How do you fancy seeing Britain by bike for your next holiday? Travel author Steven Primrose-Smith has published a book, Route Britannia, The Journey South, that could inspire you to get into the saddle. He’s returned from living abroad and has re-familiarised himself with the UK by cycling 5,000 miles around all 97 counties in Britain! I asked him why he’d done it and what he’d discovered along the way.
“I’ve not lived in Britain for twenty years, so part of the trip was to reacquaint myself with the country and to see if it was as terrible a place as the internet and the media likes to portray it,” Steven told me, before adding, “And it’s not, it’s lovely.”
He says the book isn’t really aimed at cycling enthusiasts but more about the experiences he had along the route. “There are a lot of people who hate cyclists so I tried not to make it particularly about cycling. It’s more about the places and the people that I meet.”
Visiting so many parts of the UK seemed like a logistical nightmare, so I asked Steven how he went about organising his route. “I don’t really like planning things, so I just looked at the order that I needed to do the counties in the most efficient way, then asked friends and people on cycling forums for their recommendations,” he said. “Each day I got up and tried to see as many of the places that they talked about.”
Steven told me he tried to avoid the obvious tourist spots and instead looked for things that were quirkier or more unusual. And that included some eccentric museums. “I visited the Lawnmower Museum in Southport and the Gnome Reserve in Devon,” he laughed. “They’ve got something like 2,000 gnomes and there’s also a fairy garden. I think it’s more for kids but it was interesting.”
During his ride, he says he found that many towns in modern Britain were all very similar – what he calls ‘anytowns’ in the book. “They were just replicated. They had exactly the same shops – so Stafford was the same as Taunton – and that’s really dull.” But he told me there were still plenty of highlights on the route too. “The towns that stand out are the ones that had some originality. My favourite was Brighton. You get this sense that you can be as weird as you want in Brighton and no one would bat an eyelid because in a minute you’ll see someone weirder. I liked that bravado.”
And Steven felt a few other places had that feeling. “There were certain towns that have tried to retain a sense of their own identity, like Glastonbury. If you walk down its high street you find shops there that you won’t find anywhere else. Eton as well. I don’t think it had a single chain store. It’s nice when those towns try to hold on to that because so many places have let it go completely.”
But there was one place that provided the biggest surprise for Steven – the small town of Ullapool in northwest Scotland. “It was somewhere I’d heard of but didn’t want to go because I’d imagined it to be a smelly old fishing town,” he explained. “But it was absolutely gorgeous. If there’s one place I’d live in Britain, it would be there.”
I asked Steven why Ullapool had made such an impression on him. “It had lots of local businesses and the people I met were really friendly. It had some interesting history too. In the 1980’s, the mackerel caught there was being processed by huge factory ships from Russia and Korea. The local museum has recordings showing how the locals interacted with these foreign people and it seemed like a very welcoming community. That’s nice, especially in this age of Brexit.”
So where else in the UK is particularly good for cycling? “North Wales around Snowdonia is always lovely, and the Lake District obviously. The coast around Scarborough in North Yorkshire was stunning too. But you can’t beat northwest Scotland, again around Ullapool. There was one day when I had a continuous twenty-mile stretch of road without a single settlement. You don’t associate that with Britain, which is usually densely populated.”
I asked Steven whether there were any areas that are particularly tough going? “The most difficult cycling is in Devon and Cornwall,” he replied. “The hills aren’t that big but the gradients are ridiculous. I don’t understand why they have these 20% hills when the Alps don’t need them!”
After visiting every single county in Britain, I assumed Steven would have noticed differences in the way people behave in different parts of the country. But he told me it was less about geography and more about wealth. “Places that had money were less friendly. As soon as I crossed over from Manchester to Cheshire, where the footballers live and there are nice houses, instantly the drivers treated me differently on the road. And in the southeast, you get a lot of people who just seem to be angry. They overtake and rev their engines. People seem less happy there.”
Although Steven is British, his time abroad has given him the chance to look at his homeland with outsider’s eyes. And he says Brits can be quite negative about the country, which is sometimes self-defeating. “There’s that book called ‘Crap Towns’ which lists about thirty places that are the worst in Britain,” said Steven. “So many people complained that their town wasn’t included that they’ve now done two more versions of the book. I wanted to go and see the country as positively as possible. While in a few places I was defeated, like the southeast, it’s still a good place in general.”
Route Britannia, The Journey South covers the first part of Steven’s journey across Britain and is available on Amazon. The second part, The Journey North, will be available later this year.