For Anna, a cycling enthusiast, the decision to ride 4,000 miles solo around the coast of the UK wasn’t that hard. But after epic highs, incredible lows, unforgettable scenery and unpronounceable place names, her simple idea turns into a compelling journey of self-discovery, and an eye-opening insight into what makes the island where she lives so special.
Back in the early part of this year, almost 6 whole months ago, I found myself in a frustrating situation: I had a stress fracture of the second metatarsal in my right foot and running was out of the question for a good 6 weeks, meaning I needed to find another way to keep up my fitness. My solution was to substitute running for cycling, however since the weather was so bad this meant the exercise bike at the gym rather than my trusty steed. Now staring at the gym walls for any length of time was incredibly dull, so to get a head start on my 2016 goal of reading more, I decided to prop my Kindle on the front of the bike and read during my bike sessions. A book about cycling seemed just the thing…
And so as I spun the pedals of that bike, I was able to ignore the digital readout in front of me and rather than watching the time crawl by painfully slowly, I imagined myself cycling along with Anna Hughes as she embarked on her challenge of cycling around the coast of Britain. It was a trip that took 72 days and Hughes documents something from every day, from the pitfalls of bike maintenance to the pleasure of fish and chips by the coast, with a cast of interesting characters joining her at various points along the way.
The book itself is divided into 5 parts, mirroring 5 sections of the journey: the east coast of England (11 days), eastern Scotland (12 days), the Highlands & Islands (13 days), north west England (18 days) and southern England (18 days), starting and finishing on Tower Bridge in London. The journey would take her 4000 miles around the coast and she would learn a great deal about herself along the way.
I was struck immediately by how Hughes was not going to make every moment sound idyllic. Even on the first day, when the excitement of departure waned and Hughes found herself 7 hours later feeling hot and grimy, but barely even 50 miles in. She was exhausted, her spirits were low, and the whole adventure still stretched out before her. It would have been easy to give up, but she didn’t. Instead, she gritted her teeth, kept on pedalling and finished the first day. She was going to do it.
“It’s about the expectation: you go as far as you’ve set yourself up to go.”
The reader joins Hughes as she recounts tales from each day, ranging from descriptions of the landscape (often stunning, sometimes brutal), conversations with the generous hosts who offered her a bed for the night, and personal thoughts as she rode the rollercoaster of emotions that is part and parcel of any endurance challenge. It was an easy book to pick up and put down, and perfect for me as I pedalled away on that exercise bike as it gave me something I could focus on, but without the need for deep thought. In places, I felt there could have been more description of the landscapes, but I suppose this wasn’t the real focus of the book. This was a book about the journey, in all senses of the word, not a travel book; it was an account of a challenge to complete, not a sightseeing guide.
“It’s not the destination that counts, it’s the journey”
By the end, I felt that the challenge had changed Hughes, given her greater confidence and determination to carry on in the face of adversity. It was by no means easy, but she did it and that success inspired her to further challenges. What began with a less than perfect day became a lifestyle and in 72 days Hughes established a routine that took over from that of a “conventional” life, a life that she became reluctant to return to:
“Home. I no longer wanted to reach home. Because this was what I did now. Each day I would pack my bags and ride to the next place. Each day I would look at the water and think, this is where I live, on the road, by the coast. I had jumped off the treadmill, that expected path that society pushes us along: school, university, job, mortgage. I was simply a cyclist – my bike was all I had. We were inseparable, dependant on each other. This was starting to be true in a physical sense, too: I was much more comfortable hunched over the handlebars spinning the pedals than I was upright with both feet on the ground.”
One of the main things I liked about this book was that Hughes seemed “real”. I know she is real, but what I mean is that it felt like she was cycling beside me telling her story. Her words flowed naturally and I could feel a connection with her through her prose. She was relatable and felt like a friend baring their soul as we pedalled on. Unsurprisingly, I was quite sad to finish.
So if you like the idea of adventure, this book shows you that adventure can be had without having to travel too far afield. It shows us that the journey itself is often much more important than the destination. And it shows us that sometimes we have to step off the treadmill of life and take our time rather than rushing through everything. We’d all do well to remember that.