It’s been five years since I bought a cycle and began to pedal again. In that time I’ve had previously unimaginable adventures both in the UK and further afield. On that sunny day in Scotland 2009, when a young couple rolled into the campsite and took their time to speak to me, I could not have imagined how it would change my life. We exchanged stories after I offered them strawberries from a large punit I had purchased earlier on that day. It was a simple, friendly gesture to two tired looking cyclists and one I’ve had reciprocated many times since on my travels.
At a time when I was grieving the passing of my parents and my older sister, Linda, I had gone to Scotland. My sole purpose was to try and find some solace in the mountains and islands from the continual emotional bombardment I was suffering. I had spent a couple of weeks in Scotland during each of the previous two years and it always felt therapeutic. In 2007 I had chanced upon a fellow motorcyclist called Paul on my first solo sortie north of the border. We formed an immediate bond, spending the rest of that trip in each other’s company, and had returned the following year to tour the area around Arran and Mull on our motorcycles.
Full of banter, and always laughing, we would ride and camp, eat and drink, always in full view of the mountains and ocean. I felt safe under their wing, protected by something much greater and more powerful than anything else I know. It was the power of mother-nature I was feeling. In the hills I feel a sense of being held safely, a small part of nature’s great tapestry. It’s a peaceful and therapeutic feeling, one of belonging. At that time it provided the one place where the world made far more sense than the one I struggled to live in from day to day, the one from which I had briefly escaped.
I had previously noticed cyclists and mentioned the pleasure I had gained from cycling to Paul, but he remembered the pain of the effort more than the joy of the journey and I hadn’t pursued the thoughts at all. That was until this day in August as the sun shone on the white beaches of Arisaig and reflected from the islands that lay out to sea: Skye, Rum, Muck and Eigg. Surrounded by this mystical landscape I began to imagine the wonders of passing this way slowly, under my own power.
Since adolescence I had returned regularly to the mountains for the purpose of finding peace and reassurance. In day to day life I never feel safe, sure, or certain of anything. I don’t know what tomorrow will bring and live from hour to hour, day to day. Nearly nine years on from the moment of catastrophe, when my mind cried out so loud I had to listen, I’m no closer to any answers as to what lies at the bottom of the pit I fell headlong into all those years ago. I have no more knowledge of what underpins my condition than I did when it all began and I was still a teenager.
Something I do know is that five years ago something changed. A hidden switch turned on a flickering light by which I could see a little, enough to dare to move forwards one tentative step at a time. From then until now I’ve tried to write candidly and honestly about my week-to-week life, my struggles, and adventures in the hope that it might just help somebody else find that switch and take a first step.
Sitting next to my tent and Harley Davidson in 2009 I remembered a tour I took across the breadth of Scotland with my cousin Jo back in 1990. She had mapped out a route utilising serious mountain biking territory. It ran from Skye to beyond the Cairngorm Mountains and back to Fort William. I was the first person who she had met that thought the idea of actually riding it was exciting, rather than just saying “that’s nuts” and walking away. Looking at the feint lines on her maps excitement rose within me. Once I’d seen the route I felt we had to try it.
It was a sensational tour crossing mountain range after mountain range using General Wade’s old military roads, tracks, lanes and single track. We were rarely on tarmac only using it to link sections of more interesting terrain. More often we followed narrow deer-paths through the heather, or rocky trails long forgotten by all but the walking fraternity. The final leg was along the West Highland Way from Crianlarich. Touring off-road was relatively unusual back then and by the time we reached this, now understandably popular route, we were battle hardened, as fit as fleas, and completely relaxed.
In those days the West highland Way was quiet as a mouse regarding cyclists. Even so, we didn’t always feel welcome. We got some funny looks and comments from those walking the trail who probably felt unsure about these heavily laden two-wheeled invaders on their territory. They had most likely rarely seen cycles along this way, especially fully loaded cycles with camping gear. We didn’t know the limits of our mountain bikes and were pushing the boundaries of what we and they could do.
Cycling in this terrain while decked out with four panniers each was a new experience for us and we didn’t know of any others who were attempting similar routes to ours from whom we might glean information. If it looked possible on the map we would take it on, walking when forced to but trying our best to stay in the saddle, which we did for the most part.
I vividly remember stopping atop the Corrieyairack Pass, one of Wade’s old military roads that forced its way rudely through huge Monadliath Mountains. At the col we took out our Trangia stove and made a cup of tea while staring in awe and disbelief that we had made it up here with bicycles. A jet fighter buzzed the col and I swear I could see the pilot smiling down at us as he tore past, balanced on a wingtip. I could have stayed there forever, mesmerised by my surroundings, but the threat of midges and the draw of the Kingussie campsite pulled us down into the valley via a steep rocky descent and a track more akin to the bed of a stream than any kind of byway.
We entered into places I never dreamed of being on a cycle, like riding around the base of the Cairngorm Mountains, down Glen Tilt, and out to Rannoch Moor from where a beautiful trail led us away over the hills towards Ben Lawers. Early on we had hired a man with a boat to take us up Loch Hourn from Glenelg. We did this partly to avoid difficult rough-stuff but mostly just for the adventure of it. It felt pioneering to be heading up a mighty loch for two hours, bicycles balanced across the open boats hull, our panniers and bags stashed at our feet. The boats tiny motor hummed as we went and the mountains of Knoydart gathered around looming ever more present as we approached Kinloch Hourn. “It rains on average for 360 days of the year,” our captain told us. We got lucky, the sun shone and the loch was flat calm.
I can still taste the Scotch Broth and scones that we purchased from the farmhouse cafe on our arrival at dry land and I still have the scars from a midge infested night spent somewhere along the single-track road that led us away from Loch Hourn. I can almost feel the warmth and hospitality that the Scottish people had given us as we moved through their beautiful country. But most of all I remembered how good it made me feel to be so physical, to ride amongst giants, my heart pounding on the ascents, and occasionally on the descents too. I was at one with my cycle and the world, intertwined with it in a way that felt as though you couldn’t tell where my cycle ended and I began.
Beyond those memories other factors played a part in my decision to cycle once more. I had taken a steep nose-dive while at university from 1988-1992. I struggled hard for my degree, fighting emotional distress and being labelled as a sufferer of Myalgic Encephalitis (M.E.). I had discovered the new sport of mountain biking by accident after my cousins Richard and Jo had stayed in our house in North Wales on their new ‘go anywhere’ cycles. Impressed with the ingenious engineering used by their creators (Dawes and Muddy Fox) and the thought of heading cross-country on a bicycle it had sparked my interest.
Although I went about it all the wrong way: by riding intensely in an almost self-destructive way I discovered a world of thrills and excitement in the mountains of Snowdonia. I found I could ride up high above the world with like-minded friends. By being willing to carry my bike on my shoulder I extended the range of my rides and the terrain I could enter. It was a period of pure exploration that only came to an end after the birth of my daughter Lydia when we chose to move back to Hampshire.
After Snowdonia’s lofty peaks and ridges the tame feel of the South Downs was never going to be the same. During the winter time the tracks and Byways in Hampshire were impassable due to the heavy clay nature of their surfaces. A combination of that along with a great deal of often aggressive traffic on the roads saw my interest in cycling wane. It just wasn’t fun feeling threatened every time I rode out.
I made the pilgrimage along the South Downs Way and the ancient and fascinating Ridgeway, both of which were fabulous rides, but without the mountains it lost something special. But I never forgot what my ex-wife had said to me about my being more relaxed than she had ever seen me during those days on my bike and that was what I remembered as I sat quietly by my tent in Scotland nearly twenty years later, full of thought.
If I was to cycle again I would have to learn to respect my mind and body, otherwise it would be a complete disaster. I’m still learning how to do that now, five years on. I often find myself talking out loud, telling myself to slow down, to take a picture, or to have a break. I’ve learned what it is to ride within myself and not make unreasonable demands of my ageing body and mind on too many occasions. I’m learning to be more mindful of my surroundings, to take in what surrounds me as I go.
The challenge now is ride in a way that I can maintain and enjoy for many years to come. The mountains were, and still are my first love. I enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the places I visit as much as I ever did. The grandeur of being in high places still makes my heart flutter in a way no other environment can but I’ve learned to love the lanes, moors, and coast almost as much. I will be ever grateful for the small voice I heard in Scotland 2009, the one that reminded me that cycling was something that was a friend and ally in a world that still makes little sense in many other ways.