Adventure tour operators Barney and Lizzie, better known as The Overlanders, have been globetrotting for many years. Now also parents of young kids, many would imagine the adventuring would be curtailed. Well, The Overlanders had other ideas. Here's Barney on tackling the John Muir Way with kids in tow:
I have always been fascinated and inspired by long distance cyclists. Those - usually lone - wanderers pedalling the planet, using nothing but pressure and time. My love for group travel took me into a different forum of travelling. But often, on meeting these steel cowboys and girls in far flung corners of the earth, I would wonder when, or if, my time would come to take up this slower and more ethereal form of movement across the globe. It now seems that the group I was destined to travel with by bicycle was my own family. And so it was that the inspiration of others, and the nudge of a pandemic, set our little family of four on our first epic bike ride across Scotland. 8 days, 134 miles and a sack full of memories.
We live in Dunbar on the east coast of Scotland, immigrating here from England 9 years ago. It happens to be the birthplace of John Muir, the founding father of National Parks and great conservationist. It is The John Muir Way, which runs coast to coast across Scotland and ends in Dunbar, that we decided to use as our tentative venture into the world of multi-day cycling. Our jobs as tour guides on hold, we were spending more and more time on bikes, taking the kids along "The Way" near our home - so it was a logical next step to turn to each other one day and say 'Let's ride the whole trail!'.
While we waited for lockdown restrictions to be eased, we planned and prepared for our trip. At ages 4 and 6, our kids can ride alone but only for short distances, so we decided on child seats for our own bikes. We found a pair of original GMG junior seats (a Dutch brand) on eBay and it seemed like it was meant to be. Now with child seats fitted there was nowhere for the pannier bags to go, so a trip to the local blacksmith and a small bar welded to the back of the seats meant that we could carry everything we needed. At the beginning of August the trains started running, lockdown was lifted and we could get ourselves to the west coast. By this point I was wondering if Juniper, our eldest, should have taken her own bike. But looking back I have no regrets in that department, and I'm sure she doesn't either!
Our journey began in Helensburgh, a lively seaside town coming slowly out of lockdown. Many grand adventures are built up so high in the planning stages that we wonder if the reality can live up to the expectations. Our first day did not. But bad days are necessary in order to appreciate the truly great days. That is true of all experiences, but on a cycling trip where movement is so real and so visceral, we expect too much at times. Most days we averaged between 15 and 25 miles a day - we cycled just 9 miles on our first day and we weren't inspired by our surroundings, which were mostly along major roads in the suburbs of outer Glasgow. But our kids had the time of their lives - a first taste of candy floss went straight into the 'great day' memory bank!
Cycling over the hills from Loch Lomond threw us right back on track and by the end of our second day we were filled with euphoria and a renewed enthusiasm for our adventure. What a difference a day makes! The landscape was everything we imagined it should be, with rolling hills and shimmering lochs. But where we have expectations, our children have none. Sitting on a bicycle or walking, they are seeing so many things for the first time and are completely in touch with their surroundings - following a heron for a mile along a tow path, smelling wild flowers and inspecting beetles. This is what sets this trip apart from a car, train or bus journey. Everything is obtainable. We have come to realise that kids don't need exotic destinations. They have imagination. Hence 'The Floor is Lava' is such a universal truth in every child's mind, and was played for 2km over the rugged terrain from Balloch to Strathblane. Better than any Safari.
Travelling anywhere in a Pandemic was always going to come with a few drawbacks. When it rained (and it did, a lot!), there was not always a cosy cafe to welcome us. Many businesses were closed or operating on a takeaway only basis. So we got wet, we got very wet. But the girls sang and sometimes even slept (not something we had envisaged!) and were generally in great spirits despite the typical Scottish weather.
We mixed up the trip with varied accommodation, even renting some camping gear halfway for a night out in the wild. This was quite something in the central belt of Scotland. Largely industrial in its landscape we felt at times almost unseen as we glided through the tow paths and cycleways so close to built up areas but so close to nature. In Edinburgh we took the luxury option of an apartment on the Royal Mile, right in the heart of Edinburgh's old town - during any normal August this would be impossible and unaffordable for us, due to the International Edinburgh festival which draws in thousands of visitors.
Riding into East Lothian on the final leg we began to reflect on our trip and all the memories we'd made. We had reached familiar ground (arguably the most beautiful part of the trail - this is where John Muir got his inspiration after all) and could feel our adventure drawing to a close. The kids seemed to also begin to reflect more at this point, perhaps understanding the enormity of their journey - something never really achieved in many of today's fast travels.
Arriving home we have already begun to plan our next cycling trip, picking up a pre-loved Thorn Childback Tandem the very next day. Our 6 year old at least, will have to do some work next time. Normality is beginning to return and school is starting again. Our employers are calling us back in for work. This trip marks the end of an era none of us will maybe experience again and in many ways was what it was born from.
We have learnt a lot and I sincerely hope our next great family bicycle adventure is not too far away. I joke we should sell the house and embark on a nomadic cycling existence. "Not yet" says Lizzie, "not yet". But one thing is certain; life on two wheels is simpler; more real; and in many ways easier than off them. It is this simplicity I take away from this adventure more than anything. It is this I aspire to.
For more on The Overlanders, their services and their travels, head over to their website.
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