Cycle touring the UK – a post just for Americans
The USA is an extremely varied country, and in that respect, Americans are so spoilt for choice when they go cycle touring. The average American cycle tourer can effectively choose the climate they want to go cycle touring in, because the country is so large. And yet, despite that variety of climate, terrain and regional accent, everything will still be as familiar to an American cycle tourist as their home town. Because of this, many Americans look beyond the USA’s borders for adventure, and the logical option is for them to come and explore the UK.
The United Kingdom
Let’s clear up some confusion, to start with. The United Kingdom is made up of 4 nations: England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is the biggest of the British Isles, and most of England, Wales and Scotland is on that larger island. When to speak of Great Britain, you’re referring to just that larger island. When you refer to England, you’re referring to just one part of that island. (I’m ignoring the many smaller islands here for the sake of this explanation, and Barra remains a part of Scotland just like the Isle of Wight remains part of England). All this will become more relevant later on.
If you do decide to come cycle touring in the UK, and I hope you do, the very first thing you need to be prepared for is how much smaller things are. You will feel like you’re in Toy Town sometimes. This may seem alluring, but has practical implications, especially on the roads, where often there isn’t much space at all. You see, in the US, you’re mostly used to very wide roads. A typical rural road in the US will have a wide verge, too. That’s not the case in the UK. In fact, when the white lines (dotted or solid) in the middle of the road suddenly disappear, it’s mainly because the road isn’t wide enough to allow two cars to pass each other.
You may need to adjust how you cycle, as a result of this. For example, where the road isn’t wide enough for cars to give you a wide, safe overtake, it’s recommended (by the UK government!) that you cycle in the middle of the lane. That’s known as “primary position”. You should also ride in primary when approaching junctions, or cycling past parked cars. The British people are usually quite fond of Americans, and I suggest you display a Stars And Stripes flag on the rear of your panniers.
Though both countries speak English, there’s still a huge difference. For example, what you call the “sidewalk” in the USA over here is known as the “pavement”. Pavement usually means something different to you. Some brand names you will recognise, but many others will be new to you. I expect you will be surprised by just how large the culture gap is, and that’s before we factor in regional accents. Expect to have trouble understanding the locals in various parts of the UK. What they call English will be massively different to your idea of English.
Be prepared for a major culture shock. A shared language doesn’t mean the USA and the UK are alike at all. Generally, the British quite like Americans, but do refrain from telling them how much bigger/better things are in the USA. Also, don’t criticise the UK – you’re here to experience the culture, not to denigrate it. In the UK, we pronounce route as “root” and we call faucets taps. Don’t try to correct anyone – you’ll be the tourist, so just go with the flow. Also, a “bank holiday” is what you call a public holiday.
If you travel to Wales, be prepared for road signs in Welsh and English. Many people in Wales speak Welsh as their first language. In Scotland, some people still speak Gaelic, and even when they don’t, Scottish English can be very different to anything you’re used to.
The Tourist Trail
To go cycle touring is to be a tourist. It really is that simple. You should read my Rules For Being A Tourist. As an American, you will probably want to see Buckingham Palace for yourself. London has several very popular tourist attractions, and I expect you’ll want to take plenty of photos. However, I suggest you escape London as soon as you can. If you want to experience the real Britain, you will want to go rural. I would strongly suggest catching a train to Bristol, then doing the Somerset Circle route. It will take you through a beautiful landscape, and quaint villages. You’ll have the opportunity to marvel at the cathedral in Wells. Wells is England’s smallest city, and parts of the cathedral are over 1000 years old.
The Legal Stuff
US citizens typically don’t require a visa to visit the UK. As a tourist, you can enter the UK for up to six months, but there are a few exceptions, so do check before travelling. The UK measures distance in miles, and speed in mph, so you’ll already be comfortable with that. Almost everything else will probably fall outside your comfort zone. For starters, we measure temperature in Celsius. In fact, only the USA and Liberia use Fahrenheit – the rest of the planet uses Celsius. Weight is measured in kilogrammes, pounds, or more often, in stones. Stones is a very archaic unit of measure that you’ll struggle with. Apparently, 1 stone equals 14 pounds. Where you may describe a large man as weighing 140 pounds, the British will usually say he’s 10 stone. Beer is served in pints, or half-pints. The USA also uses pint as a measure, but a US pint is 16 fluid ounces (473 millilitre to the rest of the planet) while British pints are 20 fluid ounces (568 millilitre). In simple terms, if you can drink 10 pints back home, and remain standing, don’t think you can manage the same here. Ten pints over here is more than 13 pints back home.
Police in the UK are radically different to what you’re used to. For starters, the vast majority of them carry no guns. Also, British police usually prefer to de-escalate a situation, which involves talking people down. It can at times make them seem a bit soft, but never make the mistake of thinking that. After all, despite being unarmed, they always run towards trouble. De-escalation is just a far more civilised way of dealing with people, and results in far fewer people getting shot. If you’re in trouble, or even just lost, feel free to approach the nearest cop – they’re normally very friendly and helpful.
Cycling on the pavement (sidewalk, remember?) is against the law, but police are advised to ignore it, provided you do so slowly and responsibly. Yes, that does mean stopping and giving way to pedestrians. Confusingly, many pavements are marked as “shared paths” on which you may legally cycle. These are usually indicated by a small, circular blue sign, showing a bicycle and a pedestrian. Other ways of showing it is bicycle signs painted on the pavement. Important: in the UK, we drive on the left! This will catch you out, and applies not only to the roads. If there’s an oncoming cyclist on a narrow path, they will move to their left, and you need to move to your left.
Ordinarily, I suggest people go wild-camping when cycle touring. However, if you’re an American tourist, I suggest you avoid camping altogether. Instead, stay in what we call Bed & Breakfast places (B&B), or better yet, in old coaching inns along the way. Such inns have a bar, and it’s there that you will be exposed to the locals in ways that otherwise would be difficult. If you can, try to avoid hotel chains, as the experience will be bland, compared to staying in pubs or inns.
Seriously, if you want a wonderful adventure, come cycle-touring in the UK. You will love it!