HOW DID IT COME TO THIS?
Note for first time readers: This home page is quite long and provides background to the thinking behind my project. If you just want to see the blogs from recent days (which are much shorter) use the navigation bar to find the relevant page or select them from the recent posts list on the side.
So how did a 55 year old amateur cyclist decide to undertake a multi-year project to ride and see the country of his birth?
For those don’t know me, I’m 55+ and semi-retired. I don’t have any trouble filling (and enjoying) my days, but that is partly because I work at it and set myself targets and projects to keep me motivated.
I am a keen cyclist so it seemed to make sense that one of these projects should involve cycling. I’ve done a number of multi day cycle rides with friends and family in France, The Low Countries, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and Italy but these have been short week long holidays. I had always planned to do some more serious joureys by bike when I had more time, so having reached that game changing point in my life, I decided it was time to give myself a cycling goal that was a bit more than increasing my annual mileage, or chasing my Strava personal bests (which as you get older is a law of diminishing returns in any case). I do have a family though, including a son still at school, so setting off for 6 months to tour some remote corner of the world just wasn’t an option for me. I am not sure it’s really me anyway, at least not on my own.
So a UK cycling project became the obvious answer and I started to look for options or challenges, or simply some sort of structure to give the exercise some focus. Originally I planned to do Land’s End to John O’Groats (LEJOG) but rather than do it as fast as I could, I would take my time over it, taking the opportunity to visit parts of the UK that I’d never really spent much time in. Then I thought, why constrain myself to a straight line, why not tour the whole of Great Britain, but do it in stages or ‘legs’ of 4 or 5 days.
I started to search for a structure or context around which to plan my ride and as a keen football fan I first thought of visiting all the football grounds in the UK. However, it’s a bit clichéd, they are not very well spread out geographically and are often in large cities or towns, which in today’s Britain have become somewhat homogenous. So I searched some more. And some more. And still more.
Eventually I came across Daniel Defoe’s ‘A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain.’ Defoe is the famous author of Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders, and in 1724 he published the ‘Tour’, which at the time became his most popular and successful book after Crusoe.
In the ‘Tour’ Defoe chronicled various trips that he made around and within Britain over a number of years. These trips were not necessarily sequential, but were collected from the experiences of his life over the preceding decades. Interestingly they included a number of trips to Scotland, where he spent more than a year in the early 1700’s as a spy on behalf of the English government. At this time the Act of Union was being debated in both the English and Scottish Parliaments and the English Government wanted someone based in Edinburgh to gauge public sentiment to the proposals, as well as attempting to influence the outcome in favour of the Union.
In addition, Defoe was a proud Englishman and was alive at the very birth of Great Britain as well as the early stages of the British Empire. Given the events of our time, with Scottish independence still being debated and the UK on the verge of leaving the EU, following Defoe seemed a great structure to use on my own tour, or ‘circuit’, to borrow a word from Defoe.
Except you can’t follow Defoe’s route. As mentioned above, his book is the accumulation of decades of travel (as well as some, ahem, ‘invention’ on his part) so there isn’t one route to follow. But it is possible to visit many of the places that he did and I felt it would be interesting to compare his views of the towns and cities he visited with those of someone from the 21st century (ie me!).
In this post Brexit period, I think it’s worth quoting from his preface of ‘A Tour…’ written circa 1724:
‘As the work it self is a description of the most flourishing and opulent country in the world, so there is a flowing variety of materials; all the particulars are fruitful of instructing and diverting objects.
If novelty pleases, here is the present state of the country describ’d, the improvement, as well in culture, as in commerce, the encrease of people, and employment for them: Also here you have an account of the encrease of buildings, as well in great cities and towns, as in the new seats and dwellings of the nobility and gentry; also the encrease of wealth, in many eminent particulars.’
Whilst not claiming to be in Defoe’s league, perhaps I can provide a similar reflection of Great Britain nearly 300 years on.
So that’s what follows, part cycling blog, part historical reflection. I hope you enjoy reading it and please do feel free to leave any comments you would like to make. I don’t get lonely when travelling solo, but receiving comments from friends and family, or indeed anyone, provides a connection back to home, which is always welcome.
If you look at the upcoming legs of my journey and have any suggestions for places I should definitely should visit, please leave a comment. And if you feel like joining me for a day (or several), and feel like being part of my great adventure, you would be most welcome. Just leave a comment and let me know.
May the tarmac be smooth, the hills rolling and the wind at your back!
Edit – The next leg, number 3, was due to be 18th March but the snow got the better of me! I now plan to undertake this leg, Exeter to Bodmin, via Lands’ End, w/c 30th April 2018