Last night I had a stopover with an extraordinary couple in an extraordinary location. Ed and Anya work from their home, overlooking Lough Mask, for a Falconry association, which means travelling around the world attending, and organising, events. Two days after my stay, they were off to Brussels for three weeks.
Their house is a traditional Connemara cottage, high on the hillside, surrounded by grazing sheep. During supper, I sampled both their homemade elderflower champagne and nettle wine. Surrounded by nature, they were feeding themselves directly with the fruits of the countryside…..and I spied a Richard Mabey book on the table, the late guru of the environment and harvesting the fruits of nature.
My destination this morning was to be Westport, popularly seen as the happiest place to live in Ireland,
but I also wanted to make a nodding acquaintance with Croagh Patrick, the mountain where the legendary St Patrick was supposed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland, and where today people troupe up on pilgrimage in search of indulgences….. reputedly, 25,000 climb it on the last Sunday of July to attend mass and confession on the summit. The logistics of the whole thing are simply mind-boggling, not to mention the provision of refreshments and loos. I mean, the whole event will last about 6 hours, so where do that many people go for a pee (not to mention the other more serious business).
Having had a 62km ride against a very strong NW wind, my own ‘indulgence’ was to finish the day with a 10km tailwind back to Westport. Ed and Anya’s wish that ‘the wind would be ever at my back’ finally came to pass……😊
It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries;
I never hear the west wind but tears are in my eyes.
For it comes from the west lands, the old brown hills.
And April’s in the west wind, and daffodils. John Masefield
Over the last several weeks, anyone who has been out ‘battling the elements’, for whatever reason, will have been treated to the weather fronts persistently coming in from the west. And if, like me, you frequently let the direction of the wind dictate your direction of travel, you may have inevitably decided to head out and face the full flagellation of the wind in the first part of your journey. And the winds of late from the west have been strong……so most of my routes have taken me west, south-west or north-west, in the hope of catching that elusive tailwind for the homeward journey.
However, my trip out to Brixworth, 42km to the west, was pre-ordained, to meet up with a bunch of fellow cyclists for the inevitable coffee and cake. But the outward was gruelling. Heading into a 19-20mph wind, the trip out took me a full 2 hours, but the return was gloriously fast. As we sat in the friendly comfort of a community café run by the Christian Fellowship, we chewed over the fat of matters-cycling, and on the way back, I spied a board advertising lunch in the village church of Chelveston, and enjoyed soup and cakes in a 13th century building, set within a community that is recorded in Domesday in 1086.
Photo by Iain Macaulay
OK, it’s just a picture of my bike by a small spinney…….so what?
Well, for me much more than that…….the spinney is called Salomé Wood, and about 20 years ago I met someone emerging from the spinney pushing a heavily laden bike.
“Hi! Are you OK?” I asked (we roadies tend to make sure fellow travellers are not in a fix…..and if they are, we do what we can to help them).
“Yeh, I’m fine. Just packed up the tent and I’m on my way? One of the nicest little woods I’ve slept in for months”.
“Goin’ far?”, I enquired.
“Oh, just to Vancouver……..”. He left his sentence hanging in the air, waiting for the inevitable follow-up questions…. Of course, I had a battery of questions. You don’t often meet a lone traveller emerging from a wood having spent the night under canvas, and off to the west coast of Canada.
He told me a little of his story. Separating from his wife several years before, he decided to pack it all in, salvage what monies he could from his marriage, and set off on his loaded bike to travel the world. All that he owned in this world was on his bike…….
“So, you decided to come back home for a while? Have you been cycling the UK in the meantime….?”
“No, no…..had to come back to sort out a few issues, and I house-sat for a friend while he was away. He had left his fridge full of food, he had a comfortable house with all the mod-cons, big TV, stereo hifi in every room, jacuzzi in the bathroom…….for the first few days I couldn’t believe my luck. All this comfort and luxury……not used to it”.
“Was it hard pulling yourself away from it?”. Thinking I knew what his answer would be, he caught me off-balance by saying just the opposite.
“No, no, I had to get out of it. After a few days I started getting restless, I didn’t know what to do with myself. I honestly couldn’t handle the easy comforts, the sitting around all day, having no purpose. So I had to come away early and get back on the road”.
I then said something that I later realized was a stupid observation. “So you spend all your time travelling…..moving from one place to another……and all you have is on your bike? That’s an amazing lifestyle” I said.
“Hey, don’t confuse what you are doing with what I am doing. You’re just on a short fun ride for the morning, whereas this is what I do. This is my life. There’s little fun and recreation in this…..it’s a way of life”.
We said our goodbyes, I wished him well on his journey, and I went away and thought long and hard about his final words. Some encounters have a lifelong impact…….
The big ride this year will be the End-to-End of Japan: Cape Sata (in the south) to Cape Soya (in the north). The GoogleMap below is for illustration only, and the journey will be roughly 3000 kms, in the spring and, if timed correctly, I should follow the flowering of the cherry blossom as I move north with the spring. That is the grand plan!
But a BIG REQUEST…….. do you have any contacts in Japan who might be happy to meet me, even offer me a bed for a night? In exchange, perhaps, for an English lesson or merely the opportunity of chatting in English. I could even throw in a ride on my bike…….. 🙂
Let me know. I will be eternally grateful.
Dunnington to Driffield 43 miles
One thing you must understand about the National Cycle Network……it seldom takes the shortest route to a given destination. Why? Well, you could say that cycling between any two points should be about the quality of the experience and not about the speed of arrival…….I know some will say that is a moot point, but SUSTRANS (the charity that creates and maintains these routes) seems to have a clear philosophy…..which is borne out by the indirectness of many of their routes.
Today’s was a case in point. A Googlemap cycle route shows that it should be no more than 28 miles, but the SUSTRANS option takes you off-road and on huge dog’s legs, keeping to minor roads. At one point, Driffield was only 8
miles away (according to a signpost), but 15 miles later, we found ourselves entering the outskirts of the town.
No sooner had we left Dunnington, we found ourselves heading east on Route 66. I think it was no accident that SUSTRANS chose to christen this Route 66: like its more famous sibling it runs east to west (Spurn Head to Manchester), but I am sure it has never been used as an important migratory route in the demographic history of this country. I could be mistaken.
Going through Stamford Bridge made us realise that we have passed a lot of battlefields in the last few days. If King Harrold had not had to rush north in 1066 to stamp down a rebellion led by his brother Tostig, who knows what the outcome of the Battle of Hastings would have been. The history of the last 1000 years of this country could have had a very different complexion. And I know many would say ‘for the worse’…….
As we headed further east, we were reminded that climbing was not just a thing of the Pennines….we had the Yorkshire Wolds to climb over. Not as brutally steep as the Pennines, but there were some long arduous climbs. And as we were recovering from our exertions in a garden centre tearoom, our attention was caught by this mural of the Way of the Roses. We liked it so much we enquired about the availability of paper copies……but no, the mural had cost them £400, but it was just that……a painting on a wall.
When we arrived in Driffield, I was intrigued by the name of our accommodation: Hotel 41. Disappointingly, however, the number simply referred to its door number: 41 Market Square. But you can imagine our further ‘disappointment’ when they informed us our room was being decorated, and would we mind having an upgrade? I do like the dry humour of Yorkshire people.
Pateley Bridge to Boroughbridge 27 miles
Breakfast this morning revealed a group of cyclists who were doing the Way as a supported ride….in other words, they had a sag-wagon carrying their luggage, and a leader arranging café stops and meals in the evening, as well as all the accommodation. We chatted to a lady in the group (riding a small-wheeled Alex Moulton) who was feeling the strain of being over-organised…..which only served to confirm for us that doing these rides independently is the best way. Or in the words of the pessimist: “you make your bed and lie on it”. Well, given that we had just spent 8 hours lying on a super-comfortable bed, it was now time to consume the full English and get back on the road.
So, were the big climbs now behind us? Well……kind of, but not quite. One more remained, over Brimham Rocks, and I knew it well……I had climbed it only two weeks before on my solo, and I knew it was going to be touch-and-go on the tandem. And sure enough it was….so for one final time (?), we dismounted, but this time safe in the knowledge that the rest of the day would be a ‘breeze’…….after all, there would be several miles of descent to the Ouse valley and, of course, we all know that rivers never flow uphill……..
A refreshment stop at Fountains Abbey saw us join a ‘confluence of tandems’, which I craftily inspected while the owners were putting miles back into their legs inside the café. Very nice machines, indeed. Two Santanas and a Thorn…….roughly with a combined value of some £25,000. Yes, we are talking about serious investments here…….not the sort of things you randomly leave outside of cafés without a secure lock. And when the owners emerged to mount their steeds, they all had the air of being life-long thoroughbred tandemists…….there was effortless coordination in their mounting and taking off, and an ease about their style of riding.
We couldn’t pass through Ripon without paying a visit to the Cathedral, and had heard beforehand that it was hosting an exhibition of local artists. I have to say that our attention was captivated as much by the art as by the building…..the two together made for a fascinating hour.
And so to Boroughbridge, close to the scene of the famous battle of 1322 between Edward II and his rebellious barons, and roughly the halfway point of our own ‘battle’ of the Way of the Roses. And the sun was shining……..
Giggleswick to Pateley Bridge 30 miles
To have only one wet day on the entire ride, but for that day to be the biggest climbing day……..where’s the justice in that? We gingerly set foot outside only to be greeted by the dull, grey promise of what was to accompany us for the rest of the day. On went the rain tops,
and the day’s ride was to take us to the highest point of the entire route, 1300 feet, at Greenhow hill (just outside Pateley Bridge). As promised by the local man at the bar, the climb out of Settle was murderous. No way could we ride it on the tandem. Even young fit riders were walking, pushing their solos. But this was just the start of things to come……
The Pennine hills usually have a nasty sting in their tails. Every time you go around a bend, hoping the climb is about to end, you realise it is only a false summit. On one occasion, we were at our limit, slowly grinding our way to the top of a long drag. Around the bend was a suggestion that we were topping out…..but no, the climb uncomprehendingly continued for as far as the eye could see. We had hit our limit……. Jenny (bless her) had a few moments of tears, but quickly recovered, and we hauled the tandem to the top.
And when you look for the payback, the welcome descent after the long climbs, it can be disheartening to discover the drop is just too steep for a laden tandem that relies entirely on two V brakes for its stopping power. The drop down into Pateley Bridge approached 20% at times so, guess what? Instead of throwing caution to the wind and hurtling down into the town, we actually had to walk down much of the descent. Adding insult to injury?
However, the saving grace at the end of the day was to check into the Harefield Hall hotel in Pateley Bridge, discover we had a room with panoramic views over the open countryside and, after a challenging wet day, find we could sit by a blazing log fire and let the warmth of the flames soothe away the aches and pains. And the tandem? We simply wheeled it, over beautiful carpets, into the one of the front lounges of the hotel…….spoil the tandem, spoil the customers.
And tomorrow was to be another day……..
The wanderers have returned. In many ways, this has been an epic journey, especially for Jenny. It is 33 years since she has done a multi-day unsupported tandem ride of this length. Why so long? Well, I’m sure there are a few good stories to tell there, but suffice to say ‘life just got in the way’.
This was not going to be like one of my own solo treks. It was not going to be a mad dash over the Pennines, ‘busting a gut’ to get to Bridlington in two days, by-passing everything of interest on the way. It was calculated to give both of us a good daily work-out, but with time to have relaxing stops for refreshments, pay the odd visit to passing landmarks, and stay comfortably in a B&B at the end of the day. I wanted Jenny to finish this trip with a sense of achievement, but with a smile on her face……… ;0)
We shared the planning: I sorted out the logistics of the ride itself, the projected stopping points, and how to get to and from the start and finish (always a problem with linear routes, especially with a tandem). Jenny sorted out the accommodation which, given that it coincided with the first week of term, should have been easy……but far from it. September is the time for the silver generation to head off on late summer breaks, so there was much competition for just about everything.
Day 1 Morecambe to Giggleswick 37 miles
It was just by chance that we met Gary at the start of the ride. He happened to be one of the volunteer route designers for Sustrans, and he was waiting for a colleague to arrive to confirm a bridge closure on the route. Thanks to him, we set off forewarned of a diversion which could have made a big difference to the projected day’s mileage.
The first ten miles were a delight, following dedicated cycle paths along the River Lune. At the Crook o’Lune, we climbed away from the river and started heading up into Bowland Forest. This was where the serious climbing began, but not before negotiating this odd tunnel that seemed to be designed for a badger run rather than a cycle route
Astonishingly, we managed to climb a 16% hill, but then thought the better of such lung-busting exertion when more such hills presented themselves. There’s no shame in walking. Many solo riders were doing the same. If you have never ridden a tandem, you need to know there is a law of physics which will limit your success at climbing hills but, conversely, that same law will see you descending at break-neck speeds, hurtling down much faster than the average solo rider and, sometimes, much faster than your brakes will safely permit.
And so to Giggleswick, just outside Settle, to the Craven Arms, where they were able to squeeze our tandem into their shed, and provide us with a comfortable room. Chatting to one of the locals in the bar, we were quietly informed of the challenges of the next day’s route. The climb out of Settle, he told us, is difficult even in a car! But more of that in the next post…….
The folks of Kimbolton are so supportive. Several joined us for a blessing for the journey at St Andrew’s Church
and I was joined by a group of local Rotarians for the first 25 miles of the journey……of course, we fitted in an unscheduled coffee stop in St Neots, before the official stop at Bourn…..but then, what do you do if you are running ahead of schedule?
At the Abantu cafe in Bourn, I had to give my dear wife, Jenny, a big hug
….it’ll be 6 weeks before we see other again. Saying goodbye is hard….but meeting up again is much sweeter. She hasn’t (yet) changed the lock on the front door. For that, I am eternally grateful!
I write this 70 miles into my first 100 miles to Harwich, and the blessing worked! The wind has been supportive all day…….
Today has been a day of analysing the minutiae….of making six weeks of personal needs fit into one 23 litre saddlebag and a small handlebar bag, with a small tent pack strapped on the back. I love this kind of challenge.
Every item, and the size and weight of every item, has been studied. There is no room for carelessly packed ‘just-in-case’ things. Everything must have a purpose, be known to be useful and, if possible, be multi-purpose. Some may feel deprived going without some habitual luxuries, or they can’t imagine life on the road without an iPod, a laptop, a soft pillow or a fluffy towel.
For me, not having these things is a form of liberation. A ‘disconnect’ takes place where I find life on the road becomes much simpler: carrying less weight up the hills, packing the bike and luggage for flights, the daily organisation of packing and unpacking when you are camping, fitting my luggage into my one-person tent at night……..and the list goes on and on.
But I have to confess that this strategy can carry some risks. I always feel that I am prepared for most emergencies, but not all, of course. Our level of risk-aversion will frequently dictate how comfortable we feel about leaving things behind. But when asked (as I frequently am) how I can manage for so long with under 10 kilos of luggage (including camping equipment), I usually answer with a quip: “It’s easy really…..I just leave things at home!”
And it is as easy as that……..but only if you take time out to study your actual needs in some detail, and learn through experience. When I come back from a trip, I make two short lists: the first, of the things I wished I had taken, and the second (yes, you’ve got it!) of the things I wished I had left behind. And through a process of adjustment and elimination, my packing goes through evolutionary development.
It will never be perfect, but then we all need something to live for…..
Gerard W Hughes. Kind friends have loaned me their copies of seminal pilgrimage accounts by Gerard Hughes SJ, both of which have harnessed my attention and made me think carefully about the rationale of long-distance journeys to holy places.
In Search of a Way: two journeys of spiritual discovery. Hughes’ pilgrimage walk to Rome, pre-dates our awareness of the re-established Via Francigena. He started out from Weybridge and calculated his own route across the continent, appealing to the charity of parish priests, convents and monasteries for accommodation when circumstances and weather prevented him from camping. Instead of using sabbatical time for higher or further study, Hughes donned his boots, loaded his rucksack and set off on a venture that turned into two journeys: the physical journey of walking to Rome and the inner journey of his mind and heart as he explored the inner mechanisms of the Catholic Church, his own place within that ‘machine’, and how his own Christian beliefs have guided him towards proactivity in the name of peace and justice in the world.
Walk to Jerusalem. His walk to Jerusalem, from his home town of Skelmorlie in Ayrshire, is also a story of two journeys. Alongside the physical challenge of walking through Holland, Germany, Austria, Yugoslavia and Greece and then by boat to Haifa, we follow his inner spiritual journey through life with copious flashbacks that occupy his thinking as he walks the highways and byways.
Neither book is a marketing attempt to sell the idea of long-distance walking. Both books dwell on the inevitable mixture of the highs and lows of the physical effort, the challenges of surviving the elements and meeting with both helpful and uncooperative people. The capsules he describes of each day’s journey are an opportunity to create links with his past, people he has met, places he has worked in and projects he has supported. He takes a critical look at the role of the Church in matters of unassailable importance: peace and justice, nuclear disarmament, the role the Church played in Nazi Germany, its attitude to the role of the laity, to mixed marriages, to ecumenism, and much more.
The long-distance traveller, especially the lone traveller, will spend many hours each day absorbed in thought, and the cadence of the journey (walking, cycling, riding horseback) can be a catalyst to reflection, meditation, planning for the future, and generally getting things in our lives into perspective. Hughes used both journeys to explore his own inner self, and through his ‘mental meanderings’ we gain a privileged insight into who he is and what he stands for.