group of workers from Sellafield nuclear plant were staying in a motor home next to me. They were the only other people at the campsite and had come up from Whitehaven. They gave me a steaming cup of tea and promised to make me a bacon sandwich the next morning. We chatted for a little while before they headed off to town in a taxi to sink a few beers.
DAY SIX: Annan to Laggan (88 km)
My lovely tent.
True to their word my neighbours cooked me breakfast, but not a bacon sandwich as they had originally offered. I received a full English breakfast with black pudding from Stornoway in the Outer Hebrides. I was delighted with my first class treatment. It must be said that people are way friendlier in the north... most of the time.
It was a very cold morning. The ground was covered with a layer of mist. The sky ahead was blue but I rode in the shade for an hour or so.
The moment the sun came out.
Hate on kickstands all you like, but this Pletscher kickstand constantly comes in use.
The roads were all lined by these blooming gorse bushes (or whins). I felt tricked into it being a very cold spring day.
I was running out of energy, so when I got to Dalbeattie I popped into a petrol station and bought some Irn Bru and some Tunnock's tea cakes to boost my sugar levels. All local stuff!
Castle Douglas is supposed to be the "food town" of Dumfries and Galloway. Ironically the first thing you see there is a TESCO supermarket. Being a Sunday, all the shops were closed. I spotted a fine fish and chips shop and ordered a spam fritter supper. That's right, battered and fried spam! I remember having one of these when I was a kid in this very town. I haven't seen them anywhere else since. The only junk food I didn't get to try was deep fried pizza... and deep fried mars bars.
After the spam fritter I raced the last stretch along the A75 to my Granny's house a few miles west of Gatehouse of Fleet. Admittedly my diet had been atrocious on this trip, but this gave me some serious power. I think sports nutritionists have missed a trick here. I can't even begin to imagine how much faster Usain Bolt would be after a spam fritter supper.
Zooming down from Twynholm towards the fleet you approach teletubby land, I mean Gatehouse of Fleet. Sunset was approaching so the light was gorgeous.
LAGGAN! Just in time for sunset. Turning the corner, I bolted up the hill towards my Granny's house, Laggan. I waved like a maniac and saw someone waving back. It was my Aunt Eleanor. My Granny thought she was mad, waving at some stranger on a bike.
Granny: "Who are you waving at?'
Elly: "The cyclist."
Granny: "What makes you think he's waving at you? He could be waving at someone else."
Uncle Andrew: "Do you know who that is?"
Uncle Andrew: "It's not Alasdair, is it?"
It was good to see the look on my Granny's face. She hadn't a clue that I was coming. I imagine that I was probably the last people she expected to turn up to her house that day.
My Granny and Aunt Eleanor.
Sunrise at 8am, Laggan.
The Isle of Man on the horizon. You can only see it on a very clear day.
Robin at Anwoth cemetery. Granny's garden is chock full of these fellas.
Behind Laggan is "Ben John" a hill that overlooks the farmland and the Irish Sea. A visit to Laggan is never complete without a walk up the hill.
The Galloway hills.
Celestial sunrays behind Ardwall and the Murray Isles.
Situated on Ben John is one of Europe's longest zip wires (820 metres). Have a go! Contact my cousins at Laggan Outdoor .
Heading home. I chose to take the train back to Nottingham, but I had to ride back to Dumfries first! I took the back roads avoiding the A75. It was about 63 km in total. The conditions were perfect (at the start).
At Gatehouse of Fleet I turned left and took the long route along Laurieston Road through Laurieston Forest.
Red kites everywhere! Quite a sight soaring up high looking for prey.
I met my Granny and Elly for coffee and tea cakes in Castle Douglas before heading on towards Dumfries. It's a lot livelier during the week!
The old military road was quiet and hilly, but there was a constant cloudy drizzle the entire way. I couldn't complain as I had the fortune of some decent weather. I experienced very little wind the whole time. I guess I'll be getting that in droves when I get to Patagonia. I'm talking about the weather, not my bowels.
"Darf ich bitte meine jacke ausziehen?"
This is it. Game over. Toilet time. It was an amazing trip and it felt good to see my country from a different perspective. It really is a magnificent place once you get out of the cities and towns. Cycling in winter also meant that the low sunshine meant for some extended golden hours before sunset.
The only thing that bugged me is to see that every town in the country is plagued by the same chains of shops without fail. I can't be bothered to list them, but independent stores really are vanishing. The dominance of chains shops is really depressing. Shop local kids!
Sod it, I'll just look in the other direction towards the rolling hillsides.