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Joe Reid
Written by Joe Reid
Published on 8th June 2019
3 min read

In 2013 a major life event invited James Harvey, a keen cyclist, to re-evaluate the important things in life and set off on an adventure around Britain’s coastline. As James reminds us: "If you have the chance to do something different then go for it — ‘brake the cycle’ and take that first step.”

Riding a bike. I don’t think I could do without it now. I get grouchy if I haven’t cycled for a couple of days. If I have to use my car to commute the day is definitely worse for it. On my 10 mile ride to work I see people stuck in their vehicles, looking grumpy, frustrated, bored, and disconnected from the world outside their sterile, sealed metal boxes.

Taking the road less travelled to work

Wouldn’t it be brilliant if more people used their bike to get to work? There are so many benefits to be gained from a regular pedal: mental and physical health, fitness, saving money, and less pollution. It’s actually quicker in towns, and you can eat more cake without worrying too much about the calories. You’re closer to the natural world too — not separate from it like so many people seem to be these days.

As we move into Spring and everything starts waking up there’s more to see, smell, listen to and experience whilst pedalling.

Cycling several times a week also means that when it comes to your next cycle tour your legs are better prepared for it, although it’s one of those hobbies where you really can get fit on the job. I started cycle touring properly in 2013, when a major life event made me re-evaluate what’s important. I took some time out and decided, fairly randomly, that I’d cycle around the coast of Britain. Why wait until you retire to start adventuring? You never know what’s going to happen. If you have the chance to do something different, to pursue something out-of-the-ordinary you’ve always wanted to do, then go for it, ‘brake the cycle’ and take that first step out of your front door. Every step after that is easier. One of my favourite quotes, from Henry Rollins reflects all this:

No such thing as spare time
No such thing as free time
No such thing as downtime
All you got is lifetime. Go!

I didn't especially know what I was doing when I set off round the coast. I bought a bike I’d been reliably informed was decent for touring, as well as camping equipment I could fit on it, and a whole host of other bits and pieces I thought I might need. Once I’d packed my panniers I mounted my trusty steed, and gently tumbled onto the grass outside my house. It appeared I might have to cut down on what were going to be my worldly possessions for the next three months. That was the start of realising you really don’t need much to be happy. In fact, from what I’ve observed, the more people have the less happy they often are. You meet a lot of people when touring, whether it be in Britain, or in more remote places (for us) such as Albania, Scandinavia or Turkey. The friendliest and most content people I’ve met are often those that seem to have the least, from a material possession point of view; I’d argue they probably have much more from a spiritual and non-material angle.

Starting from Norwich and heading to Lowestoft, on the East coast of Britain, before turning North, getting fitter as I went. I almost immediately had a crash on a Norfolk coastal path, when I discovered loaded touring bikes don’t cope well with sand. This wouldn’t be the last ‘stunt’ of the tour.

It didn’t really take very long to get to Scotland, however, it took me a disproportionate amount of time to get round the coast of that glorious country. There are so many ins-and-outs, up-and-downs, sideways then back up bits. Thankfully on a coastal tour it’s quite hard to get lost, all you have to do is keep the sea on one side, and in Scotland, there aren’t a lot of roads to choose from when you get beyond Edinburgh. Another Scottish bonus is you can wild camp as long as you’re sensible and respectful, so finding a place to rest wasn’t hard.

 

Wild camping on the shores of Loch Fyne
I always get asked what my favourite bits of a tour are, and it’s often hard to pick one. I know that the journey is definitely more important than the destination — the latter often being a bit of an anti-climax after all the adventures along the way. On my 2013 Bike around Britain tour, I can definitely say Scotland was my favourite bit, aside from the midges which will eat you alive if you’re not careful. The coastline is amazing, especially the West Coast, and then there’s Orkney where I immediately felt at home and Skye and Mull which are quite different from the mainland. The wildness of Cape Wrath where I camped next to the lighthouse and ate fresh wild Atlantic salmon was amazing, and I’ll never forget cycling over the Bealach na Ba pass from Applecross, up the steepest ascent in the UK, then descending carefully down the other side with my brakes smoking. That’s feeling alive.
James on his bike at Bealach na Ba pass

Eventually, it was time to leave Scotland and cross back into England, via Gretna Green. That in itself was a culture shock after weeks in relative wilderness; coach loads of Japanese and Chinese tourists greeted me as I pedalled through, and I suddenly had to contend with roundabouts and traffic lights again, a rarity in the highlands. Then it was on to Wales which turned out to be, whilst beautiful, very wet and windy. In fact it mostly rained for all of Wales, but you get used to that kind if thing whilst cycle touring, as well as dirt and mud; my theory is your skin is waterproof, so all good. A few local cyclists I met on the road bought me the odd meal, or a pint, which kept motivation levels up.

When you’re on a long cycle tour you’re much more in touch with the natural environment you’re in, especially if you’re camping most of the time. You become attuned to the daylight hours as well as the weather, and are definitely very much a part of nature, rather than disconnected from it. On your bike you spot things you’d never see in a car, and meet people you’d never normally speak to. They’re interested because you’re on a loaded touring bike and they want to know where you’ve been and where you’re going; this can often lead to free meals! You rest when you’re tired, eat when you’re hungry, and take a diversion to see something interesting if the notion takes you. I’d challenge anyone not to feel less-stressed after a week or two of that.

The funny thing was as soon as I rode to the other side of the Severn Bridge it stopped raining. I could look back into Wales and it was still cloudy on the other side of the Severn, however I was now in sunshine. Wales is damp, lovely country, but damp.

The South West was another highlight, although the hills were steeper than in any other part of the tour; I didn’t have to get off and push until I got to Devon. I rode to Land’s End on a wonderful sunny day, completing a rather long and unconventional John O’Groats to Lands End (‘Jogle’) trip. I laid back in the heather and dozed for a bit, listening to the waves crashing against the rocks far below. The sound of the sea, my constant companion for the three months of my tour, is always relaxing and trance-inducing.

Lands End - listening to the sea
Along the South Coast it got a lot busier, but remained entertaining, with the odd ferry to catch over inlets and estuaries. There was a more regular supply of ice-cream, and friends joined me along the way to experience a bit of life on the road. After the peace of Scotland the South East was the opposite. A more frantic pace of life as well as an increase in traffic and prices, and more opportunities to get lost. As with everywhere folks still often wanted to say hello and find out what I was doing, or to offer hospitality.

Heading North across the Thames I joined the Tour de Latitude, taking a diversion to cycle to the music festival. It proved to be an excellent decision, a chance to catch up with a few friends and ease tired muscles, before heading back to the coast to finish the circuit back in Lowestoft, and home to Norwich.

I learnt so much about myself and the UK on that tour. Since then I’ve continued to go on adventures on my bike, including a six month pedal around Europe in 2015, taking in Nordkapp, Tarifa and Istanbul. But there really isn’t any need to leave Britain to get away from it all, reconnect with nature, and try something new. We have so much on our own doorstep to enjoy, learn about and be part of.

You have a lot of time to mull things over whilst you’re pedalling. In the last two hundred years, we’ve grown more and more apart from the natural world, somehow forgetting about it, or believing we’re above other species on this planet. There’s a constant pressure for growth, whether that be population, industrial, agricultural or economic, which is at odds with the finite resources we have access to, as well as our own wellbeing. I can’t help wondering if a lot of the mental health issues we experience today are caused by the realisation, by all of us at some level, that things aren’t right at the moment. Getting on your bike, whether that be for your daily commute to work or to take up touring, is a great way to start reconnecting with the world, to start working out what’s important, and to bring more contentment and satisfaction into your life. People always seem to ask me what I’m going to do or where I’m going to go next? I ask, where are you going next?

Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?

The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.

Alice: I don't much care where.

The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn't much matter which way you go.

Alice: ...So long as I get somewhere.

The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you're sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.

from 'Alice in Wonderland' by Lewis Carroll

James Harvey is a keen cyclist and advocate of two wheels for wellbeing. Find out more about his 2013 tour (with routes) here: www.bikearoundbritain.com. You can find James sharing his thoughts on the wonderfully titled www.selfpropelled.life and follow home on Twitter here @jam_har

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