If you had asked me last week whether it would be meteorologically possible to be cycling into a head wind for all but about a mile and a half of a 150 mile round trip route I’d have scoffed and told you ‘of course not!’ But that was before we cycled The Four Abbeys route in the Borders last weekend, a 55-mile route bookended by a day cycling to the Borders from Edinburgh, and another day to get back to the capital afterwards.
We knew that strong winds were forecast – we could see lots of tightly-packed arrows and numbers in their 20s as we watched the forecast the night before we set off – but at least it would remain dry. Our trip had been months in the planning and our Airbnb house was booked and paid for, so we were going, regardless.
There’s a palpable sense of freedom associated with setting off for three days by bike, especially when our party of six had been liberated of the weight of panniers by a fairy helper delivering our bags to our accommodation and collecting them at the end. But the real freedom comes from miles of unexplored roads ahead, and of the rivers and contours of the map coming to life at the turn of every corner as we spun our pedals.
Edinburgh was our starting point. Mr Marr and I threw our bikes into the back of the car on Thursday night and drove down the A9 to stay with our cycling friends. Over carb-heavy chilli for dinner the main topic of conversation – apart from the weather – was which route to choose; the busy but direct A7 to Galashiels? Or the prettier (but 15 miles longer and considerable hillier) National Cycle Route 1 over sparsely populated moors to Innerleithen, then along the cycle paths criss-crossing the Tweed to our destination? The 50 miles of hills won the toss, bravado and fresh legs paying little heed to the gruelling 60 miles that Day 2 would bring.
As for Day 2, if ‘moderate’ is the official description for the Four Abbeys Cycle route, they’re made of sterner stuff down south than I thought. The round trip which takes in the ruined abbeys of Melrose, Dryburgh, Kelso and Jedburgh climbs more than the combined hills of the punishing Etape Loch Ness, and rises almost to the summit of the Eildon Hills which form the backdrop to Melrose. That final assault on the legs, coming 52 miles into the 55 mile route (our trip was 60+ miles because we were staying in nearby Galashiels), is brutal. But the free-wheel back down to the town was mightily exhilarating.
Cycling in the Borders is very different to cycling in the Highlands. The landscape is softer and more lush, with noticeably fewer lochs and heather, and with castles and stately homes around every corner. We passed racecourses and the stables of fine horses, golf courses, and ice rinks, leisure centres and playparks galore. And there was a feeling of more affluence than the Highlands enjoy – the towns were awash with interesting and quirky independent shops selling clothes, art, deli-food and high-end homewares, and the cafes and restaurants were full to bursting – if we hadn’t booked, we’d struggle to get a table.
Perhaps this is what the NC500 will bring to the north of Scotland. With investment in infrastructure (the impact of the newly opened Borders Railway is evident) there was life and vibrancy, and we were passing through at the perfect speed to lap it all up.
It’s a privilege to explore new areas of our glorious country, and a privilege, at 50, to still be fit enough to cycle 150 miles in three days. I’ll be back to the Borders – there is much more than we saw, I am sure.
But they really need to do something about the wind – or at least stop it from shifting around so it was always in our faces. Or so it seemed. My lungs registered the struggle and my legs were in full agreement.
Can you help to Rally Round Rona?
You may remember my friend Rona; I wrote about her a few weeks ago, after she befriended fellow MS sufferer Colin Campbell. Colin had booked himself into a clinic in Switzerland and was planning to complete his life on 15th June, but thanks to Rona’s intervention he decided not to travel, and is looking into options which will enhance the quality of his life.
Colin is giving back to Rona – he passed her details of his research into stem cell therapy treatment in Mexico. Not currently available in the UK this is a month-long treatment which offers hope of halting the progress of the disease’s cruel symptoms.
Rona is a young woman – she celebrated her 50th last year – and her children are still at school. She is aware that the treatment is not a cure for Multiple Sclerosis, but some patients have reported improvement of their symptoms and a few have experienced a complete reverse.
The cost of the treatment is £60 000, a sum which is beyond Rona’s family. But an online fundraising page has been set up, allowing friends, family and those who have been touched by her story, and her kindness towards Colin, to donate should they choose to do so. Even a little could go a long way towards helping this remarkable woman gain a new lease of life.
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This column first appeared in six SPP Group newspapers week ended 30th June 2017.