Cycling Long, Slow and Wiggly

SLOW Hungerford

My brother-in-law did what he later described as… ‘a silly thing’. By cycling head down at top speed, into the back of a stationary bus, he broke his neck, severed his spinal cord, spent a long time in hospital and had to accept a lifetime in a wheelchair.

Life can change in an instant but then pass very slowly indeed. 

Apart from the immediate help and assistance I wondered what I could do, if at all, to render aid. I found a charity called the Back-Up Trust that helps newly paralysed people gain confidence and fresh abilities that hospital life cannot provide. It includes sailing, abseiling, camping in the mountains and trail-tramping in its radical repertoire of wheelchair-bound outdoor activities. It is successful at what it does and I wanted to raise money for it to continue helping good souls rejuvenate in their caring hands.

I had time to think of something appropriate. 

Motivated by circumstances beyond my personal control, and my person, but with a career spent working alongside outdoor agencies and voluntary bodies (like the UK’s Common Ground, Sustrans and National Trust) and through my work on the Countryside Agency’s ‘Eat the View’  programme, I had an interest in the SLOW food movement.

My brain began to assemble a cunning plan for an innovative fundraiser. 

As I had previously managed the dedication of the Thames Path (England’s latest long distance route and new National Trail), I was having distinctly linear thoughts.

So, in one of those idle moments staring at a map of the UK I asked myself another silly thing: what is the longest straight line in Britain? In a relatively short time using nothing more elaborate than a ruler and pencil on an old school atlas I had mapped a line from the farthest NW corner of mainland Scotland (Mackay Country, Sutherland) to the south east coast of the Isle of Wight.

With the benefit of a full set of Ordnance Survey digital maps I had a more precise answer. Following many nights working out the fiddly detail of a peaceful route wiggling around that long straight line I had a bigger plan.

A new End to End ride was born; move over Land’s End to John O’Groats (Lejog): bring on the LONG, SLOW & WIGGLY.

To help create a happier way of living for those unfortunately paralysed

Obviously all I had to do was test it, hopefully add some funds to help create a happier way of living for those unfortunately paralysed, and set myself a mission to publicise sustainable transport, Slow Food, and Common Ground’s local distinctiveness work.

I purposefully missed all attempts at fitness training or fancy-dan bicycle maintenance (to prove that anyone can do it). On 19 June 2004 I set out from the National Trust beacon at Culver Point on the sunny Isle of Wight with the potential for 1000 miles of British life, hills, local character and weather to reveal itself to me.

Ryde pier
Ticket to Ryde but not a Beatle in sight. Leaving the Isle of Wight by cycling a mile out to sea (mindful of the SLOW ramps on the pier) to catch the Fastcat to Portsmouth

It was an exhilarating trip in one of the wettest summers since records began and beautifully slow. For added angst I had chosen to do it on a small wheeled, folding bike (a Birdy Grey) and had no intention of doing more than an average speed of 5 miles per hour or an average 50 miles a day. I wanted to stop and talk to people, eat and drink local produce, absorb the sights, sounds and smells, take photographs and, you know, take it slow.

There were some big hills to climb: Walbury Hill (the highest chalk hill in Britain); the near 2000 foot Gatescarth Pass in the Lake District National Park and Drumochter Pass in the Highlands.

There were historic monuments to visit like Uffington White Horse and Cairnpapple Hill; as well as simpler rural pleasures such as orchid verged Scottish roads and the hedgerow scent of English dog-roses.

My route also took me directly through the middle of Birmingham and Manchester and I enjoyed fascinating industrial archaeology as I ambled along traffic-free canal towpaths through the heart of two of the UK’s major traffic-snarled cities.

The experience of cycling through southern Britain was largely defined by its topography of corrugated chalk hills, watercress streams, thatch and limestone architecture with the occasional, willow-strewn, river valley.

Watercress fields
Watercress beds in a Hampshire chalk stream, harvesting by wet wheelbarrowloads the SLOW way

These are the kind of landscapes that were once described as ‘chocolate box’ because there was a trend to use bucolic rural paintings of a mythical ‘Ye Olde England’ bestrewn with hollyhocks, half-timbered cottages and hale peasants as advertising on confectionary tins.

Those country lanes once the domain of quaint horse-carts are now speeding rat runs to the nearest motorway junctions and best avoided. 

Although there were plenty of cars on even the smallest roads there were also lots of alternative off-road, traffic-free paths and bridleways that, despite being rougher riding, gave a great sense of freedom and being part of a greater landscape.

The view from the top of the enigmatic chalk figure of the Uffington White Horse, accessed via the prehistoric Ridgeway, was majestic but soon gave way to skeins of rain from the south west.

White Horse Hill
UFFINGTON WHITE HORSE & DRAGON HILL: mysteries of the chalk hill figures and the Vale of Oxfordshire’s dragon path  lies ahead

Strangely much of rural Oxfordshire was devoid of daytime life as work patterns took residents away from home on long commutes. The fields were unpopulated too and only the sky above RAF Brize Norton seemed to be filled with Iraq-bound aerial activity and infrequent buzzards.

Solo cycling can be a lonely business so living inside your head and being comfortable within that space is a critically important aspect of dealing with mental adversity too.

After a brutally wetting encounter with a cloudburst grinding up a slow hill near Great Rissington there followed a swooping fast drop off the Cotswold hills and a catastrophic collision with an upturned broken bottle base that cut a thumb sized flap out of my rear tyre. This was an accident that stored up repetitive puncture problems for days afterwards as fine particles of grit penetrated the gap between tyre and tube.

The Midlands were defined by a hint of Shakespeare in the red soil fields, perry pear hedgerows and ancient black and white houses.

After the delightful, sunken, Roman road (Icknield Way) from Redditch, the countryside of the Bard abruptly gave way to the urban presence of the mighty Brum.

The towpath took on a more disagreeable quality of crunchy cinders, broken glass and a brooding, broken landscape of severe social disadvantage.

A burnt out car in a scorched lay-by marked the boundary between these two worlds. I navigated by the spire of King’s Norton church until I accessed the wonderful canal towpaths of the southern Birmingham ‘burbs.

These paths are delightful to ride on and completely traffic free with canal barges to wave to and wildlife to watch. However, a few miles after the canal ‘roundabout’ in Brindley Place, the trendy business centre of the city, the towpath took on a more disagreeable quality of crunchy cinders, broken glass and a brooding, broken landscape of severe social disadvantage.

I had been told that I needed at least a police escort to reach Wolverhampton alive and as a consequence a phalanx of kindly Birmingham University students and professors joined me for the trip to the outer reaches of the mangled remains of the Black Country in the heart of what had once been a powerhouse of the Industrial Revolution.

I never felt threatened in any way but the various crossings of canal bridges and unlit navigation of the spooky Coseley tunnel were made a lot easier by my local guides. Here is a route that could really do with some serious Second City investment to create a cycle path to unify and potentially bring artistic joy to the various communities of the northern West Midlands conurbation. 

My plans to carry on up the canal towpaths and converted, disused railways from Penkridge to Manchester city centre came to grief the following day with the deflating realisation that my wounded tyre would need to be replaced and none of the local bike shops carried any folding bike parts.

A specialist shop in Manchester promised the spares but that meant skipping a whole day of riding and taking a trip there by train. A folding bike is a transport of joy and supreme convenience but it was sorrowful to pass by all the interesting bits of the canal towpaths I’d set my heart on exploring.

In particular I’d hoped to hitch a lift on a passing barge through the long Harecastle Canal Tunnel north of Stoke and wiggle along the winding rurality of the Macclesfield Canal past the great dish of the Jodrell Bank radio-telescope.

In Manchester, I stayed at the wonderfully named Potato Wharf under the shadow of a ‘Turks head’ knot of tram, rail and road bridges and next to an enormous plug hole that dropped excess canal water into the River Irwin.

Potato Wharf
POTATO WHARF, MANCHESTER: no spuds (and no waiting) beneath the cat’s cradle of railway ironmongery

After waking up to northern monsoon conditions from Manchester to Bury I took respite and travelled on the cycle-friendly East Lancs Steam Railway for a few miles (just because you can take a folding bike anywhere) before cycling out of the rain to delightful Downham near Clitheroe under the bewitching shadow of Pendle Hill.

Here, filming for the BBC’s ‘Born and Bred’ programme was taking place, and I almost took up the chance to feature as an extra, but lunch and replacement carbohydrate was a greater priority.

PENDLE HILL, LANCASHIRE: the source mountain of Quakerism and infamous for its Witch Trials but this day just unrelentingly wet

As a type 1 diabetic I needed four insulin injections a day (every day) and sufficient carbs to match my energy output and insulin intake, lest I collapse in the saddle or have a fit by the side of a lonely moorland track, pass out and get eaten by badgers.

Some days were tougher than others but perfect planning provided peaceful freedom to permit all eventualities.

Slaidburn Youth Hostel in the heart of the bleak Forest of Bowland provided great hospitality with cheery cyclists as hosts and a Land’s End-bound (Lejog) tourer as one of only three guests.

The big TV in the ancient pub over the road, ‘The Hark to Bounty’, became the semi-tragic scene for the football penalty shoot-out that saw England removed from Euro 2004 and left a million flags of Saint George dangling discontentedly at half mast.

After the long uphills of the treeless ‘Forest’ I set my eyes on the mountain ranges of the Lake District in bright sunshine. They seemed far off but a long descent to the Lune valley and Kirkby Lonsdale brought them closer. Even if that just meant another long ascent to cross into Kendal, there were now real mountains in view.

And so, in the midst of trouble comes forth the generosity of complete strangers and my troubles were solved with Dinner, Bed & Breakfast for free.

My greatest challenge past Kendal was identifying the camping barn I’d booked for the night in Sleddale. My digital map said it was right here but this was just a field next to a water mill. I knocked on the door and asked for directions but nobody had heard of it. I phoned the owner who said my map was wrong and it was two valleys over but a 20 mile trip by road.

As I sat down to think, the cheery mill-owner must have heard my thoughts and said “Why not stay here? My mother has a spare room and used to do bed and breakfast for tourists”.

And so, in the midst of trouble comes forth the generosity of complete strangers and my troubles were solved with Dinner, Bed & Breakfast for free.

My second greatest challenge in the Lake District National Park was to haul my bendable bicycle over the Gatescarth Pass, a rock-strewn track more suitable for mountain goats than for cyclists. 

GATESCARTH PASS; the unrideable road in the haunt of Golden eagles, Lake District National Park

This was indeed the ‘Fitzcarraldo’ for folding bicycles but, as the laconic National Park rangers assured me, was “doable”. The other option was to cycle the quarry-lorry jammed A6 main road through Shap but it’s not half as epic.

Any of the many ways you descend from the Lake District peaks to the sea is going to be mostly downhill and, therefore, in parts, a fantastic freewheel but I could have done without the torrential rain.

Carlisle offered respite and a cycle friendly hotel at Stanwix built over a Roman milecastle of the iconic Hadrian’s Wall which seemed appropriate; and much more so because it had a drying room as snug as any hypocaust-fed centurion’s restroom. 

I passed into Scotland near Langholm where I paused to gaze at the peaty brown river waters and I think became entranced. A man with a sheepdog appeared from nowhere and asked if I was enjoying the waters.

Southern Uplands Scotland
WET GREEN SCOTLAND: the lush wet landscapes of the Scottish Southern Uplands on the road to Eskdalemuir (officially the wettest place in Britain when 80mm of rain fell in just half an hour in June 1953)

I agreed that they were fine and he then disclosed that he was Scotland’s only Buddhist shepherd and lived way up on Ettrick Pen with his flock and dog. I said that I was intending to spend that very night in the guest house of the Tibetan monks of Eskdalemuir but he strongly advised against it in a rather alarming way.

There was some bad blood between the factions it seemed and un-Buddhist arguments about money.

However, the peaceful, lush landscapes of the Southern Uplands were soon enough punctuated by the surprisingly garish, prayer flag strewn Tibetan stupa up the valley, where I called to offer my apologies for cancelling.

I said they were welcome to keep my deposit as a donation. The hills here are pudding shaped, sheep grazed, verdantly green ex-volcanic strata and the passes are gentle grinds with some lovely swoops and very little traffic or habitation.

Beyond here, the Midland Valley of Scotland is squeezed between the big hills of the Southern Uplands and the true mountains of the Highlands. At Cairnpapple, Scotland’s Stonehenge, even in the rain, the whole sequence of vistas is encompassed by the eye, despite being viewed through the dripping drawstrings of a weather blasted cagoule.

Here the Firth of Forth almost meets the Firth of Clyde where Glasgow to the west is joined to Edinburgh in the East by the Union Canal in a thin stringy shoelace of water.

After a rest and drying-day stay with friends in Linlithgow and acquiring the last small tyre in Scotland (no more suppliers north of Edinburgh) I rode along part of the Union Canal past the peaky red oil shale mounds called ‘bings’ (where paraffin was once wrestled out of the fissile strata) before being bounced across the Forth Road Bridge under the relentless pounding of heavy goods vehicles (thankful that there was a segregated cycleway with stunning views of the magnificent railway bridge).

OIL SHALE ‘BINGS’ the toxic red waste of the early paraffin industry straddle the Scottish Union Canal towpath

This was a splendidly dramatic way to head for the Highlands as the sun briefly shone for this triumphant crossing of the Forth.

In as many seconds, the rain returned at Dunfermline but, restored by local hot ‘bridies’ (meat pies) in the Abbey close, it was a short hop to the West Fife railway path.

This has a superbly smooth tarmac surface and I would have liked to have done more but I left it to tackle the Ochills and Glen Eagles, home of the famous golf-course.

The Youth Hostel and nearby inn at Glen Devon prepared me well for the climb up the the Sma’ Glen before wearing out my brake blocks on the steep zig-zag drop into Aberfeldy, Scotland’s only Fair Trade town.

I queued for a local venison burger in the town square chippy behind a man who ordered a whole battered and deep-fried pizza. I almost envied those calories but I didn’t think it would actually fit into my stomach.

In the Highlands there were golden eagles, ospreys and yet more rain but I had the whole of the old A9 road to myself for miles without seeing another cyclist and the new A9 taking all the road traffic, roared above me.

A soaking in cold sleety rain on the National Cycle Network route over the 1508 foot Drumochter Pass penetrated all my clothes but thankfully not my baggage.

Drumochter sign
DRUMOCHTER PASS: ominous warnings of hypothermia yet to come

I was aware that I was feeling the onset signs of hypothermia and raced into the toilets of the first pub I saw in Dalwhinnie to turn the hot air blowers up the sleeves of my cagoule to circulate warm air to my brain by drawing the hood on tight.

This was midsummer…it was barely 5 degrees centigrade (41 fahrenheit) in Aviemore that night. Happily, I saw some delicious chanterelles in the woodland next to the Youth Hostel and cooked them but hadn’t realised that my foraging had also provided me with a hitch-hiking tick until it was too late.

Cromarty chanterelles
WILD FOOD ABOUNDS IN SCOTLAND: wild salmon and wild chanterelles in Cromarty

North of grey granite Inverness and heading for the crossing to Nigg Bay on the Cromarty ferry the weather cheered up but not the mood. The tiny 2-car ferry was broken and a wee, red-haired Scotswoman foot passenger was very upset.

Loud cross words were exchanged with the crew desperately banging at the jammed steel loading deck with a sledgehammer. The alternative for me was a 60 mile circuit of Cromarty Firth (a whole extra unplanned day in the saddle) and the tiny furious Scotswoman wanted to see her grandchildren.

After half an hour of banging and swearing there was a triumphal toot on the ferry’s horn and we all boarded; me, one car and the now red-faced grandma.

The crossing took five minutes. I looked serenely back at Cromarty, past the line of redundant, anchored oil platforms, where once my great-great great grandfather had been a baker and smiled.

Nigg Ferry & Duncan Mackay

However, I couldn’t understand why I was feeling so strangely fatigued.

A daily pattern developed after Aviemore with 4pm sweats, 5pm exhaustion, 6pm water craving and 7pm relief food and uneasy sleep. 

At Culrain there was a palace of a Youth Hostel at Carbisdale Castle, once the home of the disgraced Duchess of Sutherland built between 1905 and 1917 with some of the dead Duke’s inheritance after a bitchy family bust up that saw the Duchess jailed in Holloway prison for 6 weeks for destroying vital paperwork.

Following a terse settlement that excluded the Duchess living in Sutherland, building commenced on a high spot overlooking the county and she specified it to include one more bedroom than the family seat and with a clock tower with a blank face so that she wouldn’t even have to give the Duke’s family the time of day as they passed on the railway.

It earned the name ‘Castle of Spite’.

Carbisdale YHA
CARBISDALE SYHA ‘CASTLE OF SPITE’: the clock face with no face

It was sold to the Scottish-Norwegian shipping magnate Theodore Salvesen in 1933 who let it to King Haakon VII and family living in exile after the Nazi invasion of Norway.

In turn, the Salvesen family gave it to the Scottish Youth Hostels Association in 1946 complete with 17 marble sculptures and 36 enormous paintings.

It was a surreal place to endure the excesses of my new tick-borne disease and, after a short sweaty night, I left at 05.00 surrounded by a cloud of midges.

“Sit down here”, they said, “you’re just in time to see the sea eagle fly-past”. These simple pleasures are the stuff of legendary slow travel. 

With an early light start, I got past Lairg and sauntered alongside Loch Shin at hotel breakfast time.

This was fortunate as there was but one hotel in about 500 square miles of heather, water and rock. I saw a couple on a terrace at the rear of the Overscaig Hotel hand-feeding a flock of yellow siskins with crumbs who obliged me with a bacon butty and coffee.

“Sit down here”, they said, “you’re just in time to see the sea eagle fly-past”. These simple pleasures are the stuff of legendary slow travel. 

Now, in the forgotten north-west corner of Scotland, heading to the place the Vikings called hvrath, ‘the turning point’; which for their navigations towards Ireland sex-raiding for women and plundering throughout the west coast of Britain it certainly was, I entered ‘Mackay Country’.

Inverness to SummerIsles
COMING HOME TO MACKAY COUNTRY: It seemed like a personal message Fàilte/Welcome

I was impressed and delighted that two massive dolmen stones straddled the single track road under the shadow of Ben Stack and Arkle bearing my clan name and giving a welcome in Gaelic.

After all the rain, the sun shone and the sea at the Kyle of Durness turned turquoise over silver sand, but by the time I reached the Cape Wrath Hotel I was too whacked to enjoy it and fell into sweaty, ticky sleep again*.

I awoke and showered for dinner. The clientele were to a man, men; old men, here for supervised fly-fishing with a ‘ghillie’. Accents of Surrey and the finest private schools wafted through the room to the open windows where the sound of wild salmon slapping their tails on the flat waters of the estuary punctuated the fisherman’s tales.

Deep with irony, dinner was frozen farmed salmon with mash and peas. 

Manning the open boat ferry at Keoldale was John Mackay (no relation, half of the local population has the same clan surname) who helped my bicycle aboard for the final 11 mile stretch to the end.

It was a rough, pot-holed track to the awesome Cape Wrath lighthouse in a pock-marked, peat-hagged landscape.

Cape Wrath

Every summer a minibus is floated across on a raft to ply this dead end track with intrepid tourists. I was the only cyclist.

In the winter the Royal Navy and visiting battleships shell the bejesus out of this wild corner and signs warn against straying or touching metal objects.

I was on my own again, riding in my head, feeling the potholes through my saddle but with muscles now tuned and toned, it was great cycling to end two weeks and two days on the road.

Here, at that Stevenson lighthouse the rain-washed air was super clear, the Orkneys were visible 60 miles away and the Hebrides 50 miles to the west.

This was a wonderful way to finish the first ever Long, Slow and Wiggly ride and as a bonus, qualifying as a member of that rare tribe of Cape Wrath Challengers**.

I got the tourist minibus back to the ferry and crammed in with two blokes in leathers having a day trip away from the North Coast 500 ride on their motorbikes.

I asked if they had come far. They lived half a mile away from my house in Berkshire.

It is indeed a small world too, whatever pace you choose to live it.

Cape Wrath Hotel
ALMOST AT THE END: Blue skies and sunshine at the farthest North West corner of mainland Britain

With grateful thanks to the Millennium Awards Scheme 

( Common Ground the arts and environment charity and very many individual acts of kindness and support.

More photographs are at 

*I was promptly marched off to A&E by my concerned GP wife as soon as I returned home and treated with high dose tetracyclines. I recovered very quickly but sometimes when there’s a full moon I feel the urge to go out and bite a deer.

**The Cape Wrath Challenge was originally devised by journalist Rex Coley in 1949. It is open to anyone who can supply photographic proof that they have cycled to the lighthouse at Cape Wrath.


Duncan Mackay was born in South Yorkshire and enthused with geology by his coal-miner grandfather who poetically told him that coal was ‘fossil sunlight‘.

After studying geology and geography at Newcastle University (where he met his wife) Duncan worked in conservation in the voluntary, public (state and local authority) and private sectors. In his work, Duncan designated the Thames Path National Trail
and helped create the National Park Cities movement.

Duncan is curious about everything. He sees beauty in small things and the potential for any place to be better. He is the author of six books: ‘The Secret Thames’; ‘Apples, Berkshire, Cider’; ‘Eat Wild’; ‘Bizarre Berkshire’; ‘Reading, the place of the people of the Red One’; and ‘Whispers of Better Things’.

Duncan is a Fellow of the Landscape Institute, a Trustee of the Centre for Sustainable Healthcare, an elected member of the National Trust Council and seconded member of the Canal and River Trust’s Council.

In 1996 Duncan won the Henry Ford European Conservation Award for Heritage and in 2004 an Unlimited Award to explore the longest straight line in Britain on a folding bicycle.

Duncan is the Founder of the Institute of Beachology. He is a slow sailor and past Commodore of Henley Sailing Club. Duncan is a keen forager, wild cook and allotmenteer but also owns a collection of lucky pebbles, a traditional coracle and a

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