When I was planning this adventure I was worried about the first two days, packing in some big miles to give myself breathing room later in the week. I wasn’t worried at all about my so called “rest day”, a short fifty mile middle section to give myself a little bit of recovery. I spoke to my friend Colin, a Lands End – John O’Groats veteran, on the phone last night and he said, “don’t underestimate it, the short days can be the hardest”. Talk about foreshadowing.
The day started amazing, a great campsite. I found that as the week went on, you tend to tolerate things you wouldn’t normally in day to day life. A cold shower here, picking up food you’ve dropped on the ground there. I stayed at Hadrian’s Wall Campsite and my god, roasting showers, a dry room that I could fully dry my kit before packing it away and the icing on the cake: hot coffee and fresh toast on homemade bread. I’ll keep to myself how many slices I had, but the whole week was a calories in vs calories out event! The same tourists that had marvelled at the small dry bag on my handlebars turning into a full tent for the night, waved me off in the morning. I set out down the road and before long, I passed over Hadrian’s Wall. It felt like a symbolic moment. Back from beyond the wall.
After a few miles of rumbling single track road, rolling past sheep and across cattle grids, I came to today’s big gravel section. The path I was on pretty rough, some of it flooded from rain the night before. It wasn’t long before I was back onto the main forestry roads, which I found easier due to the large trucks packing down the surface. I drove on into a pretty bad headwind and the military helicopter, which appeared to be doing training exercises overhead, combined with the wind made for a pretty ominous atmosphere. My route doubled back on itself, and flattened out, providing almost a sort of double respite from the conditions. The pain in the legs eased and my spirits lifted, just in time to dial in to my team back at the BBC’s daily meeting. Seeing their faces really lifted my spirits and it was really nice to get to chat to them after a few days of not much social interaction. After a little more climbing, I bombed down one of the most incredible descents I’ve ever done on gravel, snaking back down off the barren hills into the forests below and finally, out onto the main road at Kielder Water. The road road gradually into the town, but after a morning of off-road, the surface below me felt fast and forgiving. My plan for the rest of the day was to roll into the village of Kielder for a hot meal, before I headed over the hills to Teviothead, where I’d planned to wildcamp for the night.
The first thing to go wrong, was that as I cycled past the forestry road I was to go down later in the day, I noticed there was a strict looking “Closed” sign across the gate. Due to COVID, it seems like they had shut the road to the public to protect those working on it. I headed into Kielder to grab lunch over a impromptu route planning session, to figure out where I could head to that night that would have supplies and shelter. I decided at that point I’d head to Hawick, which provided plenty of shops for supplies and a few campsites, given the weather was starting to turn.
Next up, just to make sure I was having the best of times, it seemed like every single cafe in Kielder was shut. I guess it relies a lot on tourists on the lake and had closed shop given the current situation. I’m not proud to admit it but I got a bit ratty at this point and on the road out of the village, I vented my frustration on a car that I had decided passed me too close. On hindsight, it probably hadn’t. Sorry driver, we all do things we regret when hangry.
On I pedalled, towards the border. About half a mile out, I started a live video on my phone to share the momentous occasion with those supporting me from the office. Unfortunately the signal seemed to cut out the moment I got close. A photo will have to do to serve as proof. I should say now, apart from being a bit sore, I was really having a great time on my trip. The weather had been more than kind to me, sun splitting the skies since I left MediaCity two days previous. I think my optimistic mood and easy ride I was getting upset whatever spirits inhabit the wilds of Scotland. So they decided to do something about it. A driving headwind punished me and the rain drove almost came vertically into my face. Welcome home Mark!
After a few miles of grinding through a valley, the only distraction being a Collie impressively charging up a steep slope to round up some sheep, I came to a junction, the right hand turn I was making marked by another sign. ROAD CLOSED. Of course it was. In my experience, road closures tend be fine for cyclists as usually it’s a lane shut or there’s plenty of pavement to get off and walk on. Given the events of the day so far, it should be unsurprising to you, the reader, that in fact the closure was caused by a small humpback bridge being replaced in it’s entirety. A proper closure.
This was the point I started to really question what I was doing, as before I gave the workers a chance to tell me otherwise, I was over the fence and knee deep in a river about 5 metres across, named Hermitage Water. The builder working on the bridge noticed me, but rather than shout at me as I’d expected, he just stared at me with some bemusement on his face, before giving me a wave as if to say: “Fair play mate”.
Back on the bike, both shoes wringing with water, I started making my way up a huge climb towards Hawick, having to use the full road to zig zag back and forth, flattening the punishing gradient. I once heard those referred to as “tactical swerves”. That made me smile and on I went. Over the top was some of the most spectacular scenery, Scotland at it’s wild and grey best. The wind was howling at this point, but it thankfully was actually pushing me up the climb. I roared down the other side, passing a nice looking holiday cottage and got very jealous imagining a family huddled round a roaring fire, eating, drinking and enjoying the warmth.
About fifteen miles before Hawick, I took shelter in some thick woods and joined the team back in Glasgow’s coffee call, trying to get opinion on how much the challenge would be ruined if I got a B&B for the night. I was a bit broken. The consensus was it was fine, but the call lifted my spirits so much that I decided I’d camp anyway, keeping with the spirit of the ride. Thanks Voice Team, you’re one in a million. Another hour or so had me in Hawick at the earlier time than usual of four in the afternoon. Coming into the town, I saw a Wetherspoons and have never felt elation like that in my life. Like I said earlier, your standards slip when doing these kind of endurance efforts.
I got myself in and warm, ordered a pint of Brewdog Punk IPA, which vanished in seconds and double Beyond Burger. What a treat. It was also at this point I got a text from our bank to let me know that our mortgage offer had been issued. All’s well that ends well eh? Fed and watered I headed off to a local campsite where I got showered, dry and tucked into my tent. Not before a few campers gave me weird looks and headshakes when asking where I’d come from and where I was going. Another day ticked off. In hindsight, what a day it was.