When I first set out on this trip with Bart, I remember him being worried that a cycle tour around northern Europe might not be adventurous enough for us. I told Bart that no matter where you travel, if it's by bicycle, then adventure will always come your way. And it did.
The first few weeks were a dream as we cycled fast and easily through Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. We pitched our tent at nights in woods and fields with the cranes for company. We listened to bittern boom across the lakes and black grouse lek in the fields. We cycled out into cold, frosty mornings but during the day the sun warmed us and it was hot. Few people were on the move and we felt as if we had the world to ourselves.
But it was when we turned north and made the long cycle up through Finland and Norway to the North Cape at the top of Europe that things got really exciting. A combination of an early start to our tour and a late winter plunged our ride into snow and ice with temperatures as low as minus 10 degrees. We cycled with frozen hands and feet and pitched the tent in snow. These conditions culminated in blizzards at the North Cape itself. But it was a challenge to cycle and camp in such elements and the winter white landscapes were spectacular. We absolutely loved it.
Of course, I found adventure again in Iceland courtesy of the elements and had to cycle and camp in storm force winds and days on end of heavy rain in a country that's often empty and remote.
But I wasn't only looking for adventure. I really wanted to see the landscapes of the northern remote reaches of Europe. Of the places that I saw, two really stand out for me. The first was the west coast of Norway which I think is one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Rugged, snow-capped mountains rise from a sea as clear as glass and long fingers of fjords extend into a lush, green landscape.
To cap it all are the Lofoten Islands. A spectacular archipelago of sheer rock dotted with unbelievably charming fishing villages. The second place with breathtaking landscapes was Iceland. Its dramatic and diverse interior of rock and ice contrasted with the coastland which was wild and beautiful and full of birds.
But perhaps the greatest revelation to me was my "discovery" of the Orkney and Shetland Islands off the north coast of Scotland. I felt as if I had found two new lands within my own country, each having its special charms and beauty. Orkney especially was a place with an other-worldly atmosphere and a touch of magic. I can't wait to go back.
Of course at the end of a trip like this, people always want to know what your favourite bit was. I always tell people it's too hard to choose as each part has its own character that adds to the sum of the whole journey. But when I'm old and look back on life and think about my "northern exposure" trip, the image that will always pop into my head first is the long cycle north through the snowy winter wonderland of Finland.
One of the key aspects of the trip for me was to experience the light of a northern summer and for three months I didn't see darkness. In northern Norway the sun belted out full beams from a blue, cloudless sky 24 hours a day and it was difficult to sleep. I think we cycled down Norway sleep-deprived and bleary-eyed. But I much preferred the more subtle light of Iceland and Scotland. Here there was more cloud to veil the sun and a softer, more atmosphic light shone through.
There were moments of spectacular light on the trip. One was at the North Cape when we were coming back out. It was late evening and the road had been engulfed by blizzards but at one moment the sun briefly broke through the snow-filled sky. The other moments were beautiful sunsets in Orkney when the sun sank slowly into the sea in a blaze of pink and orange, and by a lake in Finland that reflected a burning sky.
So now the sun has set on my northern exposure tour. Thank you for following the journey. I hope my words and pictures enabled you to share the landscapes, the light and some of the adventure. I'll sign off with some beautiful words from TA Robertson that I found on a wall in Shetland.
When we, like all before us, have gone home,
Some traveller in the centuries to come,
May read what we have done our best to write,
About this land of glimmering Northern light.