The foreigner’s guide to cycle-touring in the UK

Time for a tongue-in-cheek look at foreigners cycle touring in the UK. Now the UK is exquisitely beautiful and it’s no wonder it receives so many tourists. The main island itself is small, and is little over 800 miles from end to end, making it perfect for cycle touring. Indeed, one of the most iconic of British bicycle rides is the End To End. This ride either starts in the south (Land’s End) and finishes in the north (John O’Groats) when it’s abbreviated as LEJOG, or it starts in the north and finishes in the south, when it’s referred to as JOGLE.

There exists something called – somewhat optimistically – the National Cycle Network, or NCN for short, created by a charity called Sustrans. NCN routes are numbered, and vary massively in quality. For example, NCN 27 (also known as Devon Coast To Coast) is mostly on good paths, most of which are tarred. Some NCN routes however, will take you through virtual swamps, deep mud, or worse. As a result, before planning any route that includes NCN segments, try to speak to locals first, to avoid losing a shoe while struggling to push a laden bike through the mud.

If you arrive in the UK from almost anywhere in Africa, much of Europe, Asia, the Americas, or Australia, you will at times feel like you’ve landed in Legoland, as everything is so tiny by comparison. The first and most important thing you need to learn about rural British roads is that when the dotted (or solid) white lines in the middle of the road disappear, it’s mostly because the road will have become too narrow for two cars to pass each other. In almost any other country, they’d widen the road at such places, but the British appear to be emotionally attached to their road narrowings, and consider these to be part and parcel of their particular quirkiness.

When you combine these narrow rural lanes with the growing love affair the British have for oversized SUV’s, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that gridlock often follows. There appears to be a direct link between the size of the car a person drives, and their inability to reverse with that car.

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Given that many rural lanes are so narrow an SUV (Sports Utility Vehicle, according to car makers, but really it’s short for Stupidly Unnecessary Vehicle) will simultaneously be brushing the hedges on either side with the wing mirrors, with distances often of half a mile between small road widenings, called “passing places”, you’d expect British drivers to be fantastic at reversing, but sadly that’s not the case.

Most British drivers appear to suffer from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde personality problems – when outside and away from their cars, they tend to be lovely people (there are exceptions, called “gammons”) but the moment they’re back in their car, they become self-entitled and extremely selfish. Oh, and despite the average Brit’s love of history, they also love to pretend they pay something called “road tax”, despite that having been scrapped over 80 years ago.

The UK, Great Britain and England are not the same thing, either. Great Britain is made up of three nations: the English, the Welsh (who mostly live in Wales) and the Scots, who mostly live in Scotland. The UK is made up of Great Britain, and Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is the part of Ireland that the British never gave back when Ireland became independent, and that’s caused a great deal of upset on both sides ever since. If cycle touring in Northern Ireland, I suggest you plead ignorance, and don’t offer an opinion on that.

The English like to pretend to hate the Welsh, the Scots and the Irish (northern, or not) but mostly that’s just bluster. English people are, with some exceptions, very friendly and kind. Oh, they claim to hate foreigners, but most of those who claim that would tell you that they don’t mean you, only other foreigners, which is nice of them, isn’t it?

The English are very good at playing football (soccer, to most of you) but the England team’s fans seem to think that ending up as second best in the world is something to feel angry about and ashamed of. They did win big in 1966, so even if you weren’t born by then, just throw in sentences like “Oh, but that ’66 world cup final was such a brilliant match!” and most English football fans will treat you like a prodigal son or daughter.

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The Welsh may treat you with suspicion, until your accent reveals that you’re not English, and then they’d welcome you with open arms. Yes, despite being foreign. Oh, and only as long as you remain quiet about the 1966 England football match. Or any Wales-England football match. And praise the Welsh rugby team!

The Scots have a reputation as being fierce and quarrelsome, but in my experience, they’re the friendliest of all the British people. Yes, even to foreigners. In fact, often even to the English! Just a friendly warning: if a Scottish person asks if you support Rangers or Celtic (two football teams) plead ignorance, and say you only understand rugby, or only follow swimming. That might save you from what could have been an unpleasant experience, if your answer was not what the asker wanted to hear!

Oh, and feel free to slag off Donald Trump while in Scotland – it’s sure to win you friends. If you actually like Trump, what are you doing reading this blog when you still have your 400+ assault rifles to clean?

As for the cycle touring, I can tell you now that, outside of urban areas, there is nowhere in the UK that isn’t stunning. When I first arrived here, I was overwhelmed by how incredibly green everything is. I soon found out why, and that’s why I will tell you that a decent, waterproof cycling rain coat is essential, as sooner or later you’ll get rained on.

British drivers mostly don’t like coming closer than 1 metre from the hedges growing by the side of the road. This is important to you, as it means most UK drivers tend to stick to main roads. When you consider that the county of Devon alone has more miles of road than all of Belgium, the benefits become apparent: most rural lanes are lovely and quiet.

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As a rule, stay away from any road that has a route number starting with A, such as the A379 or the A386. Unless you have a death wish, and want first-hand experience of the Mr Hyde side of the average British driver’s personality. In fact, whenever possible, stay away from routes with a route number starting with B, as even those are becoming unpleasant.

You see, despite the island not having grown at all, there are now millions more cars on the road in the UK than there were just 20 years ago. Not only that, the cars themselves are bigger, taking up far more road space.

The British have unusual relationships with some foreign nationalities. If you’re from the USA, prepare to be (justifiably) criticised for your gun laws. If you’re from New Zealand, expect dirty looks for the English, Welsh and Scottish rugby teams’ inability to have much success against the All Blacks. If you’re South African, and the average Brit brings up rugby, try to not be too smug about the number of times the Springboks beat the British teams. Finally, if you’re Australian, just pretend to laugh along when called a “convict”, while inwardly smirking that many British drink Foster’s lager, and are under the impression that it’s good Australian beer.

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