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A Cycle on the Celtic Fringe …. Part 23

There is a splendid bridge over the Eden as you head north out of Carlisle city centre. It will be the last time I see this river and I’ll miss it. I met it on the highest Pennine fells when it trickled from bog to marsh, and have watched it grow through childhood of falls and tumbles to young adulthood in the meadows amidst cattle and dairies. It’s a fully mature river that flows beneath the Eden Bridge. It still has a few meandering miles to go before it joins the Esk and together they form the tip of the Solway Firth. It isn’t a river I’ve heard a great deal about but it is a river to cherish; a river that is almost the perfect model of an English stream.

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Once over the bridge my troubles begin. I’ve got previous with the National Cycle Network. Like every other millennium project, this seems to have been designed with greater fervour than thought. It seems either to take you altogether out of your way, or it adds miles onto the simplest journey without adding much to the aesthetic experience. Another habit it has is to take you step by step into the middle of nowhere and then abandon you. And this is what it does before I’ve even left Carlisle.

A lady outside the castle had carefully explained the route to me and it distinctly said Asda, and it clearly said, service road. I amble along some Victorian streets of three storey houses from Carlisle’s days as a major textile town, and then out into country lanes where charms of goldfinch cheer me on my way. My spirits chirrup and chatter with the birds, the meadow flowers are in full bloom on the verges and hedgerows and I suddenly find myself on a series of newly laid out roads without signposts and some without macadam. My twenty five year old map is useless; these roads didn’t exist twenty five weeks ago. I have no compass, no sense of direction; the sun seems to have moved into the north. I lose a little enthusiasm on finding that my first choice leads to a dead end and my second becomes a slip road for a big trunk route. On my third attempt, I come across a group of road builders being advised by a sturdy fellow who turns out to be something of a hero.

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I expect to be shouted at for riding on his unmade road. Instead he takes in my plight, points me in the right direction with written instructions (which include the words Asda and service road), and instructs one of his men to drive slowly in front of me, motorcade style, to ensure I get safely out of town. I’m sure a riever or two have had similar escorts in their time on their way into Scotland. I’m proud and thankful, and happily acknowledge the van driver’s salute as he speeds back to his work.

From then on getting to Scotland is a piece of shortbread.

My main interest in Asda is whether or not to buy a £12 tent. The problem is that their £13 sleeping bags have sold out and a night in a tent without, even in summer, in Scotland, is something that may prove a little chilly. I’m also packed to the gunnels. It’s a dilemma though. There isn’t another big town on my route until Dumfries and I suspect that the Queen of the South isn’t as big as I imagine. In the end I save my money, buy a few apples and seek out the service road.

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It’s brilliant. A perfectly made road, newly laid and flat and smooth, in the shadow of whatever the M6 is called this far north, with hardly a car on it and a good summer breeze blowing me along like a sail. I wasn’t expecting either such a good road or such power in my legs. For four days I’ve laboured on this bicycle and now I’m flying towards the Scottish border like a man on the run. To my right the thundering wagons and lorries force their way out of England. To my left the vast estuarial plain of the Solway.

I divert west to the pretty village of Rockcliffe and then it’s north again, enjoying the sun, the wind, the fitness and the aptness and the just being thereness of it all. More cattle, more haymaking and a final glimpse of the Eden, though I was unaware of it at the time.

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The maps I used were years out of date and I left them behind in the next hotel, google maps suggest that I must have gone into Gretna and Scotland on the M6. I know I didn’t. I passed a large saltaire, and a famous blacksmith’s shop without stopping. I’ve been there before; it’s Scotland of the Arran sweater and shortbread tin variety and that’s for the English. OK, so I am English, but this pedaller started school in Thurso and saw his first professional football on the terraces at Dens Park, Dundee. I’ve also taken a hundred hours to warm up my legs and I’m not stopping for an anvil and a place to marry an underage bride without her father’s permission.

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My plan is to get nicely into the auld country and then look for one of those ubiquitous cheap motels; Ibis, Holiday Inn, Premier; and have a proper room for the night. I’m afraid of the A75 but, in finding my route to Annan, I find that what was the main road is now a quiet B road and I can avoid the Stranraer bound beasts for ten happy miles. The south westerly that blew me over the border has abated. It’s early evening and the sun is still high and bright over the fields of barley and wheat. Scotland looks a good deal like the nicer parts of England. I can even see the peaks of the Lake District. I’ve been keeping a healthy distance from them all day and now I can see them from a completely new angle. They’re every bit as impressive from a distance as from up close.

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But I’m leaving behind the land of Wordsworth and Coleridge and Ruskin. I’m in Scotland, the land of Robert Burns, and to see her is to love her.