The border crossing between Scotland and England might just win the award for least dramatic of my entire trip, with just a pathetic little sign outside a pub to welcome me and my bike into England. There might not have been any party poppers at the border but that didn’t mean it wasn’t exciting for me. I have crossed between many countries on this trip but I have never cycled into the one I come from…
The first English town I passed was Carlisle but I pedalled through as quickly as I could. Just because I am back in the UK doesn’t change the fact that I avoid big towns as much as possible and besides, Carlisle didn’t look particularly interesting. It does have one point of interest that I should mention and that is that the town was established to serve the forts on Hadrian’s Wall (the fortification that the Romans started building in AD 122).
In the summer of 2014 I had planned to hike the Hadrian’s Wall Path, a long distance footpath that runs 85 miles between coastlines along the wall. That summer my asthma became so bad that I was having trouble breathing in my day-to-day activities. I was in and out of the doctors and eventually decided that I didn’t have it in me to make the trek. When I left London on my bicycle in January 2015 my asthma was still bad and I was nervous about how my lungs would hold up. 3 years down the line and I have barely had an issue with the breathing. Changing my lifestyle and starting a daily routine that revolved around fresh air and exercise more or less cured me of the asthma. The Hadrian’s Wall Path runs through Carlisle. I might not have been able to handle a 85 mile stroll that summer but it’s good to know I can handle a few thousand miles cycling around the world!
I headed straight for the Lake District which is, for me, the most beautiful part of our country. The weather was milder than anything I’d had in Scotland and although I wasn’t lucky enough to get any blue sky it was pleasant enough to enjoy the views.
The north of England was still a punishing place to go riding with a heavy load. The gradients are nasty in places and although the ascents aren’t ever that long, some of the hills were bigger in England than I’d remembered. Kirkstone Pass was 1,489ft (454m) – not nothing!
I reached 30,000 miles of cycling in the Lake District. A pretty gorgeous spot for the occasion! I knew I’d end up in London a little shy of 50,000km so I celebrated the last milestone with my odometer on imperial.
The weather worsened as I headed south. I decided against detouring through the Yorkshire Dales or the Forest of Bowland (which, I have now learnt, is not a forest at all) and continued down the A65 in the pouring rain.
I made a pit stop in Lincoln to visit the lovely chaps at Carradice, who’s Super C bags I’ve been proudly sporting this last section of my trip. It was very nice to meet the staff in the factory where the bags are handmade.
I popped into a local chippy and was greeted by a man with such a thick Yorkshire accent that I had to ask him to repeat himself. All he’d said was ‘what do you want?’. The regional accents change so quickly in this part of the country, it’s quite extraordinary. I wonder if such variation is unique to this country or if it’s only here that my ears can spot the acute differences. Even between Gretna and Carlisle (just 15 miles apart by the border) there was a clear contrast between the Scottish and English accents. In Kendal I stayed with a family where the Grandad had a Devonshire accent, the dad sounded like he was from Kent, the mum Essex and the kids – who had grown up there – sounded Cumbrian. That’s an impressive spread in one house.
I cycled along the Liverpool-Leeds Canal heading east. In one spot I had to take the bags off my bike and carry the gear up a few steps to join the towpath. A couple were walking past with their dog and the man said: “You’ve got enough gear! Are you cycling around the world or something?” He was joking. “Yes, I am actually”. He didn’t believe me until I showed him my pocket world map.
Things started feeling familiar as I neared Leeds. I studied music at the university there for three years and the city will always have a place in my heart. When I lived in Leeds it felt like it was on the other side of the country. I’d have to mentally prepare for an entire day in advance of the marathon 4-5 hour bus journey from London. I’d need at least one new album, something good to read and a bag of snacks for the voyage to the depths of northern England. Now Leeds just feels like a stone’s throw from home.
It’s a nice town and it’s getting trendier. When I moved to Leeds there was no big shopping centre in town and no Arena concert hall, both of which have been huge investments for the city. In between the two is the old market where I used to buy my veggies. Of all the exotic bazaars I have visited around the world, Leeds’ is probably the least glamorous.
I took a couple of days off over the weekend and on one of the mornings I visited my old friend Justin. I mentioned in the first Scotland blog that I used to play in a band called Purple Emperors – he was the singer of that group. I last saw Justin at the start of 2015, just a week before I was about to set off on my bicycle. He and another of our friends Sean (and now his business partner) were trying to work out how to roast coffee beans in a frying pan in Justin’s mum’s flat in Stratford. While burning the beans they told me that they were going to open a cafe in Leeds.
At the same time I told them I was going to hop on my bike and cycle to Australia. I’d just got the new bicycle but hadn’t done any training whatsoever and knew nothing about bike mechanics. I don’t think either of us were particularly convinced about each other’s forthcoming endeavours but fast forward three years in this story and look where we are now: I’ve almost finished a cycle around the world and Justin & Sean have a fantastic little cafe/roastery called Pump n Grind in Leeds’ Hyde Park. And the best part? Justin told me he is now engaged!
I also got to catch up with some old friends who I used to play music with in Leeds. I went for a drink with Tenley, who’s mum put me up for a couple of nights in Washington DC back in September. I also met up with my pal Brandon who was playing a gig in the student bar that I just happened to have worked in. “Mate, what have you been up to recently?” I asked him. “Oh not much” he replied. “I had a baby a month ago”.
I have missed a lot these last few years. Seeing more familiar faces has made me realise that. I’ve spent a solid eighth of my life cycling. I’ve missed both wedding and babies. One of my friends has had two kids while I’ve been pedalling! That’s just showing off…
I spent a little time wondering how, if in any way, I am a different person to when I lived up here. I don’t think I have changed very much but there is one thing I fail to understand about my ‘former-self’:
I love exploring new places. The fact that I have cycled around the world for three years should probably have provided you with a good clue about that side of my personality. I may not have been a keen cyclist when I was living in Leeds but I was still interested in travelling and hiking. The first two summers I was studying I headed to Spain and Turkey to hike the Camino de Santiago and the Lycian Way. In Leeds I was on the doorstep of some of Britain’s finest scenery and yet I made no effort to see any of it. On only one occasion did I venture into the Yorkshire Dales but I only made it as far as the first pub where I had a pint (or perhaps a few) before venturing back down the hill to the bus stop. That was the extent of my exploring in the North’s great outdoors. I wish I had spent a bit less time hungover and a bit more time with my walking boots on…
I thought I was going to dodge the forecasted snow by taking a couple days off in Leeds but it caught me on road towards the Peak District. Fortunately it was an easy 25 miles to Holmfirth to visit another friend called Zach. It’s a funny part of the country up here. One minute you’ll be cycling through quaint villages surrounded by green pastures and the next you’re in gloomy little towns with pebble-dash estates where it looks like no-one has cracked a smile since the 80s.
I can’t remember the last time I cycled with such an unpleasant hangover. The British hills do not make it easy with a headache. I often ascended more 1,000 metres in a day during my ride down the UK. This country is many things, flat is not one of them.
Despite the headache it was my favourite day cycling in Britain. Everything was white under the snow and the Peak District looked absolutely stunning. The hills were big and the villages between them were beautiful. We conquered Holme Moss pass early in the morning – at 1,719 feet (524m) it was the highest point of my ride across the UK.
To make a good day even better, I had the pleasure of Joe’s company for the ride. I first met Joe back in Thailand in May 2016. While I was cycling down from Doi Suthep temple near Chiang Mai, Joe caught up with me on the descent and then proceeded to have a chat with me while we bombed it down at 40mph overtaking cars as we talked.
Joe had also been on a break in Chiang Mai. He continued touring after we met in Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand – all countries that I visited but Joe was always a month or two ahead of me. One afternoon I was cycling in Java, Indonesia and a local asked me to stop so he could take a photo of us together. After he took the snap he said he wanted to show me a picture of another cyclist he met. Can you guess who it was? None other than Joe!
Our day’s ride crescendoed with a dramatic descent down Winnats Pass. To top it all off, it just so happened to be Joe’s 25th birthday. A pretty good way to spend it, I reckon.
My bike was falling apart once again. The rear gear shifter was broken and I concluded that it was the ratchets had worn in the mechanism. I’m a bit lazy with bike maintenance in cold weather so I didn’t bother looking at it properly. I just pulled the cable with my handle to move between gears and it sort-of worked. I actually looked at it after I arrived home in London and discovered pretty quickly that it was just frayed cable housing that was causing the problem. It took me about half an hour to nip to the shop, buy some new housing and fix it. You’d think after three years I’d have become slightly more pragmatic…
My brakes were more of a concern. I’d threaded the front static pad so I couldn’t adjust it anymore and the piston had worn in the rear one. None of the shops I passed stocked the part. I stayed with Andy & Liz near Sheffield and one of their mechanic friends tried to help me out with a spare caliper. Unfortunately it wasn’t for drop bars so it didn’t really help much and I continued nervously on the icy roads with only one half-working brake.
There is only one condition when I’d rather have a rear brake than front and that is on ice. (As I write this now I’m not sure why it didn’t occur to me to just switch them around at the time). Unfortunately there was a lot of ice to deal with that last week in England as the temperature refused to climb much above zero. One morning I had to help rescue two cars that were stuck on steep minor roads and unable to get up the slippery roads. I managed to help the first old couple by filling up a bag of grit from the box up by the village, sprinkling it by the tyres and giving the car a good push. I had less luck with the second one but the driver was younger than me and had a fancy BMW so I gave a much more half-hearted push before giving up, excusing myself and leaving him to get help from a local farmer.
This might sound surprising giving the places I have cycled over 4 winters on the road, but Britain presents some of the most dangerous ice cycling. The sheets of black ice are so hard to spot and when the temperatures hangs around freezing it’s difficult to tell when the patches will appear. I was lucky I only had one slip in England which happened one afternoon when I was cycling down a little dirt road at dusk. Some of the potholes had filled with water and frozen over but I just drove through them because the thin layer of ice would break under the weight of my bike. One of the larger puddles was not quite so thin and stayed solid under my front wheel. I lost control and stacked it. Whoops! I will not miss riding on snow or ice after this final winter…
I cycled east towards Newark-on-Trent and stayed with my friend Sally and her family. In the morning I popped into the school where Sally’s mum Paula teaches to do a short talk for the kids there. I like talking to children about my ride – they really engage with what I am saying. I think there is something particularly tangible about my journey that they can easily relate to. I am no ex-army outdoor survivalist who has trekked across the Amazon. I’m a bloke who looks quite normal who just rides a bike really far everyday. I took my loaded bike in and we played ‘who can lift up the bicycle?’ The answer was no one. The bike might be stupidly heavy but it doesn’t look particularly flash. I show some pictures of it in exotic environments and everything seems quite doable. They don’t need to go home at the end of the day wanting to cycle around the world but if they think “I could probably do that if I wanted to” then that could be quite an empowering thought for a young person.
I had more cycling company that day as Robbie and Lucy came out to ride south with me. We met in Tajikistan back in September 2015, just before we were about to set off for the Pamir Highway, the high-altitude road that was one of the main reasons I started this trip. They have kids who are about my age who were doing ‘normal life’ – studying or working – while Robbie & Lucy were out pedalling around Central Asia as they completed a UK to Singapore ride in stages. People often say stuff to me like: “it’s good that you have done this trip while you are young and have the chance” which is nonsense because you do not have to be young to go bike touring. I hope to have many years of cycling ahead of me and I am glad to know couples like Robbie & Jebb who make that seem easy.
I found it difficult to navigate in England. There are so many roads to choose from in this country and without local knowledge it’s hard to tell which routes will be busy. Google Maps’ bike routes kept sending me down stupid forest trails or footpaths across fields but if I followed the a-roads I’d often find myself on dangerously busy roads. Many dual carriageways are stupidly narrow in this country but as none of the minor roads are gritted it was often safer to join the main roads.
I stopped at my aunt’s for a night before continuing south through Northampton, another of the many towns in this country I’d probably never have heard of were it not for the FA Cup. More of the ice was melting but that meant there was bad flooding in places. I followed the National Cycle Route 6 where I could but sections were completely underwater where the river had burst its banks. It’s a good thing I still have those wellies from Scotland – I was wading through water almost up to my knees in places!
I made one final stop near Watford and then I really was within a stone’s throw of home. I cycled into the capital via the canal all the way into Paddington. By the time I reached Hyde Park it was raining cats and dogs. I could not have picked a less glamorous day to arrive home, the sky was almost exactly the same colour as the pavement. London is a very grey city.
Despite its bleak aesthetic in winter I have missed this city. When I reached Hyde Park I didn’t need my GPS anymore, I could find my own way home and that was a lovely feeling, even in the rain.
When I left London in early 2015 I couldn’t wait to get out of the city. I was sick of the place. Over the last three years I’ve succeeded in erasing almost every negative memory from the town and romanticised every positive. Among the many things I love about London, I think I appreciate how multicultural we are more than anything else. You don’t need to travel to see the world when you live in this city – the whole world is already here. I’m not sure how anyone could have grown up as I did and ended up racist, when as a kid I had friends from Korea, Ghana, India and a million other places in between. I myself am only half English…
Growing up as a middle class Londoner gave me a healthy outlook on life. There are very few social environments that I would feel out of place in as they have all been around me as a child. I’ve brushed shoulders with people from all walks of life in this city. London has inspired me to reach outside my bubble because I have seen success from all angles but it has also kept me humble and toughened me up for adult life. The contrasts in this town keep us grounded all the time. Two boys I went to school with were killed. Life isn’t always a walk in the park here but there are opportunities everywhere you look.
I cycled across the Thames in Putney and continued towards home in Raynes Park. When I was 18 I got a job in Holland Park and used to commute there by bicycle from Morden this very route. It wasn’t even a 10 mile ride but prior to this trip that was the furthest I had ever cycled.
You might be expecting me to say that I was overcome with emotion at this point but I wasn’t at all. To me it was just another day in the office. For my family, friends and perhaps even you – dear reader – the finish line of my cycle around the world may seem like a big occasion but for me it was not a grand climax. I have so long to mentally prepare for events on my bicycle that nothing is particularly overwhelming anymore. I felt ready to return home and that was the most important thing.
As I cycled the final few miles I mostly felt blessed to have travelled so many extraordinary roads around the world. If I had a time machine I’d love to go back to that first day cycling and see what was going through my mind that morning. If I remember correct, I was as calm as the afternoon I returned home. All I wanted to do was find an adventure on my bicycle – it didn’t really matter where I ended up and I certainly did not think that it would bring me right back to where I started almost three years later.
We all know the old Chinese proverb “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. Well, in the case of a bike ride they begin with the downward push of a pedal. And just as they begin with such a simple movement, so too do they end. This time with just the squeeze of a brake.
I was home.