Follow Aaron Rolph's 2700km bikepacking trip up the United Kingdom, taking anything but the shortest route. His self-propelled journey involved various activities along the way but when things don't go to plan, his lockdown daydream ends as a hospitalised nightmare. A year on, time has passed yet nothing had really changed, follow his epic adventure from the Scilly Isles to the Shetlands.
Can you call yourself an avid British cyclist unless you’ve taken on the much-revered Land’s End to John o’Groats? Perhaps. Either way, I suffer from the persistent and unfortunate disorder known as box ticking… So, sure enough, my time had finally come to take on this cross-country adventure. Only, if I was about to commit to this lengthy British ride, I needed to do it my way…
Firstly, why start at Land’s End when there’s a beautiful archipelago 40km south of Cornwall called the Scilly Isles, and a whole load of islands north of John o’Groats called Orkney and Shetland? Secondly, it seems short-sighted to cross the entirety of the UK and not take in the very best it has to offer. My route would need to hunt out the wildest and most dramatic locations, no matter what the cost to my legs. And thirdly, I’d need to get stuck into these places while I was there, right?
Add a global pandemic, a coincidental 3-month parasite picked up in Colombia and a summer spent exclusively locked down in London, and I’d devised my ultimate British Bikepacking trip: The Great Escape.
Things to do along the way:
- Sea kayaking the Isles of Scilly
- Surfing in Newquay
- Mountain Biking in Bike Park Wales
- Whitewater river kayaking in Snowdonia
- Stand-up paddle boarding England’s longest lake, Windermere
- Swimming the length of Kielder Water
- Downhill Mountain Biking the World Cup track in Fort William
- Running and climbing the Cuillin Ridge Traverse on Skye
- Cycling the UK’s most iconic cycling road - Bealach na Ba to Applecross
- Hike and scramble An Tealach and stay in flagship bothy, Shenevall
- Packrafting the Shetland islands
Roll on 3 weeks, and I’d swapped the claustrophobia of my London flat for deep blue waters and white sands of the wonderfully remote Scilly Isles. I was back, and kindly joined by long-standing adventure-buddy, Ed who managed to ship a pair of sea kayaks over to get us going. I didn’t have loads of sea kayaking experience, but what better place to learn?! We managed to visit the islands of St Mary’s, St Agnes, and the terribly Royal Tresco over a couple of days before heading deeper into a place known only as the Western rocks. This area, also nicknamed the “End of the World” is a complex network of jagged rocks where there is little to no protection from the wrath of the Atlantic Ocean. Historically, the area has claimed hundreds of lives and countless vessels as shipwrecks, something I was all too aware of as we paddled further south-west with all civilisation behind us.
Relieved to be back on dry land and after a few final tweaks to my setup, I was ready to go. Paying my respects to Land’s End, though unwilling to part with the fiver for a snap next to the sign post, I was finally cranking through the Cornish hills. Though famed for its 433 miles of coastline, Cornwall is surprisingly hilly giving my legs a rude awakening that there was a lot of this to come. I hug the stunning North coast, and the views provide adequate distraction from the weight of all the kit I’m carrying. Passing through St Ives and then picking up some gravel around St Agnes, I’m in Newquay before long where I’ve arranged to catch up with some locals and head out for a surf. The 8ft swell I could have done without in the Scilly Isles was now nowhere to be found, but we catch a few small waves as the sun sets.
The next day, I stay on the coast for as long as possible before taking a B-line over Bodmin Moor. The roads are quiet and perfect cycling conditions except this warm day seems to be only getting hotter. By the afternoon, it’s getting well over 30 degrees and the air feels so heavy with heat. I knew weather was going to play a role in my homegrown odyssey, but the last thing I expected was to be so hot it hurt, only finding relief in the dense trees as I approach Dartmoor National Park.
Not only does Dartmoor have the biggest hills in the south of England but it also has a pretty unique legal status where vast areas permit wild camping totally legally. Only a short run from the highest peak, High Wilhays Tor (621m), I change my bike shoes for trail shoes and head off in pursuit of a sunrise summit after a decent bit of kip. The area has a beautiful remoteness for the south of England, and not disappointed by my sunrise, I can even see the Exmoor coastline on the distant horizon, where my zigzagging route will take me next.
My journey North once again heads over the wide open rolling hills of Devon and Somerset then back into Devon with some quality descents along the way. The final approach to the Exmoor coast can only be described as epic. I graft against the fresh rain and wind that has come in, along a plateau that seems to sit far above the sea on a natural balcony. I get closer to the sea but still seem to retain much of my elevation until the very last minute where I’m treated to an incredible Alpine style descent on a single-track road that somehow meanders through the impressive forested sea cliffs. I go as fast I dare, knowing even with my punchy GRX hydraulic disks, my stopping distance on wet tarmac would be much longer than I’d like. Tent up, sleeping bag out, it’s time for a local beer I’d picked up en route and to get out the spitting rain.
The great roads, big climbs and fast descents keep coming the following day as I circumnavigate as much Exmoor coastline as possible before finding some grade-A gravel and friendly wild ponies through the Quantock hills. Back on the road again, I soon reach the cycling mecca of the Mendips, seeing plenty of weekend cyclists making the most of the sunshine poking through the silvery clouds, pedalling through the beautifully winding Cheddar Gorge and into Bristol for a quick flat white.
The Severn Bridge isn’t necessarily the most stand-out scenic location, but crossing its muddy waters had a greater meaning for my trip: I was, of course, leaving England and heading away from the coast and into the mountains. Making quick work through the built-up areas of South Wales, I soon find myself moving village to village along the Taff trail. This purpose-built cycle path wasn’t really on my radar, but following calm Welsh canals, it makes for idyllic touring and I’m chuffed to be getting stuck into Wales. After some pub grub in Merthyr, I get some rest as tomorrow was a day I’m very excited about – a day riding downhill in nearby Bike Park Wales.
For those not in the know, Bike Park Wales is one of, if not the UK’s leading mountain biking facility. There are countless trails packed with jumps, drops and features and, the best bit? You get uplifts, meaning pedalling uphill is kept to a minimum. Fully equipped with a Trek downhill bike kindly lent to me by the park, I’m getting stuck into the bigger jumps and despite having not ridden for a little while I’m feeling good. I had seen and heard of the infamous expert run called “Enter the Dragon” and I was desperate to have a go. The start is committing to say the least: you’re faced with a sizable gap jump followed by two more doubles, before the largest jump in the park: a 30+ft tabletop where the only option is to go large.
After walking the course and having a couple of runs clearing the first few jumps, I was 50-50 whether to hit the tabletop.. it was so big and yet surely if I was able to make these doubles prior, then I should have enough speed to clear it? Wrong. Though my memory is a touch hazy on the exact events, I do remember that 50-50 moment when you say, “F**k it, back yourself”. My attempt to put in a couple of extra pedal strokes proved futile due to poor gear selection. Not going quite as fast as planned, my lack of conviction left me a little short, well exactly the wrong type of short. I “popped” giving plenty of air time to prepare for my imminent demise and yet not enough to clear the landing. Coming down front heavy, I’m carefully bucked into a position of nose-manualling though not losing any of my speed until I crash hard into the next take-off, stopping dead. Unfortunately, I was unable to enter the dragon but instead entered the back end of my bike, and at speed. The saddle smashes straight into my stomach and I’m in a pile in pain wondering how bad this is.
I make a quick attempt to jog the pain off hopping up and down breathing deeply, as though the Welsh fresh air is going to somehow absorb the agony coming from inside my stomach. No success, this isn’t going anywhere just yet so let’s try lying on the floor up against a bank. Also not helping, if anything the pain is getting worse, and soon realising I might be in serious trouble here, I decide to pick the bike up and push back to the start of the trail where other riders could be found. On this day at least, this expert run wasn’t getting much traffic, I hadn’t seen a single person on the track so if I needed help, I would have to go find it myself.
After hiking around 300m back up to the trail start, I collapse from the excruciating pain and I realise this is internal and definitely serious. Thankfully, passers by were able to come to my assistance calling it in. The on-site first responder arrives, soon supported by a kind couple - both doctors who happened to be riding in the area. Despite the lack of external damage, the pain goes up and down in seriously unpleasant extremes and my stomach is aggressively “guarding” tensing hard to protect vital organs.
After an unbelievably gruelling couple of hours wait, paramedics make it to my location and administer some much-needed morphine. Although I knew comfortably that the only serious injury was that of my stomach area, paramedics understandably didn’t want to take any risks on back or neck injury. My vitals are consistent despite my unavoidable shallow breathing, however, my stomach is now cramping hard from the aggressive tensing over so many hours and they’re not allowed to give me anymore morphine. Finally we’re on the move, bouncing down the forest roads in my taxi ride from hell. The decision has been made to take me directly to Cardiff University Hospital who have a specialist department for injuries of this sort. My CT scan showed a serious internal injury around the lower abdomen although not exactly where the damage was. I was assured the best cause of action is to perform emergency surgery starting with keyhole, moving into something larger if required.
I come around at midnight, around 12 hours after my little misdemeanour and I instantly feel such a relief. I feel like someone has played a game of table football inside of me but the harrowing pain has subsided and my stomach cramp is long gone. I’m told my vitals are still good and that I had in fact severed my colon completely in half. Who knew that was even possible? And especially using the tool of a blunt bike saddle? Well I didn’t, but I was upbeat as I could be and happy to hear that surgery seemed to go well.
Gentle hikes and Alpine swims provided the perfect recovery!
Back riding again, and I can't wait to resume this Great British Adventure!
While minimising movement of any kind, I take a peek at my stomach and it looks as though I’ve been victim of a machete attack, but stapled back together, almost definitely by Doctor Frankenstein. The surgeon, in fact, was called Nick and he’d done a truly excellent job. He informed me that the colon was cut very cleanly in half and the organ looked otherwise extremely healthy so my prognosis was promising. Aside from all this good news, my recovery would likely be at least 8-12 weeks and in the short-term, I wouldn’t be allowed to eat for a couple more days.
Only just resisting the urge to eat my own hands, this didn’t seem all that bad considering. By day 2 I managed to stand, albeit in some serious pain but I was moving again, a pattern I was able to continue for the following 5 days in hospital until all my drips and tubes were finally out. Soon enough, it was time to check out and I was excited to get home and reclaim some privacy. Having had little dealings with the NHS directly up until now, I have to say I’m immensely grateful for the amazing care I received from the nurses and doctors and it has increased my appreciation for how lucky we are in this country to have such a great healthcare system.
First stop: the Alps. The thought of being so immobile in London didn’t have much appeal so, with a great deal of help from my girlfriend, Ella, we hopped on a flight straight out to Chamonix for me to recover slowly but surely in some fresh mountain air. Of course, I was gutted to have not managed to complete my ultimate British adventure – the Great Escape - but I know I’ll be back. A couple of months on and I’m fighting fit with a badass scar and raring to go. Unfortunately, it would be fool-hardy to restart my trip in the current climate with local lockdowns and rising COVID infections. For now at least, this one’s on hold and I’m once again staring out the window dreaming of my much needed Great Escape.
- Aaron Rolph
The British Adventure Collective & Perch
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