Travel in a time of Covid
Like for so many people this year, holidays have been put on hold for me and my friend Tim, another round-Britain cyclist, who had plans to ride the Baltic coast this summer. My own trips included cycling down to the Black Forest in Germany. ‘Do you fancy five days in the Cairngorms?’ he asked. Of course I said yes: riding through the mountains in Scotland is one of my favourite things to do, and this was a place I'd never been.
At a time when crossing borders means you might not be able to return home, or face quarantine when you do, perhaps staying in the UK makes the most sense. I have long been an advocate of UK exploration. Having foresworn air travel over a decade ago because of the climate crisis, it’s an obvious destination if you want to avoid a flight. But more than that – there is so much to explore here. Even after having cycled many thousands of miles all over this island, and travelled extensively by other means including train, coach and boat, there is still as much to see as I've already seen. Each trip is guaranteed to have something that takes my breath away. This would certainly be the case with the Cairngorms.
Travel in a time of corona is strange. Words and breath lay trapped behind my mask as we manhandled our bicycles onto the Caledonian Sleeper at Euston. The closed restaurant car meant it was a cabin picnic, with the map spread on the bunks. We talked long into the evening, giddy with wine and travel plans, until the rhythm of the train saw us off to sleep. This is the beauty of overnight travel: boarding in one city and waking in the next. A moving hotel. Earplugs and an eye mask would have made for a more sound night’s sleep, but the excitement of waking in the midst of mountains just south of Inverness soon erased any lingering tiredness.
Our plan was to spend a day riding eastwards along the coast before heading inland into the mountains. The Moray Firth gradually widened as we struck down roads we both would surely have ridden before on our respective coastal trips, yet within a couple of hours we were asking each other, ‘Are you sure we rode the coast?!’ None of it looked familiar.
A road looks different in reverse, when you aren’t battling a headwind. And this was a meander rather than a ride: a quick pitstop by the mudflats in Ardersier, a jaunt out to Fort George, and tea and cake on Nairn harbour front watching the waves make light impressions upon piles of sand dunes. Neither of us had realised there were such extensive sands at Nairn, or even a harbour, or in fact a fort at Fort George at all.
The biggest revelation was Lossiemouth: our lasting impression of this little town had been the RAF base. With our more relaxed schedule we took the sharp descent to the shore to find a yacht-filled harbour and a stretch of sand dunes making their way east from the river mouth – the Lossie, of course, another aspect that neither of us had seen. We sat overlooking the water and shook our heads at each other. Did we really cycle all the way around Britain and miss this? What more had we missed? Would we have to ride the whole thing again just to check?
But days on the road in a multi-day tour are different. Moods vary massively – sometimes you just want to get there, happy with the views over the sea as you speed to your next stop. At other times there’s plenty of meandering and gawping. There is no ‘right' way to cycle tour. And it's almost impossible to see everything at first hit. I have always maintained that there is a lifetime of exploration right here in Britain. And revisiting that tiny stretch of Britain’s coast confirmed that there is always more to discover – even in places that you have visited before.
Rolling my tent back into its bag sparked a rush of affection for this little cocoon of warmth and shelter. It felt time-warpish that the space that had sustained me through the night, my little tardis of rest, had been folded out of the scene, and would re-emerge at our next camping spot. I never used to be much of a camper – on the round-Britain trip I worked hard to arrange all my accommodation in advance so I had a hot shower and duvet each night – but have since discovered the joys of sleeping under canvas. To carry your home with you gives the ultimate freedom. I suspect that my past reluctance came from not having the right kit, so for me it’s a roll mat AND a blow-up mattress, and a proper Mountain Equipment sleeping bag. For this trip I even brought the feather pillow from my bed.
In Scotland ‘wild' camping is widely permitted. Towards the end of each day we would ask the locals, “Where do people camp?” then follow their directions to the edge of a riverside field, or a secluded clearing by a loch. There was no need for a shower as the fresh, cool waters of the lochs and rivers would clean our skin of the grime of the day. We sat on rocks, drank whisky and watched the sun go down. In those places the darkness was profound.
‘Wild’ camping is something that all people should have access to, and in the absence of foreign travel, lockdown has tempted many people into the wilds of the UK to pitch their tents. But most of the news coverage has been about the disrespect shown to the surroundings, with litter, bottles and food wrappers frequently left behind – and in some cases beach towels, chairs, and even tents and gazebos. As we cycled through the pristine land in the Cairngorms, where one may (within reason) elect to sleep wherever they chose, we couldn’t help wonder if this behaviour is a result of not having a true connection with the land. If it’s forbidden, fenced off, we see it as something separate to us. We don’t understand it. We don’t understand how mistreating it affects us – or we don't care.
If, on the other hand, roaming freely is something we grow up with, we’re more likely to respect the land and treat it like our own property. If Scottish-style land laws were applied in England and Wales, how would that affect our relationship with nature? So many of our climate problems come from thinking we are somehow separate to the natural world. The truth is, everything we do and everything we own is derived from what the planet can provide. We are not superior to it, and thinking that we are is largely what has got us to this point of climate crisis. Perhaps now is the time to focus on reconnecting with the natural world that sustains us.
After two days we hit the snow roads, the winding routes that snake ever northwards to the ski centres at Lecht and Glenshee, the two highest road passes in the UK, where heather paints the hills and pheasants are more numerous than cars. Tim had ridden the Lecht before and had sent me enticing pictures showing blue skies with vivid greens and purples on the slopes. There’s almost no chance it will be like that again, I thought, especially as we'd already had two unexpectedly sunny days, contrary to what our weather apps said. The rain would surely come.
And come it did in ferocious measure, just as we reached Tomintoul, with thunder breaking the sky every few minutes. We took rooms in the pub while the storm raged. But in the morning the clouds cleared and we were once more left with unencumbered sunshine. The road wandered alongside rock-filled streams in which we dipped our hot feet, and the slopes rose either side, brushed with purples and greens and browns. The ascents were slow, determined affairs, the descents full-throated – though Tim’s descents were a little more full-throated than mine. Every so often a snow barrier standing open would remind us that these roads are impassable in poor weather – an indication of how high we really were.
Aviemore is the place to go if you want to access the mountains, and we stopped there for breakfast one day, overwhelmed by the number of people after several days of seclusion. But it wasn't as busy as it might have been in normal times. The Cairngorms is classic tourist territory: a sunny week in Scotland would usually bring people in their droves. But for the past few days we’d been riding through towns empty of people, pubs with only a couple of travellers rattling around in them, and hotels with unseasonal vacancies.
When we talk about the devastating effect coronavirus has had on tourism, we forget that our own tourism suffers, too. Perhaps a positive of this enforced break from air travel will be that more of us discover that much of what we seek from travel can be found right here. Five day’s cycling in the Cairngorms had it all: picture-perfect scenery, sand dunes, mountainscapes and river swims, great food and drink, and good company. Isn’t this why we travel? To see new places and spend good times with great friends?
I guess the main consideration for many people in choosing a holiday destination is being able to guarantee the weather – something that you can famously rarely do in the UK. And our few days in the Cairngorms was no exception: though we had both brought full waterproofs and woolly hats, they stayed firmly in the bag.