Helen Moat gets her kicks on Britain's cycling Route Six and finds the locals much friendlier than their reputation suggests
“Can I help?” the man said, crossing the road to where we were standing outside the village shop.
This sleepy settlement was on its lunch time siesta. The pub was closed and the streets were deserted – except for two women who were drinking coffee at the one available table outside the village store. The sun was at its highest now and the heat was intense. I longed for an ice-cold glass of water and a strong cup of coffee. My son Jamie and I had been cycling since 8am, and now, four hours later, I was drained of energy.
“I’m looking for somewhere to have a drink,” I said to the stranger while staring at the women, longing for them to vacate the table.
“Where are you going?” He looked curiously at our pannier-laden bikes.
“We’re following Route 6,” I said, pointing out the blue sign at the junction behind him.
“Route 6?” The man sounded puzzled. “I’ve never noticed these Route 6 signs before.”
The signs had been all over the village we’d just ridden through – little blue signs with the bicycle symbol and a square with the number in it. But they seemed to be invisible to the people living around them. Once or twice, when we’d missed a sign, or the direction was unclear, I’d asked the locals for help. And they had shaken their heads, “Route 6? What’s that?”
The stranger continued; “I used to cycle all the time when I was living in Switzerland, but not much since I’ve moved back here. I can’t believe I haven’t noticed these signs though.”
“Switzerland!” I exclaimed. “I’ve lived there too. Whereabouts did you live there?”
“Look,” said the stranger. “The pub’s been closed for weeks. Why don’t you come back to my place for a coffee? It’s just down the road, back the way you came.”
I hesitated. Was it wise to accept an invitation to this stranger’s house?
Still, we followed Raymond down the road. He led us into an orchard and to his garden house with its fireplace, armchairs, pictures and ornaments. It felt as if we were sitting in a living-room with two sides missing. It was deliciously cool under the shade of the summer house and I started to relax in the comfort of the armchair.
Raymond disappeared into his house and returned with a carafe of iced water and strong Swiss-style kaffee cremes. We talked about Switzerland and Austria and France – and all the other places we were familiar with in Europe.
As Jamie and I said our goodbyes, Raymond showed us the rest of the garden: the English country cottage lawns and flowerbeds, the French jardin with its chic-shabby Parisian garden furniture and his Austrian Terrasse shaded with grapevines.
And we were off on our bikes again, past the women still deep in conversation over their coffees outside the village shop, and on through tiny lanes, dipping and rising between fields of ripening wheat.
As we cycled along, I mused over our unexpected invitation. Wasn’t this the kind of thing that cyclists experienced travelling through Eastern Europe, the Middle East or in Asia? But not in Western Europe, and certainly not in England.
You see, I’d just experienced this act of kindness, not in some far-flung country, but just forty miles short of my home town.
You don’t have to travel thousands of miles, or even hundreds, to experience the kindness of strangers. Nor do you have to journey overseas to feel like you’re in a foreign place. That morning we’d wheeled our bikes down the path of our own house and disappeared off into a strange and unfamiliar country. We were on a journey that would take three days, cycling through the Midlands of England – in the middle of a heat wave – from Derbyshire to Hertfordshire. One that would have taken us just over two hours by car.
But by car, England would have gone by in a blur of motorway. We’d have seen nothing of the country and met no one. We’d have passed through a world of supressed senses: not smelling, or feeling or hearing – or touching the world outside.
We’d not have breathed in the tarmac melting in the heat, the pungent scent of wild garlic on verges, or the perfume of jasmine wafting through the air as we rode along tracks backing onto gardens.
We’d not have felt the slap of cold, wet vegetation against our legs in the early morning dew; the cool air against our legs before the build-up of heat. We’d not have felt the mud squelch over our shoes and the water seep through our socks as we felt our way through the dark tunnels of the Brampton Valley Way, on-a-bear-hunt style.
We’d have missed the sounds of children at play in city parks and the street musicians in the corner of market squares; the constant coo of wood pigeon that accompanied us wherever we went; the occasional song of the skylark, or the piping of grebes on canals.
We’d not have stopped to chat to countless people, all with stories to tell. On this trip, we didn’t cross skies or seas or bolt across the land in trains or cars; nor travel at 500 mph - or even 100 – but at the stately speed of 10. Sometimes less, if there are hills in the way.
But it felt like we’d gone a long way. The world looks very different from a saddle – even the world on your doorstep.
What is Route 6?
Route 6 is one of the many cycle ways devised and created by Sustrans. The routes pass through Britain and Northern Ireland, taking in off-road tracks, quiet country lanes, and cycle paths alongside busier roads in towns and cities. Route 6 starts north of London and will extend all the way to Cumbria when it is finished.
What is Sustrans?
Sustrans is short for sustainable transport. The organisation is a registered charity that has played a leading role in the creation of a national cycle network: from consultation, to land purchase, planning and carrying out the cycle path infrastructure, through to maintenance - alongside local councils. Their aim is to encourage people to take healthier, cleaner and cheaper journeys.
Which section of Route 6 did my trip take in?
Although I started in Matlock, cycling along the Cromford Canal and then along the A6, I didn’t join Route 6 until I reached Derby. From Derby, I cycled along dismantled railway tracks, alongside canals, through country lanes and villages and city greenbelts, including Loughborough, Leicester, Northampton and Milton Keynes. It was only when I was making my way from Milton Keynes to Hitchin (where my family lives) that I realised how pleasant and thoughtfully-created the Sustran routes are.
What were the highlights of the Midlands section of Route 6?
Almost too many to mention. The 13 mile Cloud Trail from Derby to Worthington; the canal towpaths; Foxton Locks; the Brampton Valley Way; the little lanes through English villages; the greenbelts through cities – particularly Milton Keynes, often voted the ugliest town in England, but surely one of the most beautiful from a bicycle.
Helen Moat has won several travel writing competitions, including runner-up x 2 with The British Guild of Travel Writers and highly commended in the BBC Wildlife Travel Writing competition. She is currently writing the Slow Travel: Peak District for Bradt Publishers.You can find more of her travel pieces on her blog.