CLIMB THE UK – a record-breaking 5,000-mile journey to climb the highest points of all 100 UK counties in 72 days on two wheels, two feet and a kayak.
6:00am. Rain is lashing down. Wind rattles the tent. It’s forecast for the whole day. I have one hundred miles to cycle and two counties to climb. But it’s day seventy and I can’t fall behind now. Besides, I had already come through worse – I just have to keep moving forward.
After four months of planning it all began on Shining Tor, the highest point of Cheshire. The top of my home county was a gentle start but the surprise of flags, balloons and friends gathered on the summit made for a memorable send-off. Back at the car park, I couldn’t find the words as I pedalled off towards Edale and left my family waving in the distance. Now it was just me, the bike, and one epic mission.
I’d only met the Genesis Tour De Fer 10 a week prior, and the sturdy frame of my first ever touring bike took some getting used to. We got along instantly, but I knew that my trusty steed would be my best friend one minute, and my worst enemy the next.
The entire route was pre-planned, but at the foot of Winnats Pass I quickly regretted trying to make it ‘more interesting’ as we struggled up the 20% incline with fully-loaded twelve kilo panniers fighting against me. The Tour De Fer passed with flying colours. Soon the broad Peak District tops appear and after walking Kinder Scout retire to the lovely Edale Youth Hostel. By the end of day one my camera had broken, my Garmin had wiped my route files, and I had nearly lost my phone SIM card. Little do I know this is just the beginning.
I could hear nothing but the pleasing sound of spinning wheels and the skyline turns bleaker as I approached the Pennines with three county tops to climb. Along the tranquil Derwent Reservoir I walked towards Howden Moor and the summit of High Stones: the high point of South Yorkshire. Like a warhorse, the Tour De Fer crawls onto the notorious Saddleworth Moor where the heat slows progress to a crawl: staying properly hydrated is the first lesson.
Day three was a shock to the system with 105 miles through Manchester, Merseyside and Lancashire. The ground was welcomingly flat, but on busy A-Roads cyclists fall to the bottom of the pecking order and concentration is needed to prevent climbing the windscreen of a Transit van. Luckily Billinge Hill (Merseyside) was only an easy stroll and I was relieved to be back in the countryside again as I arrived in the cosy village of Ingleton, North Yorkshire.
A boggy trudge led to the summit of Gragareth where even the trig point was sat in a puddle. Sixty miles later the skies had turned for the best and the hills grew even bigger as I entered the Lake District. But something else stole my attention from the fells and crags reflected across Derwent Water: a stabbing pain appeared in my knee and persevered all the way to Borrowdale youth hostel that night. The sharp pain lingered stubbornly on the ascent of Scafell Pike the following morning. With an emergency physio appointment and pain-killers I got no further than Carlisle that evening. A medial muscle strain just five days in was far from ideal. Anything non-essential in the panniers was discarded. Higher cadence reduced the pain slightly at the compromise of a slower pace but I had crossed into Scotland before I knew it.
Determined to play catch up, a tough ninety miles took me to Glentrool, a village tucked away in wonderful pine forests. The campsite owners looked concerned as I announced my intent to head up Merrick that night, though the infuriated swarm of midges was a good incentive to get moving. Galloway’s acclaim of Dark Sky Park revealed itself once the fiery skies flipped to darkness, and two summits down, I returned exhausted to my tent at 1:00am. Falling behind schedule wasn’t an option.
The grimy streets of Belfast were quickly redeemed by the striking Mourne Mountains and Irish Stew for lunch in Newcastle on day seven to Armagh. Crossing the border briefly into the Republic of Ireland brought the strange sight of kilometre road signs – and potholed roads that made the dreaded saddle soreness even worse. It’s a discomfort unlike anything else.
Powered by potato scones, I arrived late at an eccentric B&B in Omagh and crashed to sleep after another hundred-mile day. You never feel recovered in the mornings, but you quickly find your rhythm and the days pass on auto-pilot: relentless forward momentum became the mantra. In the beautiful County Antrim I stopped in the village of Bushmills to admire the fascinating landmark of Giants Causeway. On the summit of Trostan I was bemused to find an abandoned desk chair. Somebody was clearly having a bad day in the office.
The much smaller Isle of Arran was cycling heaven with warm air and quiet roads – but I didn’t expect to find a monstrous climb at the far side. My knee quivered at the thought. The knee compression sleeve only helped by blistering the skin so badly I could barely feel anything else. On the boulder-field of Goat Fell I could smell the sea and hear ships across the harbour whilst blinded in the fog. It was a far cry from the suburbs of Glasgow where the smell of takeaways hit me along with bottles launched by the mobs of local youths. It was another petrol station sandwich for dinner at 10pm: sore, weary and in low spirits.
Cruising along Loch Lomond was much kinder behind the wind, the smell of barbeques drafting towards me. Oatcakes would have to do. Sweat clung the jersey to my back as I left the bike for the summit of Ben Lomond, the most southerly munro (a mountain over three thousand feet) with a breath-taking view of the Loch stretching for miles below. There was no time to take it in with sixty miles still to go.
Walking after cycling always seems harder than the reverse. After a few miles of spinning the rhythm returns and somehow my legs feel stronger, but the long climb on the A82 to Rannoch Moor defied the rule. This unforgiving vast moorland would be a pretty bad place to break down. Fortunately what goes up must come back down, and free-wheeling into the dramatic valley of Glencoe was magical. Flanked by the Aonach Eagach ridge and the ‘Three Sisters of Glencoe’ this high mountain road is arguably one of the best in the UK.
Bidean Nam Bian, the highest point of Argyll county, is the second summit of the day. This big ‘sister’ looks to be a moody one. The routine becomes like muscle memory: Get off the bike. Lock it up. Put my trainers on. Load up my rucksack. Water bottles = check. Food = check. Wallet = check. Then off we go. Back to the bike. Helmet on – every time I challenge myself to do it quicker but sometimes my fingers are so cold I have to open the bike combination lock with my teeth – other times in housing estates I’m met with relief to see my bike hasn’t been stolen. This time I was met with a puzzled look at Glencoe Youth Hostel, arriving in a relieved daze at 11pm with bike oil smudged on my chin and midges splattered up my arms.
Ninety miles towards Ullapool had everything a cyclist could hate – headwinds, torrential rain, false summits and no coffee stops. Progress was so sluggish that I kept checking for a flat tyre, and talking to sheep stopped me going crazy. Keeping going is as simple as giving yourself no other choice.
“Man, it takes me ninety minutes to get Durness just in a car” the bar-man muttered at the posh hotel in Kylesku as I left with my stash of Snickers bars and water. Sure enough, most nights finished with a race against the daylight, on a final boost of adrenalin. The pace hit 16mph with the wild plateau of Assynt fading in my shadow like something from Middle Earth. Deserted single-track roads lead me to Durness on the North Coast 500 route, teeming with camper-vans, and great views across the pristine beaches and rocky bays.
The east coast had different plans. Coastal winds threw me around whilst I braced myself for timber wagons thundering past at 60mph with a freezing spray of road water seconds later. At least it kept the bike clean! After getting changed in a phone-box and stopping for petrol station coffees in a bid to stay warm, I called it a day before hypothermia could.
Scotland had plenty of surprises left as I crept into the wilderness of Cairngorm National Park, overshadowed by lush pine forests where red squirrels roamed and deer bolted onto the road. The moody Cairngorm peaks were unmistakeable, and high enough that I would soon be running over snow patches to the plateau of Ben Macdui. After ninety miles on wheels and fifteen by foot I met by Rich in Braemar close to midnight. He followed closely by car the next day with hot drinks and The Proclaimers belting out to boost morale, and stopping for the obvious photo opportunity in the village of ‘Dull’. His support was well-timed as a sudden bout of fever side-lined me later that evening. Feeling at my absolute lowest, I now had to walk up one of the highest: spluttering and heaving to the summit of Ben Lawers, thankful for the company (and wedge of Fudge Tablet).
Part Two coming shortly...