Undertaking the British Cycle Quest
Why the British Cycle Quest?
We are lucky enough to have visited most parts of the United Kingdom by bike, either touring on road or completing off-road challenges such as the Coast to Coast both in the South West of England and the North West, most of the Pennine Way and King Alfred's Way, the Coast and Castles route, 300 miles of the Highland 500, and a Manche to the Med in France.
Many years ago, we visited the Outer Hebrides, and we've even undertaken Land's End to John o' Groats and continued on to the Orkneys. However, even though there are still many places on our hit list both here and abroad, we were beginning to lack inspiration for areas that we'd not yet explored in the saddle.
I prefer the kind of cycling that involves a long-distance A to B route, where you can end up doing a lot of mileage in a day and often don't have much time to dawdle, whereas Rol prefers a more leisurely excursion, with lots of stops to look at places of interest and enjoy the scenery.
Even though we've known about it for many years, we'd never thought to get involved in the British Cycle Quest (BCQ), which presents the perfect compromise: a target to aim for and the satisfaction of achieving it, combined with discovering hidden gems. The quest is administered by Cycling UK volunteer Stephen Dee, who co-ordinates the checkpoints and validates the answers.
Now, finally, it felt like the ideal time to get started and I so regret not starting earlier!
The perfect challenge
It is the perfect challenge for someone who likes solving clues (cryptic crosswords, in my case) but also needs some kind of motivation to get started on a journey or task. With BCQ, though, there are no clues to solve as such, but rather answers to questions that can only be found by actually travelling to the destination in person by bike. Once I eventually started poring over the BCQ map of checkpoints, I realised that we'd been to many of the places where there are clues in the relatively recent past and could easily have looked up the answers.
For example, we'd decided to visit Kent for a week-long tour along the north coast, where I'd spent a few years as a student in the early eighties. We'd usually not consider a touring holiday so close to home, but with everyone flocking to the more popular destinations such as Cornwall for the Bank Holiday weekend, it seemed like a better bet.
Why on earth had we not used our visit to Canterbury to find the answer to this question? (BCQ Checkpoint 105): 'In the Butter Market opposite the Cathedral Gateway, is a war memorial. Who unveiled the war memorial?'. We'd also been very near Biddenden (BCQ 102) and actually in Rye (BCQ 091). Now, we'll have to plan another trip to Kent to find out!
BCQ in England
Luckily, that means there are still a dozen or so checkpoints within an easy day ride from home, so we can explore routes we might not have thought of without BCQ.
For example, Rogate (BCQ 084) is a popular destination for hardcore downhillers because of the bike park there, but wouldn't be somewhere we'd normally pass through unless en route to the New Forest or Portsmouth. However, it's just under 20 miles from home and we could ride there via Tilford (BCQ 116), partly via the off-road Seafarers' route, back via Midhurst (BCQ 081), making it great day out in a relatively unknown - to us - corner of the world.
It was actually fascinating just to see different vistas of landscape to the ones we know so well in the Surrey Hills, the view of the South Downs from the top of Habin Hill being particularly stunning.
Unfortunately, on the way home, we missed seeing the equally stunning views of the North Downs from the top of Bexleyhill as no sooner had we reached the peak than heavy, sleety rain started falling. With the light disappearing rapidly, and the already cold temperature dropping still further, we had no choice but to carry on and leg it home as fast as possible. Without the lure of a BCQ clue to find, we'd definitely have made it home a bit quicker but without the satisfaction of bagging our first three checkpoints in one day.
A hidden treasure
Next came a solo ride - you can complete BCQ as a pair and share a medal, if you want. With Rol stuck at home fixing bikes, I decided to venture out the following weekend to a far-flung corner of my own home county that, I'm ashamed to say, I don't think I've ever been to: Okewood (BCQ 113) (also spelt Oakwood). When I say 'far-flung' it's actually only 16 miles from home but very near the border with West Sussex, but we hardly ever head south east from home, except as far as Rudgwick perhaps, when riding along the Downs Link off-road route.
A bitterly cold and frosty day saw me layering up and tentatively setting off on my gravel bike with a full flask of coffee and plenty of snacks. Despite the cold, there definitely didn't seem to be any ice anywhere, even though the Garmin said the air temperature was just above freezing for most of the day.
Using a mix of bridleways and lanes, I eventually discovered the answer to the BCQ question on an inscription in the porch of the beautiful and very remote 13th century church of St John the Baptist, which was built in 1220, so just over 800 years ago!
Lying at the end of a dead end road, this is a destination you would almost certainly not visit if it wasn't for BCQ. The churchyard is also well worth a visit and the benches are ideal to sit on and catch your breath whilst contemplating all the other visitors that must have passed this way for vicarious reasons down the centuries.
The beauty of BCQ is that not only do you discover the destinations themselves, but can also stumble across other places that you may never have thought to go to: I was delighted to discover just a few hundred yards from the church that there is the Hannah Peschar Sculpture Garden, somewhere we could easily ride to for a longer day out.
The pull of Pulborough
Having been well and truly bitten by the bug after just four clues, we scoured the BCQ map for other places in easy reach. The honeypots of Box Hill and Shere could wait until either a late evening or night ride, but Pulborough (BCQ 085) was a day ride away and certainly wouldn't be too busy at the weekends. Both of us set forth this time and were soon flying through the gorgeous countryside and quiet lanes from Surrey into West Sussex.
The medieval Stopham bridge found and the question answered, we speedily turned round and found a different route back, stopping to eat our snacks on a handy fallen tree at the roadside with views across to the magnificent South Downs - Note that this clue has now been changed and the location for BCQ085 is the village of Kirdford, which is about eight miles away.
Without the chilly winter weather, we'd possibly have been tempted to carry on another 9 miles to Arundel (BCQ 083) to find the clue there, but having taken so long to start on BCQ, there's no reason to rush to finish it all at once, is there?
The closest checkpoint to us, a mere 10 miles by bike, is in the photogenic village of Shere, where many of the scenes in the ultimate Hollywood romantic comedy The Holiday were filmed.
A day off work and bright, sunny weather saw me extending my usual morning loop eastwards across the Surrey Hills to bag the clue, which is located in the centre of the village.
It was interesting to see Shere from the perspective of a visitor, instead of just passing through as quickly as possible trying to dodge the wandering tourists, as we normally would. I made a mental note to revisit when I had a bit more time and have a proper wander around.
Naturally beautiful in Hampshire
Branching out ever further afield, we decided to venture forth down to the wilds of Hampshire next. Despite being within an easy day's ride, we hardly go beyond the boundaries of Surrey, so BCQ provides a great motivation to do so.
Selborne may be known to some as the home of eminent 18th century naturalist Gilbert White, 'the world's first ecologist' and the location of his house and garden, which are now a museum and excellent farm shop. It more than merits a visit in its own right, with a pretty high street and Grade I listed church that dates back to the 12th century. In the churchyard, we sat and had our picnic lunch and thermos of coffee whilst we looked up the clue location (BCQ065) - which was more or less right in front of us!
Also in Hants is the equally lovely village of New Alresford, well-known for its pretty painted cottages, independent shops and a station on the Watercress Line steam railway. One of the best things about BCQ is that it forces you to look beyond the surface and discover some of the lesser known but more intriguing facts about a place. This is particularly true of the answer in New Alresford, which is on a plaque affixed to the wall of the public toilet near the station!
I think that BCQ would be the only reason to prompt us to visit the Isle of Wight on a blazing hot May bank holiday Monday, just as the country was beginning to reopen after lockdown.
Along with dozens of other cyclists, we squeezed onto the passenger ferry from Portsmouth, but were lucky enough to find a lovely space out on the deck in the sunshine. We had vaguely thought we could bag all six checkpoints in one day, but had forgotten how big the island actually is (although I'm sure many people would have no problem doing so).
However, we were able to tick off four out of six check points by following a route from Culver Down to Godshill then right across the island to Cowes and back to Ryde via Havenstreet.
The steep climb up to the monument at Culver Down was tricky with the amount of holiday traffic on the road, but really worth it for the spectacular views along the coast and out to sea. We had a bit of a wobbly moment, though, when the brakes on my gravel bike started to feel a bit spongy on the descent! Fortunately, I was able to slow down enough to stop clumsily on the grass at the roadside.
A ride down the Downslink for some retail therapy in the vintage shops in Brighton provided the excuse to scout out some BCQs in the area. Ditchling Beacon was a bit of a stretch, but we worked out we could fit in a trip to Steyning (BCQ086) on the way back to find another clue we probably would never have known was there - outside the historical St Andrew and St Cuthman's church - unless we'd had a reason to hunt it out.
Taking the High Road
When we plan cycling holidays, it's usually around long distance off-road routes such as the Great North Trail, rather than BCQ checkpoints. Sometimes, though, we do remember to try and bag some clues whilst we are near them (or annoyingly realise that we've forgotten and missed one we could have easily bagged!).
One such trip was to bikepack a section of An Turas Mor, which is part of Cycling UK's Great North Trail. As soon as it was possible to cross the border into Scotland, we went to our daughter's in Glasgow before taking the fantastic West Highland train line to Fort William.
We then rode up and over the Corrieyairack Pass, back towards Glasgow from Fort Augustus after a lovely gentle ride along the Caledonian Canal. Unfortunately, once over the other side of the pass, we took a wrong turning so missed the section across the moor to Kinloch Rannoch. However, Garry Bridge (BCQ594) was near the alternative NCN 7, which then heads towards Killin (BCQ583) so we could pick up a few more BCQ checkpoints en route.
It was certainly a ‘dreich’ morning, as they say, and not the best fun riding next to the A9, but at least it was downhill nearly all the way from Dalwhinnie to Pitlochry, where the sun finally came out (actually there was at least one more soaking in store) before a gorgeous evening ride along Loch Tay to Killin, passing lots of campers enjoying the beautiful evening sunshine from grassy spots high above the loch - we, of course, were staying in a hotel that night having had to fling our tent up in a torrential downpour on a small patch of flattish ground next to Loch Ericht the night before.
From Killin, we rejoined An Turas Mor, which follows NCN 7 to Balquidder (BCQ584) and Callander (BCQ582). Sadly, we didn't have time for the relatively short detour to Loch Katrine (BCQ586), so will definitely have to plan another trip.
One of the few frustrating things about BCQ is knowing that you have already cycled to quite a few of the more far flung checkpoints without thinking to tick them off! In Balquidder, as we descended a fast bit of road to find the clue at Rob Roy's grave, a dog that was at the side of a road with a group of men suddenly ran out towards me, but I screamed and just managed to avoid it, thankfully. If it were not for finding the answer to the clue, we would probably have passed by the small church where the gravestone lies, nor would we have enjoyed a snack in the warm spring sunshine on the bench nearby. With many other checkpoints in Scotland to find, we must plan a return trip very soon.
Wandering in Wales
Another long-distance trip later in the year provided the opportunity to pick off some more clues en route. We'd planned to do Lôn Las Cymru a couple of years earlier, but a last-minute injury meant we couldn't cycle it in the end. So one September, after all the various lockdowns were over, we decided to give it another try.
Starting in Cardiff, we followed the Taff Trail up the valley towards Merthyr Tydfil but had long passed the clue (BCQ433) before we'd remembered about doing BCQ! Another place to revisit one day. However, in Rhayader outside the grocery store, we bumped into three keen Questors who had started ticking off checkpoints in lockdown and were already approaching 200 clues answered so felt inspired to continue questing too.
We pressed on to the beautiful and historic market town of Llanidloes, where a bit of searching around ended with us locating the clue (BCQ472) more or less where we started (with, admittedly, a bit of help from a passerby).
Far harder to reach was the next clue (BCQ473) at Cadair Viewpoint, high up on a remote road just beyond Dylife, a former mining settlement in Powys, which is still on Lôn Las Cymru,.
We slogged up, mile after mile, on an incredibly warm day, longing for the oasis of a coffee shop or a pub but, sadly, the only one we passed looked firmly shut. Fortunately, we had brought plenty of water and snacks so flopped down in a tiny piece of shade at the roadside once we'd reached what we thought was the highest point.
The stunning views across the hills and valleys towards the Dyfi Forest, with a lone bird of prey hovering overhead, more than compensated. Another couple of riders appeared - the man far in front of his partner, who looked less than thrilled to be riding uphill in the heat - and we caught up with them later on at the checkpoint, where we discovered all about the famous author, traveller and broadcaster the memorial there is dedicated to. A steep, rolling descent dropped us down into the busy town of Machynlleth for a fantastic slab of cake and a bit of respite from the warm temperatures.
There are a lot more fascinating places with BCQ clues to explore in Wales but, sadly, we didn't have time on this trip to divert from our pre-planned destination of Bangor, where a train would whisk us back to Cardiff.
Having not been to the 'Big Smoke' for months, a spontaneous decision to jump on the train up to town one sunny Sunday morning, instead of our usual forays into the countryside, gave us the excuse to track down the BCQs there within our reach.
Firstly, the incredible wrought iron gates of the Globe theatre, which certainly deserve a closer look, then on through Hyde Park and over the currently traffic-free Hammersmith Bridge to cross Richmond Park to Richmond Hill to find BCQ122 and an incredible view across the Thames to the Surrey Hills and the North Downs Way in the far distance.
We'll go back one day and venture further north to Gunnersbury Park (BCQ126), then east to Camden (BCQ124) and Greenwich for BCQ121.
I'm eagerly looking forward to the next adventure. Now we've started, there'll be no stopping us until, eventually, we've ticked off all 402 checkpoints scattered throughout Britain to claim our platinum medal and certificate.
In a world full of digital challenges and artificial goal setting, it feels good to have a real life target to reach and, of course, the opportunity to discover some of the hidden gems of our incredible country at the same time.
With foreign travel becoming more difficult, and not to mention the pressing need to reduce our carbon emissions, undertaking BCQ is the perfect excuse to holiday in the UK in a very sustainable way.
If you would like to embark on BCQ yourself, just take a look at the map, pick a checkpoint to visit, look up the clue and go and cycle to find the answer to it - you're now a Quester too!
You can tick them off as and when, like us; or plot a zigzag route that takes them all in, as one couple of Questers are currently doing; or cellect them slowly and methodically over many years; or complete the challenge in one epic trip, it's up to you how you do it, but one thing is for sure, you will have a fabulous time.