Abbie Bikes Britain: 2000 Miles, 15 National Parks, a Project For Positive Change
Abbie Barnes tells the story of her cross-UK cycle for green spaces and mental wellbeing, hiking the highest peaks as she went.
I always have a to-do list on the go. It’s a list of mundane and ordinary things that need completing: reply to emails, call so and so, tidy house... But like many outdoorsy folk I have an adventure list too. Well, actually, it’s a book. A private space where I write down:
the names of hikes and bike rides I’d like to explore
countries I'd love to visit and why
skills I’d like to learn
experiences I’d like to live out.
In a way it is a bucket list, but I call it my Life List - because at times it is literally the only thing that keeps me moving forwards through the crushing pain of mental ill health and chronic pain.
Where it all began
Every so often an idea pops into my mind for an expedition that’s of a nature I have never considered before. Generally, the urge to get out and tackle this calling is then impossible to ignore until I am literally in the experience - and that was what happened during a humble morning walk from our home in the hills of Exmoor.
I was going to cycle from John O’Groats to Land’s End (JOGLE) via the highest point of every national park in the country. That’s 15 national parks, 2000 miles and 55 days. At this point the longest ride I had ever undertaken was 32 miles, on the flat, a few years back. I had no cycling gear. And my Dawes Horizon bike was rusting and neglected in the shed. I didn't even have a proper helmet. Oops.
The thing is, I was struggling. As a country we had been beaten back by lockdown after lockdown. I had lost my job as a personal trainer and spent 6 months living homeless with my partner in 2020. I was constantly having to adapt in order to keep my own company afloat, as I could access no support from the government. I was in pain too, with an ongoing mysterious issue in my fascia and spine that no professional I had seen knew what to do with. Chronic migraines incapacitated me. And my mental space, which had only ever been turbulent at best, was threatening to wipe me off the face of the planet.
It was definitely time for an adventure.
Abbie Bikes Britain begins
Fast forwards through a whirlwind three months of planning, training rides, phone calls, emails, discussions, tears, elation, shopping and more to the end of August 2021. My partner Anna and I stood on the starting line, ready to set off on our challenge: Abbie Bikes Britain. It was a surreal feeling, standing at the top of mainland Britain knowing that before us lay a zig-zagging route, crammed with memories to be had and places to see. I was cycling, Anna was driving and we’d take in each national park, stopping to hike up the highest peaks together.
The first few days in Scotland flew by. We had an encounter with the police, dealt with blistering heat and I struggled to get food down due to an overarching anxiety about the project. But before we knew it we had our first walk day to Ben Macdui, the highest point of the Cairngorms National Park. We enjoyed a fantastic temperature inversion, complete with brocken spectre, and the group walking with us were great company.
The next day came around and I was back on my bike, Blue. Anna was driving the support van and we would meet up once or twice throughout the day. My mileage averaged between 45-60 miles. My shortest days on the trip were about 30 miles and the longest 90. Thankfully by the time we reached Ben More, in the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park, I was keeping food down and feeling more well in myself.
It amazed us how quickly time was passing, and yet each day felt full to the brim with stories and tales. We always collapsed into bed feeling satisfyingly exhausted. By Day 8 we were crossing the border into England, waving a heart-felt goodbye to Scotland which had treated us very well! Funnily enough, as soon as we hit the ‘Welcome to England’ sign, the mist came in and it started raining.
This was really where we faced our first challenges on the expedition. Whilst the logistics of the project itself were going smoothly, we found ourselves dealing with unexpected emotionally draining situations, including business threats and family bereavement. Very quickly, we had to dig into our own ways of coping with the drama that unfolded, whilst at the same time keeping up with the demands of Abbie Bikes Britain and creating space for each other.
By now we were settled into as much of a routine as we could forge and yet the highs and lows were relentless - both in a literal sense and metaphorically, emotionally speaking. It was tough work and yet at the same time I felt truly grateful to be undertaking such an incredible experience. It felt amazing to move around the country by body power alone. Perhaps my greatest achievement was cycling up Honister Pass, one of the steepest roads in the country. It had been a daunting shadow ahead of me, during the stretch in the north, but reaching the top after a 65 mile day was a hugely rewarding experience personally.
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The walks within each National Park really helped to break up the monotony of life on the bike. We opened up each hike to the public, to come and join us, and we met some fun and fascinating individuals. It was these events that kept us going and the sense of community that we built around the expedition gave us strength to face the hard times.
Reaching breaking point
From one park to another: the Dales and the North York Moors, then down to the Broads where we ran a boat and boot day. Back up to the Peak District where we ran out of petrol and had to sleep on a petrol station forecourt. We jumped out of a plane during an unplanned skydiving experience, and then made our way across to Wales for Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire and the Brecons.
As is obvious in our three part film series of our expedition, it was in Wales that we hit breaking point. We faced difficulties in the team and our personal troubles absorbed our every waking moment. It probably didn't help that the weather took a turn for the worst too, leaving me cycling in 65 mph winds and horizontal rain.
Thankfully we were stronger than the challenges that threatened to end things. Anna and I stayed true in our communication and were determined to not let anything get in the way of us completing what we set out to do. We dug in deep, leaned in to our courage and held on to hope. We sought to laugh every day no matter what and encourage each other 100%. We had some pretty major fallings out; there were tears and plenty of heartache. But love wins every time and we knew that this was all superficial expression of our exhaustion, and the anger we felt towards the personal circumstances that had forced their way into our private space. Deep down we were solid and we knew it.
Until the sun came out again…
Back to England and the sun came out again. It was lovely exploring a new part of the country. Neither of us had been to the New Forest before and the group walk we ran there was one of our joint highlights. Good vibes. Sunshine. Beautiful landscapes. Then on to the South Downs, land of gently undulating fields of green and red kites flying high above.
With Land’s End drawing closer every day, the energy was electric at times. Our final two national parks came and went in the flurry of wind and rain: Dunkery Beacon in Exmoor and High Willhays on Dartmoor. Not that we could really see the tops for the cloud!
Then it was on to Cornwall, the final county of the ride. We could really feel the change in seasons now. It was early October and the leaves were showing hints of orange and red, and the air was cooler against our skin. We woke each morning to a fine layer of frost on the ground and puddles lined the roads as I splashed by on Blue.
JOGLE is a bit of an illusion in a sense. The true northernmost point of mainland Britain is Dunnet Head and the southernmost is Lizard Point. As such, as well as hitting the mandatory JOGLE start and end, we also ticked off the official north and south points too. They were too close to ignore!
The End in Sight
Reaching Lizard Point, Anna and I broke down into tears. For us, this was our finish. The place we had only dreamed of reaching thus far - and now here we were, standing on this windswept and exposed piece of earth, looking out over the North Atlantic Ocean. We hugged tightly, lost for words yet totally connected and proud of each other’s commitment to the cause.
Twenty miles later we rode into Land’s End, Anna having dropped the van ahead of time to cycle across the finish line with me. It was a fitting end, hand in hand as our community welcomed us with open arms and a fantastic celebration. We had faced the storms together and made it out the other side.
We had set out to travel the country to create a national campaign - one that started meaningful conversations about the importance of getting outside into green spaces, for the benefit of mental and physical health, and what we can all do to protect them.
We wanted to not only see people access our nation's green spaces for their wellbeing, but to step up to playing an active role in conserving those places too. Why? Because in doing so we can help to increase feelings of happiness, wellbeing and life satisfaction for people of all ages - by getting involved in something bigger than ourselves and being kind.
The three films following our adventure are now available to watch for free on YouTube. Abbie Bikes Britain was never going to be a dead-end project, but rather a limb in the overall body that is Spend More Time In The WILD. Our mission has no end and we are tirelessly working to create positive change across the globe.
Abbie Barnes is an adventure filmmaker and presenter. She is the founder and director of Spend More Time In The WILD, an organisation that seeks to inspire and empower individuals to get outside for the benefit of mental and physical health. Abbie is perhaps best known for her flourishing YouTube Channel where she is building an archive of hiking videos, exploring trails around the world. She also runs WILD Walks across the UK each month, and is the host of the One Wild Life Podcast.
To hear more from Abbie you can follow her on Facebook, Instagram or Patreon.
If you'd like to join her community or join in for a WILD Walk, take a look at the WILD Walks and Events page.
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