Sometimes you have to just go with your gut, that indistinguishable little voice that sometimes just knows things a little better than your brain and maybe shouldn’t be ignored. These possibly great or terrible ideas can be formed out the blue by a meeting of coincidences, a spark of inspiration or an on the spot decision. One of these little inspirations began to pester me and with the chance of a few empty week days emerging and the possibility of this coinciding with a hint of summershine a series of plans began emerging. Mostly these revolved around cycling a long way.
The simplistic joy of bicycles is that you can escape, pedal off and explore with your only concerns being where am I and where can I buy cake or beer. So it surely goes without saying that cycling happiness will be even greater if you dont have to go home again when it gets dark.
Although I have now done a fair bit of long distance cycling and reached the point that when I ask questions about kit lists I am just assuring that if it does unexpectedly rain I wont be the only person unprepared and miserable, I have never done an overnighter or even ridden an imperial century without company. With this in mind I scoured maps to locate a suitable solo expedition for myself. Heading South seemed like the best option to explore somewhere new and lower the chances of soggyness. Having never ridden much further South than Peebles and never having stayed in an English bothy it was decided.
My Restrap frame and saddle bag were hastily packed that morning and I was out the door, smug that I was riding my bike and not trapped in the office. Tail winds assured quick progress along the East Lothian coastline and soon I was in Dunbar. I pulled off the road to try and use some of the John Muir Way however my first dirty detour was thwarted by a golf course. A quick diversion found me back on track and navigating a maze of sandy single track that wiggled along the coast towards Torness Nuclear Power Station. The approach was accompanied with a concerning alarm sound that would be associated to an impending nuclear disaster however I kept going. The Nuclear Plant has a surreal sea wall section, swallows darted and dived around me as I rode along the industrial concrete pathway.
A quick section of road including a savage climb out of Pease Bay that had me choking for air and I was back off road. Cutting through grassy fields and sending sheep scattering. I had hoped to ride a coast side trail all the way into Eyemouth however I had been a little optimistic when plotting my route as it was far too steep with severe wiggly narrow paths. I bailed out, beating my way along the side of a field and took the road to the seaside town.
My route now moved inland and I skirted along the border on quiet country roads, Coldstream was originally my destination for dinner but the lack of a chip shop forced me off route to Kelso in the hunt for carbs. I picked up Bowmont Water and in the evening sun I made my way along the quiet valley road towards my border crossing. My legs felt great as I pedaled between sleepy fields, only looking back occasionally to check the progress of the sun as it sank to hide behind the hills.
The tarmac finished at a farm and a sign pointed me on wards through a gate to the hillside. Grass and a steep gradient resulted in a hike-a-bike towards the border and what was once a lawless crossing between the two countries. Today it was peaceful and I cast long shadows in the setting sun satisfied that I had not only now notched up my longest ride but also it was to be all downhill into England and my bothy home for the night.
The descent down the other side was much different from the ascent. Rocky and wet it was to prove technical on fixed. I juddered down wary of punctures but enjoying the challenge. On the sight of farm houses the path changed again. The soft Land Rover track was a bit more gravel tyre friendly and even though the varying textures made the bike unpredictable at speed I was able to make better progress. I whooped and bellowed in excitement at the prospect of soon arriving at the bothy. Sometimes my hullabaloo caused the sheep to scatter while others ran with me and at one point there was a pile up which forced me to swerve and in my wake was left four tumbling whooley lumps.
The last junction was approaching which signified the last ten miles and the home straight. There was a faint booming noise echoing around the valley walls and although I couldn’t figure out these irregular sounds I would not be left ignorant for long. I reached the junction which was marked by many signs and a large red flag that indicated the beginning of a military firing range that was currently active. The continuing explosions in the background curbed any temptation of ignoring the warning signs.
To avoid being exploded I was left with two options. I could turn around and head back towards the hills where there was nothing other than up hill and early night tucked up in my bivouac with the sheep. Or to continue on the road into the unknown hoping that I would stumble into a source of internet so as to possibly re route myself to the bothy. The possibility of at worst having a pint in a pub before sleeping outside had me sold on the mystery road. Houses became more frequent yet still no re routing options presented themselves, the likely hood of a bothy stay dwindled as the road leaned westward and away from my GPS’s end point. The acceptance of a bivy behind a wall was made and after passing only one closed pub the desire for a pint had now transformed into looking forward to a hearty breakfast and a large cup of coffee to reinvigorate the legs and soul for the cycle home.
I continued to pedal down the mystery road knowing that every mile done tonight was a mile I didn’t have to do tomorrow. In short supply of water I had one last task before the search for my sleeping nook was to begin. I eyed down driveways and the walls of buildings in the hope of spotting a hose or tap but as my bike lights became more important for seeing than to be seen the hunt for water was soon abandoned. Other than a surreal encounter with a phantom dog that appeared ominously on the road ahead of me in a bank of fog before disappearing just as quickly, I saw no other life. Curtains were drawn and shutters closed as I whooshed past little hamlets, pedalling hard as if I could escape the night. At 135 miles while still being rather picky on what criteria a field needed to meet to be suitably comfortable I came across a pub called The Bird in the Bush. It looked to be closed but the door was open. If I poked my head in and found this to be true I was sure they would be able to fill my water bottle at the very least I thought. That little voice from inside me spoke out once again, “go in, this is your last chance”.
On peering in I saw 10 or so people gathered around a bar singing songs. One man at the back corner looked like a more retund Vincent Vega. Although not usually open there had been a funeral that day which by the looks of the people in the bar had resulted in much heavy day drinking. The bar lady hurried over to welcome me in. The urgency to find a spot to sleep was forgotten as pints and crisps were pushed in front of me and we spoke of our days. Upon hearing my field or luxury bus stop sleeping arrangements it was insisted that I stay the night. More pints were poured and I was regaled with many stories into the night of the recently deceased and the not so quiet hamlet of Elson. Tomorrow and my retreat home were to begin sooner than I desired, I went to bed defeated that I never reached my bothy hideaway but all the better for it.
Footnote – Home Time
On the other side of the coin the retreat home was not so jolly or that interesting. The extra distance I needed to cover due to my detour meant that rather than a leisurely Sunday ride along many nice quiet roads I had to contend with more direct and much scarier roads. I thought the A68 would be the end of me as cars flew by inches from my handlebars as I grinded up and out of England. At the bottom of the hill Jedburgh was a welcoming sight and I pulled away from the cars and down small country lanes to make my way to Melrose for a pie. My goal of a coffee and cake at No1 Peebles Road resulted in an unplanned time trial stage as I pushed hard to get there pre 5pm, only just scraping in on time. With caffeine and cake levels topped up all that remained was a small section of the Capital Trail, a small segment of gravel and to cross over the Pentlands. When optimistically sitting at home this seemed like an excellent finale however in reality it dragged for miles with very little sign of progress. The Red Road descent into Balerno however cheered me up with its rowdy soggy ruts. Finally I was on to the Waters of Leith, my gritty expressway home and even though a bird hit me in the face my spirits were unbreakable.