As much as I love curling up with a good book, getting outside and being able to put myself in the footsteps of history is one of the great things about living in the UK- it’s all so close. Getting outside, away from computers and other people, is also something I find necessary to do on a fairly regular basis to keep a handle on my mental health, preferably on my bike!
I didn’t learn to ride a bike until I was a teenager, and even once I could I avoided cycling on roads, at night, in the rain, or more than 5 miles at a time. Fast forward to my mid-twenties, cycling had become a safe excuse to leave the house I was sharing with an abusive partner and gave me the space I needed process what was going on when I left him. For the last few years any time I’ve felt myself becoming overwhelmed with deadlines or decisions, putting my helmet on and getting back in the saddle has helped me refocus on what’s important.
In the last few years I’ve gone from tentatively planning routes that don’t involve right turns and are never too far from a railway station, to making cycling my main mode of transport and traversing the country by bike. A real highlight last year was completing the Hebridean Way: 10 islands, 6 causeways, 2 ferries, 185 miles and a full week of smiles.
Last November I was working and studying hard, I had too much on in one go and needed to get out of my own head for a while. I didn’t want to take any time off work that close to Christmas, I wanted to maximise the time I could spend at home with my family, but the idea of spending a few days outdoors was increasingly appealing. Plus, I had recently purchased a new sleeping bag and it would be rude not to put it through its paces…
On the train from Glasgow to Ayr, where I’d decided to start from, I got chatting to a police officer returning home from a night shift, he clocked my weird bags and asked what the plan was.
“Um, not entirely sure yet, there’s a couple of places I might sleep depending how far I’ve got by lunch time. Leave Ayr, head south, catch the last train from Dumfries tomorrow so I can be in the office on Monday.”
He laughed, and we talked about our favourite cycling trips until we got to Ayr and it was time for me to head off.
The sun had barely risen by 8am and I already had more than ten miles behind me, it was a beautifully clear day and while that made the views spectacular it was also cold enough for me to encounter an unexpected problem- my water had frozen!
In order to save space and weight I had decided the night before not to pack a tent, now I have a very good tent that is very small and very light, but not as small and light as bivvy bag. For those who don’t know (maybe if your idea of a holiday involves hotel room service or a pool?) a bivvy is essentially a glorified bin bag, a waterproof case for your sleeping bag, some of them do have a single pole to keep the fabric off your face or a small zip so you can seal yourself in entirely, but mine is a tube with a hole in one end, and a drawstring round the hole. Given it was literally freezing cold, I did spend a good portion of the day wondering just how bad an idea this had been.
Spoiler Alert: It. Was. Great.
I ended up sleeping down on the Isle of Whithorn, sheltered from the wind by an old harbour lighthouse thats been in use for hundreds of years. I could see the lights of Cumbria, the Isle of Man, and Northern Ireland twinkle in the darkness as I pumped up my sleeping mat. Over to the west I could watch the regular flash of the Mull of Galloway lighthouse sweep round. I fell asleep with nothing but sky between me and the stars.
The Alpkit Pipedream 400 sleeping bag was a dream, it had been as warm and cosy as advertised and I slept well despite the temperature plummeting over night to -3*C, in the morning I watched the sunrise from inside my sleeping bag while I ate breakfast, then packed up and left no trace.
Cycling south from Ayr I had the luxury of isolation, a National park and acres of farmland; on the Sunday I would have to go through more towns and villages. This ended up meaning I spent most of the day making a list of places I wanted to come back and explore when I had more time!
Although I had slept well my pace on the second day was slower, and stomach cramps started to distract me from pedalling. An unplanned stop at a coffee shop gave me the chance to load up on more caffeine as well as suss out what the problem was: my period had turned up 9 days early. Just one of the risks you live with when you have uterus!
Unfortunately, it did mean I couldn’t match the pace I had kept up the day before and ended up throwing myself and my bicycle on the mercy of a bus driver to take me the final stretch to Dumfries Railway Station.
In total I cycled over 122 miles, with more than 1,600 meters of elevation, I wore every item of clothing I’d packed and didn’t quite eat all the food but had stopped at more cafes than I originally intended. The views were spectacular, even though a side of effect of the clear skies meant the temperature was never more than 4*C.
I miss camping, and cycling new roads, and when lockdown is over and it’s safe to do so, I can’t wait to get out and do more of it.