Britain by Bike

Being forced to saddle up on two wheels for a new BBC television series transforms Clare Balding's experience of the British countryside


Watch Britain by Bike now on BBC Four or on iPlayer.
So how do you fancy cycling round Britain?” the man from Lion Television said.
“What, all of it?” I replied, feeling that creeping sense of fear mixed with a whiff of nausea. Optimistically, I put it down to adrenalin: the excitement of being involved in a challenge that I would not ordinarily contemplate, and the thrill of trying to turn it into good television.
Then I realised it wasn’t adrenalin – it was trepidation. As it turned out, I wasn’t going to cycle all of Britain, but I was going to ride the bike of someone who did. This intrepid two-wheeled explorer was called Harold Briercliffe. Between 1947 and 1950, he wrote six Cycle Touring Guides that covered the length and breadth of Britain. Briercliffe thought nothing of cycling 100 miles in a day, and he had a photographic memory and an incredible eye for detail. His pilgrim (me) had none of these attributes.
I do, however, have a great love of the outdoors, am addicted to adventure and I love to meet people and hear their stories about an area or a moment in history. I am also nothing if not bold. Tell me I can’t do something and I will try to find a way of doing it. A little naively, I assumed that it would be just like doing Ramblings, the programme on walking that I have presented for more than 10 years on Radio 4, but I would cover more ground and do it faster.
My mother, when I told her that I was going to present a new series called Britain By Bike, was aghast. “Oh God, does that mean you have to wear Lycra?”
A British classic
Not unnaturally, I expected Lion Television to provide me with the latest 27-gear touring bike with hydraulic brakes, a lightweight frame, butterfly handlebars, adjustable riding positions, foam grips, funky mudguards, toe straps on the peddles and, most importantly, a soft gel saddle. Instead, the TV folk thought it would be a “lovely idea” if I rode Harold’s bicycle. Fantastic news.
It was a hand-built Dawes Super Galaxy that was the ultimate touring bike of its day. The only problem was that ‘its day’ had long since passed. Undeterred, I hoisted my leg over the (very high) crossbar, grateful that the handlebars had been covered and the seat had been replaced with a semi-cushioned thing that promised to numb the pain somewhat. I christened the bike Harold in honour of its owner and decided just to get on with it.
Our team consisted of Harold the bike, me, Alison and Amber, who between them were in charge of the filming, the sound, the driving, the hotels, the schedule and any script alterations. Our little team of three, plus bike, embarked on a tour of the Cotswolds, the Isle of Wight, Devon, the Welsh borders, Yorkshire and the Western Highlands of Scotland. And do you know what? I loved it.
Aching bottom and legs apart, I had the most incredible time exploring parts of the UK that I had previously only swept past on a train or in a car. I have walked many miles in Britain and understand the joy and inspiration that our varied landscape provides, but on a bicycle there is the added benefit of being able to cover much greater distances, of feeling the wind rush past your ears and through your soul. I could cover ground but still find time to stop and stare.
Local characters
I met historians, cycling enthusiasts, authors, naturalists and people who simply had a tale to tell. Through them, the places I was visiting and the views I was admiring came alive with imaginary scenes from the past.
There are visions that I can call to mind whenever I need a little comfort – standing outside the Ratagan youth hostel in the Highlands, watching the early morning mist rising off Loch Duich like steam; cycling into Ifracombe harbour in Devon with the smell of seaweed fresh in the air and the multi-coloured houses shining in the sunshine; the cobbled streets of Haworth in Yorkshire, and the rush downhill into Newtown, Wales.
Most of all, I will remember the kindness of fellow cyclists and their willingness to accept a new member of the greatest club in Britain. There is a childishness deep within us all that struggles to breathe in the rush of a working life, but if you want to give it a day out, get your map out, chuck some bottles of water in a bag with a few other essentials and climb on a bike. It’s the greatest cheap thrill you can get and it lasts as long as you want it to.
I cannot pretend that I am in the Harold Briercliffe league when it comes to touring, but the taste I have had of exploring Britain by bike has left me hungry for more.

Five of the best UK cycle routes
Jane Eastoe, author of Britain by Bike, shares her favourite cycle trails
1 The Camel Trail, Cornwall
The Camel Trail runs for 17 miles on a disused railway track from the seaside town of Padstow, alongside the River Camel to Wadebridge, then through open countryside and woodland to Bodmin. It is perhaps the best-known cycle route in the country and following its length can be something of a communal pleasure. Bicycles can be hired at points along the route and it is a smooth and blessedly flat, traffic-free trail. It is a perfect introduction to the delights of cycling for all the family, as even the smallest children can manage part of the distance, or enjoy being towed along in a trailer.
2 Loch Katrine, West Perthshire
If there is one part of the country that is favoured by cycling enthusiasts because of its views, it’s Scotland. This wonderfully scenic route in the mountainous Trossachs follows the expansive shore of Loch Katrine for 13 miles. Cycle hire is available and
part of the journey can be taken in a pleasure-boat steamer. The trail runs from Trossachs Pier to Stronachlachar and, unlike many of the Scottish routes, it is generally flat. The landscape here inspired the author Sir Walter Scott and many of the features described in The Lady of the Lake, published in 1810, are still identifiable.
3 Mawddach Trail, Gwynedd
John Ruskin maintained that only one other route had views to compare with the one from Dolgellau to Barmouth, and that was the journey from the Barmouth to Dolgellau. The 11-mile Mawddach Trail follows the route of the old Barmouth to Ruabon railway track from Barmouth, crossing the iconic railway bridge over the mouth of the Mawddach Estuary, to the market town of Dolgellau in a tranquil and relatively flat ride. It is surrounded by mountains, with Cadair Idris to the south and the soaring Llethr and Diffwys to the north, and takes in Cregennan Lakes en route.
4 Grizedale Forest, the Lake District
The beautiful Grizedale Forest is crisscrossed with cycle routes, ranging from two to 14 miles in length. It has routes to suit all, from families with young children to those with adrenalin-junkies teenagers looking for single track rides. The forest is internationally known for its sculptures and has five waymarked trails; enjoy the lakeside tracks around tranquil Brotherswater, from which you can see Dove Crag, one of the steepest climbs in the Lake District, or fly along the single track North Face Trail, with its leg-burning ascents and fine views. The Hawkshead Moor route runs through the forest with views to the heart of Coniston.
5 The Herefordshire Three Rivers Circular Route
This circular, 85-mile route links the rivers Wye, Monnow and Dore and the towns of Hereford, Ross-on-Wye, Monmouth and Hay-on-Wye. The ride, which moves through a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, utilises quiet but sometimes hilly country lanes and incorporates the off-road three-mile cross-border cycle route The Peregrine Path, which is much less taxing. This follows the River Wye between Monmouth and Symonds Yat, a scenic viewpoint that soars some 120m (394ft) above the river on the Gloucester side and offers views over the ancient Forest of Dean and nesting peregrines.