Not another hill! I was struggling. It had been a very hilly day, and I was climbing yet again. Even in my lowest gear, the wheels barely seemed to be moving. The Yorkshire Dales are stunning, but far from flat.
I was cycling along The Way of the Rose, a coast to coast route from Morecambe on the Irish Sea to Bridlington on the North Sea. The name refers to the famous symbols of the counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, although most of the route is in Yorkshire. More than a year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was ready for a cycling adventure, and the Way of the Roses in three days was ideal. Best of all, it was run by Peak Tours, the company that so impressed me with its Land’s End to John O’Groats tour in 2019. I originally booked for May 2021 but Peak Tours happily transferred me to the June tour when lockdown prevented the original taking place.
I drove up to Morecambe the day before the tour began, and enjoyed walking along the seafront to see the statue of Eric Morecambe, the comedian who with Ernie Wise was one of the best-loved names in British television when I was a child in the Seventies. (He certainly brought us sunshine during the tour, in contrast to torrential rain and flooding in the south.) At dusk, I walking back from dinner with the tour guides and fellow cyclists, I was thrilled to see horses galloping across the sands. It reminded me of legendary 1970s Grand National winner Red Rum, who was famously trained on Southport sands.
It was hard to hold back the tears. Back in 1995, Alison Hargreaves, a mother of two young children, was killed on the descent from K2. Almost 25 years later, her widow took a call from their daughter breaking the dreadful news that son Tom had been killed climbing another mountain not far from K2. It was as if tragedy had become an inheritance.
My emotional moment came as I watched The Last Mountain, a brilliant documentary telling the remarkable story of Alison Hargreaves and her family. The focus is on the lost Alison and Tom. We see them preparing for their expeditions that end in disaster. Tom especially is portrayed as a special talent, a young man who inherited his mother’s love of the world’s high places. We see his dedication, and feel the bitter irony of seeing his ultra-fit frame, knowing that this was the body that succumbed to the brutal elements on Nanga Parbat, Pakistan, in 2019.
What an irony. Thousands travelling to the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow were stranded in London after the two rail lines to Scotland were closed by severe weather. Many took flights instead.
Trains have a vital role to play if we are to tackle the climate crisis. As Clare Foges explained in an excellent column in The Times (Trains are key to getting net zero on track) rail travel creates 14 grams of CO2 emissions per passenger mile compared with 158 grams by car and 285 by plane. Yet Britain’s railways and governments seem to do everything in their power to encourage us to take more polluting forms of transport.
Travelling by train in Britain is eye-wateringly expensive. A Which? survey, quoted by Foges, found that domestic flights are typically half the price of the competing rail ticket, yet six times worse for carbon emissions. I’d love to travel by train more often, but even for one person the cost is punitive. If you’re travelling as a family, you may need to take out a second mortgage. Saving the planet? All the odds are stacked against us. Esoecially as the UK government has just announced a cut in the tax payable on domestic flights, just days before COP26 began. Madness.
I blogged last week about my first bikepacking trip. I loved the freedom that bikepacking gives the touring cyclist. I wrote that it was a contrast to touring with panniers, as I did several times in the 1990s. Here are my nostalgic reflections on those pannier touring days.
There’s something special about cycling off a ferry in the early morning. Especially when the port is Roscoff, a small town that makes a perfect landfall in France.
My friend Richard and I had enjoyed a successful 325 mile tour of England’s West Country in 1995, and decided to cross the channel the following year. Brittany was calling, and we followed a tour featured in the book of the BBC series of Fat Man in France, which recounts Tom Vernon cycling across the region.
Getting to the ferry in Plymouth was an unexpected challenge. We took the train from lovely Kemble station in Gloucestershire, changing in Gloucester. But a landslip in the wonderfully named Mutley tunnel outside Plymouth led to a long delay. One anxious passenger, late for a flight to the isles of Scilly, climbed out of the train window and ran down the embankment! Fortunately the line reopened and we had time to enjoy a meal in the historic city before boarding the overnight ferry.
This week, I became a bikepacker. I’d been intrigued by the idea of bikepacking – the lovechild of a union between cycle touring and backpacking.
I’d been dreaming about this adventure for ages. I’d read about bikepacking and loved the idea of a self-sufficient mini camping tour. Think of it as a modest mid life crisis – a chance to live a different life for under 24 hours. Last spring, I started buying bikepacking kit, including a small tent, stove and sleeping bag. Originally I planned a trip with my son Owen, 13, to the campsite at Cookham Lock on the Thames (see Jack Thurston’s original Lost Lanes, Southern England, book) but that has been closed for months. So I took the plunge with a prompt from Komoot’s #RideCampRide campaign.
This was my first trip with a laden bike for over eight years. I was impressed by the way my Apidura bikepacking bags didn’t affect the bike’s handling at all. While the bike was obviously much heavier, it was only when I got out of the saddle for extra oomph that I had a reminder that I needed to ride differently. It was nice to forget average speeds and simply enjoy the journey.
For 10 years, I’ve looked admiringly at the surfers cresting the Atlantic waves at Mawgan Porth on our regular Cornish holidays. Watching the groups led by KingSurf surf school heading down the beach, I though I’d love to do that, but feared that at my age I’d only embarrass myself by trying.
Last week, I put my doubts aside and gave it a go. 13 year old Owen and I had two lessons with KingSurf and loved it. We did better on the first lesson, as there were more waves and we had more practice. On the second lesson, we had the benefit of a particularly good instructor, seen in the yellow top below. He noticed that I was instinctively putting my wrong leg forward – something I hadn’t even noticed. Had we had better surf, I think I’d have made more progress. (During the first lesson, I stood up several times – something I never thought I’d manage.)
The news that Dawes has axed its famous Galaxy touring bike made me sad and nostalgic. My first cycling adventures featured the Dawes Super Galaxy seen in the photo above: my first weekend tour, my first week long cycling holiday and my debut century, all in a two year period in the 1990s.
I described my affection for the bike in a blogpost about my favourite bikes 12 years ago. Over 30 years ago Richard Ballantine dubbed the Galaxy a classic touring bike – a tribute to its longevity. I found it outstandingly reliable: in the five years I owned it, I didn’t get a single puncture or mechanical failure. It carried four laden panniers with ease – and the low gears meant I was able to climb all but the toughest west country hill on a nine day tour in 1995.
I will always have a soft spot for the traditional touring bike. My decision to buy one (a Peugeot Camargue) in 1989 was the start of my passion for cycling. I’d never had a good bike as a child and so my first ‘proper’ bike was a revelation. I started commuting from Teddington to Holborn on it. I found cycling up hills needn’t be purgatory. A couple of years later, I upgraded to the Super Galaxy.
I will never forget the pleasure of riding the Galaxy down the seven mile swoop to Talybont on Usk on Easter Saturday 1994. My friend Richard and I had found the Taff Trail from Cardiff to Merthyr Tydfil surprisingly easy (thanks to the easy inclines of the old railways it followed). The climb over the Brecon Beacons was another story and we were relieved to freewheel towards our destination at Talybont. (Although we arrived in a blizzard!) My father was kind enough to bring us and our bikes back to Cardiff the next day.
My greatest adventure on the Galaxy was that nine day tour of the west country. I’d plotted the route one January night, dreaming of warmer times, with OS maps spread out across my living room floor. The first day was a summer deluge, but it was the exception and as the tour unfolded a heatwave arrived. On the last day, we watched the Red Arrows against a perfect blue sky over the M4 near Chippenham.
I sold the bike a year later, but still kept faith with touring bikes, notably the Raleigh Randonneur, on which I completed my first Land’s End to John O’Groats ride in 2002 and my final pannier-laden tour, from Cardiff to Bucks, in 2013.
Since then, my touring has been on light road bikes, with companies like Peak Tours carrying my overnight luggage. It has meant faster riding. Many cyclists have made the same switch from the traditional touring bike, while others have gone straight to gravel bikes and bikepacking – carrying their stuff in bags that fix straight to the frame rather than panniers fixed to racks. Our individual decisions have played a big part in the demise of the classic touring bike represented by the Dawes Galaxy. I don’t regret my switch, but I will always look back with affection to the bikes that started my love of cycling.
Who knows, maybe one day I will take the Randonneur back on the road for a nostalgic tribute to the glory days of the classic British tourer.
So that was 2020. A year like no other in the past century. We now know the havoc a pandemic can cause – much as my grandparents did a century ago with the so-called Spanish flu. (Sadly, my grandfather’s twin brother died in that pandemic, having survived the Great War trenches.)
Our lives have been utterly changed. We can’t meet our friends. We have to wear a mask when buying a loaf of bread. Christmas may not have been cancelled, but it wasn’t the sociable highlight of the year we’ve known all our lives.
My lifeline, apart from family and the ability to work from home, has been my bike. Or trike. Getting into the saddle has been a joy in this joyless year. In those early lockdown weeks, in the most wondrous spring in living memory, I celebrated the empty roads and vibrant nature – whether the April blossom or the magnificent red kites overhead. I blogged about those magical spring days here.
Today, New Year’s Eve, I passed 3,000 cycling miles in 2020. It was a modest ride of under eight miles, with the temperature barely about freezing. I experienced cycling feast and famine this year, with a very slow start followed by four successive months of over 500 miles in the saddle. But as summer became autumn, I lost my enthusiasm for pedalling the same old local routes. I recorded just 65 miles in October. Yet that milestone of 3,000 miles was a powerful motivator as Christmas approached, and I recorded my highest ever December mileage of 313 miles – with many of these indoors on my Wattbike Atom with TrainerRoad.
In years gone by, I often blogged on New Year’s Eve about my cycling memories of the old year, and my cycling adventures planned for the year ahead. (This example from 2013 is typical.) Tonight’s post may not be as noteworthy. But I do have dreams for 2021. Only time will tell whether those dreams will come true.
Another coast to coast?
Back in 2017, I cycled across England from the Irish Sea at Whitehaven to the North Sea at Tynemouth on the famous Coast to Coast (C2C) route. It was a wonderful experience, despite unseasonal cold weather on the first day, and the struggle of the climb to Hartside on a bike without a low enough gear. As I contemplated possible challenges for 2021, a similar coast to coast adventure seemed perfect. Better still, Peak Tours, which proved magnificent as my Land’s End to John O’Groats tour company in 2019, offered just such a trip in May 2021 along the Way of the Roses, slightly further south, from Morecambe to Bridlington via York.
Will it happen? Will Britain – and especially England – have found, belatedly, a way of controlling the pandemic and rolling out vaccinations, allowing tourism to resume? We will find out. In the meantime, I will get training. I’ve found a combination of TrainerRoad sweet spot workouts on my indoor Wattbike and rides outside on wintry roads is a good way of gaining fitness out of season.
Meanwhile, I will reflect on previous adventures, especially in the region that I will be crossing (with luck) in May. Back in 2019, we cycled through Lancaster on LEJOG, seeing the effects of days of heavy rain, as seen above. I also remember with affection cycling through the northern fell country on my earlier LEJOG in 2002. Perhaps I will get the chance to stay in my favourite hotel of the 2019 LEJOG, The Mill at Conder Green.
We drove to Wales the old way today, along the A40, before cutting down to the Severn Bridge on the M5. There was a bonus: discovering the wonderful Gloucester services.
Most motorway services are awful: overpriced identikit Burger King, Costa and Starbucks. Gloucester is different. A farm shop with local food and drink, beautifully presented.
We had brought a picnic with us so we bought some cakes and drinks to go with it. Had it been a fine day we’d have eaten outside the building, which is beautifully set into the landscape. Such a contrast with the usual ugly buildings at motorway services.
By a strange coincidence, today’s Guardian carried a feature about good places to stop for a meal away from the motorway. It featured Tebay M6 services. There’s a wonderful story behind it: John and Barbara Dunnings owned a hill farm in Cumbria that was cut in half when the M6 was opened. They saw an opportunity and opened a cafe serving home cooked, local food. It became a much loved M6 institution. Later they opened a similar venture on the M5 at Gloucester. I saw that the food and drink came from Gloucestershire and neighbouring Wales.
This felt so different from Leigh Delamere (westbound) or Stafford, my previous favourite services. Judging from the VW California parked with awning up, this is a destination in its own right. The ethos is right – a family run firm that thinks local is best, and global mass produced fast food is best avoided.
What better tribute than this family firm of motorway services featured in that Guardian article headlined ‘Skip the Services’!
It’s a clever campaign and an example for the UK government, whose communications have been poor at best during the greatest health crisis for a century.
Unfortunately, though, Derbyshire Constabulary’s interpretation of the UK government’s COVID-19 regulations has been, to quote from the Constable Savage sketch from Not the Nine O’Clock News, overzealous. There’s no ban on using the car to get to the start of your dog walk. That drive may avoid walking in busy crowds.
Let’s hope Derbyshire police are as vigilant against burglars as they are against people walking their dogs.
A difficult balance
The police do have a difficult challenge. Last weekend, the country was horrified by images of crowds of people flocking to Snowdonia, the Peak District and other national parks. Rural communities aren’t equipped to cope with hordes of people needing treatment for COVID-19. It’s right to stop people from London piling into a camper van and heading for Wales, Scotland and the Peak District. But policing in Great Britain relies on consent. And here Derbyshire went beyond what the regulations actually said. This tweet from @iaincollins sums it up well:
Overstepping the mark like this risks losing public support for the critical need for measures to contain the spread of COVID-19. As former government minister David Gauke said on Twitter:
“This is badly misjudged. People should maintain social distancing, which is what these people are doing. We need to maintain public support for fundamental behaviour change which requires the authorities to focus on genuinely bad behaviour.
It goes without saying that the public needs to take act sensibly. Those crowds last weekend shocked many. No sensible person would drive hundreds of miles in a camper van during the crisis. If we don’t all act responsibly, we will all suffer from stricter controls. We may lose the right to go for that bike ride or run. That would be a dark day.