The rolling hills of Northern Dumfriesshire, Scotland.
We have crossed the border and are back in Scotland, heading west under a grey sky to the island of Arran. Has Britain changed whilst we have had our backs turned? Well 1 in 5 people here now have a tatoo, or so we are told. Marijuana may as well be legalised, as the sweet perfume can be noticed in even the most sleepy of villages and is almost endemic in the towns we have pedaled slowly through.
Richmond Castle and River Tees, England.
Market place, Richmond, England.
Scotland is going to the poles. Independence would mean losing the blue bits in the Union Flag, which would be a shame. There are certainly lots of YES posters in windows, but it is going to be a whole lot easier to put one of those up than a NO. We plan to be in a remote corner of an unimaginably remote west coast island on polling day. We will give it a day or two for the dust to settle. It all gets rolled into one thing – Nationalism and politics.
It is a perfect Sunday to go cycling in Yorkshire. Which is excellent, as that is just what we had planned. When the Tour came through here earlier this year it was a day for the climbers. Those little men from exotic parts of the globe who hate to see their names on the team sheet for the Spring classics in places with a fondness for mayonnaise and cow bells.
Out, up and over. Richmond, England.
We are walking a lot of Yorkshire. It really could do with another ice-age or at the very least ironing. We catch the first views of the high moorland that is ahead, but that is a task for later in the day. Here is bad enough, with the road to Richmond cutting across the grain of the land. Up and over one fold after another it makes a hard start to the day. It is one short, hard out of the saddle grunt after another.
View from the Byway.
Richmond is quaint, that is undeniable. Trying to get a photo of it without including a bin, large sign advertising a bank or a security camera is impossible. Including a pub sign feels like the most genuine of things to include. We climb a 18% grade to get into the town, only to find that a 25% would have been an option if we had bothered to plan a bit. We exit the town to find more hills and are cheered on by an elderly lady descending on a road bike – ” Well done ” she shouts. There is a common bond in suffering on a bicycle and we are holding the trump card with our four panniers.
Little lane, into County Durham, England.
National dish, fish and chips.
Castle in Barnard Castle, England.
We enter County Durham, the land of the Prince Bishops according to the sign. It could do with a Wiki entry as I am clueless as to what that means. Time for lunch now and the easiest option is Fish & Chips. We enter Bernard’s Castle in search of the Nations favorite through narrow lanes of limestone built dry stone walls and solid looking buildings.
Approaching Mickleton, England.
Local in a Morgan.
Cotherstone, we are climbing up to the high moorland now, with a welcome tailwind. We get as far as Eggelston after just 35 miles, but there is over 3,000 ft on the altimeter and our legs have had enough. Beyond this point our map turns a nasty brown shade and our road ahead features a horrid series of chevrons. There is no doubt trouble ahead. We negotiate a pitch behind the Woodcock Inn. A flick through the altimeter readings for today show that we maxed at 22%, it felt like more.
The first half of the night is all pin pricks of bright stars and passing satellites. The sheep in the next field stay alert the whole night, often quite vocal about things. It clouds over with something half way between a low cloud and rain. By morning there are enough patches of blue to be hopeful ( my mother would always confirm this by – ” if there is enough patches of blue to make a sailors jacket it will be fine “). I am not used to packing our new tent and this is the first time we are doing this with it wet. I make a terrible job of it. If you are next in line for a parachute that I have packed, make some excuses and return later.
…first of the climbs…
Climbing the Pennines, England.
The climb begins through sheep fields and silage crops. Soon enough we have gained hight and are up amongst the purple kingdom of the Grouse Stalker. It is all un-natural, stage managed and costed to a budget but it is undeniably gorgeous. Up fly the Grouse as we pass shouting GET BACK GET BACK. The climb up onto the tops of the moors of Teesdale begins with a drop which is followed by a twisting return to the height that you were just at. This is all character building and could only be improved by a sleety horizontal rain. Today, we have just the climbs, which are going to get worse further ahead.
Purple with blooming heather, North Pennines, England.
The long down to Stanhope, England.
North Pennines, England.
To the sides of the road and occasionally on it, the local sheep, the grey snouted Swaledale have all the character of a hard winter. 1636 ft and we enter Weardale and still ahead is the big climb of the day. The drop into Stanhope has a sign indicating 10%, which I would say is about 100% wrong. It is a testing time for nerves on the narrow road as we slalom down into the village. In the first 14 miles we have climbed over 2,000 ft and we are trying to remember if we had ever equalled this in the last 3 1/2 years on the road.
Hexham Abbey, Hexham, England.
Hexham Abbey, Hexham, England.
The B6278 towards Edmundbyers. I am still thrilled with the place names of England, so good you just want to say them out loud just for the thrill of them on your tongue, much like a strong mint. Storm clouds hang low in the sky and Esther catches a glimpse of a Red Kite. We descend towards Derwent Water, now just 3 days from home if we continued North. The A68 is quiet enough today to get a few easy miles done. We are averaging 1,000 ft of climb every 10 miles since we got back on the bikes. A pub lunch and we are surrounded by photos and signed stuff from Alan Shearer, the last gentleman footballer.
St Oswald’s church, England.
Corebridge, one of the main garrison towns during the time of the Roman Wall. We move on to Hexham Abbey, amazed at the depth of history in this border area. A campground for the night, which of course is a steep climb above the town. It is a beautiful climb and the campground is one of the best, so it pays to put some effort in. We keep the door open and watch the stars, our tent pitched just a few yards from the line of the Roman Wall. The biggest structure in all the Empire, the most emphatic line in the sand. Civilisations frontier.
Remains of Hadrian’s Wall, Northumberland, England.
We ride up next to the wall. This is Hadrian’s Wall and we are remembering two years ago biking through Spain and visiting his birthplace, the origins of another emperor. He was being beaten back here and the Wall of which this is the third, the strongest, most southerly and more permanent was a way of making a huge statement. He turned a defeated into a statement in stone. It is over 70 miles long and was over 11 ft tall in places, and some suggest that it may have been painted white all the way along.
B6318, near Haltwhistle, England.
B6318, Along Hadrian’s Wall, England.
Much of it has been robbed in the 1,000 years since it was abandoned. Much of the walls of churches, farms, bridges and castles have Roman stone taken over the Millenia from its length. Troops from the furthest reaches of the Empire came to man its mile castles and garrisons. You have to say they thought on a grand scale.
Near Longtown, England.
Reivers Route sign.
We meet the Wall at the junction of the B6318 and follow it under a summer sky for most of the day. We are getting closer to Scotland, the border country of cattle rustling and conflict. We can see the border at the Carter Bar off in the distance and the rolling hills of the Cheviots. We start to head West, to cut across the country south of the border. This is hard cycling, we are on a Roman road that runs straight. If there is a hill ahead, we are going up it. A left turn and we pick up the Reivers Cycle Way. I stop for a moment to take the picture and can hear a Curlew. We are back home.
Church in Longtown, England.
We end the day as the only campers on a site near Longtown and get charged a fortune for the privilege. Early the next morning, even before we have got any sort of rhythm, we are at the border with Scotland. This is our 39th and final country of our time on the road. It is Autumnal, last night there were skeins of migrating geese overhead. We pass into Scotland and head towards one of the strangest tourist places in the country, Gretna Green.
Welcome to Scotland.
The Blacksmith’s place, Gretna Green, Scotland.
People have been running away from families to get married under Scotland’s liberal laws for a very long time. This is the first stop on the main road across the border and today the road is lined with wedding photographers shops and bridal gown shops. It has a bit of a history – Scottish law allowed for “irregular marriages”, meaning that if a declaration was made before two witnesses, almost anybody had the authority to conduct the marriage ceremony. The blacksmiths in Gretna became known as “anvil priests”, culminating with Richard Rennison, who performed 5,147 ceremonies.
Caerlaverock Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.
The Solway Firth.
We leave behind the coach parties of Asian tourists and follow the geese to the coast. Thousands of Arctic migrant refuel in the fields around the Solway Firth and Caerlaverlock. As they return to roost on the mud flats at dusk they fill the sky, turning it dark as thousands turn in the sky. It is an amazing sight, one of the highlights of the approach of winter.
Stone circle near Dumfries, Scotland.
We catch a glimpse of standing stones through a gap in the hedge. We are on an unfamiliar road and this is our first glimpse of the 12 Apostles. We follow the road to Dunscore, even in what is now twilight, it is beautiful. There is just enough light to show up the folds in the land. Corvids are coming home, doing final low circles of their night-time roosts. These roosts remain unchanged for hundreds of years, and generations of Rook, Crows and Jackdaws.
B729, near Dumfries, Scotland.
It may be the soft light, the lack of a headwind or the fact that the big climbs are behind us. There is something magical. The B729 becomes a top 10 road in our journey, it is absolutely stunning. We wild camp in a stubble field. Soon we are visited by flocks of geese drawn to the grass and lost corn. Wonderful things and an amazing journey, but good grief they are noisy. They just can not control themselves and are easy to panic. Up they go again with loud cries and accusations. You would not want a flock of geese in the flat above you.
Local church of Penpont, Scotland.
Kirkpatrick MacMillan’s smithy. Keir Mill, Scotland.
A strangely warm morning. It is 70’f early and yet the sun hides behind a veil of uniformly grey clouds. We are linking together narrow lanes just wide enough for a single car and a bike to pass. We pay homage to the birthplace of the modern bicycle and then it is on to Drumlanrig Castle for a view of less modest history just up the road.
Approaching Drumlanrig Castle, Dumfrieshire, Scotland.
Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland.
These are steep roads once more. There is cursing and sweating in equal measure. This is just one of the Duke of Buccleuch’s houses and estates. Together his landholding exceeds that of the Queen. It all looks very impressive, and there is a steady trickle of cars rolling up and people pointing cameras at the castle. We move on, and once again it is up a series of steep hills. Sanquhar, and we sit and eat lunch as a lorry tries to go the wrong way down a tight street. This is a medieval road layout and at any moment he can wreck one of half a dozen listed buildings he is reversing near. No one can speak Czech to help him.
32.000 miles done.
The River Nith tumbles over untidy rocks down to our right. It could not look more Scottish if it tried. Another hard day comes to an end, but there is excitement in the last few miles – we go through 32,000 miles on our journey! We wild camp at the side of a wet field, such is the glamour of bike touring.
The last robe.
We rise, throw our legs over the top tube of our bikes and start another day. Today is grey. No, it is beyond grey to the point of having no sharp edges, no contrast and no feeling of distance. It is also unseasonably warm again. Ayrshire passes by in a uniform pallet of subdued colours. Then it starts to rain. I am lost in thought. Then I pass a discarded dressing gown. It is new or newish and then a second and third. This is the sort of thing to get your attention in Ayrshire. We turn right towards Irvine and the dressing gowns continue. I photograph the final one – a red model and again in good condition. I am not sure we will see more unusual things as we head towards the islands. We enter Irvine. I need a haircut and nowhere beyond here will be cheaper. Sitting in the warm salon I feel worn out. We smell and are weary enough to call it a day. It starts to rain again, which seals the deal. We take a hotel.
Getting thin again.