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  • Isabel Steele

Cycling John O’Groats to Land’s End for Beat Eating Disorders

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

This blog is about as long as the cycle itself so feel free to dip in and out, free-wheel the pictures, or skip to the section on inspiration, route, people, landscapes or food - enjoy!

The inspiration

I’ll forever remember that moment, sat on the rocks with Josh, overlooking Falmouth Bay. The ocean swept kelp to cerulean depths, out to a blended haze, sea to sky. Despite this scene, I felt overwhelmed with stress, slouched by a relapse in my eating disorder and wondering how I was going to cope with the paralysing assignments I had coming up. Months of external pressure and unrealistic expectations had taken their toll. Sailing ships bloomed white in the breeze like vessels of freedom I couldn’t reach and I struggled to rationalise my thoughts as everyone else summered around me. I sat there with Josh and he asked me,


“Among all this uncertainty, what are you sure about?


I think it was one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked. After some tentative, strained answers, I realised the truest response in that moment was: enough is enough. I am sure I am stronger than what I was going through and that there is a happier level of existence waiting for me. Beyond all the chaos and online snare of today’s world, I am sure of my place in nature. That whatever I’ve been going through, I can find peace and confidence out in the hills, diving in the ocean or watching the sky tilt light from the clouds. And I am sure that I need to return to the traveller, the adventurer, the woman who wants to explore her boundaries and then go further.

As Josh told me about his John O’Groats to Land’s End cycle ten years ago, how the landscapes transformed and the people inspired, I felt a shift within me to pure excitement. I was sure in that moment that I wanted to do the same. To return to what I do best, adventuring new lands off my own steam, restoring faith in my own body. I was sure I needed to remove all external pressure, to listen to my own intuition, and to try and pass a smile to those I met along the way. And what better way to travel Great Britain than on two wheels?

Taken not far from where we sat, making the decision to go for it.

Two days later I was on the train to Thurso, embarking on the most emotional, challenging and healing journey I’ve ever experienced. Cycling the length of Great Britain, to be a voice for taking ownership of our happiness, prioritising our health and recovery, and believing that we have the strength to become everything we need to be. Today, a week after my return home, I am sure that this is one of the best decisions I ever made.

Any hydration problems solved by the amazing group of rugby players, Maul Together, who passed over one of their bottles at the finish. They'd just finished the cycle themselves as part of a series of challenges raising over £43,000 so far for My Name's Doddie Foundation and Matt Hampson Foundation. The team ethos went all the way today! Check them out at https://www.maultogether.co.uk


The route


‘Cycling the length of Great Britain between the two extremities of Land’s End in the southwest and John O’Groats in the northeast is a challenge that many cyclists aspire to at least once in their lifetime. There is no official route to follow and what happens in between is entirely up to you’ (Cicerone Guidebook, 2021).

With much help from my technophile partner, we downloaded the 14-stage Cicerone GPX maps to my phone late that night, using the Apple app, ‘BikeGPX’. The routes vary from 60 to 90 miles and use GPS tracking for very easy navigation. I’ll say from the get-go that these maps proved indispensable, as to keep to cycle-safe roads, a complex network of bike paths and country lanes are smoothed together. I’d have taken a lot longer if I didn’t have this digital aid; they took the pressure off and allowed me to enjoy the views and experience more freely.

Most days I strung a couple of them together, averaging 100 miles, appreciating the variation of coastal roads, canal paths, national parks and southern valleys. Certain sections are more challenging, especially through industrial areas and city centres, albeit useful for proper refuelling and bike repair shops. All stages end somewhere with a range of shops and accommodation, which I used on numerous nights to wash kit, get some sleep and catch up with family.


When bivvy-bagging, you can simply camp up where your heart’s content in Scotland, then find stealthy hedgerows or woodland in the UK. I detoured around Devon and Cornwall to visit Josh and family, and took multiple explorations off route to find swim spots in Scotland and the Lake District. The route really is up to you! Overall, I would highly recommend this Cicerone guide; it kept me very safe and wheeled me through lush landscapes beginning to end.

My packing list at the beginning. The contents of the panniers shifted as the miles ticked down, from midge repellent in Scotland to body tape for my chaffed butt by day 7, but the main items like bivvy bag and notepad prevailed.


The people


As I said in one of my posts, the adventure itself is the essence of the trip but the people you share it with are what make it worth remembering. I started the trip nervous and shivering at John O’Groats, thinking ‘what the hell have I got myself into?’ and wheeled into Land’s End eleven days later, full of love, friendship and support, in awe of the strength in our community. Kind, inspirational souls are everywhere if you take the time to open up to people, hear their stories and let them in to yours.

I met up with the wonderful Hannah Hartley and Alasdair Bisset in Scotland, who rode ten miles with me and gave me confidence in the journey ahead, both avid adventurers themselves. A last minute Airbnb booking brought us to Lorna in East Calder who welcomed us in and fed us well. I ran into the Mayor of Keswick, Alan Dunn, who provided enough banter to fuel me to Bristol. The owner of The Swan in Thornbury, herself raising over £100,000 for various local charities, shared her story over breakfast, breaking our hearts and then bolstering them again with her resilience. Mag, who I crossed along the canal paths, gave me so much faith in the kindness of strangers. We exchanged details so I can now follow his own fundraising journey.


I was also lucky enough to have Dad and Fiona travelling down England at the same time so we met up twice for morale boosters, huge dinners and comfy beds! Meeting Josh in Crediton and again in Kingsbridge kept me strong, especially when I found out his work trip was delayed and he'd be cycling the last day with me! And I am so grateful to have had Mum ride the King Harry Ferry to Falmouth section with me, on my worst, most tearful day.

And to all the other people who made this trip a real adventure, thank you! To Betty Steinhauer who I met on the 4 hour train from Inverness to Thurso, distracting me from my nerves with stories from Canada. To Anna McNuff who gave me unforgettable words of encouragement when I ran into her in Gloucester. To Hannah’s family who offered a bed and breakfast in Penrith. To the man who took pity on me and gave me a double portion of hot tatty on the Royal Mile. To the man who shared the love for cycle touring in Fowey and paid for my ferry. To Josh who planted this seed of adventure, and believed in me enough that we made it happen. To my family who encouraged me with messages and calls along the way. To my best friends who kept me grounded, reminding me daily of the madness of this trip. And to everyone who has donated to my Just Giving for Beat Eating Disorders, we have raised over 90% of the £1054 target. I can’t thank you all enough.


https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/isabelsteele


The Landscapes


Beyond the memorable encounters, this trip formed from dreamy landscapes. There were mountain skylines of graded Munros, empty beaches not waiting for anyone, Scottish forestries of pine and fir, lochs and rivers as natural baths, sunrise and sunset in the same long day…I was spoilt by my surroundings. I’d listen to Ocie Elliott and Harrison Storm as I trundled through the highlands, dusk not slowing me down until gone 10pm. I’d stop for coffee atop Slochd Summit overlooking the Cairngorms’ still-snowcapped ridges, or hanging my tired legs over high bridges near Aviemore, the rivers meandering around hilltop castles.

70 miles from John O'Groats at Bettyhill, overlooking Torrisdale Bay.

As you descend Great Britain, remote expanses of blanket bog rise fiercely into Munros. Mountains smooth into farmland. Grasslands groomed into harvested fields become clogged with industry buildings. Canals sneak you through cities then steep valleys smuggle you home to the Cornish ocean. Only on my detours did the roads strain with traffic and the rest of the GPX route took me on a remote, whimsical tour of Britain’s best.

It was not always easy. A heatwave asphyxiated many climbs in Scotland. Midges made some nights a terror. Gnashing rain in Devon made navigation near impossible, as rain clouds swelled so grey they were purple. Eleven days of elevation built up continuous fatigue in my legs. Yet to have experienced the capricious nature of Britain, John O’Groats to Land’s End, rain or shine, I feel like the luckiest girl in the world. It is humbling to recognise the beauty we have right on our doorsteps and a dying shame to think that many people live their lives glued to screens and locked inside four walls.


The food


Doing this cycle primarily to raise awareness for Beat Eating Disorders, it would be rude not to discuss food! As an extremely exposing challenge to my own eating disorder recovery, I had to learn to eat a lot more than I am comfortable with, to trust my body to tell me what it needs and to give myself permission to respond. Managing fuel for 12 hour cycles is a task in itself, let alone taking into account an already-challenged mind when it comes to eating. During the early days, hunger was like a rabid animal, nothing I ate soothed its growls! Until…I let go of my ‘food rules’ (restricting to mostly low-calorie food types and fewer meals) and the energy began to flow.

Ain't nobody cycling all that way on a diet mentality!! Fuel yourself with self-love and respect in line with your daily requirements. 12 hours of cycling means a lot of food!


Throughout the rest of Scotland I devoured oatcakes and Moffat Tasty, a fruit loaf with added bits of local Moffat Toffee. In Cumbria, I bought scotch eggs and enjoyed hot Cumberland sausage rolls and beans. In South Lancashire, I munched my way through a whole bag of Eccles cakes, a sweet fruit cake that went down far too easily. I was tempted to ‘quaff a little scrumpy’ (‘rough’ cider) in Somerset but already struggling with dehydration, I stuck to my water! I relied on Welsh cakes and chopped dates for morale during a rainy morning in the midlands and completed my trip with hearty Cornish pasties and Roskilly's ice cream. I released my fear around food and allowed everything my body asked for to fuel me through the most incredible days, climbing endless hills and laughing with my favourite people.

Enjoying a spiced cauliflower and onion bhaji pasty in Fowey.

This was eleven days of adventure, self-exploration and personal growth. I am forever grateful for that conversation overlooking the sea, for that mindset shift from anxiety to appreciation for just how beautiful life can be if you open yourself up to it. I’ve learnt that sometimes it feels like everything is out of control, but if our intentions are good and we live authentically, good things just keep rolling our way. When it gets tough, it’s about being brutally honest with yourself about who you are and taking bold decisions to align closely with that. Remember you’re capable of so much more that you think and every day is a new opportunity to adventure. Take it.


So, what are you sure about?


You can still donate at my page: https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/isabelsteele


We are over 90% of the way to the target and every donation goes towards further developing information packs about eating disorders, improving their Helpline service and striving towards policy changes such as removing calorie labelling on menus, proven to have a negative impact on those with eating disorders.


If you or someone you know needs help, Beat Helplines are open 365 days a year from 9am-8pm during the week and 4pm-8pm on the weekends and bank holidays. They are incredibly friendly, judgement free, and can help organise the right action plan for you! Never be afraid to ask for help.


Helpline: 0808 801 0677


Studentline: 0808 801 0811


Youthline: 0808 801 0711


Issy x


A MASSIVE THANK YOU to all you donators:

Jules W, Ben P, Cat L, Beth M, Tom T, George W, The Emsdens, Rebecca RE, The Westlakes, Sophie H, Amy, Drew S, George M, Maddy S, Chris S, Daisy A, Amber B, Tom W, Sarah S, The Seafords, The Mundells, Katie O, Josh M, Andy F, John M, Christian, Julia S, Guy G, Ella C, Scottie, Rubes, Amber, Chris H, The Swan Hotel, Caroline S, Alan D, Louise J, Hannah H, Ben, Eloise L, Saoirse, Holly B, June S, Mag M, Nick C, Flo P, Sunny, Paul, Josh E, Georgina G, Eleanor H, Mike P.

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