The Harbingers of a Spring Cycling Holiday

The return of swallows used to herald the end of winter. Then a street full of cats arrived and all the swallows disappeared. These days my harbingers of spring are glimpses of snowdrops, tulips, hyacinths and daffodils that bring with them longer daylight hours, warmer cycling weather and hurray, the freedom that accompanies retirement to take holidays where and whenever.

I love flowers and wanted to see the tulips of Amsterdam.  When speaking to others I was told the tranquillity of flower adorned canals has been replaced by stag and hen parties, red light activities and cannabis cafés. No thank you, I don’t want any of that nonsense.

Could Shrewsbury be a safer alternative?  Its’ parks and gardens are spectacular and 3 days cycling would include a tour of beautiful Shropshire…but umm, having just endured 4 months of cold winter weather made worse by a real battering from storm Emma, ‘Get me out of here’  was firmly fixed in my mind.

Towards the end of March a regional television programme showed the dutch bulb fields. So some weeks later ……….

The big day arrived !

My train arrived in Newcastle-upon-Tyne central station at 14:45 leaving a short and speedy 10 mile bicycle ride to the 5pm overnight DFDS ferry bound for Holland. With a  ‘phew, puff and pant’  I arrived in plenty of time for boarding.

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£260 brought a return ticket in cabin accommodation with evening meals and breakfasts. The last time I used a DFDS ferry was between Newhaven and Dieppe back in 2012. The cost of that crossing was £25 so todays ticket was unexpectedly expensive. The ticket issued was a bar-coded boarding card that detailed my cabin number.

I was reminded to keep the card safe as it was needed to open my cabin door in a similar way to the plastic swipe cards that hotels use. The card would also be scanned to confirm my evening meal and breakfast was paid for.

Wheeling Bessie my bike into the car deck of ‘Sailing Ship (SS) King Seaways’  I wrapped a krypton cable around both wheels and frame, securing it with a gold standard ‘D’lock that a thief would need a diamond tipped power tool to cut through….my job for tonight is to remember where the key is.

Shortly afterwards a couple from Glasgow arrived on a Cannondale tandem and a deck-hand strapped the bikes together. He explained this was standard working practice to prevent them being damaged in rough seas or causing damage on the car deck. I couldn’t be more satisfied that my Bessie was both safe and secure.

IMG_0276I then found my en-suite sea view cabin which I found to be clean, comfortable and warm with ample space for yours truly.

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IMG_0281After unpacking my belongings I went on deck and watched as we gently cruised from the mouth of the river Tyne and into the North Sea. Throughout the crossing the sea was calm and the ship simply glided across the water.

My evening meal was lovely and ended in time to visit the on-board cinema where the ticket kiosk was being manned by the deck-hand who had earlier secured my bicycle. There were three films being screened and I asked which one he thought was the best.

Smiling broadly at me I paid for a ticket to watch the  ‘Sinking of the Cruise Ship Oceanos’. 

At the end of the film I plotted a route from my cabin to the nearest lifeboat then went to bed for sweet dreams ?….. not after that film – I woke up at 2:30am.

Giving DFDS £260 for a return ticket began to play on my mind. With nothing to see from the sea view window I made a cup of tea and used my smartphone to check how far we had sailed.

Position enroute to Holland at 2:30am

My screensaver image shows SS King Seaways (in blue) parallel to Manchester and two thirds of the way to Holland travelling at 18knots/20 mph.

20 mph multiplied by the 13 hours it takes to sail between Newcastle and Holland informed me that the travel distance is 260 miles. For the 2nd time today the number 260 had entered into my life – how’s that for serendipity?

Dunking a ginger snap into my tea cup it dawned on me that £260 for a sea view cabin, evening and breakfast meals in each direction was only costing 50p a mile.  ‘Mustn’t grumble’ came to mind.

Suitably reassured the £260 return ticket was a bargain not a rip-off, I went back to bed with a happy head to contemplate why is Holland is referred to as the Netherlands and why the good people of Holland are ‘Dutch’.

I assume Holland is an area of the Netherlands in the same way as Wales is an area of Britain, but why their people are Dutch and not Hollandish or Netherlanders remained a puzzle as I fell asleep…..

Safely ashore

I woke at 7am, showered then went to the buffet restaurant for a hearty breakfast and filled my thermos flask with coffee that I took away with a ham & cheese role for lunch.

When the public address system announced we were docking at IJmuiden (pronounced as ‘E-moy-den’)  I made my way down to the car deck, freed my bicycle and disembarked safely ashore.

The weather was warm and sunny with no winds. My route took me to and through the town of Haarlem for an effortlessly enjoyable bicycle ride along the ‘Bollenstreek’ (flower route) on dedicated cycle paths to the next town, Leiden.

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The flower route lived up to its name. I haven’t seen such a crop of flowers since my school day Saturday job in the fields of ‘Pasture Croft Nursery’ near Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire.

In those days flowers held a characteristic scent. We now have odourless blooms that are chemically treated to last longer…..umm, perhaps I should put some of those chemicals into my coffee.

Today I was able to enjoy a kaleidoscope of different coloured and varieties of tulips, hyacinths and daffodils. This was aromatherapy at its very best; an experience that could not be shared with the passengers of passing tourist coaches.

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We don’t grow tulips at home as the bulbs could poison our dogs, so it was great to see so many of them here. I had thought the tulip came from Holland until a chap I met told me the bulbs originated in Turkey where the tulip is its national flower in the same way as the daffodil is associated with Wales.

He went on to explain the tulip originated from China and was spread by birds, bees and wind to the mountains of Iraq, Iran and Syria before making its way to Turkey where it was cultivated. Fancy that, you learn something new every day.

I stopped for lunch alongside the flower strewn banks of the Oude Rijn (the old Rhine) at Leiden. Before the days of photography artists such as Monet (Water Leidenlilies) & Van Gogh (Sunflowers ) painted pictures of flowers. Another famous artist, Rembrandt van Rijn, was born here in Leiden.The surname Van Rijn means ‘Of the Rhine’  and despite Rembrandt being born in the centre of flowerpot land his fame came from painting portraits of people. I have seen one of his masterpieces at Penrhyn Castle in Bangor.

The journey home

Arriving back at the DFDS port in IJmuiden for my journey home the return sea crossing was as calm as a mill-pond. After my evening meal and a spot of duty free shopping I went on deck to watch the sun settling on a marvellous day out.

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IMG_0273Arriving back at the Port of Tyne for a more leisurely cycle ride back to Newcastle ‘Network rail’  delayed the departure of my train by 15 minutes

Whilst 15 minutes seems inconsequential the delay resulted in me missing a connecting train from Manchester to Shrewsbury and a further connection home, groan.

Despite this ‘ sting in the tail’ I really enjoyed my little adventure and recommend the Bollenstreek route to all cyclists seeking a flower powered holiday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Inventory of adventures

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October 2017: Cycling from Shrewsbury to Blackpool for the ‘British Heart Foundation’

July 2017: National Cycle Route 72 ‘Hadrian’s Cycleway’

May 2017: Forgotten Britain –  A bicycle ride alongside the Grand Union Canal

September 2016: Morecambe Bay to Whitley Bay

June 2016: The background to cycling from Lands End to John O’Groats for Tŷ Gobaith

May 2016: Lands End to John O’Groat. A story for the  Tŷ Gobaith children

September 2015: Memory Lane. Crosby beach to the South Lake District

July 2015: Cycling alongside the Rhine from its source to the North Sea – travel log

October 2014: The story of Bessie my bike

August 2014: Cycling along the Trans-pennine trail

May 2012: London to Paris by bicycle

May 2010: My first 100 miler – Bangor to Aberystwyth Universities

 

 

Cycling from Shrewsbury to Blackpool for the British Heart Foundation

Preparation

I registered to join this years event some months ago and the British Heart Foundation (BHF) website gave me access to invaluable training advice that I followed to improve my strength and stamina for the bike ride.

A few weeks before setting off a BHF email then gave a timely reminder of my responsibility to check the bicycle was suitably equipped for cycling on a public road at night. The message arrived on a rainy day and being stuck for something to do……

Browsing the internet for guidance a search engine took me to Cycling UKs information page that explains what the law requires. My front and rear lights were legally compliant but not the pedals; regulations require a set of four reflectors coloured amber and marked BS 6102/2, positioned so that one reflector is plainly visible to the front and another to the rear of each pedal.

Cycling UK point out that although the likelihood of being challenged for not having pedal reflectors is low, the absence of reflectors may be regarded as contributory negligence should an accident occur. So 2 clicks later I sourced two pairs of British Standard pedal reflectors that arrived by pony express the following day. 10 minutes later they were in place.

Looking proudly at my handiwork a passing glance at the tyres sent a shiver down my my spine. The treads were wearing thin and indentation marks on the sidewalls had to be a gypsies warning that bad things could happen. Would I really want to fix punctures during a midnight cycle ride in October? No thank you I would not. As for the mudguards  ‘decidedly shabby‘ came to mind…..umm, the growing shopping list could cost a few quid. And it did.

In addition to buying a new set of clincher tyres I also ordered the manufacturers inner tubes that have greater substance than cheap spares. Inflating them to be suitably reassured I wasn’t starting with a leaky piece of rubber, I let the air out and on they went. As for the new tyres – gosh, the beading was really, really tough. Although blessed with strong grip strength my thumbs ached from the force needed to work them into the rims.

After attaching my new mudguards I refitted the wheels and went for a bicycle ride. Beneath the front mudguard its turning tyre repeatedly wobbled right of centre. Groan…..mauling the tyre over the rim must have bent the wheel.

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My new spoke key is now kept in a safe place….I just have to remember where 

Returning home I turned my bicycle upside down to investigate. The wheel was centred and secure but several spokes were slack. Could I find my spoke key ?  No chance, I had to buy another.

Aided by a neighbour whose working life had involved the black art of wheel truing (straightening), my wheel wobble wobbled away for a safer rolling bike.

After stress testing the spokes off I went for a couple of hours cycling and wow, what a difference. The steering was a seamless extension to my arms, speed an extension to leg movement and as for comfort, I was at one with my bike – perfectly balanced.

The ride: Saturday 7th October

Today began at 6:30am with a dog walk and breakfast, then the 08:20 train from Harlech to Shrewsbury from where I would cycle to Runcorn, a distance of roughly 50 miles. This is the same mileage as this evenings cycle ride from Manchester to Blackpool for the Heart Foundation.

My ability to undertake these additional miles had been made possible by following the BHF pre-ride training plan. Some weeks before this evenings event  I became aware that a 50 mile bicycle ride was well within my comfort zone. ‘Going those extra miles’ would leave my conscience clear that those sponsoring me were not being taken advantage of.

If I wasn’t spoilt by the beauty of living in Harlech I would probably live in Shrewsbury, the county town of Shropshire, where there is much to appreciate:

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Bessie the Bike under Quantum Leap

  • Quantum Leap commemorates Charles Darwin who was born here.
  • Shrewsbury’s folk festival is visited by thousands and countless other people listen on-line to its streamed performances

AND………..

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This haven of self-indulgence bakes my favourite strawberry and cream cake sliced and sold in a more than generous portion size…….Yummy !

The streets of Shrewsbury are adorned with flowers and the place is well known for staging the world’s longest running annual horticultural event, due in no small measure to the late Percy Thrower who worked as the parks superintendent

When we married and brought our first home we watched Percy on the television programme ‘Gardeners’ World’ and learn’t how to grow fruit and vegetables. With todays need for food banks I wonder if updated guidance could help some of the less fortunate to grow and then cook their own nutritional meals.

On the outskirts of Shrewsbury I cycled through the village of Merrington where Percy OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbuilt his own house. Called ‘The Magnolias’ it sat in a 2 acre plot that was a location for Gardeners’ World.

Just before setting out on this trip I discovered that Percys’ house and garden no longer exists. I did pass a social housing development called  ‘The Magnolias’ and a little  further along the road a street sign bears his name.

Shrewsbury to Manchester

My 75 mile route from Shrewsbury to Manchester

For the next 6 hours it poured with rain. I was so pleased to have brought my waterproofs: a rain hat, sealskin gloves,  overshoes and over-trousers. As visibility was poor I turned on a very high intensity rear light as a warning to approaching motorists.

Arriving in Runcorn I unclipped my pannier and handlebar bags and left them at a hotel before continuing to the BHF starting point at the Trafford centre on the outskirts of Manchester.

With less weight it took just 2 hrs to cycle the remaining 25 miles. The rain stopped.

There is no shortage of food outlets at the Trafford centre. With an hour to go before the ride I enjoyed  some warm food and brought additional servings of coffee that I poured into my Stanley Thermos flask for the night ahead.

According to the British Heart Foundation over 760 people registered for this years event. I am unsure what the collective noun is for people on pedal bikes. Could it be  a ‘Café of cyclists’  or is it a  ‘Herd’ ?

Some folks were just like me, an ordinary leisure cyclist supporting a great cause. Others were club cyclists, others were groups of friends. This is the 3rd time I have taken part.

On my first ride in 2013 I arrived before anyone else and became the first cyclist in first batch of riders to be sent off. Despite the official route being well signed I took the wrong turning off a roundabout and several cyclists followed. A marshal came to our rescue.

Two years later I drove to Blackpool where transport took our ‘herd ‘ to the starting point in Manchester. There was no way I wanted to be first on our coach and what a blunder that decision turned out to be. Being last in my bicycle was first out.

How I hate being first and whether cycling or in life first place is a very bad place. When you are 1st things can only get worse. A dozen or so cyclists assumed I knew where to go and followed me out of the car park and around the Trafford Centre perimeter to the starting point in the car park that we had set out from.

Tonight at the stroke of midnight we all set off towards Blackpool. Being with others acted as a motivation booster. I quickly settled into a comfortable cadence that was occasionally interrupted to stop at red traffic lights. Within the first few miles several cyclists had pulled off the road and onto the pavement to repair punctures. I was so pleased not to be amongst them.

BHF rides are exceptionally well organised. We all stopped for refreshments at 25 miles.  Trestle tables were staffed by hard working volunteers offering fruit, cake, hot soup and bread rolls. I drank water, ate couple of oranges and set off with an energy bar.

Manchester to Blackpool

My 50 mile route from Manchester to Blackpool

During the cycle route it is surprising the number of people that clap and shout encouraging words to the passing riders. Many are just returning from wherever they have been on their night out. One man gave me £10. If he is reading this, yes, I did hand it over to the the BHF and thank you again for your unexpected donation.

This evening I was chatting to a chap who was doing his first midnight ride. He was worried about falling asleep whilst cycling. I’ve known of people falling asleep when driving, but is it possible when cycling? Along the ride an emergency ambulance passed by, so perhaps it is.

Arriving in Blackpool its world famous illuminations twinkle to feed cyclists with that final boost of enthusiasm to cycle along the golden mile and arrive at the Tower Ballroom and its dazzling finishing line. ‘Yep’, it started to rain again but hey-ho who cares.

Supporters cheered every cyclist as we received a BHF finishers medal – the icing on top of a truely wonderful and worthwhile event.

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Data displayed on my Garmin at the finishing line

Since leaving Shrewsbury I had cycled 125 miles. It had taken me 13½ hrs at an average speed of 9¾ mph.

The time was nearly 6:30am, I had been awake for 24 hours and reached the finishing line before 2 thirds of the other entrants

Not bad for a pensioner eh !

 

After returning to Manchester I cycled to a nearby railway station and caught a train to Runcorn leaving me with a short cycle ride to the hotel I had booked into the previous  evening. After much needed shower I retired to bed having now been awake for 30 hrs.

Thank you to all those who have sponsored this years night ride and to the BHF team that made it such a success.

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National Cycle Route 72 across Britain

Tuesday 4th July

Last year I cycled its length. This bicycle ride crosses Britain. My starting point overlooked the Irish Sea close to the village of Anthorn whose radio station signal regulates the UKs automated clocks.

AnthornFrom here I headed north to Bowness-on-Solway and reached the western end of Hadrian’s Wall from where I followed NCR 72 into Carlisle. At this point I have to say a big thank you to Sustrans whose signage ensured busy roads were avoided in favour of quiet safe lanes with countless interesting sights.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA year ago I had cycled through Carlisle en-route to John O’Groats and regretted being unable to spare the time to stop. So I spent the remainder of today sight-seeing.

Carlisle is a busy place with its landmark castle. I managed to find the auction room owned by Bargain Hunt expert Paul Laidlaw.

Wednesday 5th July

I left my B&B without buying the 50 pence breakfast being sold for £5 then hunger took over. The aroma of a bacon butty led me by the nose into a nearby by café.

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Suitably fuelled I set off along NCR 72. My route took me to a pedestrian crossing that bridged the River Eden. It was closed for safety reasons and the diversion took me into parkland.

The diversionary path was an easier, shorter and safer route. I have now emailed Sustrans to request the present NCR 72 signage is updated for cyclists to follow this diversion.

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The parkland route opened onto a quiet country lane that took me out of Carlisle and over the M6 motorway.

I regularly drove along this motorway leaving home at 5am in the morning to work in either Gateshead or Glasgow. Happy days? – no.

Having escaped Carlisle and the unhappy reminder of motorway life the following 2 days of cycling were to be the very best I have ever experienced; NCR 72 weaves through gorgeous villages and places of historic interest including the ancient Roman Fort of Birdoswald where I photographed Hadrian’s Wall:

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I wrongly assumed Hadrian’s Wall was built as a border to Scotland. Todays visit informed me that Walls were the Roman empires’ practice of ‘defence before expansion’. Some years later they advanced into central Scotland where the little known Antonines Wall was built. They eventually retreated back to Hadrians Wall, the Roman empires’ boundary in Britain.

Several places displayed road signs that used the county name of Cumberland. That evening my cousin Kenneth explained that some years ago the county merged with Westmoreland and gave rise to the county now referred to as Cumbria.

My route from Birdoswald took me to Haltwistle, the geographical centre of Britain where I stopped to visit the Mr George Museum of Time.

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Diana the owner is the daughter of George who passed away some years ago. She tells me he was a keen cyclist and cycling club member of a local group. He was also a watch and clock repairer. Diana served her apprenticeship under his guidance and continues to repair time pieces in the premises.

Many museums are boring. This one is fasinating. Display cabinets contained wrist watches, mantel, travel and alarm clocks. Some were like the ones I previously owned. The relaxing sound of wall and cuckoo clocks happily ticked away.

One of the rooms is for children to learn about and draw pictures of clocks and Diana is an accomplished authoress whose illustrated childrens books form a series of ‘Mr George’ stories. The stories tell of the adventures he has with his daughter ‘Dinah’ as they travel round Northumberland repairing clocks.

This was a wonderful visit and whilst entry is free of charge I was pleased to make a charitable donation to support her great work.

NCR 72 took me over the Northumberland moor on a traffic free road with fabulous views:

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From here my journey to Hexham went over a bridge that crossed the Tyne. The view was amazing and equalled, if not bettered my cycle ride alongside the Rhine:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI stayed overnight in Hexham and met with cousin Kenneth who told me about the 7 bridges that cross the Tyne in Newcastle.  I was keen to see the Millennium bridge being raised and he used his smart phone to find out what time I had to be there.

Thursday 6th July

Leaving Hexham my route followed a former railway track where I saw the house where George Stevenson was born.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI used to confuse George with his son Robert. Robert designed the ‘Rocket’ steam train; George was famous for inventing the ‘Geordie’ coal miners safety lamp.

Then onwards to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Newcastle has its fair share of bridges. Within the space of 3 miles I counted 7 of them; some were for trains, some for vehicles, some for pedestrians.

Top left is the most iconic of Newcastles 7 bridges, the Tyne Bridge. Its builders went on to construct the Forth Road and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The Swing Bridge ( top right) was constructed to expand trade by opening the upper reaches of the Tyne to larger sea vessels; under the photo of the Swing bridge is the ‘High Bridge’. Vehicles drive through its core and trains on the top.

From left to right the 4 bottom photos show the QE II Bridge that carries the Metro light railway, then the King Edward Bridge for trains only. I travelled over it on the way home. Next is the concrete Redheugh bridge that is used by motorists  getting to and from Newcastle and Gateshead. The last photo is the Millennium Bridge.

The Newcastle Millennium Bridge is the newest. It was officially opened in 2001 by HM the Queen to mark her diamond jubilee celebrations. Having been told by cousin Kenneth that the bridge would open at noon, I arrived in time to capture that moment.

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As the bridge was opening the person next to me said that anything dropped on the deck automatically rolls into special traps at each end of the bridge – wow, how clever.

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NCR 72 then follows the quayside past a cafe and bicycle workshop called the ‘Hub’, then inland to pass the Swan Hunter shipbuilders, then the ferry terminal linking Newcastle with Amsterdam. The end of NCR 72 was reached a mile or so later at the mouth of the Tyne.

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Many cyclists wheeled their bikes onto the beach and undertook the ceremonial ‘end of journey‘ dipping of tyres into the sea. Not for me. I decided to go the extra mile and cycled to the Rendezvous cafe in Whitley Bay for my just desert –  yummy !

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cycling through forgotten Britain: the Grand Union Canal

Background

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Tuesday January 17th 2017 was a notable date. Prime Minister Theresa May delivered a speech that was greater in importance than that of any other politician during my lifetime. Whilst she explained the guiding principles to negotiate Great Britains departure from the European Union I completed this canal scene jigsaw of the ‘Grand Union’.

After spending 3 weeks studying, sorting and assembling 1000 individual pieces of the jigsaw that my wife brought me for Christmas, I became suitably motivated to cycle alongside the Grand Union and experience the sights that were patiently joined together on our dining room table.

Preparation

I prepare for cycling holidays in the same way as putting together a jigsaw puzzle, starting with the outline followed by inner detail.

The  ‘Grand Union’ is Britains’ longest canal stretching 137 miles from the great City of Birmingham to the Capital City of London. And I could think of no other part of Britain where it is possible to cycle 137 miles and completely avoid steep hills or the dangers of motor vehicles, parked cars, bus lanes, traffic lights and T junctions. It sounds too good to be true and made me wonder if it was legal.

An internet search revealed that a permit used to be required to cycle alongside canals. This is no longer the case. These days the  ‘Canal and River Trust’ simply asks cyclists to watch for walkers as pedestrians take priority over cyclists on canalside paths. Suitably reassured the route is lawful I looked forward to the superbness of a safe, picturesque, unhurried and relaxed bicycle ride to London.

It would be misleading to suggest that cycling alongside a canal is completely risk free; internet stories report an increased incidence of tyres being punctured by thorns, sharp stone or broken glass. Cyclists risk injury from hitting their head on low bridges or branches from trees and being next to the waters edge risks falling in. An uneven terrain causes a bumpy ride.

Road maps do not contain the detail required to plan a canal route. Thankfully inland waterway publications do and this story is dedicated to my neighbours Roy and Pat who lived on the canal network and shared their literature of the Grand Union with me and also Tony & Sarah who kindly brought me a ‘Collins waterway guide‘ (ISBN 978-0-00-814652-8) and ‘Pearsons companion for the River Thames‘ (ISBN 978-0-9562777-63); these publications detailed the route to take, interesting places to look out for and the mileage involved:

  1. Birmingham to Brentford via Napton Junction = 137 miles
  2. From Brentford the River Thames leads to Oxford = 78 miles
  3. Taking the Oxford canal back to Napton Junction = 50 miles

The ‘Canal and River Trust’  (CRT) provide a free on-line map of every canal in the UK showing walking routes and where is it possible to cycle. If a canal walking or cycling holiday appeals to you, click on this link then type the name of the canal that you want to travel alongside, press your shift key and away you go: https://canalrivertrust.org.uk/enjoy-the-waterways/canal-and-river-network

Mountain bikes with wide tyres and suspension forks are more suited to the uneven and puncture risk terrain of canal-side pathways. For this reason my light touring bicycle was slightly modified to be fit for purpose:

  • By swapping its seat stem with a long travel suspension seat post the uncomfortable jolts of an uneven terrain would feel less severe.

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  • If I fell into the canal my ‘clip in’ pedals could anchor me underwater. So I changed them for double sided platforms; one side has a ‘clip in’ mechanism for road use, the other is a flat platform that shoes simply rest on. If I fell into the canal this will reduce the risk of being trapped underwater.
  • I carry an aerosol ‘instant puncture repair‘ canister plus two spare inner-tubes to deal with any punctures.

Getting there

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The compartment door closed, a buzzer sounded and the Hogwarts express pulled away from platform 9¾ at Harlech railway station. Apart from Hagrid the train manager asking to inspect my travel ticket I enjoyed an uninterrupted journey all the way to the great City of Birmingham, where I lived and worked for 50 years.

Back in the 1800s’ Birmingham metal and leather trades required coal to produce steam that powered the machines used in factories during the industrial revolution. A wagon and horses owned by transport hauliers would move coal along poorly maintained cart tracks from ‘Pit to factory’.

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-18-47-11One of the haulage companies called ‘Pickfords’ still exists today. When the demand for coal became greater than a wagon and horse could carry, canals were built.

The canal engineer responsible for Britains canal system was James Brindley. His system linked coal fields with industrial cities, and those cities with four great rivers; the Trent that goes to Hull,  Mersey to Liverpool , Severn to Bristol and Thames to London. These seaport cities provide a gateway for exports and imports to and from the continents of Europe, Africa, America and Asia.

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A canal barge (narrow boat) pulled by a single horse could carry thirty tons of coal at a time, more than ten times the amount that was possible by road. This huge increase in volume reduced the transportation price of coal by nearly two-thirds and the output from Birminghams metalwork industry that included brass fittings, machine parts, buttons, pen nibs, nails, coins, jewellery, guns and ammunition flourished. Coal also had other uses. By burning it in enclosed ovens, gas was produced for cooking and lighting.

My route followed a waterway built for a now vanished form of commercial transport, the working narrow boat.

Day 1: Sunday May 14th

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Having sat inside a railway carriage for 4 hours from Harlech the opportunity to walk was welcomed. So I wheeled Bessie my bicycle out of Birmingham Central Station then through the city centre into Gas Street, the 1st street in the city to have gas lights and down the canal basin for the start my bicycle ride.

Whilst fully expecting the canal side path to be in a poor state of repair I was surprised and delighted to be on a really decent surface. Within 10 minutes I was cycling through a tunnel underneath the long-since closed Curzon Street Railway Station and wondered why the term ‘going through a tunnel’ is not applied to a bridge, where we say ‘going under a bridge’. I think this is because a tunnel is a tube that cannot be cycled under…..umm, the strange thoughts of a cyclist.

Curzon Street used to be the Birmingham terminus for trains from London and there is talk that the station may reopen for trains using the HS2 line from the capital – numbered 2 because it is the second high speed rail line in Britain; Eurostar which connects London with France and Brussels in Belgium is HS1.

A Dutch consultancy firm is drawing up proposals for a new national cycleway that will shadow the HS2 railway from London to Birmingham and the North. Designers aim to stay within 3 miles of HS2 and as most of  railway will run through the countryside, I guess that sections of this proposed new cycleway is likely to follow existing trails.

Whilst looking forward to those plans becoming a reality I was now cycling with the sound of the city above me and its underworld of this tranquil canal stretching out into the distance.

I Screen Shot 2017-03-28 at 18.56.18stopped at Proof House junction to take a photograph of ‘Typhoo’ wharf. Until reading about the Grand Union I was unaware that TyPhoo Tea had been a Birmingham based business. Sea voyages imported tea leafs from China or India to Londons docks that were loaded into narrow boats that travelled here.

Typhoo was our cup of tea. I remember the slogan: ‘You only get an ‘OO’ with Typhoo’ and that each box of tea contained a picture card which would form part of a set you could redeem for a pen, an inducement for brand loyalty and sales.

Proof house junction takes its name from the  ‘Birmingham Gun Barrel Proof House’ where gun manufacturers comply with a legal requirement for weapons to be tested before use. TOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAhe test involves an inspection of the gun that is fired with a higher pressure going through the barrel than normally shot. Weaponry that pass the firing test are certified with a die stamp. The testing process destroys substandard weapons.

Looking at the entrance gate I wondered how many killing machines had been secretly transported along the canal network to and from this place, hidden from public gaze.Yet lots of Birmingham factories made weapons and ammunition, including those with an historic connection to cycling:screen-shot-2017-02-24-at-23-54-48

  • Kynoch’s in Witton, who became part of Imperial Metal Industries where my late Uncles wife Winnie worked as a supervisor.
  • Reynolds on Shaftmore Lane in Hall Green. They once held government contracts to manufacture tubing for flame throwers and bazookas. Reynolds now make tubing for bicycle frames. Mine is made with Reynolds 853 grade tubing.
  • The British Small Arms (BSA) factory next to the Grand Union Canal in Small Health. BSA craftsmanship made military  bicycles for both the territorial army (WW1) and parachute regiment (WW11).

BSA bicycles were transported by canal from Small Heath to an army ordinance store at Weedon Bec from where they would be distributed to troops.

Just beyond Small Heath the nicely surfaced canal side path tapered into a soil track that was originally used by horses to pull barges. One end of a rope was tied to the horses collar and the other to the barge:

  1. The horse was led in front of the barge until the rope was at full stretch.
  2. The rope acts in a similar way to a stretched rubber band that wants to return to its original position. Energy is transferred to the objects at both ends of the rope.
  3. The end with least staying power moves inward to allow the rope to recoil.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
  4. Because water offers very little resistance to objects floating along its surface, the barge moves towards the horse.
  5. The horse takes another step forward and stops, the rope at full stretch recoils and the barge now glides across the waters surface,

Horse power’  then tows the barge along the canal at whatever walking pace the horse is comfortable with. Those towing paths are known as tow-paths.

When all this is taking place the man, woman or child on board (known as a bargee) would use a long pole to manoeuvre or propel it away from the waters edge, giving rise to the saying ‘I wouldn’t touch that with a barge pole’ .  To stop the barge or turn it sharply the bargee would attach a rope to the rear of the barge and whip the other end around a strong post or tree trunk to fulfil the function of either an anchor or pivot point.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPhew !……thankfully I’m not a horse or whipping post and in just under an hour I reached my canal side destination for today, Knowle on the outskirts of Solihull.

Over the next 2 days I would pass several canal side Inns, similar to this one where I spent the night.

My guide books explained that very few bargees could read or write so they collected news and information from canal side pubs where they would stop for refreshment and rest.

Day 2: Monday May 15th

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI resumed my journey alongside the canal to catch sight of a brightly plumaged kingfisher as it darted along the waters edge fishing for its breakfast. It wasn’t just the kingfisher who was fishing, a line of maggot danglers had positioned themselves along the narrow tow-path in front of me. Grrr… canals avoid traffic danger but not the barbed hook of anglers. I remembered that noise will cause fish to scatter and anger anglers, so passed by quietly.

Within an hour I arrived at the Hatton flight of 21 locks. An amazing sight, arranged in succession for boats to rise up or be lowered 147ft (45 meters).

Until reading about canals I had only ever associated the term ‘Road’ with the tarmac surface used for motor vehicles. The proper definition for a road is a ‘way from one place to another’ and bargees use of it describes the length of water between locks. The Hatton flight is a bad road. A good road would be straight with few locks.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI took 10 minutes to cycle the next 2 miles and according to my canal guide book 10 minutes is the average time for a boat to pass through just one lock. I passed several narrow boats working through the flight and noticed the hard manual task of winding the windlass and pushing open or closing the lock gates were undertaken by women. I am told it is a tradition for the men to drive the boat whilst women operated locks – umm.

My route then took me through the county town of Warwick and the forever beautiful Royal Leamington Spa, whose river Leam donates some water to fill the Grand Union that travels alongside it for several miles. I began to think about the damage that rivers cause when they flood and would much rather live alongside a canal with its locks and valves that prevent them from bursting their banks. If only rivers could be so easily tamed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt Napton Junction the original route of the Grand Union takes a right turn and meets the river Thames at Oxford with a further 78 miles to reach London. I made a left turn towards Braunston and joined the Grand Junction Canal that was built to reduce the distance and shorten journey times to London. Sadly the towpath lacked a defined  well trodden path and for the next 30 miles I cycled on grass. Internet reports of punctures were accurate. My front and rear tyre deflated and the instant aerosol repair was only good for roughly 10 miles. Fortunately I had spare inner tubes and changed the punctured ones with such speed that a formula 1 track-side mechanic would be envious.

The Grand Junction canal was ‘Cut’ to allow pairs of narrow boats to carry greater quantities of cargo through its wider locks; one boat would be powered by a horse or in later years a diesel engine. The other narrow boat would be a ‘butty’ which had no engine and was towed alongside or behind the powered boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABecause larger boats could not navigate the locks on the original canal their cargo was left in storage warehouses at Braunston until loaded into smaller boats. Pickfords were one of the haulage and storage companies that had kept pace with the canal revolution by investing in boats and storage warehouses.

Bargees were members of the ‘Amalgamated society of watermen, lightermen and bargemen’ that in 1922 merged with the ‘Transport and General Workers Union’ (TGWU). One year later the first ever strike of the TGWU occurred at Braunston and for months the canal network was at a standstill. Industries had to find a way around the strike. Their solution was to transport raw materials and finished goods along the now much improved rail and road network.

An unintended consequence of strike action accelerated the decline of canals for commercial traffic and with it the end of an era for working horses; Pickfords moved with the times and sold their narrow boats to invest in a fleet of road transport lorries.

Braunston is also famous for its canal tunnel which is over a mile long and although cycling through it appealed to me there is no towpath.

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 19.18.21When canal boats relied on horse power the horse would be walked over the top of the tunnel and wait at the other side. The crew would “leg” the boat through, pushing with their feet against the tunnel sides or roof.

I pushed my bicycle up the ramp to the side of this bridge and along a farm track above the canal to rejoin the towpath next to the west coast railway line. At that moment an express train thundered past parallel to the M1 motorway with me cycling along the canal towpath sandwiched between them.

As a train passenger I relate this stretch of canal with its marinas as being a milestone of approaching Birmingham. My visible clue of being closer to London is the advertising board of the Ovaltine maid that is situated alongside the railway in a home counties field.

The significance of where I was then dawned on me. The canal, railway and motorway span 3 eras of transportation. In their day each was built to transport large volumes of goods and people back and forth to London in the fastest time. And this unique place all 3 transport systems are next to each other and all three have been expanded to carry more traffic.

The loudness of another train and the roar of motorway traffic submerged me in noise pollution. Peace was only restored after the M1 veered away at Weedon Bec.

Screen Shot 2017-03-29 at 20.39.36 The Weldon Bec Royal Ordinance depot contained eight storehouses that were arranged in two lines on each side of a branch of the Grand Union via a guarded portcullis. The journey of BSA bicycles from Small Heath would take 3 days.

The BSA bicycle on the left was made for use by the territorial army in WW1 who patrolled the British coastline to keep look out for an enemy attack.

On the right is a  BSA Airborne Folding Paratroopers Bike. This was made in WW11 to give paratroopers a way to cover larger distances after landing while remaining quiet and undetected. The paratroopers held the folded bike in front of them as they jumped out of planes and floated to the ground. Once on the ground they unfolded their bike and kept it in shape by tightening wing nuts that were located at the top and bottom of its frame.

The next 20 miles continued along the bumpiest of tracks where internet stories of the greatest incidence of punctures have been recorded.

  • On the occasions I failed to take my body weight off the saddle when going over bumps my suspension seat post took the edge off a  ‘kick in the derrière’
  • Air in a bicycle tyre acts as a spring when not inflated to the ‘rock-hard’ maximum and I pumped in a 5 PSI lower pressure than for road use. This slight reduction improved the smoothness of riding on an uneven surface and guarded against the rim of the wheel hitting the tread of the tyre causing a pinch–puncture.

I then arrived at  Blisworth Tunnel which at 3076 yards (1.5 mile) is one of the longest in Britain.

As with Braunston, Blisworth tunnel has no path to cycle alongside. My route was above the tunnel and along a road to rejoin the canal at Stoke Bruerne where I visited the Grand Union canal museum that celebrates the canal community.

Day 3: Tuesday May 16th

Following an overnight stay in Milton Keynes at a delightful Airbnb run by Ida and Floyd I followed the MK Millennium route, a multi-user traffic free path and arrived back on the towpath for the 2nd half of my bicycle ride to London. Within a mile Gullivers Kingdom was signposted and I cycled with care to avoid the tiny people of Lilliput.

By mid morning I arrived at Bridego bridge where 50+ years ago the famous ‘Great Train Robbery’ took place. Dad read the story from a British newspaper while we were touring Italy in a Standard Ten motor car visiting Rome, Florence and Pisa –  an adventure that probably took as much planning and risk taking as the robbery.

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The mail train from Glasgow to London carrying over £2.6 million in used bank notes was stopped by an armed gang who had hidden an old army truck under the bridge. They loaded the truck with their stolen money and disappeared into the night. I looked along the hedgerows for signs of any unrecovered loot and surprise surprise…… found nothing.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFor the next couple of hours I enjoyed a peaceful and uneventful bicycle ride passing numerous marinas. One was called ‘Cow Roast’ in the village of that name. My pre-reading explained the area was once used as a drovers route for cattle being taken to London to provide meat. The herd would stop here overnight. Cow Roast is believed to be a corruption of the name of  ‘Cow Rest’.

From here the west coast railway ran alongside the canal and intercity, regional and freight carriages flashed by in quick succession. Gosh, this must be one of the busiest railways in the county. I am no longer surprised that the business case for HS2 was based on a need to increase rail capacity along this route.

On the outskirts of Leighton Buzzard ‘Pop‘, my front tyre burst. Rolling to a standstill I noticed the familiar orange colour of a Halfords store and pushed Bessie off the tow-path to buy more inner tubes. The bicycle mechanic offered to replace my punctured inner tube for me so thanking him I went next door to Maccy D’s and brought a chocolate McFlurry ice cream.

The subsequent double crack sensation was not  welcomed. I had bitten down into the ice cream and the hard chocolate chips dislodged a filling on one side of my lower jaw…..groan.  Depositing what was left of my ice cream into a bin I collected my bicycle and spare inner tubes.

Screen Shot 2017-04-10 at 14.40.36A short while later I arrived at the Kings Langley Ovaltine factory whose landmark dairy maid is visible in a field from the train into London.

The factory was built at Kings Langley so the canal could bring in coal to fuel its boilers and transport manufactured Ovaltine throughout the country.

I was unaware the factory had closed and was replaced with apartments. Pleasingly the developers have kept the attractive art deco facade.

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After leaving Kings Langley I cycled under the M25;  London was getting closer and so were the number of people who were living on the canal in a mixture of houseboats and barges painted bright red, dark green or navy blue with names like “Jack”, “Endeavour” and “A Tonic for Ginny”.  Some had window boxes spilling over with flowers, others displayed traditional ‘Diamond, Rose and Castle‘ canal art with elaborately decorated nameplates, watering cans, coal scuttles, flower buckets and tillers painted like a barbers pole. Steam puffed from the polished brass ringed chimney stack of stoves used for heating and keeping a kettle on the boil.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy original plan was to cycle to Brentford and head east alongside the river Thames to my overnight stay in Windsor. Yet I had learn’t from last years Lands End to John O’Groats bicycle ride that the purpose of touring is to enjoy the journey. My decision to detour along the Paddington Arm into London was rewarded:

  • The route took me across a huge aqueduct spanning the north circular road that I have driven along numerous times without ever knowing a canal was above.
  • I passed the place where a Heinz food factory once imported tomatoes for puree via the Thames from Italy, then exported baked beans back to the Italians along the same stretch of canal.
  • Guinness had a brewery here. The canal was used to transport barrels of beer
  • I saw the railway for Eurostar trains and the towers of Wormwood Scrubs prison.

The end of the Paddington Arm joins the Regents canal that continues to the River Thames where there is no tow path to cycle along. Fortunately neighbours of mine (Roy and Pat) had made several narrow boat journeys along the Regents canal and shared photographs of scenes that I was not able to see:

RP THames01Roy took this picture whilst waiting for the tide to rise so he could proceed onto the River Thames. The low water level reveals a layer of clay on the banks.

Canals needed to be treated to hold water and James Brindley used a process which lined the sides and bottom with clay to hold the water in place just like a puddle. For that reason he called the process ‘puddling’.

Flat bottomed narrow boats are suited to the reasonably still waters of canals. On a tidal estuary such as the Thames they have the stability of a floating bathtub.

RP THames 04This next picture was taken by Pat as Roy steered his narrow boat from the Regents canal at Limehouse lock onto the River Thames.

Roy recalled that the skipper of the leading narrow boat was nervous about entering the tidal Thames. Had he got into difficulty Roy would have tied his narrow boat alongside it so their joint power and stability could make forward progress.

The East India docks were situated in this area and East India merchant ships, known as East Indiamen, sailed and traded between London, China and India. It took 6 months to travel in each direction. Their cargo imported spices, silk and tea leafs into Britain.

During the 1700s China would sell to the East India Company in return for silver so imports of tea were in limited supply, expensive and brought by the well-off who stored their purchase in a lockable tea caddy to prevent theft.

During the industrial revolution of the 1800s Cholera and Tyhoid were fatal British diseases caused by raw sewage coming into contact with drinking water. Once people knew this they avoided drinking water and quenched their thirst with ale or gin. Whilst alcohol protected them from waterborne disease it caused (as it still often does) intoxication and unreasonable behaviour.

Tea drinking offered a sober alternative to alcohol. Its popularity was helped by the temperance movement who preached about the evils of demon drink and the demand for tea surged.

Clipper ships, so called because their bows were wide and raked forward (allowing them to “clip” lightly over the waves) reduced the 6 month journey time of imports from China to just 90 days and resulted in a plentiful supply of tea at a price that most people could afford.

Narrow boats carried imported tea leafs to inland blending and packaging factories of British tea companies whose brand names I remember from my childhood: Brooke Bond, Lyons ( who opened a chain of famous tea shops) and Typhoo.

With no towpath to the Thames my cycling on the Grand Union ended in Paddington Basin.

 

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADue to the slow terrain and my numerous punctures it was now 8:30pm at night.

Although my original plan was to cycle to Windsor I was tired. Paddington station was in front of me so caught the train.

Arriving in Windsor at 9:30 at night I managed to capture a picture of the famous Eton bridge at dusk.

Day 4: Wednesday May 17th

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had a dreadful nights sleep at this Windsor Airbnb run by Phil and Liz. It is underneath the flight path for Heathrow airport and aircraft noise was louder than the M1 and main railway line into London.

Checking out early I went for a short bicycle ride around Windsor town centre, a place that I know quite well as the head office of my former employer was based here. To return as a visitor without the clutter of  ‘where to park, jobs to do, people to meet and things to say’ set the scene for a more relaxed stroll around town.

The Thames, Eton College, the Guild Hall and Castle are amongst my favourite sights. And being a lover of ice cream I know something you may be unaware of: The very first recorded serving in the UK was with strawberries at a banquet for the feast of St. George at Windsor Castle….yummy !

Today was a shorter bicycle ride to the village of Ipsden roughly 20 miles from the  University City of Oxford. And because cycling is not permitted alongside much of the River Thames I cycled along Broadmoor Road, a road I have travelled along many times towards to Woodley where I used to visit a factory.

At 11am every morning the skies would roar with Concords engine noise on its 3 hour flight to New York. 15 years later that flight time cannot be matched; it can take 3 hours to negotiate the boarding checks.

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On the outskirts of Reading it started to rain and despite wearing full waterproofs spray from passing vehicles made a wet day wetter. Respite occurred when outside ‘Huntley and Palmers’, the once famous biscuit maker. It then began to rain heavier and heavier , bouncing off the road to the height of my knee caps.

I found shelter inside a food outlet where the staff place a wet floor sign next to where I was seated…….water dripping off me was flooding the shop floor. With my cold hands clasped around a beaker of coffee I remembered last Sundays weather forecaster who had asserted today would be the finest of the week –  what a fibber.

There was no way I wanted to cycle a further 30 miles in this rain so made my way to Reading railway station and caught a train to Didcot.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom Didcot it should have been an 8 mile cycle ride to the village of Ipsden and my wonderful Airbnb overnight stay.

8 miles extended to 19 miles. I missed an easy to find turning and ended up cycling around the perimeter of RAF Benson.

The landlady welcomed me with a pot tea and then drove to a nearby supermarket and returned with a microwave supper, bottle of beer and newspaper – wow, if only my wife looked after me like this. Following a hot bath and an evening relaxing in front of the telly,my clothes dried next to an electric heater. The evening news bulletin explained that a months rain had fallen on Reading –  umm, mostly on me.

Day 5: Thursday May 18th

Hurray, the sun was shinning and what a difference dry clothing makes. I made my way back to the Thames at nearby Wallingford and rejoined the route once used to transport goods from Londons docks to Birmingham – including tea leafs for Typhoo.

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Most of the land either side of the Thames is privately owned so had to cycle along the main road to Oxford. Here the Thames (known as the Isis) is linked to the Oxford canal at the Isis and Dukes lock.

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The Oxford canal goes to (and beyond) Napton Junction that I passed when cycling to London and is part of the original Grand Union of 10 different canals linking Birmingham with the Capital.

As the towpath is known to be difficult to use beyond Lower Heyford I decided to cycle through the city centre to Woodstock, my destination for today.

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I visited Bladon on the outskirts of Woodstock where St Martins church is the resting place of Sir Winston Churchill and his wife Clementine. The church is close to Blenheim Palace his childhood home.

After visiting their grave I went inside St Martins church where an exhibition is dedicated to him. I then cycled to Blenheim Palace.

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The cheapest entry ticket was far more than I was prepared to pay and at the very moment I turned  away , ‘Pop’ , the front tyre burst as it rolled over a tack; puncture number 4 – Blenheim was getting its own back ! After changing the inner tube I booked into my Woodstock B&B. That evening I cycled to nearby Witney for supper with family in their lovely home.

Day 6: Friday May 19th

I left my B&B just after 9am for a 75 miler to stay overnight at my sisters in Wythall on the outskirts of Birmingham. It was a day of sunshine and many short, sharp showers.

The first leg of my journey was a speedy (for me) 30 mile ride to Stratford-upon-Avon. Gosh, the road was busy. Cars and coaches whizzed by and whilst many motorists gave me plenty of berth others were not as sensible. Several sounded their horns and I became concerned that something may be falling off my bicycle so stopped, checked everything was as it should be and continued. I guess motorists wanted to warn me they were approaching or were grumpy at being delayed by yours truely.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADespite visiting Stratford-upon-Avon many times I still managed to get lost. I had wanted to cycle through the town centre but ended up on a busy ring road with just the occasional glimpse of the Avon where a narrow boat at its permanent mooring had solar panels fitted on the roof.

 

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From here I visited St Peter’s Church in Binton.  Steps are built into the wall by its gate which people used for easy dismounting when arriving on horse back. A ring for tethering horses is set in the wall by the gate.

I used the steps to dismount and later get back on my bicycle. The tethering ring was an ideal anchor point to lock my bicycle.

St Peter’s Church is known to me for its link with Scott of the Antarctic who hoped to be the first to reach the South Pole. He was married to Kathleen Bruce, the sister of Bintons’ rector.

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It took Scott and his team of four men 2 years to reach the South Pole where they discovered a Norwegian team led by Roald Amundsen had beaten them by a month. On the journey back they all died and St Peters stained glass window is dedicated to their ill fated journey.  From (L) to (Rt) its picture panels illustrate:

  1. The last farewells of the group setting off
  2. Their disappointment to come across Amundsens flag that signalled they were not the first to reach the centre of the South Pole
  3. Captain Oakes leaving the groups tent. Oates, afflicted with gangrene and frostbite, walked from his tent into a blizzard. His death is seen as an act of self sacrifice when, aware that his ill health was compromising his three companions’ chances of survival, he walked to meet his maker. Rescuers later found Scott’s diary in which was written: ” before Oates exited the tent and walked to his death he uttered the words “I am just going outside and may be some time”
  4. A search party erecting a Cairn at the spot where they discovered the remains of the group.

Cycling from St Peters I made my way to the pretty village of Alcester with its colourful bunting. It really brightens up an otherwise bland High Street.

My next stop was Coughton Court where the Throckmorton family who were linked with the Gunpowder plot, once lived. I went in for nothing and enjoyed a slab of triple layered Victoria sponge, a pot of tea and ice cream  –  wonderful eh !

Day 7: Saturday 20th May

After spending the night at my sisters I visited former work colleagues and then started back to Gas Street along the Birmingham – Worcester canal, joining it from a ramp on Wharf Road in Kings Norton.

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Although the entrance looks a little seedy, the towpath and views from it are marvellous. At just over 5 miles into the City I completed the journey in less than 30 minutes which is faster than a car or train journey.  This route must be a closely guarded cyclists secret. The towpath is wide with a soft aggregate surface and apart from a couple of bridges to go over, it is a marvellous way into town.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYep, today was another day of rain but hey-ho, who cares.

From Kings Norton my canal route passed the Cadbury factory. They used to receive Cocoa that had been imported via the docks at Bristol and brought here along the canal from the River Severn at Worcester.

I don’t know where they get ingredients from these days and wondered whether their once proud boast that a  ‘Glass and a half of milk’ still reaches their chocolate bars.

From Bournville I passed through Selly Oak where the skyline is dominated by a huge new hospital, then Birmingham University buildings and playing fields before coasting back to the starting point of my adventure, Gas Street basin.

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Throughout this journey I have seen a new lease of life for the canal system. Pleasure craft, new moorings and modern property developments must be recognised a life-line as the alternative could so easily be stagnation and decay.

My favourite parts were from Gas Street to the Hatton flight and Kings Norton back to Gas Street. I loved the canal architecture, canal side buildings and the friendliness of people on boats, fishing, walking and cycling can be summed up as civic pride.

It only took 2 and a bit days to cycle from Birmingham into London and although a puncture resistant mountain bike would have been the better bike to use, I don’t have one.

The adjustments to my bicycle did aid safety and comfort; on more than one occasion the flat pedals enabled me to put a firm foot on the ground and prevent a fall. The long-travel suspension seat post is so comfortable that I recommend it to every touring cyclist. I had anticipated and managed many punctures.

Earlier this afternoon my wife read this story and then picked up the jigsaw brochure to spend a long time looking at Hampton Court maze –  umm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2017 Cycling Plans

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May:  A bicycle ride from Birmingham to London and back, using the towing path of canals that were once navigated by boatmen who carried coal and raw materials to factories during the industrial revolution.

July: Cycling along NCR 72 from the West to East Coast visiting places of interest including Hadrian’s wall.

October: A journey to Trafford for my third Manchester to Blackpool British Heart Foundation night ride, returning to Chester and onward to Shrewsbury to catch a train home.

 

Morecambe Bay to Whitley Bay

My last bicycle holiday involved 2 weeks of long distance cycling that allowed little time for sight-seeing.  I was determined this holiday would be less challenging with later starts every morning, lower daily mileage and ample time to stop along the route and visit places of interest to me.

About a year ago my cycling adventures took me to Morecambe Bay where I promised to make a return visit and stay overnight at the art-deco styled Midland Hotel:

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Today I fulfilled that promise and checked in for the night. A beautiful circular staircase leads from the lobby in the centre of the hotel to the upper floor where the landing wall has a monochrome picture of the hotel; my amazing bedroom included a teddy:

On the ceiling a spectacular painting features the gods of earths water, Neptune and his son Triton.

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The inscription surrounding the painting says:  ‘hear old Triton blow his wreathed horn’

Umm, how grim.  I asked the hotel receptionist the reason for the inscription but he didn’t know (or was so fed up at having to give an explanation that a denial was a quicker answer) so I looked it up on the internet.

The words are taken from a  sonnet written in 1802 by William Wordsworth called: The World is too much for us.  He compares mankind living a life of getting and spending with an apparent lack of interest in looking after earths natural resources. Umm…human nature has not changed.

Day 1

After a hearty breakfast I started off  from Morecambe at 11am. Morecambe is the starting point of the ‘Way of the Roses’ cycling route which opened in 2010 to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Sustrans. The route  covers a distance of 170 miles and ends on the east coast in Bridlington, Yorkshire.

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During my working life I had the misfortune to have attended a conference in Bridlington. The speakers were awful so I took myself off for a walk around the town and quickly realised the speakers I had deserted were more interesting.

For that reason this bicycle ride follows the ‘Way of the Roses’  as far as the  City of York and then diverts away from Bridlington to a much better place: an ice cream palace in Whitley Bay, Tyneside – lovely !

The Sustrans route follows traffic free cycle paths or quiet roads that were a delight to cycle on. The first cycle path took me through avenues of trees from Morecambe and over the Lancaster millennium bridge to reach a further tree-lined path that led into a country park at the far side of the city.

During the afternoon the sun shone and as I reached the village of Hornby the temperature reached 21c. My last visit to Hornby was 6 weeks ago when cycling to John O’Groats. At that time my guided route took me over the steepest of moorland roads to High Bentham. Todays ‘Way of the Roses’ route took me over an easy to cycle hill…….if only I knew about it 6 weeks ago !

I rested in High Bentham and enjoyed a coffee from my Stanley Thermos flask and decided to visit the famous Ribblehead viaduct.better-photo-settle-station

Cycling a further 18 miles I missed an easy-to-find turning to the viaduct and ended up at the entrance to Settle railway station.

It wasn’t all bad news though. The station café held a treasure chest of ice creams and choc-ices. I hadn’t eaten a choc-ice for ages and as todays cycling had covered 38 miles, the calorie trade-off seemed a harmless treat.

Day 2

A steep climb from the centre of Settle marked my ascent of the Pennines and I then enjoyed 10 miles of relaxing cycling along Yorkshire’s undulating country lanes that were  virtually traffic free. I only stopped once, and that was for sheep!

My route took me through the villages of Airton and Malham to Cracoe. The village of Cracoe is the home of the real life ‘calendar girls’ who were members of the Womens Institute Knapely branch.

They once raised money for leukaemia research by posing nude for a calendar. In later years the actress Helen Mirren did the same in a film of their story. Stopping for lunch in Cracoe I tried not to look at the local ladies with an  ‘ I’ve seen you before’ expression and failed.

A further tough climb from the village of Appletreewich took me to Greenhow Hill before a risky pot-holed steep descent into Pateley Bridge. Numerous cyclists have fallen and suffered serious injury along this road and I was so pleased that my pre-ride reading warned me to cycle slowly.

Downhills are usually followed by up-hills and from Pateley Bridge I made a final climb to the now derelict Fountain Abbey set within in a medieval deer park which provided a grand approach to my next overnight stay in Ripon.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAFrom Ripon town centre I began to look for my guest house. The owners who were unknown to me were walking on the same side of the road. They correctly guessed I was their customer,introduced themselves, pointed to where I had to go and then helped to take my baggage and bicycle inside –  lucky me !

That night I walked to the town centre where every evening at 9pm a man blows a horn at 4 corners of an obelisk in the market square.

The tradition dates back to a time when Ripon householders paid a sum of money to the horn blower as the city gates were closing for the night. He and his team of watchmen would then patrol the streets and if their property was burgled before the gates opened the next morning he would compensate them from the money that had been collected. This tradition of payment and compensation then became the principle of home insurance.

Day 3

Following a leisurely breakfast and an 11am departure todays journey would take me to York and then northwards by train to Yarm in Teeside.

The 30 mile trip to York was the easiest cycling so far. The weather was warm, the terrain flat and a tail wind resulted in effortless cycling along smooth tarmac roads through the pretty villages of Great Ouseburn and Linton.

models

The models were manikin’s dressed in 20s’ clothing !

A few miles later I cycled past a junior school where the aroma of school dinners being cooked wafted into the road and left me feeling so hungry that the search for a double coned ice-cream began in earnest.

Close to the village of Linton I joined a path alongside the River Ure  that changes its name to the River Ouse at the point where a small stream known as Ouse Beck trickles into it.

My route then entered the grounds of Beningbrough Hall and then rejoined a cycling path that took me to the York Minster where I brought a picture card to send to friends and the ice cream of my dreams. I sat by the river bank and enjoyed it.

 

 

shamblesThe River Ouse flows from York and eventually discharges into the North Sea at the Humber Estuary by the City of Kingston upon Hull.I spent the next few hours strolling around York and visited the National Railway Museum followed by the ‘Shambles’ a street of antiquity .

From York I headed north to Yarm by train where I stayed the night and visited family.

Day 4

This morning I took the train from Yarm to Heworth, South Tyneside and cycled from Heworth railway station to the Angel of the North:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADuring my working life I made several visits to Gateshead and always admired the landmark ‘Angel’ , visible from the A1 when driving from Newcastle. To get a sense of the Angels enormity I rested Bessie against her toes.

The Angel was sculpted by Antony Gormley whose previous work ( 100 naked men standing on Crosby beach) I visited a year ago. The Angel is equally impressive.

From here I cycled towards Newcastle upon Tyne and joined national cycle route 14 towards South Shields where I reached the Friars Wharf apartments

friars-wharfJust over a century ago this area was occupied by the Friars Goose Alkali Chemical Works who manufactured bleach. The process involved condensing hydrochloric acid gas into hydrochloric acid that was then combined with manganese to produce bleaching powder. In those days bleaching was an important process in the wool, cotton, linen and printing industries:

  • For textiles bleaching made the product whiter.
  • In paper mills the addition of bleach to pulp produced the whiteness required for paper.

At 6:30pm on the evening of Sunday July 26th 1891 the night shift commenced work. The foreman noticed the wall of a condenser was glowing red. It was on fire. Despite attempts to extinguish the fire it spread to other condensers that collapsed, spreading the fire and chemicals throughout the factory.

A worker named James McCuskin, my fathers’ mothers grand-father was entombed by the fallen debris. Rescue attempts to remove fallen masonry by hand was slow, difficult and dangerous. Hydrochloric acid dripped on James and this, plus heat and fumes, resulted in 5 of 6 rescuers being killed and 2 others were seriously injured. Eventually a rope was used to try and pull James free but his foot was trapped and attending doctors were not authorised to amputate it. He sent those trying to rescue him away saying:

“No, no; if I am to die let me die in peace. Don’t torture me anymore” 

Father Fitzpatrick gave him the last rights of the Catholic church and James passed away at 8am the next day.

A subsequent coroners inquest recorded that James died from:

‘Exhaustion, injuries to his spine and legs and asphyxia from the inhalation of hydrochloric gas from the accidental fall of a condenser at Friars Goose Chemical Works’

Three weeks later his wife died from a brain haemorrhage and their six children were now orphaned, including Catherine my fathers grand-mother.

The incident and account of this story was thoroughly researched by my cousin Gerald, who even paid for a copy of the minutes taken from a board meeting of the companies owners. These minutes revealed that the Board of Directors cared little about the lost employees and bereaved families. Their focus was to get the works back to full production and protect the companies interests during legal proceedings. Has corporate behaviour changed over the years?

After pausing to reflect on those horrific events and corporate behaviour I continued through Jarrow to the South Shields ferry.

swan-hunterThe ferry crossing from South to North Shields took 15 minutes and cost the princely sum of £1:50p.In the background are the cranes of Swan Hunter the shipbuilders. A large passenger ferry in the foreground is one of several that ply their way to and from Newcastle and Amsterdam. An economy return can cost as little as £150 so I will remember this for future continental cycling adventures.

Getting off the South Shields ferry in Tynemouth I wheeled my bicycle up a steep hill to the main road and cycled along to my destination, the ‘Rendezvous (ice cream) Palace’ at Whitley Bay.

 

knickerboker-gloryI ordered a ‘Strawberry Gelato’ which was less creamy than most ice-creams and consequently not as full bodied. There are plenty of other ice creams on their menu so I will have to return next year and try something else.

card-to-go-with-knickerbocker-gloryHaving starting from the art-deco Midland Hotel in Morecambe Bay it seemed apt to end it  at another art-deco building, the Rendezvous café here in Whitley Bay.

I have really enjoyed this bicycle ride with its late starts and wonderful sights. My return to Wales took me along the national cycle route 72  into Newcastle city centre and the train home.

 

LEJOG: The story behind the children’s story

Cycling from ‘End-to-End’ is so popular that an estimated 3000 people do so every year. This is the route that I followed:-

lejog-route

It was never my intention to make this years main cycling holiday the ‘End-to-End’. I had originally been invited to join a friend who lives next to the source of the Danube to follow that great river from Germany into Austria.

Over recent months a mass exodus of Syrians and other nationalities began following the Danube by foot.  I felt uncomfortable making plans for a self-indulgent holiday in an area of such human suffering so I decided to do something for others.

Cycling the ‘End-to-End’ for local children at the Tŷ Gobaith & Hope House hospices sat more comfortably with my conscience.

To move such good intentions into a plan, an internet search was required. Page 1 of my search engine threw up lists companies offering ‘End-to-End’ supported rides.

Those who participate in a supported ride join a group of 8-12 like minded cyclists who are accompanied by a vehicle that carries their personal belongings and stops at regular intervals along the daily route to supply the group with refreshments.

The cost of a supported cycling holiday includes route planning, booked lodgings, mid-day meals and breakfasts. At the date of my adventure one of the 14 day supported rides costed £2045. This is an awful lot of money and certainly exceeds my modest occupational pension.

Rather than join a supported ride I brought a Cicerone travel guide: ‘The End to End Cycle Route’ (2012) by Nick Mitchell (ISBN 978185284670). The guide enabled me to load a full set of turn by turn directions from the Cicerone website into my bicycle satellite navigation system. I then contacted a selection of guest houses mentioned in the guide and obtained their quotation for bed and breakfast.

My travel plan also required train journeys to reach Penzance from home and further trains to return from Scotland. The initial costing for train travel and overnight accommodation was £1,148. I then waited until special saver train tickets became available 12 weeks before the date of departure and used that time to search for less expensive guest houses.

With very little effort I brought the cost of overheads down to £794, and could have further reduced that cost if I had imposed on friends and family to get me to Lands End and back from Scotland, and used youth hostels or camped overnight rather than stay in guest house accommodation. I chose not to do so and was certainly happier to make my own travel arrangements at a cost of £794 rather than £2045 for a supported ride.

Having decided on the route, when and where to stay and cost, the next equally important part of the planning stage was to maximise the benefits of this bicycle ride for the hospice children. And doing things for charity doesn’t have to be a financial donation:

My bicycle has a GPS tracker and I shared the ‘log in’ information with my contacts at the hospice who could display a live map of my whereabouts with the children so that the parts of the country being travelled through could be spoken about.

The next challenge was to keep the children’s attention by capturing their imagination. Recalling stories I had been told as a child and other classics, especially from Aesop’s Fables, I decided to write the 14 bed-time stories on the next blog, that would be relevant to my whereabouts on each day of my journey.

Day 1

It took 11 hours and 3 separate trains to travel from home to Penzance, the station nearest to Lands End. The trains were all on time, the bicycle reservation system worked well and it was easy to load and unload my bike on and off the train without assistance.

Arriving in Penzance at 7:30pm I cycled the 12 miles to Lands End in just over an hour.

Day 2

Cycling back to Penzance my route then followed a 4 mile coastal path along the shoreline of Mounts bay for this wonderful view of Saint Michaels Mount.

lejog-st-michaels-mount

Quite a few road and several shop signs were printed in English and Kernewek, an ancient Cornish Celtic language.

I wonder whether Kernewek is being promoted as a 1st language and an employers choice in the same way as Welsh.

My guide book had suggested the first full day of cycling went as far as Fowey. Yet there was still enthusiasm in my legs and plenty of day-light hours ahead, so I used the free for cyclists King Harry chain ferry from Fowey and continued to the beautiful harbour town of Looe where I stayed the night having cycled 73 glorious miles.

Day 3

From Looe in Cornwall todays journey would take me to Devon via the Torpoint ferry which crosses the river Tamar. The crossing was delayed as a merchant vessel sailed across our path towards the English Channel.lejog-china-clay-ship

The ferry ticket seller explained its cargo was China Clay (Kaolin), a profitable local export. Apparently millions of tonnes are exported to the ceramics industry in Italy, Spain and Portugal. It is a raw material that is used in the manufacturing process of tiles and sanitary ware.

If what I was told is correct, isn’t it incredibly sad to see the Cornish family jewels being exported when tiles and sanitary ware could be manufactured in Cornwall, creating local employment with a smaller carbon footprint?

The City of Plymouth was fairly easy to cycle through and my route then took me into the village of Yelverton for a lunch break before ascending onto Dartmoor, characterised by peacefully grazing ponies and its prison that I hurried past in case I was recognised.

The climb onto Dartmoor was rewarded with wonderful views and a welcomed descent to my overnight stay in Exeter, 58 miles from Looe.

Day 4
Cycling 71 miles from Exeter in Devon to Wells in Somerset was far easier than expected. Less strenuous hills and much improved road surfaces provided a glorious combination of less effort for more speed and a shorter day in the saddle. Even the weather was on my side – a dry, cool day with a slight breeze.

My route took me through several picture postcard villages including Stoke St Mary where I stopped to photograph the ‘Half Moon Inn’ that was to feature in my children’s story.

It never ceases to amaze me just how beautiful the English countryside is and how fortunate I was to be touring cycling.

After a leisurely lunch I made my way towards the Somerset village of Somerton and picked up a ladies purse from the side of the road. It was bulging with credit cards, a driving licence, a ‘National Insurance Card’ and several bank notes.

I stopped in Somerton and asked where I could find the police station and was told it closed several years ago.The nearest one was in Glastonbury, a town that I was passing through as part of my route
lejog-torGlastonbury is dominated by its ‘Tor’ which has spiritual associations that are reflected in the culture of its townsfolk, with many ‘New-age’ middle aged people who looked rather old-fashioned and an aroma of narcotics in the air.

Glastonbury is equally well known for its Biennial music festival. As for a police station, no chance. I was given directions to the town fire-station where the police have an office. The fire station was deserted and a paper notice displaying the opening times of the police office said it would be manned in the afternoon for 2 hours the day after next.

Not wishing to stay in Glastonbury for 2 days I continued my journey to the town of Wells where I found a police station. Its front door was locked and a notice asked callers to use a telephone on the wall for assistance. My call was not answered. Fortunately I noticed a policeman walking from the rear of the police building towards the car park in front of me. Hanging up the telephone I went over to him and reported my find. He made a note of where and when I found it and asked if the owner could be given my contact details to which I agreed.

I felt relieved the purse and the owners personal effects were now in the safe hands of the police. It would have been nice to have received an email of thanks from the owner but hey-ho, I’m sure she was grateful.

Day 5
Todays journey from Wells to Monmouth, a distance of 57 miles, was one of my shortest cycling days and began with a steep road that climbed the Mendips followed by a long and welcomed descent that took me past a large expanse of lakeland at Chew Valley. My guide book says the lake is a special protection area due to the plants, birds and other wildlife it supports although I only saw glimpses of it through the hedgerows I cycled alongside.

My route then passed through the traffic free Ashton Court Estate that offered a panoramic view of Bristol that I later navigated through without difficulty. Leaving the southwest of England by cycling under the Clifton suspension bridge the route into Wales crossed the Severn Bridge where my guide book recommended a stop to look around.

lejog-severn-bridgeAs I stood on the bridge a convoy of lorries passed by. Their weight caused the bridge to wobble. Gulp, I didn’t like that at all, or the considerable distance beneath my feet to the water below so vigorously pedalled along and off the bridge into Wales for an easy cycle ride through Tintern and onwards to Monmouth.

 

Day 6
I love staying at Guest Houses and am frequently spoilt by their owners. Last night was no exception. I was welcomed with a pot of tea and several slices of home made Victoria Sponge coated with home made jam. The owner even washed and tumble dried my laundry and made me a packed lunch for today…lucky me !

Rested and raring to go the first part of todays Sunday morning journey was a straight and very quiet ‘B’ road all the way to Hereford and beyond. I stopped for lunch in a village named Clun, a local beauty spot that is named from the river it nestles alongside.

Settling down to eat my packed lunch and a cup of coffee a couple sitting nearby struck up a conversation. They asked where I had cycled from and where I was heading for, so I explained what I was doing and why. They had a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel named Ruby who looked rather frail. My heart sank with sadness when the owners told me they had brought Ruby to Clun for her last treat before being put to sleep the following day. I promised to dedicate a chapter of my children’s story to Ruby and have now done so.

At Shrewsbury I completed my cycling for the day having ridden 80 miles. Although todays distance is higher than my earlier days of this trip, the terrain had been flat and the absence of head wind enabled good progress to be made.

Day 7

Cycling from Shrewsbury I saw many signs for the  ‘Percy Thrower ’ gardens. When I married and brought our first home I used to watch ‘Gardeners World’ where Percy’s advice helped me make my 1st garden. I wanted to visit his garden centre but somehow managed to miss the turning so I now have a reason to return to Shrewsbury and spend more time exploring the area.

Todays cycling followed quiet unclassified roads through the Cheshire plains and a wonderful lunch break at the Meadow Lea Café that I knew would be a good place to stop. A sandwich followed by home-made cake, coffee and an ice cream was enjoyed in the company of several other cyclists who had also made their way here for a lunchtime treat.

After cycling just 58 miles I stopped for an overnight stay on the outskirts of Runcorn.

Day 8
From my home in North Wales I have had numerous bicycle rides to and through the North West of England, avoiding traffic congestion by following the Deeside marshes, the ‘Trans-Pennine Trail’ and most recently the Sefton coastal path. Today would be different. My route would be along busy urban roads.

In an attempt to avoid the morning rush hour I left Runcorn at 6:30am and very quickly discovered the roads were already busy, either by night workers or people setting out to join nearby motorways for destinations many miles away.

‘A’ roads took me through Warrington, Birchwood and Leigh. By the time I had reached Bolton the morning rush hour, characterised by processions of slow moving buses, gridlocked cars and the morning chorus of sirens from emergency vehicles was in full swing. The strained expressions of motorists reminded me of the years I had spent stuck in ‘going-to-work’ traffic. Most drivers were listening to their car radios , others sipped from mugs of coffee and several were chatting on their mobile telephones.

lejog-wainwrights-bridgeRespite from the madness of life came after cycling over the green ‘Wainwright Bridge’ in Blackburn from where I cycled along less busy ‘B’ roads towards the beautiful Forest of Bowland along Watling Street.

I remember Watling Street was a major Roman road characterised by its straightness  and cycled along it to the village of Hornby ( I wonder whether this place is associated with model trains?) before diverting to High Bentham over the steepest of moorland roads that were filled with the sound of bird-song.

Although todays journey was 75 miles I arrived early enough for a walk around the village. Its main road threaded its way downhill to another village, aptly named Lower Bentham where I noticed this interesting plaque on a dry-stone wall.

clearer-piccy-lejog-plague-stone

During the great plague people in Lower Bentham had been infected and the uninfected in Higher Bentham supplied them with provisions in return for payment. Placing coinage in a vinegar filled hole was intended to sterilise the payment to prevent infection being transferred to the people of Higher Bentham.

Day 9

Last year I had a wonderful cycling break touring the southern lake district, and today the route took me back into Kendal and onwards to Windermere. On the last occasion I had insufficient time to visit Dove Cottage, the home of William Wordsworth. Todays route took me past its doorstep so I stopped for a visit.I had hoped to find a postcard with daffodils overlaid by a verse from that famous poem, or even a book of his poetry. Neither were to be found.

Last Januarys floods had caused enormous damage to this part of England and one of many roads, the A591 over Dunmail Rise had been partially washed away. The A591 was on my cycling route to Keswick and today the road reopened, how lucky was that ! The other piece of luck was the road had opened a week or so earlier than expected and many motorists were still using different roads, so the A591 had very few users.

Close to the top of Dunmail Rise I spotted this AA telephone box and remembered the lejog-aa-phone-boxlarge AA door key my Dad kept on his car keyring to get inside these.

When taking this photograph I thought it must be one of the very few still in existence, then in Scotland I passed several more. Perhaps they are kept in areas where mobile telephone signals are poor?

I have never been inside an AA telephone box and as they appeared remote places I wondered whether they are stocked with flasks of hot soup, cream cakes, and packets of biscuits. Perhaps I should ditch the Cycling Tourist Club and join the Automobile Association !

Tonight was spent in the pretty lakeland town of Keswick, 55 miles from High Bentham. Here I found a launderette and spent a relaxing hour watching my washing trundling around in circles.

Day 10
An early morning shower and freshly laundered clothes revitalised me for todays bicycle ride into Scotland.

A steady and lengthy 15 mile climb from Keswick was rewarded with a wonderful descent into Carlisle where I joined NCR 7 and crossed the boarder into Scotland. A picnic bench on the other side of the boarder sign was occupied by a fellow cyclist so I continued cycling and quickly arrived at Gretna Green for my lunch.

Stopping at the famous Blacksmiths forge I noticed that the complex has been developed for civil marriage ceremonies. Provision has been made for wedding catering and there is a suite of rooms for overnight stays. The complex looked really smart and offers a wonderful venue for marriages.

Tonights overnight stay was at a guest house in Moffat, roughly 73 miles from Keswick.

Day 11
Glasgow came into sight. During my working life I made many visits to an industrial site in a poor part of town known as Govan.

lejog-cycle-path-into-glasgowMy memories of the City were of grey buildings and traffic congestion. Over the years the passing of time has changed things for the better. My route took me along this wonderful tree-lined cycling path, NCR 75 into the heart of the City.

The river Clyde runs through the City of Glasgow and many say the river is responsible for its wealth. In days gone by the trade it brought and the industries it supported would have done so.

These days the river bank has a very pleasant pedestrian and cycling route with a mixture of high quality housing, less salubrious areas, university and office buildings. Ornate bridges cross the Clyde at regular intervals. Many are for pedestrians, others for trains and others for road users.

lejog-cropped-bankies-bikeOn the way to Dumbarton I stopped next to this sculpture where a passer-by took my photo.

The sculpture is called ‘Bankies Bike’ and the famous around-the-world cyclist Mark Beaumont unveiled it 8 years ago to promote safer cycling.

 

Day12

Today provided me with one of the most scenic days of cycling that I have ever experienced. From my overnight stay in Dumbarton I cycled alongside the ‘West Loch Lomond Cycle Path’ for well in excess of 10 miles before joining the A82 which today ( a Saturday) carried very little traffic.

From Loch Lomond I made a steady ascent of the Great Glen and enjoyed a spectacular panoramic view of the Scottish highlands.

lejog-great-glen

Amusingly I was passed on several occasions by a group of a dozen or so road cyclists who were part of a supported LEJOG ride. Each time they went by and disappeared into the distance I would catch up and pass them at one of their numerous rest breaks. On the last occasion they invited me to stop and join them for refreshments. I politely declined, not wanting them to delay my progress.

Todays bicycle ride ended at Fort William, 86 miles from Dumbarton where I had stayed the previous evening.

Day 13
Prior to departure I had read several online stories from people who had cycled from Lands End to John O’Groats in which writers expressed concern about the cycling routes to Inverness. Some commented that a cycling path alongside the Caledonian canal presented a puncture risk, others warned the A82 was dangerous due to its narrowness and volume of traffic. Others wrote that the B862 involved steep climbs, extra mileage and wind ravaged exposed moorland.

My choice was to stay on the A82. It follows the most famous of Scottish Lochs, Loch Ness. It looked absolutely beautiful and as today was a Sunday the volume of traffic was not great and the absence of large goods vehicles reassured me that its narrowness would present no greater risk to my safety than it had done all day yesterday.

So staying on the A82 all the way into Inverness was a joy. The road was flat and with the help of a tail wind  I arrived at Inverness early in the afternoon having covered 68 miles.

Day 14

This was another great day of cycling in Scotland. My journey out of Inverness overlooked the Moray Firth where numerous Oil rigs were moored. I wondered whether this was a sign of an industry in decline.

What isn’t in decline is the business of tree logging. It is amazing that one machine can fell and strip a tree of its branches, cut it to size for transportation and stack it on top of other logs within 15 minutes. These trees have taken decades to grow and yet as consumers  do we do we place an equal value on the finished product of junk mail and other printed materials?

By lunchtime I had arrived in the village of Lairg. It was a chilly day and the door of a nearby closed cafe opened. Its lady owner beckoned me inside saying:

‘ Come in out of the cold. We close every Monday and host a lunch club for the elderly. They aren’t due for another hour so come in from the cold’

What a wonderful and unexpected act of kindness. She gave me tea and biscuits and refused payment. Before leaving I made a generous donation into a charity box on the shop counter.

My route then led along a steady, lengthy incline to Altnaharra. Here for the first time in my life I saw several different herds of Deer roaming freely in the Highlands. What an amazing, wonderful sight – they were as big as horses.

lejog-roaming-deer

Having cycled 80 miles I stayed at an Altnaharra guest house for the night. The hosts were amazing. They provided me with a 3 course evening meal and as there was no mobile telephone signal I used their house phone to make a short call to my wife.

I asked what it was like living here in the winter and was told that Altnaharra is frequently cited as the coldest place in the UK. As recently as one week ago it was still snow covered. They keep warm by burning peat that is dug from the rear of their property and much of their food is grown in their garden, fished in the nearby lakes or culled meat. The local store is 20 miles away in Lairg and an arrangement exists for the post van to deliver sundry items.

Day 15

lejog-betty-hill-shop-signAfter a wonderful breakfast I left for my last full day of cycling before reaching John O’Groats. A 20 mile descent from Altnaharra made cycling from the Highlands to the outskirts of the next village, Bettyhill effortless. Here I glimpsed the North Atlantic that reminded me that my journey was nearly over.

Bettyhill is also the only place in the world where the working week lasts longer than elsewhere.

lejog-doon-reyMy route then took me along the north coast of Scotland to the village of Reay and its adjoining nuclear power plant, Dounreay. This facility, like others in the UK and throughout Europe is being decommissioned, never to be rebuilt due to safety and environmental concerns.

Todays bicycle ride ended in the village of Mey for my final overnight stay having cycled 69 miles.

Day 16

lejog-john-o-groats-signGosh, what a cold day. Dressed in a base layer, then normal cycling clothing with a topping of water-proofs I set off into the mist for the final 7 miles of my ‘End-to-End’.

30 minutes later I arrived at John O’Groats where a passer-by took my photograph. I look really plump in my layered clothing .

Feeling relieved rather than ecstatic to be here I quickly escaped the dreariness of John O’Groats and cycled back to sunshine and ‘The Castle of Mey’

lejog-castle-of-mey‘The Castle of Mey’ is  the former summer home of the late Queen Mother. Here I enjoyed a reasonably priced pot of tea and a giant slab of ‘Queen Mothers’ chocolate cake – yummy.

As far as castles are concerned this one is large and without being the size of Royal palaces, it looks extremely homely. I fully understand why the Queen mother enjoyed her summer retreats here.

Relaxing to reflect on the past 16 days

  • I enjoyed the excitement of setting out and cycling through Cornwall and Devon. I then experienced easy cycling along the Somerset levels, Welsh Marches and Cheshire plains.
  • Urban cycling from Runcorn to Blackburn was the least enjoyable part of the ride, yet this was quickly forgotten amongst the sound of birdsong in the Forest of Bowland that lasted well into the beautiful Lake District.
  • I loved Scotland. Its scenery, the provision for cyclists in Glasgow and above all the kindness and generosity of the people I had pleasure in meeting.

Despite the ‘End-to-End’ being spoken as a ‘Right of passage’ for people to call themselves cyclists, I don’t support that perception and don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Yet the achievement does provide evidence of an ability to cycle reasonable distances on a daily basis in all sorts of weather.

Before setting out someone asked how far it was between Lands End to John O’Groats. I explained that the distance varies according to the route being followed. I had estimated that my route would be 1000 miles ( at the end of my adventure the actual distance was 1024 miles) The person then exclaimed:

‘1000 miles, now that really is a very long way to cycle’

I wasn’t being modest in my reply that cycling an average distance of 70 miles a day at roughly 10 mph isn’t strenuous. Having completed the ride my opinion hasn’t changed.

 

Lands End to John O’Groats: A story for children at Tŷ Gobaith and Hope House

lejog-ty-gobaith-logo
This cycling adventure is for the benefit of local girls and boys at Tŷ Gobaith in the Conwy valley and Hope House, Oswestry:   http://www.hopehouse.org.uk
lejog-route

Written as a daily diary the story begins at Lands End in Cornwall and continues for 14 days along the length of Britain until reaching John O’Groats in Scotland. If you enjoy reading this please share these stories to bring pleasure to others. 

Having packed everything I needed for the journey (toiletries, a change of clothing, pyjamas and 6, no 7 packets of jelly babies) I got to Lands End with Bessie my bicycle on several different trains from Harlech to Penzance in Cornwall.

From Penzance railway station a 12 mile bicycle ride through a village named Sennan took me to my overnight stay at Lands End.

Day 1 – Wednesday May 4th: Lands End to Looe
lejog-close-up-at-lands-end-postHere I am with Bessie at Lands End, the most south-westerly point of mainland Britain.

The sign reads 874 miles to my destination of John O’Groats which is situated at the most north-easterly tip of Britain. As I will be cycling on quiet roads instead of main roads my journey will be 1000 miles long, not 874.

Not far from Lands End a tall island rises from the sea. The island is called Saint Michaels Mount.

lejog-st-michaels-mountAccording to local legend it was built by a Cornish giant who made it his home. This giant had a monstrous appetite and used to raid all the farms on the mainland for food. When he appeared people were terrified they would be eaten so ran away and hid. Because the giant was stealing all their food everyone in the land grew very hungry.

A boy named Jack lived at one of the farms. Jack was clever, hardworking and very, very brave. He was also fed up with going without a meal so one day he began to dig a very deep pit outside the entrance to his farm. Jacks neighbours asked why he was doing this but Jack said nothing to them and simply kept digging deeper and deeper into the ground. He then concealed the opening by covering the top with branches, twigs and leaves.

That evening the giant could be seen approaching the mainland from his home on St Michaels Mount. He was going to raid the local farms and as usual everyone ran away to hide from him. But the giant had seen a big plump cow in one of Jacks fields and strode towards it bellowing:

‘MUNCH, CRUNCH, BRUNCH, SCRUNCH
I’LL EAT THAT COW FOR MY LUNCH’

But before he could reach the cow the giant stood on the branches that Jack had laid to conceal the pit he had dug. The giant fell in – never to be seen or steal food ever again. From that day onwards nobody missed a meal and Jack became known as ‘Jack the Giant Killer’.

The people from the mainland were overjoyed that the giant had gone. They crossed the causeway linking the mainland to St Michaels Mount and made a bonfire from the giants house. Flames from the fire could be seen for miles around and since that time fires have been lit in the same place to act as a beacon to warn others of an approaching danger.

In later times St Michaels Mount was the first beacon to be lit in a series that stretched as far as London. The flames were to warn everyone that an enemy was approaching. The enemy that people were afraid of were Spanish soldiers who were sailing inside an Armada of boats. They were coming to invade our land.

At the time of the beacons being lit a Sea Captain called Franky Drake was further down the coast in  Plymouth. He was playing in a bowls competition. When Franky was told that the warning beacon had been lit, he informed his team mates that there was plenty of time to finish the game. Franky’s last bowl won the game at the final of a national tournament for his team.

It must have been Frankys’ lucky day. Not only did he win his bowls match but by the time he got to his boat and set sail to defend Britain from the invading Spanish, bad weather had blown their Armada of boats off course. His boss did not know this and thinking the Armada were fleeing from Franky they instantly awarded him a promotion to the rank of Admiral.

Good news kept coming Frankys’  way. Back in Plymouth his bowls team were so pleased that Franky had stayed to finish and win his game, they named him ‘Man-of-the-Match’. Better still ‘Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth 1st’ ( who had placed a large wager on a Plymouth win at the bowls tournament) was so delighted with the match result that she awarded him a knighthood in her birthday honours list. He was then known by the very grand title of ‘Admiral Sir Francis Drake’.

I continued cycling and eventually reached the town of Looe to rest for the night.

Day 2 – Thursday 5th May: Looe to Exeter

This morning I set off from my overnight stay in Looe and cycled to Dartmoor. Dartmoor is a vast and lonely wilderness where wild beasts roam and is the place where people have disappeared for ever into its bottomless bogs. As I cycled across this desolate moor my bicycle satellite navigation screen suddenly went blank. This gave me a scare. Without it I was lost on a deserted road. The skies darkened under heavy cloud and heavy rain made it impossible to see the way ahead.

Suddenly I heard the snort of a horse and saw brightly lit candles shining from the steps of a vardo. A vardo is a gypsy caravan that has a living space which gives warmth and shelter for sleeping and cooking.

lejog-etsy-at-the-beginng-vardo

A women was standing by the steps. Her piercing eyes were staring into my soul and her gaze drew me closer. When she spoke I froze to the spot. She demanded to know who I was and the reason for cycling Bessie over her moor.

I answered her questions and spoke about the children at Tŷ Gobaith and about the ride ahead of me. She beamed a smile at me in recognition at the name Tŷ Gobaith.

‘Well, Gypsy Etsy at your service’, she said in a velvet, honeyed voice.

‘But there are long roads between here and the far north of Britain and not everyone you meet will be friendly. You will need something to help you in times of danger’.

Gypsy Etsy went to the back of her vardo and returned with a small leather pouch.

lejog-better-piccy-of-etsys-charm‘Take these. They are magic crystals and if you are in any type of danger simply grip the pouch tightly and help will arrive’

She handed me her magic and a picture of herself. As we parted she said:

‘Do stop at the Moretonhampstead tea room. I was there some years ago. Tell them Gypsy Etsy sent you’

I promised to visit the tea room and said my goodbyes. At the very moment I cycled Bessie away, darkness lifted, the sun came out and my bicycle satellite navigation system started to work again. It wasn’t long before arriving at Moretonhampstead where I kept my promise and stopped at the tea room.

What a lovely tea room. The waitress made me a crisp cheese and salad sandwich in soft white bread, followed by fluffy warm scones with strawberry jam and cornish cream – finished off with a plump slab of fruit cake. As she was setting a pot of steaming tea on the table in front of me the waitress asked where I had cycled from.lejog-tea-room-sign

‘The moor. Gypsy Etsy sent me here . She said to make certain that I tell you that’

The colour drained from the face of the waitress who then took me outside and pointed out the ‘Gypsy Etsy’s Tea Room’  sign that I hadn’t noticed on my arrival here . I thought it was an interesting coincidence but surely this didn’t merit the waitress going into a state of shock?

Returning indoors to finish my tea I then went to pay the bill and noticed  picture postcards for sale on the counter. I brought one to send back home.

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Walking outside to the daylight I looked closely at its picture and the small writing underneath that said this was of a white witch who opened the tea room over 200 years ago. I then compared the picture on this postcard with the photograph Gypsy Etsy had earlier gifted me of herself and gosh, no wonder the waitress had looked so shocked, they were the very same person –  how spooky !

I cycled onwards to my next overnight stay at a lovely guest house in nearby Exeter.

Day 3 – Friday 6th May: Exeter to Wells 

After a hearty breakfast of golden eggs, warm bread and a jug filled to the brim with rich creamy milk, Bessie and I left Exeter in the county of Devon. It felt good to put a safe distance between us and the eeriness of Dartmoor.

By lunchtime we had put in a hard mornings cycling and had reached the county of Somerset where the ‘Half Moon Inn’ offered a tasty menu and some welcome shade in a pretty garden.

lejog-half-moon-inn

Here I enjoyed an ice cold ginger beer and a roll stuffed with slices of delicious ham. Ouch !, I felt a severe pinprick on my left ankle. Ouch !, then another Ouch !, Ouch !, Ouch!

What on earth was going on?

Oh dear, the garden was filling up with tiny pixies. They were wearing dirty ragged clothes and pink pointed hats. One of them had fanged teeth. He was the cheeky chappy that kept biting my ankle. Then two of his buddies squealed:

‘We are Snip, Snap and Shredder’ and then chanted:

‘Snip Bessies brake cable, Snap her chain, ‘Shred her tyres!’

I ran out of the garden and cycled Bessie away to safety. I sped along the nearby lanes. Faster and faster I cycled, determined to prevent the pixies from damaging her. Then to my horror Snip, Snap and Shredder caught up and were bouncing on the mudguards trying to bite and puncture Bessies’s tyres. They were threatening to damage Bessie so badly that I might not be able to continue this adventure. What could I do?

Despite panicing I managed to remember the magic crystals and Gypsy Etsys promise that help would arrive if I held them tightly. The crystals were in my pocket. The very second I held them a beefy farmer came striding around the corner with an enormous chocolate coloured labrador dog. He was a friendly old fellow with a pink tongue that hung happily out of his mouth and a tail that wagged enthusiastically. The moment he saw the pixies he gave a yelp of glee and lolloped towards them; Snip, Snap and Shredder saw what was approaching , stopped their naughty antics and fled across nearby fields. I carried on cycling Bessie in the opposite direction. 

That night I stayed in the Somerset town of Exeter where I found a town house to stay overnight. The owners said Bessie would be safe in my spacious bedroom. As I drifted off to sleep I was startled awake by the noise of the bedroom window rattling wildly. Snip, Snap and Shredder had found me and were trying to break in. After a while they realised that the window was locked and would not open, so they scuttled around the gravel path and began thumping on the front door demanding to get in. Their noisy antics continued into the night but I clung on to Gypsy Etsys crystals. They kept me safe….for the time being.

Day 4 – Saturday 7th May: Wells to Monmouth

At daybreak I quietly opened the front door. Snip, Snap and Shredder had tired themselves out and had fallen to sleep on the front lawn. They looked just like a bundle of scruffy rags and certainly smelt as bad. Bessie and I quietly sneaked past them and through the garden gateway to cycle through the City of Bristol. Here a high bridge would have to be crossed to get out of England into Walesland.

Just as the bridge came into sight Snip, Snap and Shredder caught up with me. They were leaping into the air with Snip trying to bite Bessie’s brake cable, Snap pushing twigs into Bessie’s cogs and Shredder trying to puncture the tyres.

‘Oh-no, not again’ I said. ‘This is getting too much, it really is’. Once again I reached for the crystal that Gypsy Etsy had given me. At the very moment I touched it a dragon appeared in the sky. Its huge claw gripped Bessies’ bicycle frame and lifted Bessie and me off the ground and over the bridge into Walesland. Gypsy Etsy had sent Draig Coch to our rescue!

Draig Coch stood guard on the Welsh side of the bridge . As Snip, Snap and Shredder approached they had the fright of their lives as Draig bellowed fire from her nostrils and blew them all the way back to England.

lejog-draiig-breahting-fire

Draig then came over to me and I rested Bessie against her side. Draig said that she usually stands guard at Tŷ Gobaith where she protects the children and had flown here because Gypsy Etsy told her we were in trouble. Thanking Draig she flew away to look after the Tŷ Gobaith children.

I continued cycling and reached Monmouth for an overnight stay and noticed a thumb print where Draig had held Bessie to lift us over the bridge.

Not an ordinary thumb print though. This is truly a magical thumb print; it is solid silver and in the shape of Draig Coch.

Day 5 – Sunday 8th May: Monmouth to Shrewsbury

(Todays cycling story is dedicated to little Ruby, a cavalier from Cheshire who we met in Clun. Aged 14 she donated her £5 pocket money to support the Ty Gobaith/ Hope house children. Thank you Ruby)

The naughty pixies Snip, Snap and Shredder were gone forever and after a very good nights sleep I woke up fresh and eager to begin the next stage of my bike ride on Bessie to Shrewsbury.

As I was wheeling along the Shrewsbury road a large group of cyclists on racing bicycles sped past me and took the turning I was heading for.  The cyclists were half my age, twice my height, with much stronger pedalling and all rode very light weight bicycles without any luggage. I decided that they would get to Shrewsbury a long time before I would.

Ten miles later I stopped at a lay-by for a drink of coffee and noticed the racing bicycles against the wall of a cafe on the other side of the road. All the cyclists were inside and I could see through the windows that they were enjoying heaped plates of sausages and hash browns. It seemed they had simply cycled here for a quick bite to eat.

Bessie and I carried on cycling and hardly 20 minutes had gone by before hearing the whirling and clunk of gears being changed behind me. The racing bicycles flashed by. They were on the way to Shrewsbury after all.

A few hours later I cycled Bessie through a village called Clun where I saw the racing bikes against the wall of a village pub. Their riders were sitting at nearby picnic tables drinking pints of beer and tucking into huge servings of meat and potatoe pie with chips and gravy. Passing them by for a second time I wondered how long it would be before they overtook again.

The rest of the journey was a peaceful and pleasant ride along the Welsh boarder.

We reached the gigantic ribcage of Shrewsbury’s ‘Quantum’ and cycled through the sculptures archway, grateful to be so close to a good nights rest. Looking behind me I could see the racing cyclists slowly wobbling their way into town and I overheard their astonished comments that I had arrived before them.

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Inside my Quantum bedroom the air had a fragrance of lavender and wonderful soft lights swirled colours of gold, blue and magenta around me. Bubble tubes played melodies as I gently floated off to sleep.

Day 6 – Monday 9th May: Shrewsbury to Runcorn

Cycling Bessie towards Runcorn the early start was bright and clear then each passing hour brought worsening downfalls of rain and strong head winds. I wondered if I could reduce the length and amount of time this journey would take by finding a shorter route.

On the outskirts of Chester I came across a man wearing a striped jumper and black eye mask. Over his shoulder was a very full looking sack with the word ‘Swag’ embroidered on it. As he walked briskly in front of me I called out to ask if he new a short cut to Runcorn. He pointed to a few garden walls that I could hop over and then commenting that would be difficult to do on a bicycle ,he suggested an alternative route through a village called Trafford.

‘Beware of the Troll ! ‘ he shouted, as I pedalled Bessie in his suggested direction of Trafford.

‘Beware of the Police !’ I replied, as a police car with armed officers screeched to a halt beside him.

I had no concern about Trolls. My only trouble was the terrible, near gale force head wind that slowed my progress and caused  a crackle-rattle of branches as they fell from trees and landed on the ground perilously close to me.

The shortcut through Trafford required a crossing of the river Gowey with its only crossing point, a dilapidated wooden bridge. Its planks rumbled as I cycled Bessie along it.

‘ Who’s that above me?’ roared a fierce voice.

I brought Bessie to a stop and peeped through a gap between the planks I was cycling over. Here I saw what looked like a giant seashell.

The object must have sensed I had stopped and slowly lifted itself out of the water and looked through the deck of the bridge, revealing his hungry eyes. These were as big as saucers. Gulp –  this was the Troll I had been warned about.

lejog-troll-coming-for-me

‘ I am tired of eating fish. I want some meat for my supper dish. I’m coming to eat you instead of fish’  he shouted.

The troll then stepped out of the water and stood in front of me.He held a strange looking spear and intended to put me on the end of it.

The Trolls hairy hand moved in my direction and I began rummaging for Etsy’s crystal, closing my eyes in the certainty that the next thing I would see would be the insides of the Trolls tummy.

ROARRR was the sound that broke into my fear. ROAR, HISS, CRASH, THUMP.

The deck of the bridge shook to its foundation. The river bed trembled as the earth quaked. Noise, heat and bellowing wind surrounded me and then……then there was complete stillness. Absolute silence. I slowly opened my eyes expecting to see the inside of the Trolls tummy. Instead it was Draig Coch who had flown to my rescue from Tŷ Gobaith.

 

The Troll has gone now. He has fled to his Den in Middle Earth. He will never return to trouble you or the kind people of Trafford. But I must fly now. There is a birthday party for one of the little ones at Tŷ Gobaith’

With a single bat of his wings, Draig flew back to his post at Tŷ Gobaith for an very enjoyable afternoon of fun, laughter and games at the birthday party.

How I wished Bessie could be cycled as quickly as Draig can fly.

As I cycled away from Trafford the sky developed an orange haze. This was pollution, the worst I have seen.The noise of motorway traffic grew so loud that it drowned out all other sounds. The air was loaded with diesel fumes.Had I arrived in Hell? – no,  Runcorn.

Day 7 – Tuesday 10th May: Runcorn to High Bentham

I got up before daybreak and cycled Bessie across the industrial heart of the North West of England before people set off to work. By 7am we had travelled through the usually busy towns of Warrington and Bolton.

The second leg of todays route took me through the village of Slaidburn and into the beautiful Forest of Bowland. Over recent months this area has been rained on so heavily and so frequently that some roads were washed away. Fortunately an officer from the Lake District National Park gave permission for Bessie and I to use a temporary road that was usually reserved for bus travel and highway maintenance vehicles.

Torrential rain was making it difficult to see or be seen. I was cold and soaked to the skin so decided to push Bessie off the road and into the forest and waited for the rain to stop under the branches of a huge sturdy oak tree.

As the minutes passed by I began to tune in to the sound of low pitched voices that were surrounding me but could not see anyone through the rain. I unwrapped a sweet and began eating it, taking great care not to disturb any tooth fillings. Then a gentle voice from above my head spoke:

‘Are you still wet?

lejog-treeI looked upwards to where the voice had come from and nearly fainted in complete disbelief. The tree had a face. Its wrinkled trunk had two eyes and like everyones favourite Uncle, he radiated a lovely heart-warming smile.

‘ I am a little wet and cold’.

The kind tree then folded its lower branches and wrapped them around me to provide shelter and warmth.

After a while I became captivated by the quiet conversations that surrounded me. But these voices were not coming from people. The conversations were taking place between the forests’ trees !

A hawk carrying a field mouse flew through the rain and gently placed it on the ground beside me and fluttered to the top of the tree, whispering something before taking flight.The magic tree then stooped down and said:

‘ The hawk tells me this rain will continue to fall here for several more days. A Gypsy called Etsy asked him to drop by with Squeaky the mouse. Squeaky will take you away from the rain.’

Follow me’ squeaked the mouse who scuttled along a little path through the undergrowth. Bessie and I could only just manage to keep up. Eventually we reached the low entrance of a limestone cave and Squeaky dived in. Bessie and I followed and Squeaky led us into darkness. Luckily Bessie has a very powerful headlamp so I could see and follow Squeaky. We eventually came out of the cave having reached a road on the far side of the forest.

‘Now keep right and you won’t go wrong’, said Squeaky, twitching her nose knowingly. Waving goodbye I cycled away under clear blue skies thankful to Squeaky, to the Hawk, to the magical tree and above all to Gypsy Etsy for taking care of us. A short while later I arrived at High Bentham to stay overnight.

Day 8 – Wednesday 11th May: High Bentham to Keswick

I made another early start this morning and travelled on Bessie towards England’s most beautiful lakes at Ullswater and Grassmere, in an area known as the Lake District.

By mid morning I arrived here and decided to rest for a coffee break. I watched the sun sparkling on the surface of the lake and admired this line of spring daffodils that stretched out into the distance and vanished into the trees behind them. The morning breeze tossed their heads in a sprightly dance.

lejog-host-of-daffodils

I remembered Gypsy Etsy on the steps of her vardo in Dartmoor. When she knew my route would be through the Lake District she told me about a chum of hers, Billy Wordsworth. He once lived near this place and kept pidgeons and doves. Billy even called his cottage ‘Dove Cote Cottage’.

She had told me about the letters he wrote. These were long before emails or post boxes were used so people used to write on parchment before sealing the letter with candle wax. Billy used to attach his letters to the leg of a pigeon named Peggy. Peggy was a very clever bird who would then find her way to Gypsy Etsy’s vardo and fly back to Billy with a reply.

One of the Billy’s letters was dated 209 years ago today. The letter described the sight of daffodils and I wondered whether Billy had sat here  when he wrote that verse.

lejog-letter-from-billy-w

Pushing Bessie back onto the road we cycled on towards Keswick. This was going to be my last overnight stay in England. Tomorrow I will cycle Bessie across the boarder into Scotland.

Day 9 – Thursday 12th May: Keswick to Moffat

Hurray, hurray twice ! Firstly because Bessie and I have now cycled 500 miles and that means we have only 500 more miles to reach our destination of John O’Groats. The second hurray is for arriving at the Blacksmiths forge in Gretna Green.

lejog-gretna-green

Many years ago young people in England needed their parents permission to marry. When their parents did not give permission some couples ran away to Scotland where the law allowed them to marry. Gretna Green was the first village the couples arrived at.

Marriages were performed by the village Blacksmith who would give the couple a horse shoe as their wedding present and wish them good luck for their future. Since then ‘horse shoes’ as a sign for good luck is the reason why they can been seen on some doorways or gatepost,and why todays wedding confetti often contains horseshoes made from paper !

When resting with Bessie against the  Blacksmiths wall the front door opened and two frogs hopped out. They had just got married and were called Fergie and Fergus Frog. Fergus told me they lived in the village pond at the back of the Blacksmiths forge. They were just about to set off for a honeymoon in the City of Glasgow, a place they had never visited before. I wished them well and off they hopped.

It was a hot day and the frogs had only gone a little way when Fergus said to his new wife:

‘We must be nearly there. Can you see Glasgow Fergie?’

‘No’ replied Fergie.‘ But if I could climb onto your back I might be able to’

Fergus turned round and Fergie climbed onto his back. But by turning round Fergie was now looking at where they had come from and not where they were heading.

‘Can you see the City?’ said Fergus.

‘Yes’, answered his wife. ‘ I can and it looks exactly like our village’.

Fergus and Fergie then hopped back home and told the other frogs that as the City of lejog-frog-on-lilly-leafGlasgow looked just like their own village, it was not worth going to.

 The newly married couple then decided to spend the rest of their honeymoon and the rest  of their lives lounging on huge Lilly leaves that floated on the village pond.

Fergus and Fergie Frog lived happily ever after.

Day 10 – Friday May 13th: Moffat to Loch Lomand

Unlike Fergus and Fergie I did go to Glasgow. It is an enormous City with a wide river, the Clyde, passing through it. Many say the Clyde is the reason for wealth in Glasgow and several beautiful bridges allow people to cross over the river.

Cycling through the City of Glasgow was easy. There is a path specially reserved for bikes where we passed a giants bicycle. Remembering that Jack had deposited the giant into a pit, we were free from danger.

lejog-cropped-bankies-bike

Many miles later we arrived at Loch Lomond and it was here that I met Danny the dragonfly.  Danny was clinging on to the head of a flower.

‘Please help me!’ exclaimed Danny. ‘I was playing in the Loch and have lost my Antennae’

‘Of course’ I replied. Antennae are very important to dragonflies. They act as a magic eye to sense where land ends and water begins. No wonder Danny needed to find them.

In the distance I saw an underwater policeman bobbling about.

‘Constable Seahorse, please help Danny, he has lost his antennae’ 

Constable Seahorse wrote down the particulars on a piece of water weed and used his radio to summon his Seahorse deputies who quickly arrived to help with the search. They looked in and all round the Loch, including the  shoreline and water reeds but the antennae was nowhere to be found.

‘Where were you before you noticed that your antennae was lost’ asked Constable Seahorse.

‘I was playing with Crabbie the crab’, wailed Danny. ‘I must find my antennae otherwise Mom will be very angry with me’ 

Constable Seahorse sent his deputies to Crabbies house and they returned with him a short while later.

‘ Look Danny’ said Crabby very proudly. ‘ Here are your antenna. You left them at my place’

So who said Friday 13th was unlucky?

Day 11 – Saturday May 14th:Loch Lomond to Glencoe 

After helping Danny it was too late in the afternoon for further cycling so I stayed at a guest house on the banks of Loch Lomond. The landlady owned a brindle boxer dog named Biffo and a ginger tom cat called Benny who was always taking things and frequently got into trouble.

The following morning Biffo the boxer positioned himself in the doorway of the breakfast room. There was hope in his eyes and room in his tummy for everything on my breakfast plate. The landlady was working in the kitchen and accidentally dropped a smoked kipper on the floor. Benny lived up to his reputation and quickly ran off with it to the nearby Loch.

Benny suddenly stopped running and cocked his head to one side. What had distracted him? I couldn’t see anything but could hear a mysterious sound coming from somewhere out of sight.It was a sound the likes of which I had never heard before and neither had Biffo who let out such a huge howl that a rabbit nibbling a lettuce leaf in the vegetable garden stood up on its hind legs to take a look, and even asked a nearby squirrel if she had heard the noise.

Why wasn’t big brave Biffo the boxer dog chasing down to the Loch to find out what was happening? Looking down on my plate it was empty. Biffo was licking his lips. He had woofed down all of my breakfast.

‘Well, how lovely to see a clean breakfast plate. So many guests leave food. Would you care for some more?’ asked the land lady.

‘No thank you’. Was my reply. I was gazing at the slimy slobber that Biffo had left. To prevent the land lady accusing me of plate licking I used a paper serviette to wipe away Biffos’ mess.

The noise from the Loch was getting louder and sounded more urgent. Then it dawned on me that Danny the dragonfly may have got into difficulties so I rushed to the rescue along with 3 rabbits, 5 squirrels, a mouse, a tawny owl, 2 foxes,  3 goats with Biffo the boxer dog bringing up the rear.

We all arrived at the Loch side together and the mysterious noises were no longer a mystery. The eggs of 2 geese had hatched and the chicks were playing with each other. Their parents were jumping with joy !

 Day 12 – Sunday May 15th Glencoe to Inverness

The sun rose and burn’t off the coolness of todays spring morning. I set off to the next Loch, Loch Ness. The road I was travelling on would lead to my next overnight stay in the historic City of Inverness. Inverness is crowned by a pink castle that is lavishly adorned with scented flowers.

lejog-beautiful-loch-nessLoch Ness is 20 miles long and so deep that if 73 of the tallest people you know stood on each others shoulders, they would still not match the depth of this Loch. Loch Ness is most famous for tales about a monster that is supposed to live in its water. The Loch Ness monster is popularly known at ‘Nessie’.

It was lovely to cycle alongside Loch Ness, following its banks along a very quiet and pleasant roadside flanked by trees. I met a farmer wearing a shabby sports jacket with leather patched arms. He seemed surprised to see me and introduced himself as Percival Mac Pickle-Nose

‘Not many people cycle here’ said Percival. ‘Did ye not hear about the vampires?’

‘Vampires?’ I queried. Percival then explained this was the name he gave to describe flying midges that bite people.

‘They are very common here in the Scottish Highlands, especially by water and even more so by this Loch. The last person who attempted to bike along this road never made it to Inverness. The poor lassie was so badly bitten that only her bicycle survived ‘.

That good news for Bessie was not good news for me and as a distant sound of buzzing from the whirling wings of midges could be heard , it was sensible to move on.

Cycling Bessie away as quickly as possible to get away from the midges, my legs tired and the ‘Vampires’  caught up and started to bite. Their bites were deeper and more painful than any bite from that naughty pixie named Snap, back in Somerset.

When I tried to swat the midges away they retaliated and bit my fingers, hands and arms. So many midges filled the air that the skies darkened. All I could think of was Percival Mac Pickle-Nose telling me about the lady who was so badly bitten that she never made it to Inverness.

I reached into my pocket for the bag of crystals that Gypsy Etsy had given me and held them tightly, asking for help. A warm breeze then stirred from the Loch that grew stronger and stronger until a gale force wind began to develop. The gusts were so strong that it took all my strength to hold onto Bessie.

Eventually it became impossible to continue cycling. Gripping Bessie with one hand and a railing of a fence with the other, I looked towards the Loch as Nessie its monster surfaced. Within seconds her hurricane breath triggering a tornado that sucked all the vampires high up into the air and ‘Over the Sea to Skye‘.

‘Thank you Nessie’ I said.

As she submerged herself back into the Loch, the wind stopped.

‘Sorry people of Skye’  I muttered, then continued to cycle Bessie towards my next overnight stay in the  City of Inverness.

Arriving at Inverness I spotted a chap who was sitting next to his friend, fishing. I heard them say that there was no such thing as a Loch Ness monster.

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 Day 13 – Monday May 16th: Inverness to Altnaharra

Inverness is traditionally seen as the capital of the Scottish Highlands and today I was going to cycle Bessie between soaring mountain tops, deep valleys, lakes and lonely houses where few people lived.

By mid-afternoon I was cycling along a track that had woodland on one side and a small lake on the other.Behind me I heard the click-clacking of horse hooves and the creaking of the carriage it was pulling. The track was narrow so it seemed sensible to wait on the verge and give them room to pass.

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The click clack sound of  horse hooves became louder as did the creaking and rattling of the carriage as it rounded the bend behind me. As the horse and its carriage passed, the sounds grew very loud indeed and then quieter as it clicked, clacked and creaked into the distance.

But I saw nothing! No horse, no carriage. Only the sounds they were making. A cold shiver ran down my spine and I pinched myself to make sure this wasn’t a dream. Ouch ! it wasn’t. I could still hear the distant click, clack, creak and rattle as they continued in front of me. How eerie.

An hour or so later I arrived at my guest house in Altnaharra. It was a clean, warm and homely place to stay with friendly owners who made me a cup of tea. I told them the story of the horse and carriage and they looked at me very strangely. I never saw them again either.

Day 14 – Tuesday May 17th: Altnaharra to the Castle of Mey

If you have never seen an Elf they are very easy to recognise with their short pointed ears and adorable red nose. Today I came across a pair of them walking in the same direction that I was cycling Bessie, so I called out:

I’m off to the castle of Mey. Would you like me to give you a ride on Bessie?’

The two elves looked at each other and nodded eagerly. ‘Yes please’ they chorused, hopping onto my bicycle bags that were suspended on either side of Bessies rear mudguard. They shuffled around and making themselves very comfortable poured out their story, often speaking at the same time.

‘My name is Jingle’

‘My name is Jangle’

‘ We are off to the castle of Mey and have walked here from Skegness. We have had a caravan holiday in Skeggy and really loved our time there. We stay in Skeggy for 5 months of the year but now we are off to the castle of Mey where there is a sleigh waiting to take us home’.

‘A sleigh? Where’s home?’ I asked.

‘The North Pole’ answered Jingle and Jangle very proudly.

The North Pole?’ Their story seemed hard to believe. ‘Surely only Father Christmas (Sion Corn) lives at there’

‘And his helpers’ said Jingle, adding: ‘I look after his reindeers’ 

‘And I help to make toys in Santas workshop’ added Jangle. ‘Our work starts in early June and a storeroom full of presents is then ready in plenty of time for the children’s letters to Santa that usually arrive at the beginning of December.

‘Do you make presents for all the children in the world?’ thinking it would be a huge job for just two elfs.

‘Not quite. We use our magical powers to look after every child in England, Walesland, Scotland, America, Australia and New Zealand’ said Jingle.

‘Our pals the Leprechauns look after the children living in Ireland. The Yule lads then look after the children in Iceland and the Zwarte Piet outfit take care of the rest of Europe. Others look after the rest of the world.

Jingle and Jangle explained that Her Majesty the Queen had a very gracious mother who was also a Queen. She gave permission for the sleigh to use her garden at the castle of Mey, which was also her summer home.lejog-castle-of-mey

Having now arrived at the Castle of Mey I realised this bicycle adventure was nearly at an end.

My final destination of John O’Groats was less than an hour away. Over the past 14 days there have been many wonderful experiences.

Now I was saying farewell to Jingle and Jangle who had been great company. Understandably I felt a little sad. To my great surprise someone called out my name. That ‘someone’ turned out to be my protector, Gypsy Etsy. My sadness immediately lifted.

Gyspy Etsys’ vardo was nestled in a corner of the castle of Mey garden. Her washing was pegged neatly on a line between the vardo and the Queen mothers cherry tree. A stew was bubbling on her stove and it smelt delicious.

‘Its lovely to see you, when did you get here?  I asked

‘Yesterday’ answered Etsy. ‘Do you remember hearing my horse and vardo?’

I then realised that yesterdays noise of a horse and carriage was nothing more sinister than Gypsy Etsy who was travelling past under a cloak of invisibility.

Gypsy Etsy told me that she visits the Castle of Mey every spring and if the Elfs are a little late in their arrival she casts a spell to get them here more quickly. Today I had been part of todays spell.

Day 15 – Wednesday May 18th: The Castle of Mey to John O’Groats

Today I cycled 7 miles from the Castle of Mey to the finish of my bicycle ride at John O’Groats.

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My journey was now over . A short bicycle ride to Thurso railway station and several trains later I arrived back home in Harlech the following morning. I had cycled Bessie 1,026 miles.

If you have enjoyed reading these stories and wish to know more about the work of Hope House and Tŷ Gobaith visit: http://www.hopehouse.org.uk.

 

 

 

 

 

Memory Lane

With a favourable weather forecast an autumnal bicycle ride along memory lane could not have been more perfectly timed. And this adventure would follow the coast of north-west England from Merseyside into the Southern Lake District, visiting places that I remember either being told or read about and have never visited.

Day 1: Sunday September 6th:

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 11.54.51Looking at one hundred naked men standing on a beach sounds like the shameful behaviour of a peeping Tom. Yet these are men of iron who were sculpted by a chap called Antony Gormley who is responsible for the  ‘Angel of the North’  that I intend to visit next year.

Collectively known as ‘Another Place’ there is a deep artistic meaning to their creation.  According to Gormley the sculptures harness the ebb and flow of the sea in a way that explores man’s relationship with nature….  ummmm.

For now this adventure leads from Crosby promenade along a 22 mile route that is virtually traffic free to reach Southport. It is known as the ‘Sefton Coastal Path’.

In places the path has been tarmaced for the sole use of walkers and cyclists. Other parts follow quiet residential streets.

Tonight was a lovely evening for cycling and thanks to an un-crowded easy, flat surface to travel along, I quickly arrived in Southport as the night sky delivered its beautiful sunset.

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…………and then stayed overnight in an absolutely charming Airbnb house.

Day 2: Monday 7th September

Todays journey would have followed a short and simple 50 mile route to my next overnight stay in Morecambe. A navigational error extended the journey to 60 miles.

Safer cycling in Southport is helped by a designated space on the main A565 road out of town. 15miles later the A565  arrives at a junction with the A59 where the turning to Preston is taken. So why-oh-why did I go in the wrong direction? The error was realised on the brow of a hill 5 miles later where a road sign for Preston pointed back towards Southport – silly me.  Pausing  for a calming coffee from my Stanley thermos flask I turned back.

The A59 took me to the recently created ‘Preston Guild Wheel Cycle Path’. A neighbour told me about this and it was an absolute  joy to cycle on. After travelling around the wheel in an anti clockwise direction National Cycle Route 6 (NCR 6) took me in the direction of Lancaster where NCR 69 provided a further traffic free route across the river Lume to my destination for the day at Morecambe.

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This was the reason for my to visit Morecambe and I spent a good hour at the memorial that is set against the backdrop of Morecambe Bay and tomorrows destination, the Lake District.

The sculpture of his trade mark skip and dance pose was the way that Eric and Ernie turned their backs to the audience and then bound off stage at the end of every Morecambe and Wise television programme.

A large circular tribute has been laid in front of the statue:

  • The outer ring lists the names of those who made a financial donation to this memorial.
  • Written in the next ring are the names of guests who had appeared in their television shows. I made a note of the most memorable: Kenny Ball, Shirley Bassey, The Beatles, Cilla, David Frost, Glenda Jackson, Lulu and Angela Rippon. So many well known guests appeared on their show that the tribute has needed three rows to name them all.
  • An inner ring has a reminder of his signature catchphrases, including my favourite:

 ‘Tea urn?’

Erics’ statue shows him with a pair of binoculars. He enjoyed bird watching and sculpted birds have been positioned in the flower beds and wrought iron railings that lead to and surround his memorial.

That evening I watched the North-West television news who ran an item to commemorate her Majesty the Queen becoming the longest serving monarch. This included her opening Erics memorial by unveiling this statue.

Day 3: Tuesday 8th September

This was my first visit to Morecambe and have been very impressed with its character. Today started with a  visit to the tourist information (TI) office for guidance on the safest cycling route into the Southern Lake District. The TI office is located in the former ‘Morecambe Pavilion Railway Station’  that was initially built to receive holiday makers arriving to the area. Although the station has moved it seemed very apt for the tourist information office to be based in a building that was always intended to serve commuters and visitors.

The TI people were really helpful and suggested following the traffic free ‘Morecambe Bay Cycle Way’ and then cross the main road to cycle along the Lancaster canal towpath. They also suggested that I looked inside the Midland Hotel that is situated across the road from the TI building and gosh, it is impressive; Neptune and Triton have been painted on the lobby ceiling and the building has a distinctive art-deco style. I wished my overnight stay in Morecambe had been spent there.

The ‘Morecambe Bay Cycle Way’ starts next to the Midland Hotel and marked the beginning of a 60 mile ride to my next overnight stay in picturesque Ulverston.

Signage that marked the starting point of todays route coincides with the starting point of the ‘Way of the Roses’ cycle way which goes to Bridlington in Yorkshire. So that’s for another occasion and will include a luxurious overnight stay in the Midland Hotel.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 11.59.18I was so pleased that the Morecambe TI team suggested cycling alongside the Lancaster canal. What a stunning route. Every pedal stroke opened Pandora’s box for the finest views of canal side properties,  decorative narrow boats, sea views to the left and countryside to the right.

From the  canal I followed NCR 700 before taking the Arnside train across an estuary to Grange-over Sands. From here I followed NCR 70 uphill to cross the Ulverston Channel by Greenodd,descending towards Ulverston via the hamlets of Penny Bridge and Mansrigg.

When I arrived at Ulverston the first people I came across were leaning against a lamp post outside Coronation hall:

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 12.00.38Ulverston is the place where Stan Laurel was born and the reason why I wanted to visit. After checking into my B&B, St Marys Mount in the Belmont area, I walked back into the town and spent the remainder of the afternoon in the Laurel and Hardy museum.

The museums Roxy cinema contains their memorabilia and my sides were aching from the laughter of watching their short slap-stick films. I hadn’t laughed so much for years.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 12.01.45The Hoad Monument on a hill at the back of my B&B aroused my curiosity so walked up to take a closer look.

Information boards at the base of the monument explained it was built to honour a man who was born in the town called John Barrow. He was awarded a knighthood for his public service in the admiralty – hence the reason for the monument being shaped in the likeness of a lighthouse.

The evening skies were clear and panoramic views from the monument made the visit to Ulverston even more worthwhile. Morecambe was a distant view that one day I will return to.

Day 4: Wednesday 9th September

A feature of todays ride were quiet B roads, short sharp hills, rolling countryside and ideal weather conditions for touring on a bicycle. It was cool and dry with no headwind.

Some years ago I read  ‘Swallows and Amazons’ by Arthur Ransome – the ‘Swallow’ and ‘Amazon’ were names given to boats and Peel island was  known in the book as Wild Cat Island, with its secret landing stage for those boats.

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My reason for cycling alongside Coniston water was to capture this view of Peel Island. It was loftier than my minds eye had pictured and as this tree line is Amazonian I wondered whether this was why one of the boats had been given that name.

The other reason for wanting to visit Coniston was to see where Donald Campbell made his speed record attempt. So I made my way into Coniston itself and went to the Ruskin museum that houses some of his memorabilia.

After resting in Coniston and enjoying a coffee from my Stanley thermos flask a steep climb lay ahead. I am so pleased my Rohloff gearing has a mountain bike ratio – the hill, Hawkshead Hill, was a toughie. It had recently been coated with loose chippings that made traction challenging during the ascent. I visited nearby Hawkshead with its connections to William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter and brought a copy of ‘Treasured Tales’. Her stories and the illustrations are as wonderful and colourful as the names of her well known characters: Tabitha Twitchit, Jemima Puddle-Duck, Peter Rabbit, Mrs Tiggy-Winkle & Squirrel Nutkin to name but a few.

From Hawkshead I thought it would be a good idea to take in a cruise on Lake Windermere. A tourist information leaflet explained that a ferry trip around Lake Windermere could be made from nearby Lakeside.

My arrival at the ferry coincided with the arrival of a steam train full of tourists. Within a few minutes the once empty ferry was filled with people that had got off the train  leaving no room for me….such is life.

Day 5: Thursday 10th September

Following a memorable night at the Newby Bridge Hotel today  followed the scenic east bank of Lake Windermere. On the outskirts of town my route headed inland to climb past  Windermere golf club to travel along the even quieter B5284 all the way to Kendal.

A delight of riding a bicycle is that the absence of engine noise avoids disturbing nature. This morning it felt as though my bicycle ride had taken the form of a nature safari with a surprising, wonderful sighting of a red kite and separately a red squirrel.

Screen Shot 2017-03-20 at 12.08.53Later today I would be leaving Kendal by train to travel home to Harlech. These past few days have visited talent: Gormleys’ standing men at Crosby, the tribute to Eric Morecambe, Stan Laurel and John Barrows home town of Ulverston , Coniston water- the source of inspiration for Arthur Ransome and place of Donald Campbells’ speed record, Beatrix Potter land and here in Kendal a signpost pointing to Mount Everest.

There is always a reason for everything and my reason for visiting Kendal was to buy and for the first time taste some Kendal Mint cake. The reverse of the wrapper states:

 “Romneys Kendal Mint Cake was the first mint cake to be successfully carried to the top of Mount Everest on 29th May 1953, this being the first successful expedition to the summit”  

This solved the riddle of the reason for a signpost from Kendal town centre to Mount Everest and also left me with a puzzle. Why was the mint cake carried to the summit and not eaten. Later that night I appreciated the reason why.

Having now arrived back home to Harlech my thoughts were that this mini break has shown me that it is not necessary to cycle across Europe to find great bicycle paths and discover interesting places to visit and meet great people. It also persuaded me that canal tow paths can be very attractive routes to follow and that next years main cycling holiday will bring me back to the Lake District.

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