Epic Shambles

Bike leaning against fence by rural road in lovely valley

This time last year my greatest concern was my ability to carry 5kg of coal on my bicycle, closely followed by the activity of Storm Dennis and the vagaries of ScotRail cycle carriages. This list of anxiety was in preparation for my first cycling adventure of the year with my pal Claire, both of us (perhaps unconsciously) deciding that we’d rather spend Valentine’s night together in a remote wooden hut with no bathroom than with our long-term romantic partners.

The haulage of coal, inclement weather and uncooperative trains were just the start of our challenges that weekend. Our destination – Cadderlie – was infested with teenage boys that had also eschewed romance and were staging a drinking, shouting and stomping competition that started late evening and continued into the night. Claire and I, warmed by our glorious coal fire, pushed the wooden table in our room across our door and settled down on the floor of the bothy to sleep, having decided to flee in the morning for the safety and comfort of an Oban hotel. Had we known what was to come in March we may have joined in the drinking and stomping.

We survived our weekend with Storm Dennis and the teenagers, the unrelenting rain and moments of fear quickly evaporated by the the law of Type 2 Fun. Then Claire and I, like the rest of the world, were confined to our local areas until the summer, trying to work out how and where we could manage a Covid-safe adventure between work and caring responsibilities. 

July was our first opportunity to get away and we used it push the limits of Type 2 Fun by attempting to cycle the Herring Road, an ancient route – between my home in Dunbar and Lauder, in the Scottish Borders – where women used to walk the 30 miles carrying herring in baskets on their heads. Fishwives of the 18th century were clearly made of tougher stuff than us, although we did inadvertently try recreating this feat by carrying our laden bicycles over a bridge, and the innumerable stiles and stone walls on the way to Lauder. Hours pushing laden bikes up grassy fields, with a herd of threatening cows following at one stage, saw our collective strength sapped. We arrived at the Black Bull pub and hotel in Lauder at 9.30pm in a fairly fragile state and incapable of wild camping. By the time we collapsed into comfortable beds we had abandoned our plans to cycle home the following day. After eating all the breakfast the hotel could muster we got ourselves to the nearest train station and vowed that our next adventure would be easier – and go to plan.

We enlisted the help of someone that knew what they were doing for our third adventure, and headed off for the glorious Kingdom of Fife in August sunshine for a proper, mapped route – the Pilgrims Way – that takes you from Culross or North Queensferry to the ancient university town of St Andrews. Good views, manageable hills, organised (garden) camping and with absolutely no shambles in sight we knew we had swapped some of the epic for simply enjoyable.

The plan of going to plan didn’t last and in September we headed off to the Scottish Borders for our second attempt at wild camping. We were still less than 30 miles from my front door, but with deserted roads and the wild beauty of St Abbs Head we could feel the epic all around. We had again picked a weekend with weather that was better enjoyed indoors, and when it came to venturing onto a windy headland to find a remote camping spot we got the fear and scurried back to the corner of a farmers field. Then we worried about the farmer and what he might do if he spotted us – a worry that came to nothing, as worries of this variety are probably destined to. The worst actual incident that weekend was the terribly disappointing soup in a Duns pavement cafe, but we bravely overcame it by eating more cake.

We squeezed our final adventure of 2020 into October, thankfully and unusually booking accommodation ahead, as Covid closed the doors on unplanned adventure. We climbed over the Granites to Innerleithen and the surprisingly good food of the budget Corner House Hotel. This final effort provided a perfect balance of scenery, challenge and cake, with the harder push on the off-road route chosen for our way home, over the Lammermuir Hills, ensuring we wouldn’t be lost and alone too many miles from home if the plan really unraveled. 

There was undoubtedly a significant quantity of Type 2 Fun in our adventures of 2020, created by the weather, circumstances, our ineptitude, inexperience and fears. But despite, or because of that (and I’m not sure which), these are some of the happiest memories I have of an otherwise hard and relentless year. I learned (again) that adventure can be close at hand, and not confined to long trips in exotic places. Through finding the edges of some of my physical limits I discovered that fear and challenge are part of the epic equation, but even when I’m scared and tired I’m stronger than I thought. And perhaps fitting for a weekend that celebrates love, albeit of a different kind, I know I’m deeply blessed to have a friend that regularly chooses to have an epic shambles with me.

One thought on “Epic Shambles

  1. sounds like you had a good year – for a covid year! we didn’t even get any bike touring in – just some walking in the west country. But will hopefully get up to Edinburgh this year (or will it be next?!) to cycle the east coast up to the Orkneys. We will be bringing our waterproofs….

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