National express

What do you buy a travel fanatic for her birthday? Sue Ward's husband thought she might like a day with Simon Calder as he tried to reach all four corners of the UK, in one day, without driving. Unsurprisingly, Sue's special day was not a relaxing one...

Not much happens in Chirk, a monosyllabic village tucked just inside a bulge of Wales beside the English border. But at one minute to six each weekday evening, a frenzy of activity takes place: a train arrives from the east, and a bus departs for the west. Unfortunately for anyone hoping to alight from the 5.59 train and depart on the contemporaneous bus, the 100m dash between platform and bus shelter would defeat an Olympian (and, indeed, anyone who believes in the concept of integrated public transport).

Not much happens in Chirk, a monosyllabic village tucked just inside a bulge of Wales beside the English border. But at one minute to six each weekday evening, a frenzy of activity takes place: a train arrives from the east, and a bus departs for the west. Unfortunately for anyone hoping to alight from the 5.59 train and depart on the contemporaneous bus, the 100m dash between platform and bus shelter would defeat an Olympian (and, indeed, anyone who believes in the concept of integrated public transport).

As the bus and the train disappeared over different horizons, I invited Sue, my travelling companion, to accompany me to the A5. Sue Ward, from Hillsborough in Northern Ireland, is a winner. Of sorts. Her husband, Jim Cleland, made the highest bid in The Independent's Christmas charity appeal for the privilege of visiting the four countries of the United Kingdom in the course of my researching an article. Wisely, Mr Cleland donated the prize to his wife as a Christmas present. Seven months on, she found herself standing in the drizzle beside the main road to Llangollen.

" Fahren Sie nach Llangollen?", I heard myself ask when, against all odds, the third car to pass our waiting thumbs swerved to a halt and its driver wound down the nearside window. I was not linguistically confused: the vehicle carried German number plates. Frank, our driver, proved excellent company. He had been born in the German Democratic Republic about 20 years before the Berlin Wall came down. When the former East Germany collapsed, he became a peripatetic maintenance engineer, and is currently working at an MDF factory in Chirk.

Frank's current residence is a static caravan in Llangollen, which sounds less comfortable than even East German housing during the Cold War. There was no time to be proved wrong because we had a further 22 miles to cover before nightfall. Fortunately, within three minutes of his dropping us off on the Bundestrasse through Llangollen, Carys had picked up the baton, and us. She is a teacher who should really be a tour guide. "See that rock formation?", she asked as we sped up the Dee valley. "Tilt your head around and it looks like the Duke of Wellington's nose." And it did. The journey extended to around 30 miles by the time Carys had taken Sue and me around the highlights of this corner of Snowdonia National Park - such as the memorial to Michael D Jones, the churchman who persuaded his compatriots to colonise Patagonia - yet we still arrived in the meek town of Bala earlier than the bus would have managed. So ended the prologue to an expedition not so much laced with doubt as mired in uncertainty.

This is a journey through the British Isles that every traveller should make: an aspirational arc through some of the richest landscapes, seascapes, history and culture of the four components that make up the United Kingdom. The trail would lead along paths, cycle tracks, roads and railways through the air and across the UK's biggest lake. One small problem: our odyssey was to be achieved between dawn and dusk.

Perhaps you have heard of the Three Peaks contest, in which hikers attempt to climb the highest mountains in Scotland, England and Wales in quick succession. Well, here's the Four Nations ordeal, sorry, challenge: visiting Wales, England, Scotland and Northern Ireland in a single day. To give it an Olympian twist, we were to have 10 great touristic experiences along the way to turn the excursion into a modern decathlon. It turned out to be a journey of lakes and mountains, disaster and triumph, hope and anxiety, and one on which too many of the objects that used to be known as British Rail sandwiches were consumed.

WALES

At dawn, the largest natural body of fresh water in the principality reflects wide-screen tranquility. A few wakeful ducks carved elegant Vs across Lake Bala - a beautiful scar on the fine visage of North Wales. The chill had gone from the calm, misty air, and I was poised for the first of 10 events: a cycling circuit of the lake. I had brought my folding bicycle, and thanks to protracted negotiations involving the proprietor of Bala Backpackers and the man in the cycle shop, the promised bike for Sue was waiting in the hall. But Sue wasn't. Perhaps she had decided that a one-hour Great Bike Ride before breakfast was not her idea of a Christmas gift.

The reality was that Sue was locked inside her hotel, which was along the road from my hostel. From our conversations prior to the trip, she was clearly a sophisticated woman. It seemed unfair to subject her to the £10-a-night Bala Backpackers experience. So she was staying at the White Lion Royal Hotel, a place so fancy that bed and breakfast costs £35 a night. Not fancy enough, though, for 24-hour reception. In the first of an implausible number of mobile phone calls to each other on a day when we were supposed to be travelling together, she gave me a running commentary of trying to break out of the White Lion bar.

Within a couple of minutes, both bikes were swishing along the lane that curls up lazily next to Lake Bala. Snowdonia's mountains formed a broad-shouldered scrum as a backdrop. At 6am, the light was too feeble to render the palette in anything stronger than shades of green and grey, except for the occasional dazzle of a wild flower illuminating the gloom. Sheep, too, in a livery the colour of the morning mist, munching contentedly to keep the emerald landscape looking trim.

Fifty-seven minutes after starting the 10-mile clockwise circuit, we arrived at the White Lion Royal in a dead heat. Sue broke back into her hotel to retrieve her bag, while I returned the borrowed bike and kept the bus driver talking.

The man in charge of the Arriva Cymru number 94 looked healthy enough - which surprised me, for this was plainly a ghost bus. I had researched the transport options for the Great Bus Ride event exhaustively, and had been assured that the first departure from Bala was at 7.20am. The printed timetable agreed. But here we were, on the cusp of seven o'clock, with me sprinting between bus and hotel while Sue finally extracted herself from the teeth of the White Lion. All the driver would say was that the published timetable was out of date. With the escapee on board, off we whizzed.

"Whizz" is an exaggeration for this £2.20 adventure. The 94 shuns the A5 (that Thomas Telford steamrollered through North Wales) in favour of old livestock tracks. We meandered along the upper reaches of the Dee Valley, across a landscape threaded with ancient dry-stone walls, at a pace that provided plenty of time to appreciate the scenery. Occasionally we would pause at a forlorn village huddled around a church, but by the time we reached Corwen - and changed to a second unexpected bus, to Wrexham - the population of the 94 had risen to just seven passengers.

Wrexham is the first or, in our case, last city in North Wales, and a fine place to bid farewell to the principality: the prosperous Victorian architecture in the centre has been returned to its original splendour, but the narrow cobbled lanes have yet to be over-gentrified. Sue and I ambled slowly through the handsome redbrick, having unexpectedly gained 20 minutes on our schedule. But we had reckoned without the iron curtain that interposes itself between Wales and England. At the bus station, my question about the next bus to Crewe was met with bafflement, as though I had asked what time Concorde would be along.

The A534 at 9am is a busy road, but none of the vehicles seemed to be going very far. It took two lifts to reach the frontier, but we were allowed to cross without formality. The bike ride had begun 200 minutes earlier, and we had three more countries - and eight more events - ahead. First, though, we had to reach Crewe.

ENGLAND

Too many numbers: the clock said 38 minutes before the Virgin express headed north from Crewe. The road sign at the A41 roundabout said 17 miles to the station. Luckily, the driver said, "I'm going right past it." Andy, from Staffordshire, knows the rural roads around Cheshire like the back of his articulated lorry. But there was no way to avoid the congestion caused by the Nantwich Show.

By now, Sue was evidently wondering what had possessed her to agree to such an ordeal. She was scrunched up in the passenger seat with a folding bicycle, while I swayed around on the seatless no-man's-land between her and Andy. There were two good things about the traffic chaos created as 4x4s converged on this one-day-only agricultural occasion: I temporarily stopped swaying, and we could appreciate fully event number three in the decathlon - viewing a Great Work of Art.

You may not know the Angel of Cheshire, but if you have seen the Angel of the North you will recognise its profile. The Cheshire version is a one-fifth scale model of Anthony Gormley's creation that cost about a millionth of the price: it is ingeniously constructed from bales of hay. It challenges notions of permanence in art, and livens up the Cheshire Plain.

As we broke free of the gridlock, Andy shifted briskly through his 16 gears. But a contraflow in Crewe's main street put paid to any hope of catching the train, unless it was late. Inevitably, the tiresome piece of universal legislation known as Sod's Law (Travel) came into effect: the 9.58 had left precisely on time, but the following northbound train was delayed. The West Coast Main Line between Crewe and Oxenholme is most definitely not a great train ride. The track carves through post-industrial detritus, plus Warrington, Wigan and Preston. Yet between Lancaster and Carnforth, at least it has the grace momentarily to brush against Britain's west coast for the only time in its journey north from London to Glasgow. At Hest Bank, the train ruffled the feathers of seabirds paddling in Morecambe Bay.

Oxenholme is just a Cumbrian village, but it has a main line station and a Ryanair-like pretension: it is subtitled "Lake District", even though the nearest body of water is 10 miles away. By now you will have spotted that Sue and I were not just running late - we were also without a car, which makes the Great Drive event tricky. So we split up. Sue went ahead to Windermere, to commence the Great Walk without me, while I pedalled off to the adjacent town of Kendal to sort out the car.

Suzie Hayman, the writer and broadcaster on relationships, probably rues the moment she casually mentioned "If you ever need a guide in the Lake District, just let me know." Not only did we need a guide who, ideally, had lived in the national park for 20 years, it would help a lot if Suzie had a big fast Jeep and an entertaining husband named Vic who was also a dab hand at navigation.

Our rendezvous was at the Brewery Arts Centre, a splendidly converted beer factory in the middle of Kendal. We roared off to collect Sue as she descended from Orrest Head - the magical summit over Windermere from which you can survey much of the known world (I'm elaborating here from Sue's subsequent description).

"Tourists and tractors don't mix," observed Vic as we sat at 12.40pm in a queue of traffic on the A591, the road everyone takes to England's biggest lake. Our train left Penrith, 35 miles across the mountains, an hour later. Vic was already working on plan B. Never let stress about time and motion (or lack thereof) spoil your enjoyment of the Kirkstone Pass. This Great Drive climbs rapidly alongside Troutbeck, through a valley gouged from the earth by some cataclysm.

From the summit, Lake Windermere had shrunk to the size of a bath. The descent from what the French would call the col was magical, with altitude dissolving as rapidly as our deadlines; Ullswater looked like a lake that had escaped from the Alps. The new generation of Virgin trains also looks pleasing, except when the rear end of the one you had been hoping to catch disappears towards Scotland. Suzie sighed and slipped on to the M6. Vic mentally shifted the afternoon's shopping expedition to stores in the city that was the northernmost outpost of the Roman Empire. Another coffee and another sandwich in another station, and before we knew it the garden- shed-on-wheels known as the Scotrail 2.23pm to Gretna and beyond was being waved off from platform two. Handily, we were on board.

SCOTLAND

Great Train Rides are commonplace in Scotland. The most celebrated is the West Highland line from Glasgow via Fort William to Mallaig. But only the track across the Southern Uplands combines magnificent scenery with literary tradition. The first stop, Gretna Green, came and went without any newly-weds climbing on board, but from Dumfries the scenery - and the history - intensified.

Robert Burns, the greatest Scots poet, died here "by the Banks o' the Nith" at far too tender an age. He walked in the hills that lurch north from the Solway Firth, and now bear the railway over to Ayr on the Firth of Clyde. Butlin's may have deserted Ayr, but the resort and port have a claim to fame that will always draw visitors. The village of Alloway, which Ayr has annexed, is Scotland's Stratford-upon-Avon: Burns was born here.

The train clattered with a poetic metre while the lady in the window seat chattered. When she learnt of our next destination, Ayr, she told us her story of Robert Burns. Three decades ago, she took a tour of the USSR. In a distant corner of Uzbekistan, the Intourist guide found out that a contingent of the group was Scottish. The loyal Soviet Communist Party member promptly recited Burns' "Comin' thro the Rye" in a Scots dialect so convincing that she could have been born in Troon, not Tashkent. Our train hit the coast at Troon, where the golf course was empty save for skeletal towers. They looked like watchtowers of the sort preferred by Uzbek border guards, but were in fact elevated platforms for television cameras.

We arrived in Ayr with so much time on our hands - nearly 90 minutes - that it seemed like a holiday in itself. Our journey had started over 10 hours earlier, and had covered 330 miles. Time, at last, for a taxi: Brig o' Doon, please. This 13th-century engineering miracle, which crosses the deep gorge of the Doon, is so impressive that the Koreans built a replica of the Great Bridge on the holiday island of Jeju. They have failed, though, to emulate "Alloway's auld haunted kirk", as Burns described what is now a roofless 15th-century ruin. Both church and bridge are key locations in Burns' poem "Tam o' Shanter".

Our last Burns destination was the cottage where the poet was born. I knew it opened until 5.30pm, but failed to appreciate that the last admission is at five o'clock sharp. Only one thing for it to fill the time before the next train: Ayr in a G-string, or at least a pair of swimming trunks. Judging from the balmy water temperature as we wandered out on Ayr's gently shelving shore for our Great Swim, the Gulf Stream pumps its way direct from the Gulf of Mexico to the Firth of Clyde.

Prestwick airport, Ryanair's Scottish base, is so close to Ayr that it could be renamed Robert Burns International. Sadly, the Irish airline does not fly to Belfast, so Sue and I took a train and a bus to the easyJet plane from Glasgow. While waiting for the mildly delayed flight, Sue tried to give my beer away. It happened like this: still encumbered by my folding bicycle, I had to follow a labyrinthine route to the oversize baggage counter. Sue kindly offered to set up a couple of beers as an antidote to railway coffee. My mistake was to fail to ask "landside" or "airside"? While Sue looked anxiously at her watch in the former, I was racing through security to the latter. On the phone, she gallantly offered to try to bring the beer through, but I felt this a long shot.

Sure enough, when thirst lured me back landside, Sue had been turned away from security and was offering the bottle to another passenger. In the complex equation of aggregate human happiness, I calculated that my disappointment at seeing the Grolsch sunk by someone else would exceed his frustration at being teased with the brew. He graciously concurred, as hour 14 of our odyssey began.

NORTHERN IRELAND

At the point when our mileage tally for the day exceeded 500, the easyJet Boeing crossed the corrugated coast of County Antrim. The descent to Aldergrove airport alone justified the appellation of Great Flight. The farmland of rural Ulster looked wonderfully wayward, as though it had been embroidered by a seamstress who had been at the Guinness (or the Grolsch). The sun that had evaded us for much of the day billowed bright orange on the horizon, making up for lost time - as did the bright orange plane. We reached the gate on schedule, but moments after the Gatwick and Edinburgh arrivals. This was crucial because only one baggage belt was working. Ours was last in the queue, which incredibly meant it took longer from touchdown to retrieve my bike than the flight from Glasgow.

The man who had made all this possible was waiting for us. Sue's husband, Jim, loaded a couple of travel-lagged people into the car and raced the sinking sun around Lough Neagh. This was the point at which Sue had called in a favour from her friend Michael, who just happens to own a 26ft yacht. Yes, he would be sailing that evening, and would welcome some extra crew if we could make our way to the marina at Ballyronan. Travellers' preconceptions are often absurdly out of step with reality. Many intrepid explorers would prefer to fly across oceans to reach locations ideal for sailing or fishing than to venture to Lough Neagh, on the grounds that Northern Ireland is too riven by violence. Yet the biggest danger on the UK's largest lake is that you will be so captivated by the setting and the swell that you will stay out far too long on your Great Sail.

The original Coney Island, a National Trust property, is in the far south of Lough Neagh. Michael's boat, however, was moored in the far north. Tacking against the wind to traverse the lake would have taken about a week. So as the dying of the day left a ghostly sheen upon the water, Sue and I took turns to take the helm on a short-haul circuit of Ulster's inland sea. At the end of a manic day of buses, hitches, trains, planes and automobiles this, at last, was real travelling.

The best laid schemes...

Sue Ward describes her day of dashing around the UK

I have always been one of those fanatics who reads the travel section of the newspaper first, looking for inspiration for the next big adventure. These pages have sent me in search of tree houses in Kerala, sultans' palaces in Zanzibar and hidden riads in Marrakech. So it was no surprise that my husband Jim thought this 24-hour mystery tour with a travel writer would the perfect gift for me.

The Independent regularly asks that question of its interviewees - "Is it better to travel or to arrive?" I have definitely always been a "better to arrive" sort of girl.

That ideal was turned on its head during my day-long adventure with Simon Calder. We had a destination in mind, or four to be exact, but it was the process of getting from A to B that provided the real spice.

I think I was one of very few guests staying at the White Lion that night in Bala, as I wasn't even asked for my name on checking in - just issued with the key to room No 1. Later, as I struggled to sleep, I couldn't help but wonder why, with three storeys of empty rooms above me, they had put their only guest in the room right above the bar.

Later, as we stood, thumbs skyward, trying to get out of Wales, I did wonder at Simon's eternal optimism. His "never mind, there is always plan B" attitude was to come in mighty useful over the next 16 hours. Ten minutes later, from our elevated seats in Andy's articulated truck, we were rewarded with that wonderful view of the Angel of Cheshire. The only negative was that neither of us could get to a camera.

Then I came down to earth with bump and a shudder of bad memories - Crewe train station! Years ago, as a student at Loughborough University, I used to travel by train, boat and bus from Loughborough to Stranraer, on to Larne and finally home to Cavan. The journey took 20 hours on a good day - I had successfully managed to avoid Crewe ever since.

Some time later, having eventually arrived at Windermere, I headed off, guide book in hand, to find and conquer Orrest Head. The shady path wound its way through the dappled sunlight of Elleray Wood until I arrived unexpectedly at the summit to sit and survey the views of Windermere. As I made my way back down, the horse I had stopped to stroke nearly jumped out of its skin when the quiet was shattered by my mobile - it was Simon, he had found our lift and would I kindly get a move on?

Moments later Suzie and Vic were racing us through the Northumbrian countryside towards our northbound train. We didn't make it, so we didn't make it to Loch Lomond. Simon has somehow overlooked our original plan in his tales of our adventure, which was to undertake a sporting challenge at the largest lake in each of the four countries that make up the UK. We finally made it north of the border for a delightful whistle-stop tour around Burns country. It seemed only fitting that we should pay our respects to the originator of that line that so well reflected our day, "The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men..."

The late evening sunlight provided a perfect backdrop to the rolling hills of Country Antrim and the shimmering waters of Lough Neagh as we flew to our final destination.

It was a great thrill to speed across the waves, even if it was at a slightly too many degrees off the horizontal for my liking. Simon made a much better fist of the sailing than I did. I was happy to just enjoy the sound of the wind in the sails and the stories told as we traversed the Lough.

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