I cycled on to Orkney and the Scottish Highlands, meeting artists, musicians, surfers and farmers. Even in the most remote corners of Britain, many people had been feeling just as anxious as me. Nevertheless, on the ground, in the flesh, our country was nowhere near as scary as the 10 O’clock news portrayed. Britain was muddling through.
On the scenic route through our green but fractured land, I immersed myself in nature. A roaring stag stopped me in my tracks near Ullapool, and we shared a fleeting gaze that has lingered in my mind’s eye since. Red kites escorted me across the border into England and when I finally reached Land’s End, at the southwest tip of Cornwall, grey seals cavorted in the swell before vanishing into a fizzing autumn sunset. Over the course of 1,307 miles, my pulse slowed and my breathing calmed.
But now, after two more lockdowns, I want to see Britain bounce back. Tomorrow I set off on Part Two: a 1,700-mile journey, all the way back to the top of Shetland. For the next six weeks I’ll be cycling around Britain at 10mph, asking hundreds of people thousands of silly questions. I’ll meet beach cleaners, publicans and ferry captains. I’ll chew the fat with chip-shop workers, lifeguards and spiritual healers.
Moving at a snail’s pace, I’ll have time to rearrange my thoughts in a way that plane, train and car travel don’t allow. I’ll be riding out the storm of this past year, meeting strangers I hope will become new friends. And by the time I reach the finish line, under the purple twilight of the summer solstice, I’ll have cycled 3,000 miles around pandemic Britain, at – I hope – the most tumultuous but fascinating period in our lives.