Cycle Touring Festival 2016
It’s the second annual Cycle Touring Festival and I’m here in the beautiful setting of Waddow Hall in Lancashire. The weather is gorgeous and it’s very green: trees and long grasses cover the steep slope that leads down to the water. Some local boys have been walking across the top of the weir. A group of us takes a dip in the river – it’s warm.
The festival has an intimate feel to it – ticket sales are intentionally restricted so it doesn’t seem too crowded. There are enough people here that there is a buzz, but not so many that you don’t know who anyone is. Faces quickly become familiar and connections are easily made. It’s a great melting-pot of people, some of whom are seasoned tourers, some of whom are just starting out on their first adventures.
One of my talks was about finding adventure on your doorstep, where I shared stories of some of my travels within the UK: a ride from Liverpool to Manchester along the river Mersey; a voyage of discovery along old railway trails in Somerset; an adventure within London around the Capital Ring; the magic of overnight rides such as the Dunwich Dynamo. My favourite type of ride is cycling to the sea (preferably following a water course to its conclusion), a wonderfully accessible adventure given that nowhere in the UK is more than 70 miles from the sea.
And it’s not just about the short routes: LEJOG is around 1000 miles; around the coast is about 4000, an epic distance in anyone’s book. But the UK can be overlooked as a venue for travels, not yielding all we might expect from adventure. It’s all here: hospitality from locals, foreign languages, new cultures, habits and traditions, rich history, wilderness, great weather (yes, really!), breathtaking beauty, grandeur of scale, epic distance and extreme physical challenge. A ride from Land’s End to John o’ Groats will take you from the luscious, sub-tropical South-West riviera to the pale evening skies of northern Scotland. The variety in landscapes between these points is huge: farmsteads, industry, sweeping plains, cities, hills steep enough to pick up your front wheel and throw you down, buildings made from the earth around them, mountain ranges, lakes, river valleys and moorland. There is much to learn about local customs, cultures and cuisines, and every region has something unique to offer, be it Cullen Skink, lava-bread, or a Melton Mowbray pie. It’s not unusual to be unable to understand a conversation going on in the local bakery – a delightful feeling of displacement within your own country.
Hearing of the hospitality of strangers is common in tales of far-flung travels. Perhaps it’s not so expected within the UK as we don’t think to ask for it. But our neighbours are just as warm, welcoming and friendly as anywhere in the world. In my round-Britain ride I was given a bed and food on an almost daily basis, mostly by people I didn’t know. People frequently stopped me to have a chat or share their own cycling stories, and gave me water and food. It was an incredible and refreshing insight to human nature: we are sociable creatures after all, and we want to help.
There are many advantages to cycle touring here: a common language, common currency, no need for a passport, close to get to, doesn’t require lots of time, money, logistics or planning. It also has great infrastructure, an easy get-out clause and no dangerous creatures or tropical diseases. There is plenty to be discovered within the UK and the adventure and discovery is all the greater for being somewhere familiar.
I love making an ordinary journey into an extraordinary one, simply by using my bike. When I set off on my sailing trip three years ago I rode my bike to the south coast over a course of four days rather than take a four hour train ride. So I concluded my talk with a little story about a ride from last year’s festival to my friend’s house in Manchester, a last-minute decision to make the journey one to remember. I loved every minute.