This is #2 in an occasional series about cycle touring in each of the 50+ countries I’ve had the pleasure to ride through. I’m working my way through the list chronologically (and wishing I’d started earlier!). Read about the background to the series here.
The first country I went on a big bike trip in was Scotland. But I went with friends. The first time I tried it alone was in my home country: England.
I forget the precise date. I have neither photos nor diaries to reference. But it was some time in late 2006. My destination was Abergavenny, Wales, where an old university friend lived. He was about to embark on a big round-the-world backpacking trip, and for whatever reason (probably lack of money) I had decided to cycle there from the East Midlands, where I was living with my parents.
Given that I was in the early stages of planning a round-the-world mountain biking expedition called ‘Ride Earth’, I figured that a couple of days’ pedalling across Middle England would be good practice.
Turned out it wasn’t. It was too easy. Because England, I discovered, had these things called cycle routes.
The UK National Cycle Network: A touring cyclist’s best friend
In fact, it had a whole National Cycle Network, a concept I later discovered most of the world had yet to think of. Today it’s more extensive than ever, with 14,700 miles (23,700 km) of routes meeting official standards, including ten long-distance National Routes.
This is thanks in large part to the work of the charity Sustrans, to whom I’ve been donating £10 a month for a very long time.
But even back in 2006, the National Cycle Network had me riding merrily across Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Warwickshire without a sniff of a dual carriageway or busy main road.
In a country so densely populated and with so many cars on the roads, this was a Very Good Thing.
(A few years later, on returning from a world in which the idea of designated bicycle routes was just hilarious, I was moved to write an open letter to Sustrans in its praise.)
I remember – upon seeing the county boundary sign in the afternoon on the first day – being filled with such glee that my bicycle could so effortlessly have carried me so far away from the places I knew, purely as a result of picking a direction and pedalling for a few hours. That thrill – that freedom – was a precursor to many things.
That evening I attempted my first solo wild camp. With nothing to go on but my time as an officer cadet in the British Army, I had packed a bivvy bag and a poncho with the intention of throwing up a basha in the woods somewhere, just like I had on exercise. Alone at dusk, exposed and vulnerable, I bottled it. Citing mild drizzle in combination with inadequacies of my military-issue equipment, I hurried to the nearest village pub, paid for a room by credit card, and ate an utterly fantastic lamb and mint pie with chips and peas for dinner, washed down with a pint of ale.
It was a total failure.
But in failing, I discovered one of the best things about cycle touring in England.
English Pubs: The touring cyclist’s other best friend
In each country there are certain institutions around which cycle tourists can build practical aspects of life on the road. In England it has got to be the pub. The inn. The tavern. The alehouse. The boozer. The local. The public house. Don’t you just love that phrase? A designated house in each settlement that’s open to the public? That’s a stroke of purest genius!
And many pubs, particularly in villages, particularly when there is only one pub in the village, really do feel like home.
Partly it’s the olde worlde appearance and decor which imparts a sense of timelessness, as if the space inside is somehow immune to the changing winds of global politics; a stoic refuge from things that matter.
But it’s also because of an oh-so-subtle transformation that happens once you cross the threshold: when you enter a pub, you inhabit it. Only secondarily are you a customer. You may do more or less as you want, stay as long as you like, play darts, bring your dog, be social, be antisocial, order nothing more than a pint of orange squash and a packet of crisps.
There is none of the formal etiquette of the restaurant, none of the production-line queueing of the bakery or takeaway, none of the time-sensitivity of the cafe or coffee shop where staff begin to silently bristle if you do not vacate your table the moment your cup is drained.
In short, they exemplify in bricks and mortar that strange, reserved form of public life that is typical of England.
Aside from that, pubs serve the very practical functions of serving food (including lunch) and ale (which has recently been renamed ‘craft beer’ for some reason), having bathrooms, refilling your water bottles, and sometimes also offering bed & breakfast accommodation, which can be handy in rural areas. British pub food has come a long way as the country has woken up to its past culinary reputation and set about rectifying it. Meals are hearty and portions are definitely on the cyclist-sized end of the spectrum: there’s a reason so many weekend warriors in the UK base their rides around the ‘pub lunch’, and if you stay the night, you’ll usually get a hearty fry-up to send you off in the morning.
In case you’re wondering, I made it as far as Hereford before jumping on the train for the last leg to Abergavenny, as I’d run out of time.
Incidentally, something else happened that day. And though not specifically related to cycle touring in England, I include this anecdote to illustrate the valuable change in perspective that comes with cycle touring even in one’s own backyard.
So, my girlfriend of a couple of years had very recently dumped me. It was still raw, and I had been festering over it for a while. And somehow, the long hours of riding prised my brain open long enough for a realisation to burst forth. She had not dumped me because I had decided to cycle round the world without her. She had dumped me because I had been a total dick.
And with that realisation came a rush of remorse and regret – and then, surprisingly, a kind of desperate sympathy for the poor girl, such that all I wanted to do was call up and apologise for, well, myself. It was a new and inspiring feeling. So I slammed on the brakes, got out my phone and did just that.
When she responded not with gentle forgiveness but by confirming that, yes, I had indeed been a total dick, I got all defensive and cocked it up again. Clearly I had a long way to go! But it was at least the start of the process of waking up to who and what I was, facilitated and mediated by a bike trip of all things. Cycle-therapy, perhaps you could call it! Cyclo-therapy… no, this pun’s going nowhere. But you get the point.
Anyway. So much for pubs and break-ups.
England’s Green & Pleasant Lands
The next time I found myself cycle touring in England was the following summer when I was trying to get as far the hell away as possible. At the time it felt like going to war with a life I’d grown to loathe. And I would win that war by leaving it all behind – the country of my birth, the ex-girlfriend, the job offers, even my poor parents who must have wondered what exactly they’d done to cause me to flee the island forever at the age of 23. I hated it all (not my parents, of course, but I sure as hell wasn’t going to live in a time-warp of a village in the East Midlands for the rest of my life).
And so I was leaving it all behind in the most literal sense possible, destination: the port of Harwich.
My two riding buddies and I set off through the country lanes to catch the ferry to Holland*. It was midsummer and the combine harvesters were out in force. The air was full of a particular type of pollen that made the mucous membranes of my eyeballs itch and swell up and inflame to the point that I could barely see. We rode through Stilton and discovered that this quaint little village was merely where the famous cheese was sold, rather than where it was made (mostly in the Vale of Belvoir in north-east Leicestershire, which I knew because I’d recently programmed a new website for Long Clawson Dairy while saving up for the trip).
Several observations struck me as I rode for the coast on a mission to depart this wicked land.
The first was how nice the English countryside was in summertime. This annoyed me because I’d already decided England was shit and I wanted out. But it was undeniable: warm but not too warm, just enough rain to keep things green and fresh, no mosquitoes… and so quiet! With all of England at work 9 to 5 Monday to Friday, the roads were ours – narrow, winding, scenic roads made of good asphalt over low hills and through picturesque villages of limestone and sandstone with neatly-tended gardens in full bloom and trickling brooks with little bridges over them and benches to sit on and ancient churches and pubs. Pubs were great. (See above.)
The second observation was how nice the English people were.
Helpful and polite to a man, surprisingly inquisitive as to the intentions of three skinheads on heavily-loaded bicycles – and hospitable? Not at all a word I would have considered applying to the English. But of the nights we spent on the road to Harwich, fully three-quarters were spent camping in strangers’ back gardens at their invitation AND being fed by them.
These are statistics I usually trot out for the Middle East!
I mean, yes, we were cycling through the lands of the white middle classes and gentlemen farmers. It was hardly a representative picture of the country. But people don’t come to England in the summer and follow cycle routes and back roads around the countryside and expect a representative view. We’re travellers, not sociologists or anthropologists (though some of us may pretend we are). Our experiences are the very definition of subjective.
And in those short few days I was confronted with subjective evidence that my almost fervent loathing of life in England was borne of an equally subjective kind of storytelling – stories composed of second-hand news, other people’s opinions, and gross generalisations, as chosen and told by my own dissatisfied inner voice. The subjective truth, right here, right now, was that England and the English were actually pretty nice.
(Of course I ignored all of this and got on the ferry anyway: it would take a few years to reconcile my tendency towards wanton oversimplification, and in any case I had committed to Riding Earth – lucky for you, dear reader, otherwise this blog series would end right here.)
The English Sense Of Humour
I found precisely the same thing a few years later, when I really was dependent on the niceness of the English to ride across their country, because I was doing so without a penny to my name.
I met scores of friendly strangers who would hear out my madcap scheme and play happily along with the ironic pointlessness of choosing to be destitute, never taking my silly mission too seriously and thus helping me to do likewise.
England is, of course, a so-called ‘rich country’, whose government can afford to support its poorer citizens and in which credit culture is deeply embedded. So perhaps it was that complacency around the availability of money that endeared folk to the FreeLEJOG project. (Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the concept working were this not to be the case.)
Wild Camping in England
That ride also helped hone my approach to wild camping in England.
For such a densely-populated island I found sleeping rough in the British countryside remarkably easy, thanks mainly to the ubiquity of hedgerows.
These lines of closely-spaced shrubs and trees have been used for centuries to enclose and subdivide land, particularly farmland, creating in the process the esoteric art of hedgelaying – in fact, hedges are so much a part of England’s heritage that cutting one down is now a criminal offence!
They also act as windbreaks, wildlife corridors, barriers to livestock… and easily-accessible hiding places for touring cyclists.
England’s canals: perfect for cycling (& camping)
Other good wild-camping spots in England can be found alongside navigable rivers and canals, of which there are over 3,500km in Britain as a whole. Many canals also double up as traffic-free cycling routes with the original towpaths now repurposed for leisure users, including cyclists as long as they ride considerately (tip: this is also a great way to pedal across London, Birmingham and other cities of the industrial north).
Also, boat people and bike people tend to share a common understanding of the romance of itinerancy and nomadism; few narrowboat-dwellers on public moorings will mind you pitching up nearby for the night.
Making the most of England’s national heritage
I wound up working for food for a few days at a National Trust campsite in the Lake District where my money-free project intersected with two of the UK’s most precious institutions: the National Parks and the National Trust.
England’s 10 National Parks (instigated in 1932 by the ‘most successful direct action in British history’) offer in my opinion some of the best riding in the country and a rare chance to see what the island might have looked like before the encroachment of humankind. (I have a soft spot for the Lake District, having spent a very happy year living there.)
And the National Trust does an enormous amount to look after what nature and wildlife does remain, as well as giving visitors the means to engage with it. Anyone planning a tour of England incorporating more than a few of the charity’s stunning properties would do well consider the benefits of joining.
Cycling organisations in England
England is going through a phase of obsessiveness with cycling, due in large part to the high-visibility (sorry, so sorry) success of British riders in the Olympics and the Tour de France in recent years.
It is somehow ironic that the official government body representing cyclists’ interests – Cycling England – was dissolved in 2011, but at least we still have its non-governmental counterpart Cycling UK, whose lineage goes all the way back to 1878.
What cycling’s popularity means for the tourer, among other things, is that there’s plentiful company on the roads – particularly at weekends, when one may have enormous fun drafting plump pelotons of MAMILs on one’s fully-loaded touring bike – and there are well-stocked bike shops everywhere, including several that specialise in cycle touring.
You’ll also find cafés and coffee shops in rural areas with cake portions that seem as if they’ve been measured specifically for cyclists – probably because they have.
Much like the German ‘Bett und Bike’ (bed and bike, duh) initiative, England too has a growing network of specifically bicycle-friendly accommodation along many of the most popular routes.
So there’s a good start.
Cycle tourists exploring Europe tend to overlook this little cluster of rainy islands in the north Atlantic. But I hope I’ve convinced you to consider England for your next bike trip. Once you get used to the accent, you’ll feel right at home.