britain

Border Country

UK Tour Stage 2 (Bristol to Heysham, Lancashire):
Cycling Distance – 385 km / 239 miles
Ascent – 1949m / 6393 ft (0.22 times the height of Mount Everest)
Toughness Index – 50.66 (100 = Really Tough)

Total UK Tour Cycling Distance – 725 km / 450 miles
Total UK Tour Ascent – 4861m / 15944 ft (0.55 Everests)

Borders are funny things.

Funny in the sense of ‘peculiar’.  And sometimes funny in the sense of ‘not funny at all’.

They’re just (usually squiggly) lines on a map.  Artificial, squiggly lines, by and large.  Created almost at random, by geography, by prehistoric tribal areas, by war, by shifting royal alliances, or by the straight, ruled lines of an administrator’s pen.  There’s often no good reason why they cut through one field, rather than the one next door.  And there’s usually no significant difference between the people on one side and the people on the other.

But then we, our governments, and our media define ourselves against (and it’s pretty much always against) the people on the other side of the imaginary line.  We are good.  ‘They’ are bad.  Our religion is right.  ‘Theirs’ is wrong.  We go overseas to work.  ‘They’ come here to steal our jobs.  We retire abroad.  ‘They’ sponge off our healthcare system.  ‘They’ need to be controlled, or we’ll be ‘swamped’ by a ‘swarm’.

So we build the borders higher, and wonder why desperate people turn to smugglers to help them escape from death or persecution.  ‘They’ must be stupid, too, mustn’t they?  And we scratch our heads in puzzlement, and watch ‘them’ die against our fences.  For years.

Until a picture of a dead child on a Turkish beach reminds us that ‘they’ might be people, just like us, after all.  I wonder how long that little glimmer of truth will last…

As you can probably tell, riding long distances on a bike can give you a bit too much time to think.

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Thankfully, the border I was concerned with as I rolled out of Bristol was the border between England and Wales.  It’s been around pretty much since the Romans left Britain, which is quite a while.  The Anglo-Saxons, the English and the Welsh have all fortified chunks of it over the years.  And its history is just as messy as any other border.  Hundreds of years of keeping ‘them’ out of England.  Violently.  But the last couple of centuries have been a bit quieter.

Straight over the Severn Estuary from Bristol, you hit the Wye valley.  It’s a steep, beautiful river valley, with England on one bank and Wales on the other.  The ruins of Tintern Abbey (above) dominate the Welsh side at the southern end of the valley.

I lost track of how many times I crossed the border over the next couple of days.  Sometimes there were bilingual signs (that’s UK language number three, after Cornish and English) welcoming you to Wales.  The ‘Welcome to England’ signs were all monolingual.  Sometimes, there was a (thankfully) sleepy guard dragon instead of a sign:

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And sometimes, I only noticed that I’d swapped countries again when I saw the word ‘SLOW’ painted on the road.  If it just said ‘SLOW’, I was in England.  If it said ‘ARAF’ too, I was in Wales.

As I was approaching Welshpool, after a lovely-but-hilly day through the border area, I saw this signpost, which illustrates how hard it could be to remember how many border crossings had happened:

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It’s bilingual, so I know I’m in Wales.  Chirbury (2 miles down the road) is in England.  Church Stoke (another 2 miles down the road) is in Wales again.  I think that’s right, anyway.

After Welshpool, I headed into North Wales (or at least, in and out of North Wales).  The hills had levelled out, as I was avoiding beautiful Snowdonia, where the big Welsh mountains are.  But there was one more hill I had to climb before I left Wales.

Because I wanted to see the canal boats in the sky.

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I’ve come to the unexpected conclusion that there aren’t enough aqueducts in the world.  Many of those that do exist just move water from one place to another.  But the Pontcysyllte aqueduct is a little more ambitious.  It takes boats across a valley.  A couple of hundred feet in the air.  Over a river.  Well worth the detour.

After the excitement of the aqueduct (boats go across it as fast as 2 mph!), it was back to the flatlands.  A quick nip through Chester, which was once a Roman fort, for controlling the Welsh border.  And a pause to appreciate what’s reckoned to be the world’s first ‘indoor shopping centre’ (note the medieval covered galleries on the buildings, to enable the wealthy shoppers to avoid the toilet buckets thrown from the upper storeys.  And the rain of course).

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At this point, I was only a few tens of miles from finishing the English section of the tour.  It was nearly time to depart the UK for a couple of days.  I just had the flattest day so far, across the plains of Lancashire, to go.

Liverpool is only a few miles up the road from Chester, and I trundled up the Wirral peninsular to take the ferry across the river into town on Sunday morning.  As you’d expect, no clichés were spared; The Beatles were playing on loop in the cafe while I waited for the boat to arrive, and they managed to play ‘Ferry ‘cross the Mersey’ twice over the PA on the boat during the short crossing.

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I’d not really seen much of central Liverpool before, but the waterfront, which saw so many migrants depart from Europe (that’s right – hundreds of thousands of migrants leaving Europe; who’d have thought?) for Canada and the US, is really impressive.  And the city was quiet as I headed north across the flat lands for Lancaster.

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Another Roman city, this time with one eye aimed at the Scottish rather than the Welsh.  The last major Roman outpost before Carlisle, which sits right on the border of the Roman empire at Hadrian’s Wall.  It’s a bit of a shame that my route takes me away from there, and the Lake District national park between them.  But there’s new stuff to see, and I’ve been there before.

And so it was that I set sail yesterday, leaving England behind.  And leaving the UK behind, temporarily.

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A short ride from Lancaster brings you to the small port of Heysham.  Journey’s end for the English and Welsh section of the ride.  To the north of the port, you get stunning views across the bay to the Lake District.  To the south you get nuclear power stations.  Lovely.

Across the water to the west are new places for me to explore.  Tomorrow (Weds), I’m on an early boat to Northern Ireland.  For today, I’m offshore on the Isle of Man.  Same language, same accents, same buildings.  Different money, different taxes, and a roaming mobile phone.

But more on that next time.

I crossed a lot of borders on my half-way round the world trip.  Lots of border guards taking things very seriously.  Lots of people stuck on one side or the other because of their luck (or lack of it) in where they happened to be born.

On this ride, I’ve carelessly criss-crossed a border that was fought over for centuries, and left my country without showing any ID.  These are borders that don’t (at least generally) kill any more.  Nobody storming the ferry or sitting desperately behind a fence peering in.

Funny things, borders.

Here I Go Again…

The bags are packed.  The bags are on the bike.  One of the bags is hanging off a bit, which is not so good.  And the bags, the bike and me are in (currently) sunny Cornwall, ready to begin touring again.  That’s a good day (even after getting drenched on the four miles to the station this morning).

Here’s The Beastlet raring to go at Bristol Parkway station this morning, fresh from its early shower:

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So, where am I going?  Well, I’m riding (as close as sensibly possible) the length of the United Kingdom from south to north.  And I’m going to all four of the UK’s countries on the way.  This sounds deceptively simple, but even among my fellow British Citizens, there may be a little confusion about exactly what it means.

There are a lot of misconceptions and misunderstandings about where the UK starts and stops.

Many people I met in the US, for example, think that England and Britain are the same thing, and labour (or ‘labor’) under the odd impression that there’s such a thing as a ‘British accent’.  They aren’t, and there are hundreds, including a bunch of Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh ones.

At the same time, as a citizen of the UK, I had to check whether (for example) the Channel Islands or Gibraltar are part of the country.  They aren’t.  Good job, too, as it would be a much longer ride from Gibraltar…

So, first off, a little geographical ‘clarification’ for you.  This may need reading carefully if you’re not over-familiar with our little archipelago.

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Deep breath.  Here we go…

The archipelago known as the British Isles lies off the coast of mainland Europe.  It’s made up of hundreds of islands, and is shared between two nation-states, the UK and the Republic of Ireland.  The two biggest islands are Great Britain and Ireland.  All of Great Britain (comprising most of England, Scotland and Wales), a bunch of other islands, and the north-eastern chunk of Ireland (Northern Ireland) are in the UK.  The rest of Ireland (and some other islands) is a separate nation-state, but was part of the UK until independence in the 1920s.  So, Ireland is an island.  And most of Ireland is not in the UK, but some is.  And all of it used to be.

Clear as mud, isn’t it?  Let’s simplify things by looking at sport.  In the Olympics, the UK competes, slightly confusingly, as ‘Great Britain and Northern Ireland’.  In football, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland play as separate countries, and so does the Republic of Ireland.  Obviously, as it is.  Except in Rugby, Ireland and Northern Ireland play in a united Irish team, meaning that the one team represents two nation-states.  But one island.

That might still not be clear enough for some people.  So here’s one more try.  The UK is a proper country.  It’s on the UN Security Council and everything.  It issues its own passports and money (the pound).  It’s governed from London, which is in England and in the UK (technically, it’s governed from Westminster, which is next door to London, but that’s an entirely different set of ancient confusions).  It has military forces, a single foreign policy, and a single Prime Minister who deals with that sort of stuff.

So, it’s a country.  But…  England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are also called countries.  Together, these four countries make up the UK, which is a country.  Banks in Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not in Wales) can issue their own banknotes.  They are authorised to do this by the Bank of England, which manages the currency and sets interest rates for the whole of the UK.

Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not Wales) have their own legal systems.  England and Wales share the same one.

Scotland has its own parliament, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own assemblies.  England has neither, just relying on the UK Parliament in Westminster.  Which obviously has elected members from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales in it.

And all four countries have their own capital cities; England’s just happens to be the capital of both England and the UK.  And everyone who has a UK-issued passport is British.  Including lots of people from places which aren’t part of the UK.  Or Great Britain, which, as we established at the start, is an island, like Ireland.

Clear enough?

Well, finally (I promise!), there’s one place from where, on a clear day, you can apparently see all four of the UK’s constituent countries.  It’s right in the middle of the UK.  This place is another of the British Isles; the Isle of Man.  The sportspeople of the Isle of Man (for example, the great cycling sprinter Mark Cavendish) compete for Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Unless it’s the Commonwealth Games, of course, when they compete as the Isle of Man.  The island uses the pound, and is protected by the UK military.  And obviously, the Isle of Man isn’t part of the UK at all.

It strikes me that it might be easier just to say where I’m going.

After a lot (and I mean a lot) of internet-bashing, I finally worked out that the southernmost point of the UK is in the Isles of Scilly, three hours south-west by ferry from Penzance in Cornwall, where I now sit.  And the northernmost point is in the Shetlands, which are a surprisingly long way north.  You get palm trees down here in Cornwall.  The north of Shetland is roughly level with Anchorage, Alaska, and the bottom end of Greenland.  It’s about 200 miles from Bergen, in Norway, and over 600 miles from London.  Thankfully, they’re both marked on the map (thanks, Wikipedia!) up above the confusing stuff.

Here’s the plan.


[Edit – don’t think the map’s showing up as it should be – try this instead – https://www.google.com/maps/@55.357832,-3.658619,5z/data=!3m1!4b1!4m2!6m1!1szZYTuYtj57uU.k2f-gGvpi1Xo – and if that doesn’t work, either, I need to do some sort of Google Maps course…]

I’m setting sail for the Isles of Scilly tomorrow morning (Friday), and then heading over to Land’s End, which is back on the mainland.  Then it’s back up to Bristol for my first day off (I’ll hopefully update the ‘Progress’ page on the website with some more realistic stats and maps while I’m there).  Then it’s up through the Welsh borders and Liverpool to Lancashire, then another ferry to the Isle of Man (I know, I know, it’s not in the UK).  From there to Northern Ireland, then across to Scotland, and all the way up to the top of Great Britain.  Then Orkney, then Shetland.

Roughly a month, and there are quite a few ferries involved…

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The Beastlet has recovered well from its conversion to a touring bike.  New wheels, a mountain-bike chainset, and the mandatory racks have made it considerably heavier, but it feels pretty rugged, and rides really nicely with the bags on.  All should be well.

And Cornwall, which I’ve unforgivably never visited before, looks lovely (if very hilly).  This picture is looking out from Penzance; the castle on the hill in the distance is St Michael’s Mount, which is more-or-less an island.

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So, a day-trip with minimal cycling tomorrow to get things kicked off.  Then the business of touring begins in earnest on Saturday.

Shetland, here I come!