The unseen UK: Anna Hughes’ 4,000 mile epic along the UK coastline

In Interviews, London by Claire

Touring cycling is about taking the time to breathe in the view. The vibe is vastly different to racing but comes with its own intenseness and adrenaline. Anna Hughes cycled her bike 4,000 miles solo around the UK, following the coastline always keeping the sea in view, and saw so much of the world without ‘leaving ‘home’. Her attitude is: Don’t train, just get ready and go. She took the stage to speak about her epic UK adventure at Alastair Humphrey’s ‘Night of Adventure’ talk, and since then I’ve been really excited to talk to her about the journey, her book, Eat, Sleep, Cycle and her keen disdain for satnavs.

8489376503_23dbe4b041_k
Hi Anna! Tell me about you. What’s your relationship to cycling like?

I have always been into bicycles because my parents were. They weren’t cycling nuts: they just used the bike to get around to the shops. So I cycled to school, and then as I became older I chose to carry on cycling as an adult because you just do it as a kid and it made sense because of university especially. It was the only way of getting around.

I’ve always been very environmentally-minded so I would have hated to drive a car when I could have done the same journey on a bike, just because of the pollution and all the rest of it. I’m not so much like that now but I did have a phase of being very adamant that cars were the route of all evil. I’ve always been into cycling.

I got trained as a cycling instructor years ago. I used to to work for SusTrans in 2009 as a biking officer, which meant that I went into schools to promote cycling with children and their parents. Part of that was training. When I left that job I looked around to see if there was enough freelance work. It was still working in schools but in a cool way and it married that with cycling. So it was perfect and I’ve made money from cycling every since. I’ve been doing it for five years now and I love it.

8490455892_a82f706957_k
What type of cycling did you do before your epic adventure?

Just before I started my job at SusTrans I did a trip from Penzance to Brighton with about four or five friends. That was the first several day ride that I’d ever done. That was terrible and really difficult. I massively estimated how far we’d be able to cycle. It’s something like 500 miles, but we gave up so easily and got the train on many occasions! I think we cycled about 350 miles in the end over a course of three days. It was just ridiculous. Because it was so hilly and I didn’t know anything about touring so I was like ‘oh okay, so I cycle to work and that’s 10 miles and it takes me an hour or less, so that must mean that if I had all day to cycle then I could do 80 miles no problem.’

Then you get a destination that’s 80 miles away from your starting point, but then by the time you get there and get lost a few times and the road go this-that-and-the-other way, then it’s 100+ miles. So the first day was supposed to be 60 miles or something and it turned into 80. It was bloody hilly. Cornwall is mad. So I basically killed everyone on the first day – I’d planned everything and it was all my idea, and I felt really terrible.

By the second day one of the guys had dropped out. It was me and four lads and I was the only one who did it all – and I didn’t even do it all! So we got to Brighton and I couldn’t walk then or for the week afterwards! It was just so difficult. The last day was flat but by then it was too late.

I learned a lot that week. Because I’d never ridden in a group before – just cycling around town or with your mates (which I didn’t even do that much either). I’d never ridden in a group so I was just going at my pace. One of the guys said ‘you have to go at the pace of the slowest person.’ I didn’t know that – I’d just cycle off up a tow-path, not looking behind and assuming everyone was keeping up with me and then five minutes later realise there was no one there. I was very naive. I think ‘how could I have been like that?’ but at the time you don’t know – you have to learn.

So after that I’d kind of got a taste for longer distance cycle journeys and then I did my round-Britain trip.

8490418938_32e5e388a8_k
Did you jump straight into going around the UK?

The Penzane to Brighton trip was in 2008. After that I thought ‘wouldn’t it be cool to go back to Brighton and do the next bit?’ I thought I could take a weekend here, a weekend there and do the whole thing. Then I thought: well, why not do it one go?

20868103064_2319d6ae31_k
What kind of training did you do for it?
‘There was nothing that I needed to know that the road wouldn’t teach me.’ – Anna
I say none: I did’t do any training rides as such but I cycled to work. I was working in Basildon at the time which was 25 miles away, so I was cycling 50 miles a day, plus being at work all day and cycling at work (because that’s when I was working at SusTrans). That was the training pretty much: it was good. I started the ride going up the East Coast, which is pretty flat. I cranked up the mileage gradually so just being on the road helped.

On the Penzance to Brighton ride I was in a really high gear all the time and tried to push myself (that’s why I couldn’t walk at the end of it: because I strained my achilles so much. I was hobbling.). So for this tour I knew how to ride: you keep a low gear, you keep your legs spinning freely. It’s to simple but it makes a massive difference. These are all really good lessons but you don’t really know it unless someone with the experience tells you.

8489348091_2b1a016856_k
Tell me about the start of the ride. You set off with smaller legs and then cranked it up.
”It felt like plain sailing all the way home, especially once you turn that corner at Land’s End.” – Anna
So Day 1 was 55 miles or something like that. Well, I suppose that’s not low mileage but in the grand scheme of things by day 4 I was up to 120 miles. That was the longest day. The others were 70-80 miles on average.

When did it start getting quite hard? I assume weather came into play, for example.

In terms of the landscape and the terrain it was physically difficult on the west coast of Scotland. that was when it really started to get biting. All around the east coast I’d started to think: ‘oh this is actually quite easy’ and I couldn’t work out if that was because I had eased myself into it. Like when you carry a baby and as it grows, you get stronger. It was the same kind of thing. You get stronger as you ride and so as the terrain gets hillier, you just deal with it because you’re gradually doing that – it’s not like you’re suddenly in the mountains. If I were to get a train to Aberdeen now, it would probably kill me, even though as that time it wasn’t difficult at all. Western Scotland was very difficult but not impossible. I was still mentally and physically fresh.

8490461950_83f175117b_k

When it started becoming actually difficult is when you have mental difficulties. By Wales, I was struggling because I wanted to go home. I was bored. I got a saddle sore, an RSI in my wrist and I had really hurt my achilles as well so I was starting to panic that this was going to go the same way as the Penzance to Brighton ride as well. That, combined with the [Welsh] hills, rain, and wind, I was thinking: ‘this is too difficult. I don’t want to do it any more and I want to go home.’

The terrain in Devon and Cornwall was by far the hardest but I actually thought that was great. I’d gotten over all the misery and I was really happy again. I took in in my stride and raced up every hill. It was great.

Did being on the homeward straight help?

Definitely! Back into England it felt like plain sailing all the way home, especially once you turn that corner at Land’s End. Once I got back from Scotland I was fighting a headwind until I got to Land’s End. It was really strong. The west coast is windy anyway, but this was something else. Ugh!

’What good would come of not doing it?’ – Anna
My eyes were closed to the view and I was really in my own head, I don’t remember much about the coast line. If I went back to the Welsh coast line, I probably wouldn’t recognise it – which makes me think ‘oh well it was a waste of time.’

It was just a miserable plod, really. One that I put my head down and plodded along, and because I’d arranged where I would stay each night I always had somewhere to aim for which did mean that I wasn’t just letting myself down (which sounds silly because I wouldn’t really be letting myself down at all) but I’d be letting someone else down who was expecting me (although, again, had I phoned up and said ‘I can’t do it anymore, I’m going home’ then they would haven’t have minded at all) but that helped me. I’d think: ‘I’ll just get to this place.’

I could have just stayed where I was for a few days but that wasn’t the kind of ride I was on. I was on a very planned ride and that worked for me. I’m a very planned kind of girl. Other people who do this journey, or perhaps another kind of journey, might stay put for a week and wait for it to blow over. But on the other hand, if I’d stayed put, I’d have gone mad. Imagine being in the tent: miserable and frustration with the fact you aren’t going anywhere. There are different ways to do a trip.

It made it so much the sweeter when I came out of it. When things started to look up, I felt so relieved and doubley happy because of it. That’s why I was so happy at the end of it. It just flew by and it was brilliant. I remember that bit in vivid detail! Then people read about it and say ‘why didn’t you just stop? There’s nothing to be gained!’ You say ‘because what good would come of not doing it?’

8489367573_7d7bae3d80_k
How did you plan where you wanted to stay?

It was kind of governed by the accommodation. I emailed everyone I knew, said ‘this is what I’m doing. Does anyone live by the coast or know anyone that does?’ I got a few responses and that was brilliant – that’s when the whole thing started taking shape. It so happened that the places were well-placed. It was coincidental but some of them were 50, 60, 70 or 80 miles apart and I can do any of those distances – even longer if I need to. So, I made the route work along where the accommodation was.

When people start doing tours, it seems to be about the journey. Riders have a very different mentality to those who, say, race and so the training seems to be very different.
’Get excited and prepare yourself mentally.’ – Anna
Absolutely, touring’s about the journey. It’s not about how fast, how strong, how long you can go. If you really want to train – well, you can’t really train for a tour. You don’t know where you’re going what the terrain’s going to be like. If you want to have a bit of practice climbing a hill you can but it won’t be the hill you’re going to climb on the tour, and if you have a particularly difficult hill you can’t climb, then just go slowly. There’s no rush when you’re touring! That’s the whole point.

People do ask me: what should my training regime be? I say don’t. Don’t train, just get ready and go.

There is value in having spent time in the saddle though.

Yeah. I mean, prepare yourself but you don’t have to do it in a race training way. So, prepare yourself by having a go on the bike – don’t wait until the day you leave. Practice putting things in your bag or whatever. Get excited and prepare yourself mentally.

’You just pack your bags and go, that’s the beauty of it.’ – Anna
If you’re doing something every day, you will get very good at it, regardless of how you started. You can always build up the mileage, especially if you don’t have an agenda. Start with 20 miles then gradually build it up. If you get tired, you can just freewheel and the bike can ride you for a bit.

I feel like now I’ve done a big tour, and two little tours, I feel like I could go tomorrow. Okay, my bike’s in pieces under my bed [on the canal boat Anna lives on], but otherwise I could go tomorrow. You just pack your bags and go, that’s the beauty of it. But someone can’t just tell you that – you have to learn it yourself. You do your first tour the way that works for you, whether it’s planned or going with the wind. Then you make all the mistakes that everybody else has already made – no matter how much you know that those mistakes exist – and then the next time you do it, you do it differently (not necessarily better, not necessarily better) but you can only learn it by doing it yourself. I have a line in my book that’s very true: ‘There was nothing that I needed to know that the road wouldn’t teach me.’ It’s so true but it takes a while to realise that sometimes. Maybe I’m still realising that.

8490481888_0df4a20a1d_k
What are the mistakes everyone makes?

– Not accounting for terrain when planning distance. I learned that on my Penzance to Brighton ride.

– Keeping too rigid a timetable – if you’re more flexible with where you’re staying you can just say ‘look, let’s knock it on the head, we’ve only done 20 miles, let’s just stay here’. Because we ended up cycling down a dual carriage way from Truro to St Austal because it was quicker than taking the country lanes and it was really raining. We were cold, wet and tired and just really wanted to get there. That was just miserable!

– Don’t look at the map and think ‘oh that’s a good route!” because it’s not. Not necessarily. Dual carriageways do not make for a happy cyclist.

– And when touring, this is my mistake through my naivety: touring is not comparable to your normal cycling. Just because you can cycle 50 miles in a day under normal circumstances does not mean you can (or would want to) cycle that much during a tour because part of the beauty is seeing something and going to look at it. It’s not an endurance or a ‘how far can I go?’ It’s ‘what can I see?’ and just enjoying it.

Those are things I definitely didn’t appreciate before I started touring.

When you were going around the UK did you find places you wanted to look at?

For me the joy of journey was in the act of cycling. I’d look at stuff as I was going but I wouldn’t go in. I’m sure I missed a lot – of course I did. I could still be riding now and I still wouldn’t have seen everything. But that’s okay. I was doing a historic interest tour – I was doing a bike ride, and I love riding my bike. Everything else was secondary.

Like that [gestures out of cafe window]. That’s a pumping station for the Tottenham sewage works, which is fascinating right? It’s a beautiful building and you can cycle past it and think ‘wow that’s a beautiful building’ or you can think ‘that’s a beautiful building, I wonder what that is’ and look at the sign, or you can cycle past it and think ‘I want to find out about that museum!” All three are perfectly legitimate. It’s just whatever you feel like doing at the time.

My criteria was ‘get as close to the coast as possible.’ I wanted to see the sea all the time (which I couldn’t!) and I chose whichever route served my purpose. Sometimes it was beautiful cycle routes like one of those old abandoned railways, and sometimes it was a dual carriage way (and if I decided I didn’t like cycling on that, I’d change my route but more often than not I didn’t mind). It depends what mindset you’re in. Sometimes the coast is so quiet because it’s sand dunes or massive cliffs and so the little roads that go by the coast are quiet roads or cycle paths, and sometimes the coast is where the ports are – like Hartlepool is the centre of industry, so the main road there is a proper main road. then Cardiff – the capital cities are on the coat because they’re major roads. It was an absolute mixture of everything.

You see every kind of Britain.

8489349209_97e0e29629_k
8489371589_1d5e6214b3_k

At Dungeness it was completely deserted because it’s a nuclear power station, then you get to Brighton and everyone is very quirky and cool. I think south coast is very holiday-ish – it was populated by people from London who wanted to go to the coast because it was close. Whereas other places are perhaps to do with industry and, say, fishing.

’I like maps. I much prefer them to technology.’
Scotland in general is quieter because it’s more sparsely populated than England. You spend longer going between settlements. There are certainly industrial and built-up parts of Scotland so you’ve got big cities like Aberdeen, Inverness, Edinburgh – all of which are on the coast – but you’ve got lots of little fishing villages and old industry that’s not perhaps there any more. But the further north you go, the more wild and remote it becomes. That sounds so twee but it’s true – and also the word ‘remote’, that’s also quite twee because you think ‘well, remote from where?’ But what it means is that there’s so much of Scotland that’s uninhabitable because of the terrain and that I suppose is classed as remote because society there is so spread out: there might only be two houses because that’s all the level ground there was to build on, and all the rest is just sheep grazing pastures or whatever else. It’s very windy up there: there’s not much to stop the wind whipping across.

The West coast of Britain is zig-zagged and the way the land lies is hugely different from the east coast. There are many more islands on the west coast which creates a variety of views and some of it is much less accessible. It’s a lot more mountainous on the west coast of Wales, for example, and there are many more peninsulas which are often inaccessible by road. You just can’t go there.

Or there are roads that go all the way around the peninsula and end at a farmhouse and that’s it. It’s a dead end. A ten mile dead end. I got a map.

How did you navigate?
’I’m good at reading maps now. I wasn’t very good at reading maps then.’
I had maps if I could. I like maps. I much prefer them to technology.

Navigating in Scotland was actually much easier because there are fewer roads. For the whole of Scotland I had one map because that showed me everything I needed to know. You follow signs to the next town and that might be a ten hour ride because the towns are so sparse in certain situations.

Whereas the more populated a place, the much larger scale a map you need. Carrying 20 maps for the east coast of England wasn’t going to work out for me, so I often just relied on Google Maps and I had a few SusTrans maps, which I thought would be useful. I did get lost a few times. I hate getting lost.

I’m good at reading maps now.

8489359599_8f4b12eac9_k
That’s awesome. Thanks Anna.

Follow Anna on Twitter, Blog and Facebook. Her book, Eat Sleep Cycle is ace, for anyone considering touring, wanting to discover England or even if you don’t bike. Following our chat, she’s also written up a great post about what the road’s taught her aka useful tips for cycle touring.

ClaireThe unseen UK: Anna Hughes’ 4,000 mile epic along the UK coastline