Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Lejog preparation

Pete Maxted and myself have been good friends and occasional cycling companions for more than forty years. I had long harboured an ambition to ride the end-to-end but parenthood and work commitments had made finding the time difficult. I had promised myself I would do it before I was forty, then before I was fifty, then before I was sixty. All promises un-met.

Leaning on the bar at the 2013 Womad festival, having got the right side of several excellent pints of Bath Ales summer hare, I said to Pete: “do you fancy doing the end-to-end”. He said yes immediately, almost certainly not knowing what he was getting himself into, and so we were pretty much committed.

The end-to-end is an iconic cycle ride. Lands End and John o'Groats are the two inhabited places which are furthest apart on this island. They are not, I was disappointed to discover when I got right to the top of Scotland, the most southerly and the most northerly bits – that would be Lizard Point and Dunnet Head. That's one to think about for the future.

People have been cycling the end-to-end from almost the day the bicycle was invented. Hundreds of people do it every year now – some of them rather quickly. The official record for a conventional bicycle is 44 hours, 4 minutes and 20 seconds, set by Gethin Butler in 2001. A recumbant is even faster – Andy Wilkinson did it in 41 hours, 4 minutes and 22 seconds. Some mad man even did it on a unicycle in 6 days, 8 hours and 43 minutes.

Phew! We anticipated taking at least two weeks.

I have a bit of form for making rash decisions about cycling under the influence of bitter beer. My friend Nigel and I drink regularly in the excellent Compton Arms in Islington. One night after several pints of Green King IPA, probably followed by a couple of whiskys, and full of the joys of having just watched the Tour De France race up Mount Ventoux in Provence, Nigel said: "We should do that". "Fantashtic", I slurred. "You arrange it".

Next thing I knew it was booked and we were committed to hauling our frames up 1,912 m of the hardest climb professional cyclists ever face. We did it, and we loved it and it gave me confidence that the end-to-end was possible.

So having persuaded a rather pie-eyed Pete that Lands End to John o'Groats would be a great boys' own adventure, the next decision was what time of year? For both of us early Summer was a busy work time and for me high Summer involved family holidays and, of course, the regular visit to Womad. So we plumped for September, hoping that we would hit one of those late Summer/early Autumn periods of dry and warm weather.

The next challenge was getting the time off work. We calculated that we should allow three weeks – working on the basis of fourteen days cycling plus a couple of rest days. Add in my time to travel down to Falmouth where Pete lives and a couple of days for the very long trip back, especially for Pete who needed more than 24 hours to get from the north of Scotland to Cornwall. That is a lot of time out of my meagre 29 days annual leave from my job at actros' union Equity, but my boss was really supportive. She liked the idea of me slogging up the length of the country and was willing for me to stretch my leave by a little bit to make it possible.

Pete's two employers, the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and Falmouth Age Concern, were equally supportive – the second might have been swayed by Pete choosing them as one of the charities he would collect for.

Once the time off work was booked we were left with little choice – we had to do it or lose face with colleagues and friends alike. Added to that, I had already started collecting sponsorship for my favourite charity Practical Action.

I have been a supporter, on and off, for nearly 30 years – from the days when they had the more impressive but perhaps less snappy name of the Intermediate Technology Development Group. They operate on the wonderful philosophy that international support must be based on decisions made by the people you are supporting, not by someone sitting in an office in London, or Paris, or New York. In addition they develop technology that can be controlled by the people who use it. What use is a donated tractor if when it breaks down there is no way of fixing it?

This is where bikes come in. They are the product of heavy industry and high technology, but can be kept road worthy with simple tools and minimum spares.

And bikes have played a big part in ITDG fund-raising. Back in the mid-eighties Nicholas Crane, now well-known as a presenter of the BBC's Coast programme, and his cousin Richard Crane raised money for ITDG by cycling to the centre of the earth - not the Jules Verne way but to the place on dry land which is furthest from any coast. They calculated that to be in a desert in the North West of China and they got there by cycling over the Himalayas and through Tibet carrying no food with them but relying entirely on local hospitality.

The end-to-end pales besides such a super-human feat, but I was still nervous about whether I was fit enough to make it the length of the Britsh Isles.

The commonest question I was asked in advance of the trip was: “Are you training?”. Sort of, was the only appropriate answer. I cycle every day from Stoke Newington to Covent Garden and back – a round trip of only 12 miles but enough to stay reasonable bicycle fit. Pete cycled less often, but when he did it was over the Cornish hills.

I did fairly regular Sunday morning runs of 40 to 50 miles, perhaps half-a-dozen over the Spring and Summer, and Pete and I met up in Somerset for a lovely 80 mile circuit of the levels – over the Quantocks from Stogursey to Taunton, across to Martock and then up to Glastonbury. Back along National Cycle Route 3 to Bridgwater and home. It was a fairly easy ride, but good to get the equivalent of a full day’s end-to-end riding under our wheels before setting off.

For about six months we had seemingly endless exchanges about equipment. What to wear? How many changes of clothes? Only cycling gear or some ordinary clothes for the evening? What spares? Brakes and gear cables and new inner tubes of course, but what about spare spokes? Could I change a spoke on the road if one broke?

This is what I took. Pete had pretty much the same. We were carrying about 7K each on the bikes.

multi tool
chamois cream
cycling shirts x 2
tyre leavers
asthma inhaler
Cicerone guide
cycling shorts x 2
puncture repair kit
long-sleeved top
adjustable spanner
kamilisan ointment
waterproof jacket
inner tube
tooth brush
quick drying socks x 4
brake cable
tooth paste
phone charger
underwear x 2
gear cable
fingerless gloves
spare spokes x 4
full gloves
bottles x 2
knee bandage
Canestan spray
cycling shoes
leg warmers
cable ties
clothes pegs
electrolyte tablets
energy gel
midge net
lip salve
wet wipes
nail clippers
sewing kit

Pete agreed to take care of booking accomodation – mostly youth hostels, which to my surprise are willing to take in pensioners like us – and I took on booking ourselves and our bikes on onto the train back to London.

I had a look at and I discovered three interesting things: firstly that it takes thirteen hours to get from the north coast of Scotland to London by train, secondly that it costs £171 each and thirdly that has no way of booking a bike ticket. I decided to call ScotRail, the company responsible for the first two trains of the journey -Thurso to Inverness and then Inverness to Edinburgh - and spoke to a delightful man who was clearly rather engaged with the idea of two blokes in their 60s, having cycled the length of the country, needing tickets home. He hummed and hawed a bit, asked me if I minded what trains we got on and eventually announced, with some pride: "I can do it for £56.40 - that's for the two of you and your bikes." Goodness knows how he did it.

Both bikes were serviced in advance. My Thorn Club Tour needed new cranks, as one pedal had jammed and could not be removed, and a new seat post which had rusted into the frame. Pete’s venerable Colnago needed a bit more work so by the time we started we both felt reasonably confident that our bikes were fit enough to make it. We were less confident about our own abilities, but we kept that to ourselves until well into the trip.

On 6 September 2014 my partner Hilary drove me, my bike and my kit to Paddington. I felt like everybody was more confident that I was that I would get all the way to John o’Groats.

In Pete’s local in Falmouth I got talking to a mate of his who had done the end-to-end a couple of years before. His advice – take plastic bags so that when you have day-long rain you can stop the water getting into your shoes – felt useful but depressing. He also claimed to have eaten two Snickers bars every day and still came back lighter.


Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Sunday 7 September: day one – Lands End to Tehaida Farm, Boddinick

68 miles. 7:01 hours of cycling. Average speed 9.3mph. Maximum speed 33mph. 

Pete’s wife Anne drove us at break-neck speed through the Cornish lanes with the bikes slung on the back of the car. I anxiously looked at the sky which was overcast but dry. My mother’s friends from Stogursey, Evan and Fran, took a break from their holiday in Newlyn to come and see us off. We got our books stamped at the hotel reception, put our names in the LEJOG challenge book and set off – the only ones leaving at that time. The first pedal turn was at 9.20. 

It felt wonderful to be on our way even though we immediately hit a fresh north easterly which was straight into our faces and chilly enough to need a jacket. We followed the A30 – a lovely, rolling road with very little traffic – until the Newlyn turn where we dropped down into the village and rode along the sea front towards Marazion.

One of my great uncles had trawlers at Newlyn and another had boats at Grimsby while my Grandfather sold the fish in Banbury. Arthur Brown and Company is still remembered in Newlyn.

We used the cycle path which was sign-posted from Penzanze station, but the surface is so awful that just over half way along, and when there is little choice but to continue, you get a sign advising cyclist to dismount! 

After Marazion we got out of the wind and the sun broke through making it warm enough to cycle in tops only.

Cornwall is hard riding. There is very little flat land and along the south coast you are constantly riding down into steep river valleys and back up again. It took until 2.00pm to get to Trelissick, where Anne and some friends were waiting with a picnic hamper. I felt good. 

Trelissick is in the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which Pete worked for.
The house dates back to 1750 and its most distinguished owner was Leonard Cunliffe, a former director of the bank of England, but Trellissick is more fanous for its gardens created in the 1930's by Cunliffe's stepdaughter Ida and her husband Ronald Copeland.

After lunch we went on the first ferry crossing of the day - King Harry's - which has a fearsome climb up the valley edge on the other side. As we headed towards St Austell I started to struggle with the endless hills and it took til nearly 7.00 to reach the Boddinick ferry at Fowey. We had booked a farm house B&B just the other side of the river at Whitecross. 

After another xetremely steep climb out of the river valley, a wrong turn down a sharp downhill that we had to come up again and a loss of confidence about directions we got to Trehaida Farm just after 7.00 to be met by the lovely Anne – a veteran of providing shelter and sustenance to end-to-enders. We had everything we needed, it was very comfortable, and Anne took pity on us and drove us the mile back to Boddinnick to the pub. We simply could not face that climb for a second time.

After getting the right side of fish and chips and a couple of pints of Sharpe’s beer (Cornwall’s finest) in the Old Ferry Inn - a wonderful pub - the world seemed a marvellous place. Anne arrived and drove us back to the farm refusing the offer of a drink as she had, she said, never in her life touched alcohol.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Monday 8 September: day two – Tehaida Farm to Mortenhampstead

62.3 miles. 6:41 hours of cycling. Average speed 9.3mph. 

After a terrific farmhouse breakfast we set off at 9.00 towards Looe. I had carefully marked our route on pages from a 1:200,000 truckers' road atlas and then, one-by-one, put them into the clear plastic map case on top of  my bar bag. I had about 30 pieces of paper in all, each one back-to-back to save weight. I had toyed with the idea of a sat nav, but I love being able to track my progress on a map. My Dad taught me how to read maps and we spent many hours on our hands and knees on the floor pouring over them, particularly of the Quantocks where I grew up. Maps still fascinate me and the way that they give you such detailed information about the land you are travelling over feels like a kind of magic. 

Changing the map in the clear plastic case became a really important ritual for me and gave a tangible sense of distance travelled.

But then we got lost! I missed a turning and instead of staying on the higher road we dropped down into Crumplehorn which sits in yet another steep Cornish river valley. Apparently, Crumplehorn means Maelhoern's farm in old Cornish. It is just up from Polperro and benefits from the tourists (emetts in contemporary Cornish) parking in Crumplehorn and then walking down to Polperro.

We hauled ourselves out of the village up yet another virtical river valley edge and down into Looe with an equally stiff climb out. But then came some lovely rolling countryside towards Torpoint. The weather was properly hot by this stage and we had a very welcome rest waiting for the ferry across the Tamar. 

Plymouth is not too bad a city to cycle across and we picked up National Cycle Route 27 which took us up along the bank of the Plym towards Yelverton. This is highly recommended – and I write this as someone who is not a fan of cycle lanes; by-and-large I find them too slow and fiddly. But the alternative to the Plym cyle lane is the truly horrible A386. All accounts of it paint a picture of a cyclist’s nightmare – not enough space and too many trucks. 

Pete and I had cycled together over Dartmoor  about 25 years earlier. I remember it as being very tough and I was expecting the worst. But in fact it was pretty good. I had to get off and push a couple of times but once you get past Postbridge, which is not only the highest point on Dartmoor but the highest of the whole route from Lands End to John o’Groats, the road rolls nicely. 

On our Somerset levels trip Pete and I had discovered that we ride at very different speeds. I go faster, but stop more often, Pete goes more slowly but just ploughs on. We had agreed that there was little point in trying to cycle together so I was pretty much always in the lead but rarely more than a mile ahead of Pete. I was feeling pleased about how my body was responding. I had been worried about knackered knees and aching shoulders – both problems in the past – but needn’t have done. I do suffer from cramp in my toes when cycling and had gone to see Vishal Madhani at West End Physiotherapy for advice. He checked my cycling shoes and suggested trying not to scrunch my toes and paying more deliberate attention to how my feet were feeling. I was trying all this, but was still getting the cramps. During my session with Vishal he asked about hydration – which ordinary people call drinking water. I had said that I drank plenty, but what I found in the ride is that if I drank much more than my body told me it needed the toe cramp was more manageable. I started drinking a whole bidon every hour with electrolyte tablets in every other one. This really helped. The cramps did not go away but when they came I knew that if I drank a lot straight away they would ease. The downside is that I had to stop very frequently to relieve myself. 

Princetown is a very bleak place. No surprise that they decided to put a prison there. If you escaped where would you go, other than back into the relative comfort of the prison? It reminded me of my farther, who spent three and a half years in various German prison camps and made several escape attempts, during one of which he got so lost and despondent that he went back and presented himself at the front gate. 
There is a very fast drop from Princetown to Mortenhamstead. I was ahead of Pete by about 15 minutes and managed to get a signal to call my partner Hilary who was plotting our progress on a map at home.

Sparrowhawk backpacker is a good place to stay. Right in the middle of Mortenhampstead, comfortable, with lots of bread, jam and tea for breakfast. 

We had our dinner in the White Hart. Pete said his knees had started to hurt. He has a very particular riding style – big gears pushed round slowly – which contrasts with mine of trying to keep a very high cadence. I suggested that this style might be hard on his knees over such big distances.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Tuesday 9 September: day three – Mortenhampstead to Glastonbury

74 miles. 6:42 hours of cycling. Average speed 10.2mph. 

We helped ourselves to large quantities of bread, jam and tea in the Sparrowhawk kitchen and set off at about 8.20. Steep climbing straight away then a very nice rolling drop into Exeter where in warm sunshine we had coffee and croissants in the cathedral close. 

The climb on to the Blackdowns was very hard (I walked a bit of it) but to my surprise the hills were completely flat on the top – absolutely lovely cycling.
We dropped down to Corfe hoping to get lunch in the pub but were too late. We pressed on and eventually had a very poor lunch at the Nags Head Tavern overlooking the A358, the dual carriageway which links the A303 with the M5. 

We had to travel about 400 yards along the A358 and decided that we would not try to mix it with artics going at 60mph so we walked the grass verge as far as the Langport road. 

The ride through Langport to Glastonbury ought to have been completely flat given that it is on the levels but there were a few surprisingly hard climbs. 

We arrived at Glastonbury at about 7.00 and checked in to the Glastonbury Backpackers at the Crown Hotel. This is not a good place. Loud rock and roll in the bar, drunken landlord, not as clean as it should be and very cramped. We shared a tiny room with two Canadians of about the same age as us, one of whom stayed in bed for the entire time and was either suffering from too much travel or was stoned or both. He was certainly very spaced out. 

We had an unexciting curry for supper.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Wednesday 10 September: day four – Glastonbury to St Briavels

62.6 miles. 7:05 hours of cycling. Average speed 8.8mph. 

We got out of Glastonbury as quickly as possible in the morning and headed off across the levels to Wells. We found a completely straight single-track road along the side of a rhyne and pedalled off towards a bank of mist rising off the ground. Perhaps to most beautiful sight of the whole journey. 

We wandered round the centre of wells and lost each other for about half-an-hour before finding a cafe that provided a terrific cooked breakfast. 

Pete's Achilles had started to hurt. I know how painful that can be. About 20 years ago I cycled with Pete and my friend Ben from Lands End to Lostwithiel during which my Achilles swelled up so much I could not complete the ride. It took me several months to recover enough to get back on my bike.  

The climb up on to the Mendips was hard and we missed an important turning which meant we went further along the A39 towards Midsomer Norton than we should have done, but once we were on the top they were flat – just like the Blackdowns. Truly lovely cycling and we felt like the hard stuff – endless Cornish and Devonish river valleys – was really behind us. 

We dropped very fast towards Chew Valley and then worked our way across Ashton Park towards Bristol. We rode along the Avon gorge cycle path, which notwithstanding the heavy traffic was good cycling. I used to live in Clifton and Pete grew up in Bristol and went to Clifton College so we both felt at home. It is impossible not to feel excited by cycling under the Clifton suspension bridge. 

We carried on through Carhampton, very close to where Hilary’s daughter Ellie’s Dad used to live, and into Avonmouth. We stopped for drinks and food at a supermarket before starting the ride along the Severn estuary. 

The ride from Avonmouth to the Severn bridge was truly awful. There were a few cycle paths, which helped, but it was endless articulated lorries – often just a foot or two away. Nothing before or after matched its horribleness. 

As we were cycling through the Avon gorge and towards the bridge we kept passing, and then being passed by, a woman cycling on her own on a laden bike. At the approach to the bridge we got talking and discovered she was doing the end-to-end in a month on her own.  

The Severn Bridge is an amazing structure. It opened in 1966 when Pete was a schoolboy in Bristol. He and a friend cycled up to the bridge for its opening and were the first cyclists to cross it. 10 September 2014 was his first time across on a bike since then. 

I didn’t like crossing the bridge. It rattles with the traffic and sways with the wind and I felt quite vulnerable. I was also really suffering from cramp and had to stop at the western end to take of my shoes and socks and massage my toes. 

We slogged up through Chepstow to St Arval and then had an amazing descent to Tintern that went on and on and on. We knew we must have cycled all those feet up because we started at sea level and ended above sea level, but the descent was so long it was hard to believe. We reached Tintern in lovely early evening sunlight. 

We were heading for St Briavel YHA, which we discovered was a two mile climb up the edge of the valley. Quite a bit of walking went on. The hostel is in a castle and after the horrors of Glastonbury it was very welcome. The people running it were lovely and they served a brilliant breakfast – what more could you want. 

We had a whole bunk room to ourselves. We were in the guard room next to the hanging room. I understand it is so called because they hung their clothes there – not anything else! The bunk room had radiators and lots of places to dry newly washed cycling gear.  

We ate in the lovely George Inn and drank our, by now, regulation two pints each.