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Friday, 13 May 2011

Here comes the summer

Neither the rain nor the wind have been serious issues over the past eight weeks, but the 50 mile leg from Tongue to Thurso was beset by both. The road along the north coast is exposed and harsh, and we were buffeted about like the plastic carrier bag in American Beauty, without the lilting soundtrack or the romanticism (it's very hard to be pretentious when you're gurning your way up a hill with wet feet and a fluorescent yellow jacket on).

There was also no-one to film us struggling across the moorland, which is one of the many issues we've faced making a documentary without an independent camera crew, but the challenges have been offset by the freedom to travel how and when we like.

The last ride to John o'Groats, across lush green farmland and gentle rolling hills, was notable mainly for the sight of a cow eating the placenta of its newborn calf. Pushing through the pain in a thigh muscle I managed to strain the day before, we arrived without any more drama at our final destination.

Lady Luck, who has been perched on my handlebars, gave us one more gentle nudge to get our photo taken in front of the famous signpost taken before we had lunch. This was just as well as, a few minutes later, the official photographer had packed the sign up into his car and gone home. He said he doesn't bother sticking around too long during the spring months.

We got the obligatory stamp from the coffee shop and that was that. I have to admit that the end felt strangely empty. I wasn't expecting trumpets or congratulations. Hundreds of people have completed the same trip, most much more quickly or impressively or quirkily, or for a better cause. There was certainly a sense of relief because the relentless upheaval has really got to me. During the past few weeks I've felt like a stand-up comedian on a long tour, telling the same jokes, doing the same set every night to a different crowd. After a while comedians start incorporating the frustrations of life on the road into their sets, a temptation I've clearly failed to avoid. But we've been on the road for so darn long, and I've simply got so accustomed to living in this way, that it is hard to imagine it ever ending.

And yet, despite it all, spring is definitely drawing to a close. Having chased the yellow buggers across the whole country, we've caught the tail end of the daffodils, or at least the few dog-eared specimens still flowering among the dessicated brown stalks. But here they're flowering next to bluebells and tulips, a validation of the many people who said that, however early or late it begins, spring always catches up with itself.

This is only the story of one particular spring, along one particular route, as experienced by two particular - but very different - people. We have been exceedingly lucky in chancing on one of the most pleasant and dry springtimes in many years. But I defy anyone to disagree that it is by far the best season in this country, where the lands of England, Wales and Scotland are at their most "green and pleasant". It's a time for waking up early to watch the world wake, a few precious months filled with sounds that lift your heart and smells that sweep it away. Such that I pity people, like many we've met on the way, who live in countries where harsh winter leads straight into muggy summer and spring passes in the blink of an eye. To experience it for two whole months has been an indescribable pleasure.

Just one mile out of John o'Groats, all the rain that had held back came pouring down on us in one glorious go and the realisation that we'd actually made it finally hit me. Drivers seeing us slosh through massive puddles must have wondered at the massive grin on my face. Despite the many setbacks, my poor navigational skills (which have markedly improved), occasional frustrations and near permanent exhaustion, we made it through the whole of the UK in 1300 miles (425 more than were really necessary).

I'd like to say thanks to everyone who has supported us along the way - family, friends and strangers - who gave us food and somewhere to stay, as well as much-needed moral and financial support. I'd also like to say a massive thank you to Matt who agreed to take part in my mad and fractured plan after my previous cycling partner had to drop out at the last minute. We only met for the first time a few weeks before the start of the journey and it was a risk spending two months working and living cheek by jowl with someone I didn't know. A risk, it turns out, worth taking; instead of making an enemy out of a friend, I've made a friend out of a stranger.

The physical journey may be over but the really hard work is still to come; editing and selling Chasing Spring. I'll continue to blog here over the next few months, keeping you all updated as to what's happening with the documentary. But for now, I can't wait to jump on the train tomorrow morning, go home, put on a summer dress and get on with normal life for a while. I hope you've enjoyed following our journey and that the spring sunshine stays in your heart and stokes the internal fires until it returns next year.

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Fell weather

I couldn't imagine cycling this stretch of the journey in anything but the rain, and the weather chose to indulge my romantic mental image of the Northern Highlands.

A few days ago we found Loch Ness bathed in mist and circled by rows of mountains like faded copies of each other stamped into the distance. The rocky shore was littered with driftwood, rubbish and, for some reason, nuts, and the peace was only disturbed by a German family with noisy children and a drowsy mallard annoyed that we had woken it up.

Standing there watching the mysterious waves lapping the shore of the loch, unclear whether they come from in or on or outside the unreadable waters, I got a sense of how this place breeds such successful legends.

There we met Steve, who lives in a converted mobile library on the loch shore and has spent the last 20 years watching out for and recording sightings of the monster. He was a great interviewee, talking eloquently about experiencing the Scottish springtime close-up and sounding relieved that we were asking vaguely original questions. So no, I didn't ask him if he'd seen Nessie yet - it wasn't the right question to ask this man.

The subsequent journey to a bunkhouse in Evanton was uneventful but the next morning, following my nose after reading an intriguing flyer, we found ourselves armed with bow-saws and secateurs felling a Western Hemlock. This is very much how this trip has turned out in recent weeks, in which we've stumbled across the most unlikely situations and people - and that's exactly what I had hoped it would be like.

It turned out that a section of nearby wood is being sold and has been offered to the local community if they can raise enough money to buy it ( for more information). So Matt and I helped a group of volunteers clear the ground by attacking the invasive species, which gave me an ideal opportunity to show off my budding woodland management skills. The group was very welcoming and tolerant of two strangers sticking a video camera in their faces, and hopefully we helped them a little.

We spent the night at a B&B riddled with swallows and house martins which dove and swam gloriously out of the garage and through the trees all evening. 

Awaking bright-eyed and bushy-tailed the next morning, we thought (nearly) nothing of going an extra 15 miles out of the way to see a waterfall and to follow the rumour of guy who gives husky rides. Turns out we went to the wrong waterfall - Achness instead of Shin Falls - but while there were no dogs I did see a fat Atlantic salmon trying to leap up the rocks.

The rain came and went but the road carried on relentlessly along the edge of the mountains and then flattened out to a broad plain brightened by an enormous sky. There were also plenty of wind turbines crowning the hills long the way, a sight that I genuinely enjoy; I consider objections on aesthetic grounds deeply frustrating as well as singularly narrow-minded. Those who make them don't generally consider the people who have to live near the coal-fired stations their energy comes from.

The ride was enjoyable, except for my ongoing fear that something on my arthritic bike will snap mid-journey, which means I don't relax until we get within walking distance of our nightly destination.

For tonight, however, we've made it and are now at the infamous Crask Inn, an 18th century travellers' tavern in the middle of the long road from Lairg to Tongue, surrounded for miles around by nothing but fields and forests. Although we didn't arrive in the driving rain (which would have felt more appropriate) I wasn't disappointed by the atmosphere. It's a very friendly place populated with cyclists and walkers swapping stories of the road, and is also surrounded by joyous swallows.

Which leaves me to say that the last weekend of Chasing Spring is nearly over, except for dinner from the famously good cooking at the Crask to brace ourselves for the last hundred miles or so. My bike's being safely looked after by a ewe in the lambing shed so I can eat my lasagne in peace.

Coda: Walking back from the inn to the bunkhouse at midnight I was faced with the clearest night sky I have ever seen and the ice-blue glow of the setting sun still in the west. I laughed my way along the silent road and all smiled all the way to bed.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

While you've Bin waiting...

Looking back on the last eight weeks and the map that traces the outline of our journey I genuinely can't believe what I've done. It seems unbelievable that I could have cycled such a distance when I'm still struggling through one day at a time. 

While I'm cycling everything I've managed so far becomes meaningless and all that exists is me, my bike and the next hill; that incline, this section of gravel and those bumps in the tarmac, the muscles in my thighs, the tendons in my shoulders and the beads of sweat running into my eyes, and the constant uncertainty of whether or not I'll make it this time. The difference is that now I nearly always do.

So the rides to Grantown-on-Spey and into Inverness have been a challenge but an enjoyable one, more than made up for by the scenery and wildlife; distant mountains with snow still tucked into their hollows, the flash of a red squirrel, the mating calls of oystercatchers and a couple of deer that watched us suspiciously through the fir trees.

In Grantown-on-Spey we spoke to Sally who runs a wildlife tour company in the area, as well as yet more elderly ladies who feel obliged to comment on how skinny Matt is - "there's not a pickin' on him" - and marvel at how he's still alive after 1000 miles, before stealing a look at me as if I've been pinching all the pies.

Meanwhile the glorious weather continues and we're about to hit the Highlands at full pelt. The tally is still just three mornings of rain over the past 54 days, but somehow I simply can't visualise cycling the next week in sunshine. I hope it lasts until tomorrow though, because I have my heart set on interviewing an ice cream vendor. And on eating some ice cream, of course.

Monday, 2 May 2011

Whisky Wonka

Yesterday was International Dawn Chorus day, which unsurprisingly we didn't get up in time for, but it was my bike that was singing like a lark - a disconcerting noise that I still haven't got to the bottom of.

I was quickly distracted from my ailing vehicle by the beautiful countryside we were, and still are, cycling through. When we set off on Chasing Spring back in early March it was snowing in Scotland but now the sun is glaring, beating and bouncing down from a clear blue sky. Many of the daffodils are still in bloom and the blossom is falling like snow from the sky and twinkling like shards of glass on the road.

The first stop yesterday was to Drum Castle, just outside Aberdeen, to see the May Day celebrations and interview pretty much the only Morris Men and clog dancers in Scotland. The atmosphere was happy and relaxed, even if people weren't exactly sure what it was they were celebrating except for the good weather. It turns out they're celebrating the start of summer, which is definitely on its way.

We stayed the night at the new Highlander Bunkhouse in Huntly. which is still a shining chrome peon to Ikea but won't look like that for long.

An easy 15 miles to Dufftown this morning was followed by a visit to the Glenfiddich distillery, where we interviewed one of the guides and 'nosers' about the seasonal aspects of whisky making. Spring in Dufftown means the Sprit of Speyside whisky festival, which we caught in its last few days.

The distillery is fascinating, bathed in thick fruity smells and heady heat. I felt like Charlie visiting Willy Wonka's factory; even more so as Matt and I lagged behind our tour group while filming. I imagined us having a cheeky drink from one of the giant bubbling copper vats and floating up into the corners of the ceiling. Then I remembered that the 'fizzy lifting drink' scene wasn't in Dahl's book but added in by the makers of the first Willy Wonka film. So I dismissed it from my mind.

Anyway, we were given some (free) samples of Glenfiddich and it turns out I like whisky. Tomorrow I'll be singing in harmony with my bike.