Three months ago I cycled from Marble Arch in London to Admiralty Arch in Holyhead on the aptly named Holyhead Road. This story completes that journey by retracing the route from Menai Bridge to Dublin Castle which two centuries ago was the destination and despatch point for parliamentary mail and parliamentarians.
As Time and Tide waits for no man picture iron rimmed coach wheels ripping through gravelled roads running to Holyhead where the Royal Mail Coach would head a line of other coaches alongside shoals of passengers and heaps of luggage. Steam billowing off the backs of exhausted horses would reflect the surrounding scenes of perspiration and emotion.
When the 1800 Act of Union created a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland parliamentarians made regular journeys between Dublin and Westminster. Their influence resulted in government monies being used to improve roads, harbours, boats and a multitude of bridges were built including the Menai Suspension Bridge that spans the Menai Strait.
The narrow and long Menai Strait separates the island of Anglesey from the mainland of Wales. The Irish Sea enters from the southern and northern ends and when those opposing forces of water meet they create strong swells, under-currents and whirlpools. Crossing at high tide was too dangerous so people waited to be ferried across at low tides that occur at 12 hour intervals.
The waiting for those 12 hour crossing opportunities ended at 1:35am on January 30th 1826 when the Menai Suspension Bridge opened. For the first time in history mail and stage coaches, people on foot and animals could to cross at a time of their own choosing.
The shape and width of the Menai Bridge arches had been specifically designed for coaches and its dual carriageway allowed coaches coming from each direction to pass each other.
Because the bridge made it safer, easier and quicker to cross the Menai Straits an assumption was made that more passengers would now travel to the packet boat but the numbers using the packet boat service fell by more than a quarter. The reason was given in a letter signed by businessmen from Dublin to Parliament; they informed the government that packet boat companies tried to profiteer from the ease of reaching the Port of Holyhead and doubled the packet boat fares. Customers responded by making a longer sea journey from Dublin to Liverpool. By avoiding Wales the land route to London was shorter.
Post Office records confirm the reported decline in passengers crossing from Holyhead and revealed a 24 percent drop in income on the Holyhead route with a corresponding increase in profit from passengers sailing between Dublin to the English port of Liverpool.
The British government’s response was to do nothing. The less crowded sea crossing from Holyhead was benefiting parliamentarians then in 1848 passenger numbers surged with the arrival of the railways; the 6 hour train journey from London was cheaper, safer, more comfortable and considerably quicker than the 30 hour coach journey.
Throughout the 122 years of Union with Ireland, Holyhead prospered with Irish merchants, civil engineers and construction workers settling in the town.
Holyhead was home for three communities with the Irish, Welsh and English worshiping in their own places; an Irish Catholic Church, St Marys on Market Street, numerous Welsh Chapels and an Anglican church. Cultural identities were celebrated in three separate taverns referred to as the Irish, Welsh and English hostelries. Here they would speak their mother tongue whist enjoying home comforts of company, traditional food, drink and song.
Despite having different cultural identities the three communities bonded together, some married and descendants of those relationships now live in Ireland, others in Wales and others elsewhere including places as far away as America and Australia.
As is the case in any community conflicts occasionally occurred. When Irish labourers were being hired to work alongside Welsh labourers to build the Holyhead breakwater fights broke out, with the Welsh accusing the Irish of taking local jobs.
This photo illustrates a divide between sea swell and calmer waters created by the Breakwater for packet boats and fishing vessels to anchor and shelter. Apart from the breakwater the coastline of Holyhead has another history, its source of seabird eggs.
Seabird eggs were thought to be more nutritious than chicken eggs and as the wealthy paid a high price for them locals worked in pairs to service that demand. One would use a rope to lower the other down the cliff face to steal eggs from birds’ nests.
Not all eggs were eaten. Back in the 19th and early 20th century Oology, the name given to those who collect eggs, was hugely popular.
By the mid 20th century the fashion for collecting birds’ eggs or even killing birds for feathers to make exotic plumes, were driving some species towards extinction. The Society for the Protection of Birds was formed, later to become the RSPB, who petitioned for laws that ultimately made those practices illegal.
In Roman times the sea beneath the cliffs was called Oceanus Hibernicus ( the ocean of the Irish) then subsequently called the Celtic Sea and now more commonly named the Irish Sea. Coastal areas have their own identity including Brittas Bay in Ireland and Tremadog Bay in Wales. Its waters are a source of food including mackerel and winter shoals of herring; Dublin Bay is famed for prawns.
The sea is formed by tidal streams coming from the Atlantic Ocean. The southern Atlantic enters through St George’s Channel. The northern enters between The Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland and the West Coast of Scotland.
The arrows on this chart show the direction of Atlantic Southern and Northern tidal waters . This not only helps to make sense of the reason why sea water flows into the Menai Straits it also shows those opposing tidal waters meet on the length of a shipping lane that links Dublin and Holyhead.
On open sea the point where tidal waters meet cause waves to become steeper and waters more choppy as they move back and forth. Then other factors can come into play that can quickly create treacherous conditions:
Behind Dublin is the land mass of Wicklow Mountain. Behind Holyhead is the mountain range of Snowdonia. When seasonal south westerly gales are funnelled between them the strength of wind impacts on the sea to dramatically increase the size and force of waves.
When the moon exerts its gravitational force on the sea those tidal forces are more extreme, especially during spring high tides. In this context the word spring refers to the springing forth of the tide twice a month during the new and full moon. There are widely held and strong beliefs that gales are more frequent during spring tides.
Many centuries ago stormy weather caused the Royal Yacht Mary to run aground and sink on the approach to Holyhead. The shipwreck was rediscovered and plundered in early 1970s, leading to the Protection of Wrecks Act that now protects other sunken vessels.
A group of rocks that form the most northerly tip of the North West coast of Wales lie partially submerged off the coast of Holyhead directly in the path of two shipping lanes; the lane between Holyhead and Dublin and the lane for vessels making their way to and from Liverpool. This rocky outcrop is known as the Skerries.
To reduce the likelihood of ships floundering on the rocks that surround Holyhead a series of lighthouses were built. One on the Skerries, another to the south of Holyhead – known as the South Stack lighthouse and a third at the sea end of Holyhead breakwater.
Each lighthouse is painted to be visible from its background. The Skerries has a red collar, the Breakwater a black collar and South Stack is completely white.
Their warning beacon alerts ships to steer clear of rocks and act as a navigational aid. In foggy weather sailors would be unable to see a beacon but as noise carries through fog a cannon was fired or bells or gongs were rung, then in recent years a horn sounded to warn of hazards.
The first light on Skerries was built with private monies over 300 years ago and was the last privately owned lighthouse in the British Isles. Each vessel passing within the 20 nautical mile radius that its beacon could be seen were charged 1 penny per ton weight of their vessel, collected by a tide waiter at the British Port it sailed on high tide to or from. The tide waiter was simply called a ‘waiter’, a term we now use for someone in a restaurant who takes customer orders in return for payment.
These days light tolls are no longer levied and those at sea rely on GPS positional systems with lighthouses andfog horns acting as a final line of defence when navigational systems are not working.
Until 19th centuries three mast wooden sailing boats would pass by the Skerries on the journey between the Americas and Liverpool.
Being made from trees they were known by the Celtic word ‘Barc’ or ‘Barques’ a word that in later years became Angolphiled to Bark from where the term embark or disembark comes from.
When steam paddle steamers replaced sailing boats sea crossings were faster and less likely to be cancelled due to stormy seas or from being still in the water from a lack of wind to fuel their sails.
By the end of 1827 steam packet boats had carried a total of 12,720 passengers, 727 carriages and 626 horses.
Coachmen may have travelled inside the carriage which was lashed to the ships deck where they took shelter until reaching the harbour town of Howth, 10 miles south of Dublin Castle.
In its day Howth Harbour would have been the busiest in Ireland offering safe anchorage and shelter from wind, waves and strong currents. Once the Packet boat arrived the mail was transferred onto a mail coach for the 10 mile journey to Dublin Castle 10 miles away.
William Dargan, a respected surveyor who had worked on the Holyhead side of Telfords Road, was commissioned to lay the mail road from Howth Harbour to Dublin Castle, aptly named the Dublin Road.
The design principles on the Dublin Road were the same as used for the Holyhead Road; as the gradient would not be greater than 6% the rise and fall for the team of horses pulling the mail coach was never more than 6ft (1.8 meters) for every 100ft (30 meters) in length. The road was made without sharp bends. The mail coach reached speeds of 18mph and sharp bends in the road would risk it turning over when cornering.
Since being laid the original road has being widened to meet the needs of today’s motorist. Yet one of the original milestones laid 200 years ago and made from iron and set in stone has stood the test of time. I wonder how many people realise that it formed a chain of similar stones extending to London?
Milestones informed travellers of the direction and distances on the road they were charged to use. They also informed coach drivers how far they had to travel before changing horses. No change of horses was required along the 10 mile stretch of road built by Dargan between Howth Harbour and Dublin Castle that was used every day except Sunday.
Throughout the 19th century Christianity was the principle religion and Sundays were a holy day when people were expected to worship . Nobody was expected to work.
Religious services for sailors were held on the packet boat but as demand grew a Welsh Chapel was built in Talbot Street. Services were conducted by Welsh Ministers who either stayed in Dublin for short periods or travelled here from Bangor in North Wales.
This archived drawing is named ‘Capel Cymraeg Dublin’ which suggests it was drawn by a Welsh person. Yet the headstone reads ‘Welsh Church’ suggesting it was built by local stone masons.
Apart from its intended use to provide a place of Worship for sailors it also became a focal point for Welsh domestic servants, housemaids, parlour maids and cooks who had settled in Dublin. The congregation was increased by Welsh people who sailed from Holyhead to Dublin and waited for a boat from Dublin to reach Ports in the South of Wales. At that time the overland route from North to South Wales was more torturous than the roads of todays traveller so it was quicker and more comfortable to make a sea voyage.
In December 1939 the Welsh chapel closed for the duration of the 2nd world war and although it didn’t reopen as a place of worship the building went on to serve the community in a variety of other ways:
It has since been used as a shoe shop, then a snooker hall. Yesterday the flakey paint suggests it is an internet cafe and it sells vapes for smokers. There is no visible evidence of its spiritual or Welsh heritage.
Every day except Sunday letters and parcels would pass under the coaching archway at Dublin castle. From London this was the 347 land and sea mile route with its timeline of travel that took 33 hours ( 27hrs to reach Holyhead, 5 hours to cross the Celtic Sea and 1 hour to travel from Howth Harbour to reach Dublin Castle).
Day 1: At 8pm the mail coach departed from London on its 270 mile journey to reach the Port town of Holyhead with its 4 horses being exchanged with a fresh team at 10 mile intervals at 27 stage posts that supplied a total of 108 horses.
Day 2: Arriving in Holyhead at 10:55pm the following evening items were loaded onto the packet boat that sailed 58 nautical miles = 67 land miles to reach the Port of Howth.
Day 3: After berthing in Howth harbour the Dublin mail coach exchanged outgoing letters and parcels and received its incoming mail off the packet boat. The coach was then pulled away by a team of 4 horses who set off along the Dublin Road to deliver mail through the archway of Dublin castle 10 miles away at 7:30am.
The social history of these records relate to the efforts being made to prevent Irish independence and to administrative matters including:
Record 1505: Requesting permission from the Westminster government to develop fishing in Ireland.
Record 1518: Seeking redress against ill treatment of farmers by the bailiffs and constables of Athlone who were demanding payments from farmers for clearing the streets of animals straying onto them.
Record 1522: Seeking clarification on the legality of a marriage between a Protestant and a Roman Catholic apparently conducted in a private dwelling by a Roman Catholic Priest.
Record 1536: Complaining over the state of mail coach roads in Dublin.
A formal response to concerns about the state of mail coach roads in Dublin was made by Sir Henry Parnell, the administrative driving force behind the parliamentary road. He said William Dargan’s new mail coach road between Dublin and Howth was an example of what he expected to see for all mail coach routes in Dublin.
Having spent several hours reading through the archive of correspondence I found no letter that deserved the speed of delivery or speed of response to ever justify the cost of improved road and sea links between Dublin and London.
It did, however, achieve its prime purpose of enabling parliamentarians to complete their journey faster, safer and in greater comfort. In addition, mail and stage coach businesses made a crucial contribution to the development of villages, towns and cities that connected people with places along its route. Its legacy has been modern road building that follows the same route for today’s commuters with their motor vehicles.
What made the system work was the people , the jobs they did and the bonds they formed with others. Those human links, like the Dublin and Welsh milestones, have stood the test of time.
We often hear about the golden age of steam yet little mention is given to the coaching era despite it being the source of sayings that include: ‘A load of old bull’ , ‘Crack on’ , ‘Cracking the whip’, ‘Hold your horses’, ‘Inside job’ , ‘News’, ‘Put the skids on‘ and ‘One for the road’.
The coaching era introduced accurate milage and benchmarked different times of day taken from sun dials across Britain with Greenwich Mean (solar) Time.
The development of railways had a huge impact on stage and mail coach use. Train travel was comfortable, fares were lower and more passengers could be carried at a faster speed in greater safety. Predictably people began travelling by train causing stage and mail coach services to go out of business. Coach builders found alternative employment with some making railway carriages that simply joined 3 stage coach bodies together.
Despite the passage of nearly two centuries of time, this bicycle ride has been able to identify evidence of those 19th century coach journeys to the Port of Holyhead.
Todays train carriage transported me to London where this cycling adventure follows the famous road to Holyhead. Its route tracks ancient pathways that were first made by pre-roman Britons that were then made into a road by the Romans. When the Romans left Britain these fell into disrepair and continued to deteriorate for well over a thousand years, fit only for drovers before Thomas Telford created the fastest overland route of its day, the Holyhead Road.
An early user of the Holyhead Road was Charles Dickens whose work as a journalist, parliamentary reporter and author made him a regular traveller. Those coach journeys and destinations provided inspiration for many novels in which the atmosphere of coaching inns and the experience of coach travel help paint a picture of coaching life.
The importance of an overland route to Holyhead begins outside the entrance to Richmond Palace, then the official London home of Queen Elizabeth 1st. In 1599 she decreed that her Royal Mail to Dublin would leave from the Port of Holyhead and despite an unsuccessful campaign in the late 1700s to relocate sailings to Ireland from Porthdinllaen, Holyhead has been in continuous use for over 400 years.
Different Monarchs lived in different Royal Palaces and since the reign of Queen Victoria, Buckingham Palace has been the official residence of the monarchy. The gateway to it was a Marble Arch. As Queen Victoria did not like the Marble Arch her husband Prince Albert arranged for it to be placed at the entrance to Hyde Park, the setting for the Great Exhibition of 1851 – a project of his that showcased Britains craftsmanship and industries.
After a 5 minute bicycle ride from Euston railway station Marble Arch appeared in front of me. I wondered whether surrounding motorists realised the road they were using has extended here from Caergybi/ Holyhead. This was now the starting point for my adventure.
Why the Holyhead Road was commissioned
Back in 1800 an Act of Union joined Ireland to Great Britain which lasted until 1922 when the Irish free state was established. During the Union years the Irish parliament in Dublin was abolished and the Houses of Parliament in Westminster had to expand to accommodate 100 Irish MPs and 28 Irish Peers. These people needed to travel back and forth to Dublin several times a year with Parliamentary mail being sent to and from Ireland on a daily basis.
Turnpike trusts were responsible for the upkeep of the route from Holyhead. Their income for road maintenance depended entirely on the amount of traffic that each section generated which in turn was affected by the size of the local population. Smaller less populated areas, especially through Wales had less usage so the Turnpike income was smaller and road surfaces were poorer.
Irish parliamentarians complained that crossing the Irish sea was slow and the road from Holyhead was so badly maintained their journey was unsafe, lengthy and uncomfortable. As the route through Wales was no better than a dangerous track a cock horse, usually tethered to the rear of coaches, was brought to the front and dragged the coach across difficult terrain.
From Marble Arch I cycled to the Houses of Parliament where Mrs Vonnette Doran from Anglesey has searched official records about the Holyhead Road and her property, the Inn at Mona.
Vonnette became aware that civil engineer Thomas Telford was a close friend of an Irish member of the House of Lords, Sir Henry Parnell. Sir Henry became the administrative driving force behind efforts to improve the Holyhead Road and spoke for many Irish parliamentarians that the road and sea crossing was unsafe for travel and unsuitable for essential communication between Dublin and Westminster.
The influence of Irish parliamentarians is evidenced by the significant funding of improvements. Sea crossings became faster when steam ships replaced sailing boats. A new harbour to serve Dublin was built at Howth and improvements were made to the Port at Holyhead.
Vonnette found the House of Lords (microfiche) records giving authority for Thomas Telford to produce a plan for the Holyhead Road:
In 1811 the Lords of His Majesty’s Treasury issued an order directing Mr Thomas Telford to survey the Road to Holyhead and report his findings to lay out the shortest and easiest line of road the country was capable of receiving
By 1819 Parliament had reviewed his findings and commissioned a safe, high speed road link between Holyhead and London. The route from London to Shrewsbury was relatively easy to improve. Much of it had been developed by the Romans when they constructed Watling Street. It was the 106 miles between Shrewsbury to Holyhead where Telford levelled the road, reduced its distance, improved the road surface and met his brief in making the journey shorter, faster, safer and more comfortable. The cock horse was dispensed with and passengers who used to walk up hills to ‘save the horses’ could now remain on the coach throughout its journey.
The Mail Coach would depart from London at 8pm in the evening and took 26hrs 55 minutes to reach Holyhead, arriving at 10:55pm the following evening. The mail coach covered a distance of 260 miles and ran to a strict timetable known as a ‘Time Bill’ . Each of the places listed on the Time Bill are where its team of 4 tired horses would be exchanged with a fresh team.
During the course of its journey the mail coach to Holyhead used 102 horses:
The Holyhead mail coach departed from St Martins le Grand where Londoners used to visit and watch the spectacle of Mail coaches being despatched according to the part of the country they were travelling to: the North, East, West and South – creating the word News.
The Bull and Mouth Coaching Inn, St Martins le Grand was the departure point of The Wonder stagecoach using the Holyhead Road to reach The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury. A plaque is now displayed close to where it once stood; Passengers who travelled on The Wonder included Charles Dickens whose nearby home is a museum housing his original manuscripts, first editions and family items.
The Wonder of Shrewsbury
The pride of the English coaching trade was the 1825 to 1837 ‘Wonder’ between Shrewsbury and London. It was the speed and efficiency of this service that earn’t its name.
The Wonder always carried a distinctive yellow and black livery.
Its distance is a hundred and fifty miles and the number of horses kept for The Wonder is a hundred and fifty.
Perhaps for the length of ground it travels over this is the most punctual coach at all its stages on the journey at this time in England. It leaves the Lion Hotel Shrewsbury at a quarter before six, A.M. and arrives at the Bull and Mouth London at a quarter past nine, P.M.
The coachmen of The Wonder also deserve note for the uniformily good conduct and skill. Their names are Wood (who drives out of London) Lyley, Wilcox, Everett and Hayward
The Wonder completed the 158 mile journey in 15¾ hours requiring it to travel at a mean average speed of 11mph. Its lowest speed was 8mph and highest 18mph.
Prior to train travel 19th century travellers wanting to know what stage coach to catch, when and where from could refer to coaching directories. During lockdown I came across a ‘Directory of Stagecoach Services in 1836’ compiled by Alan Bates in 1969. This names every principle coach establishment in London and names all the stagecoaches that departed from them, including these details about ‘The Wonder’:
3428 and 3429 are licensing numbers that identifies a specific coach, the equivalent of todays vehicle registration plates; 3428 was painted on a coach called ‘The Wonder’ that departed from London and 3429 was the number painted on a coach called ‘The Wonder’ that departed at ‘a quarter before 6am’ on same day to London from The Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury.
Bracketed numbers 4 – 11 means the coach was licensed to carry 4 passengers inside and a maximum of 11 others on the roof. Passenger limits were introduced in response to the number of people injured or killed due to overcrowding and fell from roofs that had no seating.
Licensing was undertaken by the Board of Stamps and Taxes later to become the Inland Revenue. This made coach drivers legally responsible to ensure the coach was not overcrowded , travel the distance expected from them on time and not drive furiously or when intoxicated.
Enforcement was carried out by Revenue Inspectors who stationed themselves along the routes to count passenger numbers and hold the driver accountable for bad driving or poor time keeping. These days revenue inspectors look for tax dodgers.
E.Sherman & Co: E. Sherman was the registered keeper of the stagecoaches, & Co refers to Isaac Taylor who owned The Wonder service. The same system continues with todays motor vehicles; the registered keeper is not always the actual owner.
The coach departed from London at 7am and from Shrewsbury at 5:45am on the same day. Running two coaches was the reason for the ‘Wonder’ having two licensing numbers. ‘Wonder’ was a name given to the speed and efficiency of this service rather than a particular coach.
The 12 named stages were places where the 4 horses that pulled The Wonder were replaced with a fresh team and where passengers alighted or boarded. The cost of travel was based on these stages. Fare stages serve the same purpose along modern bus routes.
To find out exactly where in those towns and villages the Wonder stopped I contacted local history groups and the archive departments of city museums whose local knowledge was invaluable. To ensure I would be cycling to the correct location a highly respected Wellington historian, Allan Frost, verified the information I had received with commercial directories, 19th century newspaper adverts and numerous coaching books. This enabled me to retrace the route of the Wonder knowing I was going to the correct places despite some inns being renamed, repurposed or sadly demolished.
My bicycle journey would cover the 50 miles a day ‘The Wonder’ coach driver would travel before beingswapped with the next driver. To mark the importance of those places I booked myovernight stays at the coaching inns where that changeover occurred.
Some months before setting out I became acquainted with Robin Mager who cycled The Wonder route to London and back in a single day. His amazing achievement covered a distance of 315.8 miles and raised nearly £2000 for Macmillan Cancer support. Very, very well done Robin.
Robin kindly shared his experience of cycling the route with invaluable advice about roads that are unsafe for cycling with reassurance that many others were safer than I had assumed.
Day 1: From the Bull and Mouth to St Albans
The Bull and Mouth coaching inn was owned by The Wonders registered keeper Edward Sherman. It was one of several principle coaching establishments in London with over 60 long distance coaches arriving and departing each day, Sundays excepted. People worked busily around the clock to ensure prompt early morning departures and the reception of evening arrivals creating a hive of activity and noise:
‘What a babel of tongues!
People hurrying hither and thither, some who had come too soon, others late. There were carriages, hackney coaches, carts and barrows; porters jostling, touters swearing, cads elbowing, coachmen wrangling, passengers grumbling, women scolding. Trunks, portmanteaux, hat-boxes and band-boxes strewn on the ground for loading.
Then there were orange merchants, cigar merchants, umbrella merchants, perambulating piemen, coachmen out of place, coaches out of place, country clods gaping, talking and wandering all occasionally interrupted by music from a guards horn.
Bags are given to the coachman and you see them being placed safely on the roof where they cannot be rubbed.
Persons have their choice of places, either a seat inside or a seat on the roof all positioned close to the exit point in the order of who gets off first.
By John Jervis ‘An Old Coachman’ 1827
Coachman Wood drove the Wonder from here to the White Hart at St Albans via the Peacock Inn, Islington, a 10 minute bicycle ride away.
Charles Dickens describes how Nicholas Nickleby departs from here:
When I got up to the Peacock I found everybody drinking hot purl in self-preservation. I asked if there were a seat to spare. Inside or out I was the only passenger. This gave me a still livelier idea of the great inclemency of the weather, since that coach always loaded particularly well.
I took a little hot purl which I found uncommonly good and got onto the coach roof. When seated they tied me to the seat and built me up with straw to the waist. Conscious of making a rather ridiculous appearance I began my journey.
During the coldness of winter it was not unheard of for roof passengers to die from exposure to the cold so they tried to keep warm by insulating themselves, outwardly with straw and inwardly by hot drinks.
‘Hot Purl’ was a mixture of warm beer infused with the tips of a wormwood plant with added gin. When the gin and beer had been poured into a tankard a red hot poker was pushed in the vessel to heat the contents.
The practice of being tied to seat prevented roof passengers from being thrown to the ground when bouncing along a bumpy road or whenever the coach jolted.
These days the Peacock building has been converted into premises for an assortment of businesses.
From here I reached the Griffin stage post in Barnet where the first exchange of horses occurred.Horses kept for the Wonder were said to be:
All sleek and plump. None of the horses worked more than one hour out of the 24, being required merely on one of the 10 mile stages which they frequently performed in five minutes under the scheduled time, and were then taken fresh and vigorous from the traces.
They were fed liberally with the view of keeping them heavy, rather than muscular; strength for short and powerful exertion being required rather than endurance. They seldom worked more than 4 years on this fast coach. Well groomed and cared for, theirs was a lot to be envied
These days visitors to the Griffin enjoy a beer and barbecue in its heated courtyard.
Cycling towards St Albans my bicycle satellite navigation system took me through a myriad of residential roads until reaching a former railway track that is now a cycling route until reaching a bicycle path alongside a busy main road.
The constant roar of traffic was in stark contrast to the sight of fields and open space, creating a strong sense of leaving London.
During droving days livestock from North Wales would reach and rest on those pastures to gain the weight that had been lost due to the distance they walked. Following a few weeks of grazing a plump cow would attract the highest price in London markets.
Before the large scale development of coal mining the export and sale of cattle was the main source of income to Wales. Other drovers stopped in an area of London named to reflected their stay – Shepherds Bush.
Behind me was the busy A1, formerly known as the Great North Road used by stage and mail coaches to Scotland via Newcastle-upon-Tyne with stops at towns and cities in between.
Just before 6pm I arrived at my St Albans overnight stay in the White Hart Coaching Inn that was built around a central courtyard entered through a level lintel gateway.
Despite level lintel entrance gates being cheap, easy and quicker to build than stone archways they offered less headroom. Those failing to duck were often killed. The demise of a Mrs Elizabeth Wilson was told by Alfred Jingle – Charles Dickens 1837 Pickwick Papers Chapter 2
Heads, heads take care of your heads, cried the loquacious stranger as they drove under the lintel into the coach yard.
Terrible place, dangerous work. The other day five children with mother, a tall lady, eating sandwiches forgot . Crash, knock !
The children look round, mother’s head off sandwich in her hand now with no mouth to put it in – Shocking !
It was because of numerous fatalities the law required low headroom signs to be displayed. This remains a legal requirement and either a warning triangle or that same wording continues to be displayed on structures lower than 16′ (5 meters) from the ground.
The ghost of Elizabeth Wilson is said to haunt the White Hart so that night I protected myself with a bowl of garlic and mushroom soup then slept with one eye open.
Day 2: St Albans to Towcester
Coachman Lyle would have driven The Wonder from here for the next 50 miles along its route to Shrewsbury. Coachman Wood will have remained in St Albans to wait for and then drive the Wonder coming from Shrewsbury into London.
Cycling away from the White Hart I quickly reached ‘The Bull’ in Redbourn some 8 miles away. Droving provided the town its income and there is evidence of drovers from North Wales visiting here.
Redbourn was on the Drove Road from North Wales, thus many inns had large areas behind to pen the animals. On Thursdays droves of cattle arrived in the village on their way to slaughter in London.
The most famous coaching inn was ‘The Bull’. It had a large wrought iron sign that stretched half way across the road and a very large lantern over the front door. Drovers from North Wales paid using tokens because carrying real cash increased their danger of being robbed.
Stagecoaches from Shrewsbury, the “Stag”, “Wonder” and “Nimrod” stopped here. It is likely that between 80 and 90 coaches passed through the village every day, ensuring a profitable passing trade for the inns from early morning to around midnight. Inn keepers were warned of the approaching coaches by stable lads who would keep a good lookout shouting ‘Uphards’ or ‘Downhards’ so that the teams of fresh horses could be ready for change.
One Mary Lofty, a widow of 70, made a living by collecting horse dung, first in a box and later, due to the generosity of her neighbours, a wheel barrow. She lived until she was over 84 years old.
Tokens accepted from drovers in Redbourn were produced in Anglesey at Parys Copper Mine; they came in 2 sizes with the larger being valued at 1 old penny and the smaller a halfpenny. The letters PMC stand for Parry copper mine and the date stamp – 1797 – is partially obscured by the green tinge of copper. The outer edge of the coin reads: We promise to pay the bearer one penny.
The next stage post after was 10 miles away at the Swan with Two Necks in Dunstable. The Bates stagecoach directory names the coaches that stopped here from London and an equal number would have called here when travelling towards London. Coaches began to arrive between 5:30am continued until 8pm in the evening.
Time of Arrival in Dunstable
The Daventry Accommodation Coach
The Independent Tally-ho
The Red Beaver
The Royal Defiance
The Royal Bruce
Each of these 22 coaches carried an average of 10 passengers hauled by a team of 4 tired horses that Dunstable would exchange.
When assembling this list I was struck by the volume of coaches which amounted to 440 daily passenger journeys through Dunstable. It seems to mark a change in social mobility that distinguishes the industrial revolution from the days of people travelling as far as their feet could carry them.
Every day Sundays excepted, 88 tired horses driving out of London and 88 driving towards London would need to be exchanged with an equal number of fresh horses. For the next 24 hours the 176 tired horses would rest, graze and take shelter in Dunstable with some requiring the services of a blacksmith.
I gave thought to the fate of horses that were used to haul thousands of coaches across the land. With the arrival of the railways less were needed so less were bred. The old and injured were slaughtered and others put to other work pulling carts not people.
Wellington historian Allan Frost later informed me that a surplus of horses continued until the 1st world war when thousands were killed in action. After the war there was a shortage of horses and it was this shortage that stimulated the rise in popularity, use and ownership of motor vehicles for the middle classes and bicycles for ordinary working people.
As the Dunstable stage post named ‘The Swan with Two Necks’ closed many years ago I continued cycling along Watling Street to Little Brickhill. In 1832 when Queen Victoria was a 13 year old Princess her carriage shared this stretch of road with The Wonder and both received fresh horses at the long since demolished George Inn where an Italian restaurant of the same name has replaced the former building.
An hour later I arrived at Stoney Stratford famed for its two coaching inns, the Cock and Bull. According to folklore these completed with each other to invent news that was so unbelievable the saying A Cock and Bull story came into being. To this day a made-up story is either called Cock & Bull, A Load of Bull or the name of the other pub.
When leaving Stoney Stratford It started to rain and would continue to pour down for the next 4½ days of cycling, made worse by splashing and spray from passing vehicles. For now I was simply pleased to arrive at my next overnight stay, the Saracens Head in Towcester.
During coaching days all but the most determined would wait at a coaching inn until weather conditions improved, as described in The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club (1836) by Charles Dickens:
The mud and wet splashed through the open window to such an extent that the discomfort was almost as great to the pair of insides as to the pair of outsides.
They pulled up before the door of the Saracens Head, Towcester and steam ascended from the horses in such clouds as to wholly obscure the hostler.
‘There’s beds here sir’, said Sam (Weller) to his master (Mr Pickwick). Everything clean and comfortable. Wery good little dinner sir, they can get is ready in half and hour; pair of fowls and a weal cutlet, french beans, taters, tart and tidiness. ‘You’d better stop here’
My evening meal was Toad in the Hole then went to bed and slept like a log with the musical accompaniment of rain showering onto the bedroom window. It was still raining the next day, with the down pour being even harsher by strong winds.
Day 3 From Towcester to Birmingham
It was from the Saracens Head that coachman Lyle was replaced by Handsome Jack Everitt who drove the Wonder to Birmingham, my destination for todays bicycle ride. Jack was known as ‘Spicy Jack’ who took care of his personal appearance despite his walking being affected by ‘crook’d legs’ as he called them. Both were fractured in different coaching accidents and the poor setting of his bones left him with a bowed legs. He also had quite a reputation:
‘Handsome Jack Everitt’, a celebrated coachman, was famous on the road and realised a considerable fortune. He was well up on the secrets of horse racing, the prize ring, cock fighting and other gentlemanly sports. Being May Day the coach was gaily decked out with Coventry ribbon and flowers.
May-day was a traditional race day when wagers were placed on who would win the fastest time. The Wonders horses literally flew through the town, to the no small concern of many who predicted disaster, but everything had been taken out of the streets half an hour before to make all clear. Source: Kaga Simpson Historic Coventry forum
This bicycle adventure was occurring nearly 200 years to the very month that The Wonder flew through these streets on race day. The speed of the Wonder was celebrated at a publicity event staged to influence people to travel by coach instead of train. The Wonder departed from London at the same time as a train and arrived at Birmingham Curson Street Station before the train.
The next stage post at the Plough and Bell in Daventry has been demolished. Pigots directory for Daventry lists the trades and businesses that supported the coaching era beyond the people who worked at coaching inns. Trades included blacksmiths, wheelwrights, saddlers, harness makers, feed merchants and whip makers that I sense commanded more public respect than the landed gentry. Daventry museum houses examples of stagecoach whips that had been manufactured in the town.
Coachmen used whips to provide a forward signal to the leading horse, so the length of whip would reach the front horse’s shoulder not the face. They were as lightweight as possible to prevent muscle fatigue and joint pain in the coach drivers hands and arms during a long drive. The whip was normally held in the driver’s right hand ‘The whip hand’ and a socket was fitted to the right of the coachman’s box seat that held the whip in place when not in use.
These days the term ‘Whip Hand‘ describes somebody with power or control over others. The saying: ‘Crack the Whip’ describes people who bully others and sometimes the phrase is shortened to ‘Crack on‘ which means continue to do something, which was my cue to start pedalling.
I am quite used to cycling in the rain as waterproof clothing usually keeps me dry. Sadly I had forgotten to pack my waterproof cycling gloves and the 2 pairs I had with me were too wet to wear. In addition the head wind I had endured since setting out from Towcester became a dangerous side wind that risked blowing me into passing vehicles. It was so unnerving I stopped under a gaily coloured bus shelter until weather conditions improved, wrapping my hands around my thermos flask cup to warm them up.
Things happen for a reason and am certain the reason for taking shelter here was to collect my thoughts and think about the people who travelled on stagecoaches through such awful weather. Many must have contracted hypothermia or in hot weather heat exhaustion or sunstroke. During windy weather the side windows were kept open allowing strong winds to blow through the coach instead of knocking it over. Those sitting on the roof simply endured the weather.
Old newspaper articles certainly refer to coaches driving through the snow to arrive at stage posts with passengers who had frozen to death. Other articles report that passengers were seriously or fatally injured when side winds blew the coach over. Saying ‘Musn’t grumble’ I continued the journey.
The Wonder meets the Wonder
With a break in the weather and a cycle path that segregated me from the danger of side winds blowing my bicycle into moving traffic I continued to Dunchurch.
Because The Wonder from Shrewsbury travelled along the same road on the same day as The Wonder from London they had to pass each other at some point along the journey. The distance between Shrewsbury and London was 158 miles and the 79 mile half way point is between Daventry and Coventry, so I decided to work out where the passing place was.
Pigots directory for the Coventry City Hotel states the time each coach stopped and departed. Knowing the mean speed of travel for both coaches were identical I could then work out where these coaches passed each other.
The Wonder coming from Shrewsbury driven by coachman Wilcox departed from the City Hotel at 12:05 to travel towards Daventry. The Wonder from London arrived at the City hotel at a quarter before four driven by Jack Everitt. As the distance between Coventry and Daventry is 19 miles I calculated they passed each other along this length of road near the Dun Cow at Dunchurch.
After capturing the above photograph of the recently rebuilt Dun Cow in Dunchurch my bicycle sat nav system delivered me into the centre of Coventry along traffic-free cycling paths where The City Hotel once stood in Broadgate.
Although The City Hotel stage post was demolished decades ago I made my way to see the Godiva clock. I had planned to arrive here at 2pm. When the bell strikes the hour Lady Godiva appears riding a white horse. As she travels across the clock face a window above her opens and out pops the head of Peeping Tom, a name he was given because of secretly looking at her nakedness. Being blinded by what he sees Tom covers his eyes and quickly pops his head back inside for another hour.
Because of the time spent sheltering from the elements I arrived here 20 minutes late. There was no way I was going to spend the next 40 minutes in the cold to be a peeping Tom, so off I headed to Meriden. The journey was made easier by Thomas Telford who levelled steep hills and swiftly arrived at The Bulls Head, once described as ‘The handsomest Inn in England’.
During my childhood Meriden was known as the centre of England. Modern equipment has plotted the precise centre to be in the middle of a farmers field 10 miles away.
Meriden villagegreen also contains an obelisk dedicated to cyclists who lost their lives whilst during active service in the 1st world war.
From here I made my way to Birmingham. During The Wonder years its stage post was at The Albion Hotel then in 1830 The Hen and Chickens on New Street. This was where coach driver Sam Hayward drove The Wonder back to Shrewsbury.
The Hen and Chickens coaching inn has been replaced with a bank and Premier Inn where I stayed for the night.
After checking in I went shopping for a pair of thermal, waterproof cycling gloves that cost more money than I intended to spend but hey-ho, needs must.
Day 5 from Birmingham to Shrewsbury
The next morning I set out to follow the tracks of The Wonders most famed coach driver, Sam Hayward all the way to the Lion Hotel in Shrewsbury and began by making my way to the Town Hall.
I left my overnight accommodation at 7am and was saddened to see a family had spent the night sleeping on the ground in the lobby of the Premier Inn and wondered why someone couldn’t have given them a room for the night, I hardly saw any guests during my stay.
Birmingham Town Hall is faced with quality stone known as Anglesey Marble from Penmon Quarry. I wondered how it reached here and quickly found out as this story will shortly reveal.
One of the town hall architects was Joseph Hansom of Hansom cab fame, the one horse carriages that were used as a taxi on the streets of London. ‘Taxi’ and ‘Cab‘ are still words that we use.
Shortly after Birmingham Town Hall opened Charles Dickens gave his very first public reading of A Christmas Carol here to raise money for local charities providing adult education. The financial success inspired him to deliver paid performances for personal gain in Britain, Ireland and America.
Because the town hall opened in 1834 Sam Hayward will have seen it being built and his daily journeys have been captured in this painting. Look closely for the yellow and black livery of The’ Wonder driving towards Shrewsbury in the foreground.
My route from here should have followed the Holyhead Road through Winson Green, West Bromwich and Bilston where The Wonder exchanged its horses at the Kings Arms and continued to Wolverhampton.
Despite coach drivers changing over every 50 miles, the same guard continued throughout its journey. Dicky Ash was the guard on one coach and the guard on the other was a man named Yates.
In 1834 shortly before Christmas the coach accompanied by Yates was making its way towards Bilston overloaded with game and hampers so perched himself over the rear wheels. When the coach lurched forward Yates fell under the rear wheels and sustained a fatal injury.
The Kings Arms no longer exists and I know from living and working in this area the road from Birmingham to Wolverhampton is dangerous for cyclists, so I plotted a route along the traffic free National Cycling network.
It took just over an hour to cycle along the towing path from Birmingham to Wolverhampton. This traffic free route was also noise and rain free.
Stone used to face Birmingham Town Hall came from Penmon Quarry by boat along the river Dee to Chester then from there by barge to Birmingham town centre where a horse and cart transported it to the Town Hall.
My arrival in Wolverhampton was unceremonious. The Wonder bound for London arrived here at 8am and The Wonder bound for Shrewsbury arrived every evening at ‘A quarter before 8′ . The daily arrivals of The Wonder have been recorded in articles held by Wolverhampton Library and Archive service:
The Wonder came up into Salop Street, round the corner into Cock Street and under the archway entrance to reach theyard of the new hotel* Passengers would climb aboard, parcels packed and horses changed then the coach would be out of the yard once again.
Cock Street changed its name to Victoria Street in honour of Queen Victoria who visited.
* The new hotel was the Star and Garter Inn
When the guards bugle sounded its approach the barmaid would start pouring an ale. As the wheels of the coach arrived in the yard out ran the inn keeper, bar-maid, stable lads and mischievous urchins.
The horses were pulled back upon their haunches and stopped as if shot and a wooden block was thrust under the hind wheel; the reins were thrown down on either side, the whip given unceremoniously to the envied occupant of the box seat.
The coachman descended with a princely air of condescension and nobly took hold of the foaming tankard presented to him.
Ere a minute has flown by when the guard would say; ‘All Right’ .
The coachman ascended, the block withdrawn and the horses dart away at a gallop.
Source: ‘The Horse Exchange’ by Judith Flanders
In its day The Star and Garter was Wolverhamptons main hotel. It was demolished in 1964 to make way for the now dated Mander Shopping Centre
When railways began to take over from mail and stagecoaches people had to find other work. I previously mentioned that some coach builders went on to build railway carriages. Blacksmiths began to manufacture bicycles.
Wolverhampton became the 3rd largest manufacturer of bicycles with over 200 businesses involved with frame, wheel and component manufacture. Many cyclists attended bicycle race meetings in the grounds of the Molineux hotel which is now the football pitch use by Wolverhampton Wanderers.
Wolverhampton also produced the ‘Rolls Royce’ of bicycles in the Sunbeam. The factory building where it was made has recently been converted into apartments that still displays the Sunbeam name. Sunbeam bicycles were hugely popular due to an oil bath enclosure that lubricated the chain and kept oil off the cyclist. These days cyclists use a special hook to handle the oily chain. Check it out: www.rehook.bike
Sir Edward Elgar was a famous Sunbeam cyclist and a statue with his bicycle, made by Jemma Pearson – the person responsible for the sculpture of Charles Darwin at Shrewsbury School – now stands outside Hereford cathedral.
Between Wolverhampton and Shrewsbury the next stage post was called the Summer House. An Inn trading under this name does exists, though on the opposite side of the road to the original stage post and of relatively modern construction, so held no interest to me. I continued to the village of Tong.
Little Nell was a principle character in The Old Curiosity Shop (1840) by Charles Dickens. There must be something in the air here in Tong as the churchyard contains her reputed grave. Nearby Boris could be seen talking to the trees. Strange place.
From Tong I arrived at the Jerningham Arms in Shifnal, one of three separate coaching establishments run by different members of the Taylor Family. This has now been converted into homes called The Jerningham Apartments. The tooing and froing of coaches through Shifnal provided a lot of employment to the town.
10 miles further along the road I arrived at the next stage post in Wellington. Now known as the Old Orleton in past years it traded as the Haygate, the Falcon and at one time was simply farm buildings that exchanged horses for the passing mail and stage coach trade.
During the remaining 10 miles to reach my destination of the day I followed a route once used by the9thcentury Roman army going to nearby Wroxeter.
Romans marched on the left to keep their sword hand free to deal with aggressors walking towards them and their practice of keeping to the left established a tradition of driving to the left on todays roads.
During the 19th century most of Europe became part of the Napoleonic (French) Empire. As Napoleon was left handed the right side of the road benefited his sword hand so changed centuries of Roman tradition, which is why motorists across Europe drive on the right hand side of their roads.
After cycling over the English Bridge I followed the river bank for ½ a mile then cycled up ‘Wyle Cop’, an old English name that describes a hill. The Lion Hotel is certainly at the top of a hill, this was my steepest climb since leaving London.
When I arrived outside The Lion, Barry Hillier the Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum was there to meet me. Barry had been following the progress of this cycling adventure and was in the area and came here to welcome me, thank you Barry !
Last year my cycling adventure ended here having followed the stagecoach route from Harlech once used by Charles Darwin. In addition to the Lion being the departure point for Charles Darwin, the blue plaque notes the Hotel was also visited by Dickens, the violinist Paganini, Marie (Madam) Tussaud, Benjamin Disraeli and today, me.
That evening I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with John and Jan Butterworth. It was Johns’ book ‘Four Centuries at the Lion Hotel Shrewsbury’ that inspired my interest in stage and mail coach travel.
Day 5 from Shrewsbury to Betws y Coed
Yesterday I arrived at the Lion having retraced the stage coach route of The Wonder from London using the Holyhead Road shared by mail coaches. Today I was departing to follow the mail coach driven by Sam Haywards brother.
Mail coaches travelled throughout the night and although its lights were bright enough for people to see the coach coming towards them, they were not bright enough for the driver to see the road ahead.
Fortunately horses have excellent night time vision and as they always ran between the same stages they knew exactly where they were going.
18 hours ago I entered Shrewsbury from England by crossing the English Bridge. Today I cycled to Wales by crossing the appropriately named Welsh Bridge and quickly arrived at another crossing point at Montford.
The bridge at Montford was one of the first that Thomas Telford constructed. His design included a drip stone that prevented rain water dripping from the deck and eroding the lower structures. As the bridge is over 200 years old, this design feature worked.
A few miles from Montford Bridge is the next stage post at Nesscliff, the Old Three Pigeons. Regular customers to the Old Three Pigeons included highwaymen spending money robbed from travellers, except from passengers of Royal Mail coaches.
The Royal Mail was protected by a guard armed with loaded pistols and a Blunderbus. This short flared barrelled gun was designed to scatter projectiles over a wide surface area allowing the guard to shoot without taking careful aim. If the sight of a Blunderbus didn’t deter robbers, the guard would take a more careful aim with his loaded pistols. The next stage post was the Wynnstay Arms in Oswestry.
Arriving at the Wynnstay it stated to rain and continued to pour for the rest of the day. This former coaching inn stage post is now an impressive looking Hotel where I took shelter under its entrance to don a set of waterproof over- trousers.
Wynnstay used to be the family home of Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn a descendant of Owain Glyndŵr the last Welsh person to be a Prince of Wales. Papers from the Williams-Wynn family refer to drovers and have been quoted in several books that I will refer to later in this story.
From here I made a short detour for a coffee break at Cafe Wylfa in Chirk to meet cousin Ken who I last saw 60 years ago and his wife Marian. Ken remarked we have both survived a life of work to reach retirement relatively unscathed.
Beyond Caffi Wylfa is the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct that used to be the tallest aqueduct in the world and was designed by Thomas Telford with another engineer named William Jessop.
A short distance from Chirk was the A5, the Holyhead Road, that I could now stay on without diversions to avoid the dangers of traffic all the to Holyhead.
At Llangollen I took a passing photograph of The Hand Hotel stage post before heading to the Owain Glyndŵr stage post in Corwen.
On the outskirts of Corwen a mound of earth known as Castell Glyndyfrdwy was owned by freedom fighter Owain Glyndŵr whose fierce war of independence from English has continued in a different forms for the past 900 years.
When the Holyhead Road was in its planning and construction stage, teams of Commissioners made regular progress reports for Parliament that includes a mention of this stretch of road.
From Llangollen to Corwen many parts were extremely dangerous for a coach to travel on. The road was very narrow and steep with no side fence except for about a foot and a half of mould or dirt thrown up to prevent carriages falling down three or four hundred feet into the River Dee.
Stage coaches had been frequently overturned or have broken down from the badness of the road and even the mails had been overturned.
Telfords Road has been designed to mature and last. From the moment it first opened the weight of coaches compacted the stone surface that then became harder, smoothers and faster to roll over.
Source: Shrewsbury and Holyhead Road. Annual Report of the Commissioners published by the House of Commons London 1830
One advantages of cycling is the ability to notice things that are missed when driving including remnants of walling on either side of the road and regular alcoves that have been rebuilt at the places where the original wall has degraded. Perhaps small pebbles were stored here to replace those pinged away by rolling wheels of coaches, or may have been a refuge for people to stand clear of mail coaches charging towards them. On the other side of the road the precipitous drop mentioned by the road commissioning team remains visible.
When cycling the route of the Wonder it was relatively easy to find out about its passengers. Yet I found nothing written about mail coach as their primary purpose was to transfer mail. Some passengers were carried to help defer the expense of running the service.
Papers belonging to the Oswestry Williams Wynn family are mentioned in a book by Richard Colyer referring to the journey of a Porthmon (or drover dealer) travelling through Corwen from Anglesey or Bangor heading to London where the best prices would be paid for livestock, the most valuable of which were cattle. Drovers also took on other roles:
Drovers were carrying post and packages long before mail coaches arrived. Some also carried garments such as woollen socks brought in Wales to sell at a profit along their journey. They would also receive a small fee to act as protectors and guardians for those who wished to walk in relative safety between Wales and the City of London. These included young girls wishing to work as maids or cooks for the wealthy, earning salaries they could only dream about in Wales. Some girls used the skills they had learn’t at their family farms to become a milk maid in London as some cows were kept as milkers and not slaughtered for meat.
Source: ‘Welsh Drovers’ by Richard Colyer
The journey of drovers returning to Wales was perilous due to the large sums of money they were delivering to farmers whose livestock they sold.
In the 1830s drovers could expect an average market price of £100 for the sale of a small herd of 18 cattle. Using the national archives currency converter I calculated the value of £100 in 1830 is now worth £6,780, little wonder drovers preferred a speedy the journey back to Wales under the protection of a heavily armed Royal Mail coach guard. Yet they could still be robbed when making their way from the coach to pay individual farmers and needed a safer method of moving large sums of money.
Drovers played an important part in the setting up of the early banking system including The Black Ox. The Black Ox was eventually taken over by a Welsh family, the Llwyds who worked in Birmingham. The logo they adopted went back to their early days of droving when their family used a black horse on their receipts; the same prancing Black Horse now brands Lloyds Bank.
The mail coach stopped in Corwen to exchange its team of horses at the Owain Glyndwr Hotel, a process that took less than 5 minutes. At one time this place was called the New Inn Hotel and signage by the front door states the first public National Eisteddfod was held here, an event that celebrates and promotes Welsh culture and language. Corwen is also home to its very own Museum and is a ‘must visit’ educational attraction where I was welcomed by Lyndsay Watkins and Jim Ritchie with tea, biscuits and a tour of the exhibits.
When cycling through England there has been very little evidence of the original Holyhead Road apart from those coaching inns that have survived the passage of time; I have not seen any toll houses, milestones or reference to what was the most important road of its time until, that is, crossing the boarder into Wales:
What a pleasure to see signage that reminds travellers this route is historically important, what a delight it is to see Toll Houses being used as homes or businesses and the presence of milestones, especially as many milestones were destroyed during World War II when the government ordered all road signs be removed to confuse the Germans in the event of an invasion.
The Telford milestones contain unique features: The direction of travel, in this case Holyhead, is 75 miles from here. Underneath are the names of places where horses are replaced; in the direction of travel is Corwen, in the other direction Llangollen. The distance to those places is measured in miles and furlongs. Telford used a Gunters wheel to establish accurate milage. The wheel unravelled a length of chain that contained a set number of links ( 100 links =1 chain length, 10 chains = 1 furlong and 8 furlongs = 1 mile).
The chiseled horizontal mark highlighted by the chiseled arrow is a benchmark. In olden days an angle iron could be placed in the horizontal grove to form a bench for a levelling rod to gauge the elevation of that point from sea level. The permanency of that grove ensured future levelling rods would be placed in the same place .
These days the term benchmarking refers to a practice adopted by businesses and institutions to compare what they are doing with what is happening elsewhere. When building roads surveyors use global positioning systems.
The above photo (left) shows the elevation reference from sea level in the Llangollen area and the specific details of the elevation for Telfords milestone (113.343 metes above sea level) is shown on the right http://www.parallel.co.uk/os-benchmark-archive
Elevation is different from height. Height is a vertical measurement from the ground that reveal how tall a person is or the height that a building stands.
Knowing elevation helps with the construction of roads. As a pedal cyclist prior knowledge of elevation informs me what is possible to ride along. With loaded pannier bags gradients up to 6% are easy to cycle along. Between,7% to 10% the hills take a bit of effort and I can manage short distances of 10% to 15% with a lot of puffing and panting. I push the bike up anything over 15%.
Telford built his road with a gradient that was never greater than 6%, so the rise or fall in this the road was never more than 6ft (1:8 meter) for every 100ft (30 meters) in length.
Gosh this afternoons rain was heavy and persistent yet these poor conditions were to my advantage; many drivers stayed at home and the road was virtually traffic free. New gloves and waterproof clothing were keeping me dry and warm and as an added bonus I managed to cycle 25 miles in 99 minutes to reach the Druids = 15 MPH which isn’t bad for an OAP on a fully ladened touring bicycle.
The Druids was once a Coaching Inn strategically positioned at the junction of what used to be the Bwlch Drws Ardudwy (doorway to Ardudwy) drovers route that extended from Harlech to Bala,the Druids, Corwen and beyond.
In my last cycling blog I discovered a diary held by Shrewsbury Archives that records a holiday taken in Barmouth by a family of the name Hodgson and the stagecoach journey to reach there. The Hodgsons had travelled on a stage coach called The Emerald that was making its way from Birmingham to Holyhead where passengers would board the packet boat to Ireland.
The Hodgson family got off The Emerald at The Druids Inn where they waited from a cross country coach that took them to Barmouth via Dolgellau. The Druids Inn coaching building can be seen behind the road sign on above photograph, although the complex is now a holiday park.
Continuing my journey I came across the former stage post at Cernioge, once described as a miserable inn that traded under the name of the Prince Llewellyn, then the Kings Hotel. It became known as the Cernioge Inn when Telford completed his road then stayed here and described it as being excellent.
These days its former stable block is passed with little regard but the slower pace of cycling provides a better view. Coachmen would stay in the rooms above the stable block, accessed by the flight of stone steps seen on the side of this building.
Who would have thought that this stone building had stood here for over 200 years. It looks strong enough to stand here for eternity.
On the opposite side of the road is the former Cernioge Inn itself, a modest looking farmhouse visited by people who are an important part of history and the place where Sam Haywards brother was exchanged with a fresh driver who drove it to the packet ferry in Holyhead.
Princess Victoria stopped here on her journey from Llangollen to Beaumaris. It is said she listened to a harpist to whom she gave £1. In 1816 a Dr Samual Spiker describes his stay at the Cernioge:
“Of simple appearance with only five windows in front, and before it a court-yard, laid with gravel in which peacocks, turkies, pigeons, and other poultry strutted about in rural security. The landlady’s daughter played Welsh airs the whole evening through on the harp, the favourite instrument of the Welsh, which afforded us a most agreeable entertainment”
Dr. Samuel Heinrich Spiker :Travels through England, Wales, & Scotland, in the year 1816
From here I continued cycling to my last overnight stay in Betws y Coed.
The original coaching route to Holyhead would have arrived at the outskirts of Betws y Coed then made a right hand turn here to follow the bank of the River Conwy to and beyond Llanrwst. The coach eventually followed the coastline route into Bangor before crossing the Menai Straits and travelling onwards to Holyhead.
Telford bridged the River in 1815, the year of Napoleons defeat so named it The Waterloo Bridge. From here stage and mail coaches would then have had a shorter safer and faster journey on an improved road to reach Bangor.
The Waterloo Bridge was made of iron not of stone with the sides decorated in the language of flowers. A Shamrock honours people from Ireland a Thistle for Scotland, Rose for England and Leek for Wales for the nationality of those who lost their lives during the Napoleonic wars.
The mail coach exchanged horses at the Royal Oak and my stay here was memorable for its excellent customer service. I arrived tired and dripping wet so the manager seeing my dishevelled state had a member of staff wheel my bicycle to a purpose built drying room and helped to carry my pannier bags to my overnight room in the stables.
That evening I enjoyed the most tastiest of meals during the whole of this bicycle ride. Home made soup, local lamb and ice cream with sorbet. The Royal Oak still caters for coaches, the motorised type that deliver scores of passengers at the same time.
Day 6 From Betws y Coed to Holyhead
I set off early this morning and smooth tarmac aided a fast cycling pace to reach Tyn y Coed where the coaching Inn car park houses a replica red & black mail coach. I have always known a coach being exhibited here. The first was purchased from the makers of the Alfred Hitchcock 1939 film Jamaica Inn and the present coach is an exact replica of the Holyhead Mail.
My pre-ride reading found the above picture showing the interior of the Holyhead to London mail coach with its original upholstery. The padding is horsehair, long lasting and unyielding. The glazed window is raised and held in place with a strap and peg, a design feature used when coach builders made railway carriages as testified by the mechanisms seen inside railway heritage coaches.
From Tyn y Coed a drizzly climb took me to Capel Curig, the next stage post for the mail coach to refresh the team of 4 that pulled it past the toll house to reach the summit,
Capel Curig is where Welsh naturalist and travel writer Thomas Pennant invented the word Snowdonia . If I am wrong about the following explanation I am sure people will correct me: Yr Wyddfa refers to Snowdon. Yr Eryri refers to Snowdonia. The mountain range of Yr Eryri includes several peaks such as Moel Hebog, Moel Ddu and Moelwyn, mentioned in 11thcentury records with the word Snawdune that described snow capped peaks.
Snawdune was modified by Welshman Thomas Pennant as the title for his 1778 book, ‘A Journey in Snowdonia’. His invented word is the reason for the area continuing to be referred to as Snowdonia within a wider geographical area protected by the aptly named Snowdonia National Park Authority.
Sometimes I wish people would stop squabbling about the names of places and simply enjoy the views the most splendid of which can be found along the length of the Holyhead Road from Llangollen through Betws y Coed , over Capel Curig and through the Ogwen Valley. The road has a gentle rise, fall and climb to Nant Ffrancon – the Glen of Beavers – followed by a three mile descent into Bethesda and The Bull stage post.
My pre-ride reading informed me of a mail coach driver who was blinded by the snow and arrived here safely because his team of horses knew where to go and where to stop.
Some industrial disputes capture the publics attention and here in 1900 Bethesda nearly 3000 quarrymen went on strike for 3 years. The strike left families in such poverty that collections across Britain supported them with food, clothing and money.
My bicycle journey continued into Bangor. During coaching days Bangor was said to be the high road to the ‘Head’. ‘Head’ was used in everyday conversation to mean Holyhead. In lower Bangor The Penrhyn Arms Hotel was one of the largest and best hotels on the road to London with private suites where dignitaries would rest and recuperate from or before crossing the Irish Sea and Menai straits.
When railways replaced mail and stagecoaches the Penrhyn Arms lost its customers and closed. Despite widespread poverty, especially in the wake of a 3 year strike by quarrymen they and local farmers raised enough money to buy the Penrhyn Arms building to create Bangor University for their children to receive an education and a better future.
Pleasingly the former entrance to the Penrhyn Arms Hotel has been saved. It now contains an inscription reminding people the former Hotel became a building that educated the children of local working people from which the University developed.
Bangor University has since met the reason for its existence and expanded in size to be recognised as being world class, with a gold standard award for teaching excellence.
Coaches leaving the Penrhyn Arms climbed the Holyhead Road to reach Upper Bangor passing Ffriddoedd Road. A Ffriddoedd is a wet field on high ground where rushes grew. Harvested rush would be cut into suitable lengths then hung up to dry. Once dried the rush would be stripped, cut into smaller lengths, rolled then soaked in animal fat to become theforerunner of our modern candle.
Beyond Ffriddoedd is an educational site that is now part of Bangor University where the next stage post for the mail coach was the George Hotel. The Bangor ferry left from its shoreline to cross the straits.
Not so very long ago people, luggage, post and packages were ferried across the strong, rapid currents of the Menai Straits to and from Ynys Môn (Anglesey). During low tide cattle between the age of 18 months and 3 years swam to this shoreline. Some would be taken by drovers and sold in London meat markets.
The George Building continues to be used for education and the view from the gardens shows the width of the Menai straits that ferrys and cattle would cross.
Despite the danger of crossing the Menai Straits for man and beast alike there was considerable opposition to Thomas Telford replacing the ferry with a bridge. When compensation was paid those who opposed his bridge the opposition became strong supporters of it.
Due to its size, the best view of Menai Suspension Bridge is from a distance.The Admiralty required Telford to provide clearance for the masts of sailing ships, so the bridge had to stand 100 feet (30.48 m) above high water. The stone used for the arches and piers was limestone quarried from Penmon Quarries, the same source and same type of stone that was used in the construction of Birmingham Town Hall and many other places.
The George Building can be seen nestling on the shore line from where this account of a Royal Mail coach journey begins:
From the road to the east came the sound of hurry: iron-rimmed wheels and horses hooves galloping on rough gravel racing to keep time. The London to Holyhead Mail was heading to the Port. Its scarlett sides and royal crest proclaiming the right to carry the precious mail bag for Dublin.
As it pulled up outside the Bangor ferry inn its exhausted horses were unharnessed and a fresh team attached. A man stepped forward with an air of command. He climbed quickly onto the top of the coach and sat down next to David Davies the coachman on duty that night. This mans name was William Povis who had overseen the building of the Menai Suspension Bridge. He was taking command of the mail coach and that was final.
A note was sent down to the ferryman saying his services would not be needed that night or ever again. With a flick of the reigns the horses strained and the coach set off on the short journey to the bridge. And so, without no more fanfare than this on a horrible night at 1:35am on January 30th 1826 the Menai Suspension Bridge was opened by high mounted steeds with their high crescent necks held high, pulling the Royal Mail coach off the mainland over the Menai Straits and onto the island of Anglesey.
These horses were conscious of their triumphant achievement.
Source: Man of Iron – Thomas Telford by John Glover 2017
Although the Menai Bridge was constructed for the mail coach, there were many other users including such commercial stage coaches, private carriages and drovers moving livestock .
With the exception of the Royal Mail coach all other users paid a Toll to cross this bridge. Records state that between May 1829 and April 1830 a total of 6,452 cattle were walked across. This seemed out of proportion to the size of Anglesey and wondered if some of those cattle were Irish cattle. So I contacted Barry Hillier, the Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum who found out the answer :
The relatively small size of the packet boats and other vessels in 1830 may have precluded the carriage of large numbers of cattle from Ireland so although some may have been transported across the Irish Sea, it’s unlikely that these would have explained the figures quoted by Mr Patton.
What he’s not shown in his calculations is the direction of travel because in the 1800s the notion of Hendre and Hafod played a major role in agriculture.
Farmers would send their animals from Anglesey in the Spring ( Anglesey was the winter accommodation – the Hendre,) to the slopes of Eryri/Snowdonia, which was mostly common land, for summer grazing – the Hafod. At the end of the Summer the beasts would be walked back to Anglesey and the 6,452 head of cattle suddenly halves to 3,226.
In addition, one of the largest cattle markets in north-west Wales was found in Menai Bridge (Posh people in Waitrose don’t realise that they’re walking on centuries of compacted cow dung!) so Caernarfonshire farmers would walk their animals across the bridge to be sold. If they were bought by other Caernarfonshire farmers or by abattoirs in Bangor or Caernarfon, then they’d be walked back across the bridge. Every time they walked, a toll was charged.
I suspect that certain individual cows walked across that bridge four or five times – which affected the statistics!
Source: GARETH HUWS April 2021
Here in Ynys Môn every toll house is in excellent condition and in use as a home or a business. Telford built 5 toll houses between the Menai bridge and Holyhead. Although the Toll house on the Menai bridge no longer exists the others are located Llanfair, Gwalchmai, Caer Ceiliog and Holyhead itself.
Toll houses were not unique to roads. I once cycled alongside the Grand Union of Canals and passed several at major locks or canal junctions to collect money from users to recoup the cost of canal construction.
Toll houses along the Holyhead Road were built by the Government to help recoup the £300,000 capital cost of building the road, its many bridges, toll houses and the Inn at Mona. According the national archives currency converter £300,000 in 1830 is equal to £21 million in 2021.
The Inn at Mona was the only stage post between Menai Bridge and the Port of Holyhead and todays visit was a high point of my cycling adventure, made possible by the owners of the Mona Inn, Mr Kevin Doran and his wife Vonnette, who kindly allowed me access to the unrestored grade 2 listed building to see and photograph its features.
Coaching Inns were a vital part of coaching infrastructure that served the needs of the traveller needing food, drink, a wash, rest and clean clothing with stables staffed by ostlers, blacksmiths and wheelwrights who cared for horses and made running repairs to the coaches.
Whilst my journey from London has attempted to visit each of the 28 coaching inns along the route it revealed that only 8 continue to provide overnight accommodation, food and drink:
10 have been demolished (36%)
8 continue to function as an Inn by providing overnight accommodation and food (29%)
5 are struggling to survive as pubs and have a doubtful uncertain future (19%)
4have been converted into shops or apartments (14%)
The Mona Inn was once used by wealthy private travellers in their own coaches and the public riding in Stage or Royal Mail coaches. Owners Kevin and Vonnette Doran have been its custodians and Vonnette has gathered a vast amount of historical information about the property that has now been lodged with the Council Archivist in nearby Llangefni. She kindly gave permission for me include this extract in this story:
In 1819 the field called Caer-Mon was chosen as the location to build the new half way house. It was 14 miles from Holyhead and 9 miles from Bangor, however the locals did not agree and repeatedly pulled the milestones down. Today the milestone along with all its furnishings for the road reads Bangor 12 miles Holyhead 13 miles. It may well be that part of the decision in choosing this location was the usual distance for horses to travel before being exchanged for a fresh team.
It is probable that the same stonemason responsible for building Toll Houses across Anglesey was the same person who built the Inn at Mona
The Mona Inn opened to the traveller in May 1822 Source: Mrs Vonnette Doran
Today Kevin Doran met showed me around the building to explain how it was used and allowed me to photograph its features:
From left to right: Travellers who had not made a booking would knock the front door. It would then be the decision of the inn keeper to decide who to accept.
The gateway in the middle photograph was minded by the gatekeeper who occupied the room next to the gate. He would listen out for the sound of a coaching horn and fling the gates open for the carriage to enter. Royal mail coaches would be brought to a halt in the middle of the courtyard where its horses were exchanged with a fresh team, the coach would turn on its axis then charge off to either the Holyhead packet ferry of head for the Menai Bridge and Bangor. Kevin explained that 72 horses were rotated through the coaching inn every 24 hours.
The photo on the right is where the privileged travellers would alight. The outline of the original doorway can be seen to the left of the Porch. The Porch had been constructed after the coaching era.
From Left to Right: There were 7 bedrooms on the first floor and as this was the era of candlelight, guests would be able to buy candles from the inn keeper.
Each room was lime plastered and the wealthy had a private room facing the court yard, each fitted with a hob grate as shown in the middle photo.The metal sides of the hob grate was where a kettle would keep water hot for washing or for a pan of food to be kept hot. The fire also heated the room.
The bedrooms facing the road would be shared with strangers. Some had an open fire others were kept warm by the firebricks extracting warmth from the burning fire into other rooms.
Beneath the floorboards there would be a layer of sharp sea shells or broken glass that helped to insulate the bedrooms and control vermin. The rooms had chamber pots, not toilets – and became known as bed chambers.
From Left to Right:
This was the era of window shutters and the Inn at Mona has them in abundance. The wealthy would stay in their own room and the less well off would had a choice of 2 communal areas. One for relaxation and the other for meals.
The communal areas had their own fireplace and an essential piece of equipment for every coaching inn was a spittoon. Spitting was practiced by both men and women and spittoons were introduced to replace what was once a habitual practice of spitting on the floor. Spittoons were flat bottomed, often weighted to prevent them tipping over.
To protect the plastered walls a skirting board prevented the sweeping and cleaning brush from causing damage. A dado rail was protected the wall from damage by furniture including chair backs.
A vaulted cellar under the dining area would be where food and drink was kept chilled. Interestingly the cellarage did not extend throughout the ground floor. Where it didn’t exist the floorboards were prone to dry rot. Where it did exist the ventilation kept the floorboards in good condition.
From left to right: Equal care and attention was given to horses and the carriages they pulled. The coach houses kept them dry and those needing repair received attention by the blacksmith or wheelwright.
Feed for the horses were stored above their stabling where a trap door that was used to haul bales into the hay loft can be seen.
The cobblestone ground floor would usually be covered in straw and a feeding frame for hay leans into the stable at a 45% angle, holding the contents at head height inside the horses manger.
The Inn at Mona is for sale and wow, what an opportunity it is for prospective purchasers to buy an important part of our nations history and heritage, knowing that nothing like it will never, ever be built again. After bidding my farewells to Kevin my bicycle ride continued to Holyhead.
Nearing journeys end I imagined the sense of relief and arrival felt by countless others approaching here by packet boat, mail coach, stagecoach and privately owned carriages. 200 years ago mail coaches timed their arrival in Holyhead with that of the packet boat. They had to be on time as ‘Time and Tide waits for no man’ .
Stage coaches would go directly to the ‘Packet Boat’ or waited for its arrival at the ‘Eagle and Child Inn’ that no longer exists, however the building is still standing and is known now as Victoria Terrace.
In the maritime world a packet boat is identified by its function to carry packets and mail, not the boats design. The Post Office used steam packets as these were not so vulnerable to the wind conditions that delayed sailing ships.
The photo of an arrival in Holyhead in 1820 by sail captures Admiralty Arch in the background. The Harlequin was one of the earliest Packet steamships sailing back and forth to Holyhead and Howth, a suburb of Dublin between 1824 and 1837.
As Irish parliamentarians were based in Westminster I was curious to understand where their parliamentary documents were being sent. An enquiry to the Irish Embassy in London revealed documents relating legislation were sent to Dublin Castle where they were lodged as an official record of laws. Constituency mail was sent to and from the person or business concerned.
I was delighted to cycle under the Admiralty Archway captured in the photograph taken in 1820, the starting point of the Holyhead Road and my journeys end.
In 1836 the mail coach from here covered the distance of 260 measured miles, taking 26 hours 55 minutes to journey from here to Marble Arch. 185 years later this bicycle ride required 5 overnight stay covering a distance of 290 cycling miles taking 44 cycling hours
Climbing off my bicycle I could barely stand up straight, yet was pleased to share the moment with (Left to Right) Alan Williams, Holyhead Stena Line Manager who gave permission for me to cycle into a restricted area underneath Admiralty Arch, Holyhead Mayor Richard Parry and Barry Hillier, Director of Holyhead Maritime Museum whose support, advice and following of the adventure has been invaluable.
I began my story with quotes from Charles Dickens to paint a picture of life in the early 1800s.His marvellous description of Holyhead harbour brings this story to an end:
There they lay, alongside each other; shoals of passengers and heaps of luggage proceeding hurriedly on board. Labyrinths of tackle, idle sails, sunken piles, with ugly lodgings for the water-rat within their mud-discoloured nooks; church steeples, warehouses, house-roofs, arches, bridges, men and women, children, casks, cranes, boxes, horses, coaches, idlers, and hard-labourers; In the midst of all this turmoil there was an incessant roar from the packet’s funnel, which quite expressed the surrounding scenes of perspiration and emotion. Charles Dickens,Martin Chuzzlewitt, ch. 40
My childhood memory of stagecoach travel is an image of John Wayne leaning from the window of a Wells Fargo Stagecoach rifle in hand, shooting at Geronimo and his band of Apache Indians. Yet the first recorded stagecoach ran from Edinburgh and quickly became the vehicle of choice for long distance travel that some writers refer to as a machine. Many stagecoach routes developed from well trodden paths made by drovers.
During lockdown I read ‘On the Trail of Welsh Drovers‘ by Twm Elias. He explained the routes from Harlech used by drovers to take cattle, sheep and geese to sell for the best prices in England. Whilst Shrewsbury was a popular market where high prices would be paid, even better prices were paid in London. The Harlech to London drover route became a stagecoach route used by Charles Darwin between Barmouth and Shrewsbury then Charles Dickens who frequently travelled from his London home to and beyond Shrewsbury.
My mind was made up: 2020 was the year I would start to cycle along the coaching route between Harlech and London, firstly following the stagecoach that Charles Darwin once used. At a later time I will cycle from London to Holyhead following the Harlech stagecoach route as far as Shrewsbury referencing Charles Dickens, before continuing along that famous road to Holyhead telling the mail coach story.
The Shrewsbury Connection: How is Harlech Linked?
In the 13th century Welsh forces captured Shrewsbury and named it Amwythig – meaning ‘fortified town’. Edward 1st then brought Shrewsbury back under English control and subjected Wales to English rule. This was achieved by building a series of castles, including Castell Harlech which now has UNESCO World Heritage Status.
Harlech Castle gatehouse was used as a local assize. People sent to prison were walked in shackles to Shrewsbury gaol in the custody of drovers who were taking cattle, sheep and geese to sell at markets in Shrewsbury and beyond.
The 80-mile droving route crossed Pont Scethin, a stone packhorse bridge. Prisoners would sleep on cold, hard ground whilst drovers took hourly shifts to watch them, as well as the animals.
In his book Twm Elias describes the routes taken to reach Shrewsbury from Harlech; one route went from Pont Scethin to Dolgellau, and onwards through Bwlch Oerddrws (the cold door pass) to Shrewsbury via Welshpool.
Other routes – namely those with less steep hills – followed Bwlch y Moch (gap of the pigs) or Bwlch Drws Ardudwy (the doorway to Ardudwy) to Bala, and then onwards to Shrewsbury via Corwen.
By the 1800s many sections of those well-trodden drover trails firstly became coaching routes and then in later years, roads.
In August 1829, a family of the name Hodgson wrote a diary recording a visit to Barmouth then described the stagecoach route to Shrewsbury via Welshpool that my bicycle ride would follow.
The Hodgsons paid 2d (2 old pence) a mile for a seat on the stagecoach roof. Their 80-mile journey cost 13 old shillings (13/-). A seat inside cost 4d a mile = £1-6s-8d for the full journey; data extracted from the currency converter on the National Archives website reveals todays equivalent value is £90:40p. http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/currency
To compare the cost of stagecoach travel with the weekly income of local people I learned through a local social media appeal there was no such thing as an average wage. People accepted what they were given or were out of work. Local people informed me that those cutting hay earned 6d a day, a shepherd 2/6d per week, a seamstress 5/- a week and a bailiff on an estate 7/6d. Slate miners could earn 8/- a week but 8d was deducted as they had to pay for items used at work – candle, fuse and explosives.
The modal weekly wage turned out to be 7/6p and the National Archives website reveals todays equivalent value is £25:43p. This shows the cost of stagecoach travel to Shrewsbury was over three times higher than the modal weekly wage of local people and therefore unaffordable.
As the very wealthy owned their own coach and horses, coach travellers to Merionethshire included middle class tourists or artists, scientists and writers as evidenced by the Hodgson family, JMW Turner, Curnow Vosper, Charles Darwin and William Wordsworth using the stagecoach service to visit here.
Vosper’s painting of Salem has been written about in an earlier bicycle blog and Turners watercolour painting of the Mawddach estuary is displayed at the Tate art gallery in London. William Wordsworth wrote:
The Influence of the Welsh Landscape on Charles Darwin
Visitors may have been drawn to our area by Flintshire-born naturalist and travel writer, Thomas Pennant. His published accounts described far-reaching views, bird life, plants and rock formations. This certainly influenced Charles Darwin’s visit in 1831 as he stayed in Snowdonia for several weeks studying the birds, plants and rock formations that Thomas Pennant had written about.
On August 29th 1831, Darwin left Barmouth by stagecoach and returned home to Shrewsbury where a letter offered him the position of guest naturalist on HMS Beagle. That voyage led to his world famous theory in the published work: ‘On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection’ (1859).
How did Harlech’s coaching routes begin?
The 1800 Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland created an urgent need to improve road and sea links between Westminster and Dublin. Both Holyhead inYnys Mônand Porthdinllaen on the Llŷn Peninsula were earmarked as a possible location for sea crossings.
William Madocks formed the Porthdinllaen turnpike trust to fund local coaching routes that crossed the driveway of Plas Tan Yr Allt, his Tremadog home. This is now a highly appreciated country house offering exceptionally high standards of comfort and customer service.
Stagecoaches then crossed the estuary from Porthmadog along an earth sea wall appropriately named the Cob. My bicycle is resting against a post where a sturdy gate ensured users stopped to pay a toll. In later years the monies raised from here were donated to local charities. The last five pence toll was paid at 3pm on Saturday 29 March 2003.
Despite toll monies being used to improve roads, toll gates were the scene of protests by farmers complaining about the cost they had to pay for moving livestock. Known as the Rebekah Riots from a passage in the Bible – Genesis 24 Verse 60 – where Rebekah had been encouraged to ‘possess the gate’, one such incident occurred on the outskirts of Porthmadog at the Penmorfa toll gate.
Although Holyhead was chosen for sea crossings to Dublin, our local road improvements supported a regular stagecoach service passing Lord Harlech’s 16th century home, Glyn Cywarch.
These road improvements also paved the way for the introduction of the ‘Express Mountaineer Stagecoach Service’ between Caernarfon and Barmouth via Harlech. The journey took 8 hours on alternate days (Sundays excepted) and Harlech became an important stagecoach centre.
The coach driver sat on a box seat so he could see over a team of 4 horses pulling the coach – the two closest to him known as wheelers, and the leading pair known as leaders. His skill reigned the team to start up, move, turn and stop in unison. Mail was carried in a box at the rear of the coach in the care of a guard. The guard was also responsible for blowing a horn that announced the coach was approaching or leaving a place.
In 1830 Baron Sir Robert Williames Vaughan funded the building of the Blue Lion coaching inn, built from the shell of Plas yn Harlech. Sir Robert was the Conservative Member of Parliament for Merioneth, lived in Nannau and was instrumental in the building work of Dolgellau gaol and courthouse. He employed Mr Daniel Parry to be the innkeeper of the Blue Lion and in 1833 Daniel placed this advertisement in the Merionethshire Herald newspaper:
‘BLUE LION INN, HARLECH, MERIONETHSHIRE. Daniel Parry begs respectfully to inform the Public, more particularly Tourists and families visiting this part of the Principality, that he has entered the above Inn which commands a fine view of the old Castle, the ruins of which still continue to attract strangers from various parts of the kingdom, the whole extent of Cardigan Bay (on a clear day!) and the Carnervonshire Mountains. GOOD STABLING AND LOCK-UP HOUSES, Wines, Spirits’
Stagecoaches entering Harlech town would have created a lot of noise; the distant sound of a horn giving a warning of their arrival would be followed by horses clip-clopping along Stryd Fawr pulling the creaking coach. They came to a standstill outside Llew Glas where the sound of passengers and their luggage getting off or on the coach combined with the background noise of an ostler detaching used horses and attaching a fresh team.
During the changeover of horses it was the responsibility of the coachman to hold the reigns of the lead horse while the ostler detached the used team and then attached the fresh team to the coach. The saying ‘hold your horses‘ comes from this practice. Not to do so could risk the lead horse trotting down the road pulling a driverless coach.
The detached team would be handed to a waterman who took the used horses to a nearby trough for a cooling drink of clean fresh water draining down the Rhinogau mountain range.
Now once more trading as the Plas this Georgian building features a double entrance door flanked by long bowed windows with numerous sash windows on the upper floors.
The 1800s property tax was based on how many windows a building had. A flat rate of 2/- per annum was levied on every property with an additional charge for more than 10 windows. As the Llew Glas was constructed with over 20 windows the owners would pay an additional 8/- a year.
According to the Pigots 1831 commercial directory for Harlech, the Llew Glas (Blue Lion) was a posting house for our town:
Coaching inns were profitable businesses that benefited from three income streams:
Firstly as a staging post that hired fresh horses for coaches to reach the next stage post.
Secondly from coach passengers who paid for tickets, food and drink.Some coach passengers paid to stay overnight.
Thirdly from the Royal Mail: coaching inns were used as a post office.
Coaching inns were a vital link for the postal service and quick turnovers were critical as the Royal Mail levied fines for lengthy delays. Experienced ostlers completed the exchange of horses within 3 or 4 minutes.
When used horses had finished their cooling drink the waterman walked them into the stable yard across the road from the Llew Glas to rest, eat and be cared for.
These days a hugely popular and friendly Welsh Café continues the tradition of being a place to rest and refresh. It has kept the historic ‘Llew Glas’ (Blue Lion) name. Blue might represent the sea, an appropriate colour for our coastal town or maybe the night sky, depicting the lion which is a nocturnal creature symbolising strength and power.
The journey begins
Early in the morning of Thursday July 30th:my bicycle ride to Shrewsbury left Harlech and called at the next stagecoach stop 10 miles away in Barmouth, passing numerous milestones that were a legal requirement during the age of stagecoach travel.
This prominent and well preserved milestone is set into a dry stone wall below Caffi Cymunedol in Dyffryn Ardudwy. It reads Harlech 5 miles, Barmouth 5 miles.
Before roman times the Welsh mile was equal to 3 English miles and a Gaelic calendar was in use with each week consisting of 8 nights creating the word ‘wythnos‘; the romans introduced a 7 day week and Edward 1st introduced the English mile.
The function of milestones:
Informed travellers of direction and distances.
Verified the miles of stagecoach travel passengers had paid for.
Confirmed the accuracy of charges to coaching proprietors who hired horses to pull their coach over an agreed distance.
Calculated postal charges until the 1840 Penny Black stamp signalled a standard postal rate.
Became a legal requirement on turnpike roads as all users were charged by the mile.
The name turnpike comes from the spiked barrier placed at the toll gate that ensured road users would stop and pay to pass through. Turnpike trusts used those payments to fund road maintenance and new roads. Stagecoaches paid in advance and the guard would blow a horn as a signal for the gate keeper to move the barrier for the coach to pass without stopping.
Beyond Dyffryn Ardudwy is the turn-off to Pont Scethin. Although it has been written that coaches crossed Pont Scethin I continued along the former turnpike road to reach the Barmouth stage post.
According to the Hodgson diary their stagecoach journey from here to Shrewsbury took 16 hours and covered a distance of 80 miles. From that information I calculated that the coach moved at an arithmetic mean speed of 5 miles an hour.
The former hotel stage post has now been converted into apartments and shops. People can be forgiven for not recognising its original purpose and being unaware that Charles Darwin had travelled on a coach which – 200 years ago – waited in place of the car that my bicycle leans against.
With fresh horses, the coach continued to the next stage post in Dolgellau. Standard operating procedures were for a coach to travel at staged intervals of 10 to 12 miles then stop for the horses to be exchanged with a fresh team. This routine protected horses from exhaustion and enabled coach passengers to travel long distances across the country at a constant speed in stages, hence the reason for coaches being called stagecoaches.
Whilst all sorts of horses and mules were used for coach work, people informed me that strong 17 hand Irish draft horses would be stabled here for use over the mountainous road that lay ahead.
Despite the strength of these horses, the effort of pulling a stagecoach weighing over a ton uphill for 5 miles to reach the cold door pass summit and then arrest its’ 5 mile descent was both strenuous and dangerous.
As the stagecoach neared the steepest point its passengers were obliged to dismount, lightening the load horses had to pull. By doing so they were at most risk of highway robbery from the notorious Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy, the red bandits of Mawddwy.
A joy of cycling is the ability to notice objects that are missed when driving, including 25 stone blocks close to the summit that were built here to act as an anti-tank defence to a perceived threat of German invasion from Ireland in 1940. Official documents explain:
‘These form part of Western Command Stop Line No. 21, which ran from Rhyl to Machynlleth. This local topography forms a steep-sided, narrow and easily defended gorge’.
Nowadays the blocks provide a wonderful shelter for sheep from prevailing winds howling through the cold door pass.
Once the coach reached the summit its passengers got back on board for a controlled descent that involved the driver and guard to take a series of actions:
At the front of the coach its driver used a lever that applied a block to the outer rim of the front wheels known as a slipper brake. Secondly he would reign the wheeler horses to step back. By doing so they would apply force against the pole they were attached to, pushing it into the descending coach preventing it from running into them.
At the rear of the coach its guard would apply chains attached to used horse shoes that he hooked into the spoke of the rear wheels. By preventing them turning this acted as a brake (the term ‘brake shoes’ continues to this day).
He then used a ‘C’ shaped device as a wedge to keep the wheels still. Even-so, the coach could still slide downhill giving rise to the saying ‘applying the skids‘.
According to the Hodgson diary, the Mallwyd Inn was kept by the son of the landlord of Gwesty Cons y Gedol. Prior to this it was known as the Peniarth Arms, owned by the William -Wynne family of Llanegryn, then the Bury’s Hotel. It is now called the Brigands Inn, named to immortalise Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy whose numbers resembled a small army – over 80 of them were executed for highway robbery.
The field where I stood to take this photograph is mentioned in Arthurial legend as being the scene of a bloody battle. It is also known that highway robbers included Yeomans, former landowners from the Shrewsbury area.
Passengers bound for Shrewsbury got off here and joined a different coach that travelled to Shrewsbury from Aberystwyth. The coach they had been using continued with fresh horses to Aberystwyth, returning to Dolgellau along the coastal road.
I continued to cycle along the stagecoach route reaching the next stage post 11 miles away:
The naming of inns has been a legal requirement for hundreds of years and as the majority of people in the 1800s could not read, pictures were used.
This inn sign combines the two purposes of coaching inns with the picture of 3 tankards or canns of ale. ‘Cann’ is an old English name for a drinking vessel, ‘Office’ reflects the use of a coaching inn as a post office. Ale is beer made without the addition of hops.
An hour later, I arrived in Llanfair Caereinion High Street and stopped at the Goat Hotel stage post that is presently undergoing some renovation work.
I sat on a bench opposite the Goat for lunch and wondered whether Charles Darwin had lunched here. Mind you, eating fresh meals at a coaching inn was never guaranteed. Some passengers would have ordered and paid for a meal then left before it was served or finished because their coach was leaving. It has been written that some coaching inns charged a new customer for a meal then served the leftover food that a previous customer didn’t have time to eat.
My visit was equally frustrating. I left my thermos flask on the bench seat and didn’t realise what I had done until an hours’ ride later.
During meal breaks the driver and guard remained on the coach. Stories suggest a legendary yard of ale would be passed to them but it is more likely they drunk from a hip flask. When the guard blew his horn, passengers had to get aboard straight away as those that didn’t were left behind.
A few miles later I passed signage for Powis Castle and thought about the massive social changes that occurred in the 1800s. In the first half of that century, the low wages of people were due in no small measure to the cost of the Napoleonic wars. Then the Industrial Revolution saw people move into towns for work with improved wages. Yet where did the money come from in the first place to build these factories and make the machinery needed for the Industrial Revolution?
Powis Castle houses a collection of items obtained from India by Robert Clive (Clive of India). I know that Robert Clive was in charge of soldiers from the British East India Company who made fortunes from India. I wonder where such fortunes were invested by the British, given the stark increase in poverty in India…
Shortly afterwards I arrived in Welshpool where Darwin’s stagecoach stopped at the Royal Oak. In addition to being a stage post for coaches coming from Wales, the Royal Oak refreshed horses and passengers on the Ludlow and Chester coaching route. Royal Oak was used as a metaphor for the strength of the monarchy.
From Welshpool the final stage post before reaching Shrewsbury is in a village named Halfway House. This road is too dangerous for cyclists; it is narrow, fast, carries a high volume of vehicles and ends at a busy roundabout at the equally perilous A5. Putting my safety first I covered the remaining 15 miles by train.
30 minutes later I arrived at Shrewsbury gaol, the destination for prisoners who had walked here from Harlech. For some a sentence of capital punishment may have been given; such as Samual Thomas for killing a cow, or William Jones for highway robbery – both executed here in 1790.
The gaol has been closed for several years and today’s prison is a tourist attraction used as a television location for Coronation Street and Detective Bancroft.
200 years ago, prisoners in shackles took 4 days to walk here. Darwin’s stagecoach took 16 hours, having stopped at 6 stage posts using 24 different horses. Today’s bicycle ride – using the pedal power of a pensioner – covered a distance of 80.6 miles and took me 9 hours. The shorter journey time reflects improved road surfaces and a lighter weight being conveyed across the route.
Sightseeing in Shrewsbury
I began with a leisurely bicycle ride alongside the River Severn to ‘Quantum Leap’ which serves to remind visitors that Charles Darwin was born and educated in Shrewsbury.
Darwin’s thoughts on ‘The Origin of the Species by means of Natural Selection’ (1859) challenged traditional teachings about the origin of mankind. Those who accepted his theory made a quantum leap from traditional religious beliefs and is the reason of the name for and design of this structure.
When Darwin was a pupil at Shrewsbury School it was located in the town centre and that building is now owned by the council. Unfortunately I was preoccupied with taking this photograph and failed to look at the entrance door to find out the building’s present use.
Darwin’s childhood is said to have been spent playing amongst rocks and fishing for newts in nearby Quarry Park overlooked by St Chad’s Church where he was baptised…so off I went to have a look.
Towards the end of the 1800s Shrewsbury School moved to the outskirts of town, so I cycled there to see a statue of Darwin as the young 22yr old who went on to change people’s outlook on life.
This amazing sculpture has been crafted with examples of creatures and birds from the Galápagos Islands; by enlarging the above photos a finch can be seen in bottom right picture standing by Darwins foot. The finch is often cited in support of his theory about evolution. The ‘Sally Lightfoot Crab’ can be seen in the top right photo. This is one of the few saltwater crab species that inhabits the Galápagos Islands sharing sea-side rocks with the marine iguana that has been included.
Alumni from Shrewsbury School are known as Old Salopians and include former Deputy Prime Minister Lord Michael Heseltine, Sir Colin McColl, a former Head of the British Intelligence Service, and Will Hodson.
Will is a cycling hero. In 2015 he set out from this statue to cycle around the world crossing 7 continents raising awareness and money for Parkinson’s Disease charities.
A few weeks ago I made contact with him. He had reached Japan, then paused this epic journey in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic to return home and support his parents.
18 months ago I attended a talk about the artist Curnow Vosper. His watercolour painting of worshipers inside Capel Salem included a lady wearing a stovepipe hat and shawl which later became the image of Welsh national dress. Her name was Siân Owen.
This autumn adventure began at Capel Salem to photograph the box pews where subjects for his painting known as ‘Salem‘ positioned themselves.
Whilst Vospers painting was 111 years ago the box pews remain positioned below a wall clock that had stopped just before 10 o’clock.
His watercolour was brought by Lord Leverhulme and is now displayed in the Lady Lever Art Gallery at Port Sunlight. So I decided to cycle there and visit Siân Owen.
My last bicycle ride to Merseyside was 4 years ago when I cycled 85 miles in a day to ‘prove I could do it’ – a journey of endurance not enjoyment. That visit was to be part of the 125th anniversary celebrations for the Cunard shipping line.
Todays journey would be at a very leisurely pace taking 3 days with late morning starts and early afternoon finishes; day 1 ends in Llandudno. Day 2 ends with an overnight stay in Port Sunlight where on day 3 I planned to visit Siân Owen.
Day 1 Monday October 14th
This afternoon I set out from home to cycle over the Crimea Pass. A steady 7 – 13% uphill gradient to and beyond Blaenau Ffestiniog is rewarded by a lengthy descent towards to Betws-y-Coed and Llandudno.
Although there weren’t many vehicles driving over the Crimea Pass most of them were driving at a Charge of the Light Brigade speed.
From Betws-y-Coed I joined the busy A470. Sadly this road has been the scene of several very nasty accidents and ends at a double roundabout under the A55 that I consider to be too dangerous for pedal cyclists.
After cycling along a dirt track at the side of the A470 I joined a pavement that ran to the outskirts of Llanrwst. Here I diverted off the A470 to cross over the 3 arched bridge and onto Trefriw. Cycling through it seemed a much prettier village than I ever appreciate when driving this way.
A short distance later I arrived in Conwy with its magnificent castle and premises of Drew Pritchard Antiques.
Instead of watching the 6pm news I watch Drew and his team in ‘Salvage Hunters’. How on earth he remains calm and composed when dealing with people who invite him to buy and then change their minds about selling beggars belief.
From here I cycled out of Conwy and crossed a bridge from the castle to follow a marvellous traffic free coastal path around Deganwy to reach the North Shore at Llandudno. My journey then took me along quiet back roads to the Promenade on the sea front for an overnight stay at the Imperial.
Day 2: Tuesday October 15th
From Llandudno promenade the sea views are of Gwynt y Môr (meaning wind of the sea) off- shore wind farm.
The wind farm is quite some distance from land and like good children, can be seen but not heard.
Most of todays cycling followed the coast from Llandudno on National Cycle Route 5 to beyond Prestatyn. The weather was perfect for a very easy day in the saddle; no noticeable wind, a cool, dry and sunny day. To my left the sea and to the right a railway line. For roughly an hour I was pedalling along flat ground seeing nobody; gosh, cycling here was really dull and boring.
Relief came shortly after Prestatyn when NCR5 bears away from the coast towards Holywell for some moderate hill climbing with homes and shops to see. I celebrated at a cafe for coffee and slab of chocolate cake – yummy.
From here I picked up NCR 568 to cycle through Deeside and its marshes, exiting the cycle route on the west coast of Wirral peninsular. I then cycled across land to the eastern edge of the Wirral and stayed overnight at the Bridge Inn, Port Sunlight.
The following day CCTV caught me getting dressed
Day 3: Wednesday October 16th
After a hearty breakfast I cycled around Port Sunlight village. Its really pretty and the museum is well worth a visit. I brought a fridge magnet souvenir and block of Vinola Soap in the packaging of RMS Titanic. This soap was once purchased by the White Star Line for use in passenger cabins on the Titanic.
I’m now using the soap at home. Not only is it creamy, the bathroom is now filled with a wonderful aroma of vanilla.
The Lady Lever Art Gallery is opposite the museum, My reason for cycling the best part of 100 miles to reach here was to see Siân Owen. She was overjoyed to see me:
Siân was the central figure in the Vosper painting known as ‘Salam’. A 2nd version is displayed in the National Library of Wales at Aberystwyth.
Today I was looking at Vospers original watercolour that was sold to Lord Leverhume who had millions of prints made.
Those who brought Port Sunlight soap would collect soap wrappers and exchange them for a Salem print – an incentive for brand loyalty that also increased the sales of his soap.
As a consequence of so many households owning this print the image of women wearing a shawl and black stovepipe hat was thought to be the National Dress of Wales. It subsequently became a device for tourism, national pride and nowadays Welsh identity – frequently worn by children on St Davis day.
One happy childhood memory was the day Dad took the stabiliser wheels off my bicycle and firmly gripped the saddle to keep me upright. I started to pedal as he ran behind. With a leap of faith his grip released freeing me to balance the bike and discover the joy of cycling. It was a magic moment for both of us and years later that skill has not been forgotten. “You never forget how to ride a bike”.
Aged 8 another great memory was when Dad drove me and my 2 sisters to Dover in a blue Standard 10 motor car for our very first sea voyage – a car ferry to France. He then drove across France into Switzerland to manoeuvre onto the carriage of a car-carrying train, another first. We all sat in the car as the train went through a very long and very dark tunnel under the Alps into Italy.We drove to Pisa where I climbed inside the world famous leaning bell tower, an amazing experience. Our journey continued to Rome and the Vatican City.
This year Dad would have been 100 years old and this solo bicycle ride to Rome was my way to commemorate those happy childhood memories.
My luggage weight of 12.7kg (2 stone) consisted of hot weather cycling clothing, wet weather cycling clothing, night-attire, toiletries, a first aid kit, spare inner tubes, wet and dry chain lube, a cycle multi-tool kit, gaffer tape and cable ties for any running repairs plus charging leads for my computer, smartphone and GPS system. Before departure I successfully tested my capability to cycle with this load plus a further weighty bag over 40miles that included gradients of 12% – 15%.
Michelin maps and the cycle.travel software programme enabled me to plot a route, know its gradients, calculate distances to cycle on a daily basis and decide where to stay overnight. Google earth and street view improved my awareness of what to expect and places to avoid. I then downloaded the GPS route into my bicycle computer.
This has been the bike ride of a lifetime.
Roads to Rome
Roman roads were essential trading routes and enabled fast movement of the roman military. Their network of roads also made it easier to communicate messages, including religious teachings. When Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire in Europe pilgrims walked to Rome and other places of pilgrimage along these roads.
In Britain Watling Street linked Dover to Canterbury, known in roman times as Durovernum Cantiacorum and continued northwards to Chester and beyond, with Chester having a separate coastal route into Gwynedd.
In AD 880 Rhodri Mawr, the King of Gwynedd, followed this route to make a pilgrimage to Rome. It was said that those doing so would have all their sins absolved.
As the route to Rome passes through France it has been given the name ‘Via Francigena’ When searching the internet for information about cycling Via Francigena I discovered the ‘Confraternity of Pilgrims to Rome’ (CPR). Their website was so informative I joined the group and received an impressive welcome pack containing guidance and advice for an enjoyable trip.
My journey begins
I began by attending the Canterbury Cathedral Evensong where I received a pilgrims blessing in Trinity Chapel by Canon Emma.
That evening I stayed at the Cathedral Lodge Hotel on the right of this photo. The hotel has been used by pilgrims going to or from Canterbury for many years.
The first part of my bicycle ride followed fairly busy country roads for roughly 20 miles to reach Dover.
At the foot of Dover Castle I visited a memorial by the late Alex Duckham, the founder of Duckhams Oil, where in 1909 Louis Blériot landed a plane having been the first person to fly across the English Channel.
His flight from France took 30 minutes
I then made my way to the White Horse Pub in Dover where the walls are signed by successful channel swimmers.The Channel Swimming Association was founded in 1927 and is internationally recognised to observe and authenticate the number of swims across the English Channel. Between 1927 and the end of 2018 the association has recorded over 1,500 people who successfully swam the channel. The youngest swimmer was aged 11 and the oldest 74. It takes an average of 12 hours to swim across the channel.
At the Port Of Dover I followed a maze of bicycle lanes to board a ferry to Dunkirk. A delayed Brexit ensured the European Health Insurance Card would remain valid, bureaucratic boarder checks with travel delay was avoided and mobile telephone costs remained affordable.
On the ferry from Dover I photographed the famous White Cliffs.
The Ministry of Defence tunnelled into the cliffs and created rooms looking towards France. During the 2nd World War a dynamo was used to provide electrical power for lighting, ventilation and communication equipment.
It was from those rooms that the evacuation of troops from Dunkirk, aptly named ‘Operation Dynamo’, was co-ordinated.
In Dunkirk the ‘Operation Dynamo’ museum describes the background and success of this rescue mission.
Between Sunday 26th May and Tuesday 4th June 1940 the lives of 338,000 troops were saved. On the first day of their evacuation, King George VI requested a National Day of Prayer. Then 3 unexpected events occurred that Churchill referred to as the miracle of Dunkirk:
Hitler inexplicably halted the advance of armoured columns.
A violent storm grounded the German Luftwaffe. This enabled the troops to reach evacuation points without aerial bombardment.
Despite stormy weather the English Channel became ‘still’ and remained so until the armada of little ships, big ships, warships and privately owned motor-cruisers completed their rescue mission.
My crossing of the channel was on June 6th, the 75th anniversary of the ‘D’ day landings. A man whose father was evacuated from Dunkirk was later was part of the ‘D’ day landings to liberate France from the Germans.
I cycled to Dunkirk town centre where I had booked accommodation through the Airbnb website. The address turned out to be a tower block. A wall panel in the entrance hallway contained rows of buttons for the various apartments, none of which gave the name of the person I had booked my stay with. I pressed each button to ask if they had received a booking for my overnight stay. Many occupants were out or chose not to answer. Those that did were not Airbnb hosts.
Matters then went from bad to worse. I tried using my mobile telephone to ring the host only to discover the telephone and WiFi was not working. I had no option but to find alternative accommodation.
After booking into the nearest hotel the hotel internet service revealed the reason for my telephone not working. My telephone uses 4G (whatever that means) and 4G did not work in this part of France. Once I switched over to 3G both the Wifi and telephone came back to life enabling me to ring the Airbnb host, alas – no reply. Fearing my £50 booking with Airbnb was a lost cause. I emailed the Airbnb helpline. 3 days later I received a reply to say the hosts had been waiting for me at the accommodation ………..umm.
My journey from the northwest to northeast of France followed the boarder of Belgium and Luxembourg. The terrain was fairly flat or undulating and an absence of headwind made for fast progress along well maintained cycle tracks that edged main roads, or followed level ground alongside canals.
My route passed the sites of numerous war graves and photographs on the wall of a hotel where I stayed showed a village that had been destroyed in the war. All the inhabitants lost their lives.
At the town of Reims I locked my bicycle against the British flag pole and went inside the ‘Surrender Museum’. The building was once a schoolhouse and in here on May 7, 1945, Germany surrendered to General Eisenhower.
I had expected the museum to display photographs of the surrender with the room where it occurred being laid out to depict who was standing where and a copy of the signed document on view.
No chance – the display consisted of these grotesque Manikens, a map room and a 5 euro film show.
What a disgrace. Surely the French authorities can do better.
North of Reims I stopped for lunch at Brienne le Château where Napoleon attended a military academy that has since been used for psychiatric care.
I remembered the saying wrongly attributed to Napoleon that Britain was a nation of shopkeepers. Those words ought to be regarded as a compliment.
During the past few days of cycling I have covered average distances of 20 miles before seeing a shop. Finding a shop that is open is a different matter. Many close on Sundays, some on Mondays, others close on Wednesday. Then many shops close for 2 hour lunch breaks.
It only takes me 2 hours to cycle 20 miles and I always carry a thermos flask of coffee plus a bottle of pop and some sweets. So for me, travelling 20 miles between shops with the chance they may not be open is no big deal. If I was a walking pilgrim those opening hours would be a major concern.
Cycling towards Besançon the front wheel of my bicycle glanced off a kerb and brought the bicycle to the ground with my feet still clipped into the pedals – gosh, this hurt. It took ages to get my body moving, firstly to extract my feet from the cycling shoes still anchored into the pedals, then to prize myself out of the fallen bike, stand up, stand the bike up, pick up my scattered belongings, release my shoes and put this footwear back on.
I saw the bicycle chain had become detached from the front cog, a messy but easy job to put back, then noticed a spoke on the rear wheel had snapped and that the rear mudguard was buckled. Adding to this joyous moment it then started to rain, heavily.
Unclipping my pannier bags I turned the bicycle upside down and set about dealing with matters. Firstly I refitted the chain, then used gorilla tape to attach the broken spoke to the one next to it. After this I used cable ties and gorilla tape to hold my rear mudguard in place.
My rear wheel has well over 30 spokes and whilst one broken spoke was not serious the other spokes were now supporting both my weight and full pannier bags. Further breakages could distort the rear wheel. I decided if a second spoke broke a visit to a bicycle shop would be needed.
An hour or so later it was still raining as I arrived at my Airbnb overnight stay at a hotel on the outskirts of Besançon. To my amazement it was closed. A notice on the entrance door said the hotel was closed for refurbishment and showed a telephone number of the owner who I rang. He came over from an adjoining house and showed me the room he had allocated me. It hadn’t been cleaned, the toilet was unflushed and the bed was not made. As the hotel was closed for refurbishment it had no staff, no wifi and no restaurant. He said meals could be brought at McDonalds in the town centre.
There was no way I was staying here and said a firm ‘No’ , walked out, cycled down the road and checked into another place. Yet again Airbnb failed me. I will never book accommodation through that outfit again.
The following morning I was down in the dumps. It was still raining, I was aching from my fall, unhappy with the damage to my bicycle and really grumpy with the Airbnb hotelier. This morning was the low point of my journey. I decided to cover todays 60 mile distance by train and having spent the past 6 days making my way through France it was a timely relief to take today off from cycling.
A couple of hours later I arrived at Pontarlier for my next overnight stay. My early arrival allowed time to visit a launderette. By now the sun was shining and a walk to the distillery where Pernod is made lifted my mood.
The following day I set off to cycle into Switzerland. Here the sounds of traffic that had been a background noise for the past week were exchanged by music to my ears, the chiming of bells worn around the necks of grazing cows and goats, lovely !
From here my route skirted around the shores of Lake Geneva and took me to places I have heard of such as Montreux. I wonder if the Montreux film festival still exists?
I then passed through Vevey where Charlie Chaplin spent his final years.
The injured Formula 1 racing driver Michael Schumacher still lives in this area. Today I was looking at the Alps and the lakeside views enjoyed by these people.
That evening my overnight stay was in Orsières. The next day would be the very best cycling experience I have ever experienced; the ascent and descent of the Great Saint Bernard Pass. I had calculated the distance from Orsières to the summit of the Great Saint Bernard Pass was roughly 15 miles. The first 3 would be along a main road shared with vehicles headed to a tunnel that would take them into Italy.
Before leaving my hotel the receptionist insisted on checking the weather forecast. The ‘Pass’ had only opened last week as heavy snow had closed the road since last October and further snowfalls could make it unsafe to travel. Fortunately no snow was expected.
At 10am my ride commenced. The road was in a decent condition, reasonably wide with smooth tarmac and the gradient was an easy 3% .
During the 12 weeks leading to this trip I had been building up my strength and stamina by cycling up hills on a daily basis. With loaded panniers:
Gradients up to 6% are easy.
Climbing between 7% and 10% involves a bit of effort.
I can manage 10% to 15% gradients for short distances.
Anything over 15% is beyond my ability.
The main road passed under concrete roof structures known as ‘Galleries’ that shield road users from rock falls and avalanches. The engine noise from passing cars, coaches, lorries and especially motorcycles was very loud. Eventually I came to a fork in the road that took me to the ‘Pass’ as motor vehicles continued through the tunnel. For the next 12 miles I was on my own to enjoy the scenery, fresh air, peace and quiet.
The gradient was roughly 7% which increased to 10% when as the road ‘switched-back’ to climb the mountain contours toward the summit. I stayed in the gear next to my lowest using the lowest for the switchbacks. I combined that routine with a determined effort to relax, pedal and let the bike do the work. The higher I climbed my surroundings became snowier and more beautiful. I adapted to this continuous climb and simply enjoyed the view.
2 miles from the summit the gradient became too steep for me to continue cycling.
It was here that I stopped and took the above photograph to be amazed by both the distance I had covered and the beautiful scenery surrounding me.
From here I pushed my bike for 1/2 mile, stopped to rest, changed position from one side of the bike to the other then pushed onwards and upwards for another 1/2 mile to do the same again.
Eventually the summit appeared in front of me. I had ‘Made it! ‘
A french tourist kindly took my photograph. By now the temperature was a chilly 3 degrees and as the building in front of me was a cafe I went inside to get warm, eat my Kit-Kat and enjoy a drink of lemon tea.
The road I had climbed was flanked by a footpath used for centuries by traders, soldiers and pilgrims going to and from Italy. It is known as the ‘Valley of Death’ due to the numbers of lives lost along its route and is the reason for the breed of dog known as the Great Saint Bernard being used to rescue people in difficulty.
I brought a ‘Saint Bernard Dog’ fridge magnet as a keep-sake then began a descent of the ‘Pass’ from Switzerland into Italy.
Wow, what a descent. I coasted downhill for 25 miles into the Aosta Valley for my next overnight stay.
On the outskirts of Aosta I looked back to the snow capped Alps.
From here my route followed vast expanses of irrigated rice fields literally buzzing with midges and ouch, most of them bit me.
The remaining 10 days of my journey brought rising temperatures and increasing levels of humidity. I decided that early morning starts and mid-day finishes would enable me to cover my daily distances in greater comfort.
Those early starts were 7am local time yet my mind and body clock was still in the UK timezone, an hour earlier. After several days of early starts my tiredness combined with heat, humidity, insect bites and the effort of cycling 60 miles a day caught up with me. I needed a rest.
The next day I put my bicycle on a train to Pisa. The chap sitting next to me was called Beau-Ba whose genuine happiness seemed at odds with his living situation.
I asked about his French sounding name. Beau-Ba told me his home is in Senegal which used to be a French colony. He came to Italy 5 years ago and earns a living by selling sunglasses and plastic selfie-sticks, or by undertaking any manual labour that he can find such as labouring, gardening, car cleaning or washing up in restaurant kitchens. He sends whatever money he has left after living expenses back to family members in Senegal.
Beau-Ba hopes Italy will give him official papers to legally stay here but knows that officials are only interested in sending him back to Senegal. He complained to me about this injustice as the first economic migrants of modern times were Italians. Thousands went to seek work in the USA to do what he is doing – surviving and sending money home to support family members.
When the train ticket inspector entered our carriage Beau-Ba said he would be told to leave the train at the next station – adding this always happens as he doesn’t have a railway ticket. He simply gets on the next train until he reaches his destination, Pisa.
By the time the ticket inspector reached us our train had arrived in Pisa. As predicted the ticket inspector told Beau-Ba to get off and he happily obliged.
My reason for visiting here was to revisit the famous leaning bell tower.
On my first visit I was roughly 8 years old and remember climbing around the towers outer rings.
Today many people were striking a pose for cameras, giving the impression they were pushing the tower over or holding it up.
From here it was a short 10 mile cycle ride to Lucca where joy-oh-joy, my accommodation had a washing machine in the bathroom; despite hand washing my clothes at the end of each day, you can’t beat a thorough machine wash. Everything I had went into the washing machine and then hung on the line to air and dry. 2 hours later all my clothes were clean and refreshed.
To keep my bike going I maintained my tyre pressures, cleaned the chain, jockey wheels and cogs every evening and applied dry lube on alternate days. Luckily I didn’t suffer any punctures and didn’t break any more spokes. The gorilla tape held the broken spoke and mudguard in place.
My route through Italy was slow; I cycled for miles between fields on dirt tracks covered with a top layer of stone. Where tarmac was present, the surface was soft and frequently deformed by the heat.
For safety reasons I usually cycle about a meter from the kerb , especially when the roadside is in a poor state of repair. Some roads such as the one shown on the right, were so badly deformed that the humps and ruts simply had to be cycled over.
The motorists in Italy were less tolerant towards me than those in Switzerland and France, with many of them passing so close it seemed they were driving as though I was not on the road. Added to this they love the sound of their car horns. What a shame their car horns cannot be swopped with cow bells.
On a more positive note the quality of my overnight accommodation was much better since giving up on Airbnb.
I stayed overnight in small guest houses of old towns that included Berceto, Lucca, San Miniato, Siena and as pictured opposite, Radicofani. All of them were affordable, clean, comfortable, equipped with free wifi and had air-conditioning.
Each guest house left an ample breakfast out for my early morning starts. Evening meals were taken at local reasonably priced restaurants where I would sit at an outdoor table and enjoy Spaghetti, Pizza and a variety of gelato ice creams.
On my last day of cycling I left Radicofani expecting poor road conditions only to discover an excellent cycling road that had been laid over a former railway track that took me all the way to the River Tiber into Rome before threading its way to the Vatican.
By midday I had arrived at my destination, the Basilica of St Peters in Rome.
Was I pleased to arrive – YES.
Would I do it again – NO,
Was this the best cycle ride ever – DEFINITELY !
I had started from Canterbury on Thursday 6th June 2019 and arrived in Rome on Wednesday 25th June, 19 days later. I had cycled 1,016 miles and used 2 cycling rest days to travel a further 102 miles by train = 1,800km.
There is an overarching truth from past travellers of the Via Francigena: this route is about the journey not the destination.
My GPS tracked route by train from Home to Canterbury, the bicycle ride to Rome and the flight back to London
Coast to Coast routes are generally well known, extensively documented and extremely popular amongst walkers and cyclists alike. Yet few people have ever heard of the Roman Emperor Antoninus or the existence of ‘Vallum Antonini’.
Emperor Antoninus succeeded Hadrian and advanced north of Hadrian’s wall to build his own across the narrowest part of Scotland from the Firth of Clyde to the Firth of Forth. This 112 mile adventure retraced it by cycling along sections of national cycling routes 7, 754, 76 and 1; cycling 40 miles each day for 3 days.
‘Firth’ is a Scottish term for where the sea meets a river. ‘Vallum’ is a latin word for an earth embankment. As Emperor Antoninus was responsible for constructing the earth embankment between the Firth (the river) of Clyde to the Firth (the river) of Forth, his wall was named Vallum Antonine.
Travelling from Harlech on the 08:20 train I arrived in the harbour town of Troon at 6pm and cycled past the famous Royal Troon golf course. Every 7 years the course plays host to the British Open Championship and has carried the footsteps of world famous golfers such as Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman completing for the prized ‘Claret Jug’.
Day 1: Tuesday September 10th
After spending most of yesterday sitting inside trains todays bicycle ride gave me some much needed exercise. Leaving Troon I passed a grand looking house called Piersland once owned by the Johnny Walker scotch dynasty and now provides accommodation for golfers.
Today was a gentle 43 mile journey along national cycle route 7. Much of the route uses the A737 which was virtually traffic free. Most traffic now uses the M77 that goes alongside it to Glasgow.
Antonines wall begins on the river Clyde but I missed a turning to the river and descended through a busy ‘cycling prohibited’ tunnel underneath it. Being in the wrong place can be extremely motivating. I peddled through and out of danger at a speed that would have impressed Geriant Thomas.
Emerging at the Riverside museum I saw the Flying Scot:
Flying Scot describes so much greatness. Everyone knows the Flying Scotsman steam train and during my childhood the racing car driver Jackie Steward was known as the Flying Scot.
Back in the 1920s’ Flying Scot bicycles were made for racing, touring or just jogging along. Museum information boards state these were the bicycles of choice for people living in Scotland.
I loved looking at these exhibits and despite modern day engineering improvements to drive trains, wheel sets and braking systems, todays bikes look much the same as these.
Day 2: Wednesday September 12th
Today began with a visit to see roman artefacts taken from Antonines wall and displayed in the Hunterian museum, then enjoyed a coffee and light snack in Glasgows beautiful Botanical gardens.
Suitably fuelled I made my way to NCR 754 to my next overnight stay in Grangemouth via the Glasgow Necropolis, where I saw William Millers headstone. He wrote “Wee Willie Winkie”. As a child his nursery rhyme would signal my bed-time.
On the outskirts of Glasgow my first sighting of the famous Antonines Wall would have been ignored if it wasn’t for a tourist information sign saying what was in front of me.
For the next 10 miles I had a lovely bicycle ride along the freshly tarmaced tow path of the Forth and Clyde canal past the Falkirk wheel to reach the Kelpies. Gosh, what a wonderful, memorable sight:
Day 3: Thursday September 13th
Todays ride took me along NCR 76 on a pavement past the massive BP oil refinery at Grangemouth. Whilst the path segregated me from an endless procession of oil tankers their noise and fumes were less than pleasant.
After a few miles I reached Borrowstounness (known as Bo’ness) where I followed a quieter road to a place called Carriden to visit a stone denoting the eastern end of Antonines wall.
Different writers offer their own opinion for Antonine building his wall. These range from him seeking popularity in Rome to reports of the Scottish Caledonian tribes fearing the wall was a staging post for the Romans to advance into the Highlands. Other writers say the wall was built to protect roman interests south of the wall – the mineral rich land they occupied and food they possessed. I guess the actual reason is a mixture of all of these explanations.
Because the Antonine wall was a simply a ditch and high bank, much of it has eroded away or been built over by canal, road and railway builders wishing to link the Clyde at Glasgow with the Forth and Edinburgh.
Its a shame Hadrian didn’t build his stone wall here. Antonines boundary is shorter in length and sea links from the Forth of Clyde and Forth of Firth would have supported Roman occupation in Britain.
Cycling further along NCR 76 I reached Blackness on the south shore of the Firth of Forth then followed signage taking me through a wooded area to emerge some 3 miles later at the Forth Bridges:
The Forth Road Bridge cycling lane, like the pedestrian path, was completely empty and the road was used by the very occasional bus. Since the adjoining Queens Bridge opened last year (pictured upper right) very few vehicles use the Road Bridge. The Forth Rail Bridge is the most impressive bridge of them all. The saying ‘Painting the Forth Bridge’ is from an era when painters starting at one end would take so long to reach the other side that it would be time to start at the beginning again. I now fully understand why. Its massive !
From here my cycle ride followed NCR 1 along very quiet side streets and a former railway into the centre of Edinburgh. After booking into my overnight accommodation I had time for sightseeing. A visit to the Scottish Parliament where I sat inside the visitors area and listened to a debate before walking up the Royal Mile to buy a bottle of Scotch.
Antonines route is an ideal short cycling tour, more so for the sights I saw rather than the wall itself. Nevertheless ‘All roads lead to Rome’ and with one last big ride left in me, I’m making plans for 2019 to cycle from Canterbury to the Eternal City following the Pilgrims Route. A route that absolves all sins ……
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.
£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.
I then found my en-suite sea view cabin which I found to be clean, comfortable and warm with ample space for yours truly.
After 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 then 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.
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…..
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.
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.
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 lilies) & 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 despiteRembrandt 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.
Arriving 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.
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.
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:
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
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 built 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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.