Cycling round a beautiful country full of rolling hills, shimmering lochs, dramatic mountain ranges and breath-taking views all with your best friend – my dog Zuri. The most beautiful way to travel and truly embrace a country and its unique people.
As travelling companions, Zuri and I could not be more different. Whilst I am shy, reserved and describe myself as an introvert, she is the exact opposite. Bounding over to strangers wagging her tail, she has a wonderful ability to capture the heart of anyone she encounters. Her wolfish smile and big brown eyes could melt even the coldest of hearts and I challenge anyone to not fall in love with her pure dog soul.
We made a great team travelling through Eastern Europe in 2019. Zuri has magical way of opening doors and ensuring everything slots into place – something very much appreciated when cycling in unknown areas.
For our UK adventure I hoped it would be much the same, but the consequences of the pandemic were never far from my mind. Would strangers turn their backs on us? Would cafes and restaurants be open? Would there be places to stay? We were about to find out.
Our journey began in Leicester, East Midlands of England, in early August 2020. England has a well-developed bicycle network, with the routes often running right alongside the picturesque canal system. This did however prove problematic at times, particularly when attempting to manoeuvre a bicycle loaded with luggage and a dog trailer through the canal barriers. Thankfully, the English hospitality shone through and help was always on hand. We even met a 91-year-old in a walker who magically stood up to help us manoeuvre the wedged trailer through the narrowed entrance.
Zuri used her magic daily to secure some very tasty treats on our journey across the country. Pub owners and waiters alike were enchanted, and she was never short of plates of sausages, steaks or roast chicken. I am sure she hoped this gourmet dining would continue into Scotland. Whilst she is not a fussy eater and tolerates food changes well, a hearty dog steak from a friendly stranger is a lot more palatable than the 2-4kg of dry dog food I usually pack on the bike trailer for the road.
After about 300km and 8 days travelling, Zuri and I reached Scotland. Now we were to discover the country in all its diversity over the next 2000 km for more than 4 weeks.
It was my curiosity that had brought us to Scotland. I’d heard the tails of the stunning mountain ranges and wanted to separate the myth from reality. But here’s the secret, it’s all reality. Even on rainy days when the grey, murky sky blends with the road, the scenery was breathtaking. Dramatic, rugged mountains, vast unspoiled coastlines, crystal clear rivers, shimmering lochs and charming little villages. The beauty of cycling makes for a slower pace and a chance to truly absorb and breathe in the landscape; the only way to fully experience the Scottish beauty.
Upon reaching Scotland, our first destinations were Dumfries and Galloway. As we cycled through vast flat agricultural fields, I mused that the southwestern part of Scotland has very similar topography to Germany and even England. This was a lovely comforting feeling and also delightful to cycle alongside!
As the sun started to set, my gurgling stomach could no longer be drowned out by the passing cars. Remembering the bountiful restaurants in England, Zuri and I were on the look out for a hearty pub meal. However, even though we’d just crossed the England-Scotland border, the density of restaurants appeared to be in harmony with the Scottish population i.e. not many! I soon realized that if we wanted to eat, I would have to strategically search for restaurants on Google and plan them into our route. Fearing my grumbling tummy and a fast-draining e-bike battery, we headed for the first (and only) restaurant in sight. With a fully charged battery covers 40-70km depending on the terrain. The Bosch 6A fast charger, which fully charges the battery (500W) in 3 hours, makes for daily breaks in restaurants to recharge us all.
It was here that the differences between England and Scotland started to show. Firstly, it was obvious that Zuri would not be allowed to come in. Assuming it was a one off, I didn’t think anything of it. With the sun shining and the rays providing a gentle warmth, eating outside was lovely and pleasant. The next surprise followed with a quick glance at the menu. I had recently converted to a vegan lifestyle but found myself having to give this up when travelling through Scotland. Even as a vegetarian the options available were very limited and my confusion grew when I learnt even the ‘safe’ option of fries were not vegetarian as they were cooked in beef stock and beef fat. What a welcome to Scotland! That was the both the first and last time I asked how my chips were prepared- ignorance is bliss as they say! This restaurant experience provided me with great amusement over the following weeks and also helped to mentally prepare myself for a Scottish diet consisting mostly of potatoes.
However, unfortunately we soon realized the Scottish ‘no dog policy’ was not an anomaly. According to the locals this is slowly changing. However, most pubs and restaurants do not (yet) allow dogs. As a result, when it rained, I had to either leave Zuri in the dog trailer outside, or we ate outside together – she always has been my favorite dinner companion anyway! There were many times I found myself jealous of the holidaymakers with cars and motorhomes, who can simply move from their warm cars to the warm pub.
A COVID problem I had not considered was the effect of the ‘eat out to help out’ scheme the UK Government had brought in. Saving money and doing good at the same time goes down well, unfortunately too well. The restaurants were packed on these days and you often had to book days in advance to get a seat. This turned out to be a real logistical problem for me because I could not estimate where I would be in 4 days! As a result, I often had to go to 3-4 restaurants until I found at least one restaurant that had a few unoccupied outdoor tables, which often remained empty in the evening anyway due to the weather. On the flip side, when we travelled in the West of Scotland the restaurants dwindled to rare oasis’, with COVID restrictions limiting the remaining few that could have been open.
With the last km of remaining battery, I reached Strontian, but unsurprisingly both village restaurants were closed. However, we found a small supermarket and the elderly owner allowed me to charge my battery behind the refrigerators. For two hours we waited outside in front of the supermarket, sheltering under the roofed area whilst the heaviest rain passed before continuing up and over the hills.
By nightfall we were tired and exhausted, battered by the wind and rain. Zuri’s saturated head was poking out from the rain cape I had creatively made on the bike trailer – we were both longing for a warm place to stay and I was dreaming of a sizzling fire. Tonight we were in luck. Whilst I negotiated with the restaurant owners for some fries and a power socket, Zuri did what she does best; wagged her tail and joyfully communicated with strangers. It wasn’t long before she had made friends. A magnet for human kindness, she had taken the (often) difficult step of making contact with complete strangers and initiating a conversation. The woman Zuri had befriended offered us both a place to sleep, a home cooked meal and a roaring fire. I shared a knowing glance at Zuri as I knew she had done it again; her magic was flowing.
By only planning a rough route we relied on the world and our intuition. This intuition told me to make a detour towards the Isle of Skye. Skye is Scotland’s most famous island, known for it’s wild and rugged coastline but also for being one of the wettest areas in Scotland.
Cycling up to the island the sky was low and dark. We were greeted by a dramatic grey cloud cover, but within an hour the sun had broken through the clouds to reveal an endless canvas of colour. We continued cycling far into the island, marveling at the shimmering lakes and beautiful stretches of coasts and lochs. I was overwhelmed by the rare beauty the sun had prepared for us. Once again I was glad of the slow-pace cycling provides; I could immerse myself in the devastating views and truly savor the crisp un-touched air. I had been told I could not leave without a visit to the island’s main attraction, the Fairy Pools. A river that rises from a gigantic mountain and meanders over many waterfalls into the valley – it did not disappoint.
With the sun fading into the horizon, I turned into a narrow single track that seemed to lead up the mountain for miles. I passed a young female jogger with a dog on a leash who was astounded Zuri was so well-behaved running alongside my bike, “she’s had a lot of practice” I chuckled. I asked her if she had any suggestions for a place to stay overnight and without hesitation she recommended a small patch of woodland further up the mountain. A little later, an invitation to her living room followed, where a crackling fire was waiting for us.
On our previous trip 2019, especially in May when we were facing the bitter cold Swiss nights, I looked for people in advance on the web platforms couchsurfing.com or warmshowers.org, to secure a bed for the evening. Both are websites where private people offer their couch or a guest bed free of charge for other travelers. But this year with the pandemic, many were hesitant. I once asked someone who said that his neighbour was uncomfortable seeing so many strangers and I also met a French cyclist who said that she had received so many cancellations this year and that she would probably have to book a hotel for the night soon to have a shower.
The pandemic also affected campsite availability, I found they were either all fully booked or were not allowing tents as you were required to bring your own chemical toilet (all public washrooms were closed for COVID safety reasons). Thankfully, Scotland is one of the few European countries where you are officially allowed to camp in the wilderness and the country has an abundance of beautiful places with breathtaking views which Zuri and I thoroughly appreciated and enjoyed. All too often, when I pitched my tent under the stars, there was no civilization for miles, just Zuri and I wrapped under the vast blanket of the night sky. It was times like this I truly appreciated the luxury of nature and the secrets travelling off the grid unlocks.
The Galloway Forest in southern Scotland is the largest forest in the UK and is known for dramatic ancient woodland, and its magnificent scenery; a place I definitely wanted to experience. Unfortunately, the battery charging facilities in such a forest are rather rare. On bicycle trips I always listen to my intuition and I knew in this instance I needed to find charging facilities before I reached the next town! The tour through the forest took so long that we reached the park’s café 15 minutes after closing time. It was a devastating moment when we realised it did not open for another 4 days! Trying to quell the rising panic I searched for possibilities nearby and quickly aimed for the only campsite around. Cycling into the campsite after 10pm, the day turned from bad to worse when I realized the reception was closed. Calling the private number on the door, I had my fingers crossed someone would be there to answer and offer help. Two elderly women came out of the house next door. I started to ask if I could charge my battery for 1-2 hours to make it over the mountain, but before I could finish my sentence, they spotted Zuri, who grinned at them out of the trailer. They looked each other in the eyes, smiled and one said, “don’t worry, the campsite is full, but I’ll unlock the common room for you, there you can charge your battery and also stay the night for free. There are also toilets that you can use.”
It is experiences and encounters like this that made me forget the rainy days, the mountain climbs and the stress. Scotland was the 14th country I cycled through and encounters like that motivate and inspire me to continue exploring the rest of the world. Cycling shows me again and again that I can have confidence in the world. People are there and support me whenever I need help. I can rely on the world.
The final stretch of our journey we decided to cycle away from the rain in the North, to the East of Scotland. From our travels last year, Zuri had gained quite a social media following and we were lucky enough that upon hearing that we were touring Scotland, people reached out and offered us both a place to stay.
The people I met by chance (or Zuri magic) in the year of COVID added an extra layer of kindness to my trip and were the only chance we got to not sleep in the wilderness and enjoy some modern civilization. The ability to take a hot shower, do my laundry, enjoy a warm fire and to fully charge all my electrical appliances has never been more welcome when you are battling the Scottish elements.
Both Scotland and England have so much to offer. Besides all these amazing and beautiful people
Zuri and I dipped into so many lives, heard so many stories but the common connection we both saw was kindness. Coronavirus, with its contrast of both overcrowded and closed restaurants, lack of available campsites or couchsurfing platforms made cycling much more difficult. Yet this in no way diminished the compassion, hospitality, and generosity of the people. We were welcomed as friends everywhere. Far too often people are absorbed through work and everyday life, I found through what Zuri and I were doing, people were encouraged to get back in touch with their own dreams and desires.
These same people questioned how I have the confidence to travel alone as a woman. I always respond, travelling with my best friend I can never be alone.
Our cycling adventures are all on YouTube as well with German audio and English subtitles: