A Lazy Little Pedal from the Lizard to the Peaks.
I was planning a trip from Sheffield to look after my elderly mum in Cornwall. I felt the urge to ride home on my bike. Quite why such long rides appeal, I’m not sure. But I like to bike if I can and for regular journeys I often notice this cycling urge. I wondered how long would it take? How far could I ride each day? What would I need to carry and where would I sleep? I got the maps out, looked at the Lands End to John O’Groats websites and decided to give it a try. I’d take minimal gear, enough to cover the weather. I’d pay for a bed each night. I’d aim for 100 to 120 miles each day.
I got the turbo trainer out and gathered my minimal set of tools. I bought a posh saddlebag that tucks in behind the bum to minimise wind resistance, mounted a second bag on the aero bars and went out on the road to train.
I didn't manage as much preparation as I’d hoped, just four trips between 40 and 60 miles with half a dozen spin sessions in the garage. But I hoped that if I took it steadily I might be able to finish training on the job. I found a mixed route of big and smaller roads and rather than booking I decided to leave the nights to sort themselves. If uncommitted I could see how I felt at the end of each day before choosing where to stop. So I posted a package of shoes and clothes to my sister in Coverack on the Lizard Peninsular in Cornwall and took the train to Redruth with the bike booked on each leg of the trip. I rode the 20 miles from Redruth to Coverack and then had five delightful days looking after my elderly Mum whilst my sister had a break away. Between the cooking and caring I managed two more 50 milers when Mum's carer came to relieve. The first, a taxing run to Truro over some short but serious hills on back roads past charmingly named Gweek. The second, one of the wettest rides I've ever done, along the coast. These were good Cornish preparation. My son’s girlfriend phoned to say she'd got her PhD which was pleasing, I had lovely views of the sea, magnificent cyclist’s meals (always the best food you’ve ever tasted...) in Truro and Helston and weathered the wet west country wind. And tamed my new Velotoze rubber overshoes that were a trial and a revelation, so difficult to put on and even trickier to remove, but warm and dry like nothing else. Those high-walled Cornish lanes! The delights of the sun after the rain, the variety of tiny deep-cut valleys with exotic plants growing between the stones and then the breezy Goonhilly Downs... all charming and so different to Yorkshire and Derbyshire. Then I had three full days of rest with just Granny, walking the dogs and stacking stones on the beach. And finding a rude clay sculpture of a willy balanced on another stone stack...
The roads mostly had a verge, wide enough to ride on, separating cyclist from traffic. This made a big difference. There was some dual carriageway, a lot of heavy trucks but overall it was reasonable cycling. The hills were gentle by Derbyshire standards, the wind strong and nurturing behind me and by lunch on the first day I still felt reasonably in control. I stopped at a pub near Launceston and eased my body into a normal posture to eat a meal of stodge. And drank coffee tasting of cardboard which I hoped would give me a little extra oomph. I had planned my route along minor winding roads to the north so asked two large old locals whether or not it was a clear route to Launceston. Only to be told they'd lived there all their lives but neither of them ever been the 20 miles to Lanceston. So they couldn't say.
Well, after a rest, with 60 miles under my belt I headed north again along those minor roads with their pleasant but persistent undulations and with the wind to the side rather than behind. I got lost near Launceston and began to feel tired. I headed through the town to avoid a big dual carriageway then turned back to the east onto flatter terrain. It’s a great relief to have a level view ahead after hours of rising and falling. I can still see the view now, with elegant tall trees and soft pastures stretching flat ahead like the background in an oil painting. There's a barrow-load of emotions washing about in the seriously tired soul after hours of work so the prospect of easier terrain is welcome. East now towards Oakhampton on a smaller road, I stopped at a village called Lifton. I was in need of both rest and serious food but the miles had gone by without any likely places to stop and I ended up having to choose a cool-looking gastro pub where I had to wait for ages for someone to appear at the bar. I contented myself with a pee, tea and a brownie. Then fell asleep on two chairs listening to a group of trainee chefs talking master-chef TV language about bistes and veloute and then left as the room filled and I felt the day ebb. Later I re-visited the old lesson that I had to keep re-learning: I hadn’t eaten enough. Though rested, I was still running on empty.
I had done 80 miles and after a little while I was back feeling tired and wobbly-weak in the legs. The road was pretty and fairly quiet. I knew I was near an old teacher's house and though I’d love to have called in, I felt my pride pushing me to at least 100 miles. The hills got harder and I resorted to lower and lower gears. I had to stop in a lay-by for yet another mini-rest. Legs had gone and I wished I’d sacrificed my pride instead. And then it started to rain. The wind rose and dark clouds loomed behind. A storm and downpour was forecast for the evening and desperation squeezed the dregs from the legs and took me on to Oakhampton. A steadily rising terrain finally gave way to a downhill run into the town and by the time I arrived at the centre the rain was torrential, the wind frightening and I was cold and ready to pay a small fortune for a little comfort. I had done 104 miles and dripped my way into a colonnaded hotel called the George, bang in the middle of town.
I pictured a four poster bed and had my card ready in my hand but the fantasy was dashed by the smart receptionist who told me, though I was far too old and sodden and gruff to be any kind of Saviour, that there was no room at the inn. But with Christian spirit and an arabic lilt she gave me the number of a guest house round the corner and I phoned. They had one last room. Hallelujah, I was sorted. The final little ride through the tempest up a steep hill was a soggy pleasure and it turned out I had fallen on my feet with a cycle-friendly landlord who specialised in Lands End to John O’Groats cyclists. He had a secure bike shed and was happy with me dripping and exhausted taking my rubber foot covers off in his dining room, collapsed on a specially provided mat. Like a dog but so happy! There is nothing to beat that cocktail of an understanding welcome in a warm place after a long battle with body, mind and elements. Being shown to a basic room which is dry and warm with a shower, advice on where to eat and giving your order for breakfast. A cocktail of relief and gratitude.
Yes, those unfortunate wealthy folk who insist on comfort at all times will never know the pleasure of showering after a whole day on a bike. That second go with the shampoo, cleaning the final vestige of sweat from scalp and around the eyes. The liberation of the testicles (I’m sure the ladies have equivalent delights) the bliss of standing in the hot water for that extra minute, washed, warm for the first time all day and then the biblical anointment of sudocreme between the cheeks.
Oh sweet micro doze with elevated legs on the bed and then off out for FOOD! I had carried only shorts and a tiny pair of flip flop sandals as evening dress. So, having balanced all my soaking bike-wear on the radiators it was a different almost pleasant discomfort having wet toes walking back towards the pub. I balanced on a bar stool drinking my beer and eating my mash and pudding whilst perusing my plan for tomorrow. I don’t think I spoke to a soul and if I had tried it would have been an unintelligible grunt. Off back through the rising roaring storm to my bed at about nine o'clock. Oh dear, I rocked and wrestled with sleepless tiredness. I had eaten too little and caffeined too much with coffee or tea at every break through the day. Herewith the second lesson to be re-learned: caffeine is good for racing but too much ruins the beauty sleep.
Day 2. Despite the caffeine, I must have slept a bit because I managed to rise in time to whack chamois cream on the bum and pack the micro bags and get the terrible stretchy rubber foot protectors on, all before breakfast was served. Full english with veggie sausage, hot and filling. I ate alone before the other guests were up. I said my thanks to the cycle-friendly landlord and was off into the rain good and early on the road to Crediton. It was cool and damp but the storm had blown itself out overnight and as the day wore on the sun peaked through occasionally and I cheered. The legs felt decidedly odd but they seemed to work. I reminded myself that the leg-failure was food related and vowed to stop sooner and eat more. This served me well for the rest of the trip: beans not brownies. Crediton, at 20 miles, looked pleasant enough but I contented myself with a standing rest outside a co-op store with bananas and milk and then was off north-east to Tiverton. Lovely rolling Devon country on a quiet A road with pretty views. At Tiverton I stopped at a supermarket cafe after 40 miles and ate soup and bananas and dozed in my among the shoppers and trolleys.
Off again, I decided to risk a big dual carriageway for 6 miles. There are places where this is the only practical, even if dangerous, option often saving miles and reducing the risk of getting lost. This A631 had a reassuring meter-wide shoulder but the trucks still pass at 60 miles an hour, a foot off one’s elbow and one dreads that momentary lapse by the driver that could separate life from limb. These trucks! All full of things. Moving from somewhere to somewhere else. Burning diesel hastening climate collapse and enabling dubious production and profit. But how little gain and how much loss! One hangs on and pedals as fast as one can and breathes a sigh when the traffic slows and a roundabout whisks bike and rider back onto an ordinary road.
By now I'd crossed the M5 and was onto the old A38, snaking all the way to Birmingham at the end of tomorrow. An ugly old road with plenty of trucks still and the rain intermittent and the twists and hills hard enough through what I had hoped would be flatter country. But eventually I was in Taunton having done 55 miles and was ready for more rest and food.
I chose a cafe in a shopping precinct where I could leave the bike against the window in good view. And amongst crowds of shoppers and cheerful waitresses I watched another massive downpour outside. Shoppers crashed in for shelter and everyone moved over to let them in with dripping umbrellas. A big meal and a stollen doze in the crowd and then the sun came out, the people dispersed, the legs revived and I was off again towards Bridgwater and Bristol.
With new legs I was off again towards Bristol. I was undecided on how far to go and hoped to get beyond the city before stopping. But the hills began to feel endless, there was a cruel set of climbs up to the airport, I had done my dose of miles and it was nearing the end of the day. The need to decide on where to stay was pressing. I stopped at a ugly pub and locked the bike only to find they were not serving food. Drank a pint, wrestled with websites and wifi neither of which worked and, nearly crying with frustration, I finally gave up. Poor reception, lousy wifi and deep tiredness make a dismal cocktail. I resorted to just heading for Bristol and hoping I'd pass a Travel Lodge or something similar. I passed the airport, then cruised a lovely downhill stretch. I felt like the Grand old Duke of York, 10 miles up then 10 miles down again. In no time at all I was in Bristol. Big roads and flyovers and all so strange despite having lived here for 10 years in my youth. I found myself lost in the town centre at about 5 o’clock. I was getting wobbly and had a silly trip and then fell over the kerb while waiting at some traffic lights. How can you fall when stationary with one foot on the ground? Sore hips and bent pride convinced me to stop right away. Not a yard more.
Back through the traffic, got lost again, recovered with google maps and finally found my flower pot. I carried the bike into the house before anyone saw. “Take the first room on your right, the key is in the door”. So it was and I collapsed, full of gratitude. It was an un-manned guest house with an absentee landlord, basic but efficient. Shared bathroom but with no one else about I recovered speedily, showered, changed for dinner and was off in my shorts and sandals to the Indian in the pouring rain. The Indian restaurant was a lovely place with painted panelled walls probably unchanged since the 1930s. It felt as if I was transported to sometime between the wars and somewhere mysterious between Bradford and Bengal. I was charmed. They were kind and attentive. I ordered a vegetable biryani, chapatis and water, there was no license. The portion was so vast I couldn't eat it all. But so good to feel so full. I splashed my way back through the puddles and off to bed. Lovely to have the bike in the room, easy to pack and unpack. I hope it left no drips. Slept long and well. I’d done about 110 miles.
Day Three started with a self-service breakfast. Caffeine free again this time. It had stopped raining and I had a pleasant chat over breakfast with a nice single lady who had just retired and was moving from Lancashire to Bristol because it was a "nice town". She was looking for a flat, had no family and was too busy to own a telly. She had that ernest enthusiasm of the independent older lady and talked about her birdwatching and music. Timelessly British, bright as a button it was if she’d stepped out of A Room with a View. I packed up and was off through Bristol town centre with memories a-plenty, from the stinky Bristol Royal Infirmary where I crunched on cockroaches in the cellar passages at night as a medical student, to the pretty SS Great Britain. And of wild times living on the shabby old Gloucester Road. I could easily have tarried but instead rode on out through Filton back on the A38 chasing commuters. I was very glad of the cycle lanes, though they were far from perfect. The road surface was bad and the traffic worse. Towards the north of the city the congestion became terrible. Then the traffic was static. Gridlocked. Pouring out fumes and eerily still. There were times where the cycle lanes ended and it was hard work, having to weave in and out, mile after mile. The standard smug cyclist mantra of “serves you right, you complacent motorised fools” sustained me for a bit but eventually began to wear thin. There had obviously been a major incident somewhere further up the road. I was now probably 5 miles from Bristol having cycled past stationary traffic probably for four of those. I went past the M4, well north of Bristol and still the traffic was all stationary. Eventually I met a lady cyclist who told me there had been a major accident on the M5 to the north diverting onto the A38. "It will ease". But it didn't! It felt like 20 miles of gridlock, and though it probably wasn't quite so much, it was remarkable. I went on weaving in and out, passing her regularly and then catching up for a mini chat at traffic lights. She advised me to "go down" onto the minor roads near Berkeley and the Severn Estuary but I remembered looking at the map and thinking that, though quieter, it would be much further so I stayed on the main road. The lady cyclist turned off West eventually and I continued north. Then, thank goodness, the queue suddenly disappeared. What a joy. I must have passed one of the junctions onto the motorway and I was surrounded by empty tarmac and rolling hills north towards Gloucester. Lovely open views, a wide road and hardly any traffic made for fine cycling and I stretched the legs at last.
I stopped for my mid morning break at the only resting place for miles, a grotty petrol station with a tiny shop. But the owner was pleasant and let me use the loo and I sat in the sun and warmed up after the cool wind of the early morning. The wind was changing from west to north-west so I was working harder as it turned to face me. But I soldiered on steadily, getting near to Gloucester and braving a horrible dual carriage-way skirting the city. Eventually I found myself in a pedestrian precinct by the cathedral. I had a good long break and a well earned doze in a nearly empty cafe with two women serving and talking. And talking and talking, ten to the dozen. I learned all their details. All their overnight conversations with husbands and children. And I ate and dozed and then route-planned.
On north to Tewkesbury. What a pretty place! I'm not sure I remember ever having been there before but it has a beautiful half timbered High Street by the Abbey with a delightful sign saying "We Touch Souls”. That could be an art institution’s mission statement. I felt I must come back here with Lavinia and stay at some old hotel and eat beef and walk in the water meadows. It was a treat to ride through. I still had some strength so didn’t stop and ploughed on north towards Worcester. And ploughed into another massive rainstorm. I soldiered on, getting wetter and wetter and more and more miserable. I had a pathetic try at sheltering under a tree but it was no dryer than the road so peddled on through the downpour and puddles. I eventually stopped in a very welcome wooden bus shelter, smelling of creosote and with a bench just right for a soaked cyclist to lie on. I dripped and waited for the rain to pass, feeling very happy for some reason...
Worcester had a pleasant city centre and I stopped again in a pedestrian precinct at a bright modern cafe and propped myself up on a barstool to drink a milk-shake and eat Panini. I think I tried to sleep but its difficult balanced on a stool. Then I was back to the internet to find somewhere to spend the night. How far could my legs push me? Beyond Birmingham? I agonised. Knowing I had to make a decision before getting too tired, I eventually decided that if I gave myself a goal I might just make it, however hard. I had now mastered the booking.com app and I took a room at The Cathedral Guesthouse in Litchfield. This was on the brave side. 15 miles north of Birmingham would take me further today than I had managed on either of my two previous days. But having made my decision and with only limited daylight, I set off feeling good. After Bromsgrove I took what had looked on the map like a minor road along a clever shortcut avoiding a big dual carriageway and getting me into Birmingham through a village called Lickey. But, oh dear... schoolboy error. Lickey, it transpires, is a famous hill. I found myself climbing and climbing. I stopped at a little Tesco half way up, had bananas and milk. Back on the bike and on further up and then further up again, it was impossible! Was this Ben Nevis? But eventually I got to the top of lousy Lickey Hill and I realised that it was a big deal. A major local landmark. Posh signposts. The silver lining was the descent. I shot down into Birmingham, cruising along good roads with generous cycle lanes. I had planned to stop in the town for a rest but just couldn't. I felt unstoppable. The roads were fast and the cycle routes remarkable. I went right past the University and then the Bournville Chocolate factory and found myself shooting on through all those ugly tunnels that go right underneath the city centre. I don't know if you're allowed to ride a bike there but I did. It was eerie but incredibly fast and satisfying. At some point I felt a bit like Princess Diana being chased by the paparazzi but unlike her I survived and eventually emerged on the northern side of the city centre, looking out for the road North to Litchfield. Sadly my brain had gone by this time. I missed it and went too far to the east. I stopped, looked at the map and came back towards Sutton Coldfield seeking my chosen cycle-friendly road. There is something bleak about riding through the twilight in the purgatory of an industrial area on the edge of a big city. Trying to find a route where the street signs are all designed for long-distance motorised travellers. There's nothing friendly for a pedestrian, cyclist or anybody real. Again I asked a lone sad-looking soul on the pavement for directions but he seemed to have no idea of how to get to Sutton Coldfield, only a few miles away. So I trusted to my nose, intuition and Google and eventually found my way. By now, yet again, I was over-tired and hungry. You’d have thought that major roads through major cities would have a choice of eatery for a weary cyclist to stop but the only place I could find was Kentucky Fried Chicken, not ideal for a vegan. Bless them, they had a veggie option which I devoured whilst craning over a barrier to check that the bike was OK. It was secured to a lamp-post using only my tiny lock, almost out of view and surrounded by idle Brummie youth. They were probably as innocent as they looked threatening. I phoned the guest house in Litchfield and was relieved to hear that it didn't matter how late I arrived. So, feeling reassured and with my belly full, I set off into the dark. I knew the lights on the bike were not brilliant. But when the street lamps finished I found out just how poor they were. I stopped twice to adjust them and was fairly terrified with tiredness and traffic through the unlit stretches. But it's amazing what you can get used to and I survived, somewhere between the oncoming headlamps and the ditch. I crossed the M42 at about 8 o'clock and after multiple seemingly senseless roundabouts reached the guest house at about 8.30. It was a substantial place, sadly nowhere near the Cathedral, but friendly enough. The porter to put my bike in a storeroom.
Day 4. In my pre-ride fantasy, easily managing 130 miles a day, day four would not have been needed. In real life it was all too necessary but at least it was a more straightforward. I had done this route before. There were places I had rested in the sun or sheltered from the rain and pubs I visited on previous rides. And anyway it wasn’t that far.
So I had a bit of a lie in and then a fine breakfast in my cycling gear surrounded by com- mercial traveller types. It was raining on and off with a fickle wind, mostly to the side. I was feeling tired from the off and any headwind felt an assault. The A515 goes directly north from Litchfield through fertile rolling country and lovely villages with nice names like Kings Bromley and Yoxall. It takes one to the A50, a big dual carriageway running east-west which I had previously skirted on a little road. This time, feeling tired, I braved the heavy traffic. I was on this road for a mile or so to the Ashbourne turn off and again I was struck with the heaviness of the heavy lorries. These north country trucks seemed bigger, dirtier and generally more awful than their west country equivalents. I had my recurring feeling an Orwellian all-powerful system, filling these trucks with things that no one needs and shoot- ing them about the country as a weapon to kill off imagination. And cyclists. Thankfully it was a short nightmare and I was soon on the pretty road taking me north into the Peak District. I needed to stop but yet again there was no eatery and I contented myself with another generous bus shelter. This must have been about 15 miles into the ride and I ate my stock of bananas and Snicker bars and drink my plain wet water. At least a rural bus shelter is private. You can lie down, close your eyes and keep an eye on your bike all at the same time. If you get my meening. This shelter had the luxury of being a little off the road and out of view of any houses. I was refreshed.
No hurry now. I knew every step of the way home so crawled on north through Calver, dodging showers of rain and was soon on the familiar slope up past Froggatt. Oh dear, I had a strange noise. Was it the pedal or was it the wheel? It was my first mechanical problem and was getting quite worrying, bad in low gears and worse under power. It went off a bit when I back-pedalled but was getting louder. I stopped and fiddled but was too tired to diagnose at the roadside and soldiered on. Despite the noise it was good to pass the Grouse Inn and get over the top. Downhill all the way from here, the noise when off on the descent and I was home for 3 o'clock. I think I could happily say I took just three and a half days to cover the 385 miles. Anyway I was too tired to care. I had just enough time to wash and tidy up before Lavinia came home. And to practice pretending that I felt almost normal.
So, what thoughts abide? Top of the list has to be those trucks. Roaring past, pushing up behind waiting to pass. Ugly and threatening. And the mindless consumerism driving them to move things from one place to another to enable senseless silly comforts. Fragile cyclist surrounded by fast moving monsters. Then there’s the weather... Once out in it, even heavy rain and ruthless head-winds make one feel more alive than uncomfortable, “...the terrors of the storm are confined to the parlour.” And then it’s so lovely when the rain stops and the sun warms. Especially if the traffic eases too. And such a blessing to feel you've managed the day and you're still alive. And the joy of eating! And the paradise of bed at the end of the day. Life lives itself in contrasts. Paradoxes, juxtapositions and surprises make us and cycling delivers them in bucket loads. The lovely vulnerability of being a hu- man out in the open. Being on the road, one minute silent and roaring the next. Travelling through different landscapes and then cityscapes is a joy. The soft Cornish and the harder Derbyshire hills, the rich arable country, old towns then big cities all unfolding hour by hour. The people I met were a delight, few but mostly kind. Encouraging and helpful even though I was smelly and horrid to behold. And the joys of meeting a challenge. That amazement that even though you have felt quite exhausted and unable to continue, you do keep going. That at the end of the day one can rest and then the next day be off again, travelling even further than the day before. That the last few miles are not much slower than the first. That the aches pass. And the pains ease. That cycling 385 miles at the age of 65 with minimal preparation is both possible and delightful. Next time I’ll take a tent.