In 2011, Anna set off on a touring bike, with a pair of panniers weighing 16kg, to ride the coast of England, Scotland and Wales. The trip covered 4,000 miles, and she completed her journey in ten short weeks.
Hughes, now a freelance cycle instructor and Bike Dr, had always felt driven to tot up the distance, she told me: “Since [I was] a teenager I’d always been obsessed with cycling to far off places just because I could. I would often seek out rivers and railway lines and use them as my guide, knowing that as long as I kept them in sight I’d end up where I wanted.”
It was round the world adventurer Alistair Humphreys who finally gave Hughes the extra push she needed – she says: “It was only ever an idea of something I would quite like to do until I met Alastair Humphreys and told him of my idea to ride the whole coast. He said, ‘Why don’t you do it, then?’ So I did!”
Most of Hughes’ friends were encouraging – but some had concerns: “One of my friends advised me that I should try something easier first, like a LEJOG. My dad said I was brave, intrepid, and perhaps foolhardy. I ignored them, naturally!” she tells me.
It wasn’t just Hughes’ friends who had some concern – of course she had her own fears, the biggest of which was that her pre-planned accommodation and route would not work out.
The planning took around six months, and Hughes stayed with friends, family, and colleagues along the way. She says: “There were a lot of logistics involved, but I’m a plan kind of girl, so it all added to the excitement and anticipation. Something I didn’t plan so well, as you’ll find out in the book, was the specific detail of the route. There were moments when I got horribly lost, and I’m not someone who can enjoy the act of being lost!”
Before leaving, Hughes thought she was a good navigator, but she had a lot to learn: “I thought they [my navigational skills] were good, but actually they were really not good at all! I am so much better at reading a map now. Plonk me in the middle of anywhere with an OS and I’ll tell you where I am – and it’s not as simple as you think. I learned to read the lay of the land, the route of watercourses, and the position that the sun would rise according to which way I was facing.”
The road around Britain is long – 4,000 miles long, in fact. It’s hard for Hughes to pick her favourite moments from such an adventure, but she has a few.
She tells me: “I really loved the east coast. People overlook it because it doesn’t have the ‘wow’ factor of some of the other parts of Britain, but I loved those sand spits and endless dunes and the cathedral-like skies with views for miles and miles over the plains.
“On the other hand, the western coast of Scotland was spectacular. The scale of everything is just breathtaking. And the coastline, especially around the islands, is so delicate – it was wonderful. And I absolutely loved Devon and Cornwall – incredibly hard work going up and down all those hills, but stunning views and perfect weather!”
There were tough moments, of course – Hughes tells me: “Wales, definitely, was the hardest. I feel bad saying that because I’m part Welsh myself, but I really didn’t enjoy that section! I developed a saddle sore, RSI in my wrist and a strain in my Achilles. I was bored with trundling up and down hills all day (you kind of think that the hills are over once you leave Scotland, but the hills in Wales are insane!) and the weather was not kind.”
Hughes was riding through the tail end of a hurricane in Wales – as she explains: “I can keep going in the rain. Once you get going it’s not so bad. Wind is a different story though – nothing you can do about that, apart from accept it and try and relax.”
On the journey, Hughes met many people who simply didn’t understand her mission – its scale, or the reason behind it. She said: “They thought it was an impossible distance. Or they would start telling me about bike rides they had done – even if it was just, “When I was a lad I used to ride all the time…” kind of thing. These conversations were always a delight!”
It’s understandable that some women might worry about travelling alone, but Hughes tells us she never felt vulnerable, saying: “I honestly think it’s worse to ride as a solo man – because people assume that, as a man, you can take it, so they take advantage. Everyone was so nice and helpful and respectful of me being a woman on my own.”
Of course, all good things come to an end – and after ten weeks – the coast came to an end and Hughes was back where she had started. She said; “Arriving home, I felt elated, exhausted, satisfied, empty, glad, sad, all those contrasting emotions that you would feel at the end of a long ride.
“I was really happy to be home and pleased with myself that I’d done it, but at the same time a bit confused as to what it was I was supposed to have done – everyone was hailing me as a hero and some amazing adventurer, but all I’d done was ride my bike. Part of me wanted to carry on, part of me was glad it was over. As I arrived back on Tower Bridge it didn’t quite sink in that all I’d done since last being there was pedal. The whole thing felt a bit like a dream.”
And the greatest thing she learned? “That riding a bike around the coast of Britain is not ‘doing nothing’ Before I set out, I had worried about the point of it all – I’m usually someone who works really hard and dedicates herself to ‘real’ work. I wasn’t sure why I was doing a big bike ride and what purpose it would serve. Afterwards, I realised just because it’s not going to pay the bills or solve third world debt, that’s OK – the fact that it made me happy is enough.
“Adventuring is a very healthy thing to do, both for the body and for the mind. And what purpose is there in life other than to enjoy it? I learned to relax and not rush and not worry about things I couldn’t change. I wasn’t a fundamentally different person on my return, but I could definitely appreciate a different viewpoint.”
The story Hughes has to tell in Eat Sleep Cycle is an inspiring one, that took 2 and a half years to write. She never intended to write a book of her travels, saying: “I was adamant I wouldn’t write one! It was Mike Carter’s book One Man and his Bike that really put me off… because it was such a wonderfully written tale of, essentially, the same trip [Anna and Mike started and finished in the same place], so I thought I couldn’t possibly write my own.
“Then I realised that, of course, a book of mine would be completely different; even though the places were the same, the way we saw them were different, and ultimately a book is about your journey rather than just where you went. People were so positive about my blog (the diary I kept during the journey) that I decided to try and turn it into a book. It took a lot of work and many years, but it’s all paid off now!”
Hughes has received plenty of emails from women telling her they are taking on a similar trip as a result of reading the book, and says: “That’s the most satisfying thing – I loved my trip so much, I want others to experience it too.”
Back in London, now, Hughes is a homeowner – but not of the traditional type. Living in a narrow boat, she is free to sale the River Lea in East London, and has a flexible job as a freelance cycle instructor. She says: “I suppose that, without having found the freedom of the open road, I would not have had the courage (or idea) to live on a boat. My future goals are to continue to explore, not for the sake of being an ‘adventurer’, but for the simple goal of being happy. There’s no rush – I love my current lifestyle, I do a job that I treasure, and I’ll keep doing it for as long as it keeps me happy.”
Warning: Reading Eat Sleep Cycle may reveal hidden desires to take on long distance cycling touring trips, and eat lots of fish and chips.