Lorna Fisher on completing the ‘Pedal the Parks’ challenge
- Credit: Rod Kirkpatrick/F Stop Press
Penelope Baddeley talks to Lorna Fisher who has just completed a fund-raising cycle ride that included all 15 of the UK’s National Parks
You might think she'd want to put her feet up after completing a 1,658 mile cycle ride, covering difficult terrain and taking in all 15 of the UK's National Parks in just two weeks. However, Lorna Fisher's mind is racing with ideas following her epic and gruelling adventure, which has raised £2,000 for the newly-launched Peak District National Park Foundation.
We are in the living room at Lorna's home in Glossop which she shares with boyfriend Andrew and cat Mia. The room is dominated by a huge and striking colour photograph of Crib Goch, an approach up Snowden which Lorna favours for walking. Yet the domestic setting for our interview feels like an anomaly for there's an overwhelming sense that this is a woman whose spiritual home is the great outdoors and that she can't wait to get back out there.
Lorna, a Peak District National Park Engagement Manager, planned her extensive cycling adventure after deciding that she wanted to return to the heart of her role as an ambassador for the countryside. For two years she has managed the Northern team of rangers in the Peak District National Park but she yearned to re-connect more directly with the public. The 36-year-old, who has worked in the field of outdoor learning for 15 years said: 'I wanted to engage face to face, to communicate and get a buzz from sharing my passion and the excitement I have for the natural world and the benefits to be had from being outdoors. I love to see people doing that and what motivates me is a desire to inspire them.'
She set upon the task of planning a meaningful challenge during which she could connect with the public and ride a route that had never been tackled before, starting from the Cairngorms to Loch Lomond, and then zig-zagging across the country to Northumberland, The Lake District, The Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors, the Peak District, Snowdonia, Pembrokeshire, the Brecon Beacons, Exmoor, Dartmoor, the New Forest, South Downs and the Norfolk Broads.
It was quite a challenge as Lorna had only taken up cycling seven years previously, trained herself to fitness without a coach and undertook the challenge riding a second-hand bike, covering a distance equivalent to cycling from John o' Groats to Lands' End twice.
Lorna's 'Pedal the Parks' project was also planned to tie in with the DEFRA Year of Green Action, designed to encourage people to connect with the outdoors and make sustainable lifestyle choices, and the 70th anniversary of the passing of legislation which led to the creation of National Parks.
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She set herself a target of raising £1,658 (the figure of the exact planned mileage of her route) for the newly created Peak District National Park Foundation, which this year aims to raise £70,000 for projects that care for the landscape, wildlife and cultural heritage of the Peak District.
Lorna's preparation for the tough undertaking began months prior to her start date of 13th April. A member of the Manchester Rapha Cycling club, she took part in its Festive 500 event which involved pedalling 500 km between Christmas 2018 and New Year 2019. She cycled with her boyfriend Andrew Webster and her best friend Grace Lambert-Smith. She bought a turbo trainer, which acts as a kind of spinning machine on a bike and she gradually built up back-to-back days of cycling at weekends.
'I'm very focused and single-minded and it took over my life. Towards the end I was doing two hours cycling two to three evenings a week on my bike plus two big rides at the weekend. I wanted my fitness to be the best it could be because I wanted to enjoy the ride.'
There were drawbacks: family birthday celebrations were sacrificed and leave days had to be taken from work to enable the intrepid adventurer to undertake substantial route planning, a task in which she was helped by her keen cyclist friend Grace.
She said: 'The logistics of route plotting took as long as the time I spent training because no one has done this before and there were no pre-prepared routes to take.'
Using a network of educators from the 15 National Parks, Lorna received feedback on routes and enquired what engagement opportunities with communities or park visitors would be afforded. In addition, the public, cycling groups, plus staff and volunteers from the National Parks were invited to join Lorna on any stretch - with the caveat that they had to ride at her pace.
On her first day, starting from the Cairngorms National Park at 8am Lorna cycled 125 miles, arriving at her designated sleeping place, a bunkhouse, at 9.30pm. It had been a good day in that she had company for the first 30 miles and had achieved well above what was to be her daily average distance of 101 miles.
She said: 'I was very excited on day one. It was very windy but the scenery was beautiful. I was on a high and it was a relief to be on my bike at last because the planning and preparation had been stressful and difficult to fit in with my full time job.'
But challenge had already kicked in. The temperature at Aviemore was -1°C. Lorna was cycling against headwinds with gusts of over 40 miles per hour and was blown off her bike on the Dromochter Pass, despite being partially sheltered by Cairngorm National Park ranger Al Smith who was cycling in front.
The hardest challenge of the fortnight came on day two, which involved cycling 149 miles from Loch Lomond National Park to Northumberland National Park. Lorna had linked up with a friend from Glasgow, Ruth Hind, and the pair had set off together for the hilly trip riding directly into South, South Easterly winds with 40 mph gusts. But progress was so difficult the pair parted ways.
Lorna said: 'It felt horribly sad. It was a slog and the most mentally challenging day. I just knew I had to keep pedalling but it took every effort to turn the pedals. And it wasn't the prettiest route. I was on an old road next to the motorway. It was exposed and difficult and I had to mentally get into the zone to keep going. I just looked a metre ahead of my wheel and didn't think of anything.
She failed to reach her planned destination, which was The Sill Youth Hostel and National Landscape Discovery Centre in Northumberland, before it closed at 11pm and ended up staying in Gretna Green. Lorna had fallen short by 25 miles on day two, which at her cycling speed of just 11 miles per hour due to bad weather conditions, was a cycle ride of 2.5 hours.
She said: 'It was hugely disappointing. My boyfriend and my mum wanted to talk to me and give me encouragement but I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just couldn't let my guard down. I needed to be in fight mode and couldn't allow myself to let my emotions get the better of me and become vulnerable.'
Each day Lorna was drinking six to seven 750 ml bottles of water to keep hydrated and eating vast quantities of calories to provide her with the energy to keep going. Her mainstay of accommodation was provided by YHA Youth Hostel Association and each morning she would eat a full English breakfast, followed by several bowls of cereal, then finished off with two rounds of toast and a croissant.
To keep up her mood as well as energy levels Lorna ate on the go every hour of the journey: a banana, a Cliff bar, a croissant with ham, a hot cross bun, then another peanut-butter-filled Cliff bar before stopping for lunch. Small and satisfying comforts were discovered through hard days and evenings of cycling.
After a 'light' lunch (notably not too heavy in case she got stitch) she would take comfort from a few slices of her favourite cold Margherita pizza, passed to her en route by friends or supporters, before she managed to stop for cake, and all the while munching on Milky Bar buttons or trail mix.
When passing through a town the keen cyclist would buy fresh pasta to make an evening meal at the local Youth Hostel and at the end of the day eat a protein bar to replenish and repair damaged muscles. At lowest points Lorna supplemented her diet with energy chews and consumed double expresso caffeine shots.
Looking back this super fit cyclist recalls joyous days and a highlight was her cycle through the North York Moors on day six. She was a good third of the way into her ride and felt she had broken the back of her self-imposed challenge.
'I'd more or less had a head wind until then which for a cyclist is your biggest nightmare. The high winds had made the beginning of the ride challenging, the going was slow and the days were long and I had begun to doubt myself and then suddenly by about day five my legs came to life and felt strong. I loved riding my bike. It felt a bit as if I'd ridden into fitness. Your body sort of says, "This is okay!"'
Roads were good, views were beautiful and Lorna was enthused and buoyed up by her encounter with Activity Tourism Officer for the North York Moors National Park Mike Hawtin who was working on a project to create a 190-mile cycle way using the best routes over the moors.
'Seeing people along the journey helped me gain knowledge of the area, distracted me from the challenge and gave me a real feeling that we were a family of National Parks.'
Encounters with people during her long and arduous journey often lightened Lorna's load. Worried mum Wendy Fisher-Hetherington visited her daughter at the bottom of Kirkstone Pass in the Lake District on day four, and treated her to home cooking at a youth hostel that evening. Whilst in Wales, Lorna's partner Andrew had joined her for a foray through the Brecon Beacons. Members of the public were intrigued by Lorna's extraordinary physical challenge and also turned out to meet her.
From the outset Lorna had been touched with gratitude by the kindness of strangers. Exhausted after a steep climb on the bike in the Cairngorms she had found a café where all the tables were already occupied. A stranger invited her to join his family at their table. She was fed with a helping of free cake and the stranger left a donation on her Just Giving page together with an encouraging message of support.
'The interest and kindness from people made this more than just a bike ride. Before I had started I had this fear, can I do this alone? But this made me realise you are never alone if you reach out to people. I never had a single negative experience. People just wanted to help me.'
After enjoying the buzz of an urban place, Lorna would also enjoy time by herself to drink in the stunning and widely varying landscapes. 'Everything could be so different within a single day of riding and I really enjoyed appreciating the special characteristics of each national park whether this was the landscape, cultural heritage, the flora and fauna or bird life.'
The bike, she explained, though faster than on foot, allows the observer a better view than in a car. 'You can peer over walls and hedges and stop easily when you want. You have freedom of movement and a direct connection with where you are. One day I had a race with a hare. An owl swoops over the road and yeah, it's really special.'
On days when the sheer size of the landscapes seemed totally overwhelming and the human form insignificant, Lorna batted away her fear by focusing on detail. 'It's not always about the big landscapes,' said Lorna. She made pressings each time she saw a wild flower for the first time - a visual diary of an extraordinary journey - and also made time to record 20-second video clips capturing her favourite calm locations. And she was delighted to see schemes in so many of the National Parks to encourage the public to engage with the natural world around them, the last of which was on her return when she rode the accessible gem of a route - the Monsal Trail.
'What I really liked,' she said, 'is that each park connected with people. It is so important to find in life what feeds your soul, nurtures your mind or helps you relax. This is particularly important for young people who live in such a fast-paced world. For me, cycling, walking and being outdoors helps me and I couldn't be without it, and being in a National Park is even more special because it is just so beautiful. We should give ourselves time. It doesn't need to be two weeks on bike, it can be ten minutes at the end of a day just sitting somewhere.'
Lorna is now planning how she might best share her visual and sound diaries. She is also buzzing with enthusiasm for a future project to tackle a less palatable aspect of what she discovered on her journey. 'One of the worst things I found was the amount of litter at the side of the verges. After I'd pass a service station you'd see Costa cups and drink bottles littering the ground for the next ten miles.' Lorna plans to liaise with the British Mountaineering Council's Hills to Ocean (H2O) Campaign to discuss the journey of plastics from countryside to ocean.
'They want to clear the mountains of litter to prevent it from getting into the oceans,' said Lorna. 'I feel everyone is very conscious of ocean plastic but what about where this litter comes from? It comes from people throwing it out of car windows. It all eventually ends up in our oceans. So now I have an audience and people are asking me what I'm going to do next and how they can get involved. I'm thinking of organising a Pedal and Pick Project in the Peak District and beyond.'
Lorna is also considering the creation of a new website to share the routes of her rides from the Cairngorms to the Norfolk Broads and sessions are planned for Lorna to talk to scouts and guides about her adventure and she is hoping to visit schools.
'I'm trying to use my two-week adventure to do more good, to show a film, talk about my 'Pedal the Parks' journey and share what I've learned about myself and use it to help others. For example there's a big drop off of teenage girls playing sports and I'd love to be a role model promoting the benefits of exercise and its use as a means of helping anyone struggling with mental health. I have certainly used it to cope with my own stress. Exercise gives you a great endorphin rush and wide open spaces help you think creatively and without constraint. The natural environment really helps with anxiety problems.'
On her journey home as she left Sheffield and came through Ringinglow she caught sight of spectacular Stanage Edge: 'I was just choked with emotion and shouted "Wow!" We are so lucky to have these stunning places to uplift us and I would really like to encourage others to be open to this, to get out and explore.
'I feel very excited now. I wanted my two week bike ride to have purpose and it has given me an opportunity to inspire others, and for me to do something bigger. It's not over.'