So Mark, where did the idea for this challenge start?
I’ve owned and loved Ordnance Survey maps all my life – to be honest, I find them more interesting than books! They inspired me to get out and explore as a teenager with a great friend (we’re still friends!) and over the years I built up a collection of maps, probably about half of the full set. Back in 2021, I found myself in the fortunate position of not having to have a full time job – an unexpected retirement you might say. I wanted to make the most of it and I’d always wanted to do something big.
In the middle of the pandemic, I was looking through my map collection and stumbled across an old piece of OS marketing I’d picked up 20 years ago from a bookshop. It’s a map of all the maps of Great Britain laid out over an outline over the country to show how they fit together. That made me wonder how many of them I’d cycled on and then, for the first time, it struck me there was a numbering system. The idea just popped into my head – wouldn’t it be cool to cycle from 1 to 204 in order?!
So last November I sat down to work out if it was possible. It’s roughly 7,000 miles – each map is 40km by 40km and you can’t go as the crow flies. I worked out it could be done in 6 months from May to October with better weather and more hours of daylight. I’m 30 maps in (1 July 2022). There’s lots of back and forth but it’s an interesting way to see the country and you learn your way around a ferry schedule!
What’s the longest stretch you’ll cover?
Mid-Wales to the east coast is 13 maps wide. I stay faithful to each sheet as much as I can, but I sometimes have to dip out of a map to get back on track.
I’ve also added in the extra challenge of only riding west to east in stripes across the country, then using whatever means I can find, to get back with my bike to the start of the next sheet. Scotland is anything but straightforward, with a combination of islands, mountains and ferries that don’t connect – it’s complicated but interesting! Maps 8 to 9 from the top of the Isle for Lewis to Cape Wrath, for example, were quite a challenge to connect. Hopefully it’ll get easier as I travel further south.
What does your average day on your adventure look like?
It's variations on getting up, riding all day, finding places to eat, having dinner, taking a shower, writing my blog and getting to bed. There’s a lot of time to think and lots to talk about – I could write a book about every map, so I try to capture the things that stand out, the people I meet and the places I pass through.
Have you done anything like this before? How did you prepare?
I live in the Peak District (Map sheet 110) which is a great place to ride a bike – I rode with a friend throughout the whole pandemic, which kept me fit. Back in 2008, I cycled from Land’s End to John O’Groats for Cancer Research, over 12 long, long days. I was disappointed when it ended, when we ran out of land! I always wanted to do something really big in South America or Asia, somewhere exotic. But then after the pandemic, moving into a new phase of life, with the kids leaving home, it felt right to explore my own country first. It’s such a beautiful, varied country but also quite manageable in size.
How do you go about planning routes?
I’ve planned in chunks – the first two weeks my wife came with me and I felt a responsibility to know where we were and what we were doing. Up here in the far north of Scotland, there can be very little in the way of services and infrastructure, so you do well to book ahead as there also lots of people here on holiday. I might not get dinner if I don’t book it.
It takes time though – I spend hours working things out and I don’t leave home until it’s all in place. So I know where I’m going, where I’m going to stay and how it all links together. No two days are the same and today and tomorrow are a good example of this. I started in Glasgow, took a train to Mallaig and cycled up here to Arisaig. The ferry to South Uist is at 6pm, which arrives at 9.30pm. I’ll finish cycling the last bits of the map sheet there, then I’m on a 5.45am ferry back to the mainland the morning after.
I try to avoid traffic wherever possible. It’s not too hard in Scotland but it will become a challenge as I move further south. I’m used to hills, so they’re not a problem and I’d rather go up a hill than along a flat road with traffic! I always look ahead at pubs and cafés on remote routes, and then try to get to the most interesting highlights of every map.
What has been the high point of your journey so far?
There have been two or three times when I’ve been out riding late in the evening, on these endless summer nights you get in far north of Scotland. It’s 10.30pm and I’m totally alone with the sun still above horizon. One time, in 25 miles up the only road, I saw six red deer (and six cars) in the middle of this incredible landscape and then an amazing sunset at 11pm. That’s about as good as it gets. It just went on and on and it was all mine! It’s an incredible landscape and it’s a privilege to be immersed in something so much bigger than you. It makes you feel small but in a good way.
I’ve also travelled to places I’ve always wanted to visit – like St Kilda (Map sheet 18). It’s very remote and absolutely magnificent, getting there is an adventure in itself. I went a long way out of my way to get there but it was worth it. It’s a double World Heritage Site and it doesn’t look like anywhere you’ve ever been – a volcanic archipelago that rears out of sea, it’s absolutely jaw-dropping.
There’s a lot of contrasts – imagine the shock of arriving in Aberdeen after the remoteness of the Hebrides. In a matter of hours you go from a single track road to finding yourself in a melting pot. It makes you see things in whole new way, and you can appreciate both.
In a similar way, I moved from Nottingham into the Peak District National Park 20 years ago, and it’s the best thing I ever did. I love rugged country and I have the best of both worlds with Sheffield so close. We are close enough to the nearest Tesco; but it’s stunningly beautiful!
Any low points?
A couple of times the Scottish weather has made life unpleasant for an hour or two – 25 mile-an-hour winds in your face with accompanying rain. It’s wet and cold, stings your eyes and you can’t see, with nowhere to shelter. It’s happened twice but it passes, you just have to deal with it.
What kit do you rely on most?
I carry a few OS paper maps but they add extra weight, so I use the OS Maps app on my phone, which is a lot lighter... When you’re riding for most of the day you need fuel, which can be difficult in remote places, so my mantra is never pass an open café! I’m quite partial to Tunnock’s Caramel Wafers… and I’ve eaten lots of fish and chips, which are very, very good up here!
I’m not camping, so I don’t have to carry so much kit. My raincoat is the most important thing and I have a pair of cycling sunglasses with a choice of lenses. The first three weeks I used the dark lenses. Then I changed to the yellow lenses in the Hebrides and suddenly everywhere looked sunny, even in the rain. They fit my personality – I’m optimistic about most things.
As far as other essentials – I recommend a hot shower and a soft bed at the end of a long day on the bike!
What’s been your favourite OS Landranger map so far and which one are you most excited about getting to?
I particularly enjoyed myself on Map sheet 18, in the box in the corner, where you’ll find St Kilda. It also contains the bottom of the Isle of Harris and Sound of Harris, where you’ll find beautiful mountainous landscapes and white sand beaches. But they’ve all had their moments and it’s early days…
The very last coast to coast is just two maps, including the Scilly Isles and the finish point will be Fowey in Cornwall on the right hand side of map 204. I’m a slave to the OS map numbering system! But it gives me a purpose and a method.
If you could tell your younger self one thing before setting out on this challenge what would it be?
Get out there and do it, don’t put it off. It’s a good lesson for life – I lost some important people too early and now I’ve got nothing stopping me. I turned 55 while I was on the Isle of Skye and it’s not lost on me that it isn’t an option everyone has – so I’m pinching myself every day. It’s also not for everyone but it’s what I wanted it to do. I’m really motivated to get to map sheet 204, despite the weather and achy neck!
You can follow Mark on Instagram @ridealltheosmaps and read his blog at https://ridealltheosmaps.co.uk/