Cycling from Land's End to John O' Groats

Amanda Angus / 21 October 2019

"Don’t die with your dreams still inside..."



At 81 years old, Mavis Paterson became the oldest woman to cycle the length of Britain. A pretty astounding feat in itself, she did it with a hip that needs a rather urgent replacement.

‘I had an x-ray done before I left and the surgeon said, “I’m afraid I have bad news for you”. I thought, oh no, does he mean I’ll have to cancel my trip? I didn’t say that, but he could see it in my face. He said, “You have no cartilage at all between the bones, so your hip is bone on bone. But because you’ve told me there’s no pain when you cycle, you can do the bike ride, and we’ll try to get you in as soon as possible when it’s over.” So now I’m just waiting for my operation. I’ve already got a left hip and a right knee, so now I need a right hip and a left knee!’ I suggest that she is, in fact, The Bionic Woman; this elicits a self-effacing chuckle and a wry ‘Yes, maybe that’s what I am, I don’t know.’

To get on the bike with a hip in sore need of replacement, Mavis – or Maeve, as she prefers to be called – would have to pull the bike to the ground, manoeuvre herself on to it, and then bring it up upright again.

‘I really can’t walk at very well, the pain is awful, but if I was on a hill that was just too difficult to cycle up, I’d have to lay the bike down, get off, and try to push it up the hill. And because I’m going into the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest woman to ever cycle from Land’s End to John O’Groats, no one was allowed to help me get up there, I had to do it myself and push through the pain.’

At this point I suggest that even without the record-breaking rules to follow, she would have been loath to pass the buck for any part of her adventure. ‘Oh, yes,’ she agrees, before pausing and adding in her matter-of-fact way, ‘But there were times when I thought, to heck with this Guinness book. The rule book to get into it is huge – we had to find witnesses every night, but at one point in the Highlands, we were in the middle of nowhere, the only witnesses we could find were sheep, and we couldn’t ask them! But we did manage to get to the most remote hotel in the whole of the UK and found some fishermen and they were able to witness what we’d done.’


The other half of the ‘we’ she mentions is her travelling companion Heather. ‘Heather had all the information in her Garmin, of the route and the miles we did. We had to total up the miles every day, and add them to the day before, and at the end it was 969 miles we cycled. It took us three weeks. It had to – Heather had to be back home in Glasgow by a certain date, and at first we fell behind. She’d planned the whole route and one of the very first days she’d put 50 miles – but on that day I struggled and only managed 30, because the hills of Cornwall are horrendous. We fell behind, and Heather said, “If we keep going at this rate, I’m afraid I shall have to leave you in Glasgow”. I thought, “Oh that’s awful – I don’t know how to work the Garmin!”. So the next day she said “We’ll do 39 miles today’ and I was so determined that I kept battling on, and we did 70. She said, “Can you do more?” and I said, “I certainly can.” So we upped the miles, and we did the whole thing together. So that was my low point when she said she didn’t think she’d be able to finish it with me, but my high point was the moment she said, “I think we’ll be able to make it together.”’

She is clearly very fond of Heather, and I ask how long they’ve known each other. ‘Heather is the daughter of a friend I met in primary school, and we’ve been close friends ever since. So I knew about Heather but I didn’t know her very well, other than she liked cycling, but when she found out I was going on the John O’ Groats ride, she said she’d love to come along. She’s the same as Katie would have been, if she were still alive.’ At this Maeve’s voice breaks slightly. Her three children, Sandy, Katie and Bob, all died within four years of each other. They were all in their forties, and Mavis feels their loss keenly. ‘I just loved them so much,’ she says sadly. ‘But being on the bike helps.’

Rowing the Atlantic

I tell her she is incredible for taking her feelings of grief and putting them into something so inspirational; something that will save, via the funds she’s raising for Macmillan Cancer Support, so many lives. She is reluctant to accept the praise. ‘People say, you’re so strong, and I don’t feel it. People who have lost children say how I’ve helped them, and now folk are going out and buying bikes, and getting active and healthy. It makes me feel good to help people. A few people have used the word ‘inspiration’, but I don’t think so. I’m just Granny Maeve. I’m just an ordinary granny.’ I counter with my feelings that there’s no such thing as an ‘ordinary’ granny - that every granny is marvellous in their own way – but that perhaps Maeve is more marvellous than most.

But again, she deftly deflects the praise. ‘I look at the guys in wheelchairs who play wheelchair tennis and the runners with their blades, and I think how wonderful – I expect at one point they would have thought, I’ll never be able to do this – but they’re doing it! And really, anyone can. You mustn’t die with your dreams inside.’

Ever humble, she tells a story of a recent shopping trip to Morrisons. ‘There I was, right bang on the front page of the paper. A great big picture! So I did my shopping with my head down, it was awful. Then I got to the counter and the girl said “That’s you!” and I said, “Yes, yes”, threw my stuff in the basket and ran away.’ I ask her how she’s coping with her new-found celebrity. ‘I’m so busy! I have to go and cut a rope somewhere in the next few days, and I don’t know what to do – do I just stand there, and shout, ”Halloooo!” at everyone?’

I ask her what makes her keep going. ‘It’s like a fire burning in your belly,’ she says thoughtfully. ‘A fire burning in you. I don’t know what I’m doing next. I’ve climbed Kilimanjaro, but anybody can do that. I’ve canoed, but I nearly drowned in a rapid after I accidently went down it backwards in my canoe, so I think I’ll stay on my bike.’

At the time of writing, Mavis had raised over £70,000 for Macmillan Cancer Support - if you'd like to donate to her cause, click here.




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