ITV Border blog: cycling the UK

ITV Border's South Lakes reporter Fiona Marley Paterson, and Border Life cameraman Paul Robinson, are cycling the length of the UK.

It's a journey that takes in stunning but unforgivable scenery in Cumbria and the south of Scotland.

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Cycling the UK: Day 9 Tain to John O'Groats

They made it - day nine. Credit: ITV Border

I was born in the most northern county of England to an English mother and Scottish father. I choose not to decide whether I'm Scottish or English. I'm British.

Cycling the length of Britain has given me time to reflect on what being British means. Going slower means you see more and getting out of the car means you're exposed to the whole experience.

We've seen the change in landscapes, buildings, people and accents from the waves crashing on the rocky Cornish hills, where people feel a strong national identity to their county (they'd have Cornwall an independent country if they could). The countryside is more manicured and ordered where arable farming takes over around Shropshire, contrasting with the deep tree-lined Welsh valleys.

We've seen the thatched cottages of Devon nestled in the crooks of rolling hills, seen how the buildings become redder the further North you go: from the red tiled roofs of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire to the red brick of Victorian industrial heartlands the Wirral and Liverpool. Stone creeps in around Lancashire to reveal Cumbria's stone houses in Lakeland hills as the route choices narrow with fewer (and quieter) roads.

The hills become purpler and wilder in Scotland - and Paul's favourite part of the route - beginning in the Borders but becoming even less tamed towards the end of the road in the Highlands.

The difference between the Welsh border and Scottish border with England are noticeable: in Wales you'd hear English as much as Welsh, the only difference the language that appears in harmony alongside the English words. In Scotland, there are more Scottish accents.

At Gretna our first experience was the friendship cairn, built by those wanting Scotland to stay part of Britain. Further North, the remnants of the yes campaign linger: a graffiti 'yes' sprayed on a road sign, a solitary 'aye' on a farm gate. I wonder what receptionists think when they see my Scottish name but hear my English accent: have I betrayed my Scottishness? Have I embraced my Britishness?

As we cycle uphill into a headwind blasting rain in my face, I realise our pilgrimage is ending as it began: the same weather, the same experience, in a place with the same feeling of national pride and a desire to be recognised as a land of its own. My tired legs scream that it's a long way but it's not so far that you can't make the journey with just the steam of your muscles.

Standing under the famous sign, teeth chattering as an Asian tourist takes our photo, Paul can't believe we've done it and is proud to have cycled 100 miles a day for 9 days across Britain. I'm glad to be British and although at times it's been hard and scary, I've adored seeing all 874 miles of it.

Cycling the UK day eight: Pitlochry to Tain

Day eight. Credit: ITV Border

A slow low-pitched groan emits from the road. I almost don't want to look behind. Moments earlier we'd slowed for a bike shop when Paul's disc brakes kicked in a little too quickly, spinning his back wheel out on the wet road. I heard the screech and clatter as a car passed on the opposite side of the road.

Paul lay on his back, his bike scattered next to him, the cars all stopped around as if frozen in time.

The groan was the unmistakable sound of pain but what pain? Broken bones? Just bruising? I run, clip-clop, in my bike shoes.

"Are you alright?" A woman asks, her car now parked. Paul tries to get up. "Don't get up just yet, just rest there." She's thinking the same thing I am: has he broken his back? I scan limbs for breaks or blood but find none. "Where hurts?"

"What happened?"

"You fell off your bike. What hurts?"

Paul lists the left hand side of his body as he lifts his arm. "Ah if you can do that it's not broken," I joke, deciding humour will help this situation. He has cuts and bruises but I'm fairly confident nothing is broken. We stand him up and take him to the side of the road where I set about with my first aid kit and get him to drink as two lovely ladies talk about taking him to the local GP.

Whilst this is nice of them, it concerns me. Today is our longest day. We have 120-130 miles to cycle through the hills of the Cairngorms and are on a tight schedule to make it before dark. We agree he's fine but what's more worrying is his memory loss.

"Fiona, I'm not being dramatic but...I know who I am, I'm Paul, and I know who you are but where are we? What are we doing?"

Oh God, I'd realised he was in shock but it's more than just the accident he can't remember. "Cycling Land's End to John O'Groats. You fell off your bike."

"I came off? How? Did I get you?" I explain the accident again. "Where are we going? Where did we start this morning? I don't even remember what I had for breakfast."

"You're in shock, here drink your water." I take our bikes to the bike shop and set about pumping our tyres up. "Paul, you need to buy inner tubes."

"Why, have I got a puncture?"

"No, but you got two yesterday so you have no spare ones left."

"Oh right." Paul looks confused and begins asking about the accident again. His helmet is in tact with no marks and I'm fairly sure he hasn't got concussion so I keep pressing his water bottle into his hand and getting him to drink to treat the shock.

"Is my bike ok?" And click. If Paul's worried about his bike he must be back. I can almost hear the cogs in his head clicking into gear again.

I've serviced our bikes and got us ready to get on the road when Paul complains about the pain in his ribs.

"Right we're going to the GP. It's 3 miles away in the next village. Can you cycle?" I'm concerned that if he doesn't get back on his bike soon after this accident he never will.

Paul at the GP. Credit: ITV Border

We cycle slowly on the cycle path, keeping him in my sight. At the doctors I use the 20 minute wait to go out and buy lunch and painkillers. We need to use this as our stop if we want to get to Tain before dark, which would be dangerous.

"Sorry," I say handing him a sandwich and chucking a caramel shortbread and a packet of crisps on the waiting room bench next to him, "I'm not very good at sympathy!"

The doctor has confirmed he's fine and after a while the nurse patches him up. "Right, stand next to something doctory, this is going on the blog!" we laugh.

"And I got no sympathy!" He complains as he walks out the door.

"Sympathy's for the weak. We're Land's-End-John-O-Groaters!" In truth I think sympathy wouldn't have got him back on his bike and he'd be gutted to get all the way to the Highlands to have to pull out.

He soldiers through the day, clearly in pain but telling me to push on when I ask. It's a long day and it's darker than I'd like it to be when we finish but we've made it and tomorrow is a shorter day.


Cycling the UK: day seven

Day Seven. Credit: ITV Border

I could be a cycle path connoisseur by now. After 600 miles dropping in and out of them I can say that Britain has some brilliant examples, but some leave us frustrated and wishing we'd stuck to the road.

The one from Perth to Pitlochry has a mix of both. The A9 is an unforgiving road. Highlanders commute huge distances to Edinburgh or Inverness and so slow tourists on bikes are not made to feel welcome. We quickly see a cycle path and decide this must be a better option.

This one is helpfully signed to Pitlochry, a useful addition that not all cycle paths feature. I find simply saying 'cycle path' or something like 'pink route' really doesn't help you decide whether it might take you to where you want to go.

But within a few minutes the path deteriorates from tarmaced paths and minor roads to footpaths, with gravel that threatens to send our thin road bike tyres in random directions or worse, puncture the thin, bald rubber.

"This is no good. It's been designed for a mountain bike or hybrid." I scroll around my phone trying to find local roads but these paths aren't on that map anymore than they're on my Atlas. "We'll have to turn back."

In my humble opinion, good cycle paths have these qualities:

  • Smooth Tarmac. Road bikes need a good surface and can't cope with gravel or dirt tracks. Paul's had 3 punctures!
  • Well-maintained. A sudden pothole or crack in the road can mean you have to swerve into the traffic.
  • On both sides of the road. Having to cross 4 lanes of traffic doing 70mph isn't fun and often feels more dangerous than just cycling on the road with the traffic in the first place.
  • Continuous. They're often put in around junctions to increase safety but this means they come to an abrupt end, leaving you trying to rejoin the traffic, which makes me feel vulnerable.
  • A wide path. It's safer when you can see what's coming! But you also need to allow room to fall off that isn't under the wheels of a car.
  • Separated from the road and pedestrians. Some have lovely grass patches between the road, cycle path and foot path, which means I can't hurt a pedestrian and the cars can't suck me towards them with their drag.
  • Well signed! I've fallen off a few times when the sign is so small I don't see it until it's too late. I also need to know where it's going, just like I would in a car, and Northern Scotland in particular is good at telling you if it's a rough track or roads. This is important because different bikes can manage different surfaces: off road is for mountain bikes, Tarmac is for road bikes and hybrids can manage a bit of both.

This day has taken us from the beautiful Borders to even less densely populated areas. The houses shrink away and become stone-built, the countryside becomes wilder and peppered with purple thistles and there are fewer roads to choose from.

Cycling the UK: day six

ITV Border's Fiona Marley Paterson is cycling the length of the UK. Credit: ITV Border

Day 6: Penrith to Peebles.

We've been joined by a celebrity! His Highness of Border Craic and Deekaboot Tim Backshall, lycra clad in an ITV cycling jersey, navigates us through lovely Cumbrian back roads and a complex cycle path network through Carlisle to Gretna. We barely notice almost 30 miles as we chat in the sun.

Lockerbie comes and goes before lunch in Moffat. We're looking forward to the beautiful borders road ahead but in no hurry to leave the warmth and pot of tea. Today's an easy day: 90 miles.

Paul's knee and my shoulder hold out on the long hill out of Moffat. We look like an advert for ibroprofen gel. The beautiful view makes it worthwhile. "Woohoo! Owning it!" Six days ago we'd grumble about this, now the challenge is another one down, safe in the knowledge that we can do this.

I'm becoming more confident on the bike. My aim is to be able to do what I call a 'Jesus', lifting my hands off the handlebars, arms spread wide, as I cross the finish line, Tour of France winner-style. Tim proudly showed off his mastery of this art earlier today. I'm not there yet but I'm closer than a week ago. Three more days' practice to my finish line...

We cycle hard the remaining down and flat to Peebles, making record time and - perhaps surprisingly - having fun!


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