What does it mean to have the adventure of a lifetime? You might think of ‘finding yourself’ on a Thai beach, or backpacking around southern India, or canoeing the length of Brazil. But does adventure only count if you go somewhere far away?
In 2011, having never had a year out or taken more than a month away from my desk, I decided the time had come for me to have my adventure. My contract at work had come to an end; I would put off looking for a new job til later. There were many places on the list that I had never explored but one stood out above all others: Britain. Despite having lived here all my life, what did I really know about this island? Could I genuinely have the adventure of a lifetime without leaving these shores?
A keen cyclist, I had previously done some coastal cycling, glimpsing a tiny part of our beautiful and varied coastline. I decided I wanted to see it all, so I set out, on my bicycle, to ride around the entire coast of Britain.
What followed was the most startling journey of discovery. From London I traced the crinkled edges of Essex, Suffolk and Norfolk, across little-known rivers and through undisturbed nature reserves. The expansive plains of Lincolnshire gave way to the cliffs of Yorkshire, and I crept northwards along the Northumberland coast, famed for its castles, colonies of puffins and iconic islands. The east coast of Scotland was full of treasures I couldn't have anticipated: the historic architecture and buzz of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, the expansive sand dunes at Forvie, the pretty harbours at Dunbar and Stonehaven, and the wild approach to John o’ Groats. Then came the mountainous north and west coast, where the wide open skies and endless backdrop of peaks were like nothing I had ever seen before. The west coast fishing towns of Mallaig and Oban stick in the memory for their charm and delicious catering. Then it was back to the windswept and dramatic Cumbrian coast, and on to Wales where overheard conversations in the local bakery made me feel like a foreigner even in my own home land. And beyond that, Somerset, Devon and Cornwall, where the sun shone on a turquoise sea and the pace of life seemed to slow down. There’s a reason the south west of England is such a popular tourist destination: the weather was glorious, the sea irresistible, and while the terrain was among the most challenging of the whole trip, it was more than made up for by the views.
We often hear about the kindness of strangers in far off lands, but that kindness is universal. I met plenty of generous, open people during my journey, from the lady who insisted I come in for a cup of tea as I cycled past her house, to the strangers who gave me a bed for the night, the tea shop owner who gave me a bag of fudge for the road, and the many people who supported me online and came to ride with me a little way.
I arrived back in London after two and a half months on the road and more than 4000 miles pedalled. The journey had ticked all the boxes of what adventure should be: discovering new places and experiencing new things, taking on a challenge (and getting a great tan). More than that, I learned a huge amount about myself. Those endless days on the road with only the buzzards or perhaps a deer for company were precious time alone with my thoughts, and I had the mental space to reassess what was important. Even though I had never been more than a train ride away from home, I felt absolutely removed from real life.
Most significantly, it cemented the idea that adventure is what you make of it, not where you go. It doesn’t have to involve somewhere far away. Adventure is about broadening our horizons, but that can mean anywhere – even in the country in which we were born. For me, it was about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary, and it certainly did that; I absolutely fell in love with Britain, and know that there is still as much to discover as I have already seen. We tend to overlook what's under our noses, but it's a truly fascinating, varied and exciting island we live on.
Anna Hughes is author of Eat Sleep Cycle: a bike ride around the coast of Britain. Read more on her website: annacycles.co.uk