The young gent with the three McDonalds stars on his apron leaned over my table nervously as I tucked into my sausage and egg Mcmuffin.
“The manageress has asked if you could move your tent in twenty minutes, as you’re on private property”.
I grunted with a nod and replied in the affirmative. That’s the thing about corporations as I’ve learned. It’s not the corporations themselves that are arseholes, it’s just a small percentage of the people that work for ‘em. The guys on the previous night shift had been bending over backwards to help me out in my mission, yet here, next day, we had a small minded moron going out of her way to be unhelpful, and worse still, she didn’t have the gumption to ask me herself, she sent out some poor guy to do it for her. The look on his face showed how embarrassed he was to be asking me this, so I guzzled up the rubbery sandwich and got him off the hook by heading out to lift camp.
It was 8.30am. The sun was out over the little town of Galashiels, kids were making their way to school, cars were beginning to line the roads. I hooked up my pack onto the bike pannier, stopped at a garage to stock up on emergency water and snickers bars (they’ll always be called “Marathon”s to me – Marathons seemed to taste better), and I began the casual drift south along the A7.
The cycling day was mapped out into three sections, each twenty miles long. Galashiels to Hawick, Hawick to Longsands, Longsands to Carlisle. A generous couple of miles riding to each town, quick break, then off again. Should be in Carlisle for teatime.
But the sun was rising on a fresh Autumn day, and there was a brightness to the air that caught my throat as I moved along. It was the same light that lends a certain Golden quality to everything it touches, and I felt like a guy who’s just picked up a new pair of glasses, seeing leaves, blades of wheat, and shades of green as clear as daylight, as though for the first time.
I noticed, just as last night in Edinburgh, that it feels as though time and distance pass much more slowly when you’re leaving a town, only to speed up when you actually get out onto the road. The miles seem to pass with dedication and ease once out there, and after a while I forgot about keeping my legs pumping and allowed myself to take in the views and the scenery.
The fields on either side soon rolled away into the distance, tracing off down into some unseen valley and dipping upwards again on the other side, some distance away. It was a patchwork quilt of fields and bumps, like some giant had shaken the air from under a blanket on the bed and allowed it settle once more, unattended. Around ten miles from my starting point I noticed a dot in the air, way up high above the field on my right. It hovered there, motionless, then suddenly dropped almost too quickly to follow, and came up almost vertically, much closer, and slightly larger. This was my first sighting of a wild Peregrine Falcon, picking up some breakfast.
Any long distance cyclist will tell you that the key to it all lies in finding your rhythm – that comfortable pace that you settle into after a while where you don’t really notice that you’re pedaling and so can go for miles. Today, it took me a long time to find that – the wind I’d managed to avoid yesterday was now right in my face, and the whole country seemed to be going uphill. Still, there was no time limit beyond what I’d set myself, so when the going got too tough, I just got off and walked my load uphill, slugging at the water bottle as I went.
One of the straps on my guitar’s bag snapped from my shoulder as I was pulling into Hawick, and the whole bike suddenly became impossibly heavy on the left side. Too heavy, in fact, to keep going. I trudged into town, found a place for coffee and jam laden toast, and had a mooch around.
Hawick (pronounced “Hoick”) is a wonderfully self – contained place, that, unlike most towns, seems to have a well – developed sense of character. Folk were friendly, here, offering me cheery “Hallo”’s as I made my way along the main street, and the pubs (still closed at this time of morning) all resembled shop store fronts. It had the look of what American films presume Ireland to look like.
Whatever, it looked like a nice place to waste a day moving from pub to pub with good company, and I made a mental note to return here to do that at some point.
An hour later, and thanks to a very charitable named Sheona at Factory Fabrics, my gig bag was stitched back together, and after a couple of reports into my video diary, I was on the road once more.
The land along the A7 is wild, and unattended. You can cycle for a couple of hours without seeing a house, but when you do move past someone, they seem to greet you with a smile and cheerful courtesy. A far cry from living in a Northern English city. Maybe it stems from all pulling together up there, I don’t know. But it is a wonderful feeling when you’re up there, all alone, sweating out your fluids and feeling your breath grow short, knowing that the next person you see has likely got your back.
Case in point: the road from Hawick to Longsands passed without incident, although it was a long and hard one that took every inch of my mental strength to keep moving. The wind was unceasing, the road at times unflinching. My rhythm only really began to kick in around halfway there, and until that point, I was pretty much talking to the trees. The sight of the village of Longsands was only marginally less welcome than the sign advertising Ice Cream outside the Pelosis Café in the centre. I left Trigger against a table outside and sauntered in, my legs needing a moment or two to get their walking power back.
Within ten minutes of telling my story to the family that owned the place, I’d charged my phone, had free coffee, ice cream (I always have an ice cream every day I’m riding), free water to replace my battered old bottle, and they’d donated to the fund and signed the Torch guitar. “We don’t get much music around town”, they told me, and pointed out a hotel across the street where I HAD to play, next time I was up here. You’re damn right I made a promise that I’d be back.
And so, refreshed, and knowing the greater distance was behind me, I set sail for the last time that day on the road that would bring me back to England. I’d have loved to have stayed in Longsands and play, but I was making pretty good time and wanted to keep to a schedule I held in my head.
So the road went on and I moved along, a beacon in the sun, ever travelling uphill. The country stretched out, rolling under the occasional cloud, and the miles took their toll on my back. I was still in the frame of mind where I was trying to get somewhere quickly, and was determined to lose it and enter the one where I was just determined to get somewhere.
And then I hit the road into Dumfriesshire.
This was the turning point. England now lay a couple of miles away, and the road became swathed in tall pine trees at either side. And it now seemed to turn downhill, so much in fact that I freewheeled for a full minute or so before I had to pedal again. The tarmac would dip, then plateau, then dip down again, like the streets of San Francisco in Bullitt, and more than once I clung to my brakes when the bike began to wobble as it picked up speed.
I stopped just before the border and took a last look at Scotland. The sky lay overcast upon it, reminding me of a hundred childhood holidays sitting in cars, watching the rain drip down on the windscreen. I glided gently down into the hundred yards or so of no man’s land that lies between the sign saying “Welcome To Scotland” and the one displaying “Welcome To England”, and took a pee into the bushes there, wondering what country I was actually peeing into.
It was past five pm when I fought my way uphill in Carlisle and used my iphone to find a youth hostel for the night. Aside from a deer that stood in someone’s driveway as I whizzed past, the wilds and cheerful nodding had given way to lines of stationary traffics, beeping horns, and raised voices and middle fingers. Welcome back to England.
It had been less than 24 hours of cycling, but I stank like a BBC3 sitcom, and was grateful to throw my gear down somewhere and grab a shower. The girl at the Hostel’s reception, Becky, gave me a reduced rate when she heard my story and led me over to the underground bike lockup to put Trigger to bed for the night. As I locked Trigger’s frame to a railing alongside a row of mountain bikes, I repressed the urge to put a saddlebag over the front wheel. Hey, a cowboy’s got to look after his horse, right?
Showered and into clean clothes an hour later, I headed out into town in search of a Guinness and some food. I’ve learned to listen to my body on long trips, and right now my body wanted a Guinness and a kebab (grilled meat = protein). I took the guitar along in hopes of hitting up an Open Mic somewhere, but soon found, to my dismay, that Carlisle lacked any form of one. Or any dingy little pubs where I could play. “We just don’t do that sort of thing around here”, a helpful landlady exclaimed.
In fact, in my short experience of the place, I’d liken the people of Carlisle that I met to a Daily Mail reader chatting to their Muslim neighbour – they talked to me SLOWLY, quite LOUDLY, and with more than a touch of CONDESCENSION. I got the feeling that everybody was out to get what they could, in as short a time as possible, too – the guy in the kebab shop charged me 6.10 for a kebab that was advertised on the board as being 4.80. He took out a notepad and demonstrated to me that the extras were for salad and sauces, and I let it go, fearing it would come with free spitball if I queried further, despite the fact that the board stated “all our kebabs come with salad and sauce”.
After two pints, I felt quite lightheaded, and headed back to my room to eat. I ate like a wolf – no finesse, just tearing the food to pieces as quickly as I could and getting it into my body, before falling backwards onto the bed, wrapping the sheet around me, and falling into a deep sleep, the window left slightly ajar.
Tomorrow, I’d be aiming for Kendal, sixty odd miles away. But to get there, I had to get up a mountain.
And on the road ahead of me as I slept, waited Shap.
THINGS WE HAVE LEARNED TODAY:
– At least one member of the band Marillion must come from Galashiels, as the words to the song “Kaleigh” are set into the stone centerpiece in the middle of town.
– There’s a hell of a lot of roadkill on the A7 from Scotland.