The Great British Escape
Written by Aaron Rolph
Photography by The British Adventure Collective // Film by Perch
‘I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard ‘I can’t believe that photo was taken in the UK’, and yet the vast majority of us still look overseas for our summer adventures. With our strong holiday-abroad culture, we’re much more likely to have visited Malaga than Muckle Fugga, so when the privilege of international travel was abruptly revoked last year, I saw it as an opportunity to discover the amazing wild spaces our little islands have to offer.’
Born out of a lockdown daydream, my ‘Great Escape’ would involve cycling the length of the UK with the specific goal of exploring the most interesting parts of the outdoors. I wanted to immerse myself in these landscapes and keep the trip as varied as possible, so after some careful thought I came up with ten challenges to busy myself with along the way. The goal was not to race, nor merely complete an A-to-B route, but instead to experience the ultimate British Adventure. And the best bit? I managed to persuade my filmmaker friends, Perch, to come along for the ride.
My first realisation was that the LEJOG ride sticks to the British mainland, which frankly seems a waste – so off we went to the Scilly Isles, which lie beyond the Cornish coast in the most southwesterly point of the UK. Starting out in a kayak, my loyal paddling companion Ed and I paddled out of the sheltered waters and on towards the Western Rocks, where there is virtually no protection from the full wrath of the Atlantic. The waves came crashing down on us as we lost sight of each other regularly amidst the colossal swell rolling off the ocean. The gale-force wind continued to pick up but we made it out to these desolate jagged islets and back in a long and tense day.
Back on the mainland, I was relieved to be back within my comfort zone and on my fully laden bike, pushing off from Land’s End and heading north. Stopping off to see some friends for a surf in Newquay, I couldn’t quite believe the irony of how flat the water had become, but as a newbie to the world of surfing, perhaps that was no bad thing. Treated to some beautiful warm summer days, I then meandered my way through the southwest peninsula taking a mixed route to Dartmoor, climbing and camping on the highest peak in the south of England, High Willhays.
Despite fitness levels remaining low from lockdown, I started to find my rhythm a few days in and before long was crossing the Severn Bridge into Wales. The Taff Trail provided a beautiful canalside cycle route to Bike Park Wales, where I’d arranged to go downhill mountain biking for the day. Having been a committed mountain biker in my younger years, I was excited to get back in the saddle and test myself in this renowned Bike Park. After a few runs, I was feeling good and fancied a crack at the pro line, Enter the Dragon, which opens with a neat line of hipped doubles followed by a set of massive tabletop jumps. The first three of these went off without a hitch and I was ready to hit the 40-foot table, incoming fast. I was riding alone, so I’ll never know for sure exactly what happened, but the following seconds defined not only this trip but a significant period of my life.
Coming up a little short, my landing was too heavy and I was bucked over the bar, nosing manually towards the next takeoff. Somehow not managing to shave off any significant speed, I smashed into the bike and came to a very abrupt stop. The pain in my stomach was completely agonising, and yet I was still jumping up and down trying to ‘shake off’ whatever it was that hurt. After wriggling around for a while, it was clear the pain wasn’t going anywhere and, realising how alone I was at this point, I picked my bike up and hiked back up to the starting gate to find help. The pain was growing more intense. Reaching some people, I muttered as loudly as I could get the words out, ‘call an ambulance, please’ then dropped to the ground.
Despite barely a graze on the skin, it transpired in Cardiff Hospital that night that blunt trauma to the abdomen had severed my colon completely in half. The perpetrator? My bike saddle. This was to be my first ever hospital visit, but never one to do things by half, I was rushed into emergency surgery where thankfully everything went to plan. After six days of amazing NHS care, I hobbled out with a stomach inspired by the work of Dr Frankenstein, a positive prognosis, and ultimately a very lucky escape.
A year on, time had passed but very little had changed. Lockdowns had come and gone, but the desire to finish this Great Escape was just as strong as ever. I rallied the troops again and we arrived back at the scene of the crime to continue this big adventure. After caring for me during my recovery, my partner insisted I promise not to hit the jump in question, and although the temptation of redemption was strong, the decision was made even easier by strong winds and torrential rain. We did, however, enjoy some of the amazing trails on offer and I survived Bike Park Wales 2.0 without a scratch.
The excitement of the return was dampened by a week of unyielding downpours and cold temperatures. But riding through the undulating Welsh hills, I couldn’t help but find beauty in the rain and developed a pleasing, almost business-like rhythm towards each day. From Snowdonia across to the Peak District, then up through the Dales and into the Lakes, my only regret was to not do these areas justice for our film – but, I asked myself, what kind of British adventure would get perfect weather the whole time? Reaching my home turf (or at least where I grew up) in the Lake District, we were finally greeted by bright sunshine, a welcome treat for my 18km paddleboard down Lake Windermere. After camping in a portaledge high above Honister Slate Mine, I rode a wonderful off-road route north and east until reaching the forested shores of Kielder Water. As I crossed the border into Scotland, the quiet and smooth roads kept on coming all the way up to Edinburgh, and I was propelled by an overwhelming excitement to reach the Scottish Highlands.
Riding over the vast planes and into the deep valley of Glencoe, it was time to step away from the bike and climb some of the peaks that towered around us. Camping high on Am Bodach (943m), we were pummelled by the brutal winds all night, but I didn’t let a bad night’s sleep hamper my good mood. After a 4.30am alarm I packed up swiftly, jostling with the gusts, and set about running the Aonach Eagach ridge. The sunrise pinks eventually gave way to beautiful golden light, and I felt so lucky to be enjoying this stunning ridgeline that happens to be the longest in the UK. Making it over and down in just a few hours, I wasn’t done with the day yet, and cycled over to Fort William and onto the Nevis Range, in the hope of catching a late-season ski.
It was early June, and I was yet to see any evidence of decent snow., Everyone I passed clearly thought I’d lost it with skis on my back, but after a slog up Aonach Mòr, the snow-laden back corries finally came into view. I tentatively traversed around, keeping a watchful eye on the huge cornices that loomed over the face, but I managed to find a safe route through to the summit gully which, much to my surprise, delivered spring-skiing perfection. Rushing back round to the gondola proved to be a hilarious off-piste caper, but we made the last lift by just two minutes and were on our way toward the white sand beaches of Arisaig, after one of the best adventure days of my life.
We gunned for the Cuillin Ridge in one push, but the Isle of Skye decided it had other ideas. As is common on the Black Isle, dense clouds lingered over the peaks making for pretty treacherous conditions, so we rolled with what we were given and headed to the Fairy Pools for a swim and a whisky instead. The Cuillin Ridge would again have to wait for another day.
Following the westerly NC500 route, we were rewarded with day after day of stunning riding, taking plenty of time to deep-dive into the wild and dramatic landscapes along the way. Approaching the end of the mainland, there were still islands north to explore so we boarded a ferry to Orkney before continuing onto Shetland. Shetland is remote to the extreme and contrasts dramatically with the lush green landscapes of Orkney. The wind howled through these otherwise quiet lands where trees are unable to put down roots, and although the people were exceptionally friendly, there was an eerie quirk to these far-flung islands.
Reaching the most northeasterly point of the UK, we were taken aback by the vast and dramatic sea cliffs which dominate the northern shoreline. Despite the persistent clag, we were able to spot numerous puffins among the thousands of birds which nest here, and pulling up to the end of the land I took a moment to take it all in. This journey, born out of confinement, had proven to be a bumpy road, taking well over a year to get to this point. I had dreamt about arriving where the land meets the sea with nothing except ocean in front of me, and finally I’d made it. Undoubtedly this brought some closure to my accident, representing a new chapter for me, but as life resumes perhaps I’m not alone in turning a metaphorical page. The return of travel may well take some time, but British adventures are there for the taking – and there are no shortages of great escapes on offer.