Crispin's Guide to Stirling Cycling - Round Britain


Summer in the Saddle (A bike ride round Britain and Ireland)

Crispin Bennett


 One afternoon in Wooster, Ohio, while thinking of holidays past and watching the snow come down, I realized that I knew a foreign country better than my own. There and then I decided that when I returned home I would cycle round Britain.

 The planning commenced. The bike was upgraded, camping equipment was bought, and everyone was informed of my intentions. When a friend said that she had always wanted to visit Ireland, that too was added to the itinerary.

 On 2nd April 1995 my father drove me to Tilbury to catch the ferry across the Thames to Gravesend, and the trip had started. Although I had told everyone that it would take me five to six months to cycle the necessary 5000-6000 miles, I really had no idea how long I would be gone for, nor how many miles I would actually cover.

 That first afternoon was awful. It was my first attempt at riding the bike fully loaded and its handling was horrendous: the front wheel had a mind of its own. In addition, there were more hills in Kent than I had realised and I was exhausted by the time I found a campsite that first evening, next to a pub near Canterbury.

 Over the next few days I started to develop a routine. No matter when I awoke I would force myself to lie in my cosy sleeping bag until at least 7.30 am. I would then consume a tin of rice-pudding before packing up the tent and cycling off in search of more breakfast. With a lot of practise I managed to go from sleeping to cycling in less than thirty minutes, although my first few attempts involved a lot of discomfort as my fingers froze in the early morning frost. Once I had found a shop my handlebar-bag would be home to sufficient chocolate bars to keep me going until midday. Lunch was consumed either on a park bench or, if it was really cold, while cycling along. As evening approached I would start looking for somewhere to camp, and it was then a simple job to erect the tent, light the stove, and spend the next twelve hours tucked up in my sleeping bag whilst poring over the map, planning the next day's route by the light of my Vistalite. Whenever possible I would stay at a youth hostel that allowed camping, and this would enable me to sit upright in front of a fire and talk to someone.


View from the tent.  Sarn Bach - 2 May


In such a manner, cycling 50-60 miles a day on quiet roads, I reached Britain's first corner, Dover, on the third day of the trip. I then turned right and, keeping the sea on my left, headed for Land's End. The first part of this stretch, until Southampton, was the least enjoyable part of the tour as it was not always possible to find back roads. I spent far too many hours with my nerves being racked by juggernauts and other life-threatening traffic.


As I headed west I started to notice with increasing concern that the hills were getting bigger and bigger. Even the gentlest of inclines sent me into a speed-killing 20-inch granny gear as I spent an eternity climbing each hill before descending in a brake-screeching rush. As I entered Devon my fitness was improving and the mileage on my trip-computer was starting to look impressive. Days of the week no longer had meaning, as all the shops are open on a Sunday in south-coast holiday resorts. Such ignorance of calendars matters resulted in pitching my tent at a campsite which had not yet opened for the season. The owner looked most agitated when she came home later that evening. Then, just a few days later, I turned up at a youth hostel as the warden was about to celebrate a night off. Oops.


Land’s End, Good Friday - 14 April


 Easter weekend found me in Cornwall as I ticked off Lizard Point and the commercial nightmare called Land's End. My derailleur pulley wheel decided to fall off as I approached Newquay, but it was a simple job to walk back down the road retrieving the wayward bits and then put everything back together again. On Easter Monday the weather broke and for the first time in two weeks it rained. And then it rained some more. No need to panic though, as shopping in Ilfracombe, I bumped into some friends from Hertford and they offered me accommodation for the night.

 After a fantastic initial two weeks of sunshine the weather Gods had obviously decided to start playing with me. It snowed as I crossed Exmoor, leaving a coating of ice on my tent the next morning, whilst at Tintern Abbey, where I camped next to the River Wye, the temperature dropped down to -3oC. Frozen rain pooled on top of my panniers as I cycled through Port Talbot, and when I decided that I needed to buy dry gloves the shop-owner would not let me leave until I had stood in front of the fire for 10 minutes. Thankfully, my Aunt had a cup of tea waiting for me when I finally reached Mumbles.

 After three days of r'n'r and laundry, coupled with a quick tour of the Gower peninsula, I moved on. Cycling through Pembrokeshire was akin to being in a war zone with roads closed by artillery firing, and the sound of tank and small-arms' fire cracking through the silence. As I descended to Devil's Bridge, near Aberystwyth, a spoke popped in my rear wheel; at least that explained the creaking noise that had been irritating me for days. Why do these thing always happen on a Sunday when all the cycle shops are closed?

 With a rebuilt wheel I headed north towards Holyhead and edged around Snowdonia, where the wind mysteriously turns signposts and paints them out too. I then caught the ferry to Dun Loaghaire and Ireland.

 The one thing I had not appreciated about Ireland was how horrendous the roads are. Between villages the roads are just rough, but in towns I had to stand on the pedals in order to see out of the potholes. I was using the widest touring-tyres on the market but these did not even start to protect my body from the pummeling the roads handed out. No wonder all the local cars have bits falling off of them.

 After allowing my jaw to drop at the beauty of Glendalough in the Wicklow mountains, I headed south to Kilkenny where the youth hostel is a 14th century castle. Roads in this area where extremely quiet and on the main roads I had an entire 'slow lane' to myself. Wandering off into the lanes was always a step into the cartographic unknown, although I generally had no problems finding a local to get redirected by. After kissing the Blarney Stone at Blarney Castle, near Cork, I cycled along the south coast to Bantry, where I was a day too early for the mussel festival, and then up to the Ring of Kerry, which greeted me with a mixture of rain, gales and hail to temper the patchwork of green fields.

 And then I found heaven's coast road. At the tip of Dingle peninsula is Slea Head, Europe's most westerly road. Blasted out of the cliffs that plunge down to the sea, the road offers ever changing coastal views as it snakes along.


Slea Head - 13 May


Another road carved out of the rock was Connor Pass, which reached 1500 ft at its summit, and offered panoramic views back to Dingle bay where I was later to see Fungi the dolphin swimming. Two days on I was at the Cliffs of Moher, where I was able to poke my nose over the edge of a sheer 600ft drop. If I knew anything about botany I would have been amazed at the alpine plants to be found on the limestone-outcrop called the Burren, but instead I had to be content with being awestruck at the energy of the music to be found in Doolin's bars. Cycling along I became intrigued at how the cows got into the fields: they were surrounded by stone walls on all sides. I soon discovered that the locals dismantle a wall, persuade the animals to enter the field, and then rebuild the wall slowly by hand. Such is the pace of life in this part of the world.

 I continued to head north through Counties Galway, Mayo, and Sligo. The weather was ever changing from sunshine to rain; no sooner had I taken my waterproofs then I would need to put them back on again, but the scenery was fantastic. As mountains plunged down to the lochs, the road would always find a way through and only the sheep did not seem to be delighted to see me. It was impossible to get a map out without someone wandering over to check that I was OK, and ask where I was from and whether it was a good bike? (it used to be !). When I turned up at a hostel a peat fire would be burning and the kettle would always be on. I was now in Donegal, and everything just seemed to keep on getting greener (and wetter too for that matter). The natives just kept on getting friendlier. Crossing in to Northern Ireland, via a now unmanned army check-point I visited the Giant's Causeway and the Carrick-a-Rede rope-bridge, meandered along the Antrim Glens, blew a back tyre, popped another spoke, and then visited a friend in Belfast. Before I knew it, I was in the chaos called Dublin and being extremely seasick on the ferry back to Holyhead.


Sunset at Lochranza - 23 June


Back in mainland Britain I got fed up with coastal traffic and headed inland - most definitely not an easy option as I pushed my bike up a 1 in 4 hill for over a mile to get to Rowen Youth Hostel. Coming back down the next day was quite exciting too. In the Peak District I pedalled into yet another cold northerly wind as I passed Britain's highest village, and then I battled around Manchester before escaping to the peace and quiet of the Forest of Bowland. The Lake District was a contrast of deserted lanes and busy main roads. After a quick detour to see Hadrian's Wall I started to track westwards again, this time ending up at Minigaff in Dumfries and Galloway, where I spent two days touring around the southern peninsulas. The Galloway Moors are known by many as "Highwayman Country", after the cyclist Davie Bell who knew the roads so well, and I stopped to take in the view by his memorial at the foot of the Nick o'the Balloch. As I approached Ayr I was in my old stamping ground, and when I saw the peaks of Arran it was like greeting an old friend again.

 Two ferry journeys later and I was on the Kintyre peninsula, where I camped on the dunes near Southend, before I set about ticking off a lot of the fiddlier Islands such as Islay (three distilleries), Jura (three mountains with a road leading to the distillery), and Colonsay (8 miles of road, no distillery). On Mull, all I could hear as I lay in my tent was the tapping of midges on nylon as they tried to get at my blood. I crossed the bleak Morvern peninsula, followed the Road to the Isles, and then skipped across to Skye and Raasay, where I was the first person to arrive at the hostel in over a week.


Camped on the dunes. Southend – Kintyre Peninsula, 24 June


There is only one real way to get off of Skye and that is by the ferry at Glenelg; seals swam by, the road was deserted, and the view from Bealach Ratagan took my breath away even more than the climb did. As I headed up the west coast of Scotland, the brown squiggly lines on my map were right on top of one another, and I climbed 14 single-arrow hills in one 62-mile day as I crawled along between Achmelvich and Durness. I must confess, however, that I did miss out the six-mile, 2035ft climb of Bealach-nam-Bo to Applecross: it was raining and I had done it before.

 Eventually I reached Cape Wrath, the northwesterly tip of Britain. The 12 miles of road to Cape Wrath is reached by passenger ferry so there are no cars on the road, just a couple of minibuses taking tourists to and from the lighthouse. As the single-track road is built on peat, every time a bus goes past the road bounces. On the ride back I saw seals basking on a sandbank and, because the water was so clear, swimming under water. It was here that I met Simon and his dog, who were walking round Britain. Crazy fools!


The road to Cape Wrath - 10 July


 Turning right once more, I battled into yet more headwinds. After leaving Durness I gave up for the day in Tongue when the wind kept blowing my lunchtime rice-pudding off the spoon. At some points that morning I'd reached 3mph on the flats. Dunnet Head (the most northerly point) and John O'Groats (the most northeasterly town) were all shrouded in fog. Britain's most northeasterly point is actually at Duncansby Head. On a previous trip the view here had been amazing, with cliffs jutting straight towards me and stacks looming just offshore. Unfortunately, all I could see this time was more fog and a single nesting puffin. I could still smell the many other sea birds though.

 From John O'Groats, according to my map, it was downhill all the way. Unfortunately, according to my legs, it was not. As I cycled towards Helmsdale I spent my second day in a fog-induced sensory deprivation and I was rapidly running out of ways to keep myself cheerful. Thankfully the next day was clear, if not dry, and I managed to get the last bed at the 200-bed hostel at Carbisdale Castle. Dancing the Gay Gordons at that night's ceilidh was the most exhausting part of the trip.

 From Inverness I wandered through Tomintoul and Braemar, taking in the 2000ft Lecht as a matter of course. I had the pleasure of camping next to the A9 in Perth, before crossing the Forth road bridge, losing the cycle path, and having to cycle through Edinburgh in the rush hour.

 Entering Berwick-on-Tweed I saw someone waving at me. It was Graham, with whom I had spent four days cycling on Islay, and all he had done was walk into town to buy a paper. It's a small world. I found more hills in the Pennines, and even more in the Yorkshire Dales and Moors. It was at this point that Britain's long-hot-summer finally noticed me and at long last I could stow away my rain cape. There is always a downside, however, and coming through the Yorkshire Wold I found myself covered completely in thunder flies; they were in my eyes, up my nose, everywhere. Yuk.

 From here I was into flatness. After visiting the National Cycle Museum in Lincoln and having fish'n'chips for supper (it had suddenly occurred to me that I had not had any chips in three whole months), I crossed the billiard table they call the fens. Nothing but fields of corn as far as the eye could see. After what seemed an eternity I was at Lowestoft, home to the easternmost bit of Britain. Tracking down this geographic curiosity was not difficult, it is immediately behind the Bird's Eye frozen-fish factory and next to the Caravan & Camping Club's Stulag-17. After the compulsory photo' stop all I had to do then was head home, so I did.

 Four months after setting out, and having cycled 6168 miles, I was back home in Hertford. I had cycled round Britain and Ireland. I had started to see my own country.


Crispin Bennett (c) 2001


Technical stuff


Crispin's Guide to Stirling Cycling - Round Britain