Peter Mann was for twenty years a curator at the Science Museum in London. After taking early retirement, he set out to explore his own country by cycling anti-clockwise around the coast of Britain, possibly a foolish venture for a 48-year old non-cyclist.
The book covers the journey from first bright idea to coping with the strains of returning to a settled way of life. The author vividly describes life on the road with just two changes of clothing, the difficulty of exploring a country designed for the easy consumption of the tourist, and the agony of continuing after the death of his father when two thirds of the way round.
As Peter writes postcards home, his godson Jamie pins them up around a map of Britain on his bedroom wall. The postcards speak of the joys and hardships of cycling, of strange and delightful people, and the ever-changing countryside and seas. Words and images of a five thousand mile journey around the coast. Postcards from the edge of Britain.
The book answers the questions: where did you go, what did you see, how did you do it, and what was it like? It will be enjoyed by readers of travel books, by cyclists, and by first time adventurers seeking information. And by those who wonder what it would be like to turn left at the end of the street and just keep on going.
There now follows the text of an article which you may like to print out (about six A-4 pages) and read at your leisure. It was published in the magazine of the Cyclists' Touring Club: "Cycle Touring & Campaigning", Aug/Sept 1998, pp17-20.
'It might seem foolish for a 48-year old non-cyclist to cycle around the coast of Britain. But having taken early retirement it seemed a cheap and unhurried way to use my new-found freedom to visit parts of the country I'd never seen before. After 700 miles training on a top touring bike I'd borrowed I still couldn't reconcile myself to the harsh and unforgiving ride. So I bought a Moulton APB. What bliss: what comfort the suspension gave, and what solidity! But my feeble body was not so rugged. Severe knee pains through lack of fitness were aggravated by terrible headwinds up most of the east coast of England. But there could be no turning back; my flat was rented out to pay for the trip...' - Peter Mann describes his eight months of sightseeing and cycling.
Richard and Adele and five year old Jamie waved me off into the sunny Sunday morning of 30 April. Turn left at the end of the street, along Oxford Street, and down through the deserted City of London to Tower Bridge. Then keep going for another six thousand miles. My anti-clockwise journey round Britain had begun.
The weather was warm and sunny, ideal for slowly exploring the creeks and mudberths around the Crouch and Blackwater. Trundling through Pagglesham, Bradwell, Maldon and Wivenhoe, I spent long, long days on the road, with more breaks than pedalling, slowly clocking up the miles. When I reached my brother's house at Dedham I was satisfied to have done 245 miles in five days. But my lack of fitness had caught up with me: my left knee had stopped working.
I was rejuvenated by three days of cosseting by the family. But the weatherman decided he had been too kind and unleashed a viciously cold north wind. Painfully I cranked my way up the coast of Suffolk and Norfolk, the cold and drizzle and the constant buffeting of the wind sapping my morale. By Hunstanton I could go no further. My right knee had stopped working.
The physiotherapist at King's Lynn sports centre prodded and poked my legs. 'Cut down the mileage, take more rest days, Nurofen will ease the inflammation. That's £20, please.' The reassurance was worth every penny. The next week's tail wind along the flat coast of Lincolnshire was worth even more. Crossing the Humber Bridge in bright sunshine was a great symbolic moment: I was 700 miles from home and travelling hopefully.
I spent the weekend at Beverley Friary youth hostel. It really is a friary, with medieval wall paintings. The warden and his wife are seriously interested in food and serve wonderful hostel meals. And with a toasting hot drying room it is the nearest thing to paradise for a weary cyclist.
And yes, despite the physical hardships, I was enjoying myself. Each week I took off at least two days for resting and sightseeing. I spent a fascinating morning in the muniment room in King's Lynn studying royal charters from every almost every monarch from King John onwards. Henry VIII authorised the markets still held every Tuesday and Saturday. At Whitby I admired the fossils and the jet carving in the museum, and the peculiar double-decker pews in the parish church.
But the highlight of the east coast of England was a boat trip to the bird sanctuary on Inner Farne. As we landed arctic terns dived and pecked, vomiting on our heads to drive us away from their nests. Puffins bobbed up and down their burrows looking like red-nosed clowns in evening dress. Eider duck gazed trustingly up at us. Take a hat and an umbrella if you go!
Most of the resorts were still eerily quiet: miles of empty, windswept beaches; empty youth hostels and bed and breakfasts; scarcely another cyclist seen for a week at a time. The four days spent with an aunt in Newcastle were a welcome relief from my solitary life on the road.
North of Edinburgh the weather began to improve and the wind moderate. There were days of wonderful cycling zigzagging up and down the Firths. Wild roses flourished in the hedgerows and dolphin danced in the Moray Firth. Other cyclists became more common, invariably Dutch or German on roadsters or mountain bikes, carrying enormous quantities of camping gear. Then suddenly, north of Inverness, British cyclists travelling light and covering immense daily mileages, converging on John O'Groats.
At Helmsdale youth hostel I met Crispin, a CTC member from Hertford, two thirds the way round the coast of Britain in a clockwise direction. He was, he confessed, completely 'castled-out' and never wanted to see another castle. I knew exactly what he meant. Sightseeing was the purpose of my journey, cycling simply a utilitarian way of carrying it out, riding the coast merely a romantic theme. But there was simply too much to see. Every town boasted its castle, stately home, garden, museum, and visitor centre. The entire coastline of Britain laid out in bite-sized chunks for the easy consumption of the visitor. Yet this diet was becoming indigestible.
On the other hand my increasing fitness and the improving weather meant that I was discovering the joy of cycling for its own sake. I was passing up visits to sites and the opportunity of good photographs simply to keep on cycling. I was in thrall to the rhythm of the road.
It was damp and misty when I arrived at John O'Groats but nothing could diminish my satisfaction at having got there. Then sunshine at Dunnet Head before a long grind into wind across to Durness and Cape Wrath. I was lucky to get to the Cape, as the day before and the day after the ferry couldn't get across because of the foul weather. I was thankful for the Moulton's suspension on the badly broken surface of the track.
Turn left at Durness and cycle south for 3,000 miles to Lands End; it's all those crinkly bits on the west coast of Scotland which soak up the mileage. And what wonderful miles they were. Summer finally arrived at the end of July with four weeks of almost constant sunshine. Superb views of mountains and islands opened up as the road swooped and turned to find a way round the rugged coastline, dragonflies and butterflies everywhere. Now even the remote hostels were filling up. At Achininver a crowd of us sat on the hillside at ten o'clock watching the sun setting over the Summer Isles.
I had modified the gearing on the Moulton to give a range from 20 to 80 inches and could cope with the occasional 1 in 7 hill in the morning when I was fresh, but not in the afternoon. So it took nearly two hours to climb the 2000ft Bealach na Ba Pass from sea level at Applecross before plunging back down to sea level twenty minutes later.
A couple of days loafing around in Portree at the Skye Folk Festival were followed by three days cycling round the island. Dunvegan Castle is one castle definitely worth visiting, the McCleods claiming it as the oldest house in continuous occupation by one family. At Glen Brittle youth hostel, the climbers were returning from the Cuillin Ridge burnt to a cinder. But wheeling slowly along in my own cooling breeze, or lying on the verge for my lunchtime nap, it seemed to me that the weather was just perfect.
Returning to the mainland on 9 August the coast road took me 54 miles inland to the Great Glen and then all the way back out again to go round Moydart and on to the Point of Ardnamurchan, the most westerly point of the British mainland. And then having toiled down to Campbletown, it was 74 miles due north to Inveraray before being able to turn south again. There's a lot of cycling for little southerly progress.
The Great Glen itself was packed with tourists. The roads were clogged by large German camper-vans festooned with mountain bikes - do they ever get used? There were backpackers and cyclists from every country except Britain. Presumably the British had fled east of Calais.
Campbeltown was the half way point on my travels and a low point in my morale. I was exhausted after two days of repeated hill climbing and couldn't face the last few hilly miles to Southend and the Mull of Kintyre. But a couple of days off in Iveraray and a visit to the Cowal Highland Gathering in Dunoon soon cheered me up.
The last highland barrier was the Rest and Be Thankful. Then it was down to the lowlands and speeding on down to the Clyde, over the Erskine Bridge and on south to Ayr and Stranraer. For the first time I could tell that I really was fitter than when I set out and could average fifty miles per day with ease. Suddenly there were lots of club cyclists speeding along on lunchtime and evening training runs.
The A78 into Ayr was a continuous patchwork of badly repaired holes surrounded by raised manhole covers scattered randomly across the full width of the road. It was the worst road I came across in the whole of my journey. Goodness knows what it must have been like on an unsprung bike.
I crossed back into England on 10 September after 2,460 miles and nearly four months in Scotland. Having spent years walking in Lakeland I was taken aback by the flatness of the coastal road and disappointed to be past the fells so quickly. After a 75 mile run, my longest day, I reached my father's house at St Annes, just south of Blackpool.
I had been looking forward to a relaxing stay but it was not to be. My father was taken into hospital, I visited him every day for two weeks, and then he died peacefully in his sleep, surrounded by the family. He was 84 and, although vigorous to the end, cancer had been diagnosed. I had been carrying a Mercury Minicall pager so that I could be recalled at any time, but it turned out not to be necessary. What with the funeral and clearing the house, I spent a month at St Annes. When I left it was more for the sake of having something to do than any enthusiasm for the journey.
Nevertheless, I pressed on around the coast of North Wales. On my left the Snowdon range played hide and seek in the swirling cloud, but the coast road was flat. Beyond Conway, where the A55 plunges into a tunnel and cyclists have to follow a path around a headland, I was brought to a complete standstill by a solid wall of wind. Perhaps that's why the sign said that cyclists should dismount! At another tunnel cyclists have to cross to the central reservation of the dual carriageway and then follow a path climbing over the top of the tunnel; on the left the rock face studded with huge stainless steel reinforcing bars, on the right a high aluminium fence.
I did little sightseeing in Wales, my sombre mood being more at home with the soothing rhythm of the cycling. But I did spend a morning at the improbable Italianate village at Portmeirion, and a day off looking around St David's cathedral. There I subscribed to a Christmas lily for my father and later snoozed in the bright sunshine on a bench overlooking the Pembrokeshire Coast Path and the tranquil sea
Most hostels were now closing for the winter and I was staying mainly in bed and breakfasts. What with fried breakfasts and pub dinners, I was on a very high fat diet! But Port Eynon hostel on the Gower was open when I arrived on a wet and windy day. I was the only person staying there. The beautifully located hostel is an old lifeboat station jutting out into the sea where it catches all the weather. All night I was kept awake by the pounding of the sea, the roaring of the wind, and the rattling of the windows.
Spurning the Severn Bridge, I cycled all the way round the estuary through Gloucester, arriving in Bristol on 17 November. Compared with many towns Bristol was a joy to cycle in. Excellent signposting took me all the way from Avonmouth to the doors of the youth hostel with scarcely a break in pedalling.
The weather in Devon was the sort where you can never choose the right clothes; one minute bathed in sweat in a steep, sheltered valley, the next minute chilled to the bone on the exposed edge of Exmoor. I successfully negotiated the hills around Lynton and Lynmouth, Ilfracombe and Woolacombe - I walked up most of them - but after Bideford was forced to face reality. I no longer had the physical or mental stamina to cope with the steeply switchbacked minor roads which form the coastal route round Devon and Cornwall. In Scotland I had been cycling with enthusiasm but now only a waning obstinacy was keeping me going. If I was to complete the tour I would have to cut some serious corners. I decided to give up on most of the minor roads and stick to the A- and B-roads so that I could make better progress.
I reached Lands End on 28 November at the end of a long, weather-filled morning of gusting wind-driven rain and three hail storms. But as I arrived at the signpost for the obligatory photograph the sun came out and it was suddenly a brilliant day. I entered the details of my journey in the End to End book at the hotel. John O'Groats was now 3,070 miles and 134 days behind me. Is this the slowest ever End to End?
I had a similarly unpleasant morning cycling down to Lizard Point. The closer I got the stronger the wind, the harder the rain, and the slower my progress. A hurried photograph in the lee of the sad, wooden shack which proudly calls itself the last cafe in England - it was closed - before cycling back to the shelter of the chip shop in Lizard village which mercifully was open. But again the weather picked up and, as I bowled across Goonhilly Downs with the wind behind me, the great dishes of the Earth Station shone in the bright sunshine.
The Lizard was the last of the geographical milestones and now at last I really felt I was on my way home. Shamelessly I took the ferries at Falmouth, Fowey, and Torpoint, instead of conscientiously cycling around the estuaries.
I was staying a few days with a cousin in Newton Ferrers when the snow finally arrived. Despite the freezing wind I was quite enjoying my first experience of cycling in snow. On the long uphill out of Aveton Gifford I deemed it safer to push the bike to make sure the cars didn't side-swipe me as they slithered past on the limit of adhesion. After Kingsbridge the snow turned to freezing rain and the long descent into the freezing mist over Dartmouth was like plunging into an ice-box. I was now wheezing quite badly so checked into a B&B and went in search of a doctor. Ironically, I didn't feel too bad when I went in to see the doctor. But when she ordered me to do some deep breathing whilst she listened to my chest, I was suddenly reduced to a quivering wreck, gasping for breath, and weeping with frustration at the thought of having to finish my journey by train. The intermittent cough I had put up with for some time had turned into bronchitis.
After a week in bed I was again determined to complete a circuit of Britain. But I knew I couldn't continue around the south coast via Dover through the winter weather. And suddenly I wanted to get back to family and friends for Christmas.
I skirted Bournemouth and Southampton on the A31, then up through Winchester and followed the A30 all the way to London. Travelling slowly and resting every two days I arrived back on 23 December. Eight months previously I had hoped to complete my round Britain tour by speeding across Tower Bridge in bright autumnal sunshine. Instead I crept in through the backdoor of London at Brentford on a wet and bleak mid-winter's day. I might have felt miserable, but I didn't. I felt a curious sense of peace as I weaved through the Christmas shoppers on Kensington High Street and turned across the park towards home.
I picked up the keys to my flat from Richard and Adele. On Jamie's bedroom wall was a map of Britain with my route inked in week by week, surrounded by all the postcards I had sent him. Ceremonially we inked in the route of the final few days and attached the last postcard which had just arrived from Winchester. I had been away for so long and travelled so gradually that I had lost all sense of time and distance. But as I looked at that map I saw the journey as a whole for the first time and realised what a great adventure it had been.
Jamie's grasp of geography must
be somewhat shaky for he had been telling teachers and friends
that his Uncle Peter was cycling round the world! Not this year,
I need a long rest. Perhaps next year, Jamie; perhaps next year.....
Distance: The coastline of mainland Britain is about 6800 miles. The coast road is about 5500 miles, not using major bridges and ferries, and ignoring spurs which lead nowhere. About 45% is in Scotland. I did 5400 miles and averaged 39 miles per cycling day. If you don't want the aggravation of following the coast you could put together a 2500 - 3500 mile circuit of Britain staying entirely at youth hostels. Of my 238 days, 139 were cycling days.
Accommodation: 75 nights in youth hostels, 103 in B&Bs, 59 with friends and relatives (including 31 at my father's house). Most hostels in England and Wales also serve meals, most in Scotland do not. B&B ranged from £10 - £25, average about £15, most are near pubs for evening meals. B&Bs generally found on the day using Tourist Information Centres and never booked more than four nights ahead.
Cost: About £5300, or £26 per day, excl. the month I spent at St Annes.
Maps and guides: OS 1:250 000 Road Atlas removed from spiral binding gives nationwide coverage in 62 A4-sized sheets used a sheet at a time in a Maptrap. More compact and convenient than the sheet map equivalent but fewer contours. The OS 1:50 000 Landranger series requires over half the 203 sheets to cover the coast and costs as much as a bike! The only guidebook which covers the whole coastline is the massive AA Illustrated Guide to Britain's Coast, 1987 (republished 1996 as Readers Digest Illustrated etc... at £24-95). Separated into three sections and posted ahead to friends.
Mechanical problems: Broken gear cable; broken chain; rear brake blocks replaced; a few loose spokes. Six punctures; one rear tyre wore out, two more burst because of faulty rim and had to use low-pressure shopper tyres all round the north of Scotland; front tyre got all the way round and is still going strong... Transmission clapped out by the end.
Medical problems: Physiotherapy (private) on knees in King's Lynn; dental treatment in Inverness; throat infection in Pembroke; bronchitis in Dartmouth. Under the NHS you can get speedy treatment at any doctor in the country. After my return I was very disorientated and took several months to settle back into a domestic routine.
Most useful item: Small AM/FM earphone radio for news, weather reports, and listening to music in the evenings.